Batman: The Dark Knight #0

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsBatman: The Dark Knight #0, “Chill in the Air” by Gregg HurwitzBatman: The Dark Knight #0, “Chill in the Air” by Gregg Hurwitz

Batman remains my favorite character in comics much the same way the sonnet remains my favorite form in poetry: I know what to expect, what the conventions are, and I like to see an author play artistically with those expectations to produce a mixture of familiarity and surprise. Today’s review focuses on a Batman story I read recently that does both of these things by building off the familiar initial murder that shaped Bruce Wayne and offering a new look at his shifting philosophic view as it was influenced as a young man by his memories of his father’s words and by his professors at his boarding school. The comic has an intertwined textual and visual depth that is appropriate for its weighty subject matter and only through multiple readings can the comic be fully appreciated.

The story is told in single issue of the ongoing Batman monthly title The Dark Knight and is entitled, “Chill in the Air,” a title with a double meaning that I can’t explain without giving away spoilers. This current series is not one I’ve enjoyed at all this past year, but I took the time to read the #0 issue because it offers an origin story for Batman. Basically, DC rebooted all their titles in 2011 and started over with issue #1; now, a year later and 12 issues into each title, they’ve issued #0 issues as origin stories to try to invite new readers to subscribe to titles they haven’t been reading. The next issues will pick up with #13. I am a sucker for origin stories, as are most comic book fans, so this attempt on DC’s part is a clever one. I have no complaints if it leads to titles like “Chill in the Air.”

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsGiven that one of the best Batman comics ever written is an origin story — Frank Miller’s Batman: Year OneGregg Hurwitz, the writer of this more recent origin story, made a smart move: Other than on the cover, we never see Batman. We are led to wonder if we are being given the origin of something else: A way of looking at life, a philosophy perhaps. Or even the origin of the man behind the mask: Bruce Wayne. Even the initial narrative of the first page is vague: “We know where it starts,” we are told in the first panel, which shows the edge of an alley next to a theater where the Wayne parents are being murdered off-panel. We see only the words, “BLAM! BLAM!” which act as cues to the events most people know: Bruce Wayne’s parents were shot and died in an alley while young Bruce stood and watched. And we know by the third panel, because of the use of “my” in the context of the narration, that the narrator is Bruce. In the fourth panel of that first page, he says again with vague pronoun references, “We know where it starts . . . / . . . but do we know where it ends?” Given the philosophical depth of the comic combined with the fact that this comic ends when Bruce is 18 and not when he becomes Batman, I would argue that there’s the possibility the author wants us to think carefully about this “it.” Since the comic ends and we don’t see Bruce becoming Batman, we are led to believe the “it” that is the ending isn’t Batman, or at least not exactly. That would mean the “it” that is starting is not the origin of Batman either, or at least not exactly. I don’t mean to be vague in saying “at least not exactly.” I think the author is purposefully vague so that we think a little more about Bruce than we do about Batman. Still, I won’t offer any concrete answers in this review, but I’d like the inquisitive reader to not just bypass what might be a simplistic reference in another Batman comic.

So what makes me look closely at a vague pronoun reference in a monthly Batman comic I haven’t even liked this past year? The writing throughout seems to invite the reader to be philosophical: the writer certainly is. Young Bruce goes on a philosophic journey as he enrolls in Roxbury Fielding Academy (and boarding school) for his high school years. With this setting, the comic presents a coming-of-age story in the tradition of the Bildungsroman as we watch Bruce learn from his early academic mentors. We see him sitting in class with a professor pointing to a still image of Kennedy in the caravan right before he is shot: Here is Bruce already interested in crimes and conspiracies. A lone shooter for Kennedy? What about a lone shooter of the Wayne couple? Or was there somebody or some group behind these men? Or as Bruce says in the narrative: “Someone was behind that gun . . . / . . . and someone was behind the man who was behind that gun.” Bruce follows his father philosophically in trying to answer these questions: “My father believed the search for meaning sets us apart from animals.” And this comic is about Bruce’s search for meaning in the face of the chaos and potential meaninglessness murder often seems to imply. Bruce seeks an answer to the old, straight-forward question that has plagued many of us: “Why do bad things happened to good people?”

This comic is not just about Bruce’s search for meaning; it’s also the author’s attempt to see the character of Batman, first created in 1939, as a uniquely American character in line with the writing of representative American literary figures: In other words, this comic makes a small, but I believe reasonable, argument that the Batman mythos fits into the tradition of canonical American literary imagination. He does so by placing Batman’s character next to Poe’s philosophy in opposition to Emerson’s more optimistic one. In only two panels, Hurwitz makes this positioning clear: A teenage Bruce sits in an English class with a young professor lecturing about Emerson in the first panel, and the professor explains, “Emerson’s belief that if you looked into your private heart, you saw beauty and light — the pattern of the natural world.” This philosophy sounds like Superman’s, who is the exact opposite of Batman, who, as the DARK Knight, seems to agree more with Poe’s philosophy as described by the professor in the comic: “And Poe of course inverted this myth of America, claiming that when he looked into his heart, he saw instead chaos and darkness.” These panels are perhaps the best examples of the philosophic nature of this comic, but they serve to cue the attentive reader to go back and read the entire comic with a more philosophic mindset, realizing that the author was carefully constructing a comic with multiple layers. Though I love comics that offer just great plot-driven fun, this more contemplative comic certainly deserves attention and close reading.

The artwork, too, operates on multiple levels, showing the artist’s desire to mirror the depth of the writing. I’ve already mentioned the Kennedy reference which is solely visual but mirrors Bruce’s quest to find out if there really was just a lone gunman. A few of my other favorite images are the use of pearls from Martha Wayne’s necklace seen landing in the alleyway shown in the second panel. They splash into puddles and young Bruce’s face can be seen reflected in the largest puddle. The pearls become rain in the second panel during the funeral scene, and whenever rain is shown throughout the rest of the issue, it is always in the image of pearls, except on the last page of the comic. The last page follows the crisis point of the story, a crisis I can’t reveal without giving away spoilers, and at the top of this last page, the rain falls as pearls again in the first panel. In the second and third panels, however, the pearls give way to more realistic rain that shows young Bruce leaning against a building with a picture of a typical clown painted on the wall. This more realistic rain causes the picture of the clown to smear and drip down the wall, distorting the laughing clown into a more familiar figure from the Batman mythos. Once again, I won’t offer any of my own conclusions: I merely want to point out that the rain no longer looks like pearls at the very same moment the two images of the clown/joker appear. I would love to see interpretations in the comments below of this visual change.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe comic ends with a plane, with Bruce on it, flying out of Gotham. If you look closely, you can see the destination of that flight in the airport signs. We know that Bruce Wayne went on to get more training from various masters around the world. I highly recommend another #0 comic, also by Greg Hurwitz, which clearly is meant to be read after “Chill in the Air.” Batman: Detective Comics (2011-) #0: “The Final Lesson” tells the story of Bruce’s final stop on his long journey after he left Gotham. This story is almost is good as “Chill in the Air,” and some people may like it even better. And of course, if you’ve never read Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and you are just getting into comics, read these two #0 individual issues first even though they are newer. They make a great entry into Miller’s comic which begins with Bruce Wayne in a plane flying back to Gotham after his travels.

Regarding “Chill in the Air,” I could go on and on in this review pointing out key images and philosophical and psychological subtleties offered by the writer and artists working on this comic, but I think I’ve met my goal: I want to encourage you not only to seek out this single issue, but also to read it carefully multiple times. It satisfies on many levels, even making several references — one textual and one visual — to Scott Snyder’s current, and brilliant, run on the main Batman title about The Court of Owls. You can track down “Chill in the Air” at your local comic book store, on ebay, or perhaps best yet, read it today on Comixology!

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BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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  1. Brad Hawley /

    After reading this comic, I was curious to read the author’s bio. Wow. What a fascinating writer with a diverse background. Makes me more confident that the intentions I attribute to the author in the above the review are potentially accurate.

    I also was curious after finishing my review to look at some other reviews of this issue that had picky problems with plot, realism, and continuity, all ridiculous concerns if you realize that the author is more concerned with consistency of theme than matching some overall continuity issues (which are never even consistent anyway and are the lowest criteria by which to judge artistic merit in comics as far as I’m concerned).

    I also looked back at The Dark Knight series and found out he started writing for it at issue #10, so perhaps the last few issues have gotten better: The first issues of this series written by another author were not to my taste.

  2. Great review Brad.
    Except for Batman -big exception for Batman because he is most awesome-, Superman and a couple others, I haven’t cared much about DC super-heroes since I was a kid. However I am digging the New 52 titles and I’ve been scooping the digital trades from Amazon – the cheaper price tends to outweigh the kinda crappy formatting for me. After reading Batman and Robin recently I’d been wondering which New 52 Batman series to snatch-up.

  3. Brad Hawley /

    Thanks, Greg. I had a ton of fun writing this review (I hope you can tell!), and once I read the author’s bio and realized I even had one of his crime novels in my stacks to read, I had to write him to tell him how much I loved his writing in the two #0 issues. I also provided him with a link to my review. He was kind enough to both read the review and write me a kind email back. I had a similar exchange with Jay Faerber after his first issue of Near Death, and he was kind enough to print my fan letter and respond to it publicly in issue two of Near Death. Those are my only two fan letters–I have to really like the writing a lot–and I’ve gotten two responses. I’m thinking these comic book guys are nice bunch! I should probably stop while I’m two for two, but I like to let people know when I’ve got good things to say about them.

    This weekend, after this review was posted, I’ve gone back to read Batman: The Dark Knight issues 10, 11, and 12 since Hurwitz has taken over that title. I’m not a big fan of how dark and disturbing this series is supposed to be, but I’m telling you right now: READ THESE ISSUES and then keep up with it as long as he writes it. His writing is excellent thematically without losing his momentum in terms of having high-energy plots. These three issues also start to tie back into the #0 issues. Hurwitz seems to really be interested in examining from a variety of angles how close Batman can get to people: a girlfriend, Robin (his actual son in regular DC continuity now), Gordon, and Alfred in comparison to people he doesn’t know that well, such as victims of his rogues gallery. What does it say about Batman that he can reach out emotionally to a victim and be so cold to the ones he’s supposed to be on intimate terms with? I like that Hurwitz writes comics that, like the best literature, keeps us thinking about the ideas long after we’ve finished the plot. I’ll be rereading these issues. And I’ve probably read the #0 issue above more times than I’ve ever read a single issue in my life.

    Hurwitz also wrote a five-issue mini-series on the Penguin called Pain and Prejudice. It’s available on Comixology or as a trade. I plan to read it this week.

  4. Brad Hawley /

    So, what do I recommend as part of the new 52?

    As I mentioned above: Hurwitz’s two #0 issues dealing with pre-Batman Bruce Wayne, his Penguin: Pain and Prejudice mini, and his on-going work on Batman: The Dark Knight starting with issue #10. I don’t know how long he’s scheduled to write the series, but I hope this is the start of his getting even more high-profile comic book work (he’s written some stuff for Marvel, too).

    There are a few other titles that are part of the main 52, but I’ll mention them here:
    The 12-issue story by James Robinson about THE SHADE. Loved this one.
    The 5-issue DC Presents story about DEADMAN.
    The new series THE PHANTOM STRANGER. Jump on this one. At the very least, read #0 to see if you’re interested.
    There’s also the Batman digital only LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT which costs 99 cents and is issued once a week with rotating artistic teams doing either one-shots or 2-3 issue mini-arcs. Go buy all these immediately. I might write a single review of the three-issue arc #7-9, in which Batman, at Alfred’s urging, finally sits down to read his fan mail! Awesome story. At the very least, read this arc. If you prefer hard copies, they are issuing the stories in compilations. For example, the “first” issue just came out on the stands, and it includes the first three digital issues. Look for it at your local comic store.
    Finally, I know that a lot of people are angry that DC is letting artists put out more Watchmen stories. Personally, I see both sides. I read the first issue of each arc, but I’m only keeping up with Darwyn Cooke’s BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN. He both writes and draws it. If you like New Frontier, you need to read this series. Just as he did in New Frontier, he both pays respect to what came before and adds his own ideas that seem to merge perfectly with Moore’s work.
    Okay, the next response will give the new 52 run down!

  5. Brad Hawley /

    DCs New 52:

    Top 3 (there’s nothing to say about these but , “Read ’em”):
    BATMAN by Snyder


    SWAMP THING, also by Snyder

    The next 3:

    ALL-STAR WESTERN (I love Jonah Hex, and this title gives background on the Court of Owls and really should be read with Snyder’s BATMAN. Bonus: There’s also discussion of THE CRIME BIBLE, which ties into Montaya as THE QUESTION. I’m a huge fan of Rucka’s writing on RENEE MONTOYA, starting with her as a cop GOTHAM CENTRAL, showing her becoming the Question in one of my all-time favorite limited series: 52 (not to be confused with the current 52), revealing the nature of the crime bible in THE QUESTION; THE FIVE BOOKS OF BLOOD, and finishing with his backstories on The Question in DETECTIVE COMICS when he was writing the feature about BATWOMAN with J. H. Williams III illustrating.)

    BATWOMAN, particularly when illustrated by J.H. Williams III. I don’t even care what’s going on in the story if I can look at his pretty pictures! The story has gotten really good with an old favorite Williams character of mine–Chase–who is hanging out with Bones (a cigar-smoking skeleton in a Hawaiian shirt!). Wonder Woman is also in the current story line!).

    ANIMAL MAN by Lemire is just okay to me, but it’s really central to Snyder’s SWAMP THING, so I think it needs to be read.

    Still have Money left over?:
    Grant Morrison’s BATMAN INCORPORATED, though to be honest, I prefer to read his work once it’s put together instead of issue by issue. He’s a big idea guy and sometimes the issue by issue format just doesn’t work for him. As a result, to really enjoy his writing, you often have to wait until enough issues are out that you can read them all together. Otherwise, at times, it can look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. But I have a great respect for Morrison, particularly after reading SUPERGODS. I loved that book.

    I really like JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK and I, VAMPIRE, but I don’t really keep up. I got tired of I, VAMPIRE. JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK, however, seems to be getting better. I think there was an author switch.

    Many people love Wonder Woman, and I probably should be reading it. I don’t know why I stopped. It’s really good.

    Green Lantern is probably good, but I just got burned out on reading him a few years ago. Too many damn lanterns for me.

    I also don’t know why I’m not reading Action Comics or any of the Superman titles. I’ve just go too much else I want to read (like Kirby’s Fourth World series and The Demon, Etrigan!).

    Perhaps later I’ll give a run down of all my favorite Marvel comics plus more! I’ve been meaning to write down my evaluation of all the current titles out there I’m aware of and just haven’t done it. Your question got me moving. Perhaps I can gather these together and put them in place of a single review for a FANBOY FRIDAY column.

    Thanks for the question, Greg.

    I’d love to hear input, particularly of those titles I feel I don’t have enough authority to write on yet: WW, GL comics, Stormwatch, Voodoo, Detective Comics, Superman comics, Grifter, etc.

  6. I recently picked up issue #0 and #1 if Team 7. They are pretty good. Kinda before what occurs with The New 52.
    I got the tread of Action Comics.. I liked some things, others not so much.
    I really liked Batman and Robin: Born to Kill.
    Also picked up #1 of Grifter. I loved that character when Grifter was part of Image Comics universe, I was disappointed with DC version.

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