BEST SHOT REVIEW: DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: THE LAST CRUSADE #1

Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade #1
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade #1
Written by Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello
Art by John Romita, Jr. and Peter Steigerwald
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by DC Comics
Review by Justin Partridge
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

The third installment of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight saga thus far has not been the blockbuster that fans expected. The four issues published so far, though backed by some entertaining if bizarre back-up stories, have ranged from good to middling, inspiring neither the critical acclaim or heated debate of the previous two series. But Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello get some much-needed reinforcements in John Romita, Jr. and Peter Steigerwald on Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade #1. Serving as a direct prequel to the original Dark Knight Returns, this team captures some of that old magic with an aging Batman just before he abandoned his war on crime. 

Right from the start, The Last Crusade assures readers that it isn’t going to waste time on slow-moving plot development or Kryptonian speeches on alien supremacy. Opening with the Joker being violently hauled back to his cell in Arkham Asylum, Miller and Azzarello switch focus throughout between the brittle Caped Crusader and his increasingly violent Boy Wonder.  While DKIII is arguably another grim Justice League tale, this one-shot is laser-focused on Batman’s street-level vigilantism, as he investigates the deaths of Gotham’s biggest bankrollers, all while taking on heavy hitters from his rogues’ gallery like Killer Croc and Poison Ivy. While the story ends on an abrupt note just as the story starts to get truly cooking, this #1 still benefits heavily from the writers' focus on Gotham and only Gotham.

In the original series, the decision to hang up the cowl and Jason Todd’s grisly fate were only spoken of in terse bits of exposition, but this one-shot shows us in full just how far Jason was starting to slip, how fragile Batman had gotten in the field, and the blood-soaked lead up Joker’s face off with Jason and his apparent “reformation”. Given credence by the duo’s deep understanding of Batman (should you require further proof to Azzarello’s capability as student of Miller’s writing style and tone, seek out his criminally under-read Broken City arc, a deeply inspired crime yarn), his obsession, his villains, and further sweetened by a few biting bits of satire aimed at cable news and the 24-hour cycle of reporting, Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade #1 presents the kind of book fans had expected from the main title by looking back with clear, but not nostalgia chasing intent. 

This one-shot also has more secret weapons tucked into its loaded utility belt in the form of John Romita Jr., backed by the full-bodied colors of Peter Steigerwald. While recent works such as his Superman run reached at greatness but never fully grasped it, Romita is better here than he has been in months, possibly even years. With Steigerwald providing smoldering yellows, reds and purples alongside the shadows of Gotham, Romita’s pencils in this one-shot appear more activated than ever, replacing the cliché squared hands and gritted teeth with bone-crunching action and well-blocked emotional beats, such as Bruce and Jason sparring in the Batcave, or the final showdown with Poison Ivy and her crowd of fawning suitors. The best examples of the art team’s prowess are readily displayed in the one-shot’s set pieces and lower key scenes of Bruce interacting with co-stars out of costume, with Romita showing Bruce’s deep physical and emotional pain in a bedroom scene with Selina Kyle. 

But while those sequences are eye-catching, the fights between the Dark Knight and Killer Croc are where Romita really lets loose. Each throwdown conveys ferociously high stakes as Romita and Steigerwald highlight each blow’s heaviness, Batman’s cunning but desperate fighting style and the animalistic fury of Croc. The first encounter builds to a brutal two-page splash of Croc tossing Batman like a ragdoll through a wall. Romita and Steigerwald sell Batman’s helplessness in this fight, illustrated by his limp and bloodied body sailing through the drywall, setting up Croc for a hard-hitting dose of karma in their final encounter as Batman systematically takes him apart with the leg of a chair, in a brutal sequence that will surely remind the reader of a certain mud-pit “operating table.” Readers who have written off Romita in the past due to his artistic missteps would benefit from flipping through this one-shot to see just how well he can bounce back.

Though this one-shot doesn’t single-handedly salvage the sluggish main series, Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade #1 is an entertaining throwback to the era when comics weren’t just for kids anymore. By filling in narrative gaps and focusing not on a sprawling superhero epic but on a singular Batman story instead, Miller, Azzarello, Romita and Steigerwald show that this returned series still has some teeth given the right story direction and focus. Filled with callbacks, both intentional and incidental, and fan pleasing momentum thanks to its direct connection to the 1986 classic, Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade #1 makes the vintage, hard-edged Frank Miller style feel vital again.

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