We used to call them Elseworlds, these "what if" stories that imagined DC Comics's familiar heroes in unfamiliar settings. But we've come a long way from Batman as medieval knight or Victorian detective, toward writer/artist Sean Murphy's Batman: White Knight, which presents a gritty, socially complex Gotham really only a hair's removed from our own.
Scott Snyder's Batman opus Dark Nights: Metal is just the most recent to address the sci-fi idea that every decision, good and bad, creates alternate realities of the road not taken; through a few acts of grace and brutality, White Knight reveals an entirely new Bat-world, so similar yet different, floating just above our own. But, though possessing lofty ideas, Murphy's White Knight is never as metaphysical as all that. Perhaps coincidentally, DC's Black Label imprint has kicked off with two starkly different interpretations of the modern Batman, Brian Azzarello's supernatural Batman: Damned and the fast cars and dirty politics of Murphy's White Knight, and it demonstrates the range Black Label can offer.
The "Murphyverse" moniker almost immediately applied to White Knight is more than just a clever turn of phrase. Murphy's book, with its deep internal history and plethora of plot threads, almost immediately begs for a sequel, and I was so pleased to hear it's getting one. Its closest antecedent is probably Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Batman: The Long Halloween and its ilk; though Long Halloween purported to play more within the lines of continuity, it too built its own backstory, created its own characters with their own relationships to one another, and challenged the audience with a take on Batman that, in retrospect, feels so natural as to have been there all along. White Knight does the same.
[Review contains spoilers]
The book opens on a Batman turned reckless in the wake of Alfred's sudden illness, a Commissioner Gordon increasingly unable to provide cover for Batman's behavior, and a scheme by the Joker to take advantage of the chaos. It is, in some respects, a regular Thursday in Gotham (not wholly different even from Batman's near in-continuity future depicted in the Doomsday Clock series) until Murphy begins to tip it on its head -- that Nightwing Dick Grayson was the second Robin, after Jason Todd; that the Joker supposedly killed Jason but his body was never found; that an adult Duke Thomas is the protector, community leader, and gang organizer for Gotham's impoverished Backport neighborhood (not to mention the two Harley Quinns). Things are similar but not the same; we recognize the broad strokes of Bruce Wayne, the Batman, the Bat-signal and so on enough for this to feel like home, but characters possess differences, and secrets, enough to make them feel newly fresh.
Joker, transformed by conspiracy to Jack Napier, accounts himself as through with Batman but then enacts a scheme to split Batman from Gotham; he recruits the Backport neighborhood as a power grab but begins to develop some affection for it. The title "White Knight" has many connotations in the book, from the pale Clown Prince of Crime, polar opposite of Gotham's Dark Knight, to the manner in which Napier steps in to both save and perform a financial takeover of Gotham, to the optics of the white Napier representing the diverse Backport. This is a moment of potential difficulty in the book, that (the book acknowledges) Napier takes advantage of Backport's disgruntlement for political gain and the people just go along with it -- presenting minorities as more interested in their anger than true enfranchisement. The end, however, offers Duke having used Napier as much as Napier used Duke, having taken the opportunity for the attention Napier brought even if it wasn't totally sincere.
Though mysteries abound -- how Joker knew to get the pills that turned him into Jack, why the Joker espoused much of his plan even before he became Jack -- a good part of the first two-thirds of the book read as though Joker's name should be on the front (and indeed the sketchbook reveals a potential title was "Joker: White Knight of Gotham"). Certainly Murphy makes Napier compelling, though the clear evidence that this is a scheme, despite Napier's protestations, makes it hard for the audience to fully relax into Napier as the book's protagonist.
However, when in the seventh chapter the book catches up with its inaugural flash-forward, and Batman reveals to the audience his recognition of the conspiracy, White Knight becomes from then on Batman's book, back on the familiar (if unfamiliar) territory of the detective and his case. We find indeed that some of the worst excesses of this book's hero were for show -- for instance, that what seemed to be a racket by Gotham's elite to profit from Batman's crimefighting on the backs of the taxpayers was actually funded and reimbursed by Bruce Wayne himself. Like Napier, Murphy takes advantage of what ill the audience is willing to believe about Batman before revealing it to be naught.
In the dark and the shadows, the full figures against dusty backgrounds, Murphy's art reminds of David Mazzucchelli's in Batman: Year One; amidst the Animated Series and Tim Burton references, it's a wonder there's not more Year One shout-outs here. But the whole thing feels cut from Year One's cloth, Batman gone careless with Gordon at odds, and for as far as Year One gets, White Knight could as easily be Year One's sequel as the rest of modernity is. In the Joker's romantic fascination with the Batman, we see the modern take on the two with its roots in Scott Snyder's New 52 stories; that Batman comes to realize his reason for continued vigilantism is not his parents, but for his partners, seems the answer to a lot of the questions raised in the Rebirth Batman era.
Batman's decision to unmask for Gordon at the end of the book is also markedly similar to the same moment in No Man's Land. At no point do I suggest repetition or appropriation, but rather again that White Knight offers us the road not taken, a book with the ability to do seriously what the main titles can't do for fear of moving the franchise too far from the historical. And it's the end that most reminds of Long Halloween, with the tease of additional puzzles buried within what's already a puzzle box of a story -- have there been previous Jokers in Gotham, what did Alfred leave in Wayne Manor for Bruce, and so on. The mystery of Jason Todd demanded White Knight have at least one sequel, but clearly Murphy shows there's lots of places he could take this over many years.
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It's a trade-waiter's fiat that even though Batman: Damned arrived first in terms of the initial Black Label titles and made more of a media splash (whereas Murphy's book garnered more of its accolades in single-issue form), Batman: White Knight is my first DC Black Label title. And I admit to some exhaustion going into it -- a graphic novel, a non-continuity book, another Batman alt-history, etc., especially on the heels of having just read Wonder Woman: Earth One Vol. 2. But halfway through White Knight, I was very eager to find out what would happen next, obviously this book is an instant classic, and I'm half-tempted to read the forthcoming Batman: Curse of the White Knight in its single issues. In its "first" outing, for me DC Black Label has been a success.
[Includes original and variant covers, designs and sketches section]
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