Monday, 7 April 2014

Batman: Blades

I've talked about this in the past, but from 1989 to 2007, Legends of the Dark Knight provided readers with some of the best and most unique Batman stories on the market. No longer bound by the constraints of up-to-the-minute continuity, writers could run free with the Batman mythos, telling the tales they wanted to tell in ways that didn't always gel with the rest of mainstream superhero comics. I've already covered one of my favourite story arcs from the period, Snow, and today I want to tell you about another, from writer James Robinson and artist Tim Sale. Published in 1992 and running through issues 32, 33 and 34 of LotDK, Blades tells the tale of a new Gotham crimefighter who goes by the name of Cavalier, one who appears just as Batman becomes immersed in an obsessive hunt for a serial killer known only as Mr Lime, one who appears to target the elderly exclusively. Is this Cavalier all he all that he appears, though, and are he and Batman headed towards partnership or confrontation?

The story appears initially simple - tales of Batman becoming obsessed with this criminal or that are a dime a dozen, and there have been more than a few about new would-be protectors of his territory. What makes Blades unique is in how well these elements come together, and what they tell us about the man himself. It's never explicitly stated why Batman is so driven to catch Mr Lime - the hunt is already well underway when the first issue opens - but the time that the narrative takes to detail the grieving children left behind by his rampage says it all. This is deeply personal to the Dark Knight, so much so that when the Cavalier comes swinging in to take up some of the slack in Gotham, he is more than willing to give him free reign. As his name would imply, the Cavalier is rakish and charming rogue in the mould of Douglas Fairbanks or Erroll Flynn, always ready with a witty quip for the media and police. Batman himself wants to believe that this new, brighter brand of justice might have a place in his city, and as a result his guard is lowered substantially.

The moody inks and occasionally grandiose writing of Blades are very much in the vein of darker creators like Frank Miller, but with a core of moral humanity too often missing in modern Batman stories. Something especially striking about this story is how thoroughly human Batman is depicted as being. He plays at being the dark avenger, swirling his cape before him and posing in dramatic silhouette before a confrontation, but under the mask he is just as psychologically vulnerable as anybody else. He becomes enamoured with his swashbuckling new competition, or at least as enamoured as somebody like him can allow himself to be. After all, the film that he saw with his parents on the night of their murder was The Mask of Zorro, so this grinning swordsman with his pencil thin moustache strikes at something deep and primal within him. The fact that he spends much of the story ragged with sleep deprivation and trying to conceal an increasing number of injuries from those around him only underscores the duality of the face he presents and the man he truly is.

Sale is one of the most highly regarded artists ever to have worked on Batman, and his collaborations with Jeph Loeb on  The Long Halloween and its sequel Dark Victory have come to rightly be regarded as genuine classics, commonly listed as essential reading up there with Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. His intense, finely detailed lines and sweeping Gothic set-pieces are absolutely gorgeous, saturated with shadow and light in perfect balance. Blades also sees him using contrasting colours to powerful effect - a crime scene is rendered in pure white save for the jarring smear of bright red blood, and the Cavalier's colourful ensemble pops beautifully next to the Dark Knight's dour ensemble. The story unfolds in a huge series of splash pages soaked in dramatic shadows and dynamic composition, and the climactic swordfight is especially well staged, spilling out over two pages in one fluid, dizzying image. Sale's style is just baroque enough to suit a world like Gotham without slipping into the outright farce of that artists like Kelly Jones or Simon Bisely utilise from time to time. He isn't quite at his peak with this work - some faces are hastily sketched in, and most of the men in the story look a little too similar to one another -  but all the elements which would go towards his being considered one of the greatest in the business are definitely already present. 

Don't read the text if you can't stand a minor spoiler for a comic old enough to drink

The best Batman villains are those who draw out some aspect of the titular character - Ra's al Ghul reflects his hubris, Mr Freeze his motivating tragedy - and Blades demonstrates that this can be the case for characters who are not directly opposed to him as well. It's no spoiler to say that the Mr Lime storyline is little more than elaborate backdrop  here - the real meat of the tale is in the relationship between Batman and the Cavalier. I won't give away the final reveal, but suffice to say that the complex motivation behind the Cavalier's actions play into those of the Caped Crusader, and call into doubt his own murky motivations in his war on crime.  

Ultimately, though, this is a story about lines, and what happens to those who cross them - or don't. Batman's life is full of self-imposed rules, iron clad boundaries that he holds himself to despite the greatest of temptations. The Cavalier is more flexible in his morality, more likely to go with his heart than the coldly disciplined Dark Knight. In doing so, the two of them inevitably find themselves at cross purposes, but while Batman is ultimately the better crimefighter, it could be said that the Cavalier is the better man.

Blades is available in the now out-of-print collection Batman: Collected Legends of the Dark Knight, the Tim Sale collection Tales of the Batman, currently in stock at Book Depository, or of course via Comixology.  As always, you can follow @CrimeAlleyNotes on Twitter to find out about blog updates as they happen and read whatever other garbage crosses my mind.


  1. And it was great. I felt it was a little short at three issues though. I thought The Cavalier needed a little more space for his arc so there wasn't a need for that big info dump at the beginning of issue #3 where characters tell each other everything they would already know, but hey what are you gonna do?

    Also, I know these are Batman's early years but I think some of his decisions and actions seem a touch strange. It's fine for him to identify and even admire Cavalier in his inner monolgue but to tell him "you remind me of old movies" seems like he is being quite alarmingly emotionally open to a guy with a sword he's just only met on a rooftop.

    Having said that I understand how emotional and nostalgic he is in this story. With the Zorro similarities of the Cavalier plus the identification he has with the children of Mr Lime's victims who are now orphans. It's no wonder he's flailing about and making stupid mistakes. Also parallel his journey with the Cavalier's and we see just what a fine line Batman treads every day, and this story proves that even he is at risk of falling over that edge at any given moment. Kinda terrifying when you think about it.

    The Legends series is great as it not only is continuity free Bat-adventures of his early years, if the last two runs you recommended are anything to go by, they don't shy away from Batman's fallibility, but explores it in interesting ways.