With so many big names and big events plastered across the shelves of your LCS, sometimes great comics get left behind – buried in longboxes until someone comes along to find these Hidden Gems.
By Chuck Dixon and John van Fleet
This one-shot graphic novel is curious in that it’s most definitely in continuity yet at the same time adds a whole new mythic layer to the Bat Mythos. In a story that’s seemingly equal parts Da Vinci Code and Frank Miller’s Year One/Dark Knight Returns, we find that the Wayne family descends from a long line of “Grail Knights” – that it’s an inborn compulsion for the sense of the Greater Good that burns in the veins of Bruce’s lineage.
After a rooftop showdown with Two-Face, leaving Bats with a gunshot wound too precarious for even Alfred to remove the errant slug, an odd package with a note is left at Wayne Manor. Dixon’s Batman is every bit the pragmatist and carefully examines the note and package, discovering the contents to be a simple bowl in an ornately carved box. The note itself is simply a list of names with Thomas Wayne’s at the very end. As the package was left to the care of Thomas Wayne and not “Batman,” as Bruce he heads out to investigate the sender of the package and their intentions.
What occurs is a multifaceted story peppered with solid characterizations for all the known Bat-Family and Rogues, although ancillary characters like the criminal gangs and the cult-like Merovingians are mere paper tigers compared to Batman or Ra’s Ah Ghul and his League of Assassins.
Batman has never been a religious person, at least to me, outside of the Elseworld Vampire tales – where even then he used it as a weapon against Dracula and, eventually, himself. But it’s not religion that allows for this supernatural tale to make sense. It is Batman’s faith, his faith in humanity. If not for his belief that people are basically good, why else would he go about trying to keep his part of the world safe? Even with the Grail in his grasp and its promise of eternal life and freedom from time, wounds, sickness… and the ability to wage a continuous war on crime, he merely uses it to heal himself of the bullet wound.
I haven’t read many stories featuring Ra’s Ah Ghul save for Son of the Demon and everything from Batman and Son to his Oracle/Alfred/Batcave-like role in Red Robin, so seeing an already near-immortal character have such a decades-spanning quest for a holy relic empowered by a deity he pays homage to if only out of a scant fear makes for a great twist upon its revelation as to his intentions: the perpetual love of his daughter. With the Grail he doesn’t need to mate his daughter to any suitor to keep a part of her around him through the ages. No, he can have Talia around for time immemorial, and thus he throws everything at Batman to get at it.
Accompanying a solid story, perfect in length with an ending that really drives home Bruce’s faith in people, is the magnificent painted artwork by John van Fleet. His style is perfectly suited for the tale, where certain panels or scenes could have been very well laid out piece by piece into a nerdtastically glorious stained-glass window. While it may turn off some comic readers that expect bold Jim Lee pencils or maybe photo-realistic Alex Ross paints, here van Fleet offers up a traditionally painted work that the closest artist I can even possibly find comparable is Alex Maleev and his digital renderings.
If you do end up picking up this gem, I’ll have you know there is another book by the team of Dixon and van Fleet – Batman: The Anhk, a sequel of sorts with Batman set up against another immortal foe with a heavier emphasis on the supernatural.
Personally, I picked up a tattered copy of this when a library decided to auction off some of its more “well-loved” portions of its collection on eBay. My copy had pages falling out and lots of tapes and unnecessary ink stamps from ts previous owner, and yet this is my favorite book in my meager trade and graphic novel collection. I had heard zero about this book, and all I knew of it was that the cover had to be the most intriguing piece of work I’d ever laid eyes on. And I again purchased a book based solely on its cover. Totally worth it.