Review: Batman: Curse of the White Knight hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Sean Murphy’s initial Batman: White Knight in some respects sidestepped Batman to place laser focus on the Jack Napier behind the Joker and on the gritty streets and social politics of Gotham City itself. Though no less gritty, and not omitting the requisite cadre of muscle cars, the sequel Batman: Curse of the White Knight feels loftier, shifting its full attention now to an aging Batman and also to the long history of this world that Murphy’s built, stretching back to World War II and earlier, to the 17th century and British America. If White Knight, the original, was a sociopolitical text, then Curse is a historical one, loaded with all the delicious detail of the first.

Curse is also both homage to and deconstruction of the Batman mythos. Much like White Knight, Murphy mashes up a bunch of Batman concepts here to create his alternate Murphy-verse, with heavy influences from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie and Batman: The Animated Series. But by the end of Curse, Murphy has also stripped away nearly everything that makes Bruce Wayne Batman, more than I think I’ve ever seen stripped away even in plenty of like-minded deconstructions. There are not so many mysteries left in this story — the need for another sequel is far less urgent at the end here than it was after White Knight — though I’m curious where and how Murphy could go from here; what if anything, that is, Murphy might create anew after he’s taken so much apart.

[Review contains spoilers]

Getting right down to it, Murphy reveals toward the end here that his Bruce Wayne is not a Wayne — that the Waynes are not Waynes, but rather the descendants of a mad cleric of St. Dumas (of Azrael fame) who killed and then passed himself off as the 17th century Edmond Wayne. It is both wholly irrelevant and also deeply affecting, especially if you’re an angst-prone vigilante. At other times (and in other scenarios where the legacies of the Waynes past and present have been impugned), it’s possible Bruce might have just shrugged it off. But, what Murphy has here is a Bruce Wayne already nearing his end, recently confronted with the idea that some of Gotham’s revolving door of criminals might be more for Batman’s vengeance-driven edification than a real desire to do justice, and so Bruce is in a particular mood to flagellate himself. The revelation that he is not a Wayne, and that the Wayne fortune is ill-gotten goods, is the last straw, and once the bad guys are vanquished, Bruce gives it all away — his fortune, his secret identity, his freedom.

Again, this is Batman pulled farther apart than we’ve seen before — the fortune has gone before, even perhaps the freedom (looking at you, Murderer/Fugitive), but never the secret identity and rarely the Wayne good name. All of this was what was teased at the end of the original Batman: White Knight: what secret Napier learned before he became the Joker, the contents of the journal Alfred left for Bruce, and so on; even, in the last pages, we get a quickie resolution to “whatever happened to Jason Todd.” The offshoot miniseries Batman: White Knight Presents Harley Quinn notwithstanding, I wonder now if Murphy has more plans for this Batman or if he’s done with him.

There’s no doubt a Red Hood path on which to travel, which Murphy could treat in the same revisionist way that he remixes “Knightfall” here, but is the end result — given a Batman story — to have Bruce retake the mantle of the Bat? Or to pass it to someone else or otherwise continue the Batman legacy proper? Sure, I’d read more, let’s not kid ourselves, but there’s something unique and therefore attractive about an ending that leaves Bruce in jail, never to be Batman or a Wayne again. For the fictional character, it might in some ways be a relief.

Among the enjoyment in the Murphy-verse’s sharp threads and cool cars is the heavy evocation of Bat-pop culture iconography, especially again Batman '89 and The Animated Series (of which, for either of those, this could be — with a head tilt and a squint — a continuation). Clearly Murphy shows some favoritism, as when Batman declares the 1989 Batmobile his “favorite” and in the next breath spouts the iconic “Let’s get nuts” (letting alone “Jack Napier”’s integral role).

But I equally appreciated the steampunk take on “Knightfall” here, at the least that Azrael Jean Paul Valley graduates from superheroic robes to a metallic Bat-suit (my guess that the Azrael of the book would be Jason Todd was dead wrong, clearly). Though Bane is dispatched early on, one cover showing the “Knightfall” trinity of Batman, Bane, and Azrael is enough wink and nod to know what this book is celebrating. In making Batman and Azrael almost literal brothers by the story’s end, in some ways Murphy achieves a sense of foils that the original “good Batman/bad Batman” of “Knightfall” never quite got to.

We spend a number of cut scenes in the 17th century in Curse, but Murphy devotes an entire special issue to Nazi Germany with Klaus Janson in the Batman: White Knight Presents Von Freeze collected here. (Whereas “imprints” seem not to have succeeded for DC, these freeform mini-universes with “Presents” and digital series — White Knight and also DCeased — seem to be performing well.) Much like the fake-out at the head of Curse itself, this is a smartly constructed story in that who seems to be the villain in the beginning is not (at least entirely) the villain in the end.

I discussed in my recent review of Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 4: Cold Vengeance how there is perhaps a dearth of definitive Mr. Freeze stories. Von Freeze is one, though with an asterisk, as this “Freeze” is altogether different than the one who usually plagues Batman; another interesting direction for “White Knight” might be a prequel series, demonstrating for instance what the rivalry was like between this Batman and this Mr. Freeze prior to their present newfound friendship. It’s altogether a shame that Murphy has killed every other Batman rogue in this story (seemingly, at least); if another mark of the Murphy-verse is that all the characters came to their super-personas through the long influence of family histories, I’d be equally curious to see how that translates to Murphy’s Poison Ivy, for instance, or Baby Doll and Croc.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Batman: Curse of the White Knight



It’s hard to capture lightning in a bottle and even harder to do it twice, and so I would say that of the two “White Knight” books so far, Batman: Curse of the White Knight is not quite the equal of its predecessor. Some of it may surely be that Curse can’t benefit from the shock of the new that White Knight had, but additionally Curse’s historicity, while still interesting, feels less immediate and of the present moment than White Knight’s racial disparities. Notably, while Backport gets a couple mentions here, Sean Murphy’s Duke Thomas and his causes are largely in the background and the book feels not quite as strong for it. Still, to be sure, Murphy’s Curse is superior to most else that’s on the stands alongside it, and I’m certainly likely to purchase whatever Murphy does for DC next.

[Includes original and variant covers, art and sketches]


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