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

There’s a sentiment in a related franchise that you either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain, and it’s possible that’s what’s transpired here.

Sean Murphy’s Batman: Beyond the White Knight is still (mostly) well-drawn and more complex where it counts than most average superhero comics on the market. But this sequel is lesser than the one that preceded it, and that one was lesser than the original. I’ve yet to see real proof in retrospect that Murphy shouldn’t have just stopped with the first. Beyond serves largely as a vehicle for the White Knight “Murphyverse” to begin branching out to greater heights, and it’s hard not to see in this the evils of corporate bloat (even as I acknowledge I was among the legion of fans calling for “more, more”). Sometimes we ought be careful what we wish for.

[Review contains spoilers]

The original Batman: White Knight, I’ve said, was a sociopolitical text; the sequel, Batman: Curse of the White Knight, was a historical one. But for Beyond, I’m put in mind of the original Star Wars trilogy — the adventure, the intrigue, the one with kid-friendly Ewoks — or Star Trek II, III, and IV, or enter your applicable trilogy metaphor here (Back to the Future?).

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

That is, even as all of the following have their origins in Batman Beyond, the techno-future setting feels far removed from the original’s Backport political dealmaking, and Murphy’s take on Joker-in-microchip constantly breaks the fourth wall and takes the wind out of more serious proceedings. This is the third film where everyone (figuratively — really just Murphy) is so comfortable with one another they’re letting loose and enjoying the ride, but that’s gigantically far removed from what I actually want from White Knight.

For words of praise, I’ll say there’s a purposefully ill-defined and nicely uncomfortable sequence in the middle where Harley Quinn seems to believe Batman Bruce Wayne is professing his love, after all they’ve been through, except it’s really the cybernetic Jack Napier. After a romantic evening, we learn Harley knew it was Jack, but up in the air still is whether Jack was sharing his own feelings or Bruce’s and who exactly has Harley’s heart. Outside White Knight, I wouldn’t necessarily be a fan of a Batman/Harley pairing, but love among a pair of alte kocker superheroes is charming, and I appreciate that Murphy leaves the resolution somewhat open ended.

Also, the entire White Knight project remains a gorgeous, gleeful homage to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and then all the animated series that came out of it. I’m least fluent in Batman Beyond, I’ll admit, but I can see the high points are all here — Terry McGinnis, his murdered father Warren, Shriek, Ace the Bat-Hound, Mr. Fixx, Derek Powers and his transformation to Blight, even allusions to The Zeta Project and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. Seeing Terry interact with a current-ish Bat-family is fun, and it makes me think surely there must be a way to do a Batman Beyond comic with more ties to the ongoing DCU, what I think has killed most Beyond series up to this point.

But it really is this holographic Jack that brings the book down for me early on. No sooner has Jack arrived than he’s squealing over the “epic way” Bruce talks or the revelation of the newest Bat-suit. Another time, Jack points out — to Bruce, but really to the reader — how Bruce’s non-cowled costume still approximates Bat-ears. There’s an extended good news/bad news bit with Jack that slows the finale to a crawl.

It’s as if Murphy fears he’s gone too schmaltzy — see Jack undercutting the end’s superheroic march of the featured players — and needs these self-aware notes to assure the audience he’s in on the joke. That’s meta perhaps in the way of Harley Quinn comics, but it hasn’t been White Knight’s custom and feels out of place here. Murphy sticking the knife in superhero comics at the same time White Knight ventures into Justice League-eseque adventures feels icky — if this isn’t where Murphy wants to be going, he ought not be taking the rest of us there with him.

Nor was I otherwise able to muster much emotion for the resurrected Jack. Murphy’s riffing here on a notably horrific aspect of Return of the Joker, such that I was constantly waiting for another shoe to drop and it’s almost disappointing that it never does; neither do we come to find this is all Bruce’s hallucination. Insofar as this is supposed to be Jack, it doesn’t “read” like Jack — he was not this jocular — and if this is meant to be the ultimate epitome of Joker-as-Batman-fanboy, I’m not convinced Murphy translates that either. Batman: White Knight was romantic, among other things, but Murphy leaves the dialogue of Harley and Jack’s reunion between the pages.

The Batman: White Knight Presents: Red Hood issues included here have art by Simone Di Meo and George Kambadais, very different from Murphy. Given that previous “Presents” spin-offs had artists devoutly similar to Murphy (Matteo Scalera in Batman: White Knight Presents: Harley Quinn and Klaus Janson in Presents: Von Freeze), the art change stuck in the middle of Beyond was off-putting. Between Murphy, Clay McCormack, and the artists, Red Hood’s story is generally silly and its storytelling clumsy — as when Red Hood’s Robin is crouching behind a suspect, as if to be following them unnoticed, in the middle of a street in broad daylight, or when Robin is able to defend herself with a crowbar that she conveniently happens to fall next to because it’s conveniently laying on the suspect’s apartment floor. The two Presents issues only further hurt an already troubled book.

Batman comes to realize at the end of Beyond that he can’t get things done without the support of his Bat-family. I’m less concerned about this as a a too-familiar Bat-trope than I am that it was also the realization Batman came to at the end of the first White Knight, too, and it feels Murphy is just repeating himself. More interesting is Gotham’s beatification of the late Azrael, calling for a vigilante that kills their enemies, something that comes back around in the end for “next” Batman Terry, though there’s so much going on in the book that I think this largely gets lost.

Again, I fear Batman: Beyond the White Knight's service as a backdoor pilot for a variety of other Murphyverse series may also be an exercise in writing its own eulogy. That said, my fervent hope is that if we’re about to start over with some new-familiar heroes in the White Knight franchise, maybe that means recapturing some of the original White Knight energy. What intrigue Sean Murphy brought to Backport, maybe he could also bring to Suicide Slum?

[Includes original and variant covers]

Rating 2.25


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