The breakout character of DC’s Dark Nights Metal event was the creep-tacular Batman Who Laughs, and now that breakout character has his own breakout character. Like all of the Nightmare Batmen, the Grim Knight was born out of Bruce Wayne’s fear of losing control of his morality in pursuit of justice.
The Grim Knight is from a world where the mugger that shot his parents tripped and dropped his gun, and a young Bruce Wayne picked it up and took his revenge immediately. Thats a, well, grim backstory, but this week’s Grim Knight origin one-shot expands that kernel of an idea into a manifesto on why the Nightmare Batmen are perfect narrative foils to the real thing.
And in the meantime, writers Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV and artist Eduardo Risso weave together decades of iconic Batman moments, dialogue and visuals, showing that they’re still undisputed masters of the Gotham City setting.
[Ed. note: This post will contain spoilers for The Batman Who Laughs: The Grim Knight #1.]
The Batman Who Laughs: The Grim Knight #1 devotes a mere three pages to restaging the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents — and thank goodness, because it’s a once-iconic scene pounded flat by Hollywood repetition. After dispensing with that formality, the issue is barely about how the Grim Knight came to be.
Instead, it’s about how his own world struck back against him. Because, in the Grim Knight’s world, James Gordon is still a good cop.
As the Grim Knight continues his rising arc, Gordon’s takes a nosedive, after the police captain underestimates his opponent’s reach and an operation to arrest the vigilante results in the loss of hundreds of lives. Then we leap forward years, to a Gotham in which muggers are executed by satellite in their alleys and corrupt judges die coughing blood in their beds.
Throughout the issue, Snyder, Tynion, and Risso play with visual references to the most iconic duo of Batman comics: Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. They restage scenes, quote dialogue, and create homages to character designs.
It’s a choice with a lot of depth to it. Yes, Batman: Year One is the definitive Batman origin story of the Modern Era — but it and The Dark Knight Returns are also the definitive moments when our idea of the grim, growling, justice-at-any-cost Batman began, for better and for worse. The Dark Knight Returns, after all, is where Zach Snyder got the idea of Batman driving a tank covered in guns for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. And as the Grim Knight’s regime grows ever stronger, his resemblance to Miller’s Batman Returns literally grows along with him.
That is, until it all comes tumbling down.
James Gordon has been underground for all those years, deducing that the only way Batman could control Gotham so completely would be if he were its foremost billionaire industrialist, and then building an ironclad case against him. He also figures out how to take that case to the FBI and Gotham’s politicians without Batman finding out, to mount a successful surprise sting operation.
“If you know who Batman is, why not just sneak into his house and end it?” asks Mayor Harvey Dent, when Gordon drops the approval forms on his desk.
“He has to go down by the book to prove that the book can work,” Gordon answers.
In a world with a broken Batman, Gordon has retained the best of Batman’s true tactics: detective work, planning, and a belief in doing what’s right, not what’s easy. He doesn’t merely tear down the Grim Knight, he tears down his ideals. He defeats Batman so permanently that the only way for the Grim Knight to recover his freedom is to run to another universe entirely.
As someone who has gone on the record to say that Overtly Grim Batman is an overplayed interpretation of the character, I’ve thought a lot about why I still get excited about the Nightmare Batmen of Dark Nights Metal, and why I didn’t immediately roll my eyes and dismiss the idea of a Punisher/Batman hybrid. To me, it comes down to one of the foundational ideas of the arc: The Nightmare Batmen come from worlds that don’t work.
Dark Nights Metal stop shy of breaking the fourth wall to say it directly, but the home universes of the Nightmare Batmen are literally decaying, breaking down to fundamental particles before they’re thrown in to a world forge and remade into more viable additions to the multiverse. It’s not a hard message to pick up on — yes, Batman is dark, but only to show us that there is hope even in the darkest nights.
When you take the hope out of Batman, you don’t have a hero at all: You have a villain.