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Batman: Last Rites

Kevin M. Brettauer

In an industry where the average story is told in about six installments, it is refreshing to see one of the great masters return to a world he knows so well and deliver a two-issue, character-driven narrative that makes the reader wish all comic books were this engrossing and wonderful.

Batman: Last Rites

Publisher: DC
Subtitle: The Last Days of Gotham
Contributors: artist: Guillem March, letterer: Jared K. Fletcher
Price: $2.99
Writer: Denny O'Neil
Length: 22
Formats: Single Issues
Issues: Detective Comics #851 & Batman #684
US publication date: 2009-01-04

If nothing else, Denny O'Neil has always known how to tell a good story, and he has always known that good stories don't need to be dragged out. In an age of decompression, company-wide crossovers and bimonthly status quo shake-ups, it seems as if the ability to tell a good story in one, two or even three issues has been nearly lost, Marvel's charming Deadpool and DC's lauded but low-selling Jonah Hex being notable exceptions.

Thank the comic book gods, then, for Denny O'Neil, whose legendary runs on books like The Question and Green Lantern/Green Arrow still hold up to this day and remain classics in the field. In the aftermath of Grant Morrison's massively overhyped "Batman: RIP" storyline, which left many fans scratching their heads, we have O'Neil's inspired two-issue "The Last Days of Gotham".

In what seems to be an act of open defiance against decompressed storytelling – which is prevalent in nearly every top-selling book, from Marvel's New Avengers and Captain America to DC's Justice Society of America and Green Lantern – O'Neil has crafted a little gem of a story that really could only work as a two-part story. By doing so, he once again shows us that comics – while their themes may be dreary and their characters dark – can still be an enjoyable experience, something many writers in the field appear to have forgotten. The stories and messages can be as heavy as the author wants them to be, but the reader should still be able to walk away and feel better for having read the comic.

O'Neil masterfully balances several elements. He shows the confusion and stress that the story's protagonist, Nightwing, is experiencing, introduces narrator Millicent Mayne, expresses the hopelessness felt by the Gotham PD, and even successfully shows the reliable Alfred Pennyworth trying to remain the rock of the Bat-family, all while including the requisite crime story elements. While this may sound like far too much to get right in just two issues, the fact that O'Neil nails it perfectly in a mere 44 pages serves as a testament to the man and his control over his craft.

The characterizations of every single cast member are spot-on. Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock, Alfred, Nightwing and Oracle are written just as they always should be, by a man who knows them better than most people know their own families. Even the missing Batman is seemingly venerated, spoken of only in sorrowful whispers and tones by those who miss him in much the same way that murderers, pimps and drug dealers once whispered of him in fear.

The real star of the show, though, is Two-Face, who appears in a few brief scenes in the story's first half, where he is written with some of the best, most intelligent dialogue afforded to the character in years. Many writers neglect Harvey Dent's highly probable Ivy League education and experience as Gotham's District Attorney, and regrettably write the villain speaking in standard, clichéd mobster movie dialogue. He should, instead, speak like a character out of a David Mamet production or a David Milch teleplay; that is to say, he should sound eloquent and intelligent, not base and brutish. The dialogue O'Neil provides for him makes one feel as if he should be in Elsinore Castle with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, trying to figure out what to do with the seemingly insane Prince Hamlet, as opposed to getting arrested by David Caruso's Lieutenant Caine on CSI: Miami.

While it is so easy to gush over O'Neil's professional and pitch-perfect tale, it would be in poor form to not mention Guillem March's splendid artwork, which perfectly matches both the transient emotional and mental states of the characters as well as the tone of the story as a whole. If March isn't a big name soon, it'll be an honest shame. He is a true talent waiting to be discovered and placed on the right big-name book. His figures are drawn with a crystal clarity and precision that is rare in comics today, and his backgrounds are nothing to sneeze at, either. His Jim Gordon is a textbook example of how to draw Gotham's most beloved Police Commissioner. Additionally, the decaying, New Orleans-esque ruins of a post-earthquake area of Gotham that has yet to be repaired – and probably never will be – are stunning beyond reproach.

"The Last Days of Gotham" is, sadly, the sort of rare story that comic books tell so infrequently these days. It is short, concise, and to the point. It is haunting and thought-provoking in all the right ways, but that does little to nothing to diminish the sense of fun that pervades this particular Batman story and once pervaded most of the industry as a whole. However, there are two unfortunate circumstances surrounding "The Last Days of Gotham". The first is that it is remarkably upsetting that a story of this type and caliber had to emerge out of something as messy and awkward as "Batman: RIP". The second is that it will more than likely be a very long time before the various Batman series, or, indeed, most comic books, will feel like this again.


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