Artist: Francis Manapul
Publisher: DC Comics
A Review by Stacy Dooks
It’s funny how the mind works sometimes. Things that seem perfectly acceptable in one medium can appear completely unjust in another. If John McClane rampages through thirty-seven stories of pure adventure in DIE HARD and shoots a bunch of hostage-taking thieves, I can accept the hero’s riddling the bodies of his enemies with bullets without so much as a raised eyebrow. But, if Superman snaps the neck of General Zod at the climax of Man of Steel, I go (to put it mildly) ballistic. Why exactly is that, and how exactly does it tie into Batman: The Merciless? Walk with me a little, I’ll explain my reasoning.
Superhero fiction began as children’s entertainment. Although the initial adventures of Superman and Batman were modeled after pulp heroes that had a more cavalier attitude toward whether or not their foes lived and died, the establishment of the Comics Code Authority in the 1950s assured that stalwart heroes had codes against killing, that Good would always triumph over Evil, and that the bad guys wouldn’t be killed but sent to jail. For superhero comics, with such colorful villains as the Joker, the Ultra Humanite, or Brainiac, half the draw is having their colorful machinations and grand schemes be thwarted in the nick of time and be sent to jail, where they can escape and start the cycle all over again. It’s one of the reasons superhero films have such trouble with keeping their villains: the action movie model of DIE HARD doesn’t gel at all with the conventions of Detective Comics, and as a result you have the villain more often than not meeting their maker. The Joker dies at the end of BATMAN 1989, and with that act the most popular of Batman’s rogues is effectively taken off the board for the rest of the Burton films. This is cathartic for the end of an individual film, but it’s poison when it comes to a recurring nemesis in the increasingly serialized world of superhero sequels. The code against killing has gotten increasingly more threadbare as the Comics Code was gradually phased out over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. However, of all the heroes in comics Batman has held to this code without exception. BATMAN: THE MERCILESS explores just what happens when the Dark Knight puts aside his code against killing, and it is not pretty.
On Earth -12 in the Dark Multiverse, a final battle was fought between Ares, Wonder Woman, and Batman. Wonder Woman fell, and Batman chose to take up the helmet of Ares and fight the God of War with his own weapons. On Earth-0, the home of the “real” DC Heroes, a cabal of military minds from organizations public and secret meet to discuss just how bad the invasion from the Dark Multiverse is progressing (spoiler: it’s going very, very badly). As tensions mount and desperate strategies are devised we learn more about the mysterious armor-clad Batman and his fall from grace, as well as the countless little hypocrisies he utilizes to justify his new station as the Merciless. All power tends to corrupt, and, when absolute power corrupts a good man absolutely, what hope is there for any of us?
Batman: The Merciless is easily one of the strongest entries in the Dark Nights series of one-shots thus far. Peter Tomasi has some deliciously evil fun with a Batman whose become so drunk on power he can’t see the forest for the trees anymore, and the interplay between the various strategic heads of the DC Universe makes for a nice bit of Kubrickian fun (oh, and there’s a Grant Morrison reference that made me bust out laughing. You’ll know it when you see it). The story is about Wonder Woman and her relationship with this particular Batman, and her absence in the tale has me looking forward to the confrontation between this Batman and Diana. Francis Manapul’s art remains a benchmark of quality at contemporary DC, and the action scenes in the story are pretty much the DC take on the ending of Rogue One.
Buy it! As great as Dark Nights Metal has been (and it’s been almighty good) the Dark Nights one-shots have been wickedly fun little elseworlds tales of Batman gone wrong. If you’re looking for a nice mix of superheroes and horror for your Halloween reading, Batman: The Merciless makes for a fun and twisted tale. Recommended.