New To You Comics Batman Special Edition: A 90’s Classic Revisited In ‘Batman: Gothic’

by Tony Thornley

With the comics industry continuing to battle the effects of the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are continuing to talk about comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals, and things that go bump in the night. This week, Scott Redmond drops in again to talk about a Batman classic, kicking off an unofficial week full of Bat-content leading up to the release of the much anticipated The Batman.

Today, Grant Morrison is considered one of the greatest Batman writers in the character’s history. In 1990 though, they were an up and coming writer with several notable stories under their belt including 1989’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On A Serious Earth. When Legends of the Dark Knight launched that year, Morrison was tapped to write the series’ second arc, a gig that would solidify the creator’s tie to the character.

Legends of the Dark Knight was an absolute POWERHOUSE of a series when it launched. Meant to be both a creator showcase and a way to fill in the continuity gaps in the first few years of Batman’s post-Crisis career, it succeeded out of the gate. It was always good and sometimes great, but the first three years were a stunning cavalcade of some of the greatest creators in comics- Morrison, Denny O’Neil, Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, Mike Barr, Matt Wagner, and Tim Sale all contributed before the series hit issue #36, and that’s just a sampling. Gothic, the series’ second arc, was something else though.

Teaming Morrison, Klaus Janson, Steve Buccallato, and John Costanza, Batman: Gothic tells a story with three intertwined purposes. When a serial killer from Gotham’s past returns, Batman has to race against time before the mysterious Mister Whisper wreaks untold devastation on Gotham. As he begins investigating he discovers the killer is not just more than he appears- he also has a terrifying personal connection to him.

Tony Thornley: Hey again Scott! Thanks for being our pinch hitter lately on the column!

Scott Redmond: Hey. Always happy to drop in and talk comics!

Tony: So this weekend is yet another debut in the Dark Knight’s filmography. While Brendan is out of town, you and I decided to check out a Batman story that neither of us had read. We settled on Gothic and I don’t think either of us knew what to expect. I mean, it’s Morrison Batman, so it was bound to be GOOD, but this is a hell of a story. Morrison packed it absolutely FULL of… well… stuff. There’s a secret history of Gotham. There’s secret history of Bruce Wayne. There’s one of Batman’s earliest encounters with the supernatural. There’s a terrorist plot. There’s globe trotting….

This is a beefy Batman story. I really had to sit with it for a day to digest it. What did you think?

Scott: There is most definitely a whole lot to unpack with this story. Yeah going into this I thought “Oh a Morrison story, I surely  know what to expect with that” but quickly realized I could not have been more wrong. They were most assuredly making the most out of this opportunity to write Batman, just in case there wasn’t another, because as you said it’s stuffed full of just about everything outside of known rogues or other familiar characters. 

Reading this long after reading Morrison’s more recent longer takes on the character, it’s interesting to see that the fixation on things to do with Thomas Wayne and the past has always been there. Found that quite interesting in retrospect, especially with the nightmares and the way that Thomas factored into discovering more about Mr. Whisper. 

Tony: Oh yeah, Bruce Wayne’s history is definitely a big theme of their Batman work. It’s fascinating how much of their work in Gotham is linked to the history of the Wayne family and of Gotham City itself.

I think this was a very good story that also had some problems. I’m glad Morrison avoided the obvious route. By the end of the second issue, I absolutely thought Mister Whisper was a vampire. This is an ancient serial killer who is unkillable and haunts Bruce’s dreams. Vampire seems like a natural conclusion. Morrison doesn’t go there, even in Bruce or Alfred taking a guess at what he may be. The actual reveal kind of veered into Hellboy territory in a way I really enjoyed though (well… mostly but we’ll get to that in a second). And the race against time after that middle issue of the arc was really fun. 

Scott: Oh yeah, I just assumed there was some small supernatural thing that let him avoid whatever death was attempted to be dolled out by the gangsters (interesting that it took so long to get to explaining that) but was not expecting centuries old soul selling serial killer. Not one bit. It is intriguing that they still brought a bit of this energy to the book later but clearly a lot of work was done to tone down the levels. Because even when it does go somewhat supernatural, it’s played in a way that one could argue it just appears supernatural because of mental things Batman or others are going through at the time. 

I agree that it’s good that certain tropes were avoided, even though as you alluded to the things behind this character’s origin are very heavy and not in a good way. 

Tony: Yeah, exactly. Now, this is another example of a 32 year old comic not aging well, but there were some problems in the “origin” story of Mister Whisper. It turns out that he’s a 300 year old evil monk, who made a deal with the devil for eternal life. Because it was a late 80’s/early 90’s comic, naturally it has to go edgy, and that means sexual violence against women. I hated this aspect of the story, and it was so unnecessary to the overall plot. And let’s be real, Grant Morrison of today probably regrets the hell out of this.

I’m not going to get into much more than say it happened. But it happened and I dislike it.

Scott: No matter how much I love comic books, there is no denying that flipping back to comics of the past can be quite the trip as you run across things that just are not great. Though to be fair, sadly that still isn’t something that has changed fully here in the good old 21st century. Every bit of Mister Whisper’s backstory was painful to get through, and the way that his path crossed with Bruce in the past and the nature of that violence too was just the worst. 

Tony: On the positives side, I have to look at the art. Janson is usually known for his inks, not his pencils. He does a fantastic job though. His line is a halfway point between the rough style of a Dave McKean or Bill Sienkiewicz and the much more polished pencils of Tony Daniel or Jim Lee. He’s a strong storyteller throughout, like on the page below featuring a classic Batman deathtrap. Also, his design for Mister Whisper was great. He was menacing but in a very unconventional way.

Scott: Oh very much agree. I know that a lot of people are not fans of artwork that is “different” or can be rough or harder to decipher, but I enjoy when art has a bit of a rough air to it that fits the mood. There were quite a few places I had to do a double take to go back and make sure I saw everything that was meant to be seen, and that to me can be quite fun. I love me some smooth detailed easy to glance over art, but sometimes a little bit of work that makes the overall reading experience last longer is good. 

Tony: Absolutely. That feeling especially helped the extra dark and spooky feeling of this story. By the way- Did you, like me, forget that this was supposed to take place somewhere between year 1 and year 3? Not having the yellow oval for SO LONG absolutely screwed with the sense of timeline that Legends used to have. Seeing Bruce without the oval here was just no big deal.

Scott: I very much completely forgot where this took place, and compared to other stuff I’ve read that is a return to the past I found myself not caring to even think about it. While the story is heavy and wild and does everything it was gripping and engaging in a way that isn’t always easy to find in comics of any era. 

Tony: Yeah, thirty years later (sheesh), outside of the extremely gross plot points, it feels very timeless. Buccalleto’s colors are very ahead of their time. Janson’s pencils are frankly a bit ahead of their time too especially when the industry was trending more towards the Image founders’ style and not this.

It’s not my favorite Batman story, but it’s absolutely one that I’m glad I read, warts and all. It really makes me want to revisit other Morrison Batman soon, especially knowing how much they’ve grown as a writer.

Where did you fall on it?

Scott: While timeless it is also very much a product of it’s time with those warts and moments you mentioned. Divorced of those it’s very much a very solid Batman story and informs a lot of how Morrison viewed and views the character and his world. I too am glad that we chose this because even with those moments that were not great, it is good to visit these sorts of things. I’m sure reading it at the time was great, but I honestly like reading these things in the spot that I am now because I more readily recognize those warts than when I was younger. 

It makes me want to actually check out way more of the stories from this series, and see where they fall. Not having read the recent Urban Legends series I can’t say if there is or isn’t, but a series that allows for this sort of storytelling now would be very much welcome. Maybe UL is that book. 

Tony: Absolutely. While a product of its time, it’s a fantastic book. Thanks for pinch hitting again Scott!

And when we return, Brendan and I are going to pick up where we left off before real life beat us up, with another classic Batman title- Batman: Dark Victory!

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