Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1-5 – Shaman (1989/90)
by Dennis O'Neil, Edward Hannigan, & John Beatty

Comics are a sad racket … most of the truly great stuff doesn't sell, and so gets cancelled, while the publishers ruthlessly capitalize on their few popular titles by foisting shit spinoffs onto an audience so captive they may as well be Khomeinian hostages.

I pity the poor souls who feel compelled to follow the entire Batman universe, especially. Each month, there must be 10 or 15 different titles they must collect to keep fully apprised of all that goes on in Gotham City and its vicinity. It's expensive, time-consuming, and ultiimately not rewarding.

I pity them, for I have been one of those poor souls, though thankfully, as with my Manolo Blahnik collection, the addiction was short-lived. I don't even have feet! (I lost them in the Falklands … not the war, just a fluke accident while on vacation.)

It wasn't always so with the Bat-universe … back in the day, you only had to follow a couple of titles to get the main storyline, a couple more to fill in the gaps (for diehards). But the steady groundswell of interest that began with Batman's reinvention (in 1986's The Dark Knight Returns) and culminated in the much-hyped feature film in '89 allowed DC Comics to release the floodgates. Nothing like a little mainstream acceptance to turn the comic houses into out-and-out whores … and 50 more lashes across the hostage's scarred backs.

Legends of the Dark Knight debuted with much fanfare in 1989, and might well have turned out to be one of the many bin-cramming tie-ins released to hoodwink the new Batmaniacs. People who get into comics as the result of a blockbuster movie inevitably give it up within six months, once they realize how dorky the pursuit is. Nothing like saying "I want to stop by the comic shop" to get oneself dumped by one's girlfriend.

But Legends had a concept with a long shelf-life, and it continues to this day to present some of the most interesting twists on the Batman mythos that you'll find in all the Bat-books.

The idea: Just tell some good goddamn Batman tales. Tell the stories, sometimes "real," sometimes "tall tales," of Batman's many adventures, in series that last just four or five issues. The Batfan was hereby freed from the burden of continuity to just enjoy the character in some contexts that otherwise would never fit into Detective Comics.

Legends of the Dark Knight is the apocryphal Batman. And as with the apocrypha of the Bible, it's where the cool shit goes down, like that one story where Moses clocks Jesus for fucking his dog.

Legends kicked off with a strong story, Shaman, which benefitted from Denny O'Neil's writing (he had done some audacious work with Green Lantern/Green Arrow in the 70s, and countless other "classics") and some of the coolest covers that have ever been wrapped around a handful of Bat-pulp.

The art is striking, gritty and dark without getting ugly (as in Dark Knight Returns), and the writing is consistently non-corny. One key way for a comics neophyte to know whether you're reading something good or not: count the number of times you cringe at the corniness. Shaman has its share of cliché, but for the most part sustains a suspenseful and intelligent vibe.

The story concerns Batman at the cusp of his crimefighting career, just coming off a twelve-year interdisciplinary preparation time during which he learned all the cool shit he knows how to do. After nearly dying in Alaska and being revived by the power of a shaman's story (this part told with remarkably little cheese factor), Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham to begin his superheroism, and one of his first big cases concerns a mysterious villain who is using ritualistic murder to attain power.

The mystery ultimately ties back to a shamanic mask stolen from the village where Wayne had his mystical experience, and also to the power of the story that was told to heal him. Wayne/Batman is forced to face not only the murderer at large, but also the ramifications of his arrogant disrespect of the tribal culture that saved him.

Of course, Batman's own mask becomes a symbol here, as Wayne realizes what he is doing is, in its way, a different but still powerful spin on shamanism. This aspect makes the series highly memorable, as it manages to fuse the usual Wayne/Batman psychological dichotomy with some Native American philosophy. Batman's frequently unbelievable abilities take on new dimensions, as the reader begins to open up to possibilities outside of the purely logical … it's a significant part of the Batman mythology that is nearly always glossed over in the main Batman books.

Normally, Native American tribal elements brought into a context like this turn me off immediately – they always seem to be used simply to create an illusion of depth or mystery that is not actually there. But Shaman does it well, letting these parts integrate organically and rarely teetering into comics corn.

It's a series I return to every few years, always finding something to appreciate, and different stuff to enjoy. It's hardly a series that I'd use to turn someone on to Batman (or, more likely, to justify my interest), because as an entry point, it's completely unrepresentative of what Batman is really about. Plus, it's not all that "cool."

But it is rare to find real sophistication and thoughtfulness in a superhero comic … notwithstanding that one series where Wonder Woman gets raped. Actually, I made that up, but thinking about it, I can't say for sure it didn't really happen at some point.

Review by Merit F. Microns