Batman: Last Knight on Earth, the DC Black Label miniseries from writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo, takes all the characters you know, jumbles them up, and dashes them across the Apocalypse. Just the cover of the new graphic novel collection sets you up for a wild ride. Batman’s silhouette strides through the dust. His only companion is the Joker, whose severed head he carries in a glass jar. Oh. Okay. The tale that unfolds is even stranger yet, hauling in DC friends and foes great and small as they all struggle to adapt to the end of the world.
We start, however, with two familiar tropes: one from the Batman universe and the other from genre fiction in general.
Alfred Pennyworth assists Batman on an odd puzzle hunt that ends in the alley where young Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered. There, he finds the corpse of a young boy, but takes a bullet to the gut before he can figure out the point. Placing us back in that alley is Trope #1. If Batman were a Westworld robot, his parents’ murder would be his cornerstone. Keep that idea in mind when you read this book because it’s more Westworld-y than you might initially think.
When Batman awakens, he’s just Bruce Wayne, lying in a hospital bed. But somehow younger, fresh-faced, idealistic. Alfred soon arrives to tell Bruce that he’s been hospitalized in Arkham since he was just a boy, living in a delusion that he’s a superhero fighting a cadre of villains based on the hospital staff. Looking around, Bruce sees his greatest enemies not in suits, but scrubs. That’s Trope #2. We’ve seen it in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Magicians and other fiction. It’s that great trick where you tell an impossible hero that their whacky world is, well, impossible. They’re insane. It was all just a dream. What’s easier to believe?
But, as we know, it isn’t a dream and that’s when things get even weirder. Alfred explains he was trying to keep Bruce safe and prevent him from exploring the outside world, which is essentially gone.
What exactly happened is something of a mystery, but there was an incident. Heroes have fallen or been forced underground, and a new evil commands what remains. Intriguingly, it wasn’t the work of just one brilliant super-villain, but a domino effect. A familiar villain lit the spark, but the rest of the world piled on. Even Batman, he learns, unwittingly played a role in his own—and everything’s—destruction.
Armed with little else but a sense of dread, our young Bruce dons a makeshift Batman suit and heads out into the wastelands through a much different Gotham hierarchy.
The Apocalypse shook up the survivors and their allegiances. Some of Gotham’s less sadistic villains are now living—if you can call it that—and working alongside heroes. No greater is that exemplified than when Batman discovers the Joker’s head in a jar. For some reason, the Joker is able to talk without his body and, for lack of anyone else to chat with, Batman takes him along. For the Joker, who’s always been more than a little obsessed with the Dark Knight, it’s a dream come true in a nightmare world.
It would be a lie to say I wasn’t confused by this book. Even the Mad Hatter would have found it topsy-turvy. And if I’m confused, Bruce is having the same problem. All he knows is, he woke up in a hospital bed, he was gaslighted by Alfred of all people, and now the world’s over and he has no idea why. It’s kind of like that fantastic first episode of The Walking Dead where Rick wakes up from a coma in a post-zombie world. Worse, Batman and the reader have the same unreliable narrator: an already unstable Joker whose brain has been addled by being, well, detached from its body.
Yes, that’s right. This entire three-part series is narrated not by Batman or Alfred or anyone we trust. It’s the Joker’s story as much as it is Batman’s. And if you thought you knew the Joker, you don’t. The Apocalypse has changed him more than anyone.
But for as weird as this book is, it’s compelling. I couldn’t wait to see who Batman was going to come across next and, more importantly, who they had become. There are some pretty good cameos, ranging from a posh antihero Selina Kyle to a fused Bane and Scarecrow. I won’t spoil the more shocking appearances, but there are several right down to the final panel.
And, much like with Westworld, I have the strange desire to go back through from the beginning now that I know what I know. It’s a fittingly dystopian read for dystopian times that left me guessing wildly more than once.
Juliet Bennett Rylah writes about horror comics and the dark side of superheroes for DCComics.com. Check out more of her writing on WeLikeLA, No Proscenium and IGN, and be sure to follow her on Twitter at @JBRylah.