Batman: White Knight #1 opens strong. The first few pages are everything a reader familiar with Sean Murphy’s work would want from a Batman mini-series. Gothic settings are stacked to transform Gotham City in a land of ghoulish valleys and mountains. Shadows loom and consume entire buildings and figures within each panel. The world is filled with sharp edges dripping with ink, providing an unrealistic sense of grimness to the story. It’s all about tone and reading those pages on an October night is capable of offering chills. The comic is never better than it is in this introduction; most of it is a step far below.
After the initial twist of the comic, one any reader who has seen a solicit is already familiar with, the story jumps back one year in time and spends the rest of its page count explaining what led up to that moment. There’s a chase sequence, but even that is part of a non-stop exposition dump stating conflicts, intentions, and sub-plots. There’s no room for nuance in this version of Gotham City. The Joker tells Batman what his goal is. Batgirl and Nightwing tell Batman why he could be poorly perceived. Newscasters point directly to the political themes the series intends to address. Everything is told and nothing is shown.
That is frustrating because the ideas on display are not so convoluted as to even approach confusing. Batman as public menace and Joker going sane are two well-worn tracks that even comic shop passersby will be able to quickly grasp. Yet dialogue is packed into each page, forming even more gargantuan towers than the monastery-like monstrosities of this very enticing rendition of Gotham. Even in the midst of the chase sequence, Joker is explaining himself and Batman’s family is explaining what is already on the page. It slows panels that Murphy packs with momentum, diluting the rarely achieved effect of velocity in comics. Combined with 3D flames that contrast poorly with this rough, ink-centric style, it transforms the entire affair into a drag.
The premise itself shows ample restraint. While Batman is shown as a destructive force, he’s made overly sympathetic, and Joker’s case against him is less than convincing. It’s a presentation of two sides when one is already accepted as heroic and normal. Batman appears in need of a good lecture rather than a takedown by the end of the first issue. That lack of emphasis on differing power dynamics and inversions of accepted themes makes the final splash page land with a thud. It’s overly dark, unconvincing, and states the title of the story in a hamfisted fashion. It’s the final gasp in a balloon that began to deflate as soon as “One Year Ago” appeared.
Murphy’s inks and abilities to pace action are as adept as ever. His Gotham City alone justifies providing this story with a second chance, but this intro fails to provide a hook even half as enticing as the sales pitch for this series. If the story is to succeed outside of producing gorgeous landscapes and grittier than normal depictions of favorite characters, it needs to speed up. Word balloons and captions are dead weight on a concept and style that ought to burn like rocket fuel.