In Batman: Curse of the White Knight, writer/artist Sean Murphy revisits the
alternate universe Gotham City that he created in Batman: White Knight. I
was impressed by the first
naturally, I had high hopes for the sequel.
Dashed! Those hopes were dashed!
On the surface, it sure looks promising. Murphy’s art here meets the high
standard set in the first installment. His use of lighting, his costuming, and
his set design are all just as satisfying this time around, and that’s no small
What works less well is the continued “re-imagining” of the franchise’s
mainstays. I’m mostly talking about Jean-Paul Valley, a.k.a. Azrael. In the
normal continuum (such as it is), Jean-Paul has a complex backstory. It can’t
fit into the eight issues that make up Curse of the White Knight, and the
book feels rushed for trying.
What straight-up doesn’t work is the sheer number of irreversible events.
From deaths to births to identity reveals, the book is constantly trying to
raise the stakes. Just like a poker player who goes “all in” with every hand,
Murphy’s attempts at drama will quickly desensitize you. It’s not that I think
these characters are too sacred; a good re-imagining can be perfect for
well-worn heroes. It’s just that subtlety is important, too.
Given all the unjustified carnage, it’s ironic that other events lacked
meaningful repercussions. Multiple characters shrugged off extreme injuries,
often without any explanation. After years of reading comic books, maybe I
ought to take Batman’s God-like resiliency for granted, but it’s not just
the superheros who spring back.
I suppose these contradicting weaknesses keep you guessing, but only between
“arbitrarily tragic” and “arbitrarily benign.”
The story does have it’s moments, though. Sometimes, it’s funny one-liners.
“Don’t you dare quote Lewis Carroll to me!” the Mad Hatter tells the Joker.
There are also a handful of memorable conversations–Jim Gordon dropping his
daughter off at school comes to mind. Even some of the alterations to canon are
nice, like the roles played by Etrigan and Alfred.
Then again, Harley Quinzel’s development, which I can only call a regression,
was probably the biggest disappointment. I was so impressed with her portrayal
in White Knight. She was a strong and independent leading woman, one whose
sexuality was neither fundamental nor denied. Rare as that may be in comics, it
was particularly compelling as a commentary on the modern incarnation of the
character, which Harley herself called “kind of a step back for feminism.”
Curse of the White Knight subverts that in the way it depicts romance between
Harley and Batman. At the lowest point, we find her clothed in a bathrobe,
crouched in front of a throned Batman and clutching at his knees. It’s almost
like a chauvinistic 80’s metal album cover. A step back for feminism, indeed.
All in all, Curse of the White Knight feels like a failed attempt to prolong
the magic of its predecessor. Maybe, like so many artists surprised by their
success, Murphy misinterpreted the qualities that originally inspired his fans.
Or maybe the formula is just too severe for repeated applications. Whatever the
case, the author is prepared for more: unlike the first installment, this one
ends with obvious clues for future volumes. I think I’ll sit them out.