Having sorted through many of the comic books I wanted to get rid of, and those I wanted to hold on to, I decided that Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #38 was definitely a keeper. Legends of the Dark Knight was anthology series that DC Comics published from 1989 to 2007. Numerous creative teams took turns crafting tales that were often only kind-of, sort-of in continuity, which led to all manner of interesting depictions of Batman’s early years as a crime fighter. One of the most memorable of these was “Legend of the Dark Mite,” written by Alan Grant and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill. It was undoubtedly a wonderfully weird and strange issue.
“Legend of the Dark Mite” sees the reintroduction of the oddball Bat-Mite to the post-Crisis DCU. Bat-Mite was one of those offbeat characters who debuted during that odd period in the 1950s and early 60s when the Batman stories had drifted quite afar from their noir roots. During this time, the Caped Crusader would end up fighting alien invaders and monsters, as well as getting transformed into “The Zebra Batman,” or wearing an assortment of unusual one-off costumes. Bat-Mite was an Imp originating from the Fifth Dimension, much like pesky Superman foe Mister Mxyzptlk. Bat-Mite considered himself Batman’s biggest fan and, dressed in a knock-off of the Dark Knight’s costume, attempted to assist his idol in fighting crime. Unfortunately, Bat-Mite was a klutz who was unable to use his powers very effectively, and so he was usually much more of a nuisance than an ally to Batman. He was definitely written for comedic effect, and so by the time Batman returned to his darker pulp roots in the 1970s Bat-Mite had pretty much faded from the picture.
Alan Grant and Kevin O’Neill decided to bring back Bat-Mite in 1992, albeit with the proviso of “maybe he’s real, and maybe he’s not.” They deftly, and humorously, accomplish this by having the events of “Legend of the Dark Mite” told almost entirely from the point of view of Overdog, a petty criminal & drug addict who has more or less fried his brain through the abuse of controlled substances.
Overdog and a couple of his burn-out pals come up with the none-too-brilliant idea of robbing & killing one of Gotham’s big-time drug dealers. After brutally slaying him and consuming vast quantities of pills, they are discovered by Batman. While the Dark Knight is busy tangling with the other two addicts, Overdog flees. Before he can make it very far, though, he comes across, in his words, “an elf dressed in a crazy-looking Batman costume.” (I love that look on Batman’s face in the second panel on page seven!)
Bat-Mite insists that Overdog go back and surrender to Batman. The addict doesn’t take kindly to this suggestion and empties his machine gun at the Imp point-blank. This, of course, has absolutely no effect on Bat-Mite, who uses his powers to repeatedly bludgeon Overdog’s head with his own firearm. And then some of Overdog’s associates arrive, looking for the money he owes them. Spotting Bat-Mite, Johnny Caruso & his gang all open fire but, once again, they’re completely ineffectual. All this serves to do is make Bat-Mite angry. And you won’t like Bat-Mite when he’s angry. Oh, wait, is that a different character? Well, in any case, this happens:
Bat-Mite on steroids proceeds to violently demolish Caruso’s crew. He then seizes Overdog and “pops” him back into his home dimension. As Bat-Mite explains it, he and the rest of the magical inhabitants of his universe have been observing Earth through their “windows of the world.” To entertain themselves, they dress up as their favorite heroes & villains and re-enact their adventures.
Bat-Mite returns Overdog to Earth, where the junkie has a sudden spiritual experience… or something. Realizing he has wasted his life with drugs and violence, Overdog vows to go straight. Of course, Batman understandably believes that Overdog is crazy, and hauls him off to Arkham Asylum, where he’s declared insane. And, despite the fact that there are aspects to the case that Batman cannot explain, such as “a grand piano chasing two men uphill” and Overdog knowing about events that he shouldn’t have, Batman just cannot bring himself to believe in a magical elf wearing a Bat-suit. The Dark Knight departs Arkham, leaving a straight-jacketed Overdog to shriek & scream to a Bat-Mite that only he can see “I’m not mad!”
Wow, that was absolutely crazy! “Legend of the Dark Mite” is really great, twisted stuff by Alan Grant & Kevin O’Neill. I’m a big fan of both their works.
Grant has been a regular contributor to the weekly British sci-fi comic anthology 2000 AD for many years, scripting numerous installments of Judge Dredd and Anderson: Psi Division. In the later, he did wonderful work developing the character of Cassandra Anderson, offering an alternate, more cerebral & spiritual perspective on the dystopian Mega City One to the stark, hard-boiled view often seen in the Dredd stories. Here in the States, Grant wrote many issues of Batman and Detective Comics in the late 1980s and early 90s, often collaborating with the talented, underrated Norm Breyfogle. Grant also penned Lobo for quite a number of years, using the series as an ultra-violent send-up of grim & gritty comics.
Oh, yes, Grant has also written The Terminator for comics several times, but if you ask him about it, he’s liable to mutter “Bloody Terminator” under his breath. (When tasked with writing Superman vs. The Terminator, he sardonically commented “What am I supposed to do, give them Kryptonite batteries?”) I met him at a convention in Bristol, England back in 1999, and since my comic collection was back in the States, all I had for him to autograph were a couple of issues of The Terminator. I made sure to apologize profusely!
As for O’Neill, he really has an absolutely unique, bizarre style. He also started out working on 2000 AD, where he co-created the Nemesis the Warlock feature with Pat Mills. O’Neill began working on American comics in the mid-1980s, and infamously ran afoul of the Comics Code Authority, which back then wielded much more influence. As O’Neill himself explained in 2001 to the Barbelith Webzine, “I was working on an Alan Moore story. The CCA objected – not to the actual story but to the style that it was drawn in. I had aliens being crucified and stuff like that. My editor asked if we could run it with a code sticker if we toned down the crucifixion. They said there was NOTHING they could do to the artwork that would help. I loved that! I loved the idea that these old grannies were sitting in an office in New York poring over every comic page. It was 1950s.”
Nowadays O’Neill is well known for his collaborations with Alan Moore on the various League of Extraordinary Gentlemen miniseries and graphic novels. O’Neill’s strange, hyper-detailed work is absolutely perfect for establishing the various pseudo-historical periods that series is set in, as well as fitting in all of Moore’s obscure literary & cultural references.
Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #38 was likely the first time I saw O’Neill’s work. It totally blew my mind. The scenes set in Bat-Mite’s home dimension, with his fellow Imps recreating the adventures of their costumed counterparts in the “regular” universe, were strange & hysterical. A few years later, in 1999, when I was in Britain and had the opportunity to pick up quite a few of the 2000 AD back issues and trade paperbacks, I really became a fan of O’Neill’s style. I was subsequently very happy that he really came into the spotlight here in the States via his work with Moore on League.
Letterer extraordinaire John Workman also did superbly on “Legend of the Dark Mite.” His fonts & calligraphy were really great at helping to establish & drive home the ridiculous, insane, and humorously twisted material. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: lettering is such a key, overlooked aspect of the overall storytelling process in comic books. Workman is among the best, and his lettering really complements O’Neill’s artwork.
Legends of the Dark Knight #38 is definitely worth tracking down. You can find it on Ebay very easily (I just took a look, and found over a dozen people selling copies). The issue was also collected in the Batman: Collected Legends of the Dark Knight trade paperback published in 1994. That’s now out of print, but it is available at rather reasonable prices on Amazon. And the rest of the material collected within it is also very good.