Batman: The Chalice
by Chuck Dixon.
Illustrated by John Van Fleet
DC Comics 1999
Into Bruce Wayne’s hands is entrusted an object for safekeeping. Once sought and guarded by his medieval ancestors, the house of Gevain, the Holy Grail — for this is it, a relic missing since the time of the Crusades — proves a dangerous legacy for Wayne to guard, even when he is in his guise of Gotham City’s finest, Batman.
Shall I list those who also seek the cup for its power? Ra’s al Ghul, the Penguin, Catwoman, Ubu, the Brotherhood of the Merivingians [sic] for a start. Lined up on the caped crusader’s side are Alfred, Azrael, the Oracle and Commissioner Gordon, but will they be enough to hold off the dark forces that hanker after the sacred receptacle?
Or will Bruce be forced to call upon a more superior being to spirit it away?
The standout feature of this graphic novel is John Van Fleet’s distinctive art, which graces not only the cover but also the interior. The inside art features bold outlines and dark contrasts against impressionist colour washes or subtle but detailed background images. The effect is rather like playing with the digital editing facilities on your camera phone app.
The noir-ish results are entirely in keeping with classic Batman comics from the 50s and 60s allied with the re-vamping that happened in the late 70s and 80s as the caped crusader’s exploits became darker in tone and character. Unlike the camp treatment of half a century ago, where comic panels didn’t require much effort to visually scan, this more shadowy presentation makes increased demands on the viewer: concentration and attention seem to be the watchwords of many graphic novels.
Chuck Dixon’s story is a little more workaday. The dark knight has to battle a succession of enemies, dodging bullets and withstanding physical assaults — so what’s new? — but ultimately has to give up the struggle by *spoiler alert* sending the grail via another DC character to the Fortress of Solitude. I liked the notion of the Guardian of Gotham becoming a Guardian of the Grail via the supposed derivation of Wayne from Gevain (‘Gawain’, one assumes), but after a promising beginning there seemed little meat in the narrative, no real climax to a succession of shoot-em-ups and beat-em-ups.
And the unquestioning assumption that the Grail was genuinely miraculous via some questionable medieval theology sits badly with the heightened realism underlying the action that one associates with the Batman mythos.
Am I being too analytical? Perhaps. Probably the best thing is to enjoy the ride and especially the scenery.
In my Reading Challenge this counts, as if you hadn’t already guessed, as a graphic novel