Batman: Creature of the Night received a lot of attention when it was first announced. Writer Kurt Busiek describes it as a spiritual successor to Superman: Secret Identity, a series he and Stuart Immonen collaborated on, and one of DC’s most acclaimed standalone stories of the past 20 years. But years passed between the announcement of the Batman title and the publication of the first issue, and artist John Paul Leon‘s battle with cancer led to two more years passing before the fourth and final issue was released. Because of those delays, the series was largely overlooked. Thankfully, the upcoming release of the graphic novel presents the perfect opportunity to review Batman: Creature of the Night.
The underlying concept behind Secret Identity and Creature of the Night shouldn’t work. Both books take place in a reality much like our own, where the DC heroes are just characters in comic books. But in the stories someone named Clark Kent actually becomes Superman, and someone named Bruce Wainwright becomes a variation of Batman. The idea seems absurd on the surface, but it gives both readers and the protagonists themselves a unique perspective on such iconic characters.
In Secret Identity, Clark Kent develops the same powers as the Superman we know and love. That’s not the case for Bruce Wainwright. In Creature of the Night, a boy’s trauma from seeing his parents gunned down in front of him manifests itself as a demon. It takes the shape of Batman, whose comics were a source of comfort to Bruce, and attacks criminals in Boston, Massachusetts, where Bruce grew up. The demon fulfills his desire for vengeance but Wainwright disguises it as justice. The series is more a work of horror than a superhero story, which may be why, unlike Secret Identity, the protagonist’s name isn’t an exact match to the hero he emulates.
The story centers on the psychological ramifications of Bruce seeing his parents murdered, and the art brings his emotions and distorted view of the world to life. John Paul Leon captures the ever-present fear and anguish through subtle facial gestures. Even in occasional moments of levity, there’s still a sadness to Bruce. Leon’s heavy use of shadow encapsulates the darkness Bruce doesn’t know how to escape from, and the muted colors suggest an absence of joy. The handful of pages showing Bruce’s life before his tragedy feature more white space and notably lighter colors, but everything following his parents’ death looks paler and encased in shadow.
Creature of the Night makes you rethink Bruce Wayne (the “real” one). In the comics, after seeing his parents gunned down in an alley, Wayne trained his mind and body to become the world’s strongest, smartest man. His trauma was so deep, so resonant that he dedicated his life to literally fighting crime. And the world is… largely okay with that? Everyone from Superman to past presidents trusts the judgment of a man in a bat costume, allowing him to play the role of Big Brother over the city that stole his parents from him. Creature of the Night illustrates how dangerous it is to let your trauma define the rest of your life.
I wonder if that disconnect is why Busiek hasn’t written more Batman comics. Creature of the Night plays not only as a work of art but a thesis statement on the character, presenting a more thoughtful take on how trauma would change a man. I think the story could have, maybe even should have, delved deeper into Bruce’s psychological condition. Nothing in the series made Bruce’s mental framework seem like the product of research into forms of mental illness. Just because the events of the story are fantastical doesn’t mean you can’t tie the protagonist’s problems to a real-world disorder. Busiek seemed to prefer not to define the character’s mental state, but the story may have been more impactful if it had.
Creature of the Night is very different from Secret Identity, but it’s just as worthy of praise. The two books were published well over 10 years apart. Fans spent so long waiting for the Batman title that when it arrived, it didn’t feel like the momentous event it could have been. But, after finally experiencing Busiek and Leon’s novel take on the Caped Crusader, it’s safe to say the series was worth the wait.
A hardcover collection of Batman: Creature of the Night is due out in comic shops this Wednesday.