Vintage Comic Review: “Batman: Death of Innocents” (DC Comics; In Memory of Dennis O’Neil)
Given the recent passing of comic book legend Dennis O’Neil, we’re going to take the opportunity to review some of his work, starting with Batman: Death of Innocents – the Horror of Landmines.
Written by O’Neil, illustrated by Joe Staton and inked by Bill Sienkiewicz, Batman: Death of Innocents is a 49-page one-shot published by DC Comics in 1996. The story takes the Dark Knight to the war-torn nation of Kravia, a fictional country that is seemingly located somewhere in Eastern Europe. The country is in the middle of a civil war, and the powerful rebel factions are using a variety of intimidation tactics to spread fear among the local population, including anti-personnel landmines.
Batman infiltrates this war zone in search of a missing young girl, the daughter of a WayneCorp employee who had died from a landmine explosion. Over the years, several writers have explored Batman’s emotional connection to children, and Death of Innocents is no different. O’Neil taps the events of the Dark Knight’s own origin story to draw a connection between Batman and the missing girl, Sarah Orbley.
Throughout the story, Batman is forced to operate outside his usual comfort zone. Not only is he a stranger in a foreign land, but there are no rooftops from which to travel and stalk his prey, and the ground around him is seeded with explosives. In addition, the violent rebels – who are the book’s antagonists – do have justified motivations for wanting to free themselves from tyrannical government. The Dark Knight acknowledges the moral ambiguity of the situation, and chooses to focus only on his rescue mission rather than interfere in the larger domestic politics of the war.
That said, Death of Innocents is unsurprisingly a politically-motivated book, but it is also completely upfront about this (the forward is written by a U.S. Senator, after all). As such, there are more than a few moments where the writing does become heavy-handed or even “preachy”, but at least it’s disclosed from the get-go.
Other than the overt political messaging, Death of Innocents is a fairly satisfying read. It all starts a bit quickly in the first few pages, but the pacing is otherwise well-suited for one of the world’s greatest detective’s adventures. There is good balance of action, intrigue, and emotional gut-punches along the way. O’Neil’s writing highlights Batman’s superhuman focus and rigorous preparation as the hero navigates a truly treacherous landscape. Slight spoiler alert, however. At one point, Batman uses a gun – but not in the way you might think.
Joe Stanton’s artwork is a fine match for the tone and pace of Death of Innocents. Staton manages to convey the Dark Knight’s sense of isolation, and his use of black tones – a staple of great Batman stories – adroitly connects the hero with his greatest ally, the shadows (though some of this may be to the inker’s credit).
Despite the political overtones, Death of Innocents remains a Batman story at its core. In nearly every panel and page, the Dark Knight is the shining star. There is a healthy amount of satisfying stylistic flourishes, but never to the point where the solemnity of the story suffers.
Other than the slightly clunky opening pages, the rest of the book’s pages are well-crafted and not overburdened with text. The combination of words and images are quite engaging with very few distractions. In fact, with the exception of the book’s rear cover, there is not a single advertisement in Death of Innocents.
Overall, Batman: Death of Innocents is a well-crafted read, though I cannot wholeheartedly recommend it if you are averse to politically-charged narratives, of which Death of Innocents is unabashedly one. However, if you can get past a few ham-fisted moments, the book remains a very solid Batman tale, and is definitely worth checking out.