This Batman article contains major spoilers for Batman: Last Knight on Earth #1.
Batman: Last Knight on Earth begins a stunning and beautiful conclusion to the eight-year Bat-saga spun by writer Scott Snyder and artists Greg Capullo, FCO Plascencia, and Jonathan Glapion. Since 2011, this team (along with inker Danny Miki later in their run) has produced some of the most exciting Batman stories in comic book history, from a detective yarn that introduced an owl-themed criminal cult that ran Gotham from the sewers to the horror-tinged return of the Joker (this time sans face) in “Death of the Family.” And this year’s dystopian, post-apocalyptic Last Knight on Earth already feels like a story that will be remembered for years to come.
While Snyder and Capullo left the main Batman book in 2016, the team has continued the saga they began with “The Court of Owls” in some shape or form since then. 2017’s Dark Nights: Metal crossover event series, for example, picked up the story in an unexpected way, introducing an entirely new multiverse of nightmare Earths and Batmen.
As Snyder explained to us, Last Knight on Earth is “a stone’s throw away from Metal in terms of insanity.” And it shows. The first issue not only drops the Caped Crusader into a post-apocalyptic hellscape he doesn’t understand but also kills him on the way there. It’s the stunning twist of the opening pages of Last Knight on Earth #1 that sets this book up to be Snyder and Capullo’s most subversive creation yet. The Batman we follow for most of the book isn’t even the Bruce Wayne we all know and love but a CLONE of Bruce.
Last Knight on Earth is actually a prestige-sized sequel to a short story Snyder wrote for the 2014 Detective Comics #27 anniversary issue, with art from Sean Murphy, who was originally set to draw this three-parter before Capullo took over. The story, “Twenty-Seven,” introduced one of Snyder’s most intriguing concepts: when Bruce becomes too old to keep fighting his war on crime, he creates a machine to ensure that Batman’s mission will continue for generations after his death. This machine produces a new Bruce clone every 27 years (you get the significance of that number), just in time for the previous one to retire and die. Each clone is “born” as a fully-grown adult in fighting shape, remembering the original Bruce’s life up to the moment he made the oath to his deceased father to “become a Bat.”
In “Twenty-Seven,” the new Bruce clone is born during Year 200 of the Batman’s career, decades after the first Batman lived. Not as much time has passed in Last Knight on Earth, as we discover that an older, much grayer Alfred is still alive as well as many of Bruce’s former allies and enemies. The rest of Bruce’s world has changed drastically, though.
The shift from detective yarn to Mad Max-level desert sojourn is an abrupt one, and it’s all the more effective because of it. Snyder has always been good at injecting horror into his Batman stories, Capullo delivering the grotesque and terrifying visuals with relish. Under their pen and pencil, Bruce’s second life (Alfred hints that there have been more lives than that, though) feels more like a haunting walk through the afterlife than another chance to save Gotham. In fact, by the time Bruce wakes up strapped to a hospital chair in Arkham Asylum, the city’s already fallen.
Last Knight‘s first chapter begins with Batman losing big time, suffering a symbolic (and final) defeat against his own childhood trauma. Snyder interlaced quite a few “what if” realities in his later arcs on Batman, windows into possible futures where the Caped Crusader would succumb in epic battles against alien threats and larger-than-life foes (see: Batman Vol. 2 #49). But Batman’s fateful demise is delivered in an almost matter-of-fact way by Snyder and Capullo.
“Something about this case felt different,” the narrator we’ll soon discover is actually the Joker’s decapitated head in a lantern says on the very first page. But the setup couldn’t be more ordinary. Batman is investigating a peculiar case that you imagine will end up in his Black Casebook one day, and the latest clue leads him to where his whole story began: Crime Alley. It’s here, in this place of pain for Bruce, where it all ends for Batman.
Waiting for him at the end of the line is the rotting corpse of a little boy with more than a passing resemblance to little Bruce on the night his life changed forever. Again it changes, as the corpse boy is revealed to be a trap with a gun aimed right at Batman’s head. There’s a shot in the night — and our Bruce ceases to exist.
That in the end Batman is killed by a macabre version of his past self, a metaphor for what Bruce must look like on the inside after decades of physical torture and mental anguish, is fitting for the character. The second half of Snyder and Capullo’s Batman run, comprised of the “Endgame” and “Superheavy” arcs, primarily focused on whether Bruce (and Gotham City) could survive without Batman. If given the opportunity to abandon his cursed life as the Dark Knight, would he?
In “Endgame,” Batman sacrifices himself underneath his crumbling city in order to end the Joker’s reign of terror. “Superheavy” reintroduces Bruce as an amnesiac who doesn’t remember his life as the Dark Knight and instead devotes himself to running a home for the orphaned children of Gotham. When the truth is inevitably revealed to Bruce, as Gotham falls under attack, he doesn’t hesitate. Using an earlier, prototype version of the clone machine that becomes the gateway into Snyder and Capullo’s final Batman story, Bruce is able to regain all his past trauma and become the Bat once again.
To Alfred’s terror, the old Bruce returns to the path of self-destruction, hellbent on avenging the death of his parents for the rest of his life. Snyder and Capullo’s Batman was always destined to die by his own hand. He made the choice — and then he made it again.
Of course, it was some other mastermind who lured the Caped Crusader into the final trap in Last Knight on Earth, but it makes no difference who it was, and Snyder and Capullo don’t tell us. All we know is that the murder weapon is that helpless boy from decades ago, still waiting for a savior in Crime Alley.
Last Knight on Earth‘s explosive first issue is full of excellent, non-stop action, including a fight with giant Green Lantern babies (!!!), but that’s the cherry on top of this literary sundae. Snyder told us that the story has ties to epics such as The Odyssey, with the Bat clone going on a journey through terra incognita to save Gotham from a new villain known only as Omega.
“To me, it’s very much an intimate story of Batman coming home and understanding himself in a new way and understanding his purpose in a new way,” Snyder said, who also described the first image that inspired the rest of the story: the Caped Crusader making his way across a desert with “Joker’s head in a jar.”
Snyder explained that, as he thought more about the picture in his head, “it became clear to me that it was Batman using the old to light the way with this lantern which was the Joker’s head towards this new purpose.” But what is this new purpose?
The first issue shows us a future in which humankind has turned against both heroes and villains, overthrowing the powerful beings who have reigned over it since the dawn of the Age of Heroes. According to Wonder Woman, one of the few surviving members of the Justice League in Last Knight on Earth, Batman was the very first victim, “torn apart” in the Hall of Justice by the people he had pledged to protect (I assume Diana is describing the demise of one of the earliest Bat clones since our Bruce died in Crime Alley, although the timeline is still a bit hazy in the first issue).
Last Knight on Earth, then, is the evolution of an earlier question asked by Snyder and Capullo in “Superheavy”: Will Batman be able to hang up the cape and cowl when the world no longer needs him? Can Bruce find a new purpose beyond Batman?
Alfred tries to force that new purpose on clone Bruce by trapping him in a fake Arkham Asylum to convince him his past life was a delusion brought on by the death of his parents. But Bruce sees through the ruse. He dons the cowl again and embarks on his own quest for answers.
Beyond The Odyssey, it looks like Last Knight on Earth will have a little in common with The Divine Comedy too, as Batman travels through the remains of the DC universe like Dante through the nine circles of Hell, the bodiless Joker lantern every bit the storyteller and guide that Virgil was on that famous journey. But will Bruce — any of them — ever find paradise?
Batman: Last Knight on Earth #1 is out now. Issue #2 hits shelves July 31.