Is there any way to stop “Knightquest”? One would think that this week’s collection, Batman: KnightsEnd, would do just that. Well, it does wrap up just about every thread from the ongoing story, but if you think this 25th Anniversary reprinting ends with the book that specifically has “End” in the title, well, we’ll deal with that in a bit.
Last time, we saw what Bruce Wayne and his damaged spine were up to, and it was weird and kind of disappointing. But he’s better now and we’re not going to revisit the specifics of his recovery and just call it “magic, I guess”. But things are going to get better this time out, I promise. This collection reprints Batman 509-510, Batman: Shadow of the Bat 29-30, Detective Comics 676-677, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight 62-63, Robin 8-9, Catwoman 12-13, and Showcase ’94 10.
This one is cohesive in a way we haven’t seen since Bane was part of the story – all the Bat-books working together, telling a sequential story without anybody going off on their weird separate agenda.
Bruce Wayne is healed but he’s not at his peak – his muscles and reflexes have atrophied so he has to learn to be Batman all over again. This was interesting to me because one thing they emphasize more in the modern Batman is all the disciplines he learned from different teachers. He’s a more mentored character. But here, he figures he can relearn everything from one person, and that person is Lady Shiva. She was a very big deal in the Nineties as the premier martial artist in the DC Universe. (She’s become less and less prominent of late, and last time she appeared, Ra’s al Ghul shot her.) She was the one person nobody could ever beat, and she was also a flat out villain. At this point, I guess she was more amoral and willing to kill, and hadn’t actually been on a villain team led by Lex Luthor. That’s why it’s still OK for Bruce Wayne to go to her for help.
Her cool way of helping Batman is not to train him, but to put on the mask of Tengu (a bat spirit) and beat an armless ninja master to death in front of witnesses. (Just to be a dick about it, she kicks the armless man to death.) Then she meets up with Bruce, gives him the mask and tells him that seven ninjas are going to try to kill him. Training! Shiva insists that he won’t be ready until he kills them and when he non-lethally defeats the first ninja, Shiva kills that poor chump as an example.
The ninja fights are fun in that Nineties way. I think of ninjas as more of an Eighties thing. but they were still go-to comic badasses well into the next decade. They all kind of feel like video game boss battles and they’re different enough that it doesn’t drag on despite running through a month of Batman books. (A high point is the one he fights in traffic.) Now, this has been a problem for me for twenty-five years, but they straight up forget one ninja. When the sixth one shows up, Bruce Wayne declares him the seventh ninja, and man, I counted. There’s a group shot of the seven ninjas early on and there’s a guy who looks like Raiden from Mortal Kombat and that guy never appears again. I assume this was because these fights went through four books by four different writers and somebody was supposed to get an additional ninja in but everybody thought it was somebody else. If I ever get a chance to write Batman, I would include a flashback to the fight with the missing ninja just to seal off this loop.
While all of this is going on, AzBats is fighting gunrunners who may or may not have ties to the man who killed his father and going increasingly mad. Robin and Nightwing basically try to make sure he doesn’t kill anybody and deal with his mess. Finally they catch up with Bruce just when he appears to have killed the seventh (sixth) ninja. Lady Shiva turns up, because she was tracking him the whole time to proclaim that he has his skills back and also to take back the Tengu mask so ninjas will stop trying to kill him. And then she leaves, and Bruce reveals to Dick and Tim that he only knocked out the guy in a way that looked lethal, which doesn’t make much sense. Let’s let it go, though. Because now it’s time for Batman vs. AzBats!
That fight begins, bizarrely, in a Catwoman crossover. Well, not so much begins, because that issue ends with Batman confronting AzBats after a lot of Catwoman machinations. Also, Catwoman seems surprised that AzBats isn’t the Batman she knows after figuring it out last time they met. Look. There are a lot of moving pieces here. And then it gets crazy in the best way with Batman, Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing taking on AzBats and also dealing with the gunrunners that AzBats had been beating up when Bruce confronted him. Everything’s on fire and eventually AzBats, Batman and Catwoman are hanging from a helicopter piloted by people who want to kill all of them and the cops are mobilized and this is the first time anybody but Gordon knew there were two Batman and it’s just wild. It’s a great action movie sequence.
AzBats gets set on fire and plunges into the river, Batman and Catwoman manage to save people from a helicopter explosion and then Batman jumps in the Batmobile and it explodes. And then AzBats returns, having survived getting set on fire and then drowning. At this point, the fire has burned the paint off his armor so he’s red instead of blue. It’s a nice visual bit that doesn’t entirely make sense. (He made his suit out of shiny red metal and then painted it?) Nightwing and AzBats go at it and wreck a casino before Jean-Paul gets away. Then they find out Batman survived the explosion with very little explanation. Don’t worry about it.
Because this gets us to Bruce confronting Jean-Paul in Wayne Manor. It’s a Legends issue written by Dennis O’Neil with great Barry Kitson art. Now, I mentioned last time that O’Neil has done some incredible work but he really dropped the ball in “The Search”. Here, however, he hits it out of the damn park. I’m not sure what sport he’s playing where he can both drop a ball and hit it. Cricket, maybe?
Anyway, this is beautiful. I didn’t realize this until now, but in this issue, Bruce never attacks Jean-Paul. He dodges, he blocks, he argues, but he doesn’t make a single aggressive move. AzBats retreats to the Batcave, but he set up a bunch of traps, so Batman gets in through that hole he fell through as a child. (As seen in Batman Begins.) It’s established just how narrow the path to the cave is from there, and then Batman reaches the Batcave proper, tries to reason with AzBats, and then has to retreat back into the tunnel. Since the AzBats armor is so big and bulky, Jean Paul has to shed it in order to follow, leaving only the helmet.
And in a moment I really love, the only thing Batman does to win is lead Jean-Paul into the sunlight. His helmet is still calibrated for night vision, so he has to tear it off when walking into the light and without a mask, The System’s programming isn’t as strong. Finally in his right mind, he realizes that he was never Batman and he made a big mistake. He gives up because Batman shows him the light, and it’s amazing.
Bruce lets Jean-Paul go, believing that maybe he can find redemption. And from there, we go to an epilogue in Showcase where he lives among the hobos and protects them. Shortly after all this, Azrael gets a spinoff series about his redemption. It ran for 100 issues and he eventually earned Batman’s forgiveness. I don’t think that series has been collected, but it was good.
The book wraps up with some Catwoman and Robin tie-ins, mostly wrapping up loose ends specific to those series. And then Batman announces some changes, and we’ll find out what those are next week in Prodigal.
Missing ninja aside, I love this volume. I had forgotten how good the finale was, and the whole Batman/AzBats fight leading up to it is so much fun. The ninja fights dragged on when they were a full month of every Batman comic, but here in one chunk, I like them quite a bit. This is such a good read and that Legends issue that ends the AzBats story is a masterpiece.
Next week, the meat of the saga is over, but we get a couple of weird prologues. First, after all this, Bruce isn’t entirely ready to be Batman again. Will he make an even worse choice for a replacement this time? Maybe ask the Joker or just a shark to be Batman? We’ll find out!