It’s time to talk about “Knightfall” again. Yes, last time we checked in, Bane broke Batman’s back and maybe you were thinking that was the end of the story and they stopped publishing Batman after that. You fool! We haven’t even scratched the surface! This week, it’s Batman: Knightfall Volume 2 and the beginning of the replacement Batman, hereinafter known as AzBats.

But first, why exactly did any of this happen? Besides sales, I mean. Getting rid of Bruce Wayne and replacing him with a newly introduced character in a new costume? Well, there’s definitely an attempt to replicate the concurrent storyline in the Superman books where Superman died and then four replacement Supermen showed up and any one could have been the real one (SPOILEE: None of them were). But there’s also something very specific going on here.

Remember, this is the Nineties. Image Comics had just kicked off with a bunch of gun-wielding, pouch-sporting, barely legally dissimilar from the X-Men bros. Plus a guy who was like Batman but he broke backs and had AIDS and also there was Spawn, who is as Nineties as can be. On the Marvel side, the Punisher and Wolverine and Ghost Rider and Deathlok and the like were the big sellers. DC never really worked out how to do that grim and dumb kind of storytelling, and their sales suffered. Nineties DC is a fascinating series of false starts and stillborn concepts. It’s weird to read comics from that era and see just how hard they’re trying to push, say, the Darkstars. Still, this is the decade that gave us Starman and Hitman and Impulse and Young Heroes in Love and Major Bummer and Grant Morrison’s JLA reboot. And a bunch of other ‘and’s I could throw in there.  But other than JLA, none of them really set the sales charts on fire. Loud and dumb was the order of the day.

So this is an attempt to make Batman very Nineties, but also demonstrate why that’s a bad idea. The creators have made it clear in the time since that this was very much the intent – to give people a Batman who was more like Wolverine and Punisher and make them realize that’s not the Batman they want. I think that’s important context because early on, they really lean into giving Jean Paul a lot of self-important thought balloon monologues. They’re super clunky but they also read as a pretty funny parody of Marvel’s storytelling of the era. (Not to get you too excited, but next week we’ll talk more about thought balloons.) And the thing is, the AzBats design is actually…. good? It is as Nineties as can be, but it’s very well-designed (by artist and eventual Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada). It’s supposed to be ridiculous but it holds up better than most of its contemporaries. You don’t want it to be how Batman looks, but it’s fun to look at.

Finally, at this time there were three main Batman writers (a fourth book, Legends of the Dark Knight, was an anthology). Alan Grant, joining the story for the first time in this collection, and Batman writer Doug Moench seem to be much more on board with presenting AzBats as a dangerous lunatic. Moench especially is going to have some really cutting commentary. But Detective writer Chuck Dixon had done a lot of work on various Punisher series and was, in fact, writing two Punisher series at this time. And it may be that my opinion is colored by the fact that modern day Chuck Dixon is a big MAGA guy, but I get the feeling that he thought AzBats was pretty awesome.

That’s a lot of introduction, but there’s a lot of context I want to get across. Let’s get to this book, which reprints Batman 498-500, Detective Comics 664-666, Showcase ’93 7-8, and Batman: Shadow of the Bat 16-18. Shadow was Alan Grant’s series that tended to tell more personal stories focusing on the supporting cast – it didn’t even get involved with “Knightfall” until this volume. Showcase was an anthology series with multiple stories, and the gimmick was that every year it would switch off having a lead story featuring a Batman character or a Superman character. There’s a lot of good work hiding in those Showcase issues. And some of it is really bad. It was a mixed bag.

The book begins with Bane holding Batman aloft on top of a building, announcing that he’s beaten the Bat, and flinging his body to the street. If you recall, they fought in the Batcave, so in between issues, Bane hauled him out of the cave and all the way downtown, and then ascended a building with him. That can’t be good for a man who just suffered serious spinal trauma. The main action of the issue is about Alfred, Robin, and Jean-Paul getting Batman away from the police so they can treat his injuries in the Batcave. I like the idea of Alfred as a combat medic, but this seems a bit much. He’s not a brilliant surgeon on top of everything else.

This leads to a flashback (the Showcase issues) that features Two-Face. It’s a flashback to days ago, which is weird because the timeline in Knightfall Volume 1 is pretty tight and Batman frequently alludes to the dangerous ones, specifically mentioning Two-Face, are still out there. So it’s a weird continuity blip, but it’s fine. It’s not a story that really needs to exist, but it was nice to read even if the Klaus Janson art either reproduced poorly or was always super muddy. And after that, we get to another bookkeeping story. There’s not really a central conflict, but it’s all about getting the pieces together so they can move on.

Robin and Alfred fake a car accident to account for Bruce Wayne being badly injured and they bring in Dr. Kinsolving to try and help Bruce. Bruce declares his successor should be Jean-Paul (not Dick Grayson because “he’s his own man with his own responsibilities”), and Robin is the one who has to let him know, including the caveat that he not confront Bane. And then Jean Paul, in the Batman costume, appears to Commissioner Gordon to let him know that he’s fine and Batman is still in business. Gordon will figure out soon enough that it’s a different guy even if AzBats won’t admit to it, but that comes a little later.

A three-part Shadow of the Bat story pits AzBats against Scarecrow, who got away in the last volume. There’s a lot going on here, including brainwashing and a heavy emphasis on Anarky, a character Grant used a lot. It actually kind of feels like it’s resolving a couple of ongoing Shadow storylines while also showcasing a more extreme Batman. But Batman is kind of a secondary character here. Which feels weird since, in the reprint order, this is really AzBats’ first outing where he does stuff.

Hey, here’s a thing that’s easy to forget. Tim Drake’s dad was in a wheelchair at this time. I can’t remember if that was a permanent condition or not because Captain Boomerang killed him in 2005 or so. He’s also being treated by Doctor Kinsolving and Bruce, who’s using a wheelchair already, heads over to the Drake house and encounters gunmen kidnapping Kinsolving and Jack Drake. From a wheelchair, Bruce beats the hell out of one guy, but he’s really at a disadvantage. It’s not immediately clear who these guys are, but Bruce assumes that Bane figured out Tim’s identity and he’s still unfurling his plan. This is all a setup to get Bruce and Alfred out of Gotham City and trying to find Drake and Kinsolving. So Bruce had his back broken like two days ago, and he’s already off to play Ironsides.

Meanwhile, AzBats snaps almost immediately, turning on Robin and actively bucking Bruce’s one rule by heading after Bane. AzBats makes dumb mistakes that endanger innocents and brutalizes low level criminals, particularly when the System kicks in. Yeah, he hasn’t shaken that religious order brainwashing yet. At one point, the System takes over with Jean-Paul designing and building a pair of metal gauntlets almost in his sleep. So now Batman has metal hands and claws instead of fingers. He also runs Harold out of the Batcave. Harold, by the way, is a mute hunchback who lived in the cave and invented things for Batman. That was real. He was around for years but he’d be forgotten for months at a time and frankly it’s not great.

I should note that, throughout all this, the story checks in with the Ventriloquist from time to time. It’s just him hiding out in a flop house with some substitute puppets. His puppets turn on one another and he shoots himself in both hands. It’s kind of implied that he’s dead but if not, he definitely destroyed both hands. This does not play into the main story and is never referenced again. He’s fine next time he appears and then he dies twice more in the next few years before the New 52 rebooted him. To this day, I have no idea why this Ventriloquist plot exists or what it means.

AzBats takes down Bane’s henchmen, Bane springs them, and AzBats gets them again because at this point, they have to drag things out to get to Batman 500. At that point, AzBats fights Bane and loses, but he leaves Bane a bleeding mess, partly because his gauntlets shoot what are described as tiny batarangs but they’re basically bat-shaped bullets. We also finally have Dick Grayson enter the narrative for a couple of pages to check in with Tim. He acknowledges that if Bruce has asked him to be Batman, he’d have accepted but he wouldn’t have wanted to. It’s not entirely satisfying, but it at least sets up a pretext for Grayson to do his own thing for a while. This is a big issue for me because it’s artist Jim Aparo’s last monthly work. I’ve discussed my love of Aparo and it’s shocking how good he was even this late into his career. It’s crazy that the guy who was drawing Brave and the Bold when I learned to read had a career that took him straight to drawing Bane. It’s a double-sized issue and Aparo draws the first half, which means he never draws AzBats’ newly constructed armored costume. That feels very intentional. Aparo would go on to do a couple of GCPD miniseries and some special projects before his death in 2004, but this was the end of this monthly run.

So that armor. This is the super nineties armor which, now that we know it’s not going to be the way Batman looks forever, I actually like a lot. Gordon and Robin are properly horrified, or course. As they should be. It’s the entire Nineties in one costume, but it’s also knowingly so.  And so it ends with Bane vs. AzBats. Bane knows it’s a different guy and he feels cheated, and also he starts to unravel once his plan falls apart. Since AzBats hasn’t spent two weeks fighting all of his enemies and also he has a suit of armor with claws and guns, he just destroys Bane. Robin sees it as a positive sign that AzBats leaves him breathing at the end. And even though the good guys win, it’s almost a bleaker ending because at the time, it felt like we lost Batman. At the time, this was very much presented as the new status quo, and we were young and naive.

Well, that’s the end of “Knightfall”. This volume rambles a little – as a single book, it suffers from a couple of stories that feel superfluous to the main narrative and then some time marking to get to the 500th issue, but the good bits are very good. We’ll see Bane again, but not until the ninth book of the reprint series. Next time, it’s Knightquest: The Crusade, which is all about AzBats’ time as Batman. And brother, it’s going to get weird. Are you tired of villains you’ve heard of before? Well, you are going to love “Knighquest”!

Just to give you a hint how wild this is going to get – the next book opens with two different Old West-themed criminals showing up to rob the same place at the same time, realizing they were separated at birth, and deciding that having four six-guns between them is enough to rule the Gotham underworld. Oh, and AzBats fights them with a rocket-powered subway car. You’re going to be thankful that I helped bring this into your life.

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