Well, it’s time for another installment of my new favorite feature, Batman Flashbacks! This is probably going to turn out to be a biweekly feature, but since I’m opening with a nine-part discussion of “Knightfall”, we’ll keep these weekly because otherwise it’ll be June before we finish. Anyway, after last week’s prelude, we’re moving to the meat of the story with Batman: Knightfall Volume One. Collectively, the whole thing is kind of known as “Knightfall” now, but after Volume Two, the arc titles change to “Knightquest” (further divided into “The Crusade” and “The Search”) and “Knightsend”. It’s more confusing than it needs to be.
This book reprints Batman 492-497 and Detective Comics 659-663. As with the last book, the Batman chapters are written by Doug Moench and the Detective chapters by Chuck Dixon. Unlike the last volume, the two series aren’t telling separate stories. Chapter One is in Batman, Chapter Two is in Detective, and so on. And we left off with Bane releasing everybody from Arkham Asylum just as Batman is physically and mentally exhausted.
Just like in No Man’s Land, the first villain Batman takes down is Mad Hatter. The thing about “Knightfall” is that at the most of the individual chapters are more or less standard outings for the villain in question – they’re just set against the backdrop of a mass breakout and an ailing Batman. With a couple of exceptions, we don’t get to see any villains teaming up to really take advantage of the chaos. The closest they get is, late in this volume, having multiple villains in play simultaneously but not working together, so it feels like the middle of one of the Arkham games when all the half-finished sidequests really start to pile up. Even here, he Mad Hatter seemingly teams up with Film Freak, but really just uses his mind control to send the Freak to investigate Bane. Bane snaps Film Freak’s neck, by the way. That was not a great loss to Batman’s rogues gallery, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some sort of new take on that character. I don’t have one, but I bet current Batman writer and Kite Man enthusiast Tom King does.
There are some fun bits here – the Ventriloquist manipulating brute Amygdala is neat and I’m not a huge fan of the comic version of Mr. Zsasz (somebody whose whole thing is being a serial killer is not super interesting in a world where the Joker exists), but his early takedown is one of his better stories. I also really like the ongoing thing early on where Batman is irritated at having to deal with these minor leaguers while the real threats are still out there. The ones he’s worried about, for the record, are Joker, Scarecrow, Two-Face, and sometimes Riddler gets thrown in the mix. I should also note that the legendary Jim Aparo draws most of the Batman chapters, and his Batman is exhausted. It’s so good. His body language is tired and he has stubble and most of the time, his facial expression suggests that he’s ready to cry. I am a huge fan of Aparo and this late period work of his is really interesting. By the end of the Firefly story, it doesn’t look like his costume even fits right anymore, and I’m fixated on it.
Throughout this, Robin is more focused on finding Bane and it goes badly. At one point, he only survives Bane because Killer Croc shows up for revenge. I feel like this is notable because when Croc appeared in the Prelude, he could still pass as the “human with a skin condition” he was when he was introduced. When he turns up here, he lives in the sewer and eats rats and he has red eyes without pupils and teeth that are no longer human. There’s no real explanation for this change, but the more animalistic Croc has been the standard since. I knew he switched over at some point, but I thought it was a gradual change. No sir. It is abrupt.
It takes five chapters to reintroduce Bruce Wayne’s doctor / potential romantic interest Dr. Shondra Kinsolving. She is not the most fleshed out of characters, but she’ll be somebody to talk about in a few volumes. This is also the point of the story where Scarecrow and Joker team up, which is a pairing that I really like and doesn’t actually happen very often. Mostly, they terrorize the Mayor to seize control of Gotham City and only briefly encounter Batman. The pace picks up after that, with a multi-part story that reintroduces Firefly – he hadn’t appeared in almost a decade but since appearing here he’s turned into a mainstay villain. Firefly keeps getting away so in between pyrotechnic encounters, Batman has to deal with Poison Ivy, Cornelius Stirk, and Cavalier (whose reintroduction did not take). It takes seven chapters for Jean-Paul Valley to rejoin the narrative, which is a nice move.
It was still possible to keep secrets in that time, so it was reasonable for readers to not know that Valley would take over as Batman. He probably seemed like a forgotten plot thread after not appearing for four months. Robin takes down the Riddler all by himself, and Batman faces Scarecrow and Joker and finally just snaps. There’s a remarkably scary sequence where he just keeps hitting Joker (and this is Aparo art – his Batman punches have weight) and chanting “Jason Todd!”, the name of the former Robin, the one the Joker killed. Joker and Scarecrow both escape but Batman rescues the Mayor.
And that gets us to the climax where Batman meets and defeats Bane’s henchmen and then he finally gets home to find Bane waiting for him in Wayne Manor. That actually was a great surprise. The final chapter in their book is that fight, but it’s genuinely Bane beating the hell out of Batman for a full issue. There’s something that could feel cheap about Bane waiting until Batman is at his lowest to even introduce himself, but I think it works. Given that Bane decided to hate Batman , it’s appropriate that there’s something very analytical about his approach. It’s like a supervillain version of Moneyball. He ran the numbers, and this is the way to do it. The encounter, and this volume, ends with Bane breaking Batman’s back, an iconic scene reproduced in Dark Knight Rises and the “Bane” episode of Batman: The Animated Series. (In the latter, he’s unsuccessful, but it gets right up to that knee in the spine moment.)
This volume holds up surprisingly well. Look. “Knightfall” was good. We’re going to run into some clunkers later, but the main story was good. At the time, it seemed like a very long story about Batman wearing down and then getting beaten, and that was definitely frustrating, but as a collection with full knowledge that Batman came back from that, it reads really well.
Reading it now, the thing that stands out is that Dick Grayson is completely absent. His series hadn’t launched yet, either. The way I remember it, Dick had been kind of marginalized for a few years to the extent that it was a big deal when Nightwing turned up. But for the purposes of this story, if he’s around, there’s no reasonable excuse to have Jean-Paul take over as Batman.
Next time, we’ll answer the age old question: “What if Wolverine and the Punisher were the same guy and also Batman?” It is going to get very nineties up in here. And for a little context, we’ll also get into “What were they thinking?”