When last we saw Azrael, the replacement Batman, he was getting innocent people killed, sassing Jim Gordon, and preparing to fight a baby. In this week’s Batman Flashback, we’re going to see what Bruce Wayne has been up to this whole time. It’s time for Knightquest: The Search.
So here’s something to talk about before we get into broken back Bruce Wayne. The thing is, Batman lives in the DC Universe and he’s a member of the Justice League. He’s friends with Superman and Wonder Woman and a mind-reading Martian and the fastest man alive and Plastic Man and etcetera. If you think about that, stories like this don’t really work. The Flash and Green Lantern could have rounded up the Arkham escapees in about five minutes and Superman could have tossed Bane through a wall and this whole thing is a one issue story.
Aside from an occasional reference (not in Knightfall specifically, but over the years) that Batman is too proud to call in superhuman assistance for something that’s his responsibility. But that means his pride gets people killed, which isn’t especially sympathetic. So the solution is that the Batman books generally don’t reference his Justice League ties or his metahuman friends. In a shared universe, that’s what you have to do. So there’s no mention of Wonder Woman’s purple healing ray or the possibility that Batman’s magic friend Zatanna could say “ENIPS LAEH” and fix everything. However, they also need to fix Bruce Wayne’s back. And the solution they come up with is no less jarring than that, but has the benefit of originating in a Batman story, keeping it self-contained.
However, all of this still falls apart at the beginning of this volume, which reminds you that Batman is a Justice League member and has the ability to call in Leaguers to assist him. But instead of solving any real problems, he brings in three low-powered League members to try and get Jack Drake (Robin’s father) out of Santa Prisca. It’s a weird choice that forces you to wonder why Bruce didn’t seek out metahuman healers to help him.
OK, so this book reprints Justice League Task Force 5-6, Shadow of the Bat 21-23, Legends of the Dark Knight 59-61, and Robin 7. It’s the shortest book in the series so far, and also the first to include any Legends of the Dark Knight. At the time, this was an out of continuity anthology series where different creators would do short runs. It was usually very good.
So we begin with the Task Force issues. It’s important to note that the Justice League franchise was in disarray at this point, almost equidistant from the end of the popular Giffen/DeMatteis run and the Grant Morrison reboot. Task Force was a book with a rotating cast and no clear reason for existing. At one point, Priest (who would later revamp Black Panther) took over the book and refused to send the Task Force on a mission unless one of the Justice League series had a character acknowledge the need to use the Task Force. That never happened, so he wrote a year of a book with no reason to exist. It’s very weird. But not applicable right now.
These two issues are written by legendary Batman writer (and then current editor) Dennis O’Neil, with art by Sal Velluto, who would work with Priest on Black Panther in the years to come. I love Dennis O’Neil. His early Batman work was excellent, any time in this era he’d pop in to write some comics would be high points, and after all this was said and done, he’s go on to do 100 issues of an Azrael series that I like a lot. Plus, he wrote The Question, which is one of my top five favorite DC runs. That said, the O’Neil issues in this book are kind of low points for him. I genuinely feel bad saying that, but these are clunkers.
We start with wheelchair Bruce and Alfred summoning Bronze Tiger, Green Arrow, and Gypsy to help rescue Drake and Shondra Kinsolving. By the way, throughout this book, there are a lot of references to Bruce being in love with Shondra and he considered proposing to her, and none of this really lines up with what we’ve seen so far. I did some research in case I missed something, and she first appeared in Batman 481. The first issue of that series in “Prelude to Knightfall” is 484. So maybe there were three issues of solid romance before we came in but right now it feels like that relationship has not been earned at all.
Boy, this is going to be nothing but sidebars.
Anyway, the Task Force story is basically the League members getting their asses handed to them by some Bane subordinates who so far had managed to kidnap a man in a wheelchair. It’s not a great showing. These were guys Bronze Tiger would have taken out on his own in Suicide Squad or would have been a single-issue story in Green Arrow’s series. Also, and yes, I know “Gypsy” is increasingly derided as a slur and I wouldn’t use the word except that it’s the character’s name, Gypsy is played as almost entirely silent, which has never been her characterization before. It’s a weird mess and my favorite bit is that Bruce Wayne is wearing very obvious makeup to convince the League that he’s somebody who’s posing as Bruce Wayne. It’s very funny but doesn’t speak well of these dinguses. Anyway, the bad guys escape with Drake, and while the League manages to rescue Kinsolving, she willingly leaves with the villains to protect her patient.
Next comes a Shadow of the Bat three-parter where Bruce and Alfred track them to England. Now, comics about England tend to be hilarious because American writers don’t do research and it feels like they just watched Mary Poppins. And this story kind of has that feel, but writer Alan Grant is Scottish and I believe still lived there while he was writing for DC, so I have to assume that even the most bizarre bits are completely true.
This introduces a British vigilante known as The Hood, who dresses sort of like he belongs to the Order of St. Dumas, which was a weird choice. But he’s inspired by Batman, and after this arc, he’d go on to become a part of Batman Incorporated and then the Dead Heroes Club, even if he ultimately betrayed them. Regardless, Batman gets the Hood to do some legwork for him in tracking down Kinsolving and Drake. There’s a bit I love where he meets the Hood face to face, and what the Hood doesn’t know is that Alfred tied Bruce to a pole to keep him upright. When the Hood wants proof he is who he says he is, and Batman’s all “Come at me”, it’s genuinely pretty tense. Later, Alfred poses as Batman, which doesn’t work nearly as well.
Bruce spends most of this arc and the next in disguise as Sir Hemingford Gray, a minor Lord with a monocle and a big red beard and impressive sideburns. He either walks with two canes or uses a wheelchair, depending on what Bruce can handle. So while he’s investigating, Shondra’s captor, one Benedict Asp (yes, that’s his name), is trying to use her latent mental powers. Did we know she had them? Nope. Is this what those three issues of Batman before “Knightfall” were about? Maybe. Basically, she used to be able to heal people with her mind. That power went away as she grew up, but Asp is trying to amplify it with a weird helmet. So he keeps cutting up his subordinates and forcing Shondra to heal them. And then, he can distort her power with the helmet and uses her mind to kill every single person in a small village.
After Shadow takes a crack at this, Dennis O’Neil takes the story over again, and while the previous issues had been fairly entertaining, this is three issues of the same plot points over and over again. Even the same disguise. There’s a bit where Asp tries to kill Sir Hemingford Gray with Shondra’s powers and it doesn’t work because he’s not a real person and come on. That doesn’t even make sense. Very little of this makes sense, who are we kidding? Anyway, Bruce’s behavior gets so self-destructive that Alfred quits, but Bruce ultimately rescues Drake. And then Shondra kills Asp and company with her power, before completely healing Bruce. See? That’s not less silly than Zatanna or a purple healing ray. Actually it’s worse because it also fries her brain and she mentally reverts to childhood, so Bruce sets up a special facility for her but assures us that the damage can never be undone. (Presumably somebody realized how creepy that is because she came back maybe 15 years later good as new and then was never referenced again.)
And then, there’s just time for Bruce to return to Gotham sans Alfred, to reunite Tim Drake with his father and then confront AzBats alongside Robin. It doesn’t go well because AzBats is nuts. And just because Bruce is healed, doesn’t mean he’s back at full strength. So the volume ends with him promising to seek out the one person who can train him to be what he was.
These issues have not been included in past collections and it’s nice to have them, but all in all, it’s a letdown. I liked Alan Grant’s contributions more because he sort of leaned into the silly plot he was stuck with rather than trying to make it seem like it wasn’t silly. This book is strictly for completists, like me. Or for people who enjoy the occasional subpar Batman story just for the sake of contrast Also like me. Basically, they did this one for me.
Next week will be better – it’s “Knightsend”, which wraps up the AzBats run (and is still only the seventh of nine books in this comprehensive reprinting). It’s quite good even if we do have to address a famous mistake where the writers completely forget about a ninja. It’ll make sense, I promise.