So this is a new feature that might not be for anybody but me. I’ve been reading a lot of old Batman comics lately, usually in trade paperback collections. This is a source of joy for me, so I’m going to start writing about these books. Mostly I’ll focus on material from the seventies through the nineties, but I could stray out of that zone in either direction. And I’m kicking things off with a nine-part series on “Knightfall”.

“Knightfall” is the sweeping crossover series that ran through the Bat-books starting in 1993. It introduced Bane, broke Bruce Wayne’s back, and replaced him with Jean-Paul Valley as Batman. It ran for around two years and it is nuts. And now, after multiple slightly different reprints (all of which I bought), DC has published an exhaustive nine-volume reprint of almost everything Knightfall-related, including the two epilogue arcs and “Knightquest: The Search”, which was left out of previous reprints.

It happens at a weird time – it’s concurrent with “The Death of Superman” and the follow-up “Reign of the Supermen”, which means DC incapacitated and replaced their two biggest heroes at the exact same time. And during that time there were also shorter arcs where Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Flash were also replaced for stretches of varying lengths (between six months and ten years). And almost immediately after “Knightfall” proper wrapped up came “Zero Hour”, a companywide crossover that tweaked continuity. This run also sets up a huge expansion in the Batman line – previously, there had been four Batman books (which participate in the crossover to varying degrees), but during the run of “Knighfall”, Robin and Catwoman launched solo series and both Nightwing and Azrael launched shortly afterwards. Also, a fair portion of the art in this volume comes from classic Batman artist Jim Aparo. It’s his last regular series work, but we’ll get to that when we hit his last issue.  The point is, it’s a major time of transition for DC and for the Batman franchise in particular.

And it all starts here with Book One: Batman: Prelude to Knightfall. (Reprints Batman: Vengeance of Bane, Batman 484-491, and Detective Comics 654-658) Most of this book has not made it into previous collections, largely because it’s not that necessary. It opens with the introduction of Bane, which is key, and ends with the actual prologue to “Knightfall”, but most of the material in between is unrelated, with the only connective tissue being that Batman is getting tired and sick and not at his peak after a series of time-consuming threats. Previous reprints just started with an exhausted Batman and it’s nice to see that there is some setup for that. And we get a lot of C-list villains because we’re going to see all the major ones once the story kicks off.

This time out, everything includes is written by either Doug Moench (then-current Batman writer) and Chuck Dixon (then-current Detective writer), and it’s Dixon who, with artist Graham Nolan, introduces Bane. He is introduced instantly before “Knightfall”, and at the time it seemed like a cheat to launch a new villain who immediately beats Batman worse than he’s ever been beaten. And I think the only reason it holds up at all is that Bane turned out to have legs. He remains an ongoing part of the comics and has turned up in virtually every adaptation of Batman since. From Batman and Robin to Gotham, Bane has appeared in a dozen movies, TV shows, and games. If Bane had disappeared like so many other Nineties villains, I think this run would be more of a curiosity and probably wouldn’t have warranted a massive 25th Anniversary reprinting.

Bane’s introduction is weird. He first appears in a one-shot devoted to him, and I can’t imagine Vengeance of Bane was a big seller when nobody had ever heard of Bane. And his origin begins with the man who will be Bane going to prison as a baby so he could serve his father’s sentence. It’s set in the vaguely defined Latin American nation or maybe city of Santa Prisca, previously introduced years earlier in The Question’s ongoing series. There’s a lot of stuff that was fine in the nineties but plays as culturally insensitive now. There’s also a bit where Bane is visited by a vision of his father who talks a lot about the importance of their bloodline, which seemed fine when Bane’s father was unidentified but when he turned out a decade later to be the very white King Snake, it retroactively felt kind of bad.

Regardless, the strange thing about Bane’s origin, aside from all of the other strange things, because he decides that he hates Batman once he learns that Batman exists from another inmate. He assumes Batman has all the advantages he himself lacked (which is sort of true) and hates him without ever having encountered or even seen him. That has the result of making his plan feel weirdly impersonal, but Bane is so compellingly strange that it still works. This is also a reminder that he had three henchmen (Zombie, Bird, and Trogg) who were absolutely crucial and have utterly disappeared in the last twenty-five years. Bird turned up in Arkham Origins, but that’s it.

It’s also worth noting that Bane’s origin gives him access to Venom, a super-strength drug that had been introduced a couple of years previously. All in all, it’s a good introduction, and everything about it is strikingly odd.

Meanwhile, Batman is busy with Black Mask. He’s a low-level villain but since his whole thing is setting up a crime organization, it gives Batman a lot to do, so it’s a fairly convincing threat, especially given that they abduct Lucius Fox. It’s a decent enough story that serves to tire out Batman. From there, a pair of single issue stories (by Moench and Aparo) introduce the truly dumb villains Metalhead and Headhunter. Metalhead is a guy with a barbed wire whip attached to his head, and Headhunter is an assassin who always fires two shots (a kill shot and a signature). It’s to Aparo’s credit that the fight with Metalhead works as well as it does, and a guy who keeps hitting Batman with barbed wire at least leaves you with a weakened Batman. Headhunter, who went on to appear several times on Gotham (where they realized he was ridiculous and had fun with it), is there to kill Commissioner Gordon in a story that’s quite good and sets up a rift between Batman and Gordon.

This leads us into a three-parter by Dixon and Michael Netzer about a teen military strategist known as “The General”. This is easily the weakest part of the collection, because the General never feels like he should be that much of a threat (he was later repurposed as a Robin villain). It’s a bloated three-parter that mostly serves to bring Bane back into the narrative, where we see he’s been watching Batman and waiting for the time to strike.

From there, the focus shifts to Jean-Paul Valley. He was introduced in a one-shot (curiously not included here), and he’s basically a college student who was brainwashed by a religious order to be an assassin. That programming is still there, and Batman is trying to help him overcome it. Despite the fact that he’s deeply dangerous, Batman needs help, so he starts sending Jean-Paul out on missions with Robin for training. Jean-Paul tends to flip out at the wrong times and Robin needs to stop him from murdering people. I’m impressed with how many balls they’re keeping in the air right now for eventual payoff. After another story that puts Lucius Fox in danger again, Bane finally enters the main narrative. First he saves Batman from Killer Croc and then ambushes Riddler to inject him with Venom and make for a truly bizarre story with a ‘roided out Riddler. And then, with Batman properly exhausted, we get the actual “Knightfall” prologue where Bane engineers a massive breakout at Arkham Asylum, and I totally forgot that part of his plan was actually just shooting a missile at the building. This is the Joker’s only appearance in this volume, despite his prominent placement on the cover.

Despite some weak stories and forgettable villains, this prelude does a solid job of setting up Bane as a threat, bringing Jean-Paul Valley into the fold, and believably wearing out Batman. It’s not crucial by any means, but I’m glad some of this material was finally included in the reprinting. It’s skippable if you just want that sweet “Knightfall” meat, but it made for a good read. Next time, “Knightfall” actually begins and bad things happen!

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