We’ve reached Part Eight of DC’s nine-part reprinting of what they’ve dubbed “The Knightfall Saga”. You remember, the story about Bane deciding to break Batman that began almost two and a half years earlier. At this point, Bane has been defeated. Azrael replaced Batman, Bruce Wayne got his spine back, and then he took the mantle back from Azrael. That’s the natural endpoint of the story, right? Hold on a dang minute. Because this week, we’re looking at “Prodigal”.

Now, I should note that there’s a two-month gap in between “KnightsEnd” and “Prodigal”. That’s because Bruce Wayne returned just in time for the companywide “Zero Hour” event where time went nuts. So there was a month of the timestream going crazy and then a month of zero issues which updated DC history. These are collected in a separate book and I was considering covering that this week, but it’s so removed from the ongoing story that I don’t want to break the flow. I’ll cover it in the future so we can all enjoy that brief moment where DC decided that Bruce Wayne was an FBI agent before he was Batman and then nobody every mentioned that again.

So we can kind of ignore all of that for now and pretend this followed up immediately after “KnightsEnd”. This book reprints Batman 512-514, Batman: Shadow of the Bat 32-34, Detective Comics 679-681, and Robin 0 and 11-13. We’re back to Doug Moench, Alan Grant, and Chuck Dixon as the writing group. And, to be honest, before I sat down with this book, I remembered this as being a one-month event. I had no idea it went three full months!

Notably, the collection opens with Robin’s zero issue, which serves as an update for both Tim Drake and Dick Grayson (who didn’t have a series at the time). Unlike a lot of characters, they weren’t really changed by Zero Hour in any important way – the zero issue instead recounts both Robin’s formative encounters with Two-Face, which is more of an untold story than a continuity change. This is contrasted with Two-Face at a prison therapy session ranting about Robin. There was this attempt for a few years to make Two-Face a Robin villain, but it didn’t really take. It worked well enough, but the way Robin’s book evolved, he developed his own Rogues’ Gallery and any Batman holdovers were Dixon’s creations. Again I say, it’s easy to have some fun with Chuck Dixon, but he was great at writing both Tim and Dick, and he did do a full hundred issues of Robin’s series and built up a whole world for Tim. Yes, he was convinced that every villain he created could be the next Bane so he brought everybody back again and again, but he did good work.

And then, Bruce Wayne announces that he’s not ready to be Batman full-time again. But this time, he needs a better replacement – Dick Grayson. So this is the story of Dick Grayson’s first run as Batman. It is not made super clear why Bruce is turning over the mantle again, and there are some references to something he has to do, but we never find out what that is. I genuinely don’t understand the storytelling justification for “Prodigal”, but I’ll get into the real world reason in a bit.

Also, I want to note that Dick has an obnoxious ponytail here because DC didn’t embrace Eighties hairstyles until well into the Nineties. Superman had a mullet at this time, too. Also, most of the artists don’t really distinguish between Bruce Batman and Dick Batman. Decades later, there was much more of an attempt to have Dick look and move differently.

OK, back to the actual comics. We start off with a Killer Croc return, and to my surprise, Dick was unfamiliar with Croc. Hey, this is weird. Croc had only been around for a little more than ten years at this point. Bane is almost twenty-seven now. Croc was a much newer creation when he met Bane than Bane is now and I’m so old it’s a miracle that I’m not dust. And as we saw in “Knightfall”, Croc went from “person with a skin disease” to “full-on crocodile man” in between issues. Here, he’s physically a crocodile man but he’s still focused on rebuilding his empire. I’m pretty sure this is the last time we see the Croc who was mentally capable of being a crime boss. From here on out, the Animated Series characterization takes over.

Next, the Ventriloquist returns even though he was either dead or just blew his hands off last time we saw him. I’ll chalk that up to Zero Hour. Frustratingly, it ends with Arnold Wesker taken into custody and his henchman, Rhino, trying to learn ventriloquism so he can operate Scarface. I liked this story a lot, but it doesn’t happen in this book. We just get the setup. Also, in the same issue, Two-Face gets out of jail by claiming to be somebody else and standing in profile. It’s shockingly lazy and it feels like Alan Grant got assigned that story beat and didn’t want to spend more than a page on it. If I had to guess, I’d say that Grant did not particularly like Two-Face. He seems to write around old Harvey every chance he gets.

By the way, part of Two-Face’s plan is to delete incarceration records and release criminals into society, but also there’s an ongoing plot point about Blackgate Prison running out of room and these two things are very much at odds and it feels like the writers were not in sync here.

From there, while Two-Face plans things, new Batman and Robin face the Ratcatcher, a dude who controls rats. He didn’t make it into “Knightfall”, so that tells you where he is on the list of villains. However, James Gunn’s new Suicide Squad outline includes a gender-swapped Ratcatcher. Otis Flannegan, or whatever name the new version ends up with, will have their moment! Like every villain so far, he’s just used in the service of making Dick Grayson feel like he really can do this job.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but there is nothing more distracting than the inclusion of Robin issues in these collections. They’re frequently important to the story, but there are also like ten pages of Tim Drake supporting cast drama in every issue because that’s the kind of book Robin was. You don’t need to know what’s going on with Tim Drake’s girlfriend’s dad in order to follow “Prodigal”, but you’re going to get a few pages of it every four chapters!

That said, the big Two-Face two-parter that begins in Robin is really good, helped a lot by gorgeous Phil Jimenez art. It doesn’t wrap up Two-Face’s role here, but it’s their first big confrontation and it pretty much eschews high concept in favor of Two-Face actually running around with a chainsaw. Then we get a Two-Face break for a Shadow of the Bat issue (I’m telling you, Alan Grant doesn’t want to write Two-Face) for a prison riot and a set up for the upcoming “Troika” where a Russian businessman tries to run a protection scam on Wayne Enterprises and then kills some security guards when he doesn’t get his way. Yeah, it’s weird. Dude acts like a Fortune 500 company is a corner grocery store and then just murders people to show that he’s serious. They’re usually a little more clever than that.

We get the end of the Two-Face story which has a classic deathtrap and the “which one do you save” premise and Dick Grayson saves both because he’s good at this and now he’s worried about when he’ll have to give it up. And then another Robin issue has Tim Drake dealing with bullies and reminds us that the KGBeast exists. (We’ll talk about him next week. And possibly the week after, but that’s a spoilee.) As “Prodigal” runs out of steam, there’s an entire issue of Dick rounding up some regular criminals mistakenly released from prison, and then Shadow of the Bat brings back the Tally Man (from AzBats’ run), who thinks this is still the same Batman and wants revenge for Azrael carving a bat symbol into his chest. It’s a neat issue that begins with Dick already a prisoner.

In the final act, there’s an assassin described by witnesses as looking a lot like AzBats. Dick finds Jean-Paul in the bowery and realizes he’s in no shape to be an armored villain, and Robin finds the actual guy, a new villain named Steeljacket. He doesn’t look much like AzBats, but it’s blue armor with metal wings and claws. You can see where witnesses would be confused. And in the finale, Robin fight what is basically evil Iron Man by himself while Bruce and Dick talk about their feelings in the Batcave. So when Robin comes back from nearly dying, Bruce and Dick have reaffirmed their friendship, Dick is in his Nightwing costume, and Bruce is in the shadows, wearing a Batman costume that blows Tim’s mind. He’s still in shadow so we can’t see him, and the payoff for this is going to be hysterical, I promise you. Just hold this in your mind for a week. Batman has done something to his costume that Tim can not believe, and Bruce promises it’s only the start of the changes he’s going to make. Try and imagine how wild this new costume must be!

So here’s a thing that’s always bothered me about “Prodigal”. Commissioner Gordon meets the new-ish Batman and he knows it’s not Azrael but knows it’s not the real one either. I like that. But Dick has a long relationship with Gordon and I can’t imagine him not giving him some information. He’s totally a guy who’d pick up on his misgiving and just come out and say “Hey, it’s me. I used to be Robin. It’s cool. The real guy is good and he’ll be back soon. Until then, what can I do to help?” I wish they would have done that.

And that, I think might be the key to why “Prodigal” happened. As we’ve talked about earlier, Dick Grayson hadn’t been much of a presence in the Batbooks for a long time – his main thing was appearing in the Titans books and by the time that run ended, his characterization was “guy who led a team that met disaster” and he had something to prove. This is the beginning of the new take on Nightwing where he’s the superhero who’s friends with all the other heroes. He’s the guy who loves what he’s doing and has a smile on his face even though he knows how bad it can get. But he wasn’t that guy yet, and he didn’t really get there until the Nightwing series launched after all this.

As mentioned in previous reviews, this whole thing is where the Batman franchise when from being several books about one guy to a whole mess of books about Batman and the people in his life. Catwoman and Robin launched during “Knightfall” and the aftermath, while Azrael and Nightwing came out shortly thereafter, and Birds of Prey a little after that, when Barbara Gordon went from being an occasional presence in the Batbooks to a key cast member. “Prodigal” exists to return Dick Grayson to the franchise and start to work out who he is. We’re going to see a Nightwing one-shot in next week’s collection that leans into this. But somebody reading this today might not have the context and to them, this is just a truly baffling story. It’s “I’m not ready to be Batman yet” (nothing changes) “OK, I’m Batman again”.

This collection is a mixed bag. I think if it had run two months instead of three, you’d have a much stronger collection. There was just enough filler in here that wouldn’t be missed. The whole prison overcrowding / riot story only existed so Dixon could add Cluemaster to the cast of Robin, and there was probably an easier way to do that. If it had been a more clear Two-Face story with Dick encountering some villains he didn’t know, along the way, you’d have a classic. It’s also hurt by the fact that it mostly doesn’t address how people think of Batman know after the AzBats era – you don’t have Dick running into petty criminals who think he’ll murder them. That would have been a nice addition, but I think they wanted to save that for Bruce rather than burn it on the transition Batman.

This is mostly for completists, Dick Grayson fans, and people who like Two-Face a lot. So I’m checking off all three boxes. But, honestly, if you want to punch out at the end of “KnightsEnd”, I don’t blame you.

Next week, we reach the end of our journey with “Troika”. And remember, I want you to spend a week thinking about what Batman did to his costume that left Tim Drake shocked and concluding he was going to be a very different kind of Batman. Don’t Google it, but feel free to share your best guesses.

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