It’s been a long journey, and yes, I know I missed a week last time, but we are finally at the end of the massive “Knightfall” reprinting with Batman: Troika. It’s Bruce Wayne’s return as Batman after Dick Grayson took over for a bit. To be honest, this book is more important for the non-“Troika” specials included, which catch us up on Alfred and Bane. Separately. They’re not hanging out together.
Now, I left the last entry on a bit of cliffhanger, because Batman turned up in a costume that blew Robin’s mind, and it was only the first of one of the big changes he was going to be making. I’ve included an image of this shocking new costume for you. In case you can’t immediately tell what earth-shattering changes he made, I’ll have you note that he no longer has separate gloves and boots, and he got rid of the trunks. So now he’s basically wearing a onesie. There are also flares where his boots used to be that match the ones where his gloves used to be, but this is nothing. And at the end of the story, he goes back to the old look anyway. I have no idea why this exists other than to get one last sales pop for Batman’s new costume.
By the way, the more you look at this design, the worse it looks. There are bigger changes that are much less distracting than not having separate gloves. It’s weird, there’s no story reason for the bad change, and I don’t know why any of this happened. And just to make it weirder, the first part of this crossover brings on Kelley Jones as the new regular Batman artist. He was doing covers for Batman and Detective on and off for the rest of “Knightfall”, and he has a… unique style. I actually like his art a lot, but it is meant for horror comics, not superheroes. Particularly this introduction where we’re supposed to be getting back with Bruce Wayne and Jones draws him perching like a gargoyle while he’s at home. His art makes it feel like there’s something still wrong and I feel like there should have been a more clear re-introduction to Bruce. I mean, check this out. This is the first appearance of the “new” costume. Let’s not even mention that in the previous issue he was standing on the stairs like a normal human and now he’s perching on a rocky pillar.
OK, now that we’re past the reveal, let’s get to the comics. This book collects Batman 515, Batman: Shadow of the Bat 35, Detective Comics 682, Robin 14, Nightwing: Alfred’s Return, and Batman: The Vengeance of Bane II.
Troika is a four-part crossover about a gang of Russian villains. Now, Troika means a group of three. The group includes Colonel Vega (who popped up in “The Search”), a woman named Romana who has a red star tattooed on her forehead and first appeared in “Prodigal” and a minor villain from the Eighties, Cossack the Dark Rider. But they also have the KGBeast just hanging around, and you’d think that would tip somebody off that there’s too many for a Troika. And brother, if you don’t know which one is out of the Troika, it’s you.
KGBeast is a weird Eighties relic who somehow outlasted the Soviet Union – he’s a communist super villain who made kind of a splash when he first appeared and then showed up occasionally for years. He cut his own hand off to escape captivity and at one point there was also an NKVDemon. Stay tuned through the end for a KGBeast announcement!
Anyway, Cossack the Dark Rider is dying from plutonium poisoning contracted in his previous appearance, so he’s really just there as a sacrificial lamb to distract Batman for a bit and set up the plan to destroy Gotham City with a nuclear device the size of a baseball. After that, we get a decent issue with Batman fighting Vega’s mind-controlled saps and then Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox defend Wayne Enterprises from Romana because this was originally introduced as a protection scam. But Robin is dealing with KGBeast and his nuclear bomb, and that’s the best part of the story. The GCPD, including newcomer Mackenzie “Hardback” Bock get involved and Bullock is seriously injured. It’s a lot of crazy action scenes, a Chuck Dixon specialty, and KGBeast talking entirely in gerunds. (“All are dying in this moment!”) After an issue and a half of Robin fighting an adult terrorist with a nuclear bomb, Batman shows up just in time to stop the bomb from detonating. It’s fun and a nice blast of Nineties Batman, but if it weren’t for the bizarre short term costume change, this wouldn’t have been reprinted. It’s an anticlimatic end to a nine-volume collection, that’s for sure.
But what really justifies the volume are the two specials included. Alfred’s Return has Nightwing going to London to find Alfred and ask him to come back to Gotham. But it’s really a tryout for a Nightwing ongoing. Oddly, it’s written by Alan Grant rather than eventual series writer Dixon, and it has art by Dick Giordano, a DC mainstay who was primarily an inker. He didn’t pencil often, but I like it. The story is pretty good, but it’s mostly about Alfred’s illegitimate child, local terrorism, and a failed relationship. Nightwing is mostly there to give Alfred advice and drive a truck, but it’s the first we see of what would be Dick’s new personality where he’s the friendly guy who grew up normal and happy despite being mentored by Batman. He’s the likeable one. I think there was a Nightwing miniseries after this that introduced his new costume and then the ongoing kicked in. Alfred’s Return isn’t a classic, but I like it and I’m glad to have it included in the collection.
Finally, we get what could reasonably be called the very end of “Knightfall”, the one-shot Vengeance of Bane II. Written by Dixon with art by Graham Nolan, Bane’s creators. And while it sounds like it’s going to be Bane’s rematch with Batman, it’s not that. Actually, that would have been a good thing to include in this collection – I’m fairly sure it was published as a tie-in to the Batman and Robin movie, so it maybe didn’t get the respect it warranted at the time. Regardless, Vengeance II is mostly about how Bane rebuilds himself in prison and then his intricate breakout. It makes a nice bookend to the first Vengeance that kicked all this off, and it does a great job of making Bane a protagonist even after all the bad stuff he did. There are some bits I really like, with Bane deciding to stop using Venom and befriending the Ratcatcher in prison. I really wish that would come up again – I’d love Bane and Ratcatcher teaming up for a very confusing crime. We also get to see the KGBeast in prison, and he gets to be both a rival and an ally. Plus, there’s a guy who was a supporting character in an Electrocutioner story who now has vague electrical powers. It’s a really fun mismatched villain group.
And then Bane goes after some Venom dealers. But so does Batman, and they end up fighting together against a crew of Venom junkies, and Bane keeps telling Batman that they don’t have any quarrel anymore and they’re even. And Batman, reasonably, still thinks that the criminal who broke his back for no reason is a problem and he’s going to take him down. Bane escapes in the commotion, but that’s still very funny to me. Bane doesn’t get to declare that they’re even! He also doesn’t get to decide that Batman should just let him do crime! But that’s more down to Bane’s arrogance – I’m not criticizing Dixon here. It’s a very good bit for Bane.
You know what? We’re done with Knightfall. I really enjoyed reading this whole thing. It definitely has its highs and lows but there were more highs than I remembered and the lows usually embraced an endearing weirdness. It’s an enduring chapter in Batman history – Bane has appeared across all media and remains an A-list villain, and there is a lot of affection for the AzBats design and concept. Jean-Paul Valley got a spinoff series that lasted 100 issues and when he was maybe killed at the end, they introduced a new Azrael. And then when they did the New 52 reboot, Jean-Paul was right back in the role and is currently a member of a spinoff Justice League team. The original Azrael armor and a tweak on the concept turned up on Gotham. For something that could have been a simple cashgrab, Knightfall has legs.
And that’s part of what I love about Batman – the mythology is always growing and there’s always room for new things. Fellow big hitters like Superman and Spider-Man introduced everything that was really important decades ago and any successful new characters have been iterations on what came before. (With the possible exception of Venom, who’s really just evil Spider-Man.) Sure, Joker and Catwoman and Two-Face and the like came along early. But the Sixties gave us Poison Ivy and Batgirl. The Seventies introduced Ra’s al Ghul and Arkham Asylum, Man-Bat, Lucius Fox and Harvey Bullock. In the Eighties you get Killer Croc and the Ventriloquist. The Nineties, as we just saw, brought Bane and Azrael and Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya. The 2000’s gave us “No Man’s Land”, which has inspired both a movie and a season of television. Damian Wayne and Professor Pyg first appeared, and while it’s too early too tell what’s going to last from this decade, the Court of Owls seems like a safe bet. And this is all stuff that seems like it’s always been there. New characters and ideas keep becoming crucial to the Batman universe, and I love that. The thing Commissioner Gordon says about Batman in the final issue of Grant Morrison’s run is as true about the fictional character in the real world as it is about the guy Jim Gordon knows. “Batman always comes back, bigger and better, shiny and new. Batman never dies. It never ends. It probably never will.”
I feel like for most comic characters, the time they died or retired and got replaced by a darker version of themselves is a low point. Batman strung it out for maybe a little longer than was necessary, but twenty-five years later, this whole Knightfall thing stands up pretty well. Almost every superhero has some awkward times in the Nineties, but Batman weathered a weird decade in style.
So what’s next? Well, eventually I’m going to move this to every two weeks because there are a couple of other features I want to roll out. But next week, we’re going to look at the big anniversary hardcover Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman. And after that, I’m going to celebrate the release of Avengers Endgame by starting a series on the Batman work of Thanos creator Jim Starlin. We are going to talk more about the KGBeast.
See you next week for more Batman history!