KnightFall (1993) Written by Chuck Dixon, Jo Duffy, Alan Grant, Dennis O’Neil and Doug Moench. Illustrated by nearly everyone working in the industry at that time
By John A. Butz
“Every man has a breaking point…even The Batman”
–from the back cover of KnightFall, Part One: Broken Bat
In the early Nineties, DC Comics gave its readers a solid one-two punch. ’92 brought with it the Death of Superman at the hands of Doomsday, and the Reign of the Supermen as several super-heroes sought to fill the shoes of Kal-El of Krypton. Following on the heels Superman’s death and return was ‘93’s KnightFall, the epic tale of Batman’s defeat at the hands of Bane, a criminal mastermind enhanced by the drug Venom and driven by a desire to rule Gotham’s streets.
With Bane having been recently revealed as the villain in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises”, I figured it was time to revisit the KnightFall arc. Before we go into the individual issues, however, I want to take a look at the broad sweep of the story.
On the surface, KnightFall is very similar to the Death of Superman. We have the Batman being crippled at the hands of a nearly unstoppable monster villain. We have a struggle for the control of Gotham and the Mantle of the Bat. We have a collection of potential successors to Batman fighting to determine their place in a world without Bruce Wayne. But the similarities are really only skin deep. Where the Death of Superman is about one man’s sacrifice for the greater good and the struggle of others to live up to that example, KnightFall is about something else entirely.
KnightFall is about never giving up, failure, and fathers and sons.
Ok, that last comment probably needs a little more context.
Batman, as he was written in the ‘90’s, doesn’t have a biological son. But he has adopted or mentored a handful of young men who needed a father figure in their lives. There have been what, three or four canonical Robins? Add to that Jean Paul Valley (also known as Azrael, and a big player in the KnightFall saga), Barbara Gordon, and the rest of the lot, and you have a pretty big group of people who could be seen as Bruce Wayne’s surrogate children.
In KnightFall, Batman rejects the assistance of Tim Drake, the current Robin at the time of the story. When he is crippled, Bruce turns the city and the cape and cowl over to Jean Paul Valley, a man he knows relatively little about, instead of Dick Grayson, the first Robin and Bruce’s original ward and in many ways, his true son. The events of A Death in the Family are repeatedly referenced, specifically the death of Jason Todd (the second Robin), an event that Bruce Wayne considers to be his greatest failure. Bruce struggles to be the example he feels he should be, and tries to protect his young companions from the unbridled villainy of Bane, only to find himself alone at the end, confronted by a foe he cannot overcome.
I don’t like everything about the story. I am not fond of the mythology of the “Mantle of the Bat” that seems to have originated in this arc. I am not a fan of certain interpretations of the classic villains (The Scarecrow springs immediately to mind – he is employed in a singularly heavy-handed and surprisingly non-scary manner every time he appears in KnightFall). I am a fan of the interesting clash between a Silver Age style of Batman and a Modern Age style of comic book hero in the character of Jean Paul Valley’s Azrael/Batman hybrid. The struggle between Wayne and Valley for the dominance of Gotham and the title of Batman is a microcosm of the change that came to comics with the ending of the Silver and Bronze ages and the rise of the Iron and Modern age of comic books.
I love the stuff that was obviously influenced by Dennis O’Neil and Frank Miller (I think that someone in the editing room may have read a lot of Miller’s work on Daredevil in the ‘80s). I am really fond of the use of the Firefly, a minor villain employed masterfully, with some of the best images and fights in the entire arc, scenes so good that they steal the spotlight from all but the biggest moments of the main story.
Over the next couple of weeks I will be reviewing the graphic novels that cover KnightFall (Broken Bat, and Who Rules the Night), going issue by issue and looking at them both as individual works and as pieces of the over-all whole. Along the way we will meet some lesser known villains, escape Arkham Asylum, struggle with our own mortality, be defeated by Bane, and later rise to cast him down from the dark heights of Gotham.
Your problems don’t matter.
YOU don’t matter.
Only Gotham matters.”
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.