By John A. Butz
“He’s here…but he’ll never stop them.”
“Don’t be so sure, Bane. I’ve seen The Batman pull off some mighty…”
“Your Gotham expertise is appreciated, Bird…but I know this man… I have been close to him. I have smelled what he is… Even if he could stop them, he won’t.”
Beginnings are important. They set the tone for things to come, set events in motion, and inscribe the arc of a thing on the clean and empty page. They are also, as many writers will tell you, very difficult. It is never easy to give birth.
The problems inherent in beginnings are magnified by the demands of serialized storytelling. Now the challenge is not merely to start the story. The author and editor must direct the ongoing narrative, clearly identify the characters involved so that they not only stand out to those who are coming to the story fresh, but also to those who are following the story in installments. The issue that kicks off the arc must be clear and identifiable, regardless of the reader and their knowledge of the franchise. It takes a great deal of talent to create a strong beginning under these circumstances.
Since we are also at the beginning, I want to talk about the people who did the work. These guys will keep coming up again and again, so it behooves us to meet them now.
Doug Moench started his professional writing career in the ‘70s. By the time he started writing KnightFall, he had worked for both DC and Marvel, created characters like the Black Mask and Moon Knight, written for the Chicago Times, and been involved in sundry pulp magazines. He racked up nearly a decade of time as a writer for Batman and the Detective Comics titles in the 80’s. Moench came to KnightFall with an enormous amount of experience, a long relationship with both the company and the character, and no small degree of talent.
Jim Aparo was originally turned down by EC Comics, and would go on from there to a career in advertising. Aparo got a big break when Dick Giordano hired him to work for Charlton Comics in 1966. During his time at Charlton, Aparo learned all aspects of the comic book artist’s trade. He was one of the very few artists who did his own lettering and coloring in addition to pencils. He came to Batman in the 70’s, and drew the character for nearly twenty years, working notably on A Death in the Family, drawing the tragic death of Jason Todd, the second Robin. He was a contemporary of Neal Adams, and like Adams, strove for a more realistic sort of art.
Adrienne Roy was one of the few women involved in comics in the early 80’s. She was the primary colorist on the Batman line throughout the 80’s and 90’s. In addition to her work on Batman, Roy also colored many other titles, including the New Teen Titians and Weird War Tales.
Behind these talents (and others who we will meet as their time comes around) we have Denny O’Neil. Both myself and my fellow columnist Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner have praised O’Neil in previous reviews. He is one of the industries true visionaries, and by the time he was editing KnightFall, he had been involved in comics for the better part of three decades, working both at Marvel and DC. He had written what I consider to be the definitive Batman origin story, The Man Who Falls, in addition to a number of other classics, and won two Shazam Awards, in 1970 and ’71. Between April of ’93 and August of ’94 he would guide some of the best authors and artists in comics and help them to tell the story of the fall and rise of Batman.
On to the story.
The Freedom of Madness is a tightly constructed machine, designed to introduce the key players and give you a real sense of the menace of Bane. It is action-packed, with a cinematic style of pacing. It builds as it develops, picking up speed right up to the climactic moment where everything goes wrong.
The story opens as Bane and his companions carry out a successful raid of an Army weapons depot. We see that Bane is a planner, much like Batman. The men who work for him are competent and effective, much like Robin. Not only that, but unlike many supervillains, Bane treats them with respect. He listens to their advice, trusts them to do their job, and obviously inspires their loyalty. They execute a perfect raid, stealing some serious ordinance. But what do they plan to do with it?
That is the question on the minds of the Gotham PD. But detectives Bullock and Montoya have no more clue than Jim Gordon or Mayor Kroll. Even Batman is taken by surprise when these weapons are delivered into the hands of the inmates of Arkham Asylum, as part of Bane’s master plan to defeat Batman.
Armed and dangerous, with the vicious and deranged Joker in the lead, the villains of Gotham scatter into the city, barely hampered by the efforts of a Batman weakened by illness and exhaustion.
And all the while Bane is watching and planning, waiting for the opportune moment to strike. He wants not to simply defeat Batman, but to utterly and irrevocably break him.
The story really pops. Jumping from character to character, Moench gives us a great top-down view of everyone involved and what situations they are struggling with as the story opens. Then he punches hard with the Arkham breakout, a situation that makes pretty much all the problems introduced in the beginning of the story worse. Commissioner Gordon finds himself at odds with Mayor Kroll over the handling of the breakout. Robin is increasingly worried about Batman and his mental state. Batman, for his part, is visibly exhausted and his iron self-control begins to disintegrate as he is confronted with having to hunt down all of his old foes before they destroy Gotham.
And at the calm center of this hurricane is Bane.
Bane is masterfully established with this episode. He has the intellect and confidence of Batman, and the malicious evil of the Joker. Unlike most Batman villains, Bane has no trademark (unless it is being big, fast, smart and scary) and no shtick. He is in many ways a dark reflection of Batman, which is a theme that will continue to be played with throughout KnightFall.
All is not sweetness and light, however.
Moench doesn’t handle the Joker very well here. Upon breaking out, instead of going about doing something in the humorously vicious vein we would expect, the Clown Prince of Crime decides, instead, to drive Jeremiah Arkham (the administrator of the Asylum) mad. It is really more of a Scarecrow-esque ploy.
Not that “The Joker drives someone insane” isn’t a good story – just look at the Killing Joke for a great example – rather it is that at this point in comics, I don’t think that the authors really knew how to differentiate one insane villain from another. There just wasn’t as many performances and depictions to work from. Whereas today we can draw from years of animated appearances, several feature films, and a bunch of standout graphic novels, the early 90’s was this transition time where all the authors had to go on were the character’s self-reinforcing appearances in comics, Tim Burton’s Bat-movies, and Ceasar Romero in whiteface. Bruce Timm’s animated Batman had just hit the air, and the great episodes that would inject fresh new blood into the comics continuity in the form of Harley Quinn, a re-imagined Mr. Freeze, and the wonderful Mark Hamill Joker were still in the future. DC was struggling with how to adapt to the increasing darkness in comics, and I feel that the growing pains were particularly obvious in creating good Joker and Scarecrow plots. More about that as we move into future episodes.
Whereas Moench employed an overly heavy hand in trying to create a deep, psychological Arkham breakout (when he should have just stuck to the fast-paced prison-break story), Aparo managed to screw up the opening. As the soldiers guarding the weapons cache look out into the night, searching for the unusual sounds that indicate an intruder is near, a shape emerges from the darkness – the attacker, a toy robot.
Yes, a toy robot.
If you, like me, have seen the 1977 comedy Kentucky Fried Movie, you will recall the scene from
the movie-within-the-movie, “A Fistful of Yen”, where the hero releases a toy robot into a guard house as a distraction. It is hard not to draw comparisons to that as we watch a shiny ‘50’s-style robot trundle up to the Army depot’s doors as soldiers flee from it. I mean, this is a world where aliens, magicians, mass murderers, otherworldly terrors and an insane clown are shown repeatedly on the evening news. Just a few in-continuity weeks ago, Doomsday wrecked Metropolis…and you expect me to believe that armed soldiers would run from a toy robot?
It boggles the mind.
Fortunately, Aparo recovers quickly. His panels are wonderful, diagonal lines and off-angles that give the sense of motion and jump-cuts. His Batman is classic, wandering determined through a ruined Arkham, dispatching thugs with efficiency and speed, seemingly unstoppable except for the subtle artistic hints that all is not well – the stubble beneath the cowl, the set of the jaw that seems to mask pain and exhaustion. The sharp-eyed reader will notice that Batman and Robin are both still wearing their black armbands, as part of the period of mourning for the recently deceased Man of Steel. While his opening art was weak, and his use of odd perspective and angle shifts doesn’t always work, Aparo pulls out a solid performance in the end.
The colors are very complimentary to the art. The institutional walls of the asylum, the bright green of the trees outside of Arkham, the outrageous colors of Bullock’s tie – they liven up the book, giving the reader a sense of punctuation and flow.
As The Freedom of Madness draws to a close, the Batman is obviously tired and distraught. Bane waits in the wings, patient as a spider in the middle of its web. And madness engulfs Gotham.
I love how with this single issue the entire status quo is shot to heck. Batman normally faces of with one deranged maniac at a time, with the occasional villain team-up. Now he is confronted with something unique, a mass breakout that puts all of his foes in play at once. This is going to lead to some really great stories, as the normally proactive Dark Knight finds himself forced instead to react, allowing others to set the pace. The Batman is on his heels, rocked by the event and unsure of how exactly to proceed. This is the best setup I have seen in Batman comics, because it challenges all of our fundamental assumptions about the nature of the character.
“If I didn’t want his blood so badly, I would almost pity him.”
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.
Next time – The Mad Hatter, brutal murder, haberdashery robberies, and a monkey. Tune in.