By John A. Butz
“I’m no hostage. Batman’s not going to fall into any traps for my sake.”
“Such brave words. Such camaraderie. But you may be right. You may be more use to me dead.”
Sustaining an intense story is hard, tiring work. You have to keep the pressure on your character, keep events moving, try not to repeat yourself, and at the same time stay fresh and interesting. However, even if you can do those things, there is another factor that you have no control over – the reader.
Because, let’s face it, READING an intense story is hard, tiring work. You are vested in the characters and their highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies. You may be sucked in to the story, held transfixed like a fly in amber, but eventually you are going to get tired. You are going to want a break. You are going to put the book down and go do something else.
The writers of KnightFall have an advantage over a traditional print author in this situation, because their story is taking place in installments with weeks in between. The reader-base has time to decompress between issues, time to digest and enjoy the story, time to get their strength up for the next round. However, the reader will also stop buying the comic if every episode is the same as the last one.
So what is an author to do when the whole point of the story is to keep throwing Batman into impossible situations and have him barely overcome them, right up until the final conflict with Bane? After all, we have had three stories, right in a row, about how tired and weak the Bat has become. If the writers do the same thing a fourth time, even if it is done well, then the audience may decide that enough is enough, wake me up when something different happens.
Fortunately, Batman has a very large supporting cast. This may seem contradictory to the popular image of Batman as a lone avenger stalking Gotham under the cover of night, mourning for the daylight life of friends and family that he will never have. But that image has never really reflected the reality of the character.
From Jim Gordon to Alfred Pennyworth, Barbara Gordon (as both Batgirl and Oracle) to the sundry Robins, Huntress to the Justice League of America, Leslie Tompkins to Superman, Batman has always been surrounded by people who aid him, love him, help him, admire him and strive to be like him. These characters are a writer’s boon. They allow the storyteller to write about others interaction with Batman, and in doing so tell a Batman story that you could never tell with Batman as the main character. (My fellow columnist Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner is fond of this device as used in the Gotham Central series which follows the Gotham PD, with Batman being a peripheral character at best).
Crocodile Tears is an example of this type of story, allowing us to see the events of KnightFall through the eyes of one of those closest to Batman – Timothy Drake, the third Robin.
Chuck Dixon is back in the writer’s chair, along with Scott Peterson as O’Neil’s assistant editor. The art is done by another new arrival, Jim Balent. Balent would be best known in mainstream comics for his run on Catwoman from ’93 to ‘99. He would leave mainstream comics in 1999 to found his own company, BroadSword Comics. BroadSword focuses on comics with a heavy Wiccan or pagan theme as well as allowing Balent to indulge in his predilection for drawing large-breasted women in the nude. Though he has no opportunity to employ that skill-set in Crocodile Tears, Balent is a solid artist, and I love his Killer Croc, massive and menacing with blood-red inhuman eyes and a mouth full of knife-like fangs.
I could write an entire article about the Robins. Dick Grayson, the athlete and the good son. Jason Todd, the troubled child in need of redemption whose tragic death would forever drive the Dark Knight to try harder. Tim Drake, not as strong or tough as his predecessors, but a true detective in the vein of his mentor. Stephanie Brown, brave but impulsive Girl Wonder. Damien Wayne, dark reflection of his father. The Batman/Robin relationship has always been a complex one, reaching back to the days of Ferderic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the implications of child-molestation and homosexuality in the Batman franchise, stretching forward into the most recent animated adaptations (Batman Beyond does some wonderful things with the Bruce Wayne/Tim Drake relationship) and exploring the nature of friendship, fatherhood, and loss.
Tim Drake is a well utilized throughout KnightFall. He rarely does the actual fighting, and the few times he does it doesn’t always turn out well for him (he was nearly killed by Bird back in Puppets, and was spared only because Bane didn’t think it was the right time to kill him). But Robin spends a lot of time tailing people, seeking out answers, and hunting down clues. He will play a huge role in the upcoming story arc involving the Firefly.
In Crocodile Tears, Robin finds himself following Bane and his flunkies as they investigate the streets of a Gotham cowering in fear. Having left Batman behind at the Bates School, Drake is on his own. Unable to contact Batman by radio, Tim makes the brave but foolish decision to follow Bane, in an effort to learn more about the enigma that threatens Gotham’s very soul.
Meanwhile, Killer Croc swims the sewers, waiting for the chance to take revenge on Bane. Bane had broken both Croc’s hold on Gotham’s underworld and the crocodilian thug’s arms in a previous encounter, and the rage that Croc feels can only be assuaged by killing Bane.
The Gotham PD wraps up events at the Bates school, and Bullock speaks briefly to Batman, an event that is a telling sign of how far gone the Caped Crusader is. Dr. Simpson Flanders is once again on TV with his misguided theories on the nature of the Arkham inmates. The Ventriloquist is still seeking Scarface. The city itself lies poised on the brink, holding its breath as it waits for the next tragedy to strike.
The main action in Crocodile Tears is driven by Robin’s attempts to tail Bane. Following the Venom-fueled criminal onto the roof of a Gotham subway train, Robin loses sight of Bane. There is a wonderful quarter-page panel of the dark interior of the subway tunnel, Robin looking forward wondering where Bane has vanished to, as the massive villain drops soundlessly from the superstructure above to land behind Tim, arms outstretched, poised to grab the unsuspecting Boy Wonder.
Having captured Robin, Bane takes him into the sewers to interrogate him about Batman. Tim refuses to cooperate and fights back as best as he can, until Killer Croc interrupts and starts brawling with Bane. The delicate archway that Robin is standing on is wrecked in the fight and he is cast down into the rushing waters below, where only his skill and luck can save him from a watery grave.
Story wise, Crocodile Tears is a place holder. It is a moment in which we can decompress and absorb the events that have transpired so far. Very little new or important actually happens. I think that this sort of story exists primarily to keep as many hooks as possible alive, so that the writers of future episodes have a lot of possibilities to choose from. There is no driving central theme or tightly plotted action sequence to Crocodile Tears. It is filling but bland, the oatmeal of KnightFall.
I was a little disappointed in Dixon, frankly. He had done such a fine job with Puppets, and my expectations here may have been too high. There are moments of writing brilliance (the encounter between Bullock and Batman is really slick), and Tim Drake gets to highlight how resourceful and brave he is (I am always happy to see a well-used Robin) but overall it is really designed to create a bit of status quo to use as a springboard for future episodes. It is worth noting that this is a two-part story, and that the next book is the first step towards the final conflict and the best Joker story in KnightFall.
In the end this is a Robin story set in the middle of the defining arc of an epic Batman story. The well done art can’t save it from feeling a little bit like a footnote. As I finish it, I feel disappointed at how rapidly the pace has downshifted and how unimportant the conflicts were. Even though the cliffhanger ending should leave us concerned for Robin’s safety, I find myself more interested in what is happening to the Batman after his encounter with Zsasz and Bullock. Fortunately, the next installment will go back to the Dark Knights’ dire situation. Unfortunately, it is a Doug Moench Joker story. I guess you can’t win them all.
“A community cowers behind locked doors. I have created a darkness that chills their very souls. I have made a city inured to its own horrors know fear. Can you feel it? And it has only just begun.”
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.
Next time – More serial killers, Jean Paul Valley prepares for his moment, and a villain team-up for the ages.