By John A. Butz
“The pier becomes a blast furnace. A blistering wind begins to swirl. I leap into a firestorm.”
Metaphor is a fickle tool. Overused, it becomes played out and obvious. Used with too much subtlety or with tongue too firmly in cheek, it becomes an inside joke, intended only for the privileged few. The challenge is to strike the proper balance, weaving the threads of your story into something wonderful, allowing you to speak to bigger themes and encompass within a handful of pages the full reality of a thing.
City on Fire is the first episode of a three-part arc, a wonderfully crafted story that encompasses the entire feeling and heart of KnightFall. A city ravaged by an out-of-control disaster. A Batman struggling to stay standing and kept on his feet by nothing but his own terrible will. A villain at the heart of it all, glorying in the chaos. These three episodes are KnightFall in microcosm.
Chuck Dixon is back as our writer, and he is remarkable. He crams a lot of story into twenty-two pages, including a number of important plot threads that will tie City on Fire to the next stories to come, as well as connect the arc to the final sweep of KnightFall. Even as he focuses on Batman and Robin’s efforts to stop the serial arsonist Garfield Lyons (better known as the Firefly), Dixon keeps the central story alive by laying the next layer on the foundation that leads to Batman’s final meeting with Bane.
Graham Nolan is a new arrival behind the pencils. Nolan is known these days for his work on Rex Morgan, M.D. and The Phantom, both newspaper strips. He began working in comics in ’85, and drew The Transformers, twenty-six issues of Hawkworld (a reboot of the Hawkman character written by John Ostrander and Tim Truman) and quite a lot of Detective Comics. He often partnered with Chuck Dixon, and I can really see how well they work together in City on Fire.
There is an art to crafting a story-arc, and it is on fine display with this book. The heart of the story is a wonderful mix of both action and detective elements, following Batman and Robin as they confront the Firefly. Additional pressure is felt by the reader because the book opens with Scarecrow and the Joker using their control over Mayor Kroll to cause the Gotham City Fire Department to go on strike. This adds a sense of urgency to Batman’s pursuit of the Firefly – if the arsonist is not stopped, all of Gotham will go up in flames.
Firefly is established as a legitimate threat because Batman can’t stop him in their first encounter. After the firebug makes his escape, Batman puts Tim Drake on the case. This is a great moment for me, because it is a perfect example of how Batman approaches fatherhood. By giving Robin this assignment, Bruce is putting his own fate in the boy’s hands, and he is also raising him the only way he knows how – by throwing him at crime and forcing him to fight.
Bruce is, frankly, not a good father. The only way he knows how to raise a son is to put the boy on the same track a young Bruce took – to put them on a quest for justice and vengeance. For all that, the combination of awkward affection, trust, and a desire to make his apprentice strong offsets the darker aspects of Bruce’s parental interaction with his wards.
While Tim employs his finely-tuned investigative mind to uncover clues as to where the Firefly will strike next, Batman puts a minor villain, the Cavalier, out of commission. The Ventriloquist continues his search for Scarface by interrogating a lawyer who may know the puppet’s location. The Riddler begins to lay out a wonderfully complex caper by first sending a letter to the Gotham PD, a letter that is subsequently ignored in the mad shuffle to fight off the crime wave engulfing Gotham.
The book concludes with Batman tracking the Firefly down, using Robin’s information. The two do battle above the burning ruins of a furniture warehouse, and the cliffhanger ending has both Batman and his antagonist plummeting toward the consuming flames, with a fiery death being the only possible outcome.
The writing is top-notch, making up for Dixon’s mediocre performance on Crocodile Tears. Dixon does a great job with the main story, but spends equal effort on the one-and-two page vignettes that provide texture to the book. The Joker/Scarecrow lead-in is as well thought-out as the scene at the police station, the Riddler’s planning session, or the main story.
Art-wise, newcomer Nolan doesn’t disappoint. Heck, he uses three different expressions for the Joker in the space of six panels, so he is already one up on Jim Aparo as far as that character goes. The wonderfully illustrated fight scenes, Batman leaping across a rollercoaster wreathed in flame while the Firefly glides on the thermal heat of the blaze, are really gripping. There is a sense of true danger, and the heat nearly leaps off the page, a testament to colorist Adrienne Roy’s effort.
However, this issue also marks the point for me where Roy begins to make some questionable color choices. While her leaping flames are wonderful, some of her other selections are baffling. While I sort of expect the obnoxious Detective Bullock to wear a bright green jacket with red plaid pants and a purple tie, I do wonder who decided that lilac is the proper color for a police stations interior walls, or what exactly the female officer wearing a fuchsia and neon-blue power suit was thinking when she purchased that particular ensemble. I don’t know if it was a limitation of the publishing technology of the time or if I just have a very poor recall of the general color scheme of the ‘90s, but these odd color choices consistently jar me out of the moment, which detracts from the flow of both dialogue and action.
It is hard to discuss City on Fire as a discrete story, because it is so closely tied to its sequels. The trilogy is really one of the strongest arcs within the corpus of KnightFall. Rereading them, I realize how much my image of Batman was influenced by these three stories. Even in the face of insurmountable odds, physical collapse, and bone aching exhaustion, the terrible will that drives Bruce Wayne won’t let him stop and it won’t let him lose. He keeps moving forward, an implacable and unstoppable creature of the night, ignoring his weakness and pain, with no thought for his own safety. This is a fundamental part of how I view Batman. He is something more than a man, able to ignore his limits and fight through things that would leave the average man a weeping ruin.
The overall arc of this little trilogy is also very well structured. Unlike many comics, which don’t follow-up on the little one-panel scenes that punctuate the primary story, City on Fire doesn’t waste a beat. The side story panels will later bloom into full-fledge plots of their own.
This gives the story a different sense of time than the early episodes of KnightFall. Instead of a frantic pace driven by a non-stop flow of action, the second half of KnightFall relies on the fleshing out of subplots to give a sense of reality and time to the events surrounding the main story. Everything feels like it is happening in real time. There is a layered sense to the action and the moments of peace that serves to illustrate the sequence of events.
The story is also a fine treatment of a little-used villain. The Firefly, an arsonist, is made just spectacular enough with the addition of gliding wings and a flamethrower that he feels like he belongs in Gotham City. He is similar enough in his obsessions and background to the Batman to make a good counterpoint, a reflection of the Dark Knight distorted by the shimmering of unbearable heat.
This book is the point where it becomes much harder to view KnightFall as a series of comic books. The complex and well written story, the intertwining plots, the clever sequencing and pacing of events all give the work a feel much closer to that of a novel. It becomes harder to pull discrete elements out of the work and see them as complete plot arcs. From here on out, KnightFall is a single story and it can only end when Batman finally faces off with Bane.
Roof is hot as a skillet under my feet. The same heat will carry him away again.
Don’t think. Just act.
The inferno comes up to meet us, embrace us.
Looks like my world will end in fire.
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.
Next time: Azrael, Poison Ivy, Shondra Kinsolving, zombies and a bomb in an amusement park. The excitement just doesn’t stop. Tune in!