Batman #498: “Knights in Darkness,” Written by Doug Moench, Pencils by Jim Aparo
Jordan B Gorfinkel, Assistant Editor
Edited by Dennis O’Neil
By John A. Butz
“Still they cry out for him…for their hero and their savior…but he is broken…and GOTHAM is MINE!”
It is relatively easy to make an earth-shattering change in the world of your characters. All it takes is the willingness to throw the switch on a big moment and act decisively. As an author, it is necessary to be willing and able to make those big changes. KnightFall is a story that is told around such a choice – the authors and editors willingness to cripple the Batman, something that no one had ever done before, is the driving force behind this narrative. But the moment of change, though it may be hard to write, is still just a moment. How your world reacts to that change, how change echoes throughout the work and how it affects the people and places in the story is a challenge that the authors have to continue to address if they want to give depth and impact to the event that altered their world.
Comic-books are ripe for problems in this area. It is the nature of serialized media to seek to return to the status quo. Major changes rarely last for long. The company pushes the authors and editors to keep the characters publishable, and encourages things that are popular and not necessarily artistic. Look at how many different times the major publishers have rebooted their titles. Look at the way that different ideas about characters and origins are regulated to their own titles, like Marvel’s Ultimates continuity. Look at how rarely characters age. Everything about comic book writing is designed to keep selling books, and that means that the authors and editors try not to change anything that makes a character popular with the readers.
Because of this, the comic book world is full of retcons. Retcon, short for retroactive continuity, is a method by which a writer makes a change to the continuity by altering facts that had been established previously in the narrative. At the best, a retcon brings a story back on an even keel without jarring the reader too badly and while making a change that can lead to new and exciting stories. Lex Luthor’s reimagineing as a powerful businessman instead of a mad scientist is such an example. . At the worst, however, a retcon destroys a writer’s hard work with something awkward and unfulfilled, like revealing that the events of the past issue were just a dream, or that the major character that the hero thought he had killed turns out to be an robot or a clone or… something. Dr. Doom and his endless legion of Doom-bot doubles are a prime example of this concept, although in the case of Dr. Doom, this trope can be used well, as often as it is used poorly.
While there is no sure-fire way to prevent a retcon, an author’s best bet is to let the major change permeate the world of the story. By allowing the whole world to change, it makes it harder to make a single retroactive alteration that can restore the status quo. And by exploring that change, the author gives it weight. Suddenly the point of the comic is not to get the hero back into typical stories. Instead, the authors are free to explore what the change means and how it affects the supporting characters.
When the story is written this way, the return to the status quo becomes a journey. Instead of a single change returning things to the way they were, there is a struggle and a quest that the hero must undertake to return to his former place of glory.
In KnightFall, we know that in the end, Bruce Wayne will walk again and Batman will once more stalk the streets of Gotham, striking fear into the hearts of criminals. But we don’t know how he will get there, and what the cost will be. Throughout Who Rules The Night? there have been hints of something coming, implications of a world without Batman, a building sense of the mortality of Bruce Wayne. With Knights in Darkness, Doug Moench lays the foundation for the coming of a new Batman, and the greatest struggle of Bruce Wayne’s career.
Knights in Darkness is a slow story. It lacks the traditional action elements, focusing more on the events that are happening in the wake of Batman’s defeat at the hands of Bane. Moench uses his established skill at quickly summarizing a number of events and stories in quick, self-contained jump-cuts and complete narratives contained within the space of a half-dozen panels. He touches in equal parts on Bane’s takeover of the criminal underworld of Gotham, Batman’s despair at his utter defeat and injury, Robin and Alfred’s attempts to create a reasonable excuse for Bruce Wayne’s injury, the increase of crime in Gotham and Jim Gordon’s concern for his fallen friend. Shondra Kinsolving is reintroduced. As a brilliant therapist and physician, who has a budding relationship with Bruce Wayne, she offers a unique approach to treatment and the hope of total recovery.
Aparo’s realistic style is very appropriate for this type of story. Divorced from the context of super heroics, his proportioned art provides emotional depth and vulnerability to the characters. This is a Gotham City without Batman, and it shows. Fear, anxiety, and worry are everywhere. Bane towers above it all, the only larger then life element remaining in Gotham City. There is a sense that the whole city is his now, and that all hope has fled. This is a story about desperate actions, and the faces of the citizens of Gotham reflect that. Most impressive is how Aparo manages to make Jean Paul Valley’s Batman look different than Bruce Wayne’s. You wouldn’t think that there would be any noticeable difference between one Batsuited crime fighter and another, but Aparo manages to pull it off convincingly.
Moench does an excellent job with the change in attitudes that Batman’s defeat brought about. The despair of the crippled Bruce Wayne, the driven and fanatic behavior of Jean Paul Valley, and Robin and Alfred’s fear that Bruce will never recover all drive the story forward. The possibility of a relationship between Bruce Wayne and Shondra Kinsolving is a real teaser. Moench lets us think that maybe this really is the end for Bruce, that he might finally lay his burden down and be Batman no more. It is a very impressive job.
For all that the Aparo/Moench team manages to do to make this a good book, it somehow falls short. There are too many quick vignettes, too many cuts, and no action to drive the story at all. There is very little sense of urgency. This failing stems from the same thing that makes KnightFall great, the defeat of Bruce Wayne.
Wayne has a long history as Batman, with a ton of connections, villains, events, and weight to his name. Suddenly, he is gone from center stage, and the entire story loses focus as a result. It will take a little time to build up Jean Paul Valley and the conflict surrounding his perversion of the Mantle of the Bat, and until that conflict has been developed, the writers are scrabbling for purchase.
It will take about four books before enough groundwork has been laid to really dig into the potential of this new, Bruce Wayne-less world. The reader doesn’t know enough about how Jean Paul Valley will differ in his approach to being Batman, or what the ramifications of his actions are. We don’t have context yet for Bane’s new role as the biggest crime-boss in Gotham City. There are just too many questions and not enough info to answer them. Knights in Darkness lays the groundwork, but it is just not enough to make for a truly engaging book.
In the end, I don’t think that the fault lies with the men and women who wrote and illustrated the book, so much as with the genre. It is a rare comic that can remain engaging without some sort of action element. For every Sandman or Fables, sweeping mythical stories motivated by character interaction and choices, there is a work like Knights in Darkness, a work that is too close to the traditional comic story to be told without some beat ’em up action and a good chase scene.
Despite being hampered by the lack of action, this is a good story, and a necessary story to lead into the rest of the Who Rules the Night? collection. And it ends well. The final pages introduce us to the new Batman in a way that is full of menace and foreshadowing, and leaves me wanting to know what is going to happen next.
“There you are…and you’re all right?”
“Not quite what I was commissioner…but I’ll get there. And When I do…Bane will have hell itself to pay.”