Batman #498: “Knights in Darkness,” Written by Chuck Dixon
Pencils by Graham Nolan, Inked by Dick Giordano
Edited by Scott Peterson
By John A. Butz
“Everything’s the same and everything’s different.”
There comes a point in the life of a young man where he realizes his father is just a man. It is a sad but necessary moment. To become a fully realized human being, a son must seek to grow beyond the boundaries imposed on him by his father. He has to stride forward into adulthood and differentiate himself in some meaningful way from the man who has shaped his life. This theme is a powerful one in the Batman mythos. Dick Grayson spent his entire life in the shadow of the Batman, until he left to become his own man, leading the Teen Titans and protecting the crime-ridden streets of Bludhaven as Nightwing. Like Dick, Tim Drake and Jean-Paul Valley have a surrogate father in the person of Bruce Wayne, and by the end of the KnightFall saga, both men will have grappled with the influence of the Batman on their lives and emerge forever changed.
Lightning Changes is a wonderful story: well written, fast paced, and full of meaning. The narrative is cleverly nested, with the scene changes and internal dialogue blending seamlessly into each other, providing the reader with insight into the events and mindsets of the heroes. We get to spend a lot of time in Robin’s head, seeing the differences between the new Batman and the old. We get to experience Tim’s growing sense of dread as Jean-Paul Valley’s true nature begins to break through his public persona, giving us the first glimpses of the System and how it drives Jean Paul forward, for good and for ill.
The story opens on Batman and Robin fighting a group of thugs in a dirty Gotham City alley. Graham Nolan is in fine form here. His fight scenes are dazzlingly fluid and powerful. Most impressive is his Jean-Paul Valley. Valley’s different build and fighting style make it obvious to the reader that this is a completely new Batman. While Bruce Wayne’s Batman has a feeling of effortless grace and flowing power, iron control overcoming foes with just enough force, leaving plenty in reserve if things go wrong, Jean Paul is very different. His actions speak of youth and inexperience, total commitment and raw strength, and a complete lack of self-preservation. The new Batman is a different sort of night terror, one that has yet to learn the subtle ways of the master, and who lacks the patience to let them develop. Instead he will tear the city open with sheer rage.
While Robin and Jean-Paul Valley patrol the streets, Bruce Wayne is the unintentional victim of a kidnapping attempt. Coming upon a group of mercenaries abducting Jack Drake and Shondra Kinsolving, Bruce attempts to stop them, only to be betrayed by his physical weakness. He is left beaten by the side of the road, unable to save his friends. The event is significant because it shows us that Bruce Wayne is still a fighter, that within him the spark of heroism still burns. The events of this book will come to fruition in a few episodes, and send Bruce Wayne on a quest that will eventually bring him back to Gotham City, to reclaim the Mantle of the Bat.
Even as Wayne is confronting the kidnappers, Robin and Jean-Paul infiltrate Gotham’s Skyroom, where they confront Tough Tony Bressi, the head of the unions and the last bastion of organized crime that has yet to be taken over by Bane. Jean-Paul rushes in with no concern for the safety of his partner or the lives of the gangsters. Robin desperately tries to control Jean-Paul, but is only barely able to rein him in. As the night ends, Tim Drake finds himself wondering if Bruce made a mistake, and what he should tell his mentor about the evening’s actives. Little does he know that he will not get the chance to reveal these things to Bruce Wayne for a long time.
This episode is a set-up for Robin’s solitary struggle to keep the new Batman from running amok and ruining the reputation of the Mantle of the Bat, as well as his own quest to understand himself and to come to understand that Bruce Wayne is just a man. Robbed of both his real father and his surrogate father within a mere handful of issues, Tim Drake has to confront the solitude that he has never truly experienced before. Unlike Dick Grayson before him, or Wayne himself, Tim has always had a family, people to come home to. But now he is truly alone, without a mentor or a friend, sharing a house with a man who seems to be losing control by the hour, with a mission to discharge for the good of the city, and no idea how he will be able to contain this new Batman. The remainder of KnightFall will see Tim continue to grow, to shape himself and to come out of the shadow of Bruce Wayne.
Jean-Paul Valley will take a similar journey, subject to the deep mental conditioning of the Order of Saint Dumas. Tormented by visions of his long-dead father, and left alone in charge of Gotham City, he will seek to conquer the man who conquered Batman, and rise up as a new Dark Angel to save Gotham… whether it wants him to or not.
This is one of the most significant themes introduced in Lightning Changes. For long years, the Batman comics have explored the ramifications of Batman’s vow to never kill, his relationship to the super-criminals that infect Gotham City, and the nature of his quest to avenge the unjust murder of his parents. Many authors have asked if Batman should toughen up, should employ the methods of the criminals against them, and even in extreme circumstances kill. Bruce Wayne has stuck to his path, even in the face of great loss and the continuing evils perpetuated by his foes. However, now we have a new Batman for a new time.
During the Eighties and Nineties, comic book heroes began to change. The old values of the Gold and Silver Ages didn’t seem to hold up in the modern world. Though DC was slower to adopt this trend than Marvel, it was inevitable that they would have to confront the reality that readers were looking for a different sort of super hero. The anti-hero was becoming preeminent, and Image Comics, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, and a host of others were there to bring these new, darker and edgier comic book characters to the readership. Superman and Batman began to seem old and dated, men out of place in the current times.
KnightFall dares to ask the question and explore what would happen if Batman was willing to break his own rules. Jean-Paul Valley threatens to kill criminals if they don’t talk, is willing to perpetuate great violence, and systematically breaks all of Bruce’s rules, claiming that they are no longer relevant in this time and place, and that the same rules that Bruce lived by might have lead to his defeat at the hands of Bane. As we watch Jean-Paul grow into the role of Batman, and observe how the System (The Order of St. Dumas’ secret mental conditioning, Jean Paul’s curse and birthright as the son of Azrael) corrupts him and destroys the reputation of Batman, the authors of KnightFall explore exactly what kind of Batman the world needs.
Despite my fondness for this story, I think it has one glaring weakness. Whereas Broken Bat may have suffered from a little too much time being spent on the breaking of Batman’s will, Lightning Changes, as the title implies, happens very quickly. On his first night in uniform, on his first patrol, the thin veneer of Jean-Paul Valley starts to crack, revealing Azrael beneath. Because of the speed that events are moving at, it is hard to catch up to them and process the story and the changes. The pacing is just a little too fast to really sink in. I suspect that the writers and editors were still trying to figure out how to write a Batman other than Bruce Wayne. There are growing pains here, as they try to find Jean-Paul Valley’s voice, and use it to show us a different take on the Dark Knight.
Despite the pacing in relation to the over-arching story, this episode is full of strong writing, powerful art, and excellent action. It has some of the best character development in Who Rules the Night? and leads directly to the important story lines that drive the main narrative forward. I am very fond of this book, mainly for the amazing art. The two page panel that depicts Valley laying into a thug, his entire being behind the punch, remains one of my favorite panels in the entire work, illustrating with simple action things about the character of Jean-Paul that no amount of words could convey. This issue is a fine example of the genre, and a fascinating exploration of the changing times and the rise of the Iron Age of Comics.
“Suddenly there’s a chill in the air. And the night gets a little darker.”