Written by Chuck Dixon, Pencils by Graham Nolan
Edited by Scott Peterson
By John A. Butz
“The city is still new to him. He’ll learn all the secrets soon enough. Different jungle. Same rules.”
Well, here we are again – at the build-up towards another dramatic and action-packed conclusion. Jean Paul Valley and Bane are destined to meet in battle on the streets of Gotham, and only one of them is going to be walking away. Unlike the endgame depicted in Broken Bat, with its frantic build-up and almost surreal, one-sided final battle, Who Rules the Night? creates a different kind of tension. There is a give-and-take between two formidable foes, both hell-bent on ruling Gotham. There is doubt and uncertainty, transformation and change. These last episodes also contain some of the best art and writing in the entirety of KnightFall.
The first of three issues that bring Who Rules the Night? to an ending, “The Devil You Know” is Dixon and Nolan at their absolute best. They pick up the story Moench and Aparo left them with the smooth ease of old pros. These four have been trading on and off for so long now that it feels nearly seamless. If not for the change in art style and the title page it would be impossible to tell where one team left off and the other began. Building on the capture of Bane’s minions in the previous episode, Dixon tells a story of a brash young man’s attempt to do what his mentor could not – stop Bane.
Using a device that is rather similar to Frank Miller’s jailbreak scene from The Dark Knight Returns, Batman arranges to bust Zombie, Trog and Bird out of prison, intending to follow them to Bane’s hideout. Unlike the sophistication evident in the Miller plot, or that one might expect from Bruce Wayne, Jean Paul’s scheme is very spur of the moment. He gives little thought to back-up, his plan of attack, or how he will actually win. He places all his trust in his physical abilities, the weakness of his opponents, and the violence of his action. Unfortunately he comes up short. While the thugs are no match for him, Valley is stymied by Bane. They engage in a vicious struggle that ends with the new Batman precariously close to death.
There are some asides designed to give us insight into how the city and it’s citizens are dealing with the new Batman. Gordon is certain that there is something different about this Batman. He is obviously worried and unsure about how to relate to this man who used to be his friend and ally.
Bane’s remarks in his battle with the new Batman leave no doubt that everyone can tell that there is a difference between this Dark Knight and his predecessor. The two men banter as they fight, making telling comments about both of their natures.
“Fast. Wayne Trained you well.”
“I wasn’t trained. I was born for this role! It is my destiny!”
“I was damned to my role. I was condemned before my first cries of life. The world is my prison. I will rule it or die.”
“Then THAT will be your sentence. Death.”
“Ha! You are different from Wayne. This Batman kills. So I have brought ruin to Wayne. And his neophyte brings ruin to the Batman.”
This level of meaningful writing is consistent throughout “The Devil You Know” and is an earmark of the last three books in the series. The authors have hit their stride and they aren’t slowing down.
Art wise, Graham Nolan continues his stellar performance. His action scenes have wonderful flow and a great sense of the differences between the two foes. He draws Jean Paul Valley in such a way that his youth, inexperience and raw athletic talent leap off the page. Valley is constantly making missteps that the older, wiser Wayne would have avoided and yet manages to survive each one due to his uncanny prowess. All of this is evident through Nolan’s art alone, a parallel story-telling method in perfect harmony with Chuck Dixon’s words.
The best art in the book, in my opinion, depicts the young Tim Drake, looking small and lost and very young. Alone in his house, his father gone, his mentor off on a rescue mission and his new partner rapidly descending into something dark and frightening, Tim is vulnerable. The panels depicting him bearing up under this, putting a bright face on things for his family’s maid, and preparing to go back out into the night once again and do his duty as Robin are wonderful. This is a real Boy Wonder, following the tradition of the heroic sidekick. The twist is that the man who should be there to protect and guide him is gone. He is alone. The way this message shines through the art is simply wonderful.
If there is a weakness to these last few issues of Who Rules the Night? it is the pesky question of timing. Very little time seems to be actually passing, and yet we have vast changes to Batman. New gadgets and gizmos that Valley has built with the aid of the System seem to take no time to construct. His personality seems to change at a rate nearly too rapid to comprehend. We can’t get a read on him from moment to moment. Now, I will grant that this might be intentional. After all, Jean Paul is unstable, and this sort of behavior does serve to support that. But because he is so slippery we haven’t really gotten to meet him yet. He is so much a cypher that as an audience his transformation is meaningless to us. There are a lot of characterization issues I may disagree with in KnightFall, but the only one I really don’t understand is this one, the decision to keep Jean Paul Valley so fluid that he is unknowable and can not be easily identified with.
That quibble aside, I really enjoy this book. It segues seamlessly from the last issue and flows easily into the next. It has excellent writing, full of commentary on the nature of Bane and his quest for control of Gotham. The art is Nolan’s best to date. There is rich ground here, and it will yield a wonderful crop for future episodes of the KnightFall saga.
“Even in his debilitated condition your mentor lasted longer than this. Perhaps if you had more time to temper your skills. A pity we will never know, eh?”