Jordan B Gorfinkel: Assistant Editor, Editor: Dennis O’Neil
By John A. Butz
“You’re different…but still pretending to be the Batman. Change the costume all you want, and you’re still nothing but a costume – not him.”
When I conceived this series of KnightFall reviews, one of the foremost thoughts in my mind was that I would get to review this issue. For me, the pinnacle of the KnightFall saga is found in this book. All of the hard work and effort that has been poured into these books, all the art and writing, all the brilliant imagination, all the shocking changes, all of it crystallizes within these twenty-eight pages. Although the Broken Bat series is a better story, and KnightsEnd and KnightQuest do more to develop the character of Bruce Wayne and the supporting Bat-cast, Who Rules the Night is a new kind of origin story for a new kind of Batman, and this final episode is the only time that Jean Paul Valley will truly be the Batman he wants to be. As we move past this point, Valley descends deeper and deeper into his own troubled past and crosses line after line, leaving terror, shattered friendships, and dishonor is his reckless wake. He will never again stand here, at the pinnacle of his prowess and sanity, having arrested his descent into darkness just before the bottom.
Interestingly, much of the art for this issue is done by Mike Manley, an inker who did not impress me during the God of Fear arc. The rest is done by Terry Austin, a newcomer to this series. Despite that, and despite the fact that Doug Moench is writing without his normal artistic partner Jim Aparo, I think that this issue is one of the strongest, in the entirety of KnightFall. The art is dark and evocative, full of rainy cityscapes, bright police lights, tension, action, and violence. But the writing is the real strength of this issue. Armed with the extensive body of work that forms the foundation of the series, Moench is able to stretch his wings and dive into the depths of descriptive prose as he provides insight into the mind of Jean Paul Valley as he truly assumes the Mantle of the Bat for the first time. The wordplay is amazingly lyrical, right from the lead-in. “Somehow the night has become a vast ocean through which he swims, buoyed and weightless above a Gothic Atlantis drenched in dark wonder and secret sin. It is a place long since cursed by a flood from heaven, and forsaken by true light.” Superimposed with the images of Jean Paul Valley soaring effortlessly through Gotham, a Batman clad in razored steel, driven by technological lightning, wielding mechanical vengeance, the art of Austin and Manley illuminates the amazing prose. The words and images are in perfect harmony, showing us the sort of Gotham that this new Batman sees, putting us inside his head as he is baptized by the rain over his city, his city for the first time as he finally finds his place within. This is a simple enough story, with Valley going one-on-one with Bane for the second time. This is a bloody duel, a match being fought between equals, the first time Bane has had to face a Batman at the height of his powers. Bruce Wayne had been weak and exhausted, and the initial encounter with Valley was a match with a man still finding his feet in his new role. Now, however, Bane is facing a new Batman with a new set of tricks and weapons, a Batman with an edge honed by the System and the Order of St. Dumas. Batman deploys his new arsenal and his improved armor in addition to his brutal fighting style to match Bane’s sheer savagery. In the end, Bane is finally brought low, reduced to a broken man begging for a death that the Dark Knight will not give him. There are some daring heroics as Robin saves an out-of-control commuter train from plummeting into a crowded city square, and we see the Gotham Police Department deal with this new Batman for the first time, but the centerpiece of this book is the climactic battle between Batman and Bane. There is palpable tension as we hear Robin plead with Valley, telling him to spare Bane and rise above the depths that separate hero from villain. Batman, holding the bloody and broken Bane aloft, is very much a wildcard. Will he soil the mantle he has just won with the blood of a helpless man? Despite all Bane has done to Gotham we know that Bruce would not deal the death blow, but Jean Paul is a rouge, an unknown quantity. As he leaves Bane for the police and is praised by Robin in the end for having made the right choice, we cheer, hoping against hope that Valley can win against his demons, that he can be the Batman the city needs as it recovers from the loss of it’s defeated champion. We want to believe that he will fall no further, that he will remain true to what he has achieved so far and go on to champion the justice and law that the old Batman believed in.
But the prose tells us that our hopes are in vain. Even as he soars away on iron wings, Valley’s thoughts are hungry ones, driven by the conditioning that will forever mark him as Azrael. This is his bright shining moment as a hero, and he deserves it, but the price he has paid to become a hero for this single bright minute will be his inevitable fall into the depths of darkness. His demons will ride him and in riding him they will drive Bruce Wayne from his retirement, and force him to once again don the cape and cowl and do battle with a madman for the soul of Gotham. But this time, that madman will be a friend, a protege, and a Batman. This book is one of my all time favorite comics. Though I think Frank Miller or Alan Moore are far more capable as wordsmiths, and the team of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale write a better Batman story than anyone else out there for my money, this book contains some of the best descriptive prose in comicbook-dom. We truly see Jean Paul Valley. We meet him for the first time complete and without reservations. This is insight into what he is and who he will become that rivals Year Onein terms of showing the origin of a masked vigilante. Though there will be other men who take up the Mantle of the Bat, they are all known to us. Jean Paul is a cipher, a man who never really knows himself, and who is fighting the influence of the System at all times. This is the best insight we will ever get into what drives him and shapes him and makes him a hero.
A sizable part of me wishes that this was the end of the KnightFall series. I want to have everything wrap up on a positive note as a new Batman soars to the rooftops to hold vigil over Gotham, a metallic gargoyle watching over the city in the night. This is the sort of super hero story I like, one where good triumphs over evil and the better angels of our nature overcome our demons. It is a heroic bookend to an arc that was full of highs and lows. For all that, it refuses to let us forget that Jean Paul Valley is not to be trusted and that we should never forget that though he might wear the mask, he will never be the Batman.