Batman: Knightfall Part One: Broken Bat
Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench, writers
Jim Aparo, Jim Balent, Norm Breyfogle, Graham Nolan, artists
(Originally published on April 18, 2009 at The Savage Critic(s))
Knightfall was the big Batman event during my time as a comics reader in the early to mid ’90s. That basically means it was the big superhero comic event for me during that time. Batman was the character that got me reading comics. The first Tim Burton movie sparked my interest in the character, and The Dark Knight Returns–the first comic book I can actually remember reading–cemented it. The comic shop I went to was called Gotham Manor, for pete’s sake. And so, a multi-series crossover pitting Batman against basically his entire rogues gallery until some hulking brute takes advantage and breaks his back? Yeah, sign 9th-grade Sean Collins up. But how does it look now?
Unlike most of the straightforward superhero comics I read during that time, I actually remember Knightfall, and remember it fondly at that. This is not to say it doesn’t suffer from all the shortcomings you’d expect. The dialogue, the clothing designs, the hairstyles, especially for anyone we’re supposed to think of as “cool”…you almost wonder whether early-’90s DC writers and artists ever had any contact with the outside world at all. The book is also deep, deep in the shadow of Dark Knight, and not just in the obvious grim’n'gritty way; it occasionally serves up ersatz versions of Miller’s satire–a pop psychologist called “Dr. Simpson Flanders” hawking his book I’m Sane and So Are You! and glibly defending the rights of the escaped Arkham Asylum inmates, for example–with none of Miller’s sharpness or genuine comedic sense. Despite the overwhelming tonal debt to Miller and Burton, the character designs and color palette remain incongruously bright and buoyant. And while the newly created archvillain Bane cuts an impressive figure despite his many detractors at the time, the less said about his perfunctory posse of villain types (bird guy, knife guy, tiny brick) the better. This comic is not one of my favorites in the way that Black Hole is one of my favorites, in other words.
But! The book still somehow remains exactly what a big crazy Batman event should be. For one thing, it’s got that inner-eight-year-old appeal: What Bat-fan wouldn’t want to see Batman tangle with all his big enemies in rapid succession, with some minor ones given impressive tweaks and thrown into the mix for good measure? The very nature of Batman’s rogues gallery–75% of them spend their days right next to each other in a row of cells in Arkham Asylum, allowing both the comic and your imagination to pace the hall and peruse them like a set of action figures on the shelf–taps into a childlike desire to see a bunch of cool characters one after the other, and the story takes full advantage.
But it’s not just that Knightfall shows Batman fighting the Joker, Scarecrow, the Riddler, Killer Croc, the Mad Hatter, the Ventriloquist, Firefly, Zsasz, Poison Ivy and so on all in a row–many subsequent storylines, for both Batman (Jeph Loeb’s Hush) and other characters (Mark Millar’s Spider-Man), have gone back to that well with diminishing returns. Knightfall clicks because, as far as Batman comics go, it makes sense. If I were some criminal mastermind who wanted to take over Gotham and fuck Batman up, blowing a hole in Arkham Asylum and freeing all the crazy supervillains is exactly what I’d do. Meanwhile, if I were Batman, taking on all my crazy supervillain enemies in a row really would wear me down to the point of exhaustion. To Dixon and Moench’s credit, the labors they put Batman through are such that they emphasize the physical toll Batman’s heroic activities would have on his body. During one fight, he has to leap his way through a burning amusement park; during another he has to carry the wounded mayor through a flooded tunnel; he does an awful lot of hand-to-hand combat with guys with swords and knives or guys twice his size. And keep in mind that this is the Jim Aparo-era Batman, not a Frank Miller tank or a Jim Lee splash-page pin-up. He has a sinewy swimmer’s body that you can practically feel getting pummeled. His downfall–ahem, Knightfall–is perfectly plausible.
Then there’s the ending. Ninth-grade me wound up so upset about Bruce Wayne getting replaced that I stopped reading with that issue with the die-cut Joe Quesada cover where the new armor-clad Batman takes Bane down; the bad guy got his comeuppance, and that was enough of that for me. I’ve since managed to track down most of the KnightQuest and Knight’sEnd material that followed, and it seems to me that the mega-event couldn’t keep up the manic intensity of this opening arc. So in that sense, having Bane break Batman’s back so that a new guy could take over may not have amounted to much. But as an image? One of the highlights of the ’90s in superhero comics, certainly. Say what you will about Bane and Doomsday, but people remember them not just because of what they did (if that were so, everyone would remember all the Clone Saga bad guys too), but because of the memorable way in which they did it. And after issue after issue of histrionic overwriting, it’s how simple the end winds up being that makes Bane stick: There’s the famous splash page of Bane snapping Batman’s spine over his knee, followed by the words “Broken…and done.” After all this crazy build-up, Batman goes out like a sucker, and Bane drops him on the floor like garbage. It’s almost the opposite of the big final simultaneous punches that enabled Superman to “die” a hero. It’s appropriately more morose.
Knightfall is a book I return to often, but not to read. I flip through it, skimming a passage, checking out an image, slowly going through a sequence. The execution may often be wanting, which makes going page by page a slog, but the basic ideas are sound as a pound and a delight to light upon. When I’m in the mood for raw superhero action and thrills, there aren’t many books I like better.