Batman: Knightfall


By Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant, Jim Aparo, Norm Breyfogle, Graham Nolan, Jim Balent, Bret Blevins, Klaus Janson, Mike Manley & various (DC Comics) ISBN: 978-1-4012-3379-2

The early 1990s were troubled times for the American comicbook industry, with speculative collectors rather than fans driving the business. Many new companies had established themselves using attention-catching gimmicks augmented by cutting-edge print technology and shameless pandering to simplistic sex and violence and the tactics had worked, sparking a glossy, four-colour Gold-Rush amongst fans and, more importantly, previously disinterested outsiders.

With vapid ploys and fleeting trends fuelling frantic mass-multiple purchases by buyers who were too scared to even open up the hundreds of polybagged, technologically-enhanced variant-covered issues they intended to pay for college and a condo with, the major publishers were driven to design boldly bonkers stunts just to keep the attention of their once-devoted readership. At least here, however, story-content still held some worth and value…

In 1992 DC began their epic Death of Superman story-arc and apparently immediately afterward began preparing a similar tradition-shaking, continuity-shattering epic for their other iconic household-name property. Groundwork had already been laid with the introduction of Jean-Paul Valley, a mild-mannered student utterly unaware that he had been programmed since birth by his father and an ancient warrior-cult to become an hereditary instrument of assassination (see Batman: Sword of Azrael) so all that was needed was to sort creative personnel and decide just how best to shake up the life of the Gotham Guardian…

KnightFall, and the subsequent KnightQuest and KnightsEnd, follow the brutal fall, replacement and inevitable return of Bruce Wayne as the indomitable, infallible Batman and was another spectacular success from the old guard which showed all the comicbook upstarts and Young Turks the true value of proper storytelling. It also proved the unshakable power of established characters, as the world was gripped by the Dark Knight’s horrific defeat at the hands of a blatantly superior nemesis.

The crossover publishing event impacted many comics outside the usual Batbook suspects, spawned a bunch of toys, three novelisations, many (necessarily incomplete) trade paperback collections and even jumped the pond to Britain’s staid BBC who turned it into a serialised audio-play on Radio One…

In 2012 DC finally began collecting the entire saga into three huge chronological compilations which, whilst still not truly complete, render the tale a far smoother and more readable experience for older fans and curious newcomers…

Batman: KnightFall volume 1, which could be best codified as and divided into ‘The Breaking of the Bat’ and ‘Who Rules the Night’, gathers the pertinent contents of Batman: Vengeance of Bane Special #1, Batman #491-500, Detective Comics #659-666, Showcase ’93 #7-8 and Batman: Shadow Of The Bat #16-18 – spanning January to October 1993 – and scrupulously covers the most traumatic six months of Bruce Wayne’s adult life in instalments of a shared and progressing narrative alternating between Bat-titles and discrete creative teams.

What you won’t find out here: in the months preceding the start of KnightFall (roughly correlating to Batman issues #484-489 and Detective #654-658), a mysterious new criminal had entered Gotham, covertly observing the Caped Crimebuster at work as the hard-pressed hero tackled sinister crime-lord Black Mask, psycho-killer Metalhead and juvenile military genius The General, all whilst foiling an assassination plot against Police Commissioner Jim Gordon.

On the edge of exhaustion, Wayne began seeing doctor and holistic therapist Shondra Kinsolving, whilst assigning Tim Drake – the third Robin – to training and monitoring Jean-Paul Valley, with the intention of turning the former Azrael’s dark gifts to a beneficial purpose.

Kinsolving was also treating Drake’s father, crippled after an attack by another of the City’s endless stream of criminal lunatics…

Coldly clinical observer Bane revealed himself and designed further tests for the depleted Dark Knight, challenging Batman for the right to rule Gotham, by manufacturing confrontations with Killer Croc and The Riddler; the latter augmented and driven crazy by a dose of deadly super-steroid Venom

Thus, the action begins here with the origin of the calamitous challenger in ‘Vengeance of Bane’ by Chuck Dixon, Graham Nolan & Eduardo Barretto, wherein the hulking brute is fully revealed and exposed.

Years ago, on the Caribbean island of Santa Prisca, the ruling junta imprisoned the pregnant wife of a freedom fighter. When the baby was born, he was sentenced in his father’s stead to life on the hellish prison rock of Pena Duro where he somehow thrived, touched by the horror and madness to inexorably become a terrifying, brilliant master of men.

Not merely surviving but educating himself and ultimately thriving on the hard medicine of life, the boy knew he had a destiny beyond those walls. Eventually he named himself Bane.

His only non-hostile contacts became his faithful lieutenants, Trogg, Zombie and the Americano Bird, whose tales of the Bat in Gotham City fired the eternal prisoner’s jealousy and imagination…

Santa Prisca’s entire economy is based on drug smuggling and Bane’s moment came when one of his periodic rages crippled thirty inmates. After finally being subdued by an army of guards he was turned over to scientists testing a new iteration of the muscle and aggression-enhancing formulation Venom. The effects of the steroid had caused the death of all previous candidates, but Bane survived and the delighted technologists devised biological implants that would deliver doses of the drug directly into his brain, enabling him to swiftly multiply his strength and speed at the press of a button…

A plan formed and the patient faked his own death. Disposed of as trash, he returned, seizing the Venom supply, rescuing his comrades and indulging in a fearsome vengeance-talking against his oppressors. Then he turned greedy eyes towards Gotham and the only rival he could imagine…

KnightFall proper begins after Bane’s challenge to the already on-the-ropes Gotham Gangbuster with Batman #491 as ‘The Freedom of Madness’ (Doug Moench & Jim Aparo) sees the ambitious strategist steal National Guard armaments and use them to free every insane super-criminal locked away in Arkham Asylum.

Pushed almost beyond rationality, Batman orders Robin to stick with his mission to train and de-program Jean-Paul and sets out to recapture all his most dangerous enemies, whilst Bane sits back, watching and waiting…

Issue #492 sees the round-up start with the Mad Hatter in ‘Crossed Eyes and Dotty Teas’ (Moench & Norm Breyfogle) proving that even Bane can make mistakes, for whilst Batman acts according to plan and scotches the Hatter’s main party, the Mad Cap Maniac has already despatched a mind-controlled Film Freak to track down their mysterious liberator…

Detective Comics #659 opens with Hellenic god-obsessed Maxie Zeus, innocuous Arnold Wesker and hyperthyroid brute Amygdala fleeing shattered Arkham in ‘Puppets’ (Dixon & Breyfogle) as Batman is called to the alley where the broken, lifeless body of Film Freak is found.

As The Ventriloquist, Wesker used the gangster doll Scarface to express his murderous schemes and – with Amygdala now in tow – has begun a lethal search to get back his old boss. The Dark Knight is obsessively locked on recapturing all his old enemies and ignores Robin’s pleas for rest and reason before tackling the hulking brute, but the confrontation does allow the cool-headed Boy Wonder to turn the tables on Bird, secretly following the Dynamic Duo for Bane.

However, the Pena Duro inmate is too much for the apprentice adventurer and only Bane’s order stops Bird from killing the boy too soon. The chaos is building in Gotham and the master planner wants nothing to spoil his intricate schemes…

Moench & Breyfogle then contribute ‘Redslash’ (Batman #493) as knife-wielding nut-job Victor Zsasz invades a girl’s school. The blood-soaked psycho marks each kill with a new scar on his own body and it’s been too long since his last…

By-the-book cop Lieutenant Stan Kitch’s wait-and-see policy only results in two more deaths that Batman cannot scrub from his own over-worked conscience. In the final confrontation patrolwoman Rene Montoya needs all her determination and utmost efforts to prevent the Dark Knight from beating Zsasz to death…

The chaos grows…

When they last met, Bane nearly crippled Killer Croc and the diseased carnival freak goes looking for payback in Detective #660, but his ‘Crocodile Tears’ (Dixon, Jim Balent & Scott Hanna) lead Robin – still craftily tracking Bird and Bane – into a deadly trap in the City’s sewers before Batman#494’s ‘Night Terrors’ (Moench, Aparo & Tom Mandrake) finally sees the re-emergence of the Joker, having fun his own way whilst looking for a partner to play with.

A collapsed tunnel saves Robin, but Bruce Wayne seems hell-bent on self-destruction; unable to relax until the maniacs are back behind padded bars. Ignoring all pleas from Alfred and Tim, he heads out into the night and narrowly prevents Jim Gordon’s murder at the hands of illusion-casting cannibal Cornelius Stirk, but is woefully unaware that the Clown Prince has allied with the Scarecrow and kidnapped Gotham Mayor Armand Krol

In Detective #661 the Arkham Alumni terrorise Krol, forcing him to further sabotage the benighted metropolis through emergency edicts even as pyromaniac Garfield Lynns sets the ‘City on Fire’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna). Having allowed Robin to tag along, Batman permits the Boy Wonder to tackle Firefly whilst the exhausted manhunter searches for less predictable prey. Meanwhile, Wesker is closing in on his Scarface and a recently de-toxified Riddler can’t pull off a robbery because there’s nobody around to answer his obsessively-constructed crime conundrums…

Barely breaking stride to take out the Cavalier, the Caped Crusader stumbles across the Firefly and almost dies at the hands of the relative lightweight in ‘Strange Bedfellows’ (Batman #495, Moench, Aparo & Bob Wiacek) as, impatient to help, Jean-Paul takes to the streets on his own, eager to contribute in his makeshift masked identity…

Finally convinced to take a night off, Bruce attends a civic gala and is recognised by Bane just as Poison Ivy turns up to kidnap all of Gotham’s glitterati. As Batman fights floral-based zombies, Gordon and his top aide Harvey Bullock lead the GCPD into a perfect ambush set by Scarecrow and the Joker…

Detective #662 sees Robin spectacularly if injudiciously tackle Riddler’s ‘Burning Questions’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) just as Batman finally writes finis to Firefly’s horrific depredations, and unsanctioned vigilante Huntress secretly joins the battle to stem the rising tide of chaos, after which Batman #496 commences the climactic clash between the completely exhausted Masked Manhunter and his maddest monsters in ‘Die Laughing’ (Moench, Aparo & Josef Rubinstein), with Scarecrow and Joker explosively sealing off the Gotham River Tunnel… with the broken Mayor at the bottom of it.

Only the detonation of the tunnel roof and a million gallons of ingressing river prevent Batman from beating the Harlequin of Hate to death, but Detective #663 proves there’s ‘No Rest for the Wicked’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) as our hero frantically hauls Krol to safety, merely to fall victim to a concerted assault by Bane’s hit squad.

Narrowly escaping, the harried hero heads home only to find Alfred unconscious and his home invaded by the orchestrator of all his woes…

Batman #497 presents the end of the road in ‘Broken Bat’ – by Moench, Aparo & Dick Giordano – as Bane finally attacks in person, mercilessly beating the exhausted but valiantly battling hero, ultimately breaking Batman’s spine in a savage demonstration of his physical and mental superiority.

Detective #664 sees the beginning of Bane’s Reign in ‘Who Rules the Night’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) as the Scourge of Pena Duro drops the broken Batman’s body in the middle of Gotham; publicly declaring himself the new boss.

Even after Alfred and Robin intercept the ambulance carrying their shattered friend and mentor, saving his life proves a touch-and-go proposition, and in the interval Joker and Scarecrow come to a parting of the ways whilst the Ventriloquist is reunited with his malevolent master Scarface.

Gotham is a city at war and soon Boy Wonder and ex-Azrael are prowling the rooftops trying to stem the tide…

The tale diverges here to reveal the contents of Showcase ’93 #7 and 8, wherein Alfred, Robin and Jean-Paul restlessly wait by the comatose Wayne’s bedside, and traumatised Tim Drake recalls how mere days previously they thwarted the latest murder-spree of erstwhile Gotham DA Harvey Dent.

‘2-Face: Double Cross’ and the concluding ‘2-Face: Bad Judgment’ (Moench & Klaus Janson) depict the Double Desperado again challenging his one-time ally by setting up a hangman’s court in a confused and tragic attempt to convict Batman of causing all the former prosecutor’s problems…

Batman #498’s ‘Knights in Darkness’ (Moench, Aparo & Rick Burchett) see the brutalised Wayne regain consciousness as a paralysed, paraplegic wreck, only to reveal an even greater loss: his fighting spirit. Faking a road crash to explain his massive injuries, Tim and Alfred consult blithely oblivious Dr. Kinsolving in an attempt to restore the billionaire’s shattered spirit and broken body, whilst Bane goes wild in the city, mercilessly consolidating his hold on the various gangs and rackets.

To further his schemes and swiftly counter any stubborn opposition, the King of Gotham recruits Catwoman as his personal thief and retrieval service…

And in Wayne Mansion, as Shondra begins her course of therapy – now knowing full well her patient’s injuries were not caused by pranging a Porsche – Tim Drake carries out Bruce’s wishes and offers Jean-Paul the role and Mantle of Batman…

Gotham City is a criminal’s paradise with thugs big and small running riot now that the Dark Knight has been so publicly destroyed, but Detective #665 reveals ‘Lightning Changes’ (Dixon, Nolan & Giordano) as the new but inexperienced Batman and Robin team start wiping up the street scum and making them fear the night again, under strict instructions from Wayne to avoid major threats until they’re ready.

Valley, however, seems to be slowly coming unglued, happily using excessive force and chafing to test himself against Bane.

Meanwhile, demoralised, wheelchair-bound Bruce is becoming increasing dependent on Shondra. When he can’t find her, he wheels himself through the gardens to the adjoining house of Tim’s father Jack Drake in time to interrupt an abduction by masked gunmen. Despite his best efforts, Wayne is unable to stop them taking Shondra and the elder Drake, whilst in Gotham the new Bat has overstepped his orders and determined to go after Bane – even if it means allying with gangsters and risking the lives of innocent children…

One final diversion comes next in a sidebar tale from Shadow of the Bat#16-18 wherein Alan Grant, Bret Blevins, Mike Manley & Steve George describe how the sinister Scarecrow returns to his old college life long enough to turn innocent students into his phobic slaves as part of a grandiose and clearly crazy plan to turn himself into ‘The God of Fear’

Juvenile ideologue and criminal genius Anarky escapes prison just in time to see “Batman” facing off against his first fully deranged super-villain and realises that the Dark Knight is as much a threat to the people as the Tatterdemalion of Terror. The young rebel decides that for the good of the common man he should take them both out…

It doesn’t quite work out that way, but after Scarecrow exposes Batman to his fear gas and it doesn’t work, they combine to vanquish the failed deity. Valley, in an increasingly rare moment of rationality, lets Anarky off with a pretty scary warning. The former Azrael muses on how his programming had made him immune to the fear chemicals, but he couldn’t be more wrong…

The Beginning of the End starts in Batman #499 with ‘The Venom Connection’ (Moench, Aparo & Hanna), as Jean-Paul’s ruthless savagery and burgeoning paranoia drives a wedge between him and Robin, whilst oblivious to it all, the rededicated and driven Bruce Wayne uses the sleuthing skills of a lifetime to trace the kidnappers to Santa Prisca…

In the Batcave, Jean-Paul realises he is still subject to the deep programming that created Azrael when he falls into a trance and awakens to find he has designed deadly new high-tech gauntlets to augment his war on crime. Bane, meanwhile, ignores all entreaties to act, refusing to bother with a mere impostor.

In a blockbusting raid, Batman and Robin capture Bane’s lieutenants, although the Darker Knight coldly risks children’s lives to achieve victory. Alienated and deeply troubled, Tim resolves to tell Bruce but finds the Mansion deserted. Bruce and Alfred have left for the Caribbean, unaware that they have a svelte stowaway in the form of Selina Kyle

Detective #666 pushes things to fever-pitch with ‘The Devil You Know’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) as the augmented, ever-angry and clearly losing it Batman breaks Trogg, Bird and Zombie out of jail and follows them back to Bane, only to fall before the sheer power and ferocity of the Venom-addicted living juggernaut…

Batman #500 is divided into a landmark two-part conclusion. ‘Dark Angel 1: the Fall’, by Moench, Aparo & Terry Austin, sees Batman frantically escape certain death at Bane’s hands and retreat to the Batcave where Azrael’s submerged programming – dubbed “the System” – takes temporary control: devising a perfectly-honed technological armoured suit that turns Batman into a human war-machine. Far more worrying is the rift that drives Robin, Nightwing and every other possible ally away as Valley prepares for his final confrontation with Bane…

The infuriated King of the City wants it too: challenging the impostor to a highly public duel in the centre of Gotham. ‘Dark Angel 2: the Descent’ (art by Mike Manley) sees a catastrophic clash which comprehensively crushes Bane and publicly proclaims the return of a new, darker Champion of the Night. As Batman narrowly chooses to leave Bane a crushed and humiliated living trophy rather than dead example, Robin – who had to save a train full of innocent bystanders from becoming collateral casualties of Batman – realises something very bad has come to Gotham…

To Be Continued…

There’s something particularly enticing about these colossal mega-compilations (available in both printed and digital editions) that utterly delights the 10-year-old in me: proven, familiar favourite stories in a huge, wrist-numbing package offering a vast hit of full-colour funnybook action, suspense and solid entertainment. And there’s even better to come…
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