Everything I know about Batman I learned from Batman: The Animated Series and Knightfall.
I grew up in a town of merely 200 people. When the comic book vanished from grocery store racks across the country to be sold almost exclusively in niche comic shops I was left out in the cold. For years I only had my copies of Knightfall and VHS tapes of Animated Series episodes recorded from countless Saturday mornings to keep my interest in the Dark Knight alive. I know that you came here for a review and not a walk down memory lane with me, but I want to state how significant reading this book again was for me. I had not read this story since I was a child. Not since my family moved to a new town with a comic shop filled with all new books have I touched Knightfall. So naturally I was afraid that if I read it it wouldn’t hold up to the memory. In my mind this is one of the greatest Batman stories ever told. I’ve been saying it is for years anyway, but what if I’ve been blinded by nostalgia? What if the foundation of everything I believe makes a good Batman event is mediocre at best? If I read Knightfall again and hate it…what then?
For those who may not know, Knightfall is about the, well, the Fall of the Knight. Batman. You can’t even look at the cover of this thing without seeing major spoilers. I think everyone knows at this point that Bane breaks Batman the same way everyone knows that Darth Vader is Luke’s father.
The Dark Knight Rises said it best, Bane didn’t adopt the dark, he was born in it. He is raised in a hellish prison and ultimately escapes. Now that he’s free, he wishes to do the only thing he knows how: dominate. So he asks who the most feared man is. He asks what place in this world could be as scary as the hellhole he just climbed out of. Batman. Gotham. These things will be crushed under his boot. His plan begins with the release of a plague that will ravage the city and bring its champion to his knees: he unleashes the inmates of Arkham Asylum.
The latest edition of the KnightSaga is divided into three massive volumes: Knightfall, Knightquest, and the final installment KnightsEnd, which will go on sale in September. This particular tome is 640 pages long and includes Vengeance of Bane, which I reviewed last week as part of the Batman vs. Bane trade paperback, every major chapter of the Knightfall storyline and even a few not-so-necessary ones. Batman #491-500, Detective Comics #659-666, Showcase #7 & #8, and Batman: Shadow of the Bat #16-18 are all here. This. Book. Is. Huge. And since it’s so huge, I can’t exactly give a thorough breakdown of each chapter without the review stretching so long that nobody would even want to read it. I tried. Using notes I jotted down while reading the book for you guys, I wrote a first draft that reached 3,000 words yet only managed to cover 1/3 of the book! So I deleted all of that and went in a different direction. I’m going to give one big overview of my experience reading Knightfall for the first time since my childhood. How it holds up over all these years, how its depiction of Gotham compares to what I’ve seen in recent years, and what it’s like reading Knightfall after seeing The Dark Knight Rises.
A World of Consequences
At seven years old I fully believed that the comics were a world filled with consequences. I had just started reading comic books and already my hero’s back was snapped, the city was getting destroyed, and what’s this about there being a Robin that was beaten to death with a crowbar? My mind was blown! Retcon. Reboot. These words were not part of my vocabulary. Batman’s story appeared to be a finite one. A tragedy building toward an epic conclusion. I may be a bit more cynical now that these “events” happen just about every summer and characters are all too frequently revived or re-envisioned, but as I was reading this book I found myself immersed in the material and I believed in a world of consequences all over again. Yes, Knightfall holds up well and was a great read.
If you want to see Bruce pushed to his limits and struggle against overwhelming odds then there is nothing better than Knightfall. Everything up until the point he is broken is a 10/10. It’s Batman gold. How fortunate was I that in the brief window I was able to get comics as a child that it was all Knightfall! These issues show Batman at his best–when he doesn’t back down no matter what, detail the origin of Two-Face and Scarecrow, explain the death of Jason Todd, offer a diverse sampling of all the major players of the rogues gallery–this image:
It was 1993, and to a 7 year old boy who had no Wikipedia, ComicVine, or internet to speak of, this single page was an obsession of mine. Here was a page that laid out what I believed was the full Batman rogues gallery. I practiced drawing all of the villains based off of this one page. Even “Moench” which I realize now as an adult isn’t a villain at all but a fun little Easter egg thrown in by the book’s creative team. Artist Norm Breyfogle also added himself to the list of escaped foes. It would be years before I realized Amygdala wasn’t even considered a C or D-list villain!
And it’s so bloody serious. It’s perfect for fans of the grounded Christopher Nolan films, but it also doesn’t go too dark. Well, there is one chapter with Zsasz that’s reminiscent of a notorious Ted Bundy crime at a sorority house. As I saw Zsasz lick the blood off his knife I couldn’t believe I read this as a 7 year old, but other than that I think the tone of this series was spot-on.
Great heroism, great villainy, and its sense of urgency make Knightfall a must-read. The urgency of this volume is so great that it’s almost impossible to put down and it never lets up until the moment Jean Paul Valley takes up the cape and cowl. But even then, I was so satisfied with the first half of this book that I would’ve gladly paid full price just for that!
Flaws of the Fall
Of course, these chapters are not without flaw. I see that now. Here are a few of the problems I had throughout the book:
While Graham Nolan, Norm Breyfogle, and Jim Aparo are brilliant artists whose work made for a surprisingly cohesive run that blended together well, their work isn’t quite as detailed as what we see in most modern comics. There are even a few panels in which the coloring was done incorrectly or forgotten entirely. Gordon will have a flesh-colored mustache, Bane’s tubes are flesh colored, the sky is stark white a night time but the moon still hangs in the sky a glowing yellow.
Bane’s mask may be threatening but his suit is silly (I’ll touch on this more later in the review). His henchman Bird, with his mullet and Lord of the Dance fashion sense, is even sillier. Speaking of 90s references there are quite a few in here whether it’s a satire of Sally Jessy Raphael or a blatant reference to Sadaam Hussein. These nods to the time in which the series was written are a bit distracting but I found those details charming.
Scarecrow and Joker’s team-up never made much sense, in fact Joker wasn’t written very well at all. Moench (one of the best, he wrote Prey) and Dixon who write most of the book do a phenomenal job with every other character but Robin and Joker. Joker is never funny or scary and doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose. After all, this is a perfect scenario for him to thrive, but you can’t use him to his full potential without taking the spotlight away from Bane. He’s not a character suited for bit parts. That’s why he becomes the main villain by the time we reach the end of Mask of the Phantasm. You can’t have large scale destruction and expect the audience to believe that Joker would merely lurk in the shadows. As for Robin…if you’re a fan of Tim Drake then you have to hate Knightfall. I believe he steps up and becomes more of a heroic figure in Knightquest, but here he acts more like a voice of reason to Batman…only it’s not handled very well and he’s often shown in the least heroic light. The kid does bitchwork like cut Jean Paul Valley’s hair and hand him a towel during workouts and Batman never wants him around either. But these are all pretty minor complaints about the first half of the book. Those 314 pages are about as close to a perfect Batman Event as you’re going to get. The real problems come after Bruce’s back gets broken.
The bad news is that the last half of the comic isn’t that memorable. The good news is that it was an unpredictable read and should keep you more than interested. But don’t expect it to be as captivating as Bruce’s struggle. But even though the second half of this gigantic book doesn’t quite measure up to the first, it’s still of historical importance to the old Batman continuity. See, the problem is that it’s pretty hard to top the fall of a super hero with anything other than the hero picking himself back up and returning. And this story is so epic that it takes about a year or more for Bruce to actually come back! So everyone had to ask themselves “What happens now?”
It’s kind of clear nobody knew what to do since the first two chapters after the back-break actually rewind the clock to show a previously untold adventure: how Batman & Robin caught Two-Face after he escaped from Arkham…three weeks ago. Wait. First of all, you don’t really care about going back after such a major event. All you care about is what happens now. Second of all, this has been going on for three weeks? The way that the story was written until now made it feel like the chaos had been going on for about 3 days. Tops. Three weeks? There’s no excuse for Batman not to get some rest and get healthy in that amount of time. And the police in this series are pretty competent so I think even they could’ve cleaned this town up in 3 weeks. It removes some of the tension of the events that happened earlier but not quite as much as when we see Bane again.
Bane sounded scary and ambitious from the beginning. A tremendous threat that set an epic tale into motion. He wanted to break one of the greatest heroes and conquer an entire city. And in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises he does EXACTLY that. The city is his. He is king of Gotham city. Nobody is above Bane. But here he breaks Batman and then continues to take over Gotham…’s underworld. Yeah. Turns out he was never that clear on the whole “Gotham is mine” bit. It turns out that “Gotham is mine” means “Now I get a cut of the profits made by all illegal business.” He doesn’t even do much himself. In The Dark Knight Rises Bane would at least strut around in the background with his hands tucked across his chest. This Bane hangs out in his hotel room/apartment and watches the news all day–in costume. Why is he still wearing his costume if all he’s going to do is drink wine and coffee and watch TV? He doesn’t have an army like the Bane from the movie, he has three henchmen who just run around shooting all the other gangs and gain control of drugs, guns, the unions, etc. etc. All while Bane sits at the dining room table (it’s literally the least menacing villain lair ever. It’s not a scary rundown building, it’s not a luxurious mansion, it’s a pretty average looking hotel room) and brags “From the highest roller to the lowest street punk. Out of every dollar taken in we get fifty cents.”
And although the Two-Face flashback ties up a loose end, they could’ve just as easily said Dent went into hiding to bide his time. It’s in his character. Same goes for Scarecrow who gets his own 3-part story that detracts from the bigger picture. Once Bane breaks the bat and all the heroes scramble, I found myself only wanting to see how they could strike back at Bane. The Two-Face and Scarecrow bits are little more than a distraction and Scarecrow’s story, written by Alan Grant, doesn’t capture the character’s voice well. For some reason Scarecrow loves books, frequently quotes Shakespeare, and dances everywhere gleefully. It’s odd and you can skip these sections of the book without losing anything important. If you’re like me you’ll be far more concerned with the Bat-family finding Bane. Speaking of which…
Where is Nightwing? Grayson is kept in the dark throughout the entire book and this Jean Paul Valley guy, although I was stoked to see a blondie like myself dawn the cape and cowl when I was 7 years old, is a psycho. Chronicle writer Max Landis has an amusing video on the subject: here. And man, his upgraded Bat-suit is totally 90s. Very Rob Liefield with its oversized shoulders, shiny metal, and numerous pouches. I like the helmet, though.
I thought it would be interesting to address some of the differences that really stood out between Knightfall and what’s been shown in the New 52 so far. First of all, when you read this you get to see a Batman who is more of a loner. It can get a bit annoying at times the way he pushes Robin away. You’ll also get to see Tim Drake as Robin again which isn’t exactly something to get excited about. Robin isn’t depicted very well here. As an adult reading this I can see that this kid has a pretty good head on his shoulders and he’s essentially the conscience of the Knightfall series. But when you’re reading this at 7 years old all you see is a kid in tights who cuts Jean Paul Valley’s hair, helps Jean Paul Valley work out, is a frequent damsel in distress, makes costly mistakes, and whom Batman (Wayne and Valley) want nothing to do with because he slows them down and whines too much. Him telling Batman to take it easy one night seems kind of reasonable now, but when I was 7 years old and it came off more like this…
Batman: I’m going to go into this burning amusement park and zoo to find Firefly. I’ll probably fight a panther with my bare hands as well. It’s going to be the most awesome thing young Andrew Asberry has ever seen, chum.
Robin: That’s dangerous, Batman. We should go home and let the police take care of this.
So I think in the process of reading Knightfall I realized why I never really cared about Tim Drake. I had it planted in my skull at a very early age that Tim Drake was a buzzkill and a major distraction from panther-fights.
Other major differences include Zsasz whose original look of blonde hair and weird eyes is still a mystery to me. I can’t figure out what was the deal with Zsasz’s eyes. Are those supposed to be long eyelashes/eyebrows? Was he born with triangle eyes? Did they give him power? What’s up with that?
Do you remember Harold Allnut? I don’t. I had to Google who he was. He’s a character that’s been totally lost over the years (only remembered for his fate in Hush and then never again). A hunchback who lived in the Batcave and made repairs to armor, vehicles, and gadgets. It’s not a complete loss that he’s been dropped from continuity. I’m fine with Alfred, Bruce, and Lucius tinkering on the latest gizmos. Plus I like to think Bruce is a kind enough man that he’d let Harold sleep in one of the many lavish bedrooms upstairs in the mansion rather than stick him in a dank cavern at the bottom of the cave. He may be a hunchback but he’s still a person for cryin’ out loud.
Something else I quickly noticed was the use of “R” shaped grapples and ‘rangs thrown by Robin. Another interesting thing worth noting about Robin: Tim gets his butt kicked by someone who isn’t that bad ass. I actually don’t have a problem with this. In fact, I’m always annoyed at how modern comics show these Robins as being way too tough. We have it drilled into our heads all the time how Batman trained for almost a decade! He traveled all around the world learning every form of combat imaginable before he was able to beat up bad guys. But when it comes to Robin, all these teenage boys had to do was throw on a pair of tights and a domino mask, maybe take a few karate classes or read a book on self defense and suddenly they’re just as effective as The Batman. Good on ya, Knightfall. You decreased the power level of Robin and gave that strength to…THE POLICE. The cops actually do things in this series. Remember the cops? They’re the guys that vanished throughout the recent Night of the Owls storyline and basically any other Gotham City disaster that’s happened in the past 5 years. Knightfall shows Bullock, Gordon, Montoya, and others doing their best to save this city. They don’t just observe and walk in to say “Nice job, Batman” when the story is over– they do things. They’re smart, competent, and have personality. Even the henchmen are smarter and second guess their boss’s and make plans of their own. Gotham feels alive in this series There are also frequent cuts to news reports and talk shows give the average citizen’s perspective on things. It worked in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and it works here.
Comparing a Fall to a Rise
The Bane of the comic book world (or at least the Bane seen here) is a less respectable villain than the version seen in The Animated Series or The Dark Knight Rises. Those incarnations faced the Batman head-on to prove that they were his superior. This Bane wears Batman down over time, never once confronting him until there is absolutely nothing left. Bane is never comfortable fighting Batman until one night when the Caped Crusader can barely even stand and even then he uses venom, a super steroid, to make himself even stronger. Most annoying is the fact that Bane gloats about how he broke the bat. He never shuts up about it. Even in the New 52, when he showed up in Batman: The Dark Knight he still goes on and on about how he broke the bat. The difference between Nolan’s Bane and the Bane Moench and Dixon write for here is that the Knightfall Bane is a lot more cowardly. He’s a bully who only dares pick a fight he knows he can win without taking a scratch and if he ever does feel the slightest pain he runs away scared. And in a way it’s even more heartbreaking to see Batman beaten by such a man. It’s not that your hero was bested, he was cheated. Bruce never runs and he knows from the beginning of this book that the challenge he faces is far too great but he must endure if he is to save but a few. Nolan’s Bane would never run from a fight. He’s relentless and he’s far more honorable. Sure, trapping Batman into a fight with him wasn’t exactly gentlemanly but at least he didn’t wait until he was sick, injured, and going to bed for the night to step forward. I feel that Nolan’s Bane is better than the comics version in almost every way. I think that the film’s mask wouldn’t look as good in comics. That’s about it. Nolan’s Bane is scarier, smarter (he actually had a plan of action once he took over the city, a plan that went beyond the typical gangster), and he isn’t wearing a wrestler’s lycra singlet that opens at the navel.
Still it is evident when reading Knightfall that the voice of Bane in the film fits the dialogue here perfectly. Hearing Tom Hardy’s voice was almost instantaneous. What was odd though is the voice of Batman. I don’t hear Christian Bale in my head when I read Batman, that’s still Kevin Conroy. Something about Bale’s voice is trying too hard to be scary. Instead, without even thinking about it, Bale’s Batman voice popped into my mind when I read Jean Paul Valley under the cowl and Bale’s regular voice is what I heard for Bruce Wayne. It’s interesting how that works.
I have a lot more to say obviously, I’m looking at a ridiculous amount of notes but I’m nearing 4,000 words on this article and I’m sure you’ve all got better things to do than listen to me rant about a book that came out almost 20 years ago so I’m gonna cut things short there. It’s a great read. Especially now that you’ll hear Tom Hardy’s Bane voice when you read it.
What Was Missing
This volume should have included Batman #488, #489, and #490 as well. Especially #489 which is referenced a number of times throughout Knightfall. These three issues not only explain who Jean Paul Valley is, but they illustrate how carefully Bane planned his attack, and how Bruce was growing ill with pneumonia. All of these are important plot points that should’ve been included.
The binding has been a major complaint on all the New 52 graphic novels and especially the latest printing of Justice. Well that problem doesn’t happen here. Every page opens cleanly so you can see every image and every bit of dialogue perfectly. The newspaper quality pages might be a turnoff to some, but I honestly can’t imagine this story on the glossy stuff. Some of the older coloring styles just look kind of odd on modern paper. Look at the Deluxe edition of Batman: Year One for example. I think they even doctored the original colors in an effort to make things work and it came out looking much, much worse. Plus, the newsprint used here smells nice.
There isn’t any, but to be honest the price for such a massive volume is so fair and the first half of this book (13 of the best issues ever) is so good that I consider the final 326 pages to be bonus material.
If you’re just in this for the breaking of Batman, which is the absolute best stuff, then you might be more interested in buying Knightfall: Broken Bat for $11.05 over at Amazon. I mean, that’s the main reason I’m pushing this book so hard and why I think it deserves a 10/10. It’s so good that it could’ve included 300 pages of grass growing or paint drying at the end of it and I’d still give it a 10/10. I mean, sure, if it was a lot more expensive, I’d grade it more reasonably (the last half is more of a 7/10 kind of thing which would balance out to an 8.5/10 but let’s be honest, these score are kind of arbitrary). But what you get in this, the complete Knightfall Vol. 1, is more than worth the price if you ask me. It’s $29.99 but you can get it at Amazon for $19.79! That’s the Vengeance of Bane prelude, the Broken Bat storyline plus the Who Rules the Night stuff where Jean Paul confronts Bane. Everything in one massive tome for twenty bucks is a heck of a deal that no one who doesn’t already own Knightfall should pass up.
This book is 640 pages of one of the most significant events in this character’s history. 314 pages of that is some of the best, most entertaining Batman material I’ve ever read. Those 314 pages are so great and the price tag for this book is so fair (especially at Amazon) that I don’t think any fan who doesn’t already own this saga should be without it. Twenty bucks for this much goodness? You’d have to be crazy not to buy it. And with that I’m done. I’ll probably never do a review this long ever again.