Ah, the 90’s. What a time that was.

To the mind of a youngster such as myself, I view the 90’s with rose-tinted glasses. Everything seemed peppy, vibrant, energetic – most everything I saw was probably a knockoff of stuff from the 80’s, but what did it matter? Kids lived and died by Saturday Morning cartoons, and politics was not yet an ever-pervasive presence on our twitter feeds. I myself was a 98’ kid, but I like to think that still counts, since the 90’s didn’t end in Australia until 2004. It was a fascinating time for everyone. Recently I heard someone ask, “what if the 90’s just… kept going? Wouldn’t that be great?”

After punching that guy in the face, I picked up a copy of Tales from the Dark Multiverse – Batman Knightfall, and wondered if he was secretly a genius.

Written by Scott Snyder and Kyle Higgins – both experienced in stories about alternate histories – and illustrated by Javier Fernandez from the wonderful Nightwing Rebirth run, we see an all-star team tackle the first of many “What-If” stories from a variety of creators. In this issue, they ask what would happen if Azrael, a former knight of the Order of St Dumas, continued his stint as Batman for thirty whole years, becoming increasingly brutal and murdering Bruce’s former enemies? Surprisingly enough, it seems that these issues will NOT be standalone; they are connected with each other through the efforts of a being called Tempus Fuginaut. To my knowledge, he is DC’s equivalent of The Watcher, and he is scouring the Multiverse and Dark Multiverse for beings who could help prevent an incoming “Crisis”.

I honestly don’t feel it’s all that necessary – we don’t need an excuse to see alternate endings to stories we know and love, and more “required reading” for the next event is not something I’m clamoring for, with so much of that in the pages of Justice League and Year of the Villain already. On the other hand, it adds a nice level of connective tissue from issue to issue (rhyming!), and will read well in a collected edition; it reminds me almost of The Twilight Zone, with the Narrator guiding you from spooky tale to spooky tale. Fuginaut also helps in recapping most of what you need to know about Knightfall in order to enjoy this story (and thank god too, that thing is three omnibuses long).

For those of you who would like a brief summary, the Knightfall saga revolves around Bane’s famous attempt at “breaking” the Dark Knight. When he finally succeeds in crippling Bruce, Jean-Paul Valley, Azrael of the time, takes up the mantle of Batman. When Bruce regains his strength and returns to Gotham after a long journey abroad, he seeks to retake his mantle from Valley who has become increasingly ruthless and fanatical.

That’s the end of Knightfall in the main continuity, and most of it has ended up being largely inconsequential. Most people recognize the iconic imagery of Bane breaking Batman’s back, but beyond that? You’d be hard-pressed to find someone eager to go into specifics. This book understands this, I think, and plays to Knightfall’s biggest strength: it takes the fascinating concept and goes somewhere completely new with it.

I’m not going to mince words: I adored this issue. Obviously, you have to wonder how Azrael – or Saint Batman, as this issue calls him – kept a hold on Gotham for thirty years, but this is a “What-If?” for a silly comic storyline, and it knows it. It honestly feels like we’re reading the finale for a book that’s been going on in another universe for some time. If it really were the ending to an ongoing story then it would seem a little rushed, but as an episodic peek into a world we’ve never seen, it’s perfect. There are characters within the story who likely have their own tales that we will never see, such as Azrael’s companions and some of the adversaries we see throughout the issue. One small touch I loved was that Penguin was one of the few surviving characters from old Gotham, which is in line with content like The Batman Who Laughs.

There are some wonderful connections to previous storylines from and leading into Knightfall too; not only does Bane have a legacy throughout the story, but the themes of addiction from Venom carry over here as well. Azrael is a fleshed-out character, and not just a “villain of the week.” Throughout the issue, he struggles in some situations and succeeds in others, and the back-and-forth continues until the issue’s climax. He is a man doubly haunted, both by his addiction to a drug, and… well, literally, by the ghost of St Dumas. Because, you know, comics.

The story is a fascinating one with believable characters and compelling dialogue that takes you from set piece to set piece, and manages to surprise you all the way to the ending. The overall concept is very 90’s – and god knows some of the more spoilery images are EXCEEDINGLY 90’s – but the writing is anything but, knowing when to speak and when to let the images speak for themselves.

And by GOD, those images.

Javier Fernandez knocks it out of the PARK in this story; practically every page has a new design, a new set piece, something wholly unique to this story that makes it stand out among the rest of the endless DC content we see from week to week. Characters have aged and changed, both physically and mentally, and Fernandez portrays it all wonderfully. It’s hard for me to even describe – showing you the transition of Azrael from the beginning to the end of the issue would be far more effective.

…So I made a little collage!

Fernandez manages to display a fantastic range in the “acting” of his characters, and he is a big part of what keeps you enthralled from the story’s dark beginnings to its even darker ending. I’d also like to take a moment to praise the coloring of Alex Guimarães, who does a phenomenal job of distinguishing between the different periods that this comic takes place in: Tempus Fuginaut watching the Multiverses, the Knightfall recap, flashbacks within the story, and the grim future of Gotham. The mood he creates is essential to the story, and it’s the wonderful bow on top of an already astounding package.

I don’t want to spoil the ending – don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to overhype it. Despite being an effective and chilling payoff to the story, it isn’t mindblowing or anything of the sort. But there are a lot of elements about this book that I haven’t said a word about in this review; the story does a wonderful job of convincing you it’s about one thing while surreptitiously warping into another story entirely, and I don’t want to give any of that away myself. If you want to talk with me about it, shoot a comment down below once you’ve read it. And I REALLY think you should.

Recommended If…

  • You ever read an issue of the Knightfall storyline and said to yourself “hey, what if this, but forever?”
  • Azrael is a fan-favourite of yours, and you’re curious to see how he’d deteriorate under the Batman’s cowl.
  • You’re looking to see more “What-If?” stories from DC about alternate takes and endings of famous arcs.
  • Knightfall has ideas you’ve really wanted to read about, but you’ve struggled with the length of the story and the writing style of the time.
  • The next Crisis event is something that excites you, and you want to read everything about the journey there.

Overall

This is the book I just knew I HAD to review for the website, and I leaped at the chance to tackle it. One issue in, and we’re already tackling so many fascinating questions: what if we never got over the violent murder-Batman of the 90’s? What if the savior to the Multiverse was hiding in a doomed timeline? What the hell are they gonna call the next crisis when Final Crisis was already taken? All of these questions are things that I am here for. If you want to be here for them too, and you want to encourage DC to let more creators tell weirder and weirder stories, I highly suggest you pick this up.

Score: 9/10

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Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with an advance copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.