Batman: The Knight #4 continues Bruce’s journey around the world, this time to the mountains of North Korea to learn hidden martial arts techniques from a reclusive master. Zdarsky once again delivers a fun and engaging look at the years that Bruce spent training before he ever put on the cowl, with a look into what it is exactly that made him who he is today. However despite focusing on such a formative time in Bruce’s life, the story begins to play it too safe by retreading on story beats we’ve already seen plenty of times before.
As is becoming a recurring motif in this series, the story begins with Bruce being humbled in the face of what he doesn’t know. Determined to learn under Master Kirigi, he stands outside his Dojang while Kirigi’s students come out, one by one, and beat him. It’s a common trope, but it’s pulled off very well here with plenty of help from the art. You can feel the determination in Bruce’s face as he refuses to be sent away.
This humbling scene is somewhat undercut by the fact that Bruce later becomes the best student in the Dojang after less than one year. Granted that’s always been a conceit of Batman’s unrealistic training and abilities. It’s comics, what are you gonna do?
What follows is a training montage where Bruce learns to make his body a weapon, enduring all the rigorous trials that Kirigi can throw at him. Eventually he discovers that the final lesson is a forbidden lethal killing blow known as Dim Mak, and leaves the Dojang after learning that Kirigi is teaching assassins. This is all well and good, but at the same time it feels overdone. Almost every time we’ve gotten a glimpse of Bruce’s training it’s involved him climbing up into the mountains of [insert remote Asian country here], learning under a reclusive master, and then leaving after he refuses to kill.
In addition to Batman #431, where Master Kirigi first appeared, you have Batman: Tao from Legends of the Dark Knight and Detective Comics #0 from The New 52 where he trains in the Himalayas, Batman: Blind Justice (which also happens to be where Henri Ducard is from) where he trains under Chu Chin Li in the mountains of China, and you essentially have the same premise in Knightsend where Bruce has to train with Lady Shiva which, while technically still in America, even Bruce describes it as “might as well be China.” It was even a major part of the movie Batman Begins where he was taught by the famously Irish Ra’s al Ghul in Bhutan. If you’re going to tell this story, you need to do something new and different with it if it’s going to stand out, and I don’t know if that’s the case here.
The one major new element that is present is Anton. I have mixed feelings about his role here. Bruce makes a point of initially refusing anyone’s help but opens up to Anton and realizes that he can’t just always go it alone. At one point he says he’s wouldn’t have been able to make it through the training without him. On the one hand this reads like foreshadowing of the eventual family that will grow from his sidekicks and allies in Gotham. On the other hand, having him learn this lesson so early takes away from that character development later on. It’s an inherent problem with many prequel stories, and especially those that retcon in not-mentioned-until-recently friends from the past.
While the elements of the story may not be original, they still manage to deliver on being emotional via Di Giandomenico’s pencils and Plascencia’s colors. The barren, pale whites and blues of the snowcapped mountains contrast spectacularly with the warm oranges and reds inside the Dojang. The linework is beautiful to look at and the details present in everyone’s faces and clothes make every page pop. The fight scenes are exciting and easy to follow, which is especially important for “the martial arts episode.” Lighting especially is used to great effect whether it’s through framing the characters or setting the mood of a scene. The conversation between Bruce and Anton in front of a setting sun was a highlight, where their doubt and apprehension is reflected in the shadows cast on their faces.
- You want to see Bruce learn martial arts, even if you’ve seen it before
- Beautifully illustrated fight scenes sound like fun
- Finding out all the pieces that made Bruce into The Dark Knight is something you’ve always wanted
What’s here is fun and exciting, but feels like a step down from the previous issues due to its lack of novelty. The characters continue to be well written and the art shines in both big action scenes and conveying the subtlety of characters’ emotions. I’m invested in seeing where Bruce’s journey will take him next. However I hope that this doesn’t become just an extended version of the same globetrotting training montage we’ve already seen so many times before.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided an advance copy of this issue for the purpose of this review.