Aug 28, 2012

Andrew Reads Batman: Pt2 -Knightfall vol 1

Yeah, I ain't listing all
the creators on this
Knightfall... Well... yes.

Knightfall is not the first Batman thing I've read for this little project (see episode one here, if you want some background)... but it's the first Batman stuff I've felt really compelled to write about. Knightfall was something I was really looking forwards to reading because, of course, Bane is the main villain in the series. Bane was also the main villain in Dark Knight Rises -- so it all comes together, right?

Well... I guess. This is a review specifically of the trade paperback Knightfall Part One: Broken Bat. This trade is what I would like to call a mixed bag. It's a very 1990s mixed bag too. So why don't we start up our engines and take a closer look at this thing, after the jump?

I gotta start with some of the good stuff, before I rant about the 90s badness of this comic. Because there is plenty of good stuff. People adore the climax of this first third of the story -- that moment where Batman has his back broken (uh, spoilers? I guess) is actually pretty amazing.

In fact the story's ending in general is really really strong -- about the last three or four comics in the trade are fantastic. I'd actually almost recommend just skipping the whole start of the trade and starting with the point where Batman goes after the Joker.


But, I guess I really should get into the meat of this thing now. I have more positive stuff to say, but it needs some more context.

Knightfall started out in a way that lost me almost immediately. It's basically the biggest super hero cliche possible -- a mastermind villain orchestrates a jail break-out to mess with the heroes. I've seen it done about a million times. I've seen it done in Golden Age comics, in Silver Age comics, and in comics that came out pretty freakin' recently.

But this is a 1990s story, so it reads like a 1990s story.

Actually this story really reads a lot like Maximum Carnage. It's a similar settup -- a big bad villain creating chaos, turning a city into a war zone and  the story has a lot of the same problems. The biggest, and most obvious problem of course is the length of it

There's not much plot here -- Bane breaks out all the villains from Arkham Asylum and Batman has to fight them all one by one, getting weaker and weaker until finally he faces Bane and is defeated. That's the plot they string across about 12 issues (and this is just volume 1!). There's a lot of repetition, and the plot is stretched so thin it barely hold together. I got really tired of reading about Batman facing a new villain, defeating him (barely), then slumping in exhaustion... only to do it all again next issue.

All of Knightfall vol 1. summed up in two panels.

Because Batman is cast in the role of, "Guy pushing himself to the limits and not listenning to anyone else," he also comes off as a real jerk, and a bit of an idiot in this story. The Batman I've read in other stories is usually a few steps ahead of the reader, and the plot. I like that. It makes him seem intelligent (even if it can get ridiculous, like in the 1950s stuff), and it makes him seem proactive. He's tracking down clues, he's thinking his way out of problems and traps. It makes him more interesting. But there's none of that here. Tim Drake as Robin works out Bane's entire plot long before Batman (and long after the reader) and Batman simply won't listen to Robin about what he should be doing.

The shared universe Batman lives in is a problem here too (again, it's a prolem it shares with Maximum Carnage).

Hi Huntress! Too bad you
aren't in this story.

They go to pains to explain why there's no national guard or firefighters (in an amusing plot involving the Scarecrow and the Joker forcing Gotham's mayor into making a lot of prank calls) but where are the other super heros? In a shorter story this wouldn't be as noticeable, but they have time here to give the Huntress a two-page cameo, but all she does is beat up some random thugs. Why isn't she helping fight the Riddler? Where's Mister Miracle? Green Arrow? Superman?

I dunno. Off with their hot wives, I suppose.

Bane is... pretty cool, but desperately 90s. He reminds me of guys I'm more familiar with from Marvel comics like Stryfe or Hyperstorm or even the host of Spider-Man big-bads who were mostly 60s and 70s guys who'd been badassified for the 1990s.

Bane is one of those brooding, evil guys who stands off to the side, waiting because he has... A PLAN. And he has minions, but they're idiots because they don't understand THE PLAN. See the important part is that if they stick to THE PLAN then the hero will be defeated!! What are his motivations? What is he like as a person? Who cares, it's all about THE PLAN.

Now Bane stands out among 1990s villains because his PLAN worked. Unfortunately his PLAN was also kinda simplistc -- get Batman to fight hundreds of villains before confronting him, then beat the crap out of him. This plan has a really simple flaw, one that Robin points out again and again throughout the course of the story -- if Batman just goes after Bane *FIRST* then he won't be too exhausted to fight him.

But fortunately for Bane Batman's too stupid in this story to actually DO that, even though Robin tracks Bane down with ease. In fact Robin does all the detective work in this story, come to think of it.

My other big problem with this story, as well as the stretched plot, is the storytelling. The visual storytelling, especially on the earlier issues, is just atrocious. Here's one of my favourite examples -- it's a panel of Robin sneakilly following Bane, careful not to be seen by the evil crime lord! Fortunately Robin is like a ninja, a master of the art of not being seen!!

Robin, an expert in the art of not being seen!

Yeaaaaah... there's a lot of that in this book, a disconnect between the way it's written and the way it comes across. For example, see if you can try and work out what they're trying to express with this panel...

I barely understand, and I read the actual issue it's from.

It's a small complaint, but one of the things I didn't like about the trade version of these comics was that there were no reproductions of the individual issues' covers. There's not even a gallery in the back. That's unfortunate because some of the best, most moody (and admittedly most 90s) are from the entirity of Knightfall is from those covers.

The inclusion of the covers as chapter breaks might have made the experience of reading it a little less fatiguing.

Something happened around Knightfall part 8. It suddenly got good. After an interminable, and frankly boring run of Batman fighting villain after villain and complaining because he was feeling ill, and exhausted things turned around.

With part 7 suddenly the narration was being done by Batman himself, but with part 8 rather than sounding whiney he starts to sound genuinely exhausted. This is the issue where he confronts the Joker and the Scarecrow, who are working together. He's confronted by his worst fear -- the death of Jason Todd, the previous Robin. Rather than making him cower in terror this just makes Batman fight harder. I loved this. This was heroic, not whiney.

This sequence was awesome. 

This was what I'd been waiting to see -- Batman being a hero, doing stuff not just out of obsession but out of a heroic desire to do GOOD. He was forced to let the Scarecrow and the Joker go, to save Gotham's mayor from a flood, and that sequence is hands down my favourite in the entire comic. Batman pulls out all the stops, and he has some amazing moments, talking about himself, and explaining to the reader what makes him great:

This sequence was also awesome.
Maybe it's something about
green scenes.

Then, in my favourite moment in the entire book, we see the Mayor  talking to comissioner Gordon and we get this glorious moment contrasting people's perceptions of the Batman with the reality of Batman as a mortal man.

The stuff that followed was also good -- Batman fighting each one of Bane's three henchmen and having to defeat them in a different way. Three battles, all in one issue. The final battle with Bane was a bit drawn out, but it all led up to a very satisfying, and crushing, climax. It actually felt worth it to get through all the crap to finally see Bane break Batman.

There were, despite how long and boring it all was, some great moments in Knightfall. As well at the stuff I mentioned above. There's stuff like Batman kicking Poison Ivy in the face...
"Witch" is comics-code for "Bitch".

Or this exchange between Batman and Robin that leads to them tracking down the Mad Hatter.

Hee. Humour in a Batman comic. Who'dathunk?

Or how about this moment with Bane:

I want this panel as a poster. So awesome.

I love this, it's exactly the sort of wonderful incongruity that comic books can pull off so well. A guy in fetish gear and a luchador mask sitting in a nice stately home watching pop psychology on TV. It's freakin' awesome.

In general Knightfall was a neat crash course in Batman's enormous rogues gallery. I got to see a tonne of villains I wasn't familiar with before. (The way they were all defeated one-by-one was a little tiresome, though.)

Y'know, this is why I really wanted to talk about Knightfall first. It's the silly moments. Batman kicking Poison Ivy kinda qualifies here too. But there's also moments like this one... this was the introduction to the characters of Azrael and Robin in this TPB (and incidentally the first time I'd ever read either of them!)

Robin cutting a half-naked dude's hair. There... there are no words.

These scenes of Tim Drake and Jean Paul (that's Robin and Azrael) are not deliberately gay. But it's hard to look past Robin watching a half-naked man doing push-ups without raising an eyebrow or two. Certainly it's caused me to create a mental character for Jean-Paul as a whiney, slightly effiete guy who's always complaining about Batman not letting him do things, and asking Robin to cut his hair. What an introduction to the character!

I bet you do, Jean Paul.

I'd hoped to get a glimpse into who Batman is in this story, but for the most part it's not there. Honestly that's what I'm looking for from this project -- an inroads into why Batman is such a beloved character, why he's so popular. I get the surface stuff, but Batman has never really gotten me in the gut. Knightfall mostly fails to deliver on that score. It's a big, bombastic, 1990s romp of a story. But it's far too long and that romp becomes very boring.

I say almost because right there at the end you get a glimpse of Batman the hero -- Batman the actual character. If this story had been five issues long I might have loved it. At 12 issues I'm surprised I even finished reading it.

This panel has nothing to do with anything.
I just think it's hilarious.
--Andrew S.
("Wah! Why won't Batman let me fight! Wah! Robin! Robin! Cut my hair!")


  1. With respect to your comment about where the other heroes are while this is happening, Superman did have a decent out - he was busy being dead at the time...

    1. In which case there were like 4 of him running around! Okay, Steel can't do anything without a serious commute, but where's Superboy, dammit?

      Honestly it's one of those complaints that only comes up if a story goes on too long -- you're given time to wonder where the other heroes are, rather than just being swept up in the action.

      --Andrew S.

  2. I used to come across #497 there all the time at Half Price Books. Once I realized the dinosaur on the cover (and I know, I know, the dinosaur and the penny are ALWAYS used to establish the location as the Batcave) looks like he's looking in like "OH HEY GUYS WHAT'S GOING ON" I could no longer look at it without cracking up.

  3. Ah, I just got through this arc right around the same time you did. It's painful, and all too much a product of its time. It doesn't help that there is far too much Kelley Jones artwork going on.

    That being said, my approach was more holistic in that I'd been reading most of the Batman-related comics published from 1986 on (including the various crossover events he stars in, plus a great deal of other comics like Superman. I feel this approach goes a long way towards giving a proper build-up to Knightfall, which ultimately was a very long event that basically starts well before the original Azrael miniseries and does not resolve entirely for many years. Not even Contagion superseded it completely. If I had to pick an event that finally pushed back against Knightfall's ripple-effect (and signaled the end of the whole ridiculous era, let's be real) it'd be Cataclysm and No Man's Land. Pretty much the first issues of Batman, Detective Comics and Gotham Knights to come out after NML ended were the beginning of "modern" comics. Granted, elsewhere in the DCU the 90s still had a stranglehold, but it's gradually starting to fade, and thank Christ.

  4. There's actually a few issues of Knightfall that "take place" before part the actual prison break. Always thought it was a little annoying. Also, The Sword of Azrael miniseries that introduces Azrael is always good for a laugh.