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Boy, I've waited a long time for this! Although parts 1 and 3 of the Knightfall trilogy has been available in graphic novel format for almost 20 years, for some reason the second part - KnightQuest - was never published in this format. It finally saw the light of day last year, in order to tie in (cash in?) the release of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises.
The controversial Knightfall storyline brought major changes to the world of the Batman. An exhausted Bruce Wayne was defeated by super villain Bane and ended up paralysed with a broken back. He was replaced as Batman by the disturbed Jean Paul Valley, a far darker and more violent vigilante who firmly believes any actions are justified in the war against crime. This leads to rifts between Batman and his former allies such as Robin or the Gotham City policy.
What's nice about KnightQuest is that there is a real emphasis on some different villains. The bad guys who appear in these storylines will not be that well known to casual Batman fans. Of the major villains only the Joker appears (in an excellent three part story which is one of the highlights of the whole series). Instead, the focus shifts to more minor villains or recent creations, such as The Tally Man or Abattoir.
Focussing in on these characters has a couple of advantages. First of all, it means the writers have the opportunity to do some different things with both the new Batman and the villains. There are not as weighed down by past storylines, so can take them in whatever direction they choose. This allows the writers to explore some different elements of the new Batman's psychological makeup. At the same time, it breaths freshness into Batman's world. Popular though they are, there are only so many different ways you can use regular villains like The Joker, Two-Face and Penguin before adventures start to feel a little stale. The focus on some new or lesser-known villains is a welcome break from this.
It's clear that the writers are revelling in the opportunity to take the Batman in a new, more violent direction. Freed from the constraints of Bruce Wayne's conscience, the new Dark Knight is without a shred of humanity. At the same time, the writers do a fine balancing act. Had they made the new Batman too dark too quickly, the reader would have lost all sympathy with the character. As it is, Jean Paul Valley's Batman is a very conflicted character tortured, torn between the desire to do good and the desire to avenge whatever the cost. There are times when you feel deeply sorry for Jean Paul, when you actually warm to his new, darker Batman. There are other times when he crosses the line and you despise everything he has become. This is clever writing that elicits a surprisingly deep and emotional response from the reader - further proof (if it were needed) that comics can be just as worthy of the term "literature" as a standard novel.
What's particularly interesting is the reaction of existing characters to the new Batman. The Joker, for example, instantly knows that this is not "his" Batman and dismisses him as an unworthy foe. Commissioner Gordon also suspects something has changed and dislikes and distrusts this new Batman. Sergeant Harvey Bullock, on the other hand, approves of the new, tougher stance. This underlines the idea that that Batman is more than just a costume, and highlights how important Bruce Wayne's humanity is to the character.
Despite being written by a whole score of different writers, the tale hangs together very well. The individual stories always feel like a small part of a much bigger tale. They build on what has happened before or help to set up future storylines; they add to our understanding of the way this particular Batman works, and slowly chart the mental disintegration of Jean Paul Valley.
The same is true of the artwork. Although a number of different artists with very different styles contributed, there's still an overall consistency. As with the writers, it's clear that the artists are relishing the opportunity to draw a darker, more violent Bat and this comes through in some of the panels. There are some genuinely dramatic images of the Batman swooping on his victims or unleashing major violence on them. The images perfectly capture the ferocity of this new Batman and demonstrate how out of control he actually is far more effectively than words ever could. Yet, there are more emotional moments too, which have the reader sympathising with the tortured Valley.
It's just a shame that this story is still incomplete. When first published, KnightQuest actually consisted of two different elements. KnightQuest: The Crusade focussed on the new Batman whilst KnightQuest: The Search was a separate adventure which looked at Bruce Wayne's long road to recovery and his search for Tim Drake's (Robin's) kidnapped father.
All you get in this volume is the stories that made up The Crusade. After waiting over 18 years for the full tale this is a real disappointment and a bewildering decision by DC/Titan. Worse, it means that the final pages of this volume don't make much sense. Having been completely ignored for the whole volume, Bruce Wayne suddenly appears back in Gotham, fully recovered and ready to take back the mantle of the Bat. Given that the last time we saw him he was stuck in a wheelchair with seriously limited mobility, this is somewhat confusing. Essentially, if you didn't read the original comics at the time of their release, you still have no way of reading the complete Knightfall saga from start to finish.
The RRP for this book is £22.99, but it can be picked up for around £15. For any self-respecting Batman fan, this is an important title and for such a large book (over 650 pages), it offers impressive value for money. It's just a shame that after all this time, the story is still incomplete.
Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant, Jim Aparo
(c) Copyright SWSt 2013