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Knightfall is the epic storyline that shook the world back in 1993. Fresh from killing off Superman, DC also removed Bruce Wayne as Batman and placed the cowl in the hands of a more violent replacement. Broken Bat is the first part of an ambitious storyline which lasted for over 12 months and shook Wayne's World to its core.
Drug-enhanced Bane has come to Gotham City, intent on pushing the Batman to his limits before destroying him and taking control of all criminal activities in Gotham. To start his plan, he launches an attack on Arkham Asylum, releasing all of Batman's deadliest foes. An already debilitated Batman must track down and stop all these villains without respite before they can wreak havoc on the city.
In some ways, Knightfall shares a lot of DNA with the more recent Batman RIP storyline. Both saw Bruce Wayne incapacitated and removed as Batman; both saw another character assuming the mantle of the Bat; and, if you are of a cynical turn of mind, both were designed to generate publicity and shift comics due to the controversy they generated.
As a story, however, Knightfall works better. Whereas Morrison's RIP epic relied on a lot of confusing sci-fi babble, Knightfall is more straightforward and grounded in reality. It's a more believable tale (that even the strongest man can be ground down and broken by extreme pressure) and a lot easier to follow. The fact that it is closer to our own frame of reference makes it a lot easier to identify with Batman and the concerns of his friends and allies for his health. Much though I enjoyed (most) of the RIP series, I never felt that emotionally engaged with it. Here, thanks to some excellent writing, it's almost impossible not to feel a deep sense of sadness as you witness Batman's gradual physical and moral decline at the hands of an enemy who relentlessly and remorselessly tests him to destruction.
Comic books are often too readily dismissed as "just for children", but Knightfall proves otherwise. There is some superb writing on display here, in terms of the structure and depth of the story, the dialogue and the way characters are depicted. The plotting is strong, secure and logical, the characterisation convincing and the tone consistent with what we know about Batman's character. This latter aspect is no mean achievement. Given the number of writers who contributed to the various parts of Broken Bat, it would have been easy for inconsistencies to slip in. Instead, the whole thing has a consistent feel to it, so that each part feels like it belongs to the same over-arching storyline, not merely a short story.
You could argue that Broken Bat is a fairly simple tale at heart. Each part essentially consists of Batman tracking down and defeating one of his enemies (The Riddler, Firefly etc.), before collapsing in a heap from exhaustion then setting off to do it all again. Belying this apparent simplicity, the writing sets off a genuinely emotional response (particularly when the story is read for the first time). Surely that is storytelling (in any medium) at its finest?
It's also true that you probably need to have read some of the titles preceding this (or at least their plot summaries) to fully understand some of the references. If you haven't read Sword of Azrael or Vengeance of Bane, for example, you will be puzzled by the origins of both Jean Paul Valley and Bane himself. Similarly there are instances of dialogue which refer back to Batman's earlier adventures (why Batman is so debilitated before he even starts to track down the Arkham villains; Azrael's disastrous encounter with Killer Croc) and so on. Whilst these are not absolutely essential, they are part of the wider story arc, so it's helpful to have read them.
Like parts of the storyline, it's all too easy to dismiss the artwork in this volume as "simple". It is certainly very different in style from today's darker, more realistic drawings and perhaps more the sort of artwork that people associate with comics - relatively simple images of characters, large blocks of a single colour, simple facial expressions and so on.
Again, however, they are surprisingly effective, capturing the spirit and tone of the narrative. Knigthfall features the work of some of the top artists at DC at the time, including the superb Norm Breyfogle and Jim Aparo, who were renowned for their depictions. As with the script, the presence of so many artists ran the risk of the tale developing an inconsistent look and feel but whilst there is perhaps a greater variance in the style of the artwork, it still works well. Here we get multiple interpretations of the world of Batman and his foes, but each adds something to the tale. It's hard to point to a single part and suggest that the artwork is weak. There might be some which you prefer to others (I'm not overly keen on Kelly Jones' interpretation), but none which are awful.
Knightfall might have been designed with the selling of comics in mind, but it's nice to see that DC took the time to ensure it was a strong story, too. This first part of the epic saga sets the tone for what is to follow and is an interesting and fun read that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.
Despite being almost constantly in print since around 1994, Broken Bat has held its value pretty well, so a copy is going to cost somewhere between £12-15. It's well worth it, though. This is far from being a one-read wonder and I have lost count of the number of times I have read it over the years.. It's an important part of Batman's history and an essential title for any comic lover.
Knightfall Part 1: Broken Bat
Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon et al
Titan, 2012 (reprint)
© Copyright SWSt 2013
Knightfall: Part One collects the first few chapters of a Dark Knight storyline that was released with the intention of equalling the success of The Death Of Superman story arc that ran in D.C's neighbouring comic book series. It was supposed to be the ultimate Batman storyline that cultimated in his downfall as The Dark Knight faced off against his hardest adversary to date.
To be fair, the big baddie of this series, Bane, barely appears in this opening omnibus until right at the end. Instead fans are treated to a veritable who's who of Batman villains as Bane releases the entire population of Gotham's notorious Arkham Asylum in one night leaving the city in complete and total chaos. Batman is forced to face off against almost every big bad guy he has ever put away and the end result, of course, is that The Dark Knight is left emotionally, physically and mentally drained.
Meanwhile Bane collects data on how Batman reacts and responds to all his different adversaries in preperation for their upcoming battle; the better to beat the Vigilante he sees as his biggest threat to power.
All this cultimates in a very good and cleverly written story that takes a fresh look at just how far Batman will push himself in the pursuit of truth and justice, law and order. It is one of the strongest Batman stories ever written and right up there with classics like The Killing Joke and A Death In The Family.
Is it the greatest Batman story ever told? Probably not ~ this is still reserved in my eyes for The Dark Knight Returns ~ but it does come close and is well worth looking out for either on Ebay or in your local independent Comic store. Seriously, if you are a Batman fan, old or new, who has never read this, there has never been a better time to check this out ahead of the new movie out later this year......
Batman Knightfall (Part One: Broken Bat) is the first of a trilogy of graphic novels that collect together the most salient part of a storyline that dominated the weekly Batman comics for several months from late 1992. It was written by Doug Moench and Chuck Dixon but of course has a battery of artists as this draws together Batman #491-497 and Detective Comics #659-663. This is one of the more daring and famous of the weekly Batman storylines and sort of like his version of the Death of Superman arc in a way. The story begins with a heavily armed raid on Arkham Asylum - the creepy psychiatric facility in Gotham City where all the most notorious and terrifying villains are held. And what a grotesque gallery of villainy. The Joker, The Riddler, The Scarecrow, Nick Clegg, Mad Hatter, The Ventriloquist, Firefly, Cavalier, Zsasz, Roger de Courcey and Nookie the Bear, Killer Croc, Noel Edmonds, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Film Freak. And so on. "Not good," says Robin as they survey a computer screen of the escapees. "Heavily armed, terminally dangerous," says Batman. "But who did this to me? Who broke them out?" The man behind the raid is Bane ("The bane of everything...") - an intimidating criminal mastermind who intends to take control of Gotham and has now set the wheels of his grand masterplan in action. He is a huge man who wears a mask (like a wrestler I suppose) with two pipes that feed him "Venom", a drug he was once given during experiments to make him a super soldier. Venom gives Bane incredible strength. "A direct feed through the helmet straight into my brain and bloodstream, burning my veins with a very special potion." Despite his terrifying appearance and ability to snap your neck like a twig, Bane is highly intelligent and calculating. He knows that in order to take over the city of Gotham he will have to "break" the Batman.
He has deliberately allowed all of Batman's most pesky and dangerous foes to escape from Arkham because he knows that Batman will now be stretched to the very limits of his endurance trying to round them all up and capture them again. Bruce Wayne is already having a psychological crisis and has lost his "edge". He is tired. As everyone from The Joker to Firefly (nutcase obsessed with starting fires) creates havoc and carnage in Gotham, Batman has to take them all down one by one. He is soon shattered and weak, more vulnerable than he has ever been before. But lurking at the end of this seemingly endless gauntlet is the deadliest foe of all - Bane. This is an entertaining graphic novel that should make you feel compelled to get parts two and three by the end. The art changes now and again from artist to artist, issue to issue, but it's always colourful and sometimes very striking. The conceit here is generally good. Every super criminal that Batman has put away is now suddenly back on the streets and running riot with considerable glee. Batman literally has to go without sleep, rushing from one conflagration to another, unshaven, frazzled, his costume increasingly torn and shredded. The theme of the comic is that every person has their breaking point - even Batman. Bane (to be seen in the Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight Rises) is an interesting character I think. Brains and brawn. He orchestrates the mayhem behind the scenes and observes Batman becoming weaker and weaker. When the moment is right he will strike and Gotham will be his. "Look at the streets. Lifeless. Empty. A community cowers behind locked doors. I have created a darkness that chills their very souls. I have made a city inured of its own horrors know fear!"
Quite a shocking final act in the book too. I like a panel where Bane is watching the carnage on television. He has his mask and bulging muscles but is in contemplation mode with a finger on his chin and a cup of tea next to him. Very civilised as he watches the bloodbath he has created. The panel encapsulates the character in a clever way. Most of the story is of course Batman trying to take down the nutty villains who have escaped. This is fun, very Bruce Lee Game of Death. Bit too much of The Ventriloquist for my tastes (he's so insane he has a murderous sock on his hand that he talks to!) but there are many nefarious rogues for him to tangle with as fear grips the city. Zsasz, a knife wielding maniac who gives himself a scar each time he kills and then The Mad Hatter. "Hats induce trance. The hatband circuitry works perfectly. Surrounding their skulls with signals that alter their brainwaves!" I like the way The Joker and The Scarecrow team up together here (although they of course do not trust each other). These are probably the two biggest fruitcakes out of all the villains. The Scarecrow has a special gas that he uses on people to induce their worst fears. So, for example, if you are terrified of snakes, then the gas will make you feel like you are crawling with snakes. I quite like the running joke where he keeps threatening to use the gas on The Joker and Joker is quite unconcerned and asks him to go right ahead. To him it would merely be amusing. You can't scare someone who is already insane. Some good surreal panels of the unfortunate victims of Scarecrow's fear gas experiencing their worst nightmares. What maybe doesn't work quite so well in the book is the constant snippets from talk shows discussing the trouble in Gotham and the psychological condition of Batman and his relationship with Bane and the other villains. This is an attempt at some Frank Miller type satire but isn't terribly inspired.
One of the best bits in the collection is actually The Joker escaping from Arkham at the start and taking revenge on the doctor that treated him. Or tried to treat him anyway. "Trust me! Madness is the only freedom. And once all the madness under your strict control will soon be free to run wild!" I'd forgotten actually that this must have come soon after the "death of Robin" arc where the Joker killed Batman's trusty teenage sidekick. So Batman is very brutal to Joker here. The Robin killed was Jason Todd and here Robin is now Tim Drake. Drake begins to feel increasingly irrelevant because Batman keeps him out of the action and wants to handle everything alone. Alfred is good here too. Making it clear in his usual dry way that he thinks both Bruce Wayne and Tim Drake are completely bonkers for dressing up in costumes and fighting crime in the first place. There are a couple of aquatic sections in the comic I thought were good. Robin kidnapped by Bane and being questioned in a sewer. Bane could easily kill Robin but he is intrigued to learn more about Batman, the person he has been stalking and plotting to destroy. Anyway, Killer Croc emerges from the sewer and fights Bane, leaving Robin to escape in the water below, fighting a raging current. There is a good bit too where Batman has to rescue the Mayor underwater. Why the Mayor is underwater in the first place is a long story. All the issues here seem to feature wall to wall action. Maybe a little too much at times. Batman battles a pyromaniac known as Firefly who wants to set the city ablaze. Then he battles him again. And again. There is not enough reflective stuff although to be fair that comes in the second volume. Batman constantly ventures out to battle these villains until he can hardly stand up let alone fight them. It becomes quite gripping in the end.
Batman Knightfall is a fun undemanding read on the whole and certainly worth getting hold of if you are a fan. You will have to buy the other two parts though to see how it all resolves itself. At the time of writing you can get hold of this for about £8.
The Dark Knight's greatest enemies have all simultaneously escaped from Arkham Asylum. Batman reaches his physical breaking point as he takes on the Joker, the Mad Hatter, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, the Riddler and Scarecrow, one after another. But things get much worse, when Bane, the man behind all of this madness, confronts an exhausted Batman and cripples him by breaking his back.