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Back in 1993-94, DC comics shocked the world with two storylines that led to the death of Superman (in the imaginatively titled The Death of Superman) and the downfall of Batman. In the Batman tale, the massive 12 months story arc saw new masked criminal Bane achieve something no-one had ever done before - he beat the Batman, leaving his alter ego Bruce Wayne paralysed and in a wheelchair with a broken back.
Of course, anyone who knows comics knew that this was just the latest attempt to re-invent the character (or a cynical PR stunt to sell more comics, depending on your point of view). However, for 12 months, across a series of different titles, the world of Batman changed as a violent, masked imposter assumed the mantle of the Bat to the dismay of Batman's former allies. Welcome to Knightfall.
Having read the original comics, I wasn't at all sure how the epic story of Knightfall would translate into novel format. A good story in one medium does not necessarily make for a good tale in another, and I was a little worried that this would be little more than a lazy cash-in. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Knightfall came across.
It's true that you probably need to have read the original comics to appreciate the full impact of the storyline, as this is one instance where words cannot adequately express the full range of the story. The images that accompanied the original tale were an integral part of it, adding to the atmosphere and emotion through some superb and varied artwork. There were sections of the book where, had I not read the originals, I would have been a little non-plussed as to what was going on. Personally, I see this novelisation as an enjoyable companion to the original comics, rather than as a replacement for them.
Part of the strength of the book arises from the wise choice of Dennis O'Neil as author. He might not be not be a household name when it comes to novels, but he will be familiar to DC fans as a long time writer and editor of Batman stories. He was also one of the guiding lights behind the original Knightfall comics and so is intimately familiar with all the nuances of what was quite a complex tale. He demonstrates a strong mastery of the facts, figures and timelines of the tale, is familiar with all the characters and knows how fans will expect them to behave. What I was less certain about was whether O'Neil - used to working with comic book imagery - would be able to adapt his style to the very different discipline of the written word.
It turns out that he can. O' Neill takes a complex, epic storyline and successfully adapts it - even improving on the original in some regards. True, he occasionally has a tendency to over-use adjectives and his inexperience in this format sometimes leads him to write over-flowery prose (particularly in the early pages). As he settles down, though, he develops a surprisingly readable style. Thanks to his familiarity with the source material, O'Neill gets on with telling a very good story in a relatively simple, but effective fashion.
Knightfall proves to be incredibly readable and a lot of fun. Perhaps because of his comic-book background, O'Neill keeps chapters short and even within chapters there are plenty of breaks. The action shifts to different characters and situations on a regular basis to keep the reader's attention. This apes the style of comics where the focus regularly changes from panel to panel and in this respect, O'Neill's background works in his favour so that he tells a story which is well-paced and exciting.
The expanded nature of the novel format also means that O'Neill can flesh out some of the characters and situations from their original comic book incarnation. Things happened in the original tale that left you wanting to know more about the background and motivation of some of the characters. Even in a comic book as epic as the Knightfall storyline, there is a limit to how much background can be provided. The longer format of the novel gives O'Neill the chance to fill in some of these blanks, which help give the novel a more rounded feel.
As it stood in this incarnation, until recently, this novel was the only way to read the entire story arc from start to finish. Although the collected editions of the first and third parts of the tale (Knightfall and Knightsend) were published as graphic novels, for some reason the middle section (KnightQuest) never was (it was finally published in June 2012 ahead of the new Dark Knight Rises film, which also features Bane). Unless you bought the comics at the time of release, this novel was the only widely-available complete version of the whole tale from start to finish.
It's a shame that the book's jacket feels the need to give away virtually the entire plot, leaving few surprises. This wasn't particularly an issue for me since I read the original comics on release, so knew what happened. If I'd not, though, it would have annoyed the hell out of me. I know that the blurb writers want to get across the scale of the adventure, but just gives away far too much.
Knightfall was one of those books that surprised me in a pleasant way. I didn't really know what to expect and was slightly concerned that the different format would ruin the tale. Thanks to a wise choice of author and some strong writing, though, it proves to be a triumph and an excellent re-telling of an infamous episode in Batman's long history.
This book can now be a little tricky to get hold of, as it's over 17 years old and didn't receive that wide a print run. Second hand copies are advertised on Amazon starting at £25 (although that is a little ambitious), so you might have to hunt around for it. Surprisingly, it's worth the effort.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012