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Batman – Vengeance of Bane #1 (Review/Retrospective)

This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.

Bane is a fascinating creation, arguably the most important addition to Batman’s rogues gallery since Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams created Ra’s Al Ghul in the early seventies.

There have been important villains added since. Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee created Hush, a character who has subsequently been developed and expanded by Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen; Hush has popped up with surprising frequency in various Batman media, even being incorporated into the weekly series Batman Eternal in a major way. It will be interesting to see how Lincoln March and the Court of Owls endure after Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo finish their run on Batman. Still, Bane towers above all of those.

"When Gotham is ashes..."

“When Gotham is ashes…”

“The crowning achievement of all my work is definitely Bane,” reflects veteran Batman writer Chuck Dixon. Given Dixon’s influence on the entire Batman line, that is quite a statement. However, it seems entirely reasonable; Bane has been adapted into countless media, from Batman: The Animated Series to the Arkham Asylum games to two separate feature film adaptations – Batman & Robin and The Dark Knight Rises. He is a pop culture fixture, to the point where We’re the Millers can crack a joke at his expense.

This is no small accomplishment, given that Bane was effectively introduced as a means to an end, rather than as an end of himself. The character was designed to serve a very clear narrative purpose; he was to serve as the antagonist of Knightfall, a story that would culminate in the crippling of Batman and his replacement by the character who would come to be known as Azrael. This is demonstrated by the fact that Bane is rather bluntly shuffled off-stage at the very end of Knightfall, having served his dramatic purpose.

Swimming with sharks...

Swimming with sharks…

In some respects, the decision to create a new character specifically for Knightfall seems like an odd choice. After all, there are various characters who could arguably fit the niche as required. Ra’s Al Ghul could simply have tired of his games with Batman. Hush is very much a version of Knightfall with the Riddler and without the back-breaking. Chuck Dixon credited editor Denny O’Neil with pushing the idea of a new baddie:

And Denny promoted the idea of creating new villains with each event in the hopes of lightning striking. I liked this idea because I always thought DC’s villain bench was weak unlike Marvel where there are hundreds of great bad guys to choose from. I think that’s still true today especially with DC’s penchant for knocking off characters left and right.

In hindsight, this seems like a quite a ridiculous claim. After all, Marvel Studios have had a great deal of trouble producing compelling movie villains, while Batman has the deepest villains bench in comics. However, a lot of the strength of Batman’s rogues gallery comes from a sense that it is perpetually replenished. Writers and artists are constantly adding new concepts and new characters to the mix.

Dark Knight of the soul...

Dark Knight of the soul…

As editor of the Batman line during the nineties, Denny O’Neil actively encouraged the fleshing out of the existing mythos and the addition of new characters. He saw it as a necessary (but challenging) act of maintenance:

“It was a trick I learned from [longtime DC editor] Julie Schwartz,” he said. “Keep the essence of the character intact, and then let everything else evolve to service a kind of Funhouse mirror of contemporary reality. But keep the core there. You can’t change that. Even when you introduce new characters, you have to find a way to make it feel familiar. Most fans, and especially retailers, who are probably the biggest fans there are, are more comfortable with what they know and what they have loved all these years.”

Although Bane is the most notable example, the eighties and nineties saw a whole slew of additions to the Batman mythos. Alan Grant integrated clever new freaks into the world of Batman on almost a monthly basis. Chuck Dixon added Stephanie Brown and defined Tim Drake.

Expectations are through the roof...

Expectations are through the roof…

Making Bane seem like a credible threat and integrating him into Batman’s rogues gallery was going to be a challenge. He was a character designed to serve a very specific purpose; he was going to be the character who broke the Batman. It would be easy to reduce the character to a single note. Indeed, some of the character’s later appearances do that, with his cameo in Infinite Crisis featuring the character snapping Judomaster over his knee; nothing but a pale imitation of the character’s most iconic moment, with no emotional resonance.

It is instructive to compare the character of Bane from Knightfall to the character of Doomsday from The Death and Return of Superman. Both are characters rooted in massively successful nineties crossovers, who existed to serve a very specific purpose and who have returned time and time again. However, Doomsday has always lacked the clear identity and purpose that defined Bane; crossovers like Reign of Doomsday and Doomed have tried to make Doomsday work as a character, but he will always be the villain created to kill Superman.

A sharp, stabbing pain...

A sharp, stabbing pain…

In contrast, Bane has enjoyed a rich and varied life after Knightfall. Perhaps most notable is his role in Gail Simone’s Secret Six, as the member of a mercenary band of misfits. He has also become a fixture of the Batman mythos in media outside of comic books. A lot of that is down to the characterisation and development that he received in his early appearances. He was not introduced to the mythos through cameo appearances in Batman or Detective Comics. Instead, Bane made his first appearance in this self-titled one-shot.

Indeed, Vengeance of Bane is not even labelled as part of the Knightfall event. Part of what distinguishes Knightfall from The Death and Return of Superman is the surprising amount of care and craft that went into setting it up. While the story became progressively messier as it moved along, the editorial team took great care to introduce important characters before the series kicked into high gear. The Sword of Azrael miniseries even introduced Bruce Wayne’s replacement before Vengeance of Bane introduced Bane.

"... you have my permission to die..."

“… you have my permission to die…”

According to Chuck Dixon, the idea of publishing a one-shot based around Bane was greenlit at the highest levels of the company:

That came about because Jeanette Kahn attended the first Knightfall summit. She was EIC and publisher of DC Comics at the time so there was no higher authority. We had the luxury of mapping out an ambitious year-long publishing plan and she could authorize anything we came up with. Jeanette had the answers and if she didn’t she could call the printer and get them.

Back then, comics were still selling mostly in newsstands, so casual readers had to be considered. And doing a direct-market-only special that was key to Knightfall but would not be seen by most readers who only bought at newsstands or convenience stores took some discussion. But Jeanette liked the idea and approved it.

But, remember, we still didn’t know anything about Bane; only that he’d have a big one-off special to tell his origin.

Writer Chuck Dixon and artist Graham Nolan would be tasked with drafting a direct market tie-in to Knightfall that was not essential to the event itself.

Pump action...

Pump action…

Once the idea of doing a one-shot based around this new antagonist was approved, Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan were allowed a great deal of freedom to define the character. As Dixon explains:

“The parameters for him had to be that he must be the intellectual and physical equal of Batman, that it would be believable that he could beat Batman and injure him badly enough to put him out of action for a year,” he says. “He is in every way a self-made man, just as Bruce Wayne made himself into Batman. Bane made himself into Bane, but with much darker purposes.”

In terms of division of labour, Graham Nolan offers, “Actually, Chuck Dixon came up the idea for an evil ‘Doc Savage’ and I designed the character.” The freedom paid off, Bane would become one of the most memorable comic book characters of the nineties.

Crushing defeat...

Crushing defeat…

Vengeance of Bane does an excellent job of establishing Bane. It is structured as both an origin story for the character and provides his first direct (albeit fleeting) encounter with Batman. It’s a very economical origin story for the character, one almost ruthlessly efficient in the way that it employs the standard comic book tropes. It is a reminder of just why Chuck Dixon was one of the go-to Batman writers of the nineties, enjoying sustained runs on books like Detective Comics, Nightwing and Robin.

Bane’s origin is not subtle, feeling oversized in the grand tradition of comic book origin stories. Consider Dixon’s explanation for the name “Bane”, which the author plucked from a thesaurus. “He is a bane to everything holy!” decries one guard after witnessing an atrocity committed by the anonymous orphan. “And so he was named,” our narrator helpfully informs the reader, just in case they don’t get it. There is something endearingly straightforward in all of this, with a minimum of set-dressing and elaboration.

Na na na na na na na na...

Na na na na na na na na…

Bane is very much rooted in the aesthetics of Denny O’Neil’s tenure as group editor of the Batman comic book line. The character is given a history tied to the fictional Caribbean nation of Santa Prisca, a corrupt island state established by Denny O’Neil during his run on The Question in the late eighties. The character is also given an addiction to the super-steroid “Venom”, which Denny O’Neil had created for Venom, an early arc of the Legends of the Dark Knight anthology series that saw the Dark Knight getting hooked on the substance.

Of course, the Venom serves as another important signifier. Given Bruce Wayne’s own struggles with the drug, it helps to codify Bane as “a villainous Batman.” The idea of a villain who mirrored Batman was not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination. There had been various attempts to create a direct antagonistic counterpart to Bruce Wayne over the years; certain incarnations of the Killer Moth, Cat Man and the Wraith come to mind. More recently, characters like Prometheus, Hush, the Three Ghosts of Batman, Lincoln March have filled the niche.

Just missing the pearls of wisdom...

Just missing the pearls of wisdom…

Vengeance of Bane is not exactly subtle in its comparisons and contrasts. Recalling a tragedy that befell the young child, our narrator informs us, “The boy died that day. And the man was created.” The panels are framed with a spotlight on the child, evoking Frank Miller’s iconic depiction of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. There are other parallels with the origin of Batman. Bane is not visited by a bat to inspire him, but by a vision of his future self. He makes himself more than a man. When he is released from solitary, we are told, “He had become legend.”

That said, there are some decidedly inelegant moments. Dixon gives Bane an emotional connection to the bat, clearly mirroring that of Bruce Wayne. However, Dixon never quite explains why the bat rather than any other animal. Given how Bane suffered, why not rats or crabs? (The answer, of course, is that Bane is intended as a Batman antagonist; this is hardly a satisfying explanation in story.) At the same time, Dixon cleverly mirrors Bane’s own experience with fear to that of Batman. “And he would not surrender to the fear. He would become fear.”

"I shall become a Bane..."

“I shall become a Bane…”

Even the name “Bane” is a nod towards the idea of the character as an antagonistic counterpart to Bruce Wayne. While Dixon might have picked the word from a thesaurus, it does evoke Batman quite clearly. Phonetically, it is an amalgamation of Batman and Bruce Wayne. Without a civilian identity, and with a father who abandoned him through cowardice rather than death, Bane could be argued to be a version of Batman without any humanity to anchor him. Christopher Nolan would play with this idea in The Dark Knight Rises.

Of course, Bane is contrasted with Batman in a number of important respects. While Bruce Wayne traveled the world to hone his skills as a detective, Bane spent his life trapped within a small Central American prison. Instead of physically adventuring around the globe, Bane instead allows his mind to explore the world through meditation and reading. “The books brought the world to him,” the reader is informed. Even within the confines of his cell, Bane hones his body to perfection and practices the art of meditation.

Dark City...

Dark City…

Some of the best cues or non-verbal, instead relying on physical references and callbacks. Throughout Vengeance of Bane, the character spends a great deal of time with his teddy bear. The teddy bear represents Bane’s own lost childhood innocence. It plays into the larger debate around the emotional maturity of Bruce Wayne, the argument whether the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne forced their child to grow up prematurely or left him in a state of arrested development. The teddy bear suggests that the same questions might apply to Bane.

The efficiency of the origin story presented in Vengeance of Bane is perhaps best judged by the fact that so much of it is skilfully ported over into The Dark Knight Rises, even if Christopher Nolan’s feature film pulls the deft trick of assigning most of that origin to Talia Al Ghul instead of Bane himself. Even some of the dialogue mirrors the themes of The Dark Knight Rises as they relate to the dynamic between Bane and Batman. “Hope is a living thing,” Zombie reflects. “It must be nurtured.” (Similar to the observation that “innocence cannot flower underground.”)

Vengeance of Bane was only the beginning for the character. As Chuck Dixon notes, the character has enjoyed a long an healthy life since his comic book debut and his creators have been compensated for their work defining the character:

Graham and I both signed participation agreements, which are good in perpetuity. So it’s not up to them whether they take care of us. We’re taken care of. We’ve seen money from Bane all along – the Lego games and the little Bane-shaped piece in the Spaghettios. We always get a piece of what Bane makes. We’ll see money from this movie. They have graphs and charts to figure out how much based on how many lines of dialogue he has and how much he’s in the movie and how much impact he has on the story. We were part of it the last time when Bane was in the last [Joel] Schumacher film really briefly. We participated in that.

In fact, Dixon would remain a very active force in guiding and shepherding the character of Bane over the next decade. Dixon and Nolan would work on the post-Knightfall post-script Vengeance of Bane #2 and on the Bane of the Demon follow-up series.

Still, Vengeance of Bane is a very effective and memorable debut for the character, a way of ensuring that the character arrives to Knightfall relatively fully-formed and ready for action.

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12 Responses

  1. So he’s basically Doomsday, but with more depth. That’s funny, I was starting to read comics at the time and I assumed Bane had been around for a long time before Knightfall. I guess that’s a credit to the writing.

    • Interesting, I guess I always thought the opposite. Bane is so well developed as a new arrival in Gotham. Doomsday just climbs out of the ground with no fanfare so I just assumed I missed his introduction and went with it.

      • Comics were heavy into the recaps at the time. Batman would devote a whole panel or page to the origins of Mr. Freeze (“he first called himself Mr. Zero” – remember when DC didn’t hammer the retcon button every five years?) So I assumed the backstory of Bane was another “previously on…”

        In the silver age you could just insert a yellow box which read “See JLA #246 to know what the hell Alfred is talking about”. Especially if the issue was referencing an event in another line, as often happens in the DC multiverse. I guess that became a faux pas!

      • There’s definitely a delicate balance to be struck in making comics accessible and not wallowing in continuity. That said, I’m surprised that publishers haven’t found a way to do something similar to that caption box in a digital context – like a little button or tag you can press that will give a brief overview of a character’s history and continuity. With digital mapping, you could even give a “previous appearance” and “next appearance” widget that would allow a reader to follow a particular character. (And sell some comics!)

      • Yep. I think that’s why Bane has endured a lot better than Doomsday. He is a more interesting character, I think.

    • Bane is definitely a stronger version of Doomsday. In fact, I think that’s kinda the best thing about Knightfall; it’s very much like The Death and Return of Superman, albeit with about one level more thought on everything.

      With Bane and Doomsday, the first level is “we need something to kill our hero; he needs to be tough and badass.” However, with Bane, you also get, “So who is he and what is he about?”

      With the death of Superman and the crippling of Batman, you get “we need to raise the stakes for our heroes.” With Batman, you also get, “Yeah, but we should probably put in a trapdoor ahead of time to get him out of this.”

      With the replacement heroes you get, “Well, the story needs a second act, and the story also needs an antagonist for the hero to vanquish on their return.” With Azrael, you also get, “But what does this actually say about Batman?”

      I think it makes for a more satisfying story.

  2. You know, I really miss Bane’s three henchmen. They had an actual good dynamic going on, and it was nice to see a villain working well with three minions that weren’t idiotic or backstabbing, but competent and rather loyal to him, being treated relatively well in return. It’s kind of a loss adaptations and further Bane comics do nothing with them.

    • Named for three different Prog bands if I remember correctly? The Birds, the Zombies and… dammit, the third one escapes me!

  3. Why have you never brought up the prior versions of Bane? There was already a super muscular new villain that came into Gotham only to defeat Batman. And Batman had to heal himself while a younger mysterious anti hero took up the mantle. This storyline occurred in 1989, and Knightfall is almost like a self plagiarism of it.

    • I talk about that a bit in my review of Knightfall which is publishing on Monday week, I think. The influence of Ten Knights of the Beast, Blind Justice and even Killer Croc’s introduction, all of which share a basic structure with Knightfall and with Bane’s introduction. That sort of thing.

  4. Along with that, you mention that this story isn’t subtle. When have superheroes EVER been subtle? Even Watchmen hit you in the head with a brick with its themes and such!

    • I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m being dismissive. I have a great deal of affection and fondness for Bane and Knightfall. I’ll acknowledge that subtlety is rarely a feature of the genre. At the same time, there are points at which the lack of subtlety is more glaring than it is otherwise.

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