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Batman – Knightfall (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.

Knightfall is one of the definitive Batman stories.

That is, to be clear, not the same as saying it is one of the best. Knightfall is far too chaotic and disorganised to rank among the best Batman stories ever told. This becomes particularly obvious when the story enters its second and third act, as everything falls to pieces and the saga sort of sputters out rather than coming to a clear end. Indeed, this problem can be seen even in the nineteen-issues-and-change introductory arc; the creative teams start with a strong focus and clear direction, but this quickly descends into anarchy as the story builds a forward momentum.

Batman just snapped...

Batman just snapped…

At the same time, there is something striking and ambitious about Knightfall. It is no surprise that Denny O’Neil considers it one of his crowning accomplishments as editor of the line. Asked to name his favourite Batman arc, O’Neil replies, “I guess it would be Knightfall because it involved me so deeply–I worked on it as a comic series, a novel, and a radio show. It was a very steep mountain to climb, but we climbed it and that was satisfying.” There is no denying the influence and success of the arc.

In some respects, Knightfall is an astonishingly cynical piece of work. It is quite blatantly designed as a crossover with a high-profile guest cast and killer high concept. Indeed, Knightfall could be seen as a headline-grabber in the style of The Death and Return of Superman, but with the added hook of Batman’s iconic rogues gallery. After all, it was the nineties, the era of sensationalist headline-grabbing sales stunts. It could be argued that comics (and mass culture) have always been stuck in this cycle, but it was particularly evident in nineties comic books.

All of Batman's greatest adversaries... ... and Maxie Zeus.

All of Batman’s greatest adversaries…
… and Moench.

However, Knightfall has two core virtues that go a long way towards excusing the confusion and excess at the heart of the story. The first is that there is a sense that the writers seemed to have a (very) rough idea where they would like to end up, even if the journey was not mapped in advance. While the plot resolves with a convenient and contrived twist, at least it does not hinge on Bruce magically waking up from a coma. More than that, though, there is a sense that Knightfall is actually trying to say something about its central character.

For all the noise and static along the way, Knightfall is essentially a story about Batman means in the context of the nineties.

Armoured and dangerous...

Armoured and dangerous…

The obvious point of comparison for Knightfall is The Death and Return of Superman, the epic mid-nineties comic story that killed off the Man of Steel to national media attention and record sales. Both Knightfall and The Death and Return of Superman hinge on putting one of DC’s two most iconic heroes out of commission, replacing them with more modern stand-ins and building to a climactic confrontation between the classic hero and a modern anti-hero (if not outright villain) using their image.

There are other similarities. The structure of the crossovers are markedly similar, with a clear three-act structure (defeat, replacement, return) and a spread of the story across all of the books in line. Both Knightfall and The Death of Superman eschew traditional villains in favour of creating new antagonists to face their hero; both Bane and Doomsday were specifically created to “break” their respective adversaries. They even unfolded at roughly the same time, as evidenced by the fact that many of the heroes in Knightfall are wearing black Superman armbands.

Batman puts his face on...

Batman puts his face on…

According to Denny O’Neil, it was pure coincidence that the two similar stories emerged at the same time. O’Neil reflects, “Mike Carlin did not copy me, nor I him. I didn’t know about the Superman storyline until we were some months into Knightfall, and Mike was equally ignorant of my stuff.” By the time anybody realised the overlap, the plot was well and truly in motion:

Well, we had conceived of the idea of Knightfall and we had done the Azrael miniseries and the Vengeance of Bane one-shot and had all this stuff in place to do this seventy-one issue stunt, then we found out that the Superman guys were doing something very similar. We found that out too late to change our plans.

Of course, it should be noted that Azrael is introduced into the wider Bat-verse in a single-issue story in which he is assigned to protect Waynetech’s intellectual property. “These days, spies go after ideas,” reflects his boss, “product designs, new innovations, anything important in a global economy.” It seems likely that the writers in the Batman office appreciated that with the similar story unfolding at the Superman office.

What a Croc...

What a Croc…

Knightfall ultimately kicked off considerably later than The Death and Return of Superman, to the point that Superman was already dead by the time that the event kicked off. As a result, some changes needed to be made to the plotting. Chuck Dixon recalls, “Denny O’Neill wanted to do a story where Bruce Wayne would be out of commission for a year as Batman. We were originally going to ‘kill’ him, but DC had just done that with Superman, so Denny had this idea that Batman’s back would be broken.”

To be fair, the delay between the start of The Death and Return of Superman and the start of Knightfall does not mean that one storyline was conceived before the other. After all, some of the roots can be traced back (tangentially and obliquely) to former Detective Comics writer Peter Milligan. In fact, the delay in starting Knightfall makes a great deal of sense. Under the supervision of Denny O’Neil, the writing staff took considerable time and care to properly set up all of the core ingredients of the story.

"If Bane can kill Film Freak... than NOBODY is safe."

“If Bane can kill Film Freak… than NOBODY is safe.”

Bane was introduced by writer Chuck Dixon and artist Graham Nolan in the pages of a special one-shot The Vengeance of Bane. Writer Denny O’Neil and artist Joe Quesada dedicated an entire miniseries to the introduction of Jean-Paul Valley in The Sword of Azrael. Even Doctor Shondra Kinsolving, who would prove vital to the resolution of Bruce Wayne’s paralysis, was introduced by writer Doug Moench and artist Jim Aparo in the pages of Batman almost a year before Knightfall officially began.

Indeed, there is a very conscious effort to set up and foreshadow the coming event in the issues leading up to the start of the storyline. Knightfall officially begins with Bane’s attack upon Arkham, but it is carefully seeded before that point. Bane and Jean-Paul are introduced and woven into the fabric of the book. Jean-Paul teams up with Robin and trains to become a hero, while Bane tangles with the Riddler and Killer Croc as a prelude for what is to come. It is not particularly elegant, but it is effective.

He's just a puppet who can see the strings...

He’s just a puppet who can see the strings…

On top of the threats bearing down on Batman from Bane, the writers make a point to stress that Bruce Wayne is not in a healthy place. On a purely physical level, it is suggested that Bruce Wayne has come down with some sort of virus. He collapses on the stairs in the Batcave at one point before Knightfall even properly begins, foreshadowing Bane’s defeat of him in Wayne Manor at the climax of the arc. However, the key detail of Knightfall is the sense that Batman’s unease is as psychological as it is physical.

Despite Bruce’s assertion that he is “just… tired”, the issues leading into Knightfall suggest a deeper malaise. Bruce is unable to meditate, having difficulty centring himself. The narration reflects, “Order. Control. This is what he lacks, what he has lost, what he needs.” As Bruce turns his focus inwards, he is haunted by what he sees. Bruce imagines a box that “overflows… until the white field is awash in blood.” The image is deeply symbolic, the white space evoking nothingness or emptiness; perhaps even the comic book page.

This looks like a job for Robin!

This looks like a job for Robin!

It is important to emphasise the context of Knightfall. When the mid-nineties, the industry was changing. There was already an argument to be made that the DC heroes were old-fashioned or outdated when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revolutionised the genre with Fantastic Four back in the sixties. After all, characters like Batman and Superman were very much cast as archetypes as opposed to the more flesh-and-blood characterisation of heroes like Spider-Man or Daredevil. Even by the sixties, many classic DC characters seemed stuffy and outdated.

In the late eighties and early nineties, another shift took place. The comic book audience had begun to skew older, reflecting changes in demographics and distribution. Stories like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen had changed the audience for mainstream comics, demonstrating that superheroes could headline mature stories. At the same time, the audience embraced anti-heroes – and even outright villains. The Punisher held down multiple monthly books. Venom held down near-constant miniseries from April 1993 to January 1998.

No Joke.

No Joke.

In this context, there was a question as to whether Batman and Superman were even relevant to contemporary comic audiences, a question complicated by Frank Miller’s work on The Dark Knight Returns. As it turned out, The Dark Knight Returns would help change the course of mainstream comic books forever, but it would have a profound direct impact on both Batman and Superman. Superman would henceforth be defined by his role as an agent of the establishment. The effect on Batman was more nuanced.

On one level, The Dark Knight Returns was a great story for Batman. it demonstrated that the character could support adult storytelling; The Dark Knight Returns is considered one of the most influential and accessible comic books ever published, and being part of that cemented Batman’s position as a character of genuine literary importance. However, that success generated expectations. It seemed like every Batman comic book would find itself measured against The Dark Knight Returns.

The Riddler is about to be riddled...

The Riddler is about to be riddled…

The assumption was that every story featuring the character (or at least the “important” ones) should look like Frank Miller’s cynical deconstruction. This was particularly obvious with stories like The Cult and A Death in the Family. The Cult coopted the armoured Batmobile and “Gotham in anarchy” setting of The Dark Knight Returns, while A Death in the Family was built around incorporating one of the details of Miller’s continuity (the death of Jason Todd) into mainstream continuity.

Even within Knightfall, the influence of The Dark Knight Returns is keenly felt. This is most obvious in Chuck Dixon’s recurring use of television talk show interludes that are very consciously emulating Miller’s use of talking heads in The Dark Knight Returns. Even the content of these sequences is quite similar, with media personalities sitting around with quack psychiatrists and debating definitions of sanity while Gotham tears itself apart. What had been biting satire becomes a generic background detail.

As the world burns...

As the world burns…

Of course, this recurring gag emphasises the biggest issue with trying to emulate The Dark Knight Returns. Frank Miller is a singular comic book writer who had a visionary interpretation of Batman. Doug Moench and Chuck Dixon are solid and reliable writers with a clear understanding of the character, but without the same energy and insight that defined Miller’s best work. It feels like pale imitation rather than clever innovation, a faded photocopy of what was refreshing and exciting in its original setting.

Miller was hardly subtle in his portrayal of the media, but he had a keen eye for media spectacle and exaggeration that skewered the extreme positions on both sides of the political spectrum while making bold comments about the state of contemporary discourse. Knightfall repeats the gag without any of the sting or verve. Indeed, Chuck Dixon seems to use it as a right-wing soapbox rejecting liberal concepts of restorative or reparative justice. Chuck Dixon suggests that any attempt to investigate the causes of such crime is an idiotic waste of energy.

Pretty poison...

Pretty poison…

The story seems to ridicule the portrayal of Batman’s adversaries as “mentally divergent”, rejecting any potentially sympathetic portrayal of the rogues’ gallery and reducing them to little more than monsters. “We’ve got a body count heading toward the triple digits,” remarks Harry Mann, thinly veiled Larry King stand-in. “That’s a ‘life-style’?” The framing of the argument does not suggest that the punch line is the media debate itself; instead, Dixon is targetting one particular side. It does not help that the broad attempts at satire feel out of step with the book around it.

The Dark Knight Returns might have developed a reputation for its grim world and dark tone, but there was a black comic absurdity underscoring it all. In contrast, Knightfall is much more self-serious, making the appearances of “Doctor Simpson Flanders” shilling for “I’m Sane and So Are You” seem particularly surreal. More than that, while the talking heads in The Dark Knight Returns played into the story’s Joker thread, they existed outside of it. In Knightfall, they ultimately build to a fairly generic Riddler plot.

Television? More like terror vision!

Television? More like terror vision!

This is the influence of The Dark Knight Returns, permeating the larger Batman mythos. In many respects, that darkness is reflected in Bruce’s nightmarish image of the box overflowing with blood staining the empty white space. Knightfall seems vitally worried about the integrity of Batman as a character, as if Bruce Wayne might be corrupted or eroded by some insidious force. This is the central question of Knightfall. The comic wonders what it means to be Batman in the nineties, in the shadow of The Dark Knight Returns.

In fact, Knightfall is quite blunt about this. Over the course of the arc, Batman becomes increasingly dishevelled and monstrous. In particular, Norm Breyfogle renders Batman in such a way as to suggest Bruce Wayne is losing his humanity; Breyfogle is fond of lighting scenes so that Batman’s chin (the character’s only exposed skin) is cast in shadow. The result is atmospheric, but also evocative. Is Bruce Wayne running the risk of transforming the Batman into something inhuman? (Tellingly, when Azrael fashions his costume, his chin is covered; no skin is exposed.)

Shadow of the bat...

Shadow of the bat…

In a way, Knightfall‘s suggestion that Batman faces monsters serves a larger thematic purpose. In this era of deconstruction, it has become fashionable to suggest that Batman might be as crazy as his opponents. After all, what kind of a man dresses up as a bat to fight crime? There has to be something wrong with Batman, applying any sense of psychological realism to the character. Of course, the question of whether that level of psychological realism applies to a world populated by characters like Superman and Wonder Woman is often ignored.

The influence of The Dark Knight Returns is keenly felt, that story suggesting the Batman exists as a personality within Bruce Wayne, a primal force. In Miller’s classic story, the Batman seems to manifest itself upon reality, to the point that it even shaves Bruce Wayne’s moustache so that he might once again wear the cowl. Knightfall suggests that Bruce might be wired into the same insanity that drives his foes. “They don’t know the nature of these beasts,” he remarks when Robin suggests involving the police. “Not the way that I do. God help me. I know them.”

"You have no idea how hard it was to set up this atmospheric shot."

“You have no idea how hard it was to set up this atmospheric shot.”

As much as Bruce Wayne is emotionally and physically drained by everything that is happening around him, Knightfall makes a clear and conscious effort to emphasise the one line that he will not cross. The idea that Batman will not kill has become one of the defining aspects of the character, to the point that it does not need to be articulated. However, Knightfall hammers that point over and over again. It is a storyline that is fixated upon the moral boundary that Batman has set for himself.

It comes up early in the arc, when Batman confronts Mister Zsasz, leading to a fairly generic “we’re not so different” rant from the serial killer. Instead of pointing out that Zsasz is a delusion nihilist who should really be more careful in the era of HIV and AIDS, Batman emotionally rejects the assertion. “I don’t kill, Zsasz.” Later, Batman puts the theory into practice when fighting Firefly, releasing his opponent so that he might survive the fall. Knightfall explicitly states that Bruce would rather let a criminal escape than be responsible for their death.

Bane of the Bat...

Bane of the Bat…

Quite pointedly, this is what seems to unsettle Bruce when he comes face to face with Bane. Despite everything that Bane has done, Bruce is horrified at how cheap life must seem to the villain. “You’d kill just to ‘rule’ this city?” Batman asks, seeming far more surprised than he should be at the prospect. After all, Bruce has faced down genocidal would-be tyrants and psychotic mass-murderers motivated by causes both heart-felt and whimsical. There is no way Bruce should be so taken aback by the casualness of Bane’s brutality, save that it is the theme of the story.

After all, the shift towards anti-heroes in the nineties was predicated on a willingness to see superheroes take lives. The Punisher would rack up spectacular body counts. Venom literally ate brains, at least until he was rewritten to like chocolate just as much. Against this backdrop, Batman’s reluctance to kill could make him seem old-fashioned and outdated in a rapidly changing world (and comic book market place). The emphasis that Knightfall places upon Bruce’s reluctance to kill is part of a broader debate.

Flexing his muscles...

Flexing his muscles…

For editor Denny O’Neil, that conflict lies at the heart of Knightfall:

One of the things that Knightfall was about was the old-fashioned concept of hero versus what we thought of as the new take on heroes. We looked around and saw that heroes were guys who seemed to be capable of committing wholesale slaughter and making wisecracks about it. That does not square at all with what my idea of a hero is, and I wondered if my ideas, and the ideas of my co-workers were not like hopelessly outdated. So, part of what Knightfall was about was an attempt to explore that question rather than ignore it. We took a character who had no reverence for human life and put him in the Bat-costume. I don’t know what we would have done if the response to Azrael had been overwhelmingly positive.

It is the central philosophical argument of the crossover.

By Zeus, is Maxie a terrible villain!

By Zeus, is Maxie a terrible villain!

After all, Bane is not actually the villain of Knightfall, despite being the most memorable aspect of the crossover. That iconic panel of Bane snapping Batman’s back comes eleven issues into a nineteen-issue crossover that is only the first act of a larger epic. The moment that comes to mind when most people think about Knightfall arrives about one sixth of the way into the sprawling adventure. Bane is very much a means to an end, a way to put Bruce out of action so that Azrael might take his place. Bane is vanquished at the end of the first act.

The first act of Knightfall is not about Bane breaking Batman, although that is the aspect that has lingered in the popular imagination. The crossover is about Azrael replacing Batman. This is even hinted at on the covers of the comics. The progress of the crossover is charted in a counter at the top right-hand corner of the cover. As the story advances, a bat-signal is gradually eclipsed by a red moon. It literalises the theme of Knightfall; the fear that Batman being overshadowed. Bane is a narrative feint, a way to keep the reader off-guard and to hide the actual villain.

"And THIS is for smacking Robin around!"

“And THIS is for smacking Robin around!”

(It is an example of how much Christopher Nolan learned from Knightfall while adapting The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan’s film completely eschews the character of Azrael, perhaps acknowledging the quagmire that the crossover became. Instead, his film streamlines some of the core themes, including the idea of Bane as a meticulously orchestrated red herring. There are other obvious parallels as well, such as the schism between Bruce and Alfred. “Too much noise,” Bruce states at one point. “I can’t hear you, Alfred.” Alfred responds, “Not that you ever could.”)

The real villain of the Knightfall saga is Azrael, something signposted quite consciously and clearly in this opening act. Knightfall ends with Bane defeated, having served his story purpose. However, the story is far from complete. Azrael has been cast as the new Batman, a version of the character tailored to the excesses of the nineties. He is a version of Batman who is willing to kill. Although the situation does not escalate to that point in the crossover’s opening act, the seed are sewn.

Broken Bat...

Broken Bat…

Most obviously, Tim Drake is deeply uncomfortable working with Azrael. “Somehow he’s scary in all the wrong ways,” Robin reflects of the temporary Caped Crusader. As Azrael flies off the handle in dealing with some petty crooks, Robin reflects, “He’s off in macholand.” Even before redesigning the costume to make it more aggressive, Azrael is increasingly animalistic. “Never knew he had… claws,” reflects a bystander during Azrael’s first confrontation with Bane.

Bane himself recognises Azrael as the true villain of the story. Bane recognises the existential threat that Azrael poses to the very fabric of Batman. “So I have brought ruin to Wayne,” reflects the villain. “And his neophyte brings ruin to the Batman.” One of the shrewdest features of Knightfall, and it is something that The Death and Return of Superman cannot manage, is revealing its central thesis so that the story is only really getting started by the end of the first act.

Az it will be.

Az it will be.

The final issue of Knightfall even has Jean-Paul explicitly articulate the writing staff’s anxieties about Batman’s place in a changing market place. “The old Batman was created for older times,” Azrael reflects. “There’s no place for kid gloves now — evil has lost its patience.” He warns Robin, “Forget the ‘knight’ and remember the ‘dark’. If I’m going to make it — if I have a prayer — it’ll be because I’m darker than any darkness I face.” He summarises, “The old Batman’s broken and gone, Robin. It’s time for something new.”

Tellingly, Jean-Paul claims the mantle of Batman by performing an exorcism of all the goofier aspects of the larger Batman mythos. He rejects the idea of working with Robin, perhaps acknowledging criticisms that the Boy Wonder is an outdated and silly concept. Ace the Bathound wanders off into the depths of the cave to join Harold the mechanic, two very silly parts of the pre-existing framework. Jean-Paul focuses on reinventing his costume. As Batman, Azrael’s costume is the most nineties thing ever. It evokes Spawn and Wolverine, only with more pouches.

"I'm so sharp, I'm lucky I don't cut myself."

“I’m so sharp, I’m lucky I don’t cut myself.”

All this serves to give Knightfall some extra thematic heft. The crossover has some very serious problems, but it also has a strong underlying philosophy that was largely missing from The Death and Return of Superman. In many respects, The Death and Return of Superman played as a series of disconnected story beats with no real over-arching purpose. There were fun elements to the story, but it failed to offer a compelling statement about Superman as a character.

While the central thesis of Knightfall cannot sustain the entirety of the massive seventeen-month multi-title crossover, it does provide a surprisingly robust base. Even when Knightfall stumbles from awkward set-up to contrived plot point, it feels like there is some grand purpose to the story. With a tighter focus and a clearer structure, Knightfall might easily count as one of the best Batman stories, rather than simply one of the most defining and influential.

Diving in...

Diving in…

However, Knightfall is a mess. There is no denying that fact. Re-reading the entire saga, it is surprising that the scene of Bane breaking Bruce Wayne over his knee comes eleven issues into story. That is the defining image of the crossover. Everything that happens after Bane cripples Batman is just an afterthought. Nothing can compete with the sheer power of that splash page. Bane might be a red herring, but he has lingered in the popular consciousness in a way that Azrael has not.

(After all, Bane made the leap to other media quite quickly. The character appeared in Bane, the first episode of the third season of The Adventures of Batman & Robin; the episode aired only a month after Knightfall ended. It only took a little while longer for the character to make an appearance in live action, appearing as a heavy in Batman & Robin. Although Bane would not get a particularly faithful adaptation until The Dark Knight Rises, the villain proved to be the breakout aspect of Knightfall. Azrael took longer to break out.)

"Maybe I'm crazy..."

“Maybe I’m crazy…”

The problems with Knightfall are quite obvious. The story simply gets away from the writers. Although the issue would become more pronounced as the saga went on, the strain is obvious even within the pages of this first act. The story is the work of a variety of different artists and writers working on different books. Even without worrying about what Alan Grant is doing on The Shadow of the Bat or Denny O’Neil’s work on The Sword of Azrael, it takes a lot of work to coordinate that sort of storytelling involving that many characters across that many issues.

Indeed, the comics very much read like the work of different authors. Chuck Dixon has a voice that is quite distinct from Doug Moench. Dixon tends to put an emphasis on Tim Drake in his chapters, which makes a certain amount of sense given that Dixon would write the first one hundred issues of Robin. Similarly, Dixon is much more interested in the supporting character of “Doctor Simpson Flanders” and his pop psychology. In contrast, Moench tends to be more earnest and serious.

Croc smash!

Croc smash!

It should be noted that the next truly “mega” crossover involving the Batman line would eschew this approach. Although Contagion and Cataclysm would be written in this style, No Man’s Land would delegate smaller units of story to particular writers; individual chapters of the larger epic would rotate through the various titles, but under the pen of a single writer. In some respects, it seems that the Batman editorial staff learned a great deal from the experience of publishing Knightfall.

It is quite clear that the writing staff had a rough idea of where they wanted the story to go. There is a very clear and meticulous purpose to the opening issues of the crossover, and the themes running through the nineteen issues are relatively consistent. Nothing comes entirely out of left-field, at least at this stage of the story. However, there is also a sense that the finer points had not been mapped out ahead of time. While the writers knew where they wanted to go, they were not entirely sure about how they wanted to get there.

All that Zsasz...

All that Zsasz…

Coordinating an event like Knightfall is a massive undertaking. As  Chuck Dixon recalls, there was a lot of effort put into keeping everything straight while leaving room to improvise:

A VERY complex chart on white boards at the first summit. Seriously, it looked like an episode of Numb3rs. And technology being what it was, we worked off of photographs of those white boards! Denny assembled a triumvirate of writers who would play nice and we free-associated inside of Denny’s framework for Knightfall and mapped out assignments for each step of the process.

It is to the credit of everybody involved that Knightfall managed to strike any sort of balance. Denny O’Neil even made sure that Alan Grant was given the space he needed to do his own thing on Shadow of the Bat.

Papa needs some crocodile-skin shoes...

Papa needs some crocodile-skin shoes…

Dixon elaborates on the way that the creative teams approached the plotting of the epic:

Denny (O’Neil) laid out a very solid framework for the whole stunt. He really did the heavy lifting on it. At the first summit he presented it and then we blocked out, in very broad strokes, how it would break down issue by issue across three books; Batman, Detective Comics and the newly-created Shadow of the Bat, which was almost named “Annals of the Batcave!”

Doug (Moench), Alan Grant and myself would divide the writing. The overall plot of Knightfall is very high concept, and the dramatic highpoints were built into it. It seemed daunting at first but very easy to get into once the scripting started. There was a strong dramatic pull to it throughout.

There is a sense that Knightfall is a story structured more around isolated moments than plot threads.

Batman's power and influence was on the Wayne.

Batman’s power and influence was on the Wayne.

At the same time, cover artist Kelley Jones acknowledges that there as a certain amount of chaos in the way that the story came together, with nobody entirely sure where the story would be four months ahead of time:

From that point on, for the next year or so, with Knightfall, they didn’t really know what was going on. I mean…they knew what was going on but you have all these guys working so when I would ask what’s going on in the issue I’m supposed to do a cover for and it’s four months in advance, they didn’t really know.

So they would have the gist of it. They’d say, “Well, we think he’s in the sewer,” or, “We do know he’s fighting this guy.” Whatever. And you just mad it up. So it was a freeform thing. I just made it up. I was very lucky. All these were just organic, free-form, you’re on your own.

Jones makes plotting Knightfall sound almost like a freeform jazz experiment, perhaps reflecting the sensibilities of Denny O’Neil. There was a reason that the staff called him “the Zen Editor.”

"You remind me of Grant Morrison. This is for trapping me in the past in the future!"

“You remind me of Grant Morrison. This is for trapping me in the past in the future!”

This tension becomes clear at certain points in the first act of Knightfall. The early issues are quite disciplined and structured. Batman encounters a particular threat and takes them down, moving on to the next adversary. The Mad Hatter kidnaps a monkey and stages a tea party; Batman shuts him down. Mister Zsasz attacks a dormitory; Batman intervenes. The Ventriloquist and Amygdala raid a toy store; Batman and Robin step in to put an end to it. There is a fairly clear and rigid structure to all this.

After all, the “gauntlet” is a very standard and logical superhero storytelling framework. A significant portion of a superhero’s foes line themselves up and throw themselves at the protagonist without any respite or quarter. Knightfall is certainly one of the great examples of this type of story, but there are plenty of others. Naturally, this is story suited to heroes with a deep bench of iconic antagonists. Batman has The Long Halloween and Hush, for example. Spider-Man has The Gauntlet.

Burnt out...

Burnt out…

In its opening chapters, Knightfall is a very conventional example of the genre. To be fair, the idea at the heart of the story is not particularly innovative. Ten Nights of the Beast featured Batman facing an enemy he cannot overwhelm through sheer determination, and ended with Bruce Wayne acknowledging his limitations. (And leaving his opponent to die… but let’s not focus on that.) Four years earlier, Blind Justice had seen a muscle-bound antagonist pulverise Bruce Wayne, forcing another character to temporarily assume the mantle.

Even Bane’s basic plan to defeat Batman and take over crime in Gotham harks back to the introduction of Killer Croc in the eighties. Explaining the role that Bane was designed to fill in the story, writer Chuck Dixon acknowledges that there really was only one established villain who could have fulfilled that function, “The only villain that existed at that time who could believably pull it off was Killer Croc, and he wasn’t smart enough.” Indeed, Knightfall is smart enough to acknowledge this background detail, having Killer Croc confront Bane twice over the course of the run.

I know why the caged bat cries...

I know why the caged bat cries…

Indeed, the writers make a point to have Bane vanquish Killer Croc before Knightfall even begins, with Bane’s henchmen explicitly referencing Killer Croc’s attempt to gain control of Gotham “by taking out the Batman.” The script explicitly parallels Killer Croc with Bane, revealing that the failed crime boss now has nightmares about “the Bat-Demon.” Reflecting on the hero, Killer Croc confesses, “I wrestle you… in my nightmares.” This touch consciously mirrors Bane’s fixation on Batman in The Vengeance of Bane.

As such, having Bane brutally defeat Killer Croc serves a pointed meta-textual purpose. It demonstrates that Killer Croc and Bane are effectively fighting over the same role in the narrative, but that Bane is a much stronger contender. It applies a clear sorting algorithm to Batman’s rogues’ gallery, allowing readers to quickly see where exactly Bane ranks when it comes to the classic Batman antagonists. It is not particularly elegant, but it does serve a clear purpose in the context of the arc.

Snap to it...

Snap to it…

The early issues of Knightfall are filled with these sorts of clear divisions and rankings. Moench and Dixon draw attention to the fact that Batman’s foes appear to have sorted themselves into a hierarchy of escalating threat. In fact, Alan Grant proves just how invaluable he was to the Batman office in the eighties and nineties; the lower rungs of Knightfall are populated with Grant creations like the Ventriloquist, Amygdala, Cornelius Stirk and Zsasz before building to heavy-hitting a-listers like the Riddler, Two-Face, the Scarecrow and the Joker.

In its opening issues, Knightfall hints at some sort of ordering principle at work amid the chaos. Even the characters within the story draw attention to the fact that Batman and Robin are starting with the easier foes and building up towards the established upper tier of the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery. “He hasn’t even run up against the major league crazies that we let out of Arkham and already he’s looking beat,” reflects Bird. It is a sentiment echoed by other characters at various points over the story.

Scar(face) tissue...

Scar(face) tissue…

However, around five or six issues into the arc, things begin to break down. Things become a bit looser. Knightfall feels less like a clearly structured story and more like a surreal superhero soap opera with running and recurring plot threads that serve as their on justification. The Joker and Scarecrow team up to kidnap Mayor Kroll and engage in a wacky series of adventures. The Riddler is turfed out by his own gang and has a minor crisis of identity. The Ventriloquist kidnaps a lawyer and tries to find a replacement for Scarface.

Not all of these stories lead to organic resolutions. In fact, it feels like many of them wrap up simply because the larger arc is heading to a conclusion and there is a need to streamline the plot. Almost immediately after Bane breaks Batman’s back, the other threads begin to tidy themselves away. The Joker dissolves his alliance with the Scarcrow. The Ventriloquist is left bleeding out after a hotel room shoot out between Scarface and his temporary replacement sock puppet. There is really no need for these threads to resolve, except that the story is coming to an end.

Joke's on you...

Joke’s on you…

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the collapse of the narrative framework feels entirely appropriate in a way. The plot of Knightfall seems to go to pieces at the same time that Batman himself is falling apart. The structure reflects the psychology of the protagonist, almost a delirious stream of consciousness tied together through hazy free association. Over the course of the story, Batman watches his world fall to pieces. It seems fair that the story should decay around him.

There is a strong apocalyptic atmosphere bubbling through Knightfall, with Moench and Dixon (and the various artists) playing up the idea that this might be the end of the world. Superhero comics have always lent themselves to heightened melodrama, and Knightfall embraces that. There is no shortage of powerful overblon imagery here. This is particularly true of the chapters featuring Firefly, which feature Batman having something approaching a mental breakdown as the world burns around him.

Having a blast...

Having a blast…

The chaos running through Knightfall plays well into the themes of the story. There are points at which it seems excessive, with one media commentator suggesting that the Arkham breakout has left Gotham with “a body count rivaling Sarajevo.” However, the story does an excellent job of sustaining its atmosphere of dread and exhaustion. Even reading the nineteen issues of this first act as one continuous story becomes exhausting and draining. Chaos reigns, anarchy is king.

As such, the problems with the larger crossover become apparent six to eleven issues into the story, but the tone of Knightfall does an excellent job of mitigating. The lack of focus and structure feels entirely appropriate for this first act. However, the larger saga loses this excuse once Knightfall is over. The Search and The Crusade have no such justification for their messiness. While the disorganised and improvisational approach lends itself to a story about Gotham tearing itself apart, it is much less suited to a more conventional narrative structure.

A cut above...

A cut above…

Knightfall really ushers the character of Batman into the nineties. In some respects, it serves as a transitional period in the same way that No Man’s Land would at the end of the decade. The crossover confirmed Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon and Alan Grant as the three writers who would have the largest influence on Batman during this phase of the character’s life. To be fair, both Moench and Grant were established veterans at this point in the character’s life, but Knightfall served to solidify their importance to the character.

Doug Moench had been working in comics for decades. He enjoyed major runs on Batman and Detective Comics in the eighties; writing roughly forty issues of each title. However, Moench only began his second (and longest) run on Batman only a year before Knightfall kicked off; he would go on to write almost eighty issues. He would guide the title through crossovers like Contagion and Cataclysm, while enjoying a long (and distinctive) collaboration with artist Kelley Jones on the title.

Hat's off to him...

Hat’s off to him…

Alan Grant had already worked on Detective Comics and Batman during the eighties, collaborating with writer John Wagner and artist Norm Breyfogle. Grant had proven something of an ideas factory for the Batman office, creating countless original (and colourful) Batman baddies. However, Knightfall arrived just over a year after Grant had been given his own monthly title free of a lot of the expectations imposed on books like Batman and Detective Comics. For most of the run of The Shadow of the Bat, Grant would be given the freedom to do his own thing.

Chuck Dixon was less of a veteran at this point, arriving on Detective Comics about a year before Knightfall kicked off. Dixon would go on to become one of the most prolific Batman writers of the decade, enjoying extended runs on books like Robin and Nightwing while overseeing crossovers like Last Laugh. Dixon was perhaps the most influential of the three big writers involved in Knightfall, the writer with the clearest visible influence on where the character (and his supporting cast) would go over five years or so.

"I will crush Batman like I crushed that tracking device..."

“I will crush Batman like I crushed that tracking device…”

If Knightfall solidified the writers who would define Batman for the next few years, it also represented the passing of the torch in an artistic sense. Jim Aparo had been illustrating Batman comics since the early seventies, including a spectacular run on The Brave and the Bold with writer Bob Haney. Aparo is one of the all-time greats, the iconic Batman artists. Although Aparo would work on a few issues here and there after the crossover, his work on Knightfall represents his last sustained run on a Batman comic.

Norm Breyfogle is one of the most underrated Batman artists of the eighties and nineties, with a style that is both cartoonish and atmospheric. Enjoying two extended runs on Detective Comics at the turn of the decade, Breyfogle’s artwork beautifully captured the tone of the character. Breyfogle demonstrated a keen understanding of both light and movement, essential tools for any Batman artist. Like Aparo, Breyfogle would work sporadically on the Batman line following Knightfall, but the crossover represents one of his last sustained runs on the character.

It's Miller time.

It’s Miller time.

In contrast, Knightfall signals the arrival of two massively influential Batman artists. Artist Kelley Jones contributes the covers to the crossover, setting an effective gothic tone for the story of Bruce Wayne’s descent. Jones credits fellow artist Sam Keith for getting him the job:

The covers I did were given to me by a strange twist of fate. DC called and asked if I had Sam Kieth’s phone number, which was odd, because Sam is the one who brought me to DC. They wanted him to do the covers for Batman and Detective. I told them that he was an inspired choice. Before too long Sam called me and said he just wasn’t enjoying doing it, and would I pitch in and help him. In a month or so he quit outright telling me he was just freezing up too much. He was way behind, and DC then asked if I would knock out 4 or 5 of them to catch up, and then they would find a permanent cover artist. The public reaction to my stuff was strong, and that I am fast, made them decide to stick with me. I never knew what the stories were about when I drew the covers, just who was in them, as the books were running late. It worked out just great for me, as I was allowed to just draw. Most came out pretty good.

Jones is an incredibly stylised artist, one whose tone tends towards the grotesque and the horrific. Shortly after Knightfall, Jones would become the regular monthly artist on Batman with writer Doug Moench. The result would be one of the most visually memorable and distinctive runs on the book in its extended history.

"Just workin' shirtless in my bat-cave. As you do."

“Just workin’ shirtless in my bat-cave. As you do.”

Knightfall also signalled the arrival of artist Graham Nolan, who would collaborate with writer Chuck Dixon during his extended run on Detective Comics. Nolan had worked on a few issues of Detective Comics in the run up to Knightfall, but he really made an impression on The Vengeance of Bane. As such, Knightfall really set a tone for what the Batman books would look and feel like for the next five years or so. The crossover shaped and defined Batman for the nineties.

Knightfall is too clunky and inelegant to rank with the very best Batman stories ever published. However, it is a considerable accomplishment for all involved. It is a story that is powered by ambition and energy, moving fast enough in a clear direction that it doesn’t really matter that the editorial staff are still figuring out how they want to get there. At the same time, it is clear why the opening act of the crossover has lingered in popular memory more than Knightquest or Knightend. There is a strong sense of purpose and power to this introductory chapter.

"Um. You think this Batman is somehow even MORE intense?"

“Um. You think this Batman is somehow even MORE intense?”

Knightfall is the definitive Batman crossover of the nineties. For better and for worse.

6 Responses

  1. I think it’s telling how the story repeteadly underlines Croc being bested by Bane– after Croc played pretty much the same role Bane has here (hulking cunning brute who takes over the Gotham underworld by force) in the last acts of the Pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Batman continuity. There’s never a clear reason at this point in continuity why, from one end of the Crisis to the other, Croc reappears considerably dumber and less crafty, other than because Bane is intended to replace him as that sort of character.

    It’s also telling the crossover avoids showing another reminder of the ‘old’ continuity, Dick Grayson, who, while still in continuity, hadn’t been closely associated with Batman in the post-Year One era of comics, being shuffled off with the Titans instead. Knightfall is an attempt to see how much can Batman comics stray away from the ‘old’ Batman or not; once it’s clear the Image-New Marvel inspired approach doesn’t work, the Batman editorial seems to come to peace with several elements of the older Batman, perhaps best exemplified by letting Grayson back into the Batman lore, as well as Barbara Gordon, even if in a diferent role.

    • You’re right. It should also be noted that Chuck Dixon launched an on-going Robin series at the same time, the first time the character held down a non-limited series. With the use of Dick Grayson in Prodigal, and the emphasis on Tim Drake, there does seem to be an attempt to “reclaim” some of the elements of the mythos brushed aside during (and in the immediate aftermath of) the Crisis. In particular, an emphasis on the importance of Robin, at a point where general audiences (and comic book fans) were arguably seeing him as a “childish” holdover that was somewhat outdated.

  2. Just a minor error, there’s a point where you said “The Dark Knight Rises” as opposed to “The Dark Knights Returns”.

  3. Hey, hi! Just found this, and it’s immensely heartening to see someone else giving Knightfall a fair shake. For better or worse, it’s still my favorite Batman megacrossover, though I easily agree it’s too hit-and-miss to be one of my favorite Batman stories. And yeah, it starts falling apart in its middle and ending acts, though the middle act did contain some of my favorite bits in all of comics (like the Joker-goes-Hollywood arc).

    One of the things that continues to grab me about Knightfall is that it feels almost like a deconstruction of the villain-of-the-week plotting style so typical of older comics (It was on its way out, perhaps, but the early 90s still didn’t have the New 52’s every-arc-is-an-epic mentality). What it would be like, you can almost hear the question, if all those fights in all those issues literally took place back-to-back?

    (Now that I think about it, it’s almost eerily prescient of the rise of TPBs… kind of hard to imagine, really, that Knightfall debuted in floppies…)

    • Hi!

      I have a very soft spot of Knightfall, despite the many issues that really kick in once you get past Bane breaking Batman. I am hoping to finish the crossover and maybe do No Man’s Land, if I can find the time.

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