Batman: Knightfall (1993/94)
by Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant, Jo Duffy, Doug Moench, Dennis O'Neil, & various artists

I have a good deal more enthusiasm for the mythology of superhero comics than for the reading of the comics themselves. Occasionally, a rare convergence of good writers, good artists, and inspired plot twists will result in something genuinely sublime. But most often, superhero comics read like what they always have been: junk literature.

So you won't find me making lots of impassioned defenses for comics unless they deserve it. I do, however, ascribe to one academic apologia re: comic books—that is, that they really are the mythology of our time. Probably no more lowbrow, bizarre, or mass-marketed than they were back in Sumer, either.

Incidentally, where is Sumer? Is there such a place, or am I pulling nonsense out of hazy high school history class memories? Ah, who cares.

Comic-book superheroes are the closest thing we have to gods, unless you count Brad Pitt, or God. What they represent is the potential of every human to be heroic, in their own unique way, despite whatever limitations they might have. What happens to superheroes gives us an opportunity to study our own reactions to life's obstacles. When confronted with a metaphorical, or literal, supervillain out to freeze over the world, what will you do? Well, what would Batman do?

And so, it is not the mere existence of these characters that are important, but also the ongoing sagas. This is living mythology, constantly revised and renewed to reflect the changing times. So yes, it is "important" to know what is going on with Batman.

Actually reading the sagas, though, is not terribly cool, nor satisfying. You'd probably be better off finding a good fan site that summarizes the ongoing plotlines. As with TV soap operas, you must endure much implausible horseshit and badly-executed "art" to get the kernels of meaning that nestle deep inside. Such is the case with Knightfall.

These three books collect an extensive cross-over series that ran through Batman, Detective Comics, Shadow of the Bat, Legends of the Dark Knight, Catwoman, and Showcase in the early 90s. At that point in time, I wasn't reading comics at all, and it wasn't until much later that I became intrigued by the storyline: at last, Batman loses.

Knightfall traces the story of Batman's run-in with Bane, the prototypical 90s comics villain, all steroidy and pumped-up like those early Star Wars action figures that started coming out in '97 or so (the first and last time Mark Hamill would have such a beefcake chest). Bane is smart, but his intellect is compromised by the drugs he takes to keep up his physique and stamina. He's fixated on bringing down the Batman. And he does, breaking Batman's back in one of the most shocking twists ever to rock the Batworld.

Bane breaks Batman's back.

Unfortunately, this is but one cool moment in a very, very long storyline that is as hokey and badly drawn as comics get. The long set-up (in which all of Batman's foes are sprung from Arkham Asylum and unleashed on Gotham City) is incredibly belabored, even though it does establish a rational explanation for why Batman would finally be weakened and vulnerable enough to be beaten.

Things get more interesting when Batman is actually replaced, as Bruce Wayne goes off to recuperate and leaves the mantle of the Bat to his protegé, Azrael, a gothic-styled hero-villain (not too far off from The Crow) who has no compunction about beating villains mercilessly and even killing them. This was not your father's Batman, nor yours, for that matter.

Why did Bruce Wayne not pick the more likely successor, Dick Grayson (now Nightwing, née Robin) to fill in while he miraculously recovered from a broken spine? Good question. Probably because DC Comics genuinely wanted to retire Bruce Wayne and bring in a Batman for the 90s—one with x-treme attitude and supercharged Batsuit. Clearly, though, this was not to be, as the Azrael-as-Batman plotline stumbles around until finally Bruce returns to reclaim his rightful stature as the True Batman.

How does he do this? By fighting ninjas! The third book of the Knightfall series is where things go from questionable to downright ridiculous, as Bruce re-trains himself on Batman's intensely disciplined fight-style … by taking on a series of ninjas of increasing deadliness. It's basically "Final Fantasy" with Batman as the main character, a real low point for Batman, and superhero comics in general. Any attempt to argue for the substantive mythology of Batman here becomes impossible … it's a fucking videogame, and not even a good one.

By the end, things return to status quo, rendering all of the precedings irrelevant. It's the old comics trick of creating an illusion of radical change, only to end up with the same old Batman-and-Robin-taking-on-The-Joker shit. There may be a moral in there about how it's always possible to triumph over unspeakable adversity if you have the will … but I'm not sure it's worth reading hundreds of pages of shitty comics to get that point.

As a "graphic novel," the Knightfall series is mostly dreck. The books don't include any original cover art, and in a few spots, don't even include the full storylines of plots that ended up being concluded in peripheral Batman books.

It's exactly these types of things that make me avoid "graphic novels" (even the term seems so lame and apologetic). Though impractical, I'd rather have a stack of musty comics on the shelf than a collected edition … you at least get the cover art (admittedly crappy, in this case), and ultiimately, it's a less serious admission of personal nerdliness. With back issues of comics, the conveyed impression is that these are remnants of an "old phase." Having a collected edition signifies that not only are you clearly in to reading these things (not just having them), but, worse still, you must have gotten them somewhat recently. In either case, a comic fan's life is a Batmanian struggle between opposing urges, the light and the dark, the pride and the shame, the desire to get laid and the desire to have a comic book collection.

That desire needs no Knightfall. The sprawl of this series, despite having a number of cool moments, makes it really hard to love— it all comes off like the marketing gimmick it was. As with the "Death of Superman," the breaking of Batman was little more than a ploy to shake things up enough to get people to start buying up all the various titles that told the tale. The writers seem to want to test just how willing you are to go with something totally new, only to return to the way things have always been.

Of course, radical change doesn't usually sit well with a beloved institution … readers want to see the same ol' Batman, a wisecracking Robin, a droll Alfred, and the Joker. And, after a falsely souped-up story that may as well have been called Spawn-Batman vs. the WWF, the people get what they want.

I haven't wasted this much time on something so ultimately worthless in a long time. Next time I get interested in what looks like a great Batman back-story, I'll just corral my nerdy friends into filling me in. Hm, wait, that sounded like I want to organize an orgy. Hm … wait, I think I do.

Review by Wendy Whitestripper