comics, comics criticism, dc comics, Perspectives, writing

Batman: Knightfall and The Light Beyond the Darkness

In the 1990s, massive status quo shake-ups were the engine that drove the industry. Superman was killed in battle and four pretenders vied for the throne. Spider-Man was replaced by a long-forgotten clone. Every issue of The X-Men promised to change everything, or mark the first appearance of a new character.

No matter the hero, things would never be the same. That was the promise. 

Rather than kill off its more grounded hero, DC decided to shake things up and replace Batman not by killing him, but by pushing him to the brink—mentally and physically. The resulting story is a sprawling saga broken into three major parts, Knightfall, Knightquest, and KnightsEnd that ran for just over a year from 1993-1994. It sees Bruce Wayne’s back broken over the knee of a new villain named Bane, explores the burden of the mantle of the Bat upon the unworthy, and the spirit of justice and human resolve which Batman represents. This Knightfall epic is Batman simultaneously at his most fantastical and his most aspirational. 

Knightfall illustrates Batman’s inhuman resilience, combined with the importance of his emotional vulnerability, which is ultimately what leads to his breaking. In losing Bruce Wayne, Gotham is left with a replacement unworthy and incapable of replicating either quality, and in doing so the true Batman’s most heroic qualities shine through.

Batman #485 by Doug Moench. Art by Tom Grindberg & Trevor Scott. Colors by Adrienne Roy and letters by Richard Starkings.

Knightfall opens with Bruce Wayne already nearing the brink. He’s lost Vicki Vale, a woman he loved, and the weight of night after night of crime-fighting is crushing him. It has not been terribly long since the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin. Batman has never been so mentally beaten down and the burden of living two lives has caught up with him.

Batman #484 written by Doug Moench. Art by Tom Grindberg & Trevor Scott. Colors by Adrienne Roy and letters by Richard Starkings.

The world moves ever forward, the darkness ever-churning within Gotham City. Batman feels fragmented, as if no single part of his whole is working the way it should. One wrong step and Batman loses everything, the mission fails, and his city falls behind him. The tides of darkness, doubt, and futility are a rip current pulling him into the depths.

While Batman feels himself sinking into those depths, a villainous force of nature, who grew up fighting the tides every night, rises out of them. Like Batman, this nameless prisoner has trained himself to the peak of physical perfection but augmented by experimentation and the steroidal serum known as Venom. Bruce Wayne became Batman after a moment of violence ended his childhood. But the boy who would be Bane was never given the opportunity. Instead, he knew only the violence and darkness of humanity, sentenced to life in prison for the crimes of his father. Batman took on the dark to ensure others could walk in the light but for Bane, the light was a haunting torment. Bane would instead spread the darkness, to prove that he was its master— the strongest and most capable of any who dwell within it.

Batman: Vengeance of Bane #1 written by Chuck Dixon. Art by Graham Nolan and Eduardo Baretto. Colors by Adrienne Roy. Letters by Bill Oakley.

Knightfall, then, concerns two extreme ends of power and human potential. Bane pursues power for its own sake and becomes intoxicated by the strength that courses through his veins, manufactured by pharmaceuticals and poison. In Bane’s worldview, there is no greater good, only the nihilist futility of existence and pursuit of power. Batman, on the other hand, pushes himself to the brink of human capacity, not for his own ego but to serve a greater good, a selfless, thankless mission. But this pursuit has a cost.

Bane escapes to Gotham to prove himself against the Batman. To conquer Batman and his city is to prove he is the master of the darkness. Bane’s first act in Gotham is to orchestrate an Arkham Asylum breakout while he watches and waits as Batman pushes himself beyond his limits. 

At the same time, Bruce tries to rehabilitate a young man named Jean-Paul Valley, who he recently encountered as the masked assassin known as Azrael, the avenging sword of clandestine religious crusaders known as the Order of St. Dumas. Jean-Paul is the latest in a long line of servants of St. Dumas, brainwashed by mental conditioning known only as “The System,” which has implanted centuries of knowledge of combat, science, and zealotry. Readers know that Jean-Paul’s mental state is a fragile thing but Batman believes that Azrael’s conditioning can be overcome and his skills can be used to virtuous ends.

Sword of Azrael #1 written by Denny O’Neil. Art by Joe Quesada and Kevin Nowlan. Colors by Lovern Kindzierski. Letters by Ken Bruzenak.

Like Batman and Bane, Azrael is a man robbed of childhood, raised by an absent father, and brainwashed into a weapon of religious violence. He exists between the two poles and is torn between them, desperate to use his skills for good but tormented by a bloodlust not of his own making.

Robin tries to show Jean-Paul the ropes but on their first night out is shocked by the deadly force that Azrael cannot fully control. Robin keeps it to himself, believing as Batman does that with training and empathy the demons that created Azrael can be exorcised. For Robin, Jean-Paul’s abilities are a fortuitous arrival because Batman is so worn down. Robin notices him slipping both physically and mentally, missing clues and unable to keep up with even petty thugs. 

The art teams illustrate Batman’s physical exhaustion and mental exasperation by drawing him as hunched and shriveling, his cape limp and draped across his shoulders. He does not have the time or energy to shave, and his chin grows increasingly stubbled. Although the unkempt chin scruff has become something of DC house style in recent years, it was largely unheard of at the time and emphasized the human behind the mask.

Robin eventually convinces Batman to see a physical therapist who has been helping his recently paralyzed father. This doctor, Shondra Kinsolving, is hard-nosed but caring and manages to break through Bruce Wayne’s walls to become something of a confidant. She even manages to convince him to take some time for rest and prescribes him sedatives to help him sleep. The timing could not be worse, however, as the violence only increases. Desperate to help the city and aware of his limitations, Robin convinces Jean-Paul to wear the Batman costume to deal with Killer Croc while Bruce Wayne falls into a restless slumber.

Jean-Paul performs admirably but is no match for Bane when he arrives, who sees through the subterfuge and handily swats the pretender away. It is an embarrassment so great for Azrael that it becomes a defining obsession.

Bane eventually confronts the real Batman by brazenly invading the sanctity of Bruce Wayne’s private refuge. Batman, physically and emotionally exhausted, is attacked not on the rooftops or in the streets but in stately Wayne Manor. Draped in a dressing gown and without his cowl, Batman is shocked to find the villain standing over an unconscious Alfred Pennyworth. Bane taunts the disheveled hero and gloats that it was no challenge at all to see through the “true” mask of Bruce Wayne.

Jim Aparo draws the climactic altercation in Batman #497 and the exhaustion is clear in every panel. The Batman was already broken before Bane ever threw a single punch. As their battle commences, the layouts are fractured and dizzying. Bane surrounds Batman from all sides, invading his physical space on the page just as he has invaded his home. 

The battle rages into the Batcave, with Bane pummeling the exhausted Batman as flashes of the mounting failures of the last few months flood his memory. There is no respite; Batman is chased and beaten in every panel without a moment to collect himself. Bane destroys every trophy, every memorial. The pages are crowded with brutal violence. Until the end, when in a single full-page image Bane snaps the Batman’s spine across his knee. The shockwave emanates across the panel border. 

The issue, like Knightfall in its entirety, is remarkable today for the way it straddles the line between the gritty era of comics to come and the remnants of the broader and sillier eras of comics past. Adrienne Roy’s colors are bright and gaudy with yellows and oranges that contrast the blacks and blues of Bane and Batman’s costumes. Big, rounded sound effects accompany every action like a fight scene from the 60s Adam West series. But the impacts are brutal, and the physical toll is clear.

It is as if Bane heralds the death of an old-fashioned kind of Batman story, one where the hero is victorious and the villain defeated with a smile. Batman’s back snaps with a KRAKT. But the sound does not obscure the violent act and the issue’s closing image forces us to linger on the frailty of our fallen hero.

The colors and art by Aparo (an iconic Bronze Age Batman artist) are particularly notable in this issue when contrasted with the following issue of Knightfall, Detective Comics #664. The issue is drawn by Graham Nolan whose style leans slightly more into verisimilitude and modern use of blacks and shadows. Adrienne Roy also delivers the colors, as he does for nearly every issue of the sprawling Knightfall saga. But the issue is completely different in look and feel, an avant-garde dreamscape of cyan and violet and magenta. 

The opening image of Detective Comics 664 is Bane presenting the broken Bat to the city of Gotham atop the neon lights of its Times Square. Bane discards the limp body, leaving Batman a bloody mess upon the ground and soon the ambulance and police sirens ramp up the tension, making the pages feel uneasy and mournful as Nolan and inker Scott Hanna deepen the contrast with thick black shadows and Roy tints the proceedings in a magenta and blue palette. The only light is that provided by the police cars. Sound effects are absent. 

Later pages color the Gotham sky in an eery, sickly green as if the city itself is suffering an infection. In a story as long-running as this, where so many different artists contribute over hundreds of issues, having a consistent colorist like Adrienne Roy becomes crucial to bring the many parts together. Roy’s work is notable throughout Knightfall in the way that it can both contrast and enhance the stories and linework. His Gotham after Batman falls is a darker place, and even his use of yellows in this particular issue are moody and restrained compared to Batman’s beating and employed alongside sickly greens and midnight blues to provoke an anxious and unearthly dread as the city crumbles beneath Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, and Robin.

After Batman regains consciousness, he deems Jean-Paul Valley his successor, not willing to pull Nightwing, the original Robin, back into his orbit after working so hard to become his own man. Batman and Robin recognize that the city needs Batman as a symbol. With rumors of his death spreading, the criminals have become too brazen. When Robin offers the cape and cowl to Jean-Paul as a temporary measure, he hesitates for only a moment before accepting. Robin believes in Jean-Paul’s potential despite witnessing his darker impulses. 

Batman #498 written by Doug Moench. Art by Jim Aparo and Rick Burchett. Colors by Adrienne Roy. Letters by Richard Starkings.

What is surprising looking back at the overarching Knightfall saga is how absent Bruce Wayne is from the Batman titles after Azrael steps into the role. The story does not become about his physical exertion or going to the ends of the earth to heal himself. Bruce Wayne shuffles off to Europe to pursue Shondra Kinsolving, the doctor who had been treating him throughout the lead-up to his injury. It is hinted that both have developed feelings for each other and Bruce becomes obsessed with rescuing her after she and Robin’s father are kidnapped. He claims he has fallen in love with her and disguises himself as an English dandy to investigate her kidnappers. He becomes so singularly devoted to saving her that he drives Alfred away by refusing to recuperate and putting his body on the line.

This story, collected under the moniker Knightquest: The Search, is only a handful of issues and saddles Bruce with an unconvincing motivation. Kinsolving becomes an unfortunate cipher and victim, who is treated with such cruelty by the writers it is shocking to read in the 21st century. Bruce’s obsession with saving her comes across not as genuine affection but an attempt to fill the void left by the loss of his Batman identity. The resolution of Bruce’s injury is not a result of his physical determination or his mental fortitude but an act of magic that leaves Shondra another lost love.

Meanwhile back in Gotham, Azrael gradually becomes more and more violent and zealous. His mission as Batman becomes a crusade, a quite literal holy war. The main Batman books bring us deep into the mind of Jean-Paul Valley and this misguided and psychologically tortured crusade, haunted by hallucinations of the spirits of both St. Dumas and his deceased father. The crusade leaves no room for compromise or compassion. He believes himself called to rid Gotham of evil, to further the work of St. Dumas, and improve upon the mantle of the Bat. Any collateral damage, innocent victim or criminal, is a necessary byproduct of his divine justice. 

Batman #504 written by Dough Moench. Art by Mike Manley. Colors by Adrienne Roy. Letters by Roy-Ken Bruzenak.

Azrael’s descent reaches its nadir in his breathless pursuit of the serial murderer Abattoir. Azrael becomes so singularly focused on beating Abattoir that he leaves his final victim, a volunteer at Leslie Thompkin’s clinic, to die a torturous and painful death. It is the point at which Robin realizes the decision to trust Jean-Paul was a grave mistake and Commissioner Gordon confirms his suspicion that the Batman he trusted is gone.

Jean-Paul’s violence and the unraveling of his senses illustrate what makes Batman—the real Batman—so supremely powerful a symbol. It is not the fear he drives into the hearts of criminals, nor the extrajudicial vigilantism, nor the violent retribution he metes out. Batman’s strength is in his discipline and in his empathy, the ultimately altruistic heart that leads him to put his life on the line every single night. There may be moments where he is pushed to the edge but he never takes the step to cross it. Not because the urge isn’t there but because he represents an ideal that we, you and I, can overcome our darkest moments to bring hope to others, to use our gifts in service to others, to put the lives of others before our own. 

The escapist thrill Batman offers is not a violent authoritarianism but justice that is paired with selflessness. A man who puts his body, soul, and fortune on the line for the sake of the innocent.

Jean-Paul feels no remorse for his deadly actions and convinces himself not only that they were necessary but that they are just. Abattoir’s death is the first step toward a path of greater violence, of a Batman that is judge, jury, and executioner. 

Batman: Shadow of the Bat #28 written by Alan Grant. Art by Bret Blevins and Bob Smith. Colors by Adrienne Roy. Letters by Todd Klein.

The journeys of these two Batmen ultimately comes to their inevitable clash in a satisfying confrontation when Bruce, healed as a result of Shondra Kinsolving’s secret healing powers and having spent weeks training with the assassin Lady Shiva to hone his skills, demands the mantle back.

The two fight and Jean-Paul initially has the upper hand due to his armored Batsuit and all its deadly weaponry. But Batman uses his knowledge of his home to lure Jean-Paul into an area of the Batcave known only to him. Where earlier, the sanctity and security of Batman’s home was invaded and defiled by an intruder, here Batman returns to that home and uses its familiarity to his advantage, as a tool to secure his identity.

Legends of the Dark Knight #63 written by Denny O’Neil. Art by Barry Kitson and Scott Hanna. Colors by Digital Chameleon. Letters by Willie Schubert.

This far corner of the cave is where a young Bruce Wayne first discovered the caverns below Wayne Manor when he tumbled into the hole and was left stranded and terrified until his father came to save him. In confronting Jean-Paul, Bruce descends into a literal representation of his childhood fear in order to reclaim his future. He uses this secret entrance to surprise Azrael, and goads the unraveling imposter to follow him back into the depths. To pursue through the narrow tunnels, Jean-Paul is forced to discard his armor. Emerging from the tunnels, Azrael steps out into the alcove stripped of his weaponry and is blinded by the sunlight, blazing in from the opening above. When his vision returns he is met with a Batman that is not a demonic figure of the dark, but an angelic symbol of the light itself. It is a reversal not only of what Jean-Paul believes Batman to be, but the character’s perception in popular culture.

This religious imagery breaks something in Jean-Paul Valley, and he has no choice but to admit he is not Batman–nor is he Azrael–nor the Jean-Paul Valley that existed before the brainwashing and post-hypnotic suggestion disrupted his quiet life. 

What surprises me most about reading Knightfall so many years after its publication is what it is not: a story of a broken man bringing himself back from the darkness through hard work and resolve. Bruce does not heal himself, does not cross the globe seeking out experimental treatments or mystical solutions. Broken even before his back was snapped over Bane’s knee, he instead desperately clings to an escape from the pain and burden of being Batman. 

Ultimately, Knightfall is a story of two men faced with their individual crises of identity, lost and fumbling in the darkness in their own ways. It shows us what that darkness can do to twist someone incapable or robbed of empathy, who is too psychologically weak to confront his own darkness. And in doing so it reveals to us the truth of what Batman is at his best: a light, a signal in the darkness that there is something beyond this pain and horror. Azrael’s ultimate failure culminates in Commissioner Gordon abandoning the Bat-Signal. There is no light left in Gotham without the real Batman.

Knightfall is not concerned with giving Batman a rematch with Bane and what it might mean to face the thing that destroyed him. Bane is discarded rather unceremoniously by Jean-Paul Valley. Instead, Batman confronts a distorted reflection of himself, the violent thing he could become if he stepped too far into the darkness. By forcing readers to sit in witness to Azrael’s violent crusade, abandoning empathy or concern for protecting the innocent, Batman’s heroism is held in stark relief.

The most striking image in the yearlong saga is not Batman’s defeat but the sight that brings Azrael to his knees: Batman haloed in light. It shocks us out of our usual way of thinking and reveals for a moment the hidden truth within Batman that keeps him enduring. 

Batman may live in the shadows, but he never lets the darkness infect him even if it might break him. Batman does not fight to punish or to make others suffer but to protect, and in doing so he permits us to dream of the light that awaits at the edge of the darkness.

Knightfall, Knightquest, and KnightsEnd were published from 1993-1994 by DC Comics. Spearheaded by editor Denny O’Neil, the various titles were written by: Chuck Dixon, Jo Duffy, Alan Grant, Denny O’Neil, and Doug Moench and drawn by many talented artists including: Jim Aparo, Jim Balent, Eduardo Barrett, Bret Blevins, Norm Breyfogle, Rick Burchett, Steve George, Dick Giordano, Vincent Giarrano, Tom Grummett, Scott Hanna, Klaus Janson, Barry Kitson, Mike Manley, Graham Nolan, Kevin Nowlan, Sal Velluto, Mike Vosburg, Ron Wagner, and Joe Quesada. Nearly every issue of this sprawling saga was colored by the great Adrienne Roy. Artist Kelley Jones provided moody and gothic covers throughout the run of Batman and Detective Comics. The story is collected in so very many different ways.

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