The Unlikely Legacy of “Knightfall,” Part I

Bane didn't want to kill Batman, rather he took greater relish in simply beating him, both physically and spiritually.The Breaking of the 20th Century Bat

(Note: I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is for a two-decade old comic book story, but several of Knightfall’s main plot points are touched upon below. So, SPOILER ALERT(S), I guess.)

I’m aging myself, but it’s hard to believe nearly 20 have passed since DC first published “Knightfall”, the massive crossover event that dominated the Batman family of titles for the better part of two years and continues to be felt today.

“Knightfall” is a curious combination of both the best and worst in big league comics storytelling. It’s the epitome of 1990s comic book tropes, violent and vapid. Yet it’s also a skewering of those clichés, giving readers a taste of how joyless a truly grim-and-gritty superhero is. The story has endured warts and all, weaving itself deeply into the Batman mythos. Elements of “Knightfall” have, in part or in full, also made the jump to the big screen– First terribly in 1997’s bomb Batman and Robin and recently this summer in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Bane, the chief villain in both “Knightfall” and The Dark Knight Rises, today stands on the verge of becoming a household name akin to the Joker or Two Face.

Embarking on a reread of “Knighfall” and the first things that jumps out are the length of the crossover and the age of the piece. The core “Knightfall” story takes an unforgivable 19 parts to tell. One. Nine. The extravagance continues unabated through the “Knightquest” and “KnightsEnd” arcs that follow. During the procession of installments, readers in 1993 were treated to gatefold chromium covers, special overlay wrappers, multiple printings, and direct market and newsstand variants. Every comic-selling gimmick of the time is well represented in “Knighfall.” DC came to the poker table intent on taking as many chips as they could.

And why not? Less than a year earlier, the publisher had struck gold doing much of the same with its “Death of Superman” story. What had worked in Metropolis was simply replicated in Gotham, with the hype machine turned up to 11.

On the age front, “Knightfall” is very much a product of its time. You feel the presence of X-Force and Spawn floating outside every panel. The Batman of ‘93 was woefully ill equipped to compete with the new trends in comics. This was, in many respects, very much the previous decade’s Batman. This Batman still wore grey tights and a blue cowl, and although Tim Drake had assumed the role of Robin, the shadow of Jason Todd’s 1988 death continued to cast a long shadow over Bruce’s mental state. The Batman broken and shattered in “Knightfall” is the classic Bronze Age, Super Powers-like archetype, one that had stayed readable for a remarkably long period. The time had come, however, for the status quo of the 20th century Bruce Wayne who still wore a smoking jacket around Wayne Manor to be seriously shaken up.

Twentieth century man - Bruce Hefner...er...Wayne, faces off against Bane while wearing a fine smoking jacket.And shaken up it was. Though ultimately it didn’t hit the same crescendo of pop culture mourning that Superman’s death had, Knightfall took Batman and Bruce Wayne into uncharted territory. Bruce Wayne’s midlife crisis makes for a darkly exciting thing to watch unfold. Trim away the fat (which is substantial, especially in the “Knightquest” and “KnightsEnd” segments) and the core issues of “Knightfall” tell an engaging story about what really motivates Bruce Wayne to dress up like a bat and fight for Gotham.

In many ways, “Knightfall” is the story that pushed the DC’s mainstream incarnation of Batman into the modern world, drawing from the likes of The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, and Tim Burton’s successful Batman and Batman Returns films. The post-“Knightfall” Batman is much closer both visually and tonally to the modern Dark Knight version we know today than the stodgy detective in grey tights that still passed for Batman before the story took place.
Knightfall also served to reestablish a sense of high concept storytelling to the Batman family of titles. Every prisoner of Arkham Asylum released, making Batman face the entirety of his rogue’s gallery. “Knightfall”’s central premise formed the basis of 2010’s video game Batman: Arkham Asylum and its smash-hit sequel, Arkham City. Batfamily crossovers like “Cataclysm” and “No Man’s Land” were born out of “Knightfall”, and the return of the concept of a Batman Family was restored as a result.

On the ugly side of the crossover’s legacy stands one John-Paul Valley. He made his debut as Azrael, the brainwashed subject of a religious order, and is inexplicably chosen by Bruce Wayne to take over the role of Batman. Not Dick Grayson, not Tim Drake, not any of the dozens of other heroes. No, the new Batman would be Azrael, for a time at least, and it would be a very strange time at that.

TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK IN PART II – “Who Rules the Night”

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