This is the second installment in a three part series looking back at the Batman story “Knightfall.” The first installment is available here. Also, if you haven’t read “Knightfall”, this article is a minefield of major plot points and SPOILERS, so be on ALERT.
Who Rules the Night?
As touched upon in part one, 1993’s “Knightfall” Batman crossover is chock full of both the best and worst of comic book storytelling. There are skinny ankles and shoulder pads aplenty, but there’s also a real drama at the center of “Knightfall” that’s kept it relevant through the decades, leading up to its central role in this summer’s critically lauded Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises.”
There’s no doubt writers Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant, and Doug Moench, working under the editorial stewardship of the legendary Dennis O’Neil, created a Batman story both pivotal and memorable, one that took the old school incarnation of the character to its limits and set the stage for a more modern interpretation of the Batman family. Along the way, a new Bat-villain for the ages was introduced in the form of Bane.
The arc of Bruce Wayne’s breakdown and eventual redemption clearly caught the eye of Christopher Nolan, whose “The Dark Knight Rises” is very much informed by the events of “Knightfall.” Millions of theater goers around the globe are now intimately familiar with the gist of this most ‘90s of ‘90s crossovers, and the success of Nolan’s vision has permanently established the story as a component of modern Batman lore, both in the comics world and in public mind at large. However, the cultural light at the end of the “Knightfall” tunnel was not always so clear.
Yea, though I walk through the Valley…
At the peak of the saga’s decadent two year run, during the chapters originally published as “KnightQuest: The Crusade”, the mainstream Batman monthly books Batman, Detective Comics, and Batman: Shadow of the Bat featured not the adventures of Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy turned world’s greatest detective, but rather the violent exploits of a blonde dude in battle armor named John Paul Valley.
Valley is an odd duck even by 1993 comic book standards. Born out of the “Sword of Azrael” mini-series just months before the start of “Knightfall”, John Paul Valley was created by Dennis O’Neil and Joe Quesada (whatever happened to that guy?) as the eponymous Azrael, a fiery hooded figure trained by a cult/religious order to be a master assassin. Bruce Wayne springs Azrael from the cult’s Kool Aid line and very suddenly takes the wayward Valley under his wing.
Valley is by far the strangest element at play in “Knightfall”, at once the story’s star player and yet utterly forgettable as a hero and ultimately pathetic as a vigilante gone over the line. On the exterior, Valley is an Image influenced, anatomically challenged dark anti-hero complete with humorless demeanor and razor claws. Behind the mask, Valley is a brainwashed altar boy with serious daddy issues who takes his marching orders from the Obi Wan Kenobi-like spectral visage of his patron St. Dumas.
Yeah, this weirdo somehow became Batman.
Once given the mantle of Batman by a broken and clearly mentally unbalanced Bruce Wayne, Valley transforms into a ruthless, no-holds-barred version of the Dark Knight, one with a penchant for ultra-violence. In rapidly succession, Valley exiles Robin, estranges himself from Commissioner Gordon, and starts spending a lot of time alone time in the Batcave. Like Pee-Wee Herman, he’s a loner, a rebel. Oh, and he also has no qualms against killing. You might call Valley the YOLO Batman.
It’s pretty wild in retrospect that such a character fills a couple phonebooks-sized TPBs of canon Batman comics, in no less than the central role as the goddamn Batman himself. The oddest thing about reading through these stories is that, at the pinnacle of “Knightfall” (or nadir, depending on your opinion), it almost seems like DC was willing to send Bruce Wayne off into retirement and stick with its new vision of Batman permanently. It’s easy today to see the sprawling epic of “Knightfall” as the fall and redemption of Bruce Wayne, but wading through the dozens of issues in which Jean Paul is behind the mask clearly shows DC’s creators dangling the possibility of a permanent new status quo out there. If people had gone nuts for Valley, it is certainly possible that Bruce Wayne may have sauntered off into the sunset for even longer than his two year sabbatical. DC had done it before with their other heroes. The role of the Flash, for example, had passed from Jay Garrick to Barry Allen to Wally West, changing the character to better match the times and giving each incarnation many years at the helm as the Scarlet Speedster. DC’s Batman writers and editorial team have stated that “Knightfall” was always about Bruce Wayne, and that the extended dominance of Jean Paul was purposefully constructed to make readers yearn for the return of the real Batman. There are certainly strains running through all three Bat titles hinting at that arc, but one would have to be blind to think that DC might have been hoping for some bits of “Knightfall” to stick.
A main supporting argument for DC’s vetting of Jean Paul as the permanently new Batman comes by way of a standalone 1994 issue, pairing Valley with Marvel Comic’s Punisher. Fans had waited decades to see Frank Castle meet with Bruce Wayne, yet when the rare inter-company crossover came to fruition, DC, to the groans of many, chose to feature Jean Paul in all his St. Dumas shrouded glory as the Batman. If “Knightfall” was truly always about the redemption and restoration of Bruce Wayne, why would DC have wasted a once in a generation Marvel crossover opportunity featuring Jean Paul Valley?
The truth of the matter, to my eye at least, is that DC was at the minimum giving the idea of a new Batman a very serious shot. If the funky combo of Jean Paul’s brooding attitude and robotic armor had somehow struck a chord with comic readers and suddenly sold like gangbusters, is there any reason to think that DC wouldn’t have run all the way with him?
Twenty One Months in the Valley
Valley’s nearly two-year reign as Batman explores several interesting avenues. In Shadow of the Bat, British writer Alan Grant delves into Valley’s fractured psyche. Art duties on Shadow during the Valley era are primarily handled by Vince Giarrano, who delivers the most ‘90s looking pages of the core Bat books. There are quite a few panels by Giarrano that are obviously, deeply indebted to Frank Miller’s “Sin City” work, and even more that borrow from Image creators like Rob Liefeld.
Shadow’s standout issue is a Commissioner Gordon centered tale called “The Long Dark Night.” It’s one of the best Gordon stories, delivered in a way that shows Gordon as smart, passionate, and imbibed with a rock solid sense of judgment and right and wrong. The same issue blatantly exposes Jean Paul’s place on the morality scale. When Gordon explains that Valley’s actions have killed two men, including a hostage, Valley is left dumbfounded before answering with “So…What’s your point?” At last, Valley’s morality is laid bare. In his eyes, Gotham is a jungle, and the only rule is survival of the fittest. Valley even goes so far as to dangle Gordon off a rooftop, cementing the divide between this new Batman and the Gotham PD.
In Detective Comics, Valley is placed in the midst of more traditional Batman comic fare, with solid, deliberate storylines that very much have one foot still in the style of the late 1980s. Chuck Dixon is a master of the one-and-done crime and superhero blend, and along with artist Graham Nolan delivers solid adventures with beats like classic TV cop shows. We see a bit more of Tim Drake’s Robin in Detective, and he is portrayed as sort of the unsung hero of the “Knightfall” saga. More than any other character, Drake can smell the crazy coming off Valley. Robin’s unearthing of Valley’s violent crimes gives readers a sliver of hope that the Batman family haven’t been Image’d beyond repair. Robin and Gordon both suffer and survive in the background of “Knightfall”, weathering the storm of Jean Paul’s lunacy alongside readers.
The most fully realized version of Jean Paul Valley’s Batman comes in the pages of Batman itself. Writer Doug Moench gives us Valley as an dark action hero, and the characters seems most believable as Bruce Wayne’s replacement in his stories. Mike Manley, best known today for co-creating Marvel’s beloved Darkhawk, turns in the best looking Valley pages of all the monthly Bat books. If DC ever thought about sticking with Valley as Batman, it’s my guess that the work of Moench and Manley is the reason why.
Picking up the Jean Paul Valley issues of Batman, Detective, and Shadow is trip to another time, but not one without merits. From our vantage, the tale of Bruce Wayne’s abdication still resonates. It’s a testament to the magic of Wayne’s character that his absence is felt in each panel of Valley’s run. Although portions of the storyline have been milked in “The Dark Knight Rises”, rereading the Act II issues of “Knightfall” shows there is still much fertile material to rediscover and reinterpret. DC and Warner Brothers could definitely produce one hell of a direct to DVD animated film out of this stuff. It’s nutty to think, but after all these years Jean Paul Valley may be here to stay.
Stay tuned for the third and final installment, where we chart the return of Bruce Wayne, the legacy of Bane, and the ripple effects of “Knightfall” still being felt today.