Friday, November 16, 2012

Comic Review: Batman Knightfall

With the release of The Dark Knight Rises earlier this year, comic book fans yearned to learn more about the movie’s primary villain, Bane.  Batman: Knightfall, co-written in 1993 by Alan Grant, Doug Moenich, and Chuck Dixon, is an ambitious series in 3 fat volumes that should satiate the curiosity of those who are eager to witness his origins.  While it’s overly long, somewhat disheartening, and eventually boring, Knightfall deserves inclusion in the libraries of all Batman fans.

Dixon is credited with writing the pilot to the series, Vengeance of Bane.  The unnamed man who becomes the story’s villain grew up in a damp and dingy Caribbean prison called Pĕna Dura, which is devoid of light and defined by brutality.  Before he had reached the age of nine, he had already murdered his first enemy with a knife; the jailers showed him no mercy for his youth, exiling him to the most miserable room of the prison, a solitary pit “in a more ancient part of the world, where men are thrown to suffer and die”.  By an inconceivable act of strength, the boy endured the rats, the floods, and other hardships of his chamber, emerging from the ten-year ordeal far stronger than any of the pit’s other criminals.  During his isolation, he had harrowing visions of a monstrous bat, which he came to view as his nemesis and vowed to defeat in mortal combat.  While he awaited the day when he could escape his prison and kill the legendary Batman of Gotham City, Bane occupied his time with exercise mental as well physical, consuming books at a rapid rate.  Eventually, the man was selected as a test subject for a powerful, stimulating drug called Venom, which is administered to him through a system of cords and an intimidating mask.  Bane used his newly acquired superstrength to break out of Pĕna Dura and hijack a helicopter to Gotham, taking a band of elite scalliwags along with him, including the falconer Bird, who originally told him about Batman.  Jumping forward to the present day, Bane engineers a diabolical plot to bring down the Batman, and it starts by releasing the denizens of Arkham Asylum.  Bane is an intelligent villain, if not a courageous one, and he knows that Batman will be easier to fell after the other freaks of Gotham City soften him up, which is exactly what happens over the next 10 or so issues, as Batman runs frantically around the city without rest, nullifying threats from villains like the Ventriloquist, Mr. Zsasz, Killer Croc, the Joker, and Scarecrow (who incidentally gets a very intriguing and well-written subplot later in the book that doubtless inspired his treatment in Batman Begins).  In the 13th issue, Bane finally moves in for the kill and delivers a backbreaking blow to Batman readers which won’t lose its impact for a hundred years.  “I was wondering what would break first: your spirit, or your body?”

** Spoilers from this point forward. **

The biggest problem with Volume 1 of Knightfall is that its central hero, Bruce Wayne, is out of the action for half the story, which becomes dull and even more monotonous after his departure.  The authors’ replacement Batman is a young friend of Tim Drake, the current Robin, named Jean-Paul Valley, who has some anger management issues and a controversial understanding of justice.  While the original Batman mostly aimed to incapacitate his foes and deliver them alive to the authorities, the new Batman thinks that he should enforce the law and its punishments all by himself, using absolutely any means necessary, including terror, torture, and murder.  He eventually finds time to modify his costume, completing his dark transformation into the figure of Azrael.  Robin disagrees vehemently with Jean-Paul’s philosophy and questions Bruce Wayne’s wisdom in selecting him to carry the mantle of the Batman.  And so the latter half of the book proceeds, with the dynamic duo mopping up bad guys, Robin complaining about Azrael’s methods, and Azrael treating Robin like a naïve, little kid, which is not too shabby a comparison.  There are many arguments about the role of a vigilante and the rules that bind him in his pursuit for justice, and while the theme is suitable for a Batman comic, it’s so overdone here that the constant quarrelling between the two crimefighters started to annoy me.  The novel is also excessively long, stretching about 200 pages of plot across more than 600 pages.  In this sense, Knightfall is the comic book equivalent of M. Knight Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender or, on a slightly higher level, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.  The illustrations of the book are better described as cartoons than art.  None of the artists manage to inspire a sense of awe or wonder in the reader, which is disappointing considering Batman’s rich heritage of art.

** Spoilers end here.

Where Knightfall excels is the development of its main antagonist, who is intelligent, conniving, and downright intimidating.  While none of the other villains match his sophistication in character development, they don’t have to, as they all turn out to be mere pawns in Bane’s grand plan.  If I see one problem in the book’s depiction of Bane, it’s that he comes across as a coward, who gladly lets other men fight his own battles.  Bane has no such weakness in his film debut, choosing to fight Batman on even ground without the backup of his henchmen.  Alfred is also a fine character in the series who has no shortage of sarcastic remarks aimed at Tim and his curious habit of flicking through television channels rapidly to find “something to watch”.

If I had $20 to burn, I’d probably take a friend to see The Dark Knight Rises before buying Knightfall again, but for those who have seen the movie a sufficient number of times (at least twice), the 1st volume is a good 6-hour diversion.

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