(Welcome to Comics Rewind, a weekly column devoted to discovering – or re-discovering – great comics published some time in the past. Here you will find looks back at comics published in every era, from the Golden Age to the Modern Age, as well as retrospectives on the work of important comics writers, lists of “essential” comics, and evaluations of important works, as well as works worthy of a second look or a wider audience. Enjoy!)
It seems like this is something I almost have to cover as The Dark Knight Rises approaches. After all, it remains the most famous Bane story nearly 20 years after the character’s first appearance, it’s still a significant piece of required reading for Batman enthusiasts of all stripes, and based on those trailers, it looks like at least some of Christopher Nolan’s final film will owe something to it. I thought about doing this after The Dark Knight Rises was released, but then I realized that I wanted to bring it up early, so that anyone who hadn’t read this particular Dark Knight adventure just yet could have a little time before the flick came out to get their fill. Because for all its ’90s hyperbole, Knightfall is an essential Batman story, and I’m about to attempt to articulate why.
Back in the early ’90s, DC Comics killed Superman, so it seemed logical that some sinister fate should also befall its other big hero. Therefore DC concocted that idea that, rather than dying, Batman would face something that (for him) was in many ways more terrifying: physical incapacitation. To do this, they cooked up a new villain (Bane) and roped in many old ones to create Knightfall.
Bane’s basic strategy is surprisingly simple. He believes he’s destined to clash with the Batman, but knows better than to attack the Dark Knight directly. So he breaks everyone out of Arkham Asylum – The Joker, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, Zsasz, everyone – forcing Batman to run them all down. After weeks of fighting, Batman’s so overwhelmed and exhausted that he gets sloppy. Bane tracks him to the Batcave, breaks his back, and takes over Gotham’s criminal underworld, using his status as “The Man Who Broke the Bat” to muscle everyone else out of the way.
Now, there’s more to the story than just Bane’s triumph. There’s Bruce Wayne’s decision to pass the Bat-mantle on to the new hero Azrael, Dick Grayson’s anger over it, Azrael’s dangerous methods, Bane’s eventual defeat and the real Batman’s eventual return and triumph. That’s all a part of it, of course. But I’m much, much more interested in the initial clash. After all, Bane doesn’t just break Batman’s back with pure brute strength. That’s the dramatic endpoint to months of strategy in which he somehow managed to get all of Gotham’s other villains to behave exactly as he wanted them to. All this brings me to the most essential point of why Knightfall is so vital to the history of Batman.
Here’s the thing: pretty much every major Batman villain in history has tried to kill or seriously incapacitate the Bat at some point. They’ve all basically had varying degrees of failure. These include eternal agents of chaos like The Joker, vastly wealthy geniuses like Ra’s al Ghul and flat-out monsters like the Man-Bat. Yet Bane was the one who finally managed to do it. He’s the one who not only overpowered the Bat, but outsmarted. And I absolutely believe every moment of it. That’s what makes Knightfall so vital. Sure it was a stunt to draw attention to Batman, and yes Azrael feels out of place and yes some of the design was oh so very ’90s-tastic, but Knightfall works because you really do believe that Bane is capable of this.
Why? Well, some of it is just the intangible feeling you get from reading the comics. Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench (who ultimately concocted far bigger disasters for Batman to deal with during his run), and the event’s other writers imbue it with a sense of gravity, of importance, that promises something more than a simple supervillain fight. But then there’s Bane himself. Most of the other major Bat-villains are somehow products of Gotham City and its seemingly endless ability to devastate. Accidents, traumas, quests for vengeance and more populate their heads, but each of them (with a few exceptions) has a clear Achilles heel. Batman knows them as well as he knows himself. They’re all members of the Freaks of Gotham fraternity. He’s like them, therefore he’s equipped to defeat them. Then Bane comes along. He’s definitely a freak, but Gotham means nothing to him. He was raised in hell, had a vision that he was supposed to take out this other titanic figure in the form of Batman, and arrived in Gotham to make that a reality. He’s a man on a singular mission to devastate Bruce Wayne. It’s not about being a criminal, not at first. It’s about devastation. Like The Joker, Bane is more a force than a person, but unlike The Joker Batman doesn’t understand him, doesn’t have a sense of any real motive. Bane’s just as shadowy as Batman is, and that’s what makes this clash so fascinating.
So, if you’ve got some time, pick up Knightfall before you see Batman and Bane clash on the big screen. It’s a Bat-story worth everyone’s time.