Knightfall suggests that even though indisputably dark, the Batman is a knight in shining armour.

The Knightfall trilogy (Knightfall, Knightquest, Knightsend), by Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant and others, is devoted to the breaking of Batman but also his legacy: what kind of a knight can succeed the Dark Knight?

Batman’s humiliating defeat is compounded by the city’s urgent need for a vigilante, and Wayne, now paralysed, appoints Jean-Paul Valley (Azrael) as the new Batman. This proves to be a disaster, because Valley rejects Batman’s original principles. Wayne has to recover, seek the help of Nightwing and Robin, defeat Valley, reclaim the mantle of Batman, and win back the trust of Gotham’s people.

Breaking a Bat

Batman: Knightfall Vol. 1 (25th Anniversary Edition)

The villain Bane, born in a prison and the subject of strange medical experiments that leave him dependent on chemical infusions but also enormously strong, unleashes the murderously insane inmates of Arkham, and Batman battles each one of them. With no sleep or rest, Batman is exhausted when, in the 11th episode, he faces off Bane who has arrived at Wayne Manor. Over 21 pages of this episode, Batman battles Bane. The battle is bruising, and Bane, drawn more on the lines of a gorilla than a human, hands out an unimaginably brutal beating and declares:

I am Bane, and I could kill you, but death would only end your agony, and silence and your shame. Instead I will simply break you.

Bane breaks Batman over his knee and throws him into the city street.

Excessive violence is the feature of the Knightfall series – not that the Batman comics are known for subtle violence in any case. Arnold Etchison (known as Abattoir in the series) tortures and prolongs the killing of his family members horrific, and the drawings recall Saw.

Then there are the Bane sequences, climaxing in the Bane-Batman encounter. The drawings and onomatopoeic sound effects (KRAK…THUD…, in the usual large-sized, special fonts), sometimes referred to as “textual audio”, make the volumes an astonishing sensory experience, for how does one read a sound effect?

Valley’s ferocity fills the pages of volume II. The pages are filled with scenes and sounds of glass and limbs breaking.

The new Batman costume is also very different, and adds to the spectacular effects of Valley’s fight sequences. The Bane versus Valley fight sequences look forward to splatter-porn with blood spraying everywhere, contorted faces and bodies at breaking point.

Read: Batman: Year One, and How the Knight Dawns on Gotham

The drawings seem to signal an absolute break with the Batman mythos by depicting a greater intensity of violence and violated bodies.

Succeeding a Bat

Knightfall asks: who can succeed the Batman?

Having broken the Batman, Bane is able to categorize Valley as “different but still pretending to be him…change the costume all you want, and you’re still nothing but a costume – not him”. And Valley admits: “I’m not him… I’m a lot more…and a lot worse’.

Wayne’s solution to the problem of succession is, of course, to turn to his surrogate family, those whom he has trained and tutored, and who supposedly espouse his values. When Robin accompanies Valley, he reminds the ‘new’ Batman that he has abandoned the original principles, saying: “It isn’t the Batman. It’s too brutal”. Valley is contemptuous:

I’ll take Gotham on my own terms…I’ll accomplish what Wayne could never do…because he was weak, because he was compassionate…They will fear me as they never feared him. (Knightquest)

“Chivalry”, declares Valley, “is a handicap”.

Valley’s decision to end Bane’s tyranny over Gotham is not in line with Batman’s vigilanteism, emblematised in one throw-away line where he ponders about his future:

It is Bane. The key is Bane. Find him. Remove him. Take his place.

And become a darker heart feeding the rest, the new center holding it all.

Indeed, Valley with a “darker heart” would also deny that he was trained, and claims “I was born for this role”. Yet, by refusing to kill Bane he redeems the legacy, briefly.

Dixon and company suggest that the continuity of moral codes is simply not tenable, even if it is necessary. The genealogy, whether in business families or vigilante families, does not guarantee a lineage of moral codes.

Moreover, the emphasis on continuity is via blood relations and families – witness the mafia families in the Dark Knight sagas – and Batman is painted as a man whose family line ends with him, and therefore the question of continuity simply does not arise.

The Knightfall trilogy implicitly questions the role of tutelage, influence and associative moral principles: Can one expect the disciple and the acolyte to carry on the same tradition as the teacher? Would that be a very responsible act – to stay within the same frame as the teacher and thus foreclose the possibility of fresh thinking? Or would it be better for the student to be irresponsible and step away from the teacher’s path so that new paths can be laid?

A hero changes

Knightfall is also interesting because it introduces a different shade of heroism. So long as Wayne was Batman, his heroism was admirable for the strict moral code he operated under. However, as Valley implies throughout Knightfall, the time for such a brand of heroism was over.

The hero has to be one who does not dither over moral codes and executes criminals without worrying about proper procedure. The hero pays villains back in their own coin and has no scruples over the use of excess. “The old Batman was created for older times”, says Valley at one point, indicating that the nature of heroism must change.

Dixon and company, therefore, offer not only a different code for the new brand of heroism, they also manage to make Valley the villain of Knightfall. While readers may focus more on Bane – because he breaks the Batman, and because of the Nolan version of the Bane-Batman face off – when read closely, we see that Bane is a villain through and through, but Valley is a villain masquerades as a hero/saviour.

When Bane refers to him as a “pretender” the term signals not just Valley’s pretensions to being Batman, but to being a hero itself. The message at the end is clear: no successor to the mantle of Batman can afford to develop a different nuance to the heroic vigilante.

Knightfall reiterates that while vigilanteism is a troubling condition since it operates beyond the normative legal system and processes, in order to deal with a city’s corruption, one needs the rectitude of a Batman.

Knightfall suggests that even though indisputably dark, the Batman is a knight in shining armour.

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Pramod K Nayar teaches at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. An acclaimed cultural critic and commentator, he is the author of acclaimed works such as Packaging Life: Cultures of the Everyday and The Indian Graphic Novel: Nation, history and critique.

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