I’m back after a long hiatus with another entry in Ye Olde Longe-Boxe! First, the hiatus part: I went on vacation, then I moved, then I started teaching. I was busy. But I haven’t forgotten you, dear reader. And so to celebrate my return from the abyss of joblessness to the lighted realm of gainful employment I give to you a turning point in the famous Knightfall saga: Batman #500!
If you don’t know about Knightfall, it’s basically The Dark Knight Rises, with less growling and a few extra characters. Bane arrives in Gotham, fights Batman, and breaks his back, crippling him. Bruce goes off to try to recover and gives the Bat-Mantle not to Dick Grayson and not to Tim Drake but to Jean Paul Valley. Jean Paul was an assassin named Azrael working for a religious organization. And he’s fucking insane.
For instance, there’s a truly staggering amount of shitty inner monologue, but only when Azrael is the focus character. Doug Moench was a good writer, even if he bowed to 90s conventions a lot. The monologues are still shitty, but they show the crazy place Jean Paul lives in all the time. I started skimming them because they’re basically the filler “all work and no play” of the comic. They’re all about how Jean Paul is in that perfect place where he doesn’t need to eat or sleep because he’s designing the perfect Batsuit blah blah blah. At some point in his career he was brainwashed to make him a better assassin, and this is basically that shit taking over. I still wish another mechanism had been used to get that across, but fuck it, whatever. It was par for the course for the time.
The story of the issue (double sized!) is that Azrael almost loses to Bane as well, and his back up plan also fails. He barely gets out alive. So he designs the famous Azrael Batsuit
Yup, that’s certainly a Batsuit (also, Bane appears to have tiny honeycombs for muscles in his chest). It shoots tiny Batarangs from the gauntlets, and has a high-powered spotlight in the chest. He can glide around in it sorta, too, as well as firing grappling hooks from the gauntlets as well. Tim goes in and tries to dissuade him from being a crazy murdering asshole, which goes as well as you can imagine. Some douche in a suit who’s a lieutenant in the police force meets Bullock, who’s happily munching donuts while taking bets on who’ll win the last round of the fight, Bane or Batman.
As much as 90s readers said they hated the old 60s Batman, the comic looked and acted a lot like that at the time. Everyone knows Batman is basically pals with the Commissioner, the mayor tells the lieutenant to lay off so Batman can fight Bane, and the color palette is lightened up with some odd contrasting color choices floating around in there.
Bane hijacks a sign to call Jean Paul. It’s a significant plot point for later issues that the sign says “’Batman’ now” because it starts some of the bystanders on the path to working out that the crazy person in the mech suit isn’t the original Batman. But this comic plays with the idea of Batman as symbol as well, in the incredibly subtle move of having Jean Paul say “Symbol” when he arrives and flares his cape out, Adam West style. There’s a sense in Jean Paul’s mind that he has to continue a symbolic tradition, like Alfred tells Dick to do in Batman and Robin; like a new actor in a familiar stage role, he has to hit his lines and costume in the right ways, but make it his own.
Meanwhile, Bruce is zooming around some other country like Professor X, in his high tech wheelchair, looking for the doctor who helped him begin his recovery. I guess he’s sort of in love with her? Who knows? It was 90s Batman, he was in love with everyone.
This comic is insane, in good and bad ways. It seems melodramatic within the context of comics where people dress up in weird costumes and fight. Jean Paul is a weird Frank Miller-esque Batman who wants Tim to “remember the ‘Dark’” but forget the Knight. He also apparently wants to run the city, since at some point he says he wants to replace Bane at the center of it all (Bane took over the entire city, basically, from the underworld, er, up). It’s also pretty tightly plotted, excepting the bullshit inner monologue. The art is only confusing sometimes, which is a treat for a 90s DC comic. It does suffer from trying to involve every fucking character – Nightwing shows up at one point, basically to say “I don’t like Jean Paul for reasons, and they’re different from Tim’s reasons, he’s a bad guy.” Oh, and he’s pissy that Bruce didn’t ask him to become Batman, even though he admits he didn’t want to do it. Way to be your own man, Dick, and not a whiny bitch.
Knightfall is possibly the biggest single story to come out of 90s Batman, rivaled only by No Man’s Land (which was 1999 and thus nearly the 2000s anyway). It fucked the Batman up good, showed us Batman essentially failing, and then showed what would happen to another person with the same mission and resources but without the “self-made” training and particular obsessions with violence (that is, obsessive aversion to mortality). Grant Morrison once had Batman say he took on the devil because he thought he could take him. Jean Paul effectively says, in this issue, that he means to become the devil, because then everyone else will be safe. He’s ignoring the implication that there will then be a fucking devil.