Among my responsibilities as America’s Comics Critic Laureate I am often called to address hordes of schoolchildren. Gangs of roving fresh-cheeked moppets surge from every corner and duck blind whenever I pass, positively frothing at the mouth with enthusiasm for the medium. Pleading for fresh hot takes on the world of comic books. Sometimes they can be satisfied with selected bon mots referring archly to the drinking prowess of obscure mangaka. However on the most recent Sunday during my daily stroll through the town square of Königsberg - in the manner of Kant, as recommend by physician - I was accosted by a particularly tenacious gang of ruffians.
The children surrounded me, possessed by an equal measure of awe and fear. From the crowd materialized a head boy playing absentmindedly with a straight razor, the weapon appearing in his hands between eyeblinks.
“So, lady,” the kid squinted while licking the blade of their weapon, “what’s good in Batman?”
To which I replied, well, funny you should ask . . .
First and foremost, allow me to make an assertion which I believe to be fundamentally unimpeachable: Jim Aparo is the best Batman artist. He just is.
His Batman looks like Batman is supposed to look. There is nothing extraneous. Over the course of his career he charts a course very similar to another underrated essential craftsman, Sal Buscema. Both of them had long tenures on very popular characters and were able to stay employed from the late 60s through the 90s. Both of them spent decades paring away the error from their work until they were left with only true lines. Accordingly their later work is often far more interesting and engaging than their earliest.
Pick up an Aparo book from the early 70s and an Aparo book from the early 90s and you’ll see the same artist having changed primarily through elimination. Look at his early 70s run on Brave & the Bold - he’s still clearly in thrall to Neal Adams but already hard at work carving away some of Adams’ peculiarities. The panel compositions are dynamic and the close-up faces nigh into hysterical - Adams in a nutshell - but shorn of so much of the fussiness that undercuts Adams’ work to this day.
Contrast that with Aparo’s work in the early 90s. The Adams influence that was so strong in his earlier DC work has faded into the background. The layouts are impeccable, freer than his seventies work. There are fewer panels than there were, more said with far less. Your eye is never unsure where to go.
What I appreciate most about Aparo, and why his Batman is and will always be my favorite, is his understanding of just how much of Batman’s character is delivered through body language. Because of course his Batman isn’t wearing five layers of body armor and military grade tactical gear, he’s a dude wearing a costume. He’s an acrobat, for goodness’ sake.
Aparo’s Batman is slightly stiff. He always seems graceful and powerful at a distance - when he’s in motion, usually - but close up there’s an awkwardness in his demeanor. He draws Batman like he’s a dude wearing a heavy cape and cowl that slightly restrict his movements, who sometimes even appears a little bulky when he’s just standing there in the middle of the room. Aparo’s Batman is recognizably a human being.
He also drew him with the grey and blue costume, standard from the mid-60s to the mid-90s. You know, the stylish one that had a unique instantly identifiable color scheme. They replaced it with an all-black number that his current suit still resembles, though to be fair they do alternate and switch up sometimes. I far prefer the yellow chest insignia. Solid black looks ugly on Batman, utilitarian and screamingly obvious without so much as a hint of style. I miss the grey and blue. It was one of the great outfits and never looked better than under Aparo’s pencil. Aparo made a dude dressing up like a bat to fight another dude dressed like a clown seem positively elegant.
Aparo has been on my mind lately due to one story in particular, Batman #496 - even more specifically, the splash page from that issue.
Don’t think about anything else right now. Don’t search your memory, if you’ve read it. It’s almost thirty years old. It’s not new. Don’t think about any of the other names in the credits box right now. We’ll get there. Just look at the picture.
Batman has clearly seen better days. Looks like he’s been ridden hard and put away wet. Positively stumbling away from the scene of a devastating battle. His ear is broken off. No body armor or tactical gear. He’s an athletic man in early middle age who seems to be in a great deal of pain.
Something else that jumps out: Batman is interacting with the press. Sure, he’s stumbling in the opposite direction, but he’s right there on camera, actively trying to get away from the camera so he doesn’t have to talk to reporters. That feels almost as strange as seeing Batman shot all to shit in the first place. Batman doesn’t stumble away from TV cameras. He’s not supposed to be just some dude with a tattered costume doing a walk of shame out of a burning zoo. Footage of Batman having been beaten like a rug are going to lead the local news that night.
Now let’s pull out a bit for some context: Batman #496 is chapter nine in the Knightfall crossover, which ran primarily between the core titles Batman and Detective Comics for six months from April to October of 1993. Isn’t that a long time for one story, you ask? To which I would answer, sure, it may seem like a lot, but Knightfall was actually only the first chapter of a three-part mega crossover which stretched from Batman #492 in early 1993 to Legends of the Dark Knight #63, the final chapter of KnightsEnd cover dated August of 1994. And that’s not even counting the fact that the storyline began in subplots stretching back many months prior to Batman #492, and that the repercussions of the storyline were still being played out for months after the fact in the core titles and across multiple spinoffs.
That’s a lot of Batman. It felt like a lot at the time, too, reading them one at a time in real time across 1993 and 1994. I recall the sensation of diminishing returns as the months dragged on and they continued to sell Batman comics starring not Batman. The contrast here is the Death of Superman cycle of stories that came out in parallel to Knightfall - a coincidence the respective creative teams swear was unintentional. Truth be told, it didn’t do them any favors at the time to be published next to one another. It’s legitimately funny to me that Superman’s death has become such a beloved period in the series’ history, considering how the story was pilloried and dismissed at first glance as the rankest variety of gimmick. And yet people loved it. The death itself was a light read but the story of how he came back became a weekly cliffhanger across the summer of 1993. It’s never gone out of print and the characters introduced during that period became mainstays. Positively a miracle, considering how very little else from that rotten glut period in the industry lingers in the memory.
The problem is that whereas Superman’s Death and Return cycle is fondly remembered almost thirty years later, the Knightsfall / Quest / End trilogy just isn’t. It’s not difficult to figure out why. The Batman story went on too long and misplaced its climax. Superman’s return was bound up in a mystery that took the better part of half a year to unfold, whereas the Batman stories were no kind of mystery at all and took twice as long. The difference can be illustrated by the fact that whereas the Superman books remained at the top of my reading pile every week during the initial run of Reign of Superman, I sort of quit buying KnightsQuest when it was just Jean-Paul Valley wandering around the city talking to hallucinations. The narrative momentum was well and truly lost.
The takeaway if you go back to Knightfall is that you don’t need to worry about the second and third parts of the story. You will be disappointed. KnightsQuest: The Search is simply terrible. KnightsQuest: The Crusade is a month’s worth of story expanded to significantly more than a month’s worth of books, with a not-terrible “Joker goes to Hollywood” yarn somewhere in the middle. And KnightsEnd is mostly about ninjas when ninjas had never factored into the first two thirds of the cycle, a decision I find as inexplicable in hindsight as writing Bane out at the end of the first third. Valley was a dweeb and a nonentity and there was no real suspense at any point about how the story would end. The ninja interludes feel like killing time. Aparo taps out of the Batman books at the end of Knightfall, you can feel justified in doing so yourself. Trust that Bruce gets better after a slight mishap.
Like everyone else I have unreasonable opinions on the subject of Batman, and perhaps my most scabrous opinion is that I believe the best Batman stories tend not to be the nice books with hard spines boasting bold new takes on the Dark Knight from established creators. Please, I adjure you, look past the nice books with hard spines that all take themselves too serious. If you want to get a feel for Batman you should pick a pile of regular issues from the main line and see what readers wanted Batman to look like in any given year. At any point in the last three-quarters of a century you’ll find what was considered to be more or less top of the line in the mainstream comics industry at the time of printing. Not always state of the art, but occasionally. More often than you might expect, truthfully. Rarely unreadable, at the least. Usually dead center of the road for what readers are into at any given moment. For decades Diamond used Batman sales to index the rest of their charts and for good reason.
Nothing closer to Coca-Cola on the shelves. Even Marvel zombies buy Batman sometimes. Dispensations are issued.
Meat and potatoes are what you need. Don’t get it twisted. There’s another whole pile of Batman stories today that want to make profound statements about the world, because that’s apparently a thing you can do with Batman stories. Is it a thing you should do with Batman stories? Well, it’s not like anything I say is going to stop you. Writing about comics requires making peace with the fact that Batman is always going to be there whether you like it or not. Creators will plumb the depths of this very shallow pool until the end of eternity. Sometimes the results will be fun, often groan-inducing, occasionally Academy Award-winning. But until the day you die even should you live to see the sun engulf the Earth in crimson fire they will never be thin on the ground.
Like I say, nothing closer to Coca-Cola on the shelves.
The stories about Batman doing Batman things tend to interest me the most. Just skip the pretentious chaff. I don’t like the character so much as a projection of masculine anxiety or authoritarian personality, certainly do not identify with him in any way. Modern Batman is always rushing to catch up with relationships he’s destroyed through his own actions, always dealing with the consequences of his own emotional unavailability, always playing defense after manipulations blow up in his face. How many Batman stories hinge on Batman being incapable of having an honest conversation with another human being? How many Batman stories hinge on Batman recovering something important lost through his own callousness? More than a few. In a word, I don’t like Batman as an asshole. He’s not a fun character to read about or look at when he’s so emotionally stunted he alienates every other person in his life.
Is that the power fantasy? Being isolated because no one else can understand how rad you are? Or everyone loving you and hanging around despite your strong antisocial tendencies, which never seem to waver? Seems hollow to me, but whatevs. I write about comic books online for the delectation of dozens, perhaps not itself the most sensible avocation.
Leastwise for the last few decades, readers have wanted the grim fellow with the thousand-yard scowl in the main line, only sometimes slightly less so. For example Grant Morrison gave the guy a kid, which usually tends to soften people. But since this is Bruce Wayne he also goes weeks without remembering Damian exists. I’ve been tuned out for a few years, I hear he almost got married. I’m betting after that fell through he used it as an excuse to get moody again? Am I close?
Question: does Batman tear up when “Cats in the Cradle” comes on the radio? When you coming home dad? I don’t know when. Two-Face is on the loose again.
Anyway. Knightfall is the subject of our essay today. It’s a good Batman story, perhaps one of the best. The premise isn’t complicated, in fact I’d go so far as to say it’s rudimentary. Bane wants to destroy Batman. He thinks about it for a while and figures out the only way to truly defeat someone like Batman is to trick them into defeating themselves. So he waits until the worst possible moment, after Batman was already wasted from months of nonstop exertion, and blows a hole in the side of Arkham Asylum with a bazooka. The patients pour out, ready to wreak havoc. Bane doesn’t have to say a single word, he knows they’re going to paint the town red and Batman is going to run himself ragged tracking down every last one of them. For their part many of the escapees realize they’re being used as pawns in a larger scheme, but since it’s a scheme to kill Batman they’re more or less down with it.
The plan unfolds perfectly. Batman runs himself down to a little nub, and then when he’s just about dead Bane pops up to smack him around like a rag doll. Cracks his spine over his knee in a rather iconic shot, leaves the broken body lying in the middle of the street downtown. Of course, it’s all downhill from there for the rest of the story. Bruce is out of commission, for real, with an injury that isn’t going to heal overnight (until it does, in the aforementioned, awful KnightQuest: The Search). I remembered thinking the means by which Valley became Batman were sloppy and unconvincing, but it made more sense than I remembered. After Bruce is almost killed by Bane, Valley is pressganged to stand in the background in the Batman costume while Robin runs a couple of errands. The goal was to project an image of relative stability to a few crucial parties, like Commissioner Gordon. However, Valley’s already splintered mind starts to unravel the moment he puts on the Batman costume. He pushes away the support crew, becomes increasingly violent. Changes the locks on the Batcave. All a simple matter once Valley remembered the that he is an adult whereas Robin is, in fact, a child, and acted accordingly. Which is the kind of thing you think more people would remember!
It’s only a matter of time before the All-New, All-Dissociative Batman takes down Bane, an event which feels almost like an afterthought tacked on to the end of Knightfall. Bane, for his part, runs out of gas almost immediately after destroying Batman. He really didn’t have any interest in knuckling down and, say, running the East Side numbers racket or whatever. Most of Batman’s enemies have extraordinary petty ambitions and Bane figures this out almost immediately.
A confession: I am inordinately fond of stories where the hero gets beat to shit. Probably because that’s a quintessential Marvel move even back to the days of Stan & Jack & Steve. Sometimes you just have to put your man through the wringer. Spider-Man almost gets killed before he has to lift that giant machine, it’s not like he goes in fresh with a tube of Ben Gay and some stretching. The Thing has always felt the physical consequences of getting punched a lot in a way that most other comic book strong guys simply do not. He gets tired and broken. Wolverine - I mean, they did it so much they ruined it completely by making him virtually unkillable. Coming back for round two after nearly getting killed is basically his whole schtick.
Batman doesn’t usually have to play defense. He’s not a guy who makes a habit of taking a beating, or at least nothing that doesn’t fade by by the next issue. Knightfall begins with Batman already as run down as we have ever seen. He’s got stubble even, and you know when Batman has stubble, shit done got serious.
Most of Knightfall is a tag-team between two different writers, Doug Moench on Batman and Chuck Dixon on Detective, with Aparo on the art duties for Batman and Graham Nolan mostly on Detective. Norm Breyfogle stops by for a couple early chapters, as does a young Jim Balent. Balent would helm the Catwoman solo ongoing that launched out of Knightfall. Odd to recall there was a time when Catwoman had never had her own ongoing series, but that was indeed her first. Robin also got his first as well, on the heels of three successful minis released over the previous few years spotlighting the third Robin, Tim Drake. A once-derided concept was suddenly commercially viable.
Klaus Janson and Bret Blevins stop by for side stories as well, and the end of the crossover coincides with the beginning of Mike Manley’s brief run. Manley is criminally underrated by virtue of the fact that I don’t recall seeing him ever put his name to a bad drawing. His early art on Darkhawk is strong and idiosyncratic journeyman work that could stand rediscovery.
Wow, The Journal sure has changed! I’m sure everyone still thinks we’re elitists. Ah, well.
The story wears the scars of its age, for better or for worse. Batman is a relentlessly political character inasmuch as the boundaries and incentives in his world are under constant negotiation by different and often opposed understandings of justice. The triumph and tragedy of Batman in one stroke is that the character encompasses so many different ideologies - and so many different marketing niches - that he can be made to do just about anything, and with some conviction. Chuck Dixon is a very conservative man whose politics are plain in his work, but his stories ran concurrent with Alan Grant’s long tenure on the Bat-books. Grant is represented by one interlude here, a three-parter with Blevins and the Scarecrow that ran in Shadow of the Bat parallel to the main story. He’s the guy who created Anarky, who also shows up, teen anarchist whose super power is making Batman the villain of his own stories. Great antagonist - scratch that, fantastic antagonist, representing that rarest of rarities, a novel idea for a Batman story. Pity no one but Grant has ever shown much interest in the underlying ideas. In hindsight, it's a notable absence from Morrison’s run.
It’s rare in comics to know when things truly important. So little of it matters! It’s all written on sand and the tide comes in every Wednesday. The laws of promotion are inexorable, the most important story they’ve ever published is always on the schedule for next week. But not every story in hindsight is equally earth-shattering, and above the scrum of the weekly onslaught it’s hard not to see that the vast majority of them are not. Most suck! Most of everything sucks, clearly, but especially most comic book events. Going back and revisiting Knightfall produced a rare sensation, a feeling that the story was far more significant than I believed, had actually become so with the benefit of almost thirty years’ history under our belts.
It was the early 90s. Police procedurals were undergoing something of a renaissance - Enter Now the Age of Bochco! Dick Wolf's deathless Law & Order, the first one, was only three years old. It was during the 80s and early 90s that the Gotham Police became the primary supporting cast for Batman - a distinction they held for years afterwards, until I’d argue they were finally overwhelmed by the sheer mass of accumulated sidekicks, every one of whom has fans to be appeased. Although the police have always been a presence, Commissioner Gordon a fixture, this is where the rhythms of modern cop shows entered the strip’s lexicon, just as they infiltrated much of the rest of culture. And people loved those characters, let us not overlook. This was the period of Renee Montoya’s creation, after all. I had forgotten, before checking - she first appeared in the 90s cartoon, albeit introduced in the books near the same time. Long before Harley Quinn made the same leap. Feels like she’s always been around, which is the sign of a good character.
Gotham is a nightmare city. That’s the premise, more or less, or has been for a good few decades, since the day-glo giant appliance eccentricities of Golden and Silver Age Gotham began to fade into something more resembling the urban crime havens familiar from 70s vigilante flicks. Sometimes that nightmare comes wrapped in imposing gothic architecture, sometimes it looks like the endless gray of a brutal Chicago warehouse district. Cities are mysterious places filled with multitudes, Gotham especially so. The Gotham we see in Knightfall is the worst nightmare vision Middle America could conjure in the early 90s - squeezed from the top by crooked politicos, from the bottom by an incessant background hum of street violence, and from all sides by organized crime of every flavor. There’s always wrongdoing, somewhere.
What does that mean for Knightfall and the early 90s Batman books? It means you can look back and see in real time as the warp and woof of the line changes to accommodate cultural attitudes towards crime and law enforcement. Back in the 80s Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns injected a strong dose of reactionary realpolitik into the character’s DNA. Additionally Year One spent a lot of time updating the Gotham PD as a backdrop for future stories (though if I recall correctly it tangled Gordon’s continuity something awful). Miller was famously mugged multiple times when he first moved to New York in the 1970s, and it’s certainly not hard to see how the experience could have colored one’s outlook (See also: “Jerk City, USA”). Given his singular influence on American pop culture that paranoia has enjoyed a forty-year cultural hangover.
Batman gets his back broken at the midpoint of Knightfall - I mean, I guess that’s a spoiler, since I already mentioned it? The event is literally commemorated on the cover of the book. He gets his back broken and spends half a year or so working his way back to fighting trim. When he comes back at the beginning of KnightsEnd he’s been training with the aforementioned ninjas, upping his mad skillz to even greater degrees of madness. But then after he takes care of Jean-Paul Valley - or rather, doesn’t do anything at all and lets the guy wander off - he leaves again for a trip to take care of personal matters. (Sorry to spoil the ending too but it’s a really terrible ending, impact crater still visible from space after almost three decades.)
If you can follow the shaggy dog: Zero Hour happened right after KnightsEnd. Zero Hour had nothing to do with anything (See also: “Crisis in Time”), but we got a month’s worth of fun retro stuff out of it. Including the return of the Golden Age Alfred, who very briefly took over after the “real” post-Crisis Alfred left in a huff during Knightfall. He got sick of seeing Bruce use Batman as a form of self-harm, and can you blame him? So Bruce went to retrieve Alfred from Europe, where he’d been catching up on years of Ellery Queen and smoking opium. I think? This time however Bruce leaves the city in the actually capable hands of Dick Grayson, leading to the latter’s first tenure as Batman as well as an emotional rapprochement with his eldest son. The Prodigal storyline lasted for a few months, was very well received, and set the template for what would later become recurring stints on the part of Dick as Bruce’s chosen substitute.
Knightfall was Batman’s last big adventure with those blue & gray togs he’d sported for almost three decades. But when after all the crap in the preceding paragraph had concluded, and Bruce Wayne finally for good returned and once again resumed being Batman (during the otherwise forgettable Troika crossover), he wasn’t wearing it anymore. He was wearing the all-black number, covered in body armor, sans yellow oval. That’s more or less been the industry standard since.
Now, at this point it’s probably worth rewinding a bit to catch up with another stream. The span from the beginning of the buildup to Knightfall all the way to Troika was more or less two years in the life of the books, spanning from 92-94. These were two of the most consequential years in the history of the industry, with a partial retail implosion running parallel through the entire span. But the most important Batman stories at the outset of the 90s weren’t being published at all, they were in theaters and on TV. The first Tim Burton Batman kickstarted a second round of Batmania, a phenomenon perhaps more legible now that we’re more used to seeing nostalgia for children’s merchandizing recur in generational cycles. People who grew up with Batman ‘66 were primed for Batman ‘89. Even 80s kids still knew it because the show never left syndication. Soon enough though it was superseded on weekday afternoon TV by the enduring Batman: The Animated Series, launched the same year as Batman Returns.
Although I said a minute ago that Burton’s film kickstarted the late 80s Bat-fad, it would probably be more accurate to say he lit a pilot light smuggled from the comics. Miller’s Dark Knight Returns shipped in 86, Year One (with David Mazzuccheli) in 87. Burton’s Batman didn’t have a lot to do with Miller, despite the latter having made the major contribution to Batman’s late 80s renaissance. There was a passing resemblance between parts of the film and The Killing Joke, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s deathless meditation on the virtues of reading a story solely for the art. (Which to be fair is probably Moore’s preference at this point.)
For the most part Burton’s Batman acted more or less the way Batman is supposed to - albeit, like most cinematic Batmen, slightly less concerned over killing bad guys than their four-color cousins. Michael Keaton surprised everyone by giving what remains the industry standard Bruce Wayne. I liked the fact that his Wayne was genuinely a warmer and funnier person than Batman, someone who understood the tragedy of cutting himself off from so much of the human experience in order to maintain a huge secret. An interesting dynamic that the comics only occasionally exploit.
It was however the look of Burton’s film that cast the longest shadow. Long enough that most people seem to overlook the fact that there still wasn’t a lot of air between the 89 film and the dreaded 60s show that was still clearly Burton’s primary influence - leastways, not in terms of plot. It’s still about the Joker trying to cause havoc with circus-themed death traps, including giant parade balloons filled with Joker gas. But it looked dark. It was more violent. Even the lighting was moody. The double entendres were knowing instead of winking. Suddenly, Batman fucked.
The costume was all black with only yellow highlights. The yellow oval was present but the sheer costume was replaced with body armor, in reality latex molded into a stylized physique. Action stars from the period famously scoffed at the sight of Keaton stolidly trudging across the rooftops in his fake muscles, stiff and inflexible from the weight of the mantle. But audiences didn’t care. It looked cool. What more do you need from a Batman story?
The practice spread. We still have the costumes with the grotesque super-defined fake muscles, but the stars always also have to do the horrendous six month juice cleanse slash Muay Thai boot camp necessary for the twenty second scene where they take off their shirt to verify an ersatz corporeality. Not to be confused with carnality, because everyone knows Marvel doesn’t fuck. Not anymore! At some point it might behoove them to remember they have a union.
So the moviegoers of 1989 were spared the spectacle of Michael Keaton in spandex, and for his part Keaton was spared the ordeal of building extraneous muscle. Nothing mattered more than not embarrassing all the cool dudes who didn’t want to see Adam West in tights doing the Batusi. Which they loved when they were kids but, you know, they’re older now and have put away childish things. Now it’s time for Batman to cut loose and start killing dudes.
Am I laying it on a bit thick? Probably.