Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Layman's Guide To The Villains of Batman Through A Break From Arkham Asylum With Knightfall Volume One: Broken Bat!

The Good: Clever concept, Especially strong execution of plot, Decent characters, Good artwork, Good dialogue
The Bad: References events that precede this series, No issue cover galleries or series advertisements
The Basics: In the early 90s, Batman's greatest villains were released by a new and powerful enemy named Bane and Batman's quest to get them back into Arkham puts him in jeopardy.

[As I move my massive library of reviews into my new blog, I occasionally find one that I don’t want to alter much because I love the flavor of the original language. As I re-read my Knightfall Volume 1 review, I felt that way. So, despite the fact that I have fallen for the film The Dark Knight and read and reviewed a lot of graphic novels, including a brand new guide on how to read the Blackest Night saga (click here for that!), I wanted to maintain the original feel of this review. I hope you enjoy it!]

Back in the days when I used to read comic books (actually, I was such a geek, I only read the Star Trek comics!), I was intrigued for a while by Batman. I never picked up Batman comics, but I was intrigued by them. The truth is, I didn't care much about the Batman comics (I liked Tim Burton's Batman and LOVED Batman Returns, but one day in one of my Star Trek comics, there was an advertisement. The advertisement was for the beginning of a Batman comic series called Knightfall and the ad said it all: All of Batman's enemies are released from Arkham Asylum and he has to hunt them down. The ads had great artwork and the thing that continued to intrigue me as the ads continued throughout my comics was the running thread that Batman was getting more and more exhausted. I like superheroes who are not invincible. Those ads stuck with me and recently, when I was replacing a number of books, I stumbled upon the collected Knightfall series in a trade paperback (actually three) and I decided I had to have them. In Knightfall, Part One: Broken Bat I've finally seen what was backing all of those compelling advertisements.

Bane, a dangerous brute whose motivations are largely unknown - though he has an apparent vendetta against Batman - arrives in Gotham City with his henchman with a rather ingenious plan. Bane's lackeys knock off the local armory and deliver Gotham's military arsenal to . . . Arkham Asylum, the local mental institution. Arkham is the residence of all of the psychopathic killers Batman has put away over the years. Enemies as recognizable as The Joker, Scarecrow and Two-Face are unleashed on the city, along with more obscure enemies such as Killer Croc, Firefly, Amygdala and Zsasz.

Batman begins to push himself to the limits of his endurance over the few days that follow. He makes some quick victories, capturing the Mad Hatter and Amygdala almost immediately. Bane himself takes out one of the villains and Batman proceeds to confront the notorious (though completely obscure to anyone but a Batman fan) serial killer Zsasz. That confrontation is critical as it seriously weakens Batman both physically and emotionally. It also distracts Batman from some of the most notorious killers in his past and while Batman is stuck cleaning up the little messes, Scarecrow and the Joker team up and kidnap the mayor. Refusing Robin's help, Batman works past exhaustion as he becomes the prey Bane has come to destroy.

You certainly don't have to be a Batman fan to get a kick out of this story. This is like the Greatest Hits of Batman all in one place and as someone who had not read a single Batman comic before this graphic novel, I have to say it was remarkably accessible.

No one knows the prejudice against comic books like a novelist. I generally don't consider comics a real legitimate form of writing or art, but Knightfall is turning me around. Sitting down and reading this graphic novel opened me to the reality of what good writing (in comic books) can do; it allows the imagination to create without wasting words on the ridiculous. It occurred to me, about halfway through Broken Bat, that this would be especially boring or silly as a novel because there was so much fighting. To read "Batman lashed out as Amygdala put his full weight into a crushing blow" would get tiresome as the book continued. Instead, because the battles are illustrated, the words that are printed on the page are all of the essential things that cannot be seen; what is said, heard and any relevant backstory or movement off page.

And what surprised me, again, about the quality of this volume was in the illustrations. Not because these are pretty pictures or fine art, but rather that those charged with producing this story have an impressive attention to detail. As a result, almost every panel is expressive, with characters emoting genuine (and appropriate) emotions for their circumstances. And the team involved here is so clever that looking at panels with Batman and the lines are sharp and strong, at the book progresses, the jawlines curve more as Batman becomes exhausted. It's details like that that are brilliant.

What attracted me to Batman (of all comics) was this: 1. He's just a man and 2. His main weapon is cunning. He needs to outsmart his enemy and to do that, he analyzes information and creates defenses (gadgets) to save himself.

In Knightfall, he does some of that, mostly in the form of saving himself from toxins from the likes of Poison Ivy and approaching Firefly with a suit that is fireproof, but it is not as extensive as I anticipated. Then again, the situation here is rather dire for Batman. The psychopaths who are released from Arkham are the most dangerous characters in the Batman series, so the body count begins to rack up pretty quickly. As a result, much of Broken Bat is spent simply meting out justice in the form of stopping the villains who use brute force with Batman using brute force in return.

There is a clever aspect to this whole design and that is in the form of Bane. Bane seems to have no extensive powers, he's just a mountain of a man who responds to everything by punching, smashing and destroying. His tactic is to wear Batman out and then kill him. What better way to do that than to physically exhaust Batman on those who are inferior to him?

This is essentially a death by a thousand blows and writers Doug Moench and Chuck Dixon wisely keep the action focused on the cumulative effect of these attacks. Batman becomes short-tempered from lack of sleep, lashing out at Robin. Moreover, the villains have some clever aspects to them as well; Scarecrow and the Joker team up and basically synergize their evil and the Riddler - the lone villain Robin is left to deal with - resolves his conflict in the most simple way possible (actually, I was amused quite a bit by the Riddler's reaction to Robin).

My point here is that I understand the prejudice against comic books and while Broken Bat does not solve all of the problems with comic books, this is an impressive collection and it's clearly - based on the psychological aspects and attention to strategy as well as the level of violence and the discussions of what all that violence means - intended for an adult audience. And, for the most part, it's satisfying.

What is problematic are the references to what comes before Broken Bat. Two characters are present in this volume that are relatively new. Jean-Paul, who also goes by Azrael, is an associate of Batman and he spends his presence in Broken Bat sitting it out while Batman does his thing, with Robin keeping him updated. He seems to be an adversary turned ally (as I understand it, there was an Azrael series shortly before Knightfall to set up his role in this). The other big addition is Bane. Bane utilizes a poison for his tremendous strength and it is alluded that Bane has been on his way for a little while. Apparently, he nearly killed Killer Croc - whose vengeance for that becomes a motivator for him - and he tested his poison on the Riddler, making the Riddler temporarily into a ridiculously strong brute. These basically are mentioned in passing to connote that even before Knightfall, Bruce Wayne and Batman are exhausted.

As well, at one point in the book, a female superhero pops up to dispatch some thugs for a few panels (it's so short that skimming through now for a page reference I could not find her!). Is it enough to detract from a good read? No. Most of it can be figured out by the clever reader. And for those who are only familiar with Batman from the movies, there is a lot to enjoy here; characters like Two-Face are evident escaping from Arkham, but are not captured in Broken Bat.

This is likely to be enjoyed by anyone who likes a good action-adventure story and the climax is impressive. It's not likely to be enjoyed by those who can't read something just for fun. This is fun and in the weirdest way, it becomes so engrossing with the characters that it gets the blood pumping. Seriously. This is a hunt and the hunter is preyed upon by villains horrible, lame and powerful. But it's entertaining and it's a great read for a rainy afternoon when you want something exciting and quick to read.

Note to DC Comics: Whoever created that ad campaign ought to be promoted. It may have taken over a decade, but I bought this!

For other graphic novel reviews, please check out my takes on:
Wonder Woman The Circle
Lost Girls


For other book reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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