Tuesday, October 12, 2010

With Batman Broken, Another Must Take His Place. Naturally, It's A Psychopath: Knightfall Volume 2.

The Good: Excellent continuation of the previous stories, Tone, Characters
The Bad: Very basic plot, Issues with the story's timeline, "Middle Act" quality, Peripheral characters
The Basics: In a disappointing follow-up to Broken Bat, a new Batman emerges to fight Gotham's new crimelord while Bruce Wayne wheels away.

In my review of Knightfall - Part One: Broken Bat (click here for that!), I explored the cultural prejudice against comic books (and by extension graphic novel anthologies of their extensive stories). I will, therefore, not repeat myself and have this review follow with the unstated premise that reading Knightfall - Part Two: Who Rules The Night is an acknowledgment that while the prejudice exists, it is somewhat silly, but at the same time nothing takes the place of genuine literature and this is not it.

Following the release of all of Gotham City's greatest villains and Batman's draining attempt to return them to Arkham Asylum, the villain responsible for the breakout, Bane, destroys Batman by breaking his back. Confined to a wheelchair, Bruce Wayne turns to Dr. Shondra Kinsolving for medical help and potential romance. Wayne turns the crimefighting over to Robin and Jean-Paul Valley (previously known as Azrael, before the first Knightfall began).

Valley assumes the cape and outfit of Batman and begins to set order back to the streets of Gotham. This new Batman takes out the Scarecrow, albeit violently, and begins a hunt for Bane. (The villainous Ventriloquist, featured prominently in the first book, appears to take himself out and in a flashback sequence we learn that Batman dealt with Two-Face shortly before being crippled by Bane.) Leaving Robin behind, the new Batman fights Bane to a draw, returns to the Batcave under the influence of a subconscious programming from the mysterious Order of Saint Dumas to design a new suit for Batman.

Who Rules The Night is essentially a middle act that is necessary in order to make the near-death of Batman realistic and consequential. Bruce Wayne is last seen flying off in a jet, still bound to his wheelchair. He is very much broken and damaged, with no immediate prospects for getting better. Bane consolidates his hold on Gotham City and this graphic novel explores how he begins to take control of all of the corrupt institutions.

The main thrust is very much the function of a middle act; Jean-Paul Valley taking up the mantle of the bat to become the new Batman. While it does not take much convincing from Bruce Wayne and Robin for him to agree to become the new Dark Knight, what is far more problematic is that he is more "dark" than "knight." He has no apparent code of ethics he is following and his level of force immediately begins to upset Robin.

This creates a very real character conflict between the two primary characters in Who Rules The Night. Robin - and his non-superhero persona Tim Drake - pleads with Azrael to fight for good and fight by a code that does not perpetuate the darkness that evil lives within. Jean-Paul's view is that the evils are bigger and badder than Batman had to face and as a result, he must be even more extreme than they are. One might not think it possible in a comic book, but this results in a very real level of tension that permeates the dialogue and body language of the characters in these pages.

Who Rules The Night is FAR less cohesive than Broken Bat. The tale begins to splinter, with a sidestory of how Batman and Robin defeated Two-Face before Bane took out Batman, the wandering threads of Bane's power consolidation, Wayne's beginning the road to recovery and the change of power, which culminates in the Scarecrow sidestory with the appearance of another superhero called the Anarchist. It's only after Scarecrow is taken out that the story becomes devoted to its new purpose; finding and eliminating Bane. That's when the story is at its best.

The problem is, on the way, as the story wanders, so does the animation. In the flashback episode dealing with the reappropriation of Two-Face, the comic panels are terrible. The artwork is sloppy and that distracts from the quality of the story dramatically. Conversely, during the Scarecrow series and the culmination of events leading to the face-off between Bane and the new Batman, the animation is wonderful. The pencillers there create clear, vivid pictures that do what a book like this ought to do; it conveys the physical sense of what is happening without having to use words to describe it.

The strength of any graphic novel comes in the balance between the dialogue and the physical action. Who Rules The Night is unbalanced here, as well. The book has extensive dialogue between characters, with a lot coming in villains providing backstory in the beginning. After the Scarecrow episode, the book thins out considerably, with most of the dialogue being Robin's repeated arguments to Jean-Paul Valley over the ethics of combating violence with violence. The book degenerates into a slugfest, which makes some sense, but the overall effect is this is a very unbalanced work.

The things that attracted me to the Knightfall saga was the concept of Batman being broken, but even more the quest to reincarcerate the villains in the Batman world. This book deals with that very little as only three villains (only two of which I had even heard of before this series) are dealt with outside Bane. In fact, one of the first things to occur in Who Rules The Night is the Joker simply walks away.

While this might be a necessary chapter in the overall story, the inconsistency of the artwork and the subplots being explore make it difficult for a casual reader of the series - or, indeed, someone who only picked up this series - to enjoy. Will I still see how the saga ends? Yes. But had I not already bought it, I might have just been content with the first part and left the Batman in Bane's hands.

For other graphic novels, please check out my reviews of:
Wonder Woman: Gods And Mortals
Kingdom Come
Green Lantern: Agent Orange


For other graphic novel reviews, please visit my index page!

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

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