Follow The Cracks In A Mirror, Darkly In Tales From The Dark Multiverse: Batman – Knightfall

by Noah Sharma

Partly due to the time in which it was published and collected, many people remember “Knightfall” as the Bane story. It was an explosive introduction to the character, with longtime Batman adversaries like Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and a Joker/Scarecrow team-up serving as mere appetizers for the main event of Bane breaking Batman’s back after infiltrating the Bat-Cave. However, “Knightfall” was only the first part of a trilogy of stories and that famous issue, “The Broken Bat”, is only the mid-point of the first chapter. The rest of “Knightfall” and its trilogy dealt with Bruce Wayne’s replacement, Jean-Paul Valley, his rise and fall as Batman, and the return of the genuine article to the role. Now, twenty five years after the final issue of the era-defining event, DC has decided to peer into the Dark Multiverse at a world where that issue resolved quite differently and, in doing so, have given us a companion to the entire Knight trilogy.

Cover by Lee Weeks and Brad Anderson

Jean-Paul Valley was programmed from infancy to react to donning the vestments of the Order of St. Dumas’ avenging warrior Azrael by believing himself to be an invincible angel. When he was handed the cape and cowl, he sought to fill that role as well, with the same brutal programming driving him. The resulting creation, AzBats, was as merciless as Azrael and as brilliant and indefatigable as Batman, but Scott Snyder and Kyle Higgins posit that even AzBats was merely an intermediary step.

The apocalyptic Gotham of Saint Batman is a natural outgrowth of Azrael iconography, combining the futuristic horror of science without restraint with the eerie grotesquerie of eras past. In many ways it’s Batman taken to his extremes. The result is a conformist, industrialized Golgotha that plays up the Victorian urban fears that still haunt Gotham. Though it’s unclear exactly how the writing chores broke down, Snyder’s wild creative influence is clearly present in the picture of the outside world we receive, a tantalizing mixture of familiar concepts in monstrous new ways that remind why Batman is important and how the twin urges towards an authoritarian Batman and an isolationist Batman both connect and tie into the fascistic thinking of Snyder’s villains in the “Justice/Doom War”.

Interior art by Javier Fernandez and Alex Guimarães

The world is impressionistic, lacking a complete sense of what’s happened, but it contains crucial hints that make it feel alive, from Jean-Paul’s wife building upon the sad concepts of self-denial and entitlement present in his “Knightquest” characterization to the evolution of the Batman iconography, first with the punned Cardinal as a replacement for Robin before the transition to Saint Batman offers the Torchbearer as a second member of the new Batfamily. While there are a couple of places where it does come into play elsewhere, it’s also noteworthy that Higgins and Snyder reject the impulse to explicitly make these characters alternate versions of familiar concepts, allowing this world to stand on its own a little more without the need for gimmicks but suggesting connections that may have evolved in innumerable ways.

Interior art by Javier Fernandez and Alex Guimarães

I also love little details that hint as to the dogma of Gotham, formalized ways of speaking and traditional gestures.

But while the world is effective, this is fundamentally a character driven piece and Jean-Paul is its prime mover. AzBats was widely hated during Knightfall, a sacrificial lamb in the face of the true Batman, but while it was hardly a unanimous position among the writers of the original stories, Higgins and Snyder wisely hold to the vision of the character offered by his creator, Dennis O’Neill, and paint Jean-Paul as a tragic villain rather than an irredeemable monster. At every level, no matter how nightmarish, Jean-Paul is still motivated by a need to feel worthy of his life and his choices, a throughline that is unambiguously introduced through Valley’s chosen fate for Bruce Wayne. Unlike “Knightfall”, where Jean-Paul repents and is eventually forgiven, Saint Batman is truly a vicious character, but his uncertainty still provides the narrative arc that it takes to follow him as our protagonist for much of the issue. There are even a few moments where TftDM revives Jean-Paul’s hallucinations of St. Dumas to fully drive home the depths of his self-loathing. Though, at the surface, Saint Batman represents dangers to those who fight monsters, underneath Jean-Paul remains the same character and Higgins and Snyder understand that his fundamental flaws are a lack of self and an addiction to validation.

Interior art by Javier Fernandez and Alex Guimarães

Indeed, the entire issue hinges around the soft-determinism of its universe. As dark and hopeless as this world, where the League of Assassins are the most altruistic force of any power, may be, it is all the darker because hope exists, it is simply never fulfilled. There is no character so good and true that they cannot be broken, but that means that there is no character who could not have been something better, had things simply gone different and the weight of watching one character after another fall short of their potential is brutal. It culminates in a pained, ineffectual Bruce Wayne, who observes the story as a hopeless bystander right up until the end.

Tales from the Dark Multiverse collects representations of the key players from the original Knight trilogy and positions each of them on intersecting paths determined by their personal motivations and, in this, it is decidedly compelling. There’s an effectively minimal dystopian resistance story, complete with factions of differing ideals, playing out against Jean-Paul’s inner struggles which inform the question of whether Bruce Wayne’s seemingly indomitable will can ever rise again.

Javier Fernandez is a natural choice for this story. His stark lines and dramatic motion convey the age and intensity of the players without contradiction and his dark, hatched backgrounds set an appropriately ominous stage for this explicitly nightmarish vision of Gotham. There is a lot of ‘edge’ in this story and, in honesty, it will not be for everyone, but Fernandez does an impressive job of putting you in touch with the fear and awe that those moments evoke, even if you’re the type to snort rather than gasp.

Interior art by Javier Fernandez and Alex Guimarães

There are still some extreme moments of motion and caricature that may be too much, as I have often found to be the case in Fernandez’s work. Despite this, the issue uses these instances of excess sparingly, making them all the keener when they appear. There are a handful of awkward panels and, among them, some are too sharp or too flat in their depictions of the characters, however the overall result is one of style with substance. Fernandez is able to lean into his strengths on this issue both because the subject matter suits him and because he finds his niche in the vast majority of pages. When the subject matter doesn’t inherently harmonize with his style, Fernandez finds elements of the characters or the setting or the construction of the page to really dig his teeth into. He puts effort into this search and, as a result, nearly every page possesses a propaganda poster clarity or a ticking clockwork matter-of-factness or crackles with a barely contained, threadbare energy that embraces how things have fallen apart.

Interior art by Javier Fernandez and Alex Guimarães

It would also not do to ignore the designwork that went into this issue. Riccardo Federici is responsible for Saint Batman, providing a modern reinterpretation of AzBats that removes some of its outdated excess and holds onto the technological bent of the design while implying a certain degradation back into the ancient programming of St. Dumas. Though it would have been cool to see Jean-Paul continue to iterate upon the Batsuit as he tirelessly did in the original Knightfall, this looks like a Batsuit that has suffered and survived thirty years of war, growing gnarled and tattered as it has. The Crusader armor aesthetic is impressively layered and textured, with distinct areas of different armor types. I especially love the little ideas, like a subtle skirt both contouring the costume and giving the impression of the original Azrael cape at the foundation of Saint Batman’s impressive ornamentation. Perhaps my favorite detail is how Federici explicitly uses the AzBats insignia as a makeshift crusader’s cross.

Concept art by Riccardo Federici

Not to be outdone, Fernandez and colorist Alex Guimarães provide beautifully ominous looks for Saint Batman’s followers, from the dark, ‘superhero as executioner’ duo of his lieutenants to the totalitarian police enforcers he employs to keep order in Gotham. There may be a more direct reference that I’m missing, but the blank white face of the Cardinal, in particular, is an especially brilliant bit of worldbuilding, implying a certain involvement or subjugation of the Court of Owls, who Snyder created many years after “Knightfall”, but logically would have to have become involved at some point.

On the other side, Fernandez plays up another kind of dystopia by offering simple and functional costumes to his resistance members, giving an idea of what materials and design motifs they tend to use. The resulting costumes are elegant in their way and really blend influences from all of the characters who backed the resistance nicely. Shiva, I think, receives the most lovely redesign, bringing a splash of color foreign to Gotham.

Fernandez’s final design is also simple, not changing what isn’t broken, but really does make for a potent visual. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that there are some striking panels that really play with the dichotomy between Batman’s visual inspirations.

Though it asks readers to make a couple of extreme (or is it x-treeme?) jumps, the art really does wow and Javi Fernandez backs that up with some very classy compositions. The story depends and thrives upon Kyle Higgins’ knack for finding what is rotten in our heroes and relatable in our villains, long evidenced in books like Nightwing: The New Order, C.O.W.L., and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and it fulfills that purpose with Scott Snyder’s unerring fidelity to his twin principles: what would be awesome and what would remain true to these characters.

Every Elseworld’s style story needs to answer a basic question: why should the reader invest in this world? Tales from the Dark Multiverse gets off to a strong start by delivering a nightmare world worthy of “Metal” and the original “Knightfall’s” 90s intensity but succeeds because it does deliver multiple characters that use the iconography and familiarity of our DC Universe in a way that could not exist in mainline continuity. Jean-Paul, Tourne, and Bruce all have a real arc that makes this more than an excuse to see Batman be horrible and our mournful narrator does an adequate job of couching the series in a grander narrative that may or may not be leading to something directly relevant to the stories that Snyder and others are telling. Knightfall proves an auspicious start for Tales from the Dark Multiverse, establishing the usefulness of the format, providing something new but true to its inspiration, and telling a complete story. Though I doubt it will fully convert those uninterested in the Knight trilogy or visions of a dystopian Batman, it serves its purpose(s) nobly.

Tales from the Dark Multiverse: Batman – Knightfall is currently available in comic shops from DC Comics.

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