What happens when Batman is no longer Batman?
I never thought I’d see a day when Bruce Wayne wasn’t Batman. I never associated that symbol with any other man. While other super hero titles can be transient and applied to multiple people over time (think Green Lantern or The Flash), Batman has always been a singular man. Much like Clark Kent’s Superman, I couldn’t imagine anyone else taking up the mantle of the bat. It just didn’t seem possible. Bruce Wayne defends Gotham as the Batman; it’s that simple.
As it turns out, during the early 90’s with the “Knightfall” storyline, it wasn’t that simple. Beaten and broken by Bane, Bruce Wayne is effectively out of commission, wheel-chair bound and unable to defend his city. Enter Jean Paul Valley, sometimes known as Azrael, an unstable man whom Bruce decides is worthy of wearing his mask and cowl (I have no idea why). Valley adapts to his new role all too willingly, taking over the Bat Cave, shunning Robin, and becoming Gotham’s new defender.
Therein is the point at which this second trade in the series begins, and the story itself begins to fall apart. Batman without Bruce Wayne? It simply doesn’t feel right. Most of the time I felt as though I was reading an entirely different comic, a Batman rip-off without any of the endearing characters or storylines. Valley changes the Batman costume, isolates himself from all of Batman’s former allies, and takes on the city’s underworld single-handedly, dolling out punishment with far more ferocity than Bruce Wayne ever did.
It likely wouldn’t have mattered who they got to replace Bruce; I still wouldn’t have thought of him as Batman. Jean Paul is particularly frustrating though, because he is simply so infuriating. Bruce Wayne was a loner, but at least he recognized the importance of alliances and friendship. Valley shuns any and all relationships that come his way, viewing people as annoyances and hindrances to his ultimate goal: beating up bad guys.
Bruce Wayne had charisma, style, and above all else a strict moral code. Jean Paul is lacking all of these, making for a stark contrast to the caped crusader we all know and love. Some people were fooled, but most saw immediately that this wasn’t the Batman they knew. Catwoman said it best when she made the following analysis:
Time and again Jean Paul shows his incompetence, misjudging a person or a situation simply because he can’t be bothered to do any of the required detective work. What’s more, he actually vocalizes his disdain for detective work on more than one occasion.
Um…hello?! You’re supposed to be THE detective. Source: Every single Batman comic ever written.
The constant recognition that Valley is NOT the same Batman of old proves that it takes so much more than the costume to make the hero. Jean Paul falls flat on numerous occasions, making the wrong choice or wasting time pondering his own existence.
His existential crises became increasingly grating the further I read. I get it, he was brainwashed and conditioned by his father to be a killing machine, but if he’s competent enough to be questioning his own identity and making his own decisions, should it really be the primary focus of his life? There’s a constant internal struggle as Valley weighs his role as Batman against his training to become Azrael, unsure which is his true path or if they can both be a part of his life. The story comes to a head as Valley finally chooses the Azrael side of himself:
This “angel of vengeance” takes over and becomes the primary driving force within Valley. This is most apparent when he allows the murderer Abattoir to die, rather than rescue him. His vision of justice is so far removed from Bruce Wayne’s that he’s morphed the symbol of the Batman into one of grim retribution, rather than unflinching justice.
Bruce Wayne eventually makes a triumphant return to the comic, walking again but not yet at full strength (the entire story of what he did in Santa Prisca to rescue Tim’s father or how he was able to walk again is completely left out of this trade, a fact that is both baffling and severely damaging to the overall narrative, as it leaves out key pieces of the story.) When Bruce remarks that he may stay in retirement and let Valley continue in the role of Batman, Robin resigns himself to laying out the full truth, informing Bruce of just how unhinged Jean Paul has become.
Naturally, Valley doesn’t take to this too kindly (seeming to forget that he’s been using Bruce’s resources and cave as his outpost all these months) and the two fight. Bruce’s reflexes aren’t what they were, and Valley flees. Thus ends the comic, with Bruce vowing to resume his role as Batman after some much-needed reconditioning.
The setup for the third trade seems fairly straightforward: the two Batmans, old and new, will battle to determine who will ultimately wear the cowl. Unfortunately, the overall narrative of this trade was so weak that I’m hardly looking forward to the story’s culmination. Jean Paul was whiny, cold, and utterly unrelatable. Bruce Wayne was often distant, but he at least had a cast of supporting characters (Robin, Alfred, Gordon) to play off of and to create some sort of balance within the story. Valley refuses to accept help and so works in his own little world. The reader is left with nothing but Jean Paul’s own internal dialogue, the insufferable inner musings of a character who is neither interesting nor worthy of our attention.
Technically speaking I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in the last trade of the Nightfall series, but I think it’s safe to say I have a pretty good idea of how it’ll end. Bruce Wayne is and always will be Batman, and it’s time for this second-rate wannabe to hit the road. Jean Paul’s extended his stay for far too long, and quite frankly I’m sick of reading about him. I can only hope Bruce kicks his imposter Bat-butt around Gotham for a while before the comic ends.