The Knightfall storyline was quite an impressive feat. It consists of three volumes, each clocking in at over 600 pages, spanning multiple trades and involving a rather extensive creative team. Even simply choosing to read these massive tomes is an undertaking.
Each trade collects a certain part of the story, with its own themes and motifs present throughout. In this third and final volume, the main theme addressed is the concept of identity, specifically how a person discerns who he truly is when he spends his life pretending to be someone else.
This trade can be broken up into three parts, with three separate characters questioning their own identity. The first is Jean Paul Valley/Azrael/the stand-in Batman. As was teased in the last trade, Bruce Wayne has returned, and having realized his grave error in leaving Valley in charge, wants the mantle of the bat returned to him. Valley refuses, and as is expected a battle between the two Batmans ensues.
In a rather poignant scene, Bruce both literally and metaphorically strips Valley of the Batman persona, forcing him to remove the garb and accept Wayne as the one and only Batman.
While I was more than happy to see the end of Azbats, it left Jean Paul Valley rather bereft.
Valley, already mentally and emotionally unstable, has been stripped of the only two identities he knows: Azrael and Batman. He is left without any discernible identity, leaving him to wander aimlessly as he searches for a new purpose in life.
With the exception of one or two brief appearances, this is the end of Valley in this trade. I can’t say I was sad to see him go. His angsty, unstable behavior did not make for a good Dark Knight, and left me missing Bruce Wayne’s stoic yet solid demeanor.
Bruce returns as Batman, but only long enough to put an end to Valley’s deranged run as the Batman. He then abruptly announces that he has to leave Gotham again for some undisclosed reason, and chooses Dick Grayson/Nightwing to take up the mantle of the Bat while he’s away.
I’m starting to understand how Gordan must have felt. There’s far too many Batmans to keep track of at this point. Would the real Batman please stand up?
(Now I’m left wondering if kids born in this millennium understand that reference. And now I feel really, really old.)
As Dick takes over as Batman, we’re faced with another identity crisis, much like Valley’s. Just as Valley was torn between being Batman and Azrael, Dick is torn between his roles as Robin, Nightwing, and Batman, unsure if any of them every truly fit him.
This self-doubt permeates nearly all of Dick’s actions as he continues to question whether he’s ready for such an important responsibility. For years he served beside Batman as his partner and sidekick, but now he no longer has the older, wiser companion to look up to. Instead, he is the leader whom a new Robin relies on, and a mistake in judgement could prove deadly.
It’s a lot of pressure for a guy.
Luckily, although he may question his own identity, he never once questions who the real Batman is:
Dick struggles to play the role of Batman even as he acknowledges that Bruce is the true Dark Knight. Unlike Valley, he understands that he is just a placeholder until Wayne returns (if he returns). The thought of succeeding Bruce as Batman permanently weighs heavily on his mind, and Dick spends most of his time as Batman worrying that he’ll make a mistake and cost someone his life.
It is not until the very last issue in the collection that Bruce returns, and he and Dick hash out their issues in the batcave. Though not the climactic ending I would have expected for this lengthy story, it was still a rather poignant moment, allowing these two characters to address issues that have long been swept under the rug.
As Dick berates Bruce for never wanting to stop and analyze his actions, Bruce shares a rare glimpse into his psyche with his former partner.
Made all the more moving by the fact that he is looking at the slain Robin’s costume, Bruce comments on his constant self-doubt, questioning every action and outcome and wondering if it’s worth it. It’s a rare insight into a man who is notoriously tight-lipped about his emotions, and seems to be included at the perfect point within the comic. So many tragic events have led to this moment, so much has changed, that a simple battle scene would not have sufficed. The reader needed to learn something new about Batman, needed to see him grow as a character. He’s still the Batman we all know and love, but we now have new insight into the man beneath the mask.
Strangely enough, the one constant throughout all the turmoil and strife of this storyline was Robin. I was already a fan of Tim Drake, but his character is even more engaging now. Despite his mentor’s disappearance, a replacement who rebuffs any attempts of friendship or aid, and a predecessor who is consistently unsure of his role in the world, Tim remains steady, which is far more impressive when the reader remembers that he is a mere teenager. While the grownups around him succumb to self-doubt over their roles as vigilantes, Tim seems more sure than ever that he is Robin. He laments the difficulties of keeping his identity a secret, but it is the normal life that gives him trouble, not the crime-fighting. In this instance, Tim is the mask while Robin is the true identity. This parallel was exceedingly well done, creating a deeper meaning behind the comic and further cementing Tim as the best Robin yet. He was made for that role, and adapted to it quite easily. Whereas his allies constantly question who they are and what they do, Tim’s single-minded drive make him, in some ways, the strongest hero defending Gotham.
Knightfall was a lengthy read, addressing a myriad of topics within various storylines. Some fell flat, while others were engaging and thought-provoking. Although it may not be perfect, the overall story serves a key purpose in the Batman lore, addressing the issues of identity and redemption quite well. The concepts of self-doubt and uncertainty can be applied across the spectrum to all comics, as surely numerous masked heroes and villains alike have questioned their roles. With Batman at least, we now know the deep-rooted insecurities the Dark Knight faces, as a little more light is shed on what makes the Batman tic.