Monday, July 23, 2012

Comic Review: Batman's 'The Broken Bat' arc

Tonight, I'll be heading to the theatre with my favourite lady ChinaCat Sunflower to (hopefully) enjoy the long-anticipated The Dark Night Rises, the finale of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. In preparation for this event, I decided to catch up on some of the old Batman lore that I had missed out on over the years. Up until now, I've only read side-projects such as The Long Halloween and The Dark Victory, and the one-off The Killing Joke. Reading the Knightfall series is my first crack into major Batman comic continuity. Although Nolan borrows from many different series and arcs to shape his own version of Gotham, the Knightfall arc is arguably his biggest influence for The Dark Knight Rises, as it features an intense feud between Batman and the toughest foe he had ever faced, Bane, who is the lead villain in TDKR. The Knightfall series stretched out through the entire DC Comics universe and lasted for a year, between 1993 and 1994.  I am currently working my way through 'Who Rules the Night?', the second major arc of the Knightfall series, so for this review, I'll be discussing the first arc of the series, 'The Broken Bat'.

'The Broken Bat' arc is written by Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, and Alan Grant, and consists of 11 issues between the regular Batman series and Detective Comics. The arc begins with a prequel trilogy which introduces Bruce Wayne's exhaustion and Bane's plan to push Batman over the edge and take Gotham for himself. While Bane is the central villain of the arc, various issues also feature appearances by Killer Croc, The Mad Hatter, The Ventriloquist, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Firefly, Victor Zsasz. Also, throughout the arc, The Riddler schemes to get recognized as a major threat, and The Joker and Scarecrow team up to manipulate Gotham's Mayor Krol into doing their bidding. At the beginning of the arc, all of these villains were locked away in Arkham Asylum. However, in a (very successful) attempt to test Batman's limits, Bane uses explosives to bust open Arkham and flood the streets of Gotham with psychopaths and murderers. Over the course of six months, Bane watches closely as Batman burns himself out chasing down the dangerous escaped criminals.

For anyone that's read the Knightfall series, it shouldn't be very surprising that Christopher Nolan chose Bane to be Batman's final nemesis. In other incarnations of the Batman universe, such as cartoons and the films from the 90s, Bane is usually depicted as a steroid-freak goon, just a killing machine. In the 'Broken Bat' arc, the writers depict Bane as a much more complicated villain. Sure, he is psychotic, power-hungry, trained to kill, and uses a substance simply known as 'venom' to pump himself up as an unstoppable beast. However, this Bane also shows a very high level of intelligence and intuition. All through the first 10 issues, he acts as a tactical leader, sending out his henchmen to survey Batman's performances against the various villains. There are also a few scenes where we see Bane quietly sitting in front of the television, watching and studying expert opinions about Batman's character and psychology. At this point, Batman is aware that there is a baddie named Bane out there, but doesn't fully realize the trouble he's in. With all of this research and critical thinking, he feels that he intimately knows Batman, and even manages to deduce his true identity as Bruce Wayne. There is already a level of interest when a hero takes on a huge scary villain, but when you put a genius brain into the beast, it gets really interesting.

Beyond the main storyline of good vs. evil, the 'Broken Bat' arc highlights many themes about morality, the limits of human will, friendship and partnership, and how society treats its criminals. Obviously, one of the major themes is Batman's absolute exhaustion and refusal to accept any help or to quit his efforts. It's interesting to note that the events in this arc take place soon after Batman's ally Superman is killed by Doomsday, so his depression may be connected to those events. Batman's side-kick, Robin (Timothy Drake) is very clearly worried about Batman and does his best to be a good partner and to help him out, but their relationship becomes strained when Batman leaves him out and refuses his assistance. It's nice to see that the Dynamic Duo aren't always peachy and that there is potential for some drama between the two. Pushed to his furthest limits of pain and fatigue, Batman manages to defeat all of the escaped Arkham criminals, leaving himself as an easy target for Bane, who strikes where Batman least expects him: in Bruce Wayne's home. Although he can barely stand, Bruce accepts that he is the only one who could ever defeat someone like Bane, and puts on his Batman cowl for the final battle, which really doesn't go well for him. For any Bat-fan, it's always exciting to see Batman goes up against the odds and take out a dangerous villain, but it's rare that we get to see his human limitations portrayed so realistically, with many scenes of Batman sighing, collapsing, doubting himself, and screaming out in frustration.

The writing in the 'Broken Bat' arc is very impressive for an early 90s comic series. I was expecting a lot of cliche one-liners and back and forth banter, but the writers managed to add a lot of depth and humanity to their over-the-top characters. The conversation between Bane and Batman before they finally face eachother is full of heart and tension, you really get the feeling that Bruce knows he's done but can't just lay down. Although it's anything but a fair fight, Bane has truly outsmarted the Caped Crusader. Regarding the animation of the arc, I wasn't as impressed as with the writing, or as blown away as I've been with the other series (especially The Killing Joke). Maybe I've grown accustomed to Jeph Loeb's super realistic portrayal of the Gotham characters in Long Halloween and Dark Victory, but a lot of the issues in the 'Broken' arc were a little too 'cartoony' for my tastes. Sure, there were some amazing animation and images, as I've shown over the past couple of days, but the overall design of the Gotham universe isn't my most favourite. I like Loeb's animation style in Halloween and Victory, which is much like Nolan's style in the movies, where you can believe that these are real people in a real world. In 'Broken Bat', you're definitely aware that you're reading something in 'cartoon physics', something fantastical.

For anyone that's interested in learning more about Batman's history and getting into the comic series, 'The Broken Bat' is a great arc, but not the first that I'd recommend. It satisfies my craving for hero vs. villain, features Batman at his most human, and the final showdown is both entertaining and heartbreaking, but it was more of a fun read than something I'd take seriously and think a lot about. There is a lot of social commentary and psychology involved, but the delivery of the content (the animation) should have been darker and more realistic. There were a few forgettable issues, but there were also very impressive and exciting issues that I'd return to in the future. My favourite episode featured a lesser-known villain, Victor Zsasz, a slasher who carves a line into his skin for every victim he's had (his body is covered in scars).

I'm very interested to see how 'The Broken Bat' arc ties into The Dark Knight Rises film, and since I've avoided spoilers up until this point, I'm very interested to see if they include the most infamous moment of the Knightfall series, Bane breaking The Bat. Tomorrow, I'll post a review of the film, and then maybe I'll move on to other subject matter for a while, I've had my Batman fix for now. Though I'll be sure to post a review when I finish the 'Who Rules the Night' arc, where Bane is in control of Gotham and Jean-Paul Valley takes his new role as Batman way too far.

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