There be spoilers here…
In many of his greatest adventures, Batman is defined by his villains, perhaps more than any other superheroes. The faces in his rogues’ gallery are household names, but one comparatively recent addition is the masked man, Bane, who made his debut in the Knightfall storyline. Published between April 1993 and August 1994, Bane presents a unique challenge; he is physically stronger than the Batman.
His appearance sparked a chain of events in the Batman mythos, whose ramifications and effects were felt long afterwards, and provoked one of Bruce’s most far-reaching character developments. Though published over several titles (Batman, Catwoman, Robin etc), the collected editions of this epic storyline have been collated into three volumes under the Knightfall title, and unofficially dubbed KnightSaga.
The Bruce Wayne we meet at the beginning of volume one is a weary man; besides Robin, he has permitted no-one to share the mantle of protecting Gotham with him. He is convinced that he alone can stem the tide of villains and mobsters seeking to claim Gotham as their own. The fantastic, colourful artwork of the early 90s shows that, beneath the foreboding cowl, Bruce is tired and stubbly, forgoing rest and adequate food in order to patrol the streets. Though Gotham is peaceful, it is an uneasy peace; the scene is set for Batman’s greatest test.
The Origin of Bane
In a hellish South American prison, a child was born, who became a boy moulded by the suffering he saw. He slowly became the ‘bane’ of the prison, and his determination and physical resolution enabled him to become the only survivor of an experiment. The test involved injecting venom, a super-steroid, into test subjects with the idea of creating a super-soldier. Not only does Bane survive (we are tellingly never given his real name), but, after a visitation from his future self in a dream, resolves to escape and find Gotham, where the bat-phantom of his childhood fears reigns.
Hell Let Loose in Gotham
Once in Gotham, Bane uses stolen military weaponry to blow open Arkham Asylum, instantly immersing Gotham in a deluge of horror. All of Batman’s foes are simultaneously and violently on the run, and Batman is forced to face them one by one. It is worth noting that this maxim is self-imposed, and a strain is put between Batman and Robin, who sees the folly of Batman operating in such isolation. Bane pushes his maxim of solo operation to its logical conclusion; with the terrible, cool precision of a torturer, he watches the Bat, whose identity of Bruce Wayne he has deduced, became more and more exhausted, as each encounter with a foe takes more and more from an already weary guardian.
The Mask and the Mantle
After rescuing Mayor Krol from the clutches of the Joker and Scarecrow, significantly two of his most testing foes, Bruce returns to Wayne Manor, exhausted both physically and mentally, only to find Bane waiting for him. Bruce’s force is utterly spent by now, and he can barely even pull together a token defence against the masked man. In my opinion, the conclusion of that combat is a heart-breaking panel, and is famous for good reason; Bane lifts the defeated Batman above his head, and breaks his spine over his knee. The Bat is broken, physically defeated and mentally crushed.
Bane flings the broken but breathing form of Batman from a Gotham rooftop, his final act of humiliation. Only the timely intervention of Alfred and Dr Kinsolving saves Bruce from being unmasked and left at the mercy of the scum of Gotham. By now, the city is anarchy, and a force is needed to restore order. In his place, to carry on the mantle of the Bat, the paraplegic Bruce appoints Jean-Paul Valley a.k.a. Azrael as his successor. However, very soon the situation gets worse; brutalised by a mysterious brainwashing known as ‘the system’, Azrael becomes more violent and cruel in his punishment of criminals, and the reputation of Batman with both public and police is poisoned.
Again, the plot is skilfully used to highlight another symptom of Bruce’s folly in pursuing his one-man war; he has no worthy successor. Robin, though conscientious, is not ready to assume the mantle, and so the very legacy of Batman, once the symbol of hope and justice, is in ruins and in increasingly unstable hands. In my next piece on this topic, I’ll move onto Volume 2; let me know what you think of this one!