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Credit: DC Comics

I Will Break You: An oral history of the Batman Knightfall saga

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Sep 14, 2018, 11:00 AM EDT

Back in October of 1992, DC Comics released the first issue of a 4 issue mini-series entitled Batman: The Sword of Azrael #1, written by industry legend Denny O'Neil and penciled by a talented newcomer by the name of Joe Quesada. A few months later saw the debut of a one-shot story titled Batman: Vengeance of Bane, written by Chuck Dixon and penciled by Graham Nolan.

They both served to introduce new characters into the Dark Knight's universe. Azrael was an assassin/angel of vengeance/Manchurian candidate who would come to be mentored by Batman, the latter a force of nature that was set up by the end of the story to be Batman's physical and mental match.

Vengeance of Bane

Credit: DC Comics

Significant on their own, the two stories together launched a massive storyline that would strip Bruce Wayne of the cowl and the mantle of the Batman for over a year and prove to be one of the more polarizing storylines in the history of the character. And when you consider that at the launch of this story DC was only four years removed from killing the second Robin, Jason Todd, that is saying something.

Knightfall — and its sequels Knightquest and KnightsEnd — stretched across the entire line of Batman books. The action first largely took place on the pages of Batman, Detective Comics, Legends of the Dark Knight, and Shadow of the Bat, then was extended to new ongoing series focused on Robin (featuring the third Robin, Tim Drake) and Catwoman. By the end, a grand total of six titles were employed to tell the full story of the breaking of the Bat.

SYFY WIRE spoke with some of the main creatives that worked on the saga, to get a full accounting of the creation of major moment in Bat-history.

Sword of Azrael

Credit: DC Comics

Denny O'Neil, as the editor on all of the Batman titles for more than a decade at that point, had become synonymous with the Dark Knight. By the time the idea for Knightfall began to percolate, he was being assisted editorially by Scott Peterson, Jordan Gorfinkel, and Darren Vincenzo.

Peterson: It used to be a conventional wisdom that if you could remove Batman from a story and replace him with any other character — Superman or Spider-Man or Wolverine — and the story still worked, then it wasn't a good Batman story. A good Batman story could only really be told using Batman. But the thing about working on Batman at that point in time is that none of us were wedded to one single vision of him.

You could do so much with the character — he worked in detective stories, superhero stories, horror, romance, even sometimes in sci-fi or fantasy or supernatural. So all of us always wanted to tell great Batman stories and we wanted to keep trying to find new ones to tell. As Denny used to say, there are a million different ways to do Batman, and none of them are wrong or right, per se, just varying degrees of effectiveness. And the context of the times has an enormous amount to do with what is or isn't effective.

In addition to O'Neil's writing contributions, the bulk of the heavy lifting for crafting the saga of Knightfall would be handled by the trio of Doug Moench, Alan Grant, and Chuck Dixon.

Peterson: Denny always said that a huge part of editing is choosing the right creative team and then sitting back and letting them do their thing. With those three guys that was a piece of cake. They each had very different styles of writing, and yet they blended so well it was astonishing.

Gorfinkel: Doug was generosity incarnate. I loved his Batman work but I worshipped at the altar of Moon Knight (a character Moench co-created at Marvel with artist Don Perlin in 1975). Doug didn't write stories, he carved them, so elegant and sublimely sophisticated were his scripts, a marvel (you'll forgive me) to behold. Truly a master.

Alan was fire and ice, the coolest customer in person who wrote with a red-hot wit. Reflecting on his work, I'm only now appreciating how subversive, how transgressive his creativity was. This is the guy that gave us Mr. Zsasz, the Ventriloquist, Anarky. Tell me, can you imagine any other writer inventing this now canonical villains, that rise to the level of Joker and Riddler? I cannot.

If Doug was the ego and Alan the superego, Chuck was the id of our triumvirate of writers. Deferential, easygoing, probably just as dumbfounded as this fresh-faced assistant editor to find himself in the inner sanctum, although I never asked him. He was a fascinating counter-balance in so many ways, and that was healthy. Chuck was of the minimalist dramatist school. He wrote with a light touch and a lot of action, the right mix of grit and heart.

Dixon: We all played nice with each other though we had wildly different personalities and worldviews. But the one thing we 100 percent agreed on was Batman. There were no disparate opinions there. I remember once we were looking at art and Doug, Alan and I all had the same comment that the kitchen at Wayne Manor was to the left of the grandfather clock entrance to the Batcave if you were facing the rear of the house. Some of the folks in the room stared at us like we'd just levitated to the ceiling.

Grant: We have to thank the Batman editorial office for that. When a writer put a script in, it was immediately copied and sent out to the other writers. Any problems that rose could be sorted out by phone… although I remember very few problems arising. The major one was probably after one of our three-day Bat-meets, when it was realized all of our notes for the upcoming six months of multiple issues had been left in the lecture hall… and the next people to use that hall were a group of Marvel editors. Around a week later we were all back in New York coming up with a different six months of issues!

The Breaking of the Bat.

Peterson: I think the idea of Knightfall had already been germinating in Denny's mind by the time I was hired. So it was very soon after that, he said he was thinking about doing a really long involved storyline that involved getting a new Batman. It's the kind of thing that these days people realize is unlikely to be a permanent change but at the time it was pretty revolutionary and mind-blowing.

Of course, the point all along for Denny was to try to remind people of just why they love to this character so much. At the time care, a few other characters, such as Wolverine and the Punisher and even Lobo, were seriously challenging or even surpassing Batman in popularity. And a lot of that was being chalked up to Batman's insistence upon the sanctity of life, not killing his victims. It seemed to be seen as old-fashioned. Denny wanted to challenge that assertion by giving the readers a Batman who would kill.

To our delight, they didn't like it. They seemed to love the storyline, but they hated a Batman who didn't have that basic moral underpinning.

Alan Grant: The way I remember it is that [outgoing Batman writer] Peter Milligan came up with a proposal for a short series featuring someone else wearing the Bat-costume.

Peter Milligan (Comics Bulletin, October 2014): At that time I was writing the monthly Detective Comics title, and Alan Grant was writing Batman. For a number of reasons I wanted to come off Detective and Denny and I had lunch together. I was just shooting my mouth off (as you do when someone's buying you lunch) and came up with a loose idea of what they should do. The story or character I came up with while stuffing Chinese food into my mouth eventually came to be Azrael.

I remember Alan's reaction when he heard about this wide-arcing new character I'd sort of created: "Thanks a lot, mate." Of course, it's one thing throwing some ideas around over lunch but another to fully realize a character and Azrael was ultimately the creation of those who came after me and are rightly credited with its creation.

Grant: Denny immediately saw the potential for something much grander and summoned all the Batman creative staff to a meeting in upstate New York. We worked it out from there — Doug, Chuck, and artists Norm Breyfogle, Kelley Jones, and the others.

Chuck Dixon: Denny laid it out for Doug, Alan and I at the summit; It set down the framework at that first meeting and we set-up how we would approach the prelude to Knightfall. It was unusual in that it was an event that actually began before we announced it. We spent months laying the groundwork for what would happen in Knightfall and the readers weren't aware of it. At subsequent summits, we actually broke the story down issue by issue so each writer knew what was expected of him (or her, as Jo Duffy had joined us this point) each month. I remember lots of whiteboards covered in grids that the associate editors would fill out as we talked.

Batman Vengeance of Bane

As for two integral characters that needed to be introduced into the Bat-mythology to make this story work?

Grant: I don't think we even considered going with existing villains. Nightwing (the second Robin, Dick Grayson) was the obvious guy to wear the Bat-suit, so I think Denny threw Azrael in there, and it actually made a lot of sense to use him. We ended up with a better storyline.

Dixon: There was no discussion because Denny baked in the creation of two new characters. He saw no reason for us not to try to come out the other side of the event with a new Batman villain. Also, the only existing bad guy who had the chops to do what was required for Knightfall was KGBeast. The fall of the Soviet Union made him irrelevant.

I think Denny had Jean-Paul (Valley, aka Azrael, the character who would take over as Batman) fully formed in his head going in. The whole reason for making the switch was to, at first, pick the wrong guy and suffer the consequences of that decision.

Dixon: Bane, like Batman, is the product of a lot of inspirations. Going in, it was already established by Denny that this bad guy (working name: Doc Toxic) be a Venom addict.

Venom was a highly addictive, highly effective strength-enhancing drug that was introduced during a seminal five-issue arc in Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20, written by O'Neill.

Dixon: He also had to be Batman's equal both physically and intellectually. I took those conceits and added in some Man in the Iron Mask elements. I also made him condemned to serve his father's life sentence in some hellhole, literally a prisoner from birth. So, he shared with Bruce Wayne the horror of a traumatic childhood. Once Graham Nolan came up with his luchador look it all came together.

Graham Nolan: Chuck and I were old friends from our Eclipse days together so we talked over the character of Bane and where he came from. I took those notes and wondered what would inspire this kind of man's costume and came up with the Mexican Luchador look. My original design was much more wrestling-centric with the open eyelets, nose and mouth (it's hard to see and breath in a sealed mask!). I kept that them with a "singlet top" and added a militaristic flare with the pants and boots.

Bane Knightfall

Credit: DC Comics

Nolan: His venom device came from the need for him to be able to inject the drug so rather him carrying needles I came up with the venom tube device. His belt I cribbed from Ditko's Spider-Man, in that it held his venom packs.

While the editorial team, writers and interior artists for the project were developing the roadmap for breaking Batman and moving the mantle over to Azrael, the visual aesthetic for the covers were being handled by a group of artists that included Brian Stelfreeze and Kelly Jones.

Peterson: One of the secrets to the entire Knightfall storyline was that we had creators who were not only A-list in terms of talent but also reliability. I could call up Kelley Jones or Brian Stelfreeze and say, hey, we've had to shuffle things around a little bit, so we don't have the script for this issue yet, but we need a cover for solicitations now, and we *think* XYZ is going to happen in the issue, so can you give us a cover that sorta kinda represents that? And a few days later we get an absolutely brilliant piece of art. We'd run around the office showing everybody, yelling. It was so much fun.

Kelly Jones: I wasn't told about the storyline too much, rather just what was needed for the particular issue the cover was for. I was drawing graphic novels for DC then and was preoccupied with those. At first, the covers were late so I was told just who should be on them and the rest was up to me. I enjoyed that, even the fast turnaround times to make deadline. Pressure and fear make for exciting work! Doug Moench, who I was working with on the Batman Red Rain trilogy, would tell me some of what was happening and so did Scott Peterson, who was editing and coordinating the books for Knightfall.

The storyline itself involved Bane targeting Batman, devising a plan to run the Dark Knight ragged, weakening him by sending wave after wave of villains from his expansive rogues' gallery at him over a short period of time. The goal was to leave Bruce Wayne exhausted and unable to fend off Bane's final assault. It was to culminate in an iconic panel drawn by Batman mainstay Jim Aparo, in which Bane breaks Batman's back over his knee. Jones served as the cover artist for that issue as well.

Jones: Scott said he wanted to see a sketch of Bane breaking Batman's back, and that was the only time on my cover tenure I was asked to do that. I remember not liking several different angles so I just did a straight on shot, which I thought was dull and they'd reject. As it turned out they approved it and so I just went with it. I was surprised it went over well. But thankfully Scott saw that it was perfect for the story, which is why I trust an editor's eyes, as I was too close to it.

Breaking the Batman

Credit: DC Comics

John-Paul Valley served as Bruce's mentee for months after his introduction, and once the Bat's back was broken, he was called upon to assume the mantle of the Dark Knight. Jean-Paul had been bioengineered and brainwashed into becoming the perfect assassin for a secret religious sect known as the Order of Saint Dumas. Probably not the perfect candidate to take on the role, but as mentioned here already, that was intentional.

Peterson: It was the era of the antihero. Readers seemed to want dark and grim and gritty. And Batman, of course, had been one of the very first characters in that vein. But it kept being taken further and further until it wasn't really comfortable territory for the Batman anymore, at least not the Batman as most of us viewed him.

So Denny decided to give the reader is what they wanted — or at least what they thought they wanted — and see if the old saying was true: be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. And that's exactly what happened. It is a very odd feeling, to have people kinda hate the story you're telling, when you're finding that to be a validation.

Nolan: Jean-Paul Valley was the Punisher stand-in.

Artist Mike Manley was tasked with introducing Azrael to the world in his modified Batman costume with issue Batman #500.

Mike Manley: I had done an issue of Legends of the Dark Knight at DC through Archie Goodwin, and that went well and lead to me being asked to take over Batman as Jim Aparo was retiring. I was initially happy and thought it would be a feather in my cap. I knew nothing about the storyline at all before starting on the book. I was a huge fan of Aparo's work on Detective, Brave and Bold. I was looking forward to doing that type of story, but that was not to be. I was disappointed to not be drawing "my Batman" but the new guy and that clumsy costume. But still, I was excited to do the book.

Opinions on the look of "AzBat" ran the gamut among the artists involved.

Peterson: Joe Quesada had designed and penciled the Azrael miniseries to kick off the entire Knightfall storyline, so it made sense to have him design the new Batman costume, which he indeed did.

Jones: I told the Bat-editors that I felt he Jean-Paul should be more brutal, so that it was clear it wasn't Bruce Wayne anymore. I wanted it to be repulsive, so we would miss the ethics of Bruce's Batman, which makes him so cool.

Azrael Batman

Credit: DC Comics

Manley: The only challenge was to make the design work for me. I never liked the idea, it was very '90s, I guess. Belts and leg fins that would not work at all, how could you walk, not trip, rip the cape, etc. It was clumsy, but maybe that was the point — Bruce was never clumsy.

There were high points to the initial Knightfall storyline:

Gorfinkel: The one tangible recollection is the excitement at the little number that kept ticking up on the cover logo, indicating each subsequent reprinting. We went back to press until we were at over one million copies of Batman #497. Wow! Who sold a million copies of a comic book? Okay, the Death of Superman. But besides our next door neighbors in the Fortress of Carlin-tude? Well, okay, the once and future Image guys. But besides X-Men and Spawn? You'd have to go back to WWII. We were keeping rare company.

Manley: Financially it was a great payday and a milestone as it sold a zillion copies. It's still being reprinted all over the globe.

And drawbacks, as well:

Peterson: Knightfall, of course, came out just a few months after the Death of Superman storyline had caused such a worldwide sensation. And it obviously looked like this was DC pulling off essentially the same stunt twice. But neither the Superman team nor the Batman team knew what the others were doing until quite a ways into the process — both ideas came up with within weeks of each other, if I'm recalling correctly, but only Jenette Kahn (DC's EIC and President at the time) was aware of what both books were doing.

So it's possible it got even more attention because of the Superman thing, or maybe it would've gotten more attention if Superman hadn't done it first, but either way, the reactions were huge.

Jean-Paul's saga as the Bat played out over the many Bat-titles over the course of the year.

Gorfinkel: Writing within the box is a mixed blessing. Limitations — like our colorists having a limited color palette back in the day — are confining, but also freeing. Confining because you always wish you had another page (or another shade). Freeing, because A. there are deadlines to hit, so who has time for that extra page? and B. that extra page is never worth much, anyway… which is how it's freeing!

The '90s were the early days of the computer, too. In color, it meant all the colors of the rainbow were coming available! Fortunately, our team came of age in the "analog era," when the way things were compelled them to learn their craft, which is to say substance over style. So when "style" entered the realm of the possible — evolving colors, evolving page count, evolving storytelling resulting that all that — we were the right team and the right, ready and able to do it well out of the gate and make it look easy. "We" being everyone but me, of course. See, I was fresh-faced, wet behind the ears…

Peterson: Having that big a room to play around in, that much area to move around in, was incredibly liberating. But from a logistical point of view, it was a freakin' nightmare. Especially because for most of the story, we weren't directly going from one issue of one book into the next issue of the next title — books were sometimes still self-contained, and some titles weren't always involved, while other titles *were* always involved, and then we had one-shots and specials and the auxiliary books… It was incredibly taxing to keep it all straight, but also incredibly invigorating.

We used to send copies of everything — the scripts, the pencils, the lettered inks — to every member of every book, so we could all stay on the same page. And it was great, because you might get the inker of one monthly, say, pointing out a continuity glitch in a different title, so that you had an extra dozen eyes backing you up. And it gave the entire endeavor this team feeling that was really beneficial, as well as just plain fun.

Nolan: It's always more work whenever you work on crossovers. So many cooks in the kitchen. Chuck and I were the fastest team on any of the books so a lot of the time I was designing elements for guys that needed it before me so I didn't have to wait for their pages to come in.

The Bat-family began to expand with Knightfall, with the additions of Robin and Catwoman titles. Catwoman was run by Mary Jo Duffy and artist Jim Balent, while Robin was written by Chuck Dixon. Chuck's earliest connections to DC trace back to his work on building the character of Tim Drake.

Robin #1 Grumm

Dixon: Denny invited me to write a Robin mini-series featuring Tim Drake, the new Boy Wonder. He based this on writing I had done for Eclipse Comics on a series called Airboy. Denny liked my approach to writing a younger character who was a tyro costumed adventurer. I think he liked my earnestness.

Dixon would go on to pen three separate mini-series chronicling Tim's development into his own Robin.

Dixon: Everyone forgets that Alan Grant did quite a bit of development on Tim's character prior to me coming on. I followed his lead. But it was up to me to work out what kind of Robin he'd be. Denny thought that what went wrong with Jason Todd was making him the anti-Dick Grayson; a rebellious kid who always questions authority. Readers didn't like having this wiseass punk mouthing off to Batman.

I talked to Denny quite a bit about how I planned on avoiding the pitfalls that made Jason fail to click with the fans. My core working principle was that this Robin would know when he was in over his head. He recognized his limitations. He wasn't a natural athlete like Dick. His strong suit was his knowledge of tech and his analytical mind. In theory, he'd dial 911 before he'd jump in to fight a half dozen thugs bigger than him. It never worked out that way, of course. But that was always his Plan A.

DC actually wanted a Robin monthly before Knightfall. I was the one who held it off. I hadn't established a supporting cast or anything about Tim Drake's life. The details of Tim's civilian life were key to making a monthly work. I didn't want to do that worldbuilding in a monthly, so I did a lot of that in the third Robin mini-series. So by Robin #1, the readers knew who everyone was and their relationship to one another. Knightfall provided the perfect jump-off for the monthly. Jean-Paul throws Robin out of the Batcave! Couldn't have asked for a better set-up!

Throwing Robin out of the Batcave pushed Jean-Paul on his path from protector back to assassin, culminating with AzBat essentially letting a villain by the name of Abattoir die when he could have saved him. That was the beginning of the end for the character.

Batman v Robin

Credit: DC Comics

Dixon: If I remember right, we were going to go another six months initially. In those final six months, Bruce would disappear entirely from the DC universe. TOTAL moratorium. The idea is to work as hard as possible to convince readers the change was permanent.

Peterson: I think most comic book fans assumed, correctly, that Azrael wouldn't remain the Batman forever... but we kept it going long enough that it's possible there were some doubts.

Bruce would eventually return the mantle, though not without a series of trials that tested his mettle (the healing of his broken back was chronicled in a story called Knightquest).

While Azrael lost his cape and cowl, Bane became a breakout character.

Dixon: I had NO idea Bane would ever become what he has become. But I did know that I had to put a lot of work into him to try and make him at least enduring enough to help make the Knightfall event work. Superman had just been killed by an utterly forgettable character. I wanted our guy to have legs, to last past the stunt. I had no clue that he'd actually join the permanent rogue's gallery and become action figures, T-shirts, pasta shapes, and Pop-Tarts.

Nolan: He was popular right out of the gate but when Knightfall was over, so was Bane's ride for a little while. His popularity really exploded when they included him in the Arkham Asylum game. That's when he was introduced to a new generation of fans. Whenever you create something it's always the hope it will hit with an audience, but so rarely does that happen. It's been fun to watch Bane go from comic character to pop culture icon.

In a rather interesting postscript, Knightfall was coming to a close around the same time Marvel and DC were still participating in cross-company cross-overs, which resulted in both companies publishing a team-up one shot opposite the Punisher.

DC's featured Jean-Paul teaming up Frank Castle, while Marvel's saw the return of Bruce Wayne to the mantle and allowed for an interesting compare and contrast. Denny would write the AzBat issue, and Chuck would handle the chores for the Wayne issue.

Punisher Batman teamup

Credit: DC and Marvel Comics

Dixon: I never considered that (Punisher/Batman) was kind of a coda to the whole Knightfall event. All I know is that I was in comic book heaven the whole time I was writing it and was VERY glad I got to write the one with the REAL Batman.

The creators involved have interesting recollections on the work some 20-plus years removed from the initial publication of Knightfall.

Peterson: It was one of those rare storylines where not just the comics press but the mainstream media at large glommed onto this huge story about the Batman being replaced. And naturally people who hadn't actually bought or read a comic book in years were outraged. And so it goes.

Dixon: Beyond telling a kick-ass story we wanted Knightfall to show the fans that a lethal Batman was a terrible idea. To this end, we made Jean-Paul into an unlikeable creep. Readers got the idea and stopped buying issues!

Nolan: I think that we got the message across that Batman is special because he doesn't kill. He is not about vigilante revenge. He's about justice.

Peterson: It's easy to get emotionally really caught up in these characters — I mean, that's why a lot of us got into this in the first place, right? So I totally understand that. Even if you're pretty sure this is only temporary, you might still worry a bit. On the other hand, absence makes the heart grow fonder, we found.

Grant: I think our main intention was to establish that Bruce Wayne was the one, the only, the TRUE Batman, and that his Bat-boots couldn't be filled by anyone else, no matter how powerful, no matter how motivated. And yes, I think — or at least hope! — we accomplished that.