Picking up where Knightfall: The Broken Bat left off (see my recent opinion on it), Batman has just had his spine broken by his new enemy, Bane. On the first page of the first story reprinted in this volume, Bane has carried Batman downtown and is standing on the edge of a roof overlooking a crowded street, yelling that he is the new ruler of Gotham. He yells, Here is your hero. Your protector. Take him and BURY him! and tosses Batman off the roof. For what it's worth, Batman appears to bounce off one ledge and two awnings on his way down before smashing onto the sidewalk. I gather those three intermediate impacts at regular intervals on the way are what kept him from acquiring so much velocity that the final impact would have killed him. Even so, hitting four surfaces in quick succession(two solid, two bouncier) when your spine is already cracked cannot be good for the patient.
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We then see a full-page shot of what he looks like after he hits the sidewalk, and it's not pretty (reactions from most of the crowd of bystanders confirm this in case we couldn't tell on our own). A very torn costume, blood coming from various places, some ugly bulges (underneath the fabric of his gray shirt) on the right-hand side that are probably two broken ribs sticking out of his torso, and I really don't like the way his body appears to be twisted at the waist. No one is saying anything on this page - the horror of the moment is expected to speak for itself. You get the terrible suspicion that this is not going to be one of those typical superhero stories where the brave crimefighter gets beaten pretty up badly in the line of duty - but will be fit and fine again in a month or two, when a new storyline starts. In point of fact, it was about a solid year in real life before Bruce Wayne was ready to pull his costume back on again. I remember vividly because I was buying each comic as it came out and the suspense was good despite my intellectual certainty that eventually things would get back to "normal."
One would think that this was the end of Batman's secret identity, but fortunately Bane didn't actually bother to remove the mask before he tossed Gotham's premier crimefighter off that roof. Two cops on the beat draw their guns and move to protect Batman, one of them radioing for an ambulance, backup cars, and an APB with a description of the masked villain who did this, while the other verifies that there is still respiration and a pulse in the battered carcass on the sidewalk (but just barely). The first ambulance to arrive turns out to contain Batman's butler (Alfred Pennyworth) and his current partner, Robin (Tim Drake - the third Robin to work with Batman in the comic book continuity), both wearing disguises and paramedic uniforms. They rush him back to the Batcave before anyone realizes they weren't real paramedics. Treatment begins.
Bruce Wayne (once he finally recovers consciousness) is painfully aware that Bane (and the rest of the criminal world in Gotham) are going to assume it's Party Time! Time to call in a pinch-hitter to put on a spare Batman costume and go out there and fill their hearts with terror! With luck, they'll assume Batman is a vampire or something and virtually impossible to destroy. Got to keep those urban legends going strong, you know! You would think that he would call in Dick Grayson - the original Robin, but who had changed his name and costume after he grew up and left home in the early 80s, becoming the superhero Nightwing. A grown man now, years of practice in fighting street crime, the first student trained by Batman himself (and for the longest period of time), no crazier than any other superhero - the obvious choice. The current Robin naturally raises this idea, but Bruce insists he doesn't think it would be fair to ask Dick to give up the new life and responsibilities he's made for himself, or words to that effect. So who does that leave?
Bruce points at someone he had just recently met (a brand new character created the previous year for just such an occasion, called Azrael) and asks him to fill in. Azrael was the latest generation in a long line of genetically engineered and brainwashed assassins who were tools of a mysterious centuries-old cult/conspiracy/whatever called the Order of Saint Dumas (don't bother looking him up - the Catholic Church has never canonized a St. Dumas that I know of). In the four-part story ("The Sword of Azrael") in which this young man (Jean Paul Valley aka the new Azrael) first appeared, he seemed to manage to shake off the brainwashing effects at the end and become his own man - a non-murderous man. Really. Been giving Batman a helping hand for the last few months in chasing down criminals in Gotham city. He couldn't possibly suffer a relapse into the behavior patterns that years of conditioning were supposed to have programmed into his head, right? You do see what's coming, don't you?
Yessir, all this buildup in the first dozen or so installments of the Knightfall storyline has been geared at placing a mentally unstable individual in the Batman costume so they can show one of the oldest and best of the classic superheroes gradually getting more and more brutal in his dealings with the enemy, without having long-time fans screaming their heads off about the way Bruce Wayne's character has been corrupted to turn him into a thug with no sense of self-restraint!
While the Azrael-posing-as-Batman storyline gets started, masked kidnappers abduct Tim Drake's father and Dr. Shondra Kinsolving, the attractive African-American physician who has been treating Bruce Wayne's injury (incredibly, without figuring out he's really Batman) and with whom Bruce has been slowly falling in love (he already knew her before this Knightfall storyline came along). Bruce (still in a wheelchair, as he will be for the next year or so) and Alfred start a long international voyage to catch up with them and rescue them. (If I were a kidnapping victim, I'd have mixed feelings about the thought that the effort to find and rescue me was being handled by one of the world's finest criminologists and martial artists - except that he currently lacked the use of his legs.)
Meanwhile the new Batman finally replaces the old costume with a suit of armor (still with bat-ears, still heavy on the blue and gray, with golden bits here and there) with some built-in weaponry, and manages to have a faceoff with Bane in a downtown setting, which nearly everyone else in Gotham City thinks is the rematch of the year between Bane and the same Batman who lost the previous round (although Commissioner Gordon has his doubts).
I will leave the outcome of the fight unexplained, and believe me, I've already cut out an awful lot of cute little details that came up in the course of the second half of the Knightfall storyline. I just wanted to let you see why the original 19 installments, and/or these two TPBs which collect them, are considered a vital part of Batman continuity today (the storyline was first published over several months in 1993). You see, the end of the Knightfall story was only the beginning of "Azrael's" year in his modified Batman costume, looking more like a Dark Knight than Batman ever had if you interpret Knight literally, in the medieval sense, and culminating in another extended story in the summer of the following year when the one and only Batman finally came back to reclaim the title, having become disgusted by the way the bloodthirsty substitute handled the family business while he was gone.
In conclusion, I will say that I found the writing stronger in this second half than in the volume I already rated a few days ago, mainly because it didn't fall into the trap of seeming to repeat itself several times in the middle (when Batman, in the earlier installments, kept tracking down one escaped psychopath after another and getting more and more exhausted each time, so he'd be very vulnerable when Bane finally ambushed him). We were dealing with new ideas here - Bruce Wayne getting introspective about where he had gone wrong to end up like this, a pinch-hitter Batman starting to learn the ropes while Robin tagged along and kept comparing him to the original version, Bane gloating over his apparent destruction of the Batman and his subsequent ability to intimidate all the other crimelords in Gotham into paying him tribute, and other members of the supporting cast wondering what to make of it all. If you're a Batman fan, you really ought to be familiar with the material in here, but if you're just a reader looking for something interesting to pass the time one evening, you might not see so much appeal here.