Here it is, folks: The storyline that led to Tom King getting kicked off “Batman.” Don’t worry about him too much. He’ll be finishing his storyline in the “Batman/Catwoman” maxiseries with his “Sheriff of Babylon” and “Mister Miracle” collaborator, Mitch Gerads. It’ll still be short of the 100-issue run that he had planned to have on the series, and that’s a shame. King’s run has been marked by his ambition to try new things and even if not everything has succeeded, the stuff that works has been great and even the failures still have their interesting parts. In that regard, “Knightmares” works as an example of that writ large over seven issues. So you have to wonder: Was that what caused readers to jump ship from the series with this arc?
Possibly. I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me if readers got to the end of the first issue and went, “OH GOD! NOT THIS CHARACTER AGAIN!” and decided to take the comics-reading dollars elsewhere. The sad thing is that this is mostly a great issue as it takes us back to the time immediately after Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed. We see him struggle through telling a GCPD officer what happened, only for Gordon to intervene and then go up on the roof where he turns on the signal to summon… Batman?
That’s right, this story is a fantasy about Batman catching the Waynes’ killer and bringing him to justice. You know that this could never happen, but the idea is such a seductive one that you’re willing to go along with it. Even through the point where King asks what kind of issues would a boy like Bruce Wayne have if he couldn’t channel his emotions at the death of his parents into becoming Batman. The answers aren’t pretty, and then they become really goddamn dumb.
In a last-minute twist, we find out that the Bruce Wayne we’ve been following hasn’t been the Bruce Wayne we know. It’s been a character best forgotten about. With some ridiculous edgelord facial scarring that even the slick art of Travis Moore can’t make me take seriously. This first story, “Suddenly Indeed,” is ruined by this reveal and its failure is compounded by the fact that it had been one of the more memorable issues of King’s run up to that point.
Fortunately things do get better from there. Particularly when Gerads gets involved. This story from the creators, “Lost,” is a claustrophobic, slow-motion nightmare as Batman finds himself at the mercy of Professor Pyg. The majority of the action is conveyed in a series of three, page-length panels per page which keeps the action flowing at a steady, methodical rate as the Caped Crusader tries to escape from this gory mess.
We follow Batman’s narration throughout the story, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into how his mind works. Following the split-second judgements he has to make to survive the Professor’s onslaught while his mind tries to make sense of the situation he’s in makes for a very tense experience. Yet it works not just because we get to see into the character’s head, but because it serves the larger narrative of the story as a whole: Just what is going on with Batman in these weird situations?
The answer isn’t that interesting and its actual consequences will likely be explored in the next volume. Fortunately, the story combines that mystery with another one to take the edge off of it: Why did Catwoman leave Batman at the altar back in vol. 6? We’re not going to get an actual answer to that question. Not with Batman trapped inside his head, with the real Catwoman unavailable to provide any answers. So the stories become an exercise in Batman trying to come to peace with what happened on his own terms.
That’s what we get “Smoke and Mirrors” as Mikel Janin brings his expectedly great style to this story of what it would be like for Batman and Catwoman to actually become partners in domesticity and crime-fighting. The answers are cute, not quite on the level of something like “Mr. & Mrs. X,” and expectedly depressing at the end too. Not helping matters either is the presence of John Constantine as Batman’s “conscience.” I’ll admit that this may be more of a problem for me than anyone else, but seeing John rub shoulders with the likes of superheroes just makes me roll my eyes. All would’ve been forgiven if King and Janin would’ve had the courage to have the character walk around in his fishbowl helmet and “Hellblazer” gun, however.
The next story, “Cat,” features some very stylish art from Jorge Fornes that straddles eras and styles. We see Batman and Catwoman in their earliest days, on the streets in and out of costumes, and in the present on rainy rooftops to hash out their relationship. Or rather listen to Vic “The Question” Sage hash things out with Selina Kyle in a closed room while the art offers us a diversion from that.
This is probably the most frustrating of the issues where the Batman/Catwoman relationship is dissected. It’s not that The Question doesn’t ask good questions. It’s that you can’t help but feel that the story is an exercise in Batman thumb-wrestling himself for answers since this is all taking place within his head. Given the stories that follow, it feels like the writer reached the conclusion that he had taken this kind of character dialogue as far as it could go and then just decided to have some fun with the remaining issues.
It’s the only way to explain something like “All the Way Down,” with some exceptionally kinetic art from Fornes and Lee Weeks that has Batman chasing a killer from the top of the city down to its sewers. This is a mostly silent issue, punctuated only by sound effects, a stammering bartender, and some text panels on the last page. Yet you’re not likely to notice this at first, as the art so effortlessly pulls you into the chase.
Judged as a pure action story, this would be a pretty good one. It has something more to offer. Something… decidedly silly. If the presence of the bartender doesn’t give it away, then the text panels on the last page spell out what’s really going on in this issue. It’s King re-framing the relationship between Batman and one of his oldest foes as something right out of “Looney Tunes.” By any logical standard, this shouldn’t work. As a stand-alone story in the middle of some dream sequences delivered with impeccable craft, it actually does.
Then things become comically insane with the penultimate issue, “Solitude.” Why “Solitude?” Because something like “Selina and Lois’ Wild and Crazy Bachelorette” is probably too on-the-nose. As should be obvious, this is the (Imaginary?) story of Selina Kyle and Lois Lane living it up for one night in the Fortress of Solitude. They start off drunk and then proceed to get drunker on the host of the rare alien drinks in the Fortress, take a dip in Brainiac’s “pleasure pool,” and then find out that Superman’s android assistants have a stripper subroutine in them for some reason.
It’s fun and goofy as hell, made only better by the wonderfully irreverent art from Amanda Conner who handles the scenes between the two women in the fortress. These scenes are comic gold, if only for the wacky yet joyful expressions seen on Selina and Lois’ faces. John Timms handles the deadpan comic boredom of Bruce and Clark’s night together while Dan Panosian swoops in for an awkward finish (and Janin drops by to remind us all this is an awful dream). Still, this is Conner’s show and she nails her parts. It makes me wish she’d do more art these days, and team up with King again in the future.
“The Last Dance” wraps things up as Batman finally works out how to escape from this prison while dancing through the ages with Catwoman. Yanick Paquette provides the art here and it’s some lovely formalist stuff. It’s honestly kind of magical to see the two characters dance together across a Gotham street with scales under their feet in a double-page spread. We even get an explanation as to why we’ve been seeing these particular dreams over the issues and how they tie into the cliffhanger left over from the story in the previous volume. Even if this interaction with Catwoman is still in Batman’s head, it gets by on the style Paquette brings to the story and the sense that the title character has found some measure of peace here.
This is also the issue where King throws the readers who’ve been fuming over the cliffhanger he left them in the previous volume a bone. If you’ll recall, Thomas Wayne -- the “Flashpoint” Batman -- showed up at Wayne Manor to have some words with his son. While we don’t learn what those words were, we do find out that Thomas is in league with Bane and capable of going toe-to-toe with him as well. I’ll admit that the glimpse of the relationship we see between them here has me curious as to how it came to be and how it’ll play out over the next volume and the current “City of Bane” storyline.
So with the “Knightmares” at an end, the question is whether or not King deserved to be kicked off “Batman” before the end of his run? Even with the frustration that comes with seeing “Batman” try to answer an unanswerable question within his own head (and… ugh, that one villain) I still appreciated the writer’s willingness to try new things and show us Batman from new angles. Courtesy of the stellar work provided by all of the artists in this volume.
Yet I think that the writer really misjudged how readers would react to seeing the main story of the series put on hold for nearly five months while this storyline, and a two-part crossover tie-in to “Heroes in Crisis,” played out. “Hey here’s Batman’s Dad! And he’s Evil!” is the kind of plot point that really demands to be followed up on with more haste than what King delivered. It’s not surprising then that a good chunk of the readership bailed while he decided to experiment in storytelling directions unrelated to that one with the issues contained within this volume.
If I had read through these issues on the bi-weekly schedule they were released on, I’d probably feel a little more sympathetic towards those readers who jumped ship. But I’m reading “Knightmares” in trade paperback form and the wait between issues isn’t a factor here. Even the less successful issues aren’t that annoying because I can just read the next one right away. I don’t have to dwell on how that boy showed up again in the first issue for a couple weeks. So if you were thinking about skipping “Knightmares” because of how it was received in single-issue form, don’t. The inventiveness the storytelling and art on display here outweigh the flaws of certain issues and make it a prime example of a series of issues that absolutely reads better in a collected edition.