This review includes minor spoilers of a twenty year old zeitgeisty comic that you probably already know about.
On its face, Batman: Knightfall is the novelization of the (in)famous storyline in which the Caped Crusader suffers a broken back at the knee of the villain Bane and must temporarily cede the batsuit to another. Moviegoers will recognize the major plot points from the final movie in the Nolan Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. Comic nerds will be familiar with the storyline for its supremely awesome 1990s Batsuit.
However, the book is more than a simple retelling of the old story. The novel’s author, Denny O’Neil, does more than just transcribe the preexisting dialogue. He infuses the well-known plot with the rich inner world of Batman/Bruce Wayne. O’Neil’s Batman is a primarily good person. There is darkness in him, and he is at home in it, but he desperately wants light. He wants to be light, to shine light, to brighten others. That’s why he does what he does. He weaponizes his own personal demons to fight back against evil.
There are some throwaway lines about the hero that are heartbreaking. Bruce Wayne, unsure of how to comfort a kid, thinks “for the thousandth time” that he would be a horrible father. He doesn’t realize that he has spent hundreds of pages helping kids, mentoring, protecting, setting an example. He doesn’t know if he is Bruce Wayne or the demon.
There is some also fun insight into how Denny O’Neil understands Batman’s tactics. For example, Batman doesn’t necessarily beat up every bad guy because he likes them thinking they’re so nonthreatening to him that they’re not worth his time. There’s also some insight on the costume itself from Alfred. Speaking of the influence of older cultures:
They had rituals involving masks of gods. When they put on the mask and raiment of a god, they became that deity. They donned the mask not to hide, but to reveal something greater than themselves that was within them. The mask was a trigger, if you will.
Just as he gives insight into the Bat, O’Neil also writes Bane in such a way that he is both evil and also pathetic, meaning he arouses pity in the reader. Bane is basically clueless as to how to be a human. His only understanding of human interaction is based on dominance and power. In effect, O’Neil has written a story about outsiders, people who don’t quite understand how to be people.
If you’re a big Batman fan, you might like this quick read just because of O’Neil’s deep dive into Batman, Alfred, Bane, and Azrael. On’Neil’s Afterward also includes several pages on why Batman endures and what is so appealing about the character.
PS I’m a big fan of O’Neil’s work on the fantastic 1980s Moon Knight and his work between the Frank Miller Daredevil runs.