Ask Chris #42: Breaking Down Bane
Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That’s why we’ve given Senior Writer Chris Sims the
punishment pleasure of stepping into the grand tradition of the Answer Man as he responds to your reader questions.
Q: As a reputed Batmanologist, what is your take on Bane as a character and his place in the bat-villain pantheon? — @C_Thorn
A: I got quite a few questions about Bane this week, which I imagine has a lot (read: everything) to do with the news that he’s going to be one of the bad guys in the third Christopher Nolan Batman film.
On the surface, it might seem like a weird choice for Nolan, whose films have been largely psychological in how they treat their heroes and villains, to go with a villain mostly known for being an honest-to-God super-villain luchador on super-steroids who defeated Batman with a pro wrestling hold. But if you think a lot about where Bane fits in with Batman and his villains — and I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone to learn that I have — it actually makes a lot of sense.
As much as Cable is a symbol of the excesses of the grim-and-gritty ’90s for Marvel, Bane and Doomsday fill that role at DC, and it’s not an entirely undeserved reputation. Doomsday especially fits right in with the idea of stories that got darker, dumber and more violent, although to be fair, his origins lie in the all-too-rare attempt to do something new. If you look at Superman’s greatest foes, they all represent mental challenges. Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Mr. Mxyzptlk — none of them test Superman’s strength or resillience, because it’s firmly established that you can’t top him in terms of raw power. Instead, they’re villains that have to be out-thought. Even Bizarro, Superman’s equal in terms of abilities, needs to be “beaten” by figuring out a way to make him understand things through his own twisted logic.
The motivation, then, was to finally give Superman something that he’d never had: An enemy that could go toe-to-toe with him and present a legitimate physical threat. It’s a neat idea, but unfortunately, while it did actually involve some neat stuff, it also resulted in one of the most popular and widely-read Superman stories of all time being a comic where Superman and a monster in bike shorts punched each other to death.
Bane, however, is an entirely different beast. In a lot of ways, his defining appearance saw him function less as a character and more as just a plot point that allowed for a much bigger story, and to understand how he got there, you have to understand where he comes from. Not the prison in the fictional South American country of Santa Prisca (although I’ll get to that in a minute), but the factors that led to his creation as a character.
The first was the desire to create the biggest Batman story of all time, and in a lot of ways, they succeeded. “Knightfall” was huge. It was a twenty-part story (19 parts of which were labeled, plus the actual kickoff in Batman #491), and that’s not counting the months of setup in Batman or the fact that the story didn’t end until it had stumbled through another few years with “Knightquest” and “Knightsend” and “Prodigal.” It featured Batman battling almost all of his major enemies and marked a big change that would, for better or worse, dictate the pace of those books for the better part of a decade.
And thematically, while it eventually became downright unbearable, it’s based on an extremely solid idea. I’ve talked before about how the very idea of Batman involves a man breaking through his own limitations to become something other, but “Knightfall” examines just what those limitations are, for what’s actually a pretty good reason. The trend in the late ’80s and ’90s at DC was to reduce characters in power in order to make them more relatable — which I assume was to follow the model that had made Marvel’s more humanized characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men so unbelievably popular — and whether or not that was a good idea, it’s something Crisis on Infinite Earths certainly accomplished. Superman, for example was no longer quite as strong and could even be hurt — the writers of the Silver Age had always been able to get around those rules, but it was actually codified in the text itself that he was only X strong and could be knocked out by an A-bomb if he was having a bad day.
Batman, however, had only grown more powerful. Part of it was necessity to the character (Batman has pretty much always been a brilliant detective and an incredible fighter), and considering that the high point of Batman stories up to then was the O’Neil/Adams era, a reduction of his prowess probably didn’t seem necessary. But with the arrival of Frank Miller — who had depicted the incredibly skilled, phenomenally wealthy young Batman of Year One and the cranky old mudhole surgeon of Dark Knight Returns — and the profound influence he’d had on the character, Batman just got tougher.
The challenge, then, was very similar to what they faced with Superman, who was going through his infamous “death” at almost exactly the same time. If Batman is more than a man, then no one criminal could possibly stand against him. But what if he faced an army of them, one right after the other? His own dedication becomes his downfall — he forsakes any kind of rest in favor of stopping the bad guys, until he’s so worn down that he he’s at a point where someone could stand against him. This is the key point of “Knightfall,” and one to remember about Bane: It’s not just Batman vs. Bane, it’s Batman against everyone. Bane just happens to be the guy who shows up last.
With all of that in place, now we look at Bane himself. Much like “The Death of Superman,” the creators decided not to go with one of Batman’s more established villains. This could’ve easily been a Ra’s al-Ghul story, where Ra’s finally got sick of Batman refusing to marry his daughter and decided to kill him once and for all, and instead of Bane thrashing Batman through his own house, it could’ve been a swordfight akin to what O’Neil and Adams did, only with an exhausted Batman unable to fend off 400 years of master swordsmanship.
Instead, they went with a villain that was almost brand new, and who was almost certainly created for this one purpose. And they did it because they wanted a different kind of villain than what Batman usually faced. And they drew on three distinct predecessors to make him.
The first one is phenomenally obvious to the point of autoplagiarism, but it’s almost never mentioned. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A new villain shows up in Gotham, a hulking, masked brute who pulverizest he bones of his opponent. Batman tries to stop him, but in the process, he’s injured — paralyzed, in fact — and a younger blonde cohort with a mysterious past has to stand in until Bruce Wayne, healed by miraculous Deus Ex Machina means, can once again resume his role.
That might sound like “Knightfall,” but it’s actually the plot of a story that ran four years earlier to coincide with the release of Tim Burton’s Batman movie and celebrate Detective Comics #600: “Blind Justice,” by Sam Hamm and Denys Cowan and Dick Giordano.
You may notice a slight resemblance.
To say that “Knightfall” and its aftermath recycled massive chunks of this story is underselling things quite a bit, but despite the resemblance, Bonecrusher — the guy in the hood up there — is actually very different from Bane. The wires on his wrists actually power sonic gauntlets that reduce his enemies to pulp, and his gimmick is actually much more like Lord Death Man than anything else. But clearly, there was a huge influence from this story.
The second major influence — and no one is going to believe it because it’s me telling you this — is The KGBeast.
The Beast is one of my favorites and I’ve gone out of my way to work him into completely unrelated columns before, but here, I actually have a reason. Again, there’s a physical resemblance — the massive figure, the color scheme, the luchador mask — but more important is the fact that the Beast is an unstoppable physical enemy. He’s one of the first foes that Batman cannot overwhelm through sheer physicality, and in fact, “Ten Nights of the Beast,” doesn’t end with a satisfying punch-out, it ends with Batman realizing that despite his training and skill, his body has its limits. Instead of fighting him, Batman essentially lures the KGBeast into an underground cell and leaves him there to die.
The Beast pushes Batman to his limits, but he never has a chance to force the final physical confrontation. Bane, however, does so, refining the Beast’s characteristics and combining them with the most important factor of all.
And that factor? That Bane is essentially the most successful attempt at creating The Evil Version of Batman.
Again, that’s not a new idea, and had been done most famously ten years before in Mike W. Barr and Michael Golden’s “The Player On The Other Side” from Batman Special #1.
The villain in that story, The Wrath, was the son of two bank-robbing murderers who were gunned down by the police on the same day that Batman’s parents were murdered by a criminal, and so he naturally swore his life to the destruction of the law. It’s a great story, but it’s done with the explicit attempt at setting up the Wrath as a direct reflection of Batman. Bane, believe it or not, is far more subtle. And not just because he doesn’t have a big W on his face that makes bat-ears.
Batman, despite the tragedy that drives him to become a crime-fighter, is born into a world of privilege. He even lists everything off in Year One:
“I have wealth. The family manor rests above a cave that will be the perfect headquarters. Even a butler with training in combat medicine.“
Bane, however, receives an entirely different legacy from his father: He’s sentenced to life in a South American prison to pay for his father’s crimes, born to absolutely nothing, save for the natural athletic abilities and intelligence — the two traits he shares with Batman. So instead of being able to travel the world to better himself, he’s forced to work within the confines of a small extremely hostile environment.
As a result, he grows into a man driven by vengeance to take what he wants without any concern for the harm it causes to those around him. His methods become a direct contrast to Batman’s. Batman doesn’t kill, but Bane?
Bane will kill constantly if he feels like it, and not even in to further his own goals. While Batman is violent with the goal of preventing violence, Bane is violence for its own sake.
And then there’s the Venom. Introduced by Denny O’Neil and Legends of the Dark Knight #16, the super-steroid was originally used by Batman as a way to overcome his physical limits, which you may have noticed is a recurring theme surrounding this story. Batman, of course, stopped using it in order to avoid becoming dependent on something outside himself, but it’s the source of Bane’s physical prowess. Where Batman thinks of Venom as something that goes too far, Bane embraces it and uses it to great effect.
Incidentally, the idea of someone being raised in a prison where he has to train himself physically and mentally through the prison library, then gains super-powers from a drug, is very much in tune with the origins of Golden Age heroes. Specifically, it echoes both Marvel/Timely’s Golden Age Angel and DC’s Hourman, although that might just be an interesting coincidence.
Even more telling than the differences, though, is the one aspect that he and Batman share. I mentioned before that there’s a direct metatextual reason for the events of “Knightfall,” but it’s equally important as to why those events happened within the story. At its heart, the driving action is started simply because Bane wants to take out Batman. But in order to do so, he doesn’t just do what your average villain-of-the-week does (showing up and calling Batman out for a fight), and he doesn’t even do what the arch-villains do (committing crimes in order to provoke Batman into action, then springing on him). Instead, he does something that is often overlooked when people talk about Bane: He comes up with a plan.
He orchestrates a jailbreak at Arkham Asylum to not only release Batman’s enemies, but also provide them with weapons. He doesn’t waste time or effort fighting Jean-Paul Valley, because he recognizes that he’s not the true Batman. He devotes himself to discovering Batman’s secret identity so that he can fight him when he least expects it, at his lowest point, outside of an environment. It’s not just a plan, but a great one.
Clearly, Bane is a mastermind who belives that the victory is in the preparation. In other words, he sees things in the same way that Batman does, and turns Batman’s own methods against him — right down to the Venom that echoes Batman’s own use. He even forms an army of like-minded cronies so that his goals can be furthered on a grander scale, which is exactly what Batman’s doing now, fifteen years later, in the pages of Batman Inc.
The ruthlessness, the single-minded dedication to his goal, the planning and strategy, it all adds up to make him a direct reflection of Batman, and it all leads to a plan that actually works:
Well, it works for a while, anyway. If Bane truly understood Batman — and I actually think it’s an intentional bit of character development that he doesn’t — he’d understand that by defining a physical limitation, he’s simply given Batman something else to conquer. Of course, he’d also know that if he’d read Detective Comics #600, but that’s neither here nor there.
It does bring up one more interesting similarity in their methods, though, in that Batman and Bane both devote themselves to the physical end of a confrontation, but don’t necessarily have an answer for the mental aftermath. When Batman throws the Joker in Arkham Asylum, for instance, that’s the physical end of whatever the Joker was up to. If he’s locked up, he’s not physically out on the streets of Gotham City creating chaos, but in terms of mentality, he’s still crazy and he’s probably already thinking up his next criminal exploit. The same goes here: Batman is beaten physically, he’s never really broken, despite the hype and taglines of the story. He’s already working on a way to return.
Unfortunately, he came back in what might be the worst way possible, when his girlfriend/physical therapist learns his secret identity, uses her psychic powers to fix his spine, which has the side effect of driving her insane and giving her the mind of a five year-old, after which she is put in a mental institution and never heard from again. Seriously, “Knightfall” started out with a lot of potential, but did not exactly end well.
I do think it’s worth noting, though, that this is a story where Batman is beaten by an evil version of himself (Bane), who is then beaten by another evil version of Batman (Azrael), who is in turn beaten by Batman.
As for post-”Knightfall” developments, Bane has had the strange road that comes with being a character created specifically for such a huge story. Once it’s over, there’s just not much you can do. There might be a way to make that character exciting again, but if he shows up to fight Batman, you always know how that’s going to go down. The connection with Batman is built to lead to exactly one moment (two if you count the inevitable rematch), and finding something new to do with that relationship is a difficult task.
That’s not to say that “Knightfall” itself entirely lived up to the potential that it started out with. A whole lot of it, after all, was stuff like this…
…and while I like my comics goofy, it helps if they’re not actually trying to be super-serious at the time. But still, it is Bane’s story, and it seems like the further away you take him from that — and from a role that sets him up as a contrast to Batman — the harder it is to do something good with him.
For evidence, just look at his brief appearance in Infinite Crisis, where he breaks Judomaster’s back with the same move he used on Batman. It’s the very definition of using the same action but with absolutely none of the emotional content that made that action important, and it’s a prime example of why doing scenes for no reason other than because readers will remember seeing them elsewhere is one of the surest ways to make bad comics (see also: Batman: The Widening Gyre). Greg Rucka later tried to salvage it to build up an animosity between Bane and Thomas Jagger, Judomaster’s sidekick/heir in the pages of Checkmate, but it went nowhere.
More recently, Gail Simone has been using Bane in the page of Secret Six, where he functions as a brutal enforcer who follows a strict code, often imposing himself on the other members.
The most interesting development there is that he has come to see himself as a father figure — wanted or not — for Scandal, which is an interesting twist for a character who literally grew up in a prison because his own father left the country rather than face his sentence. But again, his role as a mastermind dedicated to a goal at all costs is reduced or eliminated. It makes sense that it would be — Scandal’s the team leader, not Bane — but it also just directly points to the fact that without that one defining moment where he fights Batman, the character is completely aimless.
In effect, he’s served his purpose, and is now just hanging out trying to be useful.
Even so, there is something interesting at the core of his character, something that certainly wasn’t on display when he showed up in Batman and Robin, and that even Batman: The Animated Series didn’t quite use to its full potential. He’s an evil version of Batman as a pulp character with a lucha mask, and while he’s not one of my favorites, there’s certainly a lot there to work with.
That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just put it on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!