Three immediate caveats before I begin, here: First, yes, I am serious. Second, when I say “Knightfall” I’m actually referring to the entire “Knightfall/KnightQuest/KnightsEnd” saga that ran through the Bat-titles for the better part of a couple years, and when I say “The Death of Superman”, I’m really referring to the entire “Death of Superman/Funeral for a Friend/Reign of the Supermen” storyline that ran through all the Superman titles for a year or so. Third, yes, I’m still serious. I love these books.
I’m not blind to their faults, mind you. I agree that they have some flaws (the mindless Doomsday reading a “Metropolis” road sign, Shondra Kinsolving having magical healing powers that she can never use again after this one story, pretty much anything to do with the idea that Bibbo is effective comic relief), and they did usher in an era of gimmicky “replacement hero” stories that we’re still wading through today. But the reason they got imitated so often is the same reason DC is still doing riffs on ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’: The original was so good, and so many people loved it, that everyone’s been trying to duplicate its success ever since. And these are good stories.
They both have something to say, and it’s pretty much the same thing (these stories are obvious bookends to each other, and everyone knew it even at the time): Why are Batman and Superman still relevant heroes for a modern era when they were created so long ago? Why are their morals and ethics still meaningful in an age where the anti-hero is celebrated and the “boy scout” mentality is seen as quaint? Why, in short, do we still need these two around?
Both stories go about answering these questions the same way: By giving us what we think we want. New villains are introduced to “permanently retire” the classic heroes (and although Bane and Doomsday were never again allowed to be as effective as they were in these stories, both worked well at the time–Bane was a cunning schemer as well as a physical threat, forcing Batman to run a gauntlet of all his worst enemies before taking him on, while Doomsday was a sheer elemental force of mindless rage) and once they’ve gone down, new versions are introduced that are more in keeping with the times. Azrael’s Batman is everything people wanted Batman to be–psychologically damaged in “cool” ways, brutal and uncompromising, and willing to kill…well, almost. One fair criticism of KnightQuest is that for a variety of reasons, they didn’t want to go too far with AzBat even though that’s what the story is arguably about. But even if he’s not quite where he needed to be, he’s certainly someone on the far side of the line that Batman refuses to cross.
And the Supermen, well…they went for a full-spectrum analysis of everything that makes Superman who he is. Each of the four Supermen represented an aspect of his character, and it says a lot that the two most positive (Steel and Superboy) went on to become mainstays of the DC Universe in their own right. The Eradicator plays the AzBat role in this scenario, doing all the killing and maiming that people seemed to want in their Superman. And the Cyborg? Well, everyone was a cyborg in the Nineties. Cable, Nathaniel Richards,
the Winter Soldier…
And of course, without the originals, everything went to hell in a handbasket. AzBats lost his tenuous grip on sanity, the Cyborg blew up a city, the Eradicator started punishing people all out of proportion to their offenses…the message was clear, and well conveyed. The world needs a Batman and a Superman. It needs heroes, not just killers who prey on the people we’ve given up on. And when the heroes return, they set everything to rights. And more than that, they set their replacements on the right path. Obviously, the Cyborg was a straight-up villain and beyond redemption, but it says a lot that KnightsEnd concludes with Batman helping Azrael back to sanity instead of just beating him up, and that ‘Reign’ ends with the Eradicator learning enough empathy to sacrifice himself to restore Superman’s full strength. (Not that he stayed dead either, but…)
There’s a lot more I could say about these–I’ve completely glossed over ‘Funeral for a Friend’, for example, which really did explore the feelings of the supporting cast quite well and got into what it means to lose someone close–but ultimately, I think they’re really good explorations of their respective characters’ place in our culture while still being good adventure fiction. And you get to see Batman spray a panther in the face with a fire extinguisher, which is never a bad thing to have in your comics.