With the explosion of comics and media in the 1990s, Batman had become more than myth…more than legend.
He was now an outright American Icon.
Like baseball and apple pie, Batman was a hero synonymous with the entire U.S. population. Even people who hated comic books knew who Batman was…he had permeated popular culture to such a feverish degree that our collective public consciousness was permenently conditioned…and forever imprinted.
Batman, The Joker, Commissioner Gordon, Robin, Gotham City…these were all now an integral components of the literary lexicon.
That alone speaks volumes for the sheer scope of how powerful Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation had become.
And things didn’t miss a beat as the books continued to enrich the character’s universe.
Following the 5-part “A Lonely Place of Dying” storyline in “Batman” #440 to #442 and “The New Titans” #60 to #61, young Timothy Drake, despite Batman’s hesitance, had proven himself by taking down Two-Face…as well as deducing that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson were Batman and the first Robin. In doing so, Drake earned what he sought and became the third official Robin in December 1990 with “Batman” #457.
Earlier that same year, following her paralysis at the hands of the Joker, Barbara Gordon appeared in the 38th issue of a book for the “Suicide Squad” for the first time both in her wheelchair and under a new alias as the digital information broker Oracle.
There was also the enigmatic Harold. A mute hunchback with a gift for electronics and engineering, Harold began as one of the Penguin’s henchmen in “Batman” #447.
But when it was revealed that Harold’s hand had been forced by Cobblepot, Batman took him in to work on creating and maintaining vehicles and gadgetry in the Batcave with “Batman” issue #458.
Thanks to the impact of the groundbreaking “Batman: The Animated Series,” even more components of the caped crusader’s cast carried over to the comics…the first being Gotham police officer Renee Montoya in May of 1992.
1992 also saw the debut of a new monthly book with “Batman: Shadow of the Bat,” which tackled darker story material with tinges of corrpution and fantasy here and there.
The first arc in the book “The Last Arkham” introduced a new high-security facility for Arkham Asylum…overseen by Jeremiah Arkham, descendent of Amadeus Arkham, the Asylum’s founder.
The story also introduced Batman’s first prominent new villain…Victor Zsasz. A serial killer who keeps his body count with a series of tallied scars on his own body, Zsasz ushered in a new era of more psychologically-tainted foes based not on colorful gimmicks but on evil as it exists in contemporary times with the likes of Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer. This method would go on to reflect more on established foes as well…especially those more grounded like Scarecrow, Two-Face and the Joker.
More allies and adversaries followed as Tim Drake’s girlfriend Stephanie Brown became a vigilante known as the Spoiler in an attempt to thwart her own father, Arthur — aka the Cluemaster — in 1992’s “Detective Comics” #647.
And Aaron Helzinger, who, after a surgery gone wrong, debuted as the evil, wrathful man-child Amygdala in “Shadow of the Bat” #3.
But Batman’s greatest physical and emotional battle was about to begin.
October 1992 introduced fans with “Batman: Sword of Azrael” to Jean Paul Valley.
Scientifically altered by a religious cult known as the Order of St. Dumas, Valley was trained and manipulated into Azrael, an avenging angel prone to hypnotic suggestion. His will dominated both by his allegiance to the Order as well as an arcane mixture of physical and psychological torture called “The System,” Valley was originally dispatched to battle and overpower Batman.
But Batman saw that Jean Paul was more victim than villain and aided in freeing Azrael of St. Dumas’ twisted conditioning.
Even with this accomplishment, victory was short lived as Azrael’s debut only led to the arrival of another entity to Gotham City.
January 1993 brought with it a one-shot…introducing fans and readers to someone who might arguably be the dark knight’s most physically challenging opponent to date:
Making his first appearance in “Batman: Vengeance of Bane,”, Bane was born into captivity within the stone halls of Pena Duro Prison in Santa Prisca…a child forced to carry out his dead father’s life sentence.
Shaping his body in solitary confinement while digesting an endless amount of forgotten books in the prison library, Bane educated himself into a peerless intellect. Fighting…and killing…his way to survive, Bane became a legend of Pena Duro and attracted a trio of followers in the form of Trogg, Bird and Zombie.
From there, Bane was enlisted into a government-sanctioned program…Project Gilgamesh.
Named after the fabled ultimate warrior, the surgical procedure drilled directly into the back of Bane’s skull. Equipping Bane with a delivery system of tubes, the team then fed Bane’s cortico-implants with “Venom,” an addictive experimental steroidal compound.
Through “Venom,” Bane had found the almost god-like strength and rage necessary to free himself and his allies from Pena Duro.
Now liberated, Bane journied to Gotham City…where he sought to gain infamy by taking on the legendary Batman, whom he had been told tales of by Bird back in prison.
Thus began one of the largest-scale stories in the history of the comics.
“Knightfall” officially began its epic run with “Batman” #492.
Overseen by editors Dennis O’Neil, Scott Peterson and Archie Goodwin, the story was collected through “Batman” issues #488 to #510, “Detective Comics” #656 to #677, “Batman: Shadow of the Bat” #16 to #30, “Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight” #59 to #63 and “Robin” #1 and #7 to #9.
Knowing that a direct assault on Batman’s own battlefield would be foolhardy, Bane devised a plan through strategy and patience to stury the dark knight in action…breaking his spirit before breaking his body.
Causing a massive breakout at Arkham Asylum, Bane stood by and watched as Batman and his allies fought to recapture the Joker, Mr. Zsasz, the Ventriliquist and Scarface, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc and several other inmates.
Despite successfully re-acquiring his foes, the never-ending effort to put them back in Arkham took its toll on Batman’s stamina. Driven to the brink of sheer exhaustion, Bruce had become nothing less than a hollow shell; his strength and will all but spent.
It was that moment that Bane chose to strike.
Through his study, Bane had identified Batman as Bruce Wayne…and made his one-man assault upon Wayne Manor.
Their battle ended in the Batcave, defiling the caped crusader’s inner sanctum. Taking Batman to the first populated area in Gotham he could find, Bane declared his superiority.
And in “Batman” #497, Bane had his victory by finally achieving what no other rogue had accomplished.
Bane took Batman’s bruised and bloodied body and sturck it upon his knee.
The blow broke Bruce Wayne’s spine.
Primarily written by talents such as Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench and Dennis O’Neil himself, the story was visualized by several key Batman artists including Jim Aparo, Bret Blevins, Mike Manley, Graham Nolan and underrated fan favorite Norm Breyfogle.
The story capitalized on the grander scale comics were taking throughout the decade…including the high-profile “Death of Superman” storyline, as well as Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane’s respective runs on “X-Men” and “Spider-Man.”
From here, the legacy of Batman took its boldest turn with the “Knightquest” storyline.
Confined to a wheelchair by Bane, Bruce (and the “Batman” writing staff) felt that the books had to persevere…and decided that a successor to the mantle had to be named.
Eventually, Jean Paul Valley was chosen to assume the role of Batman as Wayne began physical and psychological therapy at the hands of Alfred and trusted physician Dr. Shondra Kinsloving.
But Jean Paul was no Bruce Wayne.
Haunted by lingering visions of St. Dumas, Valley’s mind became perverted by the power that the Batman persona gave him. He became savage…unpredictable. Unable to discern from friend or foe, Jean Paul turned rogue on Tim Drake, Dick Grayson and the other allies. He fought crime in all its forms, yes…but he approached every situation with an eagerness for bloodshed and vengeance.
Fighting hordes of new menaces such as the gun-toting Tally Man in “Shadow of the Bat” #19 as well as the Joker and Scarecrow to re-establish Batman’s order and take Gotham back, Jean Paul turned his sights to the one man reaping the most reward from Bruce’s injuries…Bane.
For the anniversary 500th issue of “Batman,” Valley discarded Bruce Wayne’s cape and cowl and adopted his notoriously formidable Azrael-inspired Bat Armor…and defeated Bane.
With the victory, Jean Paul declared himself the one true Batman…and continued his overzealous war on crime; reinforcing his armor with projectile weapons and transforming the Batcave into a St. Dumas sanctuary outfitted with vicious weapons and traps.
But the time had come for the originator to return.
With 1994’s “Knightsend,” the odyessy came to a close as Bruce Wayne, his body re-mended and his will established once more, battled Jean Paul Valley to reclaim Wayne Manor and the Batman mantle in “Legends of the Dark Knight” #63.
Following several recounts of Batman’s origin in the single-issue event spanning each of the books dubbed “Zero Hour,” as well as the multi-issue “Prodigal” story in which Dick Grayson assumed the role of Batman while Wayne attended to a secret agenda, Bruce officially returned as Batman in “Robin” #13.
The following collection of years, utilizing the influence of “Knightfall,” made a point to continue emphasizing why Bruce Wayne and his alter ego were collectively a hero for the ages…a hero that could never truly be replaced.
It’s not the costume that makes the myth…but the man inside.
Batman’s supports and villains, influenced by interpretations such as “The Killing Joke” and Tim Drake’s ongoing “Robin” book, began to be realized as integral figures in their own right.
Nightwing got his own mini-series in 1995 with September’s “Nightwing” #1.
Eisner-Award nominated writer/artist Matt Wagner created a three part mini-series titled “Batman: Faces” featuring Two-Face as the focal point.
Inspired by Paul Dini’s emmy-awarding winning script for the “Heart of Ice” episode of “Batman: The Animated Series,” the comics officially adopted Dini’s new origin for Mr. Freeze.
And Jean Paul Valley returned with “Azrael” #1, now seeking redemption for his actions as a nomad-hero inspired by Batman.
Meanwhile, the dark knight continued to be confronted by new foes…such as Lyle Bolton, a security guard turned insane incarcerator called Lock-Up in “Robin” #23, and the hallucinatory Narcosis in 1996’s “Batman: Shadow of the Bat” #50.
But the end of the ’90s would bring with it Batman’s greatest physical and emotional challenges.
Beginning with “Shadow of the Bat” #48, the “Contagion” storyline saw the release of “The Clench”…the Gulf-A strain of the Ebola Virus…upon Gotham City, killing hundreds of thousands.
Devestated by the loss of life, Batman and his allies raced to stop the man responsible.
Ra’s Al Ghul.
Leading into the “Legacy” storyline, Batman’s efforts to stop Ra’s face higher stakes with his plan to unleash an even deadlier virus upon the world to pave the way for his utopia.
For 1996’s landmark 700th issue of “Detective Comics,” Batman, Robin and Nightwing proved victorious…preventing the release of the ‘Legacy’ virus and defeating the Demon’s Head.
But the victory would prove frivolous compared to what happened next.
Despite opposition from the vengeful Gearhead in 1998’s “Detective Comics” #717, “Shadow of the Bat” issue #73 changed everything.
With the “Cataclysm.”
Gotham City was struck by a tumultous 7.6 scale Earthquake.
Casualties ranked in the thousands. Skyscrapers were decimated, the air stank of ash and rubble and the streets were laid waste. In every physical, psychological and moral definition…the city had been broken.
In response to the destruction, the U.S. Government had to decide whether to aid Gotham in restoration or not.
But thanks to Gotham’s stance as a “Crime Capital” and the presence of Batman and his rogues gallery, the government turned its back on the city.
Blowing the bridges and cutting it off from the rest of the country, the federal government left Gotham a smoldering tumor…and declared it a “No Man’s Land.”
Collected in “Batman” #560 to #574, “Detective Comics” #727 to #741, “Batman: Shadow of the Bat” #80 to #91 and “Legends of the Dark Knight” #116 to #126, “No Man’s Land” quickly became a quinessential milestone for Batman comics.
By this time, new established talent had made its way to Gotham City…with writers such as Greg Rucka and Paul Dini joining the ranks with Dennis O’Neil, Bob Gale, Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon, Ian Edington and several others to chronicle the fallout of the quake.
These writers, inspired by the past efforts of Bill Finger and Dennis O’Neil, worked to ground the emotional backbone of the comics within genuine humanity that could properly be identified with…even in the midst of the large-scale storytelling that was dominating the industry.
Running the entire length of 1999, “No Man’s Land” took to its title…turning Gotham into a no-holds-barred battlefield divided between the rogues abandoned in Arkham and the street gangs that were birthed out of the necessity for power and order that what citizens stayed behind needed.
Despite leaving to confront Capital Hill to lobby for Gotham’s resurrection, Bruce soon made his non-descript return to No Man’s Land and reassumed his position as Gotham’s masked protector…fighting to reclaim the city by liberating the gang-controlled and criminally-occupied territories…tagging them with spray-painted “Bat Symbols!”
While current love interest and radio personality Vesper Fairchild and Oracle respecitvely attempted to maintain hope and record the statistics and timelines of “NML,” Batman and his gotham knights fought alongside Commissioner Gordon and the police that remained on the island…now called the “Blue Boys”…to restore what order they could.
One of Batman’s newest allies arrived in July of 1999 with “Batman” #567.
With Barbara Gordon confined to chair (despite her role as Oracle quickly becoming vital to Wayne’s crusade), Batman had lost his Batgirl.
But the crisis of “No Man’s Land,” called for all the aid the dark knight could find.
Readers were then introduced to Cassandra Cain. A field operative for Oracle, Cassandra had been conditioned by her mercenary father to be an instrument of nearly unfathomable skill…a living weapon capable of murder with her bare hands. The rigorous training convoluted her mind as motor skills such as speech and hearing were replaced with combat tactics. Left a mute unable to speak or function in society, Cassandra only knew how to communicate through violence. With Oracle’s help, Cassandra eventually learned to communicate…while still retaining her skill. After proving those skills and developing a strong moral code akin to Batman’s in the early months of NML, she was given a chance.
And at just 17 years old, Cassandra Cain became the second Batgirl.
With the end of the ’90s, Batman’s resolve and popularity were stronger than ever. The stories were colossal…creating the need for a character equipped to overcome the tremendous obstacle.
And as society made its way towards a new century, it seemed nothing could challenge Batman’s success.
Perhaps nothing in comics ever will.
The legacy continued…and the trappings of a newly revolutionized time were about to impact Batman in a big new way for a big new decade…
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