Denny O’Neil died recently, and as he made massive contributions to the Batman mythos I thought I’d have a look at The Man Who Falls, a one-shot produced for inclusion in the Secret Origins trade paperback in 1989. It’s been credited with being a big inspiration for the Christopher Nolan movies. I’ve never read it before, so it’s entirely an initial reaction for me.
Bruce Wayne in the guise of the Batman basically bookends the story, in the present, on some random night, about to wage war on crime, but the story implies that he has been Batman without the costume for a lot longer. Narration, something mostly missing from comics today, but incredibly useful, takes us through the story, which uses a very small percentage of dialogue. The narration is rich and wordy, but incredibly accessible. It makes the story feel so much more fulfilling. Moments of action are stronger for all the complimentary moments of reflection.
The title page shows us young Bruce kneeling over his fallen parents, bathed in a spotlight, while a hoodlum runs away in the background. A very stark and simple image, which we’ll revisit in the story. A flashback takes us to the past and Bruce as a child falling into what will become the Batcave. The angles on him show him being overwhelmed, dominated and fearful, as many, many bats flap and flutter around him. Rescued by his father, who is presented as strict but caring, comforted by his mother, whose love is more immediately recognisable and evident.
A happy scene juxtaposed with a brutal scene, the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne in an alley. Quick, sudden shots, constant changes of perspective, no narration, but none needed. Eventual narration suggests that just as his parents did, Bruce died at that moment and the Batman was born. If Bruce is dead in spirit, he still lives as a disguise, as he moves from college to college, to the FBI, feigning lack of care or discipline, while secretly building it as soon as he absorbs from each institution what he wants. The meeting with an FBI recruiting agent humorously namechecks Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., who three years later would be the voice of Alfred Pennyworth.
As brilliant as Bruce is, his flaws are readily evident, so he is credibly presented as not perfect. Separating himself from people, showing great discipline, but no less yearning love and companionship. An inability to work within a system. A self-destructive nature pointed out by a master in a high, snowy temple in Korea, which negates what he can be fully taught and making it more difficult to teach him.
The layout of the pages are successful in showing quick and slow transitions in time and place, especially noticeable in the virtually identical, except for growing hair and beard, when Bruce awaits Master Kirigi. The master, and eventually an Indian shaman, note the mark of the bat on him, metaphorically a darkness he carries.
After several different mentorship journeys with different detectives, vigilantes and crimefighters, including the brutal Henri Ducard, who in a form would be played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, initially at the aforementioned secret temple, Bruce returns to Gotham, but for the long journey has been on, over a decade of training and studying, his initial outing as an unmasked crimefighter is unsuccessful. Dejected, he returns home, to participate in the classic scene where the bat crashes through the window. The direction apes the time he fell into the cave, seeming dominated and helpless again, but he takes it and everything that has preceded it and realises the symbolism at last. He must become the bat.
At this point, he suits up, in the blue and grey outfit that was familiar in the seventies and eighties, and we transition back to the present, as he falls from a high building to take on crime, but this time under his own control.
For only lasting twenty pages, this is a magnificent comic book story, which creates so many good and bad feelings for the reader. Several vignettes work as springboards for other stories, so deep the pools of ideas are. There’s a reason movie producers take inspiration from stories like this and build so much more around them. This is a must-read.