It is difficult to summarize Denny O’Neil’s classic Batman origin story The Man Who Falls. It is a short work, running only sixteen pages. The action covers only a moment of time, no more than a few minutes. The narrative covers a lifetime. It is beautifully drawn. It is simply and amazingly written.
I think it is the best Batman story ever told.
The art is beautiful. Dick Giordano was one of the early giants of comic book illustration, beginning his career with Charlton Comics in 1952, and over the years working closely with everyone from Carmine Infantino (the creator of the Silver-Age Flash and long-time DC editor who hired Giordano in 1968) to George Perez (the man who penciled DC’s 50-year Anniversary event, Crisis on Infinte Earths). His long-term partnership with penciler Neal Adams resulted in some of the most recognizable and iconic versions of Superman, Batman, and Green Arrow in the world of comics.
Giordano’s skill is on full display in The Man Who Falls. He faithfully recreates panels from Year One, Sam Hamm’s Batman: Blind Justice, and the Legends of the Dark Knight story “Shaman” (which was also written by Denny O’Neil). His work is timeless and powerful, with clean lines and a wonderful sense of motion. His depiction of Batman gives the character a sense of weight and presence, solid muscle plummeting through the cold of a Gotham City night.
The art is perfectly in tune with Dennis O’Neil’s script. Drawing on the classic Gardner Fox/Bob Kane Batman origin that made its appearance in Detective Comics #33, as well as the work of Frank Miller, O’Neil weaves a simple story that strikes to the very core of Bruce Wayne.
What sets this origin story apart from other Batman histories is how O’Neil treats the relationship between young Bruce and his parents. After Bruce is rescued by Thomas Wayne from the cavern under Wayne Manner into which he has fallen, his father yells at him. His mother attempts to blunt the attack.
“Idiot! I told you never, never to go off alone. Didn’t I? Didn’t I?”
“Thomas, he’s frightened.”
“He damn well ought to be. He could have been killed. He’s got to learn.”
The next page contains the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Side by side, these two events create a subtly different interpretation of the classic version of this moment in Batman’s origin. Did Thomas ever get a chance to explain himself to his son? Was the night out to see Zorro a clumsy apology from a man who couldn’t think of any other way to tell his son that it was fear for Bruce’s safety, not anger, which motivated his harsh discipline? We, like Bruce, will never know.
The real genius of The Man Who Falls is that it is written in such a way that the audience is aware of all the things that are going on inside Bruce’s head as he waits, motionless on the Gothic stonework of his city, preparing to mete out his own brand of justice. We can see the arc of his travel, and we can see his motivations. Bruce however, is not aware of everything that is running through his head. From our omniscient perch we can see directly into the moments that lead him from a lonely dark alley washed in the blood of his parents, to becoming a creature of the night that would drive fear into the superstitious and cowardly criminal lot of Gotham City.
There is a subtly to the story that is immediate and captivating. It is writing of the highest quality. If you are looking to familiarize yourself with O’Neil’s extensive catalogue of work, this is the story to start with.
The Man Who Falls has influenced a generation’s approach to writing Batman as a character. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale used elements of it for their wonderful stories The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. Christopher Nolan used it as a guide and in some places a script for Batman Begins and drew on it as inspiration for The Dark Knight. It remains a part of the official DC continuity, and for good reason. This book is a collaboration between two industry giants who, drawing on the work of those who came before them, gave us the definitive Batman origin story.
“He stands, tenses, relaxes. The time has come.
He breathes deeply, filling himself with the night –
–and steps forward and falls–
–as he fell when he was a child–
–as he will fall for the rest of his life–“
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.