By Alex Batts — Batman #74 brings about the close of “The Fall and The Fallen”, the current story arc running in Tom King’s epic run. This arc started in issue #70, with Batman awakening from his nightmares and fighting his way out of an Arkham Asylum under the control of Bane. It led to a slugfest, and ultimate beatdown of Batman in his own home, by the master strategist, Bane. The last chapter is a globe-trotting tale following Thomas Wayne and Bruce as they trek through the deserts of Khadym in search of the Nain Pit, a secret Lazarus Pit belonging to Ra's Al Ghul.
It's a testament to King's storytelling that this arc has been able to cover so much ground (figuratively and literally) while not feeling discombobulated or haphazard. Everything that's happened has had huge narrative and thematic impact. The last issue saw intimate and intense father/son bonding between Bruce and Thomas, and this week's issue picks up on that while also delivering a confrontational and viscerally satisfying conclusion to the arc.
The issue opens with the duo fending off more members of The Death of the Desert (Ra’s Al Ghul’s personal guard/patrol), a fight that ends with Thomas impaling their leader, to be able to sacrifice him to the pit later. The fight here is concise. We join as it begins, and it is then over within a single page. The guards are no match for these two Batmen. After the assassins are handled, Bruce and Thomas ready their horses to continue their quest. It’s at this moment that Thomas asks Bruce if he remembers the bedtime story he always begged his father to read him.
Bruce remembers. The story was “The Animals and the Pit” by Alexander Nikolaevich Afanasyev. For those who don't know, this is a Russian Folktale that follows a group of animals traveling together who encounter a large pit. All the animals end up stranded in the pit, and in an attempt to survive longer, they devise trivial competitions in which the loser is eaten by the rest. Eventually, the fox is the last animal alive, tricking the pig into eating itself, and the story ends with an unanswered question: does the fox ever escape the pit? Yeah, cannibalism and being trapped forever don't exactly make for a story you'd want to read to your child.
This isn’t the first time we see Bruce’s fascination with this story. Way back in Batman #57—the conclusion to the “Beasts of Burden” arc—we learn that Anatoli Knyazev (the KGBeast) also loved being read this tale as a boy. The story is illustrated in that issue, used as a narrative device intercut between Batman brawling with the KGBeast. It's on the last page of that issue we learn Bruce is also fascinated with it, leaving his father to wonder why he enjoys the horrific tale so much.
The seeds of this narrative payoff being planted so subtly and so far back was mind-blowing to me, and the payoff in this issue is impressive. Batman #74 continues to follow the pair as they approach their own pit, while Thomas recounts the frustration of reading Bruce this tale over and over again. We also get insight into Thomas' feelings for his son with a bit of reflection about his own childhood. The character work King does with Thomas continues to be compelling, as there always seems to be more bubbling just below the surface of all Thomas says and does.
Now, I’ve been focused on the narrative aspect of this issue, but it’s impossible to have this phenomenal work without the incredible art team working alongside King. Mikel Janin, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles elevate everything in the story. Thomas and Bruce look similar but just different enough in their cowls, as well as their facial features. The action (which I'll get into more specifically in a moment) is excellently choreographed and brilliantly colored. Everything from the stunning yellows of dusk in the desert, to the red in Thomas' eyes, to the cool nighttime blues enhances the narrative.
When the pair finally reach the pit, they’ve got a long way down to access the mystical well of life. This pit operates differently than most, requiring a sacrifice in order to give life, and Thomas knows this because on his world he watched Ra’s Al Ghul sacrifice himself for his daughter. This little bit of world-building is naturally weaved into the story, fleshing out this Thomas' (who is from another timeline) history. As the two descend into the pit, Thomas recounts his joy of watching his son fall asleep, confessing that was his one goal in life—that feeling of bliss. It's an incredibly tender moment that highlights exactly why Thomas wants to resurrect Martha and reunite their family.
Oh yes, Martha Wayne is the body in the coffin that Thomas is hauling through the desert, working to bring her back to life. He knows it was their deaths that sparked Bruce’s war as Batman. He knows all the pain and suffering that’s brought him, and he reasons that after Bane has physically and mentally broken the Bat, this will be the chance to offer his son healing. He believes they can return home as a family. It’s while explaining this we learn why Bruce had such an attraction to “The Animals in the Pit”. The mood shift is highlighted by Bellaire's color, which steal the show for this issue. As the pair are descending and Thomas is reflecting, there's a cool blue ambiance around them. Then as they reach the bottom, they’re illuminated by a singular flare, which fills the cavern with a more confrontational, red aura.
Bruce explains he liked the story because of the horror. Because no one escapes. And that childishly, foolishly, he had an eternal hope that the ending might change. He knew it was impossible, but he couldn’t give up his hope. This tees off one of the best fights in the run, as we see Batman vs Batman (father vs son) duking it out. The background surrounding them drops out, replaced by a raging red gradient as the two pummel each other.
As the battle rages, King retells the Russian folktale in the narration boxes, showing the horror of the tale reflected with the violence in the brawl. Throughout the course of the fight, Thomas is thrown crashing into the coffin, which is revealed to be full of rocks—no corpse. Bruce explains that while Thomas was sleeping, he buried Martha in the desert where he could never find her. Bruce didn’t know if he could best Thomas, but he figured that he could hurt him enough that neither would ever make it out. This planning, determination, and sheer will is Batman to me. It’s an incredible character moment.
The fight rages, and as last week’s issue brought back one of my favorite quotes from earlier in the series, this issue uses another one. As Thomas mumbles about him and Bane having broken Bruce, Bruce relays discovering his one truth in the alley at the feet of his slain parents. That truth being that his mother and father are dead, and that he’s still here. The last page cuts to morning, an aerial shot of the top of the pit, where we see a gloved hand grasp the ground. Finally, we have an answer to the century-old folktale: someone made it out of the pit.
Overall: This issue ties the arc together in outstanding fashion. Delivering heartrending emotion, brutal action, jaw-dropping art, and layers upon layers of storytelling. 10/10
Writer: Tom King
Artist: Mikel Janín
Colorist: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Publisher: DC Comics
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Alex Batts is from Texas. A lifelong comic book enthusiast and movie lover, if he’s not talking about comics, he’s probably not talking. You can find him on Twitter by following @BatmanFiles