The announcement that Tom Hardy is to play Bane in the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises raised eyebrows among a number of comics fans. For those familiar with the character, it raised all sorts of questions about just how he and his story would fit into the established Chris Nolan Bat-verse. But for many, the question was a simpler one: just who is Bane, anyway?
Bane was created by writers Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench and artist Graham Nolan, in 1993 for one very specific purpose, to destroy the Batman. DC editorial had in mind to craft a huge, status quo-changing ‘event’ story (designed to boost public interest in the character, and make readers appreciate him in his absence), much as they had done with The Death of Superman the year before. And, just as with that story’s Doomsday, it was decided that the main antagonist would be an entirely new creation.
The man that was created to break Bruce Wayne’s back, putting him out of action for about a year’s worth of stories, shared more in common with Batman than might initially have seemed apparent. Specifically, his creators intended him to be a ‘dark mirror’ of the 30s pulp character, Doc Savage (most notably demonstrated by the haircut and costume, designed to evoke the widow’s peak and ripped shirt of James Bama’s famous Savage covers of the 60s, though where he got the luchador mask is anyone’s guess), who, himself a figure of the ‘ordinary man trained to peak of human perfection’ archetype, is a clear antecedent of the modern-day interpretation of Batman.
This may come as a surprise to those who only know Bane from his portrayal in the ghastly 1997 film Batman & Robin, where he was a near-mute, bulked-up henchman of Poison Ivy’s, with about the only characteristics drawn from the comic version being the costume and the use of the ‘venom’ drug to enhance his strength and physique.
In fact, Bane was intended to be Batman’s match, not only physically, but mentally, as detailed in the Vengeance Of Bane one-shot (January 1993), which explained his origins in the cruel island prison of Santa Prisca. His background and upbringing turned him into a vicious, yet calculating creature of revenge, even before his use as a test subject for Venom.
Haunted from an early age by dreams of a terrifying “bat god”, Bane eventually learns from a fellow inmate of the existence of Gotham City and its ‘ruler’, Batman, subsequently making it his singular mission to escape, go to Gotham, and ,break, this never-seen foe.
This he does over the course of the first half of the Knightfall saga, collected in the trade Broken Bat, employing the somewhat underhanded tactics of breaking out the imprisoned masses of Arkham Asylum, leaving Batman shattered and worn down by a succession of encounters with the likes of Killer Croc, Scarecrow and the Joker.
Finally, with his enemy’s resistance at its lowest, Bane breaks into Wayne Manor and overwhelms Batman in a remarkably one-sided fight, before opting to shatter his spine across his knee, declaring that to ‘break’ him is far more humiliating than simply killing him. This done, he declares himself the new ‘king’ of Gotham.
His reign is short-lived, however, as armour-clad, ultra-violent stand-in, Batman Jean-Paul Valley, delivers a monumental kicking of his own.
Bane’s departure from the narrative of Knightfall, which in its final act had no further use for him, moving on to the confrontation between Valley and a miraculously recovered Wayne, really should have been the end of his gainful employment as a character.
But, of course, this is comics, where no idea is left to die if it can be dredged up at a later date, and Bane would spend the next decade making assorted comebacks, as a succession of writers struggled to decide between them whether he was an out-and-out villain, a tortured antihero set on redemption, or something in-between.
His first reappearance, in 1995, should have been the one that set the tone. Escaping from prison just in time to encounter Bruce Wayne back in action under the cowl, he’d renounced Venom and set about destroying its distribution channels, claiming it to be responsible for his prior crimes and thus, through a warped logic, pleading ‘innocence’ in his new state.
This didn’t last long, however, as he reverted to outright villainy upon teaming up with Ra’s al Ghul and launching a plague attack upon Gotham in the 1996 Legacy storyline. This at least gave Batman the chance to finally take on and defeat the one foe that he’d never beaten, but this would just be the beginning of inconsistent, back-and-forth portrayals of Bane in the coming years.
A bizarre storyline in which he laboured under the belief his father was Thomas Wayne led to an uneasy truce with Batman, and a trip into a Lazarus Pit essentially granted him a new life and fresh start.
Yet, there were clearly writers at DC who’d only read his earlier appearances, as he would later be shown in a single panel in Infinite Crisis (2006) breaking the Judomaster’s back via much the same technique as he’d crippled Batman with years earlier. Later attempts were made to correct what was clearly an editorial mistake, by retconning in his having a past history with Judomaster, but this would sum up the fact that by now, DC just weren’t sure what to do with him.
Nowadays, he’s a lead character in Gail Simone’s Secret Six series, occupying a similar role to the one played by Deathstroke the Terminator across the years. Still in possession of a murderous past, but when placed alongside other villains, he comes off almost as an antihero, with at least some sort of strong set of ethics and morals driving his actions.
In a way, it’s a surprise the character hasn’t been given his own series off the back of this reinvention, although, of course, should his appearance in The Dark Knight Rises prove successful (even likely as it is to take the straight-down-the-line ‘villain’ interpretation of him), the chances of that may increase significantly.