After Heath Ledger’s Academy Award winning performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight Rises, casual fans may see Bane as an odd choice for the villain in the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. If you weren’t an avid comic book reader in the 90s, you may wonder why Nolan would choose a guy last seen on-screen as Poison Ivy’s monosyllabic muscle in Batman and Robin.
But for anyone who read the Batman Knightfall storyline in 1993, the decision makes perfect sense. If you know Bane as he was originally conceived, you understand why he is the best choice to give the caped crusader one final knock down, drag out fight.
“He’s utterly ruthless and calculating, everything a Batman villain should be,” explained Chuck Dixon, the former DC Comics writer who co-created Bane. “Plus, he can kick Batman’s ass.”
Bane’s other co-creator, artist Graham Nolan, sees the character as a calculating and merciless force of nature.
“He’s ruthless and he’ll do everything he has to to accomplish whatever his goals are and his goals are usually selfish and involve his own power structure,” Nolan explained.
Dixon added: “He’s probably the most dangerous of the Batman villains from a physical standpoint, obviously. And then also he’s so focused on his goals. He’s not hung up on gimmicks like so many of the Batman villains are. And he’s not hung up on getting away with it. He likes the confrontation with Batman.”
And according to Dennis O’Neil, a former editor at DC Comics who was the architect of the Knightfall storyline, Bane has “a genius IQ and because of genetics, he’s gifted with enormous strength. But because of the circumstances of his life, he is a totally amoral sociopath with a disproportionate ego.”
Bane was conceived as Batman’s physical and intellectual equal. And like all great villains, he’s convinced that he is right and it’s Batman who is truly evil.
Born on the island of Santa Prisca, as an infant Bane was sentenced to a life in a prison called Peña Dura for crimes committed by his father. His entire childhood was spent behind bars serving time for crimes he didn’t commit.
“I liked the idea that even though he’s this evil, powerful bastard, at the heart of it he is an innocent,” Dixon explained. “He didn’t do it. It’s not his fault. Basically, the prison turns him into this monster where from a young child he has to use his mind and his will to survive. Then he volunteers for the Venom experiment and that just makes everything worse. It turns him truly into a physical monster.”
“He is in a way a tragic figure and yet it’s hard to feel sorry for him,” said O’Neil.
In the comics, Venom is a super-steroid that turns the user into an unstoppable wrecking machine. (O’Neil created the drug based on his own experiences with addiction.) All of the other test subjects in Peña Dura were killed during the experiments, but Bane survived, gaining the physical strength to match his vast intellect. But the drug must be constantly administered to keep the user bulked up and not suffering from withdrawals, so Bane has to have two tubes inserted into the back of his skull that feed him a constant supply of Venom.
In the comics, Bane has an incredibly dark origin. But in the real world, his creation was a rather pleasant one. The Knightfall storyline and Bane’s backstory were fleshed out during a four-day summit held at a resort in Pennsylvania named Andalusia, also known as the Nicholas Biddle Estate.
“The place is fantastic,” remembered Dixon. “It was all these old turn of the century buildings, formerly an estate for the Biddle family, these wealthy New York staters. They just spoiled the hell out of us while we talked about comic books. They even had rooms that looked like they would have been in the Wayne Manor, which was kind of cool.”
“Those summits were one of the joys of my life,” said O’Neil.
The former editor loved the summits because it was a collection of about a dozen creative people hanging out at a beautiful location breaking stories during the day and playing poker at night. O’Neil came to the Knightfall summit with an outline in hand, based on a story pitch he bought from one of the writers, and he, Dixon and the rest of the creative team fleshed out the story that would run for over a year in the Batman comics.
Looking back now, O’Neil says it’s difficult to remember who came up with what aspects of the storyline.
“It’s one of those things where at the end of the day you had a computer screen full of notes and you didn’t know who came up with what,” O’Neil said.
Also, he never thought it mattered.
“We never really thought 20 years later anyone would remember, much less care,” he added.
While the writers fleshed out the overall arc for Knightfall, one thing that remained was creating a new villain to center the story around. This villain had to come in and wear down Batman both mentally and physically before ultimately breaking his back and putting him completely out of commission.
“You couldn’t have a loser villain no one liked or else the whole thing wasn’t going to work,” said Dixon.
The writer was very worried about coming up with the right villain for the storyline. During the summit, he expressed his concerns.
“I kept arguing that it’s hard to create a character with the intention of him being popular,” Dixon remembered. “So many popular characters sort of happen by accident. There was no way to gauge how to make a character work from a cold start. Denny O’Neil said, ‘If you think it’s so hard, then you should be the one to do it.’”
So Dixon began brainstorming ideas for the new villain. The character was partially conceived as an evil version of Doc Savage, a pulp hero from the 1930s. Like Savage, Bane even had three henchmen who each had a distinct talent – Trogg, Zombie and Bird. Dixon named the henchmen after 60s rock bands to help him remember them.
Once he had the character fleshed out, he then had to come up with a name and a look for Bane. Dixon remembers that many names were tossed around during the summit, including one truly awful one – “Doc Toxic.” Ultimately, he settled on Bane after flipping through a dictionary and liking the word because it was “short and punchy.”
For Bane’s distinct look, he enlisted the help of his friend and fellow Doc Savage fan Graham Nolan. Nolan wasn’t at the summit, but he and Dixon knew each other from their time together at Eclipse Comics and Dixon recommended Nolan to O’Neil as the artist to come up with Bane’s look. Nolan created Bane’s likeness after bouncing ideas off of Dixon, giving the character a costume that could stretch when he bulked out on Venom, tubes in the back of his neck to deliver the drug and the villain’s trademark luchador mask.
“We knew he was going to be from Latin America, so when I designed the look I went for that Mexican wrestling look because that would be all that somebody from Latin America who grew up in a prison would know of as far as costuming,” said Nolan.
Though Dixon and Nolan have both parted way with the company (Nolan still does the occasional freelance job for DC Comics), the character has lived on. Other writers and artists have continued using Bane in comics. And he has lived on in other mediums as well, including multiple animated series, video games and merchandise. For Dixon, the most surreal moment was when Bane showed up as a pasta shape in a can of SpaghettiOs.
Dixon said, “I thought, ‘That’s it, he’s a cultural icon.’”
For Nolan, seeing all of The Dark Knight Rises related Bane merchandise has been rather strange.
“Bane, let’s face it, in the movie is this mean bastard terrorist type dude and he looks like a Hannibal Lecter type guy and they have little dolls of him for babies … and there’s supposed to be a Bane [Mr.] Potato Head,” said Nolan.
But while most of Bane’s appearances in other media have been pleasant surprises for Nolan and Dixon, there is still one that they’d both rather forget – Batman and Robin. Both men say they’ve never seen the film the whole way through after hearing how bad it was and how horribly Joel Schumacher treated their creation.
Dixon remembers that he and Nolan were at Comic Con together when the film came out and two nights in a row they stood in line to buy tickets for Batman and Robin. Both times they talked themselves out of seeing it, opting for Hard Target and Face-Off instead.
Nolan remembers catching part of the film in a video store.
“I was looking up at the screen and I caught pieces of Arnold [Schwarzenegger]’s dialogue and there was one scene where I saw George Clooney pull out a Bat credit card and said, ‘That’s it, I’m out.’”
Dennis O’Neil did watch the movie the whole way through and was quite disappointed with Bane’s portrayal. He was disappointed that they stripped away Bane’s intellect and everything else that made the character unique and engaging.
“The character as realized in the comic was so much more interesting than that,” O’Neil said. “If they had even shown him doing a crossword puzzle or reading a book, that would have helped.”
O’Neil also added: “The director, who I spent some time with, is one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met and probably the nicest major showbiz person. But I don’t think he got Batman at all.”
Though Bane’s first on-screen appearance was a trainwreck, the three men all remain hopeful that Christopher Nolan will get it right this time around.
“I’ve read interviews with Christopher Nolan and he appears to understand the character more than the last people did – that he’s not just a brute, he’s smart and he’s actually being played by a real actor,” said Dixon.
“I have no reason to believe it’s not going to be very good,” said O’Neil, who wrote the novelizations of Nolan’s first two films (and the novelization of Knightfall).
The creative team is so optimistic about The Dark Knight Rises that both Nolan and Dixon said they’ll actually venture out to the theater to see it.
“I’ll go see this one because I don’t think I’ll cringe for two hours,” said Dixon.
Finally, Dixon, Nolan and O’Neil, along with comic book fans everywhere, are poised to get the villain they deserve.
Written by Joel Murphy. Top image drawn by Joe Dunn. Second image is an original sketch by Graham Nolan. Third image is Bane’s modern look drawn by Kurt Krol and colored by Joe Dunn.