SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Batman #71 by Tom King, Mikel Janín, Jorge Forbes, Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles, on sale now.
Bane hasn't been featured in every single issue of Tom King's Batman run, but little has happened throughout the run without the character's involvement – direct or otherwise. The villain's motive is the same it's always been – to break The Bat, albeit emotionally this time. And Batman has been combatting Bane on many fronts, refusing to be broken again.
Tom King, Mikel Janín and Jorge Forbes' Batman #71 continues that fight, and Batman even takes unusual measures to rally his troops against him. It hasn't been easy for the Dark Knight, but he remains convinced he can win. His allies, though, don't seem so sure. Batman's claims regarding Bane's machinations are now being questioned by the closest members of the Bat-family. In fact, they're not just questioning Batman's ability to win his ongoing fight against Bane.
They're now thinking that he might have already lost.
Bane's war against Batman has not only taken its toll on him, but also his family. Dick Grayson -- aka Nightwing, and Batman's first crimefighting partner -- was nearly assassinated by The Beast on Bane's orders, and has seemingly been forever changed. The villain manipulated Selina Kyle's best friend Holly Robinson into talking Selina out of marrying Bruce Wayne. And Bane very nearly killed Dick once before, along with Jason Todd and Tim Drake, leaving them for dead in the Batcave early in King's run, saved only by Batman's fortunate and timely intervention.
Batman's foe even stepped up his assault on his emotions in the recently concluded "Knightmares" arc. And clearly, Bane's manipulations have already begun to destroy Bruce emotionally. He assaulted his longtime friend Jim Gordon in Batman #59, and does the same to Tim this issue. Batman looks as though he's starting to become unhinged – and those closest to him are noticing.
The Dark Knight Gathers His Forces, But Fights Alone
Batman escaped from Arkham Asylum, and from Bane, last issue, and swore to return with some friends. He's gathered those friends – all available members of the Bat-family – in a surprising and public fashion. Heeding Batman's call, the group ventures to Arkham, storm into its halls, and Batman calls Bane out with his team behind him.
Except Bane isn't there. No one is, except for a few bemused Arkham staffers.
No one accompanying Batman on his mission ever saw Bane – except in an alleged comatose state later on, brought on by an earlier beating by Batman himself. Further investigation shows no evidence of Batman's allegations of Bane's manipulations, either. The Bat-family wants to believe Batman, but instead of being able to help him, they're now questioning his very sanity.
In a parallel sequence predating "Knightmares," Bane and Batman's "Flashpoint"-reality father have found their way inside Wayne Manor where they are confronted by the wearied Dark Knight. A suspiciously complicit Alfred attempts to serve a quiet dinner to the trio. A justifiably incredulous Batman lashes out, but is easily taken down by Bane. The fatherly Alfred then delivers Bruce a crushing acknowledgment.
He has already lost to Bane. The Bat is already broken.
How Can This Be?
The Arkham sequence would have readers believe that Batman is suffering hallucinations and delusions – and that his allies fear that he's going crazy because of it. Of course, this would be exactly the kind of manipulation that Bane would employ, to isolate Batman from his crimefighting partners. Conversely, Batman could be perfectly sane, meaning that Bane is somehow manipulating everyone else in Batman's circles instead. As he's done this before, per the aforementioned examples, this scenario isn't especially hard to believe, either.
This would also explain Alfred's puzzling subservience to Bane, and his unsupportive, defeatist attitude towards Bruce. Perhaps, up until "Knightmares" at least, Bane's machinations have been directed towards everyone except Batman – leaving Batman truly isolated and alone. A move such as this would leave the Dark Knight truly vulnerable, and fragile – and at a point where Bane could finally deliver his master stroke.
If you're unsure about the subtext, King recently made it explicit in an interview with CBR that yes, this is Bane's second breaking of the Bat. "[T]his time, instead of physically [breaking Batman's back], he's doing it mentally," King confirmed. "It's actually deeper than mental. He's broken his soul. He brought Batman up higher than he's ever been – almost perfectly happy – and then over the course of 25 issues from #50 to #75, he's brought him back down. And the story we're telling now with "The Fall and the Fallen" is when he's going to land on his back, and the crack comes."
Batman losing his sanity – and the support of the man who's been like a father to him – is the stuff of his worst dreams. Even though "Knightmares" has ended, Batman's nightmare has not. Bane's ultimate strategy to break Batman is, it appears, to let him think he's broken.
Batman's seeming descent into madness continues in Batman #72, on sale June 5.