I didn't follow much of the KNIGHTFALL continuity in the 1990s Batman titles. I knew at least generalities: that, after the original Batman had his back broken by the villain Bane, a substitute for the Caped Crusader had to be found. One Jean-Paul Valley took over the mantle, albeit wearing a high-tech suit-- possibly an editorial comment on the then-popular vogue for Image-style heroes-- and passing himself off as the authentic crimefighter.
I've usually found Peter David's writing, however entertaining, to be antithetical to the notion of symbolic discourse. However, David succeeds in this "imitation Batman" story due to two other overriding factors: that the art is supplied by Craig Russell and Michael Gilbert (both credited for both penciling and inking chores), and that here David is able to work with the rich mythology of the Bat-universe.
As the Jae Lee cover makes clear, this is a story devoted to Batman's frequent foe, the Penguin. In contrast to the Golden Age version reviewed here, the nineties version of the criminal no longer involve him committing clever, bird-based robberies. "Cracks" is structured like a crime story, focused on the Penguin-- whose criminal status is concealed under the veneer of respectable
activity-- being interrogated by Commissioner Gordon at police headquarters. At the time the story opens, "Armored Batman" has been operating for some time, though many persons-- including both Gordon and Penguin-- suspect that Valley is not the real deal.
The wordless first page establishes that the Bat-signal-- artfully reflected in the Penguin's monocle-- is shining in the sky, and the dialogue on the next relays that the signal has gone unanswered for half an hour. Gordon needs Batman because Penguin has boasted of having kidnapped the Commissioner's wife, and that she's doomed to perish in a giant egg about to fill with poison gas. What does Penguin want, to reveal her location?
Of course, Penguin isn't going to reveal his desire right away. He masks it by blathering about the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, and states that both he and Gordon are dinosaurs because they came from a time that valued "style and finesse." (Implicitly another shot at the banality of Image Comics, which David was wont to criticize more than a few times in that decade.) Then the villain challenges the cop to figure out what he Penguin wants in exchange for the information.
Eventually, after much cat-and-mouse dialogue, Penguin does reveal what he wants-- to affirm his suspicion that New Batman is a "decoy"-- but Gordon takes it further. Forced to play psychologist, the cop baits the villain by asserting that he suffers from "the most massive inferiority complex in all of Gotham," and that the real reason he wants so badly to know about Batman's fate is because he wants "to be treated by Batman as if he's important." There was nothing startlingly new in this observation. Penguin's first appearance played upon the scorn he received for his birdlike appearance, and later iterations, especially one by Denny O'Neil, made his complex explicit. But David does add, in counterpoint to the evocative art, a leitmotif in which Penguin constantly throws bird-metaphors in the Commissioner's face, and then finishes by claiming, "We both worship winged creatures, but I can still function without mine. Can you?"
Gordon's final strategy is one which Batman himself has been known to employ: dragging an unrepentant villain to a rooftop, and asking him if he wants to learn how to fly.