Friday, April 25, 2014

Recommended Reading for 4/25: Batman: The Cult

Some stories take on a life of their own and live forever. Batman has his share of these: Dark Knight Returns, Year One, A Death in The Family, Long Halloween, and Knightfall to name a few. Then there are stories that are simply stories of the month; perfectly fine stories but not going to go down in the annals of history. And then there is an odd category that falls somewhere in between, a story that is resonant, that at the time sees to do something new, or different, or momentous, and is something big at one point, and then slowly falls out of that favor or canon. Batman: The Cult is one of those stories. I took a straw poll of some of my customers, and while many had heard of it vaguely, very few aside from fans who were fans at the time or hardcore Batman fans like me, had actually read it. So I decided to talk about it today, both because it is a great comic, and because it looks like certain elements of it are coming around again.

Batman: The Cult, with a script by Jim Starlin and art by horror comics legend Bernie Wrightson,  is a dark story. It came out on the heels of Dark Knight Returns (DKR) in 1988, so it was directly in the shadow of that story, and matches it in format, as a four issue prestige format series. It's not a perfect Batman story, and has some controversial elements in regards to its portrayal of Batman, but when you think about its timing, that was a big deal. This isn't twenty years after Frank Miller and we're still treading water. This is a story that takes this new Darker Knight and really breaks him down, both thematically and literally. It isn't directly a sequel or knock off of DKR, but a story telling a Batman story from that with its own mature edge, and exploring themes that Starlin is comfortable with (Although I will admit there is a clear attempt to tie in to DKR, by having Batman more or less build that Batmobile-tank from that story in here, for good or ill depending on how you feel about those kind of things).

The story of The Cult centers around a new villain in Batman's world, Deacon Blackfire. He is the leader of the titular cult, a possible immortal who bends people to his will, and has a frightening agenda of conquest, using his devotees to kill any criminal, no matter how small the offense. If you're at all familiar with Jim Starlin's writing, or have read any of the commentary I've made on his work on Warlock, you'll know Starlin has a real issue with organized religion, and while this story isn't as heavy handed as Dreadstar, Infinity Crusade, or his recent work with DC, Blackfire is the sort of religious figure that Starlin writes about, the ones who use religion to nothing but benefit themselves. He's not a particularly complex villain, as he is Ra's al Ghul from Batman Begins without any of the subtlety brought by Liam Neeson's performance. He freakin' bathes in human blood once a month to maintain his immortality! There's no sympathy to be found for the Deacon; he's just a bad guy.

The story opens with an extended hallucination, and pretty soon we find Batman tied up and being tortured and conditioned by Blackfire. We get a flashback to how Batman came to be in this predicament, and pretty soon, Blackfire breaks Batman and turns him into one of his mind controlled slaves. Its not easy material, and while it isn't a mature readers book, its not something I'd give to a little kid. Wrightson's art is especially effective in some of the more horrific hallucination sequences, and his vision of Gotham's sewers are clearly sewers but still have the gothic vibe; only Gotham City would have overly designed sewers.

What was different here, and is different than many other interpretations of Batman since, is that Batman is broken here. There's no way to deny it: at the end of the first issue, Deacon Blackfire wins, and if not for the rogue actions of one of his cult members later, he would have kept Batman under his thumb. I often see people comment that the Batman in comics now, at least since Grant Morrison, has more or less been a Batgod, brilliant and unstoppable. This is not that Batman. He's a very fragile, very human figure.

Another character presented with a more well rounded interpretation than was usually seen at the time was Jason Todd. Yes, the infamous second Robin, the one everyone hated so much they voted to have the Joker kill him, was Robin at the time of The Cult. And Jason acts heroically throughout the story. He is clever, sneaking into the sewers and following Batman until the right moment to save him, and supports Batman throughout the entire ordeal. As a matter of fact, he doesn't act particularly bratty at all. This might be viewed as out of character for Jason at the time, but it was probably his most heroic moment in his entire career as Robin, and it was a nice bit to give him right before he was, well, unceremoniously killed.

The story progresses to a point where Gotham is taken over by Blackfire and his cult, and again we get story elements similar to DKR. Gotham belongs to Blackfire as it seems to belong to the Mutant gang at the beginning of DKR, and even moreso, since Blackfire has made public pronouncements on TV saying so. He's clearly a madman, but people still seem to be siding with him; this is again Starlin's anti-religion theme coming out, showing how the sheep are lead by a mad shepherd. Naturally, Batman wins in the end, and Blackfire is defeated, but Starlin ties things up a bit too neatly and the ramifications are never dealt with.

The thing that makes this book controversial in some circles of Batman fans, and the key point in any real discussion, is that Starlin breaks pretty much all the rules of Batman throughout it. Batman starts using, and training Robin to use, guns, even if they're just loaded with tranq darts. And more damning is the fact that Batman kills. Not just while under Deacon Blackfire's mind control, although he assuredly does there, but after he has defeated Blackfire (and his entire cult, with nothing more than Robin, a Battank, and his own two fists), he lets the mob that has now turned on the mad preacher tear him limb from limb and simply walk away.

If you're at all familiar with Batman as a character (and if you're reading this blog, I have to imagine you are), the main thing you know about Batman is that he DOES NOT KILL. If he did, would you imagine the Joker would be around today? Starlin had a very loose interpretation of this in his time writing the Batman titles. This wasn't the first time Batman just let someone die; in Ten Nights of the Beast, Batman locks up the titular villain, the KGBeast, in the sewers, and leaves him to suffocate, starve, or die of thirst (as I think about it, a lot of Starlin's Batman stories have sewers in them). And at the end of A Death in the Family, Batman seems as close to killing Joker as he ever is. This stuff is very problematic to anyone who conceives of Batman as someone who holds life sacred. Starlin seems to view Batman's code more flexibly than pretty much any writer before or after, even moreso than Miller, which is saying something. It makes me more than a bit itchy, I admit.

While so much of the story leaves you scratching your head or possibly irritated, the art is completely entrancing. Bernie Wrightson is one of the modern masters of comic book art, and a true master of horror. His Batman is one whose cape is alive and swirling. The horror of Deacon Blackfire's hanging corpse room is palpable. The action is smooth, with a Batman who moves at times like an acrobat and at times like a heavyweight boxer. The final battle between Batman and the cult is one of the most stunning Batman battles ever visually. The only thing that might have made it better was if it was presented in black and white; I've always thought Wrightson's work looks better in black and white.

I really sat back after looking this story over again, and thought about whether or not to recommend it, or to talk about it in a more general sense. It's not exactly the kind of story I usually recommend, since I clearly have some issues with how it's told and with the interpretation of Batman. But it is an interesting story, and lives in its world completely; there are no half measures here. It's a great story for debate, about its relative merits and what it says about Batman as a character. Also, it will be worth it because, if you've read the second issue of Batman: Eternal, I think we're going to be seeing aspects of this story showing up there. I won't say anymore, but I think between the first page of Eternal and a hint in that second issue, Batman may still have to meet Deacon Blackfire in the new DC Universe.

The four issues of Batman: The Cult are available as back issues, and a trade of the series is currently in print.

No comments: