Saturday, December 17, 2011

Reveiw: Batman: Birth of The Demon

I can’t tell you exactly why I didn’t read original graphic novel Batman: Birth of the Demon in 1992, or at any point during the next two decades.

I recall seeing a full-page house ad for it in Batman comics of the time, featuring a rather shocking image from the climax of the book that, at the time, I didn’t really process as representational, given its content. And it featured fully painted art by Norm Breyfogle, who was then one of my favorite comics artists (and he remains the definitive Batman artist for me).

I suppose it might have had something to do with the villain, Ra’s al Ghul, who I never really cared for, or the fact that it was presented as the concluding part of a trilogy of …Of The Demon books I hadn’t read or been at all interested in (1987’s Son of The Demon and 1990’s Bride of The Demon, if you’re curious; Mike Barr wrote both, while Jerry Bingham provided art for the first and Tom Grindberg for the other).

I suspect a lot of it had to do with the simple fact that graphic novels of any kind seemed rare, strange, even alien in 1992, certainly to Teenage Caleb, who could regularly find 22-pages of Batman in any number of places—book stores, drug stores, grocery stores, comic shop—for around two bucks then.

I saw Breyfogle’s name on the spine in the library a few weeks ago though, and picked it up. I’ve missed Breyfogle’s art a lot since he sort of drifted out of the Bat-books during the early bits of the “Knightfall” storyline, and I’ve missed his work even more in the last few years, when DC started handing plum art assignments like Grant Morrison’s Batman run or relaunching Detective Comics to fairly terrible artists. (And the recent-ish DC Retroactive: Batman—The ‘90s #1 made me feel all the more nostalgic for it).

Birth of The Demon seems to be only nominally part of the …Of The Demon books; it’s not by Barr, but by Denny O’Neil, who created the Ra’s al Ghul family of characters and was then editor of the Batman line. Additionally, it’s Ra’s origin story, so much of it is set well before Batman was even born, and thus well before the events of the other two graphic novels, although Batman does appear in the framing sequences that do seem like they are climactic of an ongoing conflict between Batman and Ra’s.

It’s a hardcover, and an over-sized one, eight inches wide and eleven inches high. Breyfogle’s art is fully painted, which, along with the hardcover, high quality of paper and dust jacket, contributes to the special-ness of the book’s presentation. While trade collections and even original graphic novels weren’t unheard of during 1992, the were still awfully rare compared to today, and DC seemed to approach this as something special.

I was such a fan of Breyfogle’s pencil work, that I was unsure if what I liked about it would necessarily translate to painted comics work (note that, other than the basic figure in the pool in the immediate foreground, the cover doesn’t really look like a Breyfogle image).

It looks amazing. The figures, the faces, the action, it all looks, moves and flows like Brefygole’s comics, the main difference being a softer, rounder look that moves the needle ever so slightly toward representational, and the coloring is just lovely. It’s neither the flat, bright “comic book-y” coloring that can be found on the bulk of Breyfogle’s pencil work from that decade, nor is it that sickly, computer effect-driving faux video game or airbrushing look of most modern super-comics.

The palette is often quite limited—the pages not set at night or in a desert really jump out because of the amount of different colors in them.

The panels are essentially border-less, with thick white gutters separating them from one another. The format of the pages then doesn’t really look like anything of Breyfogle’s I’ve seen before, or anything from the monthly super-comics of the time. I’m trying to think of other painted-projects that used this technique, but I’m coming up empty—it seems usually the gutters are black in painted projects.Of course, the way in which this is painted is itself kind of unique, I think. Unlike, say, the work of Alex Ross or Daniel Brereton, it looks more like Breyfogle penciled a Batman comic as he normally would, but colored it himself using paint, rather than having constructed the panels as individual paintings. Does that make sense? If not, the point is this: It’s a really beautiful-looking comic, and unlike anything else that I can think of off the top of my head, at least in terms of superhero comics.

The story is this: Ra’s al Ghul is elderly, ill and near death, and his followers are trying to prepare a Lazarus Pit in which, will restore him to youth and health. Batman is stopping them.

At one, he meets Talia al Ghul and they discuss Ra’s’s before-this secret origin, which occurred in ancient times in a Middle Eastern locale that Ra’s had obliterated from human history.

Broadly, the man who would become Ra’s al Ghul was a physician who had discovered a secret power within the earth, accessible via certain points (which would become known eventually as “Lazarus Pits”), that can heal the sick, and restore even the dying and dead, with the unfortunate side effect of the person emerging being temporarily insane with rage.

Ra’s is caused to suffer greatly because of his discovery and the wicked rulers he serves, so he rebels, destroys them and their city and then embarks on his centuries as an immortal.

Back in the present, Ra’s arrives, and he and Batman take off their capes and shirts for a shirtless fistfight to the death.

It’s pretty brutal. Both Batman and Ra’s al Ghul are kinda crazy and desperate by the climax of the story, and Batman takes probably the most brutal beating of his life, up to and including that one time Bane broke his back.

Ra’s pushes him into a fire, which they role around in, and then Ra’s hits him in the face with a torch, setting his hair on fire. Then a sandstorm kicks up, and while Bruce Wayne is clearing the sand out of his eyes, Ra’s hits him across the face with a shovel and then stands above the prone Wayne and then, pausing only long enough to look at Talia as she begs him not to, he does this:Holy shit, Ra’s al Ghul just totally killed the hell out of Batman!

And, as you can see in that last panel, Ra’s hears someone say his name in a small, rough voice and he turns around, shocked to see:Batman got back up. With a shovel still in his chest!

And then he stalks over to Ra’s, grabs him by the throat and they both plunge into the Lazarus Pit and are restored to life (Ra’s and Talia have disappeared by the time Batman wakes up, his skin and hair re-grown).

That’s a pretty big, intense moment in Batman history, and I felt weird reading it for the first time so many years after the fact. I didn’t realize Darkseid wasn’t the first person to “kill” Batman…

O’Neil’s Batman is a pretty idiosyncratic one, although it was a lot of fun to revisit his take on the character after being so far removed from the O’Neil-written and/or O’Neil-edited Batman.

For example, the book opens with some hired thugs trying to uncover a pit, only to be interrupted by a very dramatic appearance by Batman, first as a voice from nowhere saying “Go Home,” then as a weird shape silhouetted against the night sky. He warns them to leave, he lets a few bullets bounce off of his bulletproof cape to scare them, and warns them again.

O’Neil’s Batman is obviously capable of sustaining and dishing out a lot of violence, but he’s very slow to do so, only fighting when he’s attacked, at which point he quickly and efficiently dispatches his enemies, and he is, in fact, so eager not to hurt them that he leaves himself open to an attack, getting hit with a shovel and knocked down a hill.

In addition to being a kind of scary Zen-like reluctant warrior, O’Neil’s Batman is also fallible and vulnerable, which makes the climactic battle so believable, even if the injuries get so unbelievable the reader knows Batman will be in a Lazarus Pit before it’s over.

O’Neil also goes to the trouble of characterizing the bit parts of the Guys Who Fight Batman in the opening scene. Thugs for hire, they’re in no hurry to fight Batman either, and only decide to do so for desperate, financial reasons.Sure, they’re only given a character trait or two, but man, that’s a hell of a lot more than characters like that tend to get in scenes like that in stories like this.

The bits in the distant past are pretty far-removed from what we normally see from O’Neil, but because he goes so far as to make Ra’s a character from a fantasy culture, it doesn’t have to read like anything more than a broad, melodrama, which is easy enough for O’Neil to accomplish.

All in all, it’s pretty great stuff and, surprisingly so, given how far from the creators’ respective comfort zones so much of the book is, and how little one seems to hear about it these days. I’m still not terribly interested in tracking down Barr’s two …Of The Demons graphic novels—although DC will be making it awfully easy to do so, packaging the them along with Birth in a huge, 300-page collection due out in March—but I’m now kind of curious to see the goofily titled 2005 series Year One: Batman/Ra's al Ghul by Devin Grayson, Paul Gulacy and Jimmy Palmiotti, which presumably told some form of parts of this story.


Aki Alaraatikka said...


I wonder why that fight isn`t talked of more often. I have a fanited memory of seeing a pic in what Ra`s an Bats fight in a lazarus pit...but that`s it.

Jacob T. Levy said...

The other two were my first Ra's stories, and probably the first two OGNs I ever bought, and were pretty memorable. I think the first stands up very, very well; it's not an accident that both Mark Waid (in Kingdom Come) and Grant Morrison (with Damien) drew inspiration from it.

And together those two books made a nice counterpoint to the Year One/ Legends of the Dark Knight Gotham-bound grim & gritty portrayal. I recommend at least the first one, not as a Ra's story, but as a big, sweeping epic of a Batman story.