Monday, August 18, 2014

On Batman: The Cult

Batman: The Cult was a four-issue, "prestige format" miniseries published in 1988, veritably on the heels of 1986's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (another prestige format miniseries) and 1987's "Batman: Year One" story arc. The Cult was released the same year as Batman: The Killing Joke and "A Death In The Family," and the year before the original graphic novel, Arkham Asylum. It was therefore one of DC Comics' major Batman projects to see release during a creative peak in the character's history, during a time when mainstream superhero comics were completing their rather seismic shift from kid-oriented, all-ages fare to mature entertainment for primarily adult readers.

Obviously, The Cult wasn't as popular or influential as the other stories in the previous paragraph, as it didn't generate any sequels or direct-to-DVD animated adaptations, despite its impressive creative team of Jim Starlin (writer of the aforementioned "Death In..."), pencil artist Bernie Wrightson and colorist Bill Wray and despite its tonal similarities to some of those other books. (Although it occurs to me now that some aspects of it may have influenced the makers of feature film The Dark Knight Rises, although many of those aspects do overlap with aspects of the more obvious "No Man's Land" storyline).

As many Batman comics as I've read since I picked up the comics-reading habit in the early '90s, I've never read The Cult, nor felt compelled to pick it up by its reputation or references to its events in other comics. Until recently, my only relationship with the book was the memory of its very striking first issue cover, which I remember seeing hanging in plastic bags on the walls of the first comic shop I ever entered:
Like just about every other one of those Batman stories I've mentioned, save maybe "Year One," The Cult was remarkable for what exactly was in it; it's the sort of thing that read decades later, it's kind of hard to believe DC Comics actually published, let alone so long ago.

It's extremely bloody, maybe featuring more on-panel blood then any other Batman comic I can recall reading (and unlike some of the gorier affairs of recent years, it's extremely well-drawn, so if Starlin and company were going for cheap thrills, Wrightson and Wray sure made them look expensive). There's an awful lot of gunplay, with Batman and Robin taking up rifles (that shoot tranquilizer darts) and mounting a machine gun (ditto) and a missile launcher (no, these are real, explodey missiles) on their new Batmobile. Batman fantasizes about machine-gunning down Two-Face, and it turns out he was actually totally murdering a mobster with a gun—he was brainwashed at the time, but still.

Someone says "shithead." That's not a word you hear a lot in Batman comics.

The storyline is fairly insane. Batman has been captured, starved, deprived of sleep, drugged and lectured to by cultists in the thrall of Deacon Jospeh Blackfire, an extremely buff, cryptic Christian preacher with long white hair pulled back in a pony tail. The details of his invented religion are all pretty vague, with terms like light, dark, sin, redemption and truth thrown around, but he is dressed all in black, with a white collar and, of course, goes by the title of "deacon."

He is either an extremely gifted and charismatic con man, or an actual agent of the supernatural. He claims to have lived for centuries, and to have gained his immortality through a ritualistically bathing in blood once a month. The comic equivocates on which telling is true, presenting evidence to back up he latter, but not so much as to make it definitive.

This cult that Blackfire—subtle name, that—has assembled consists mainly of the homeless and downtrodden of Gotham, yet slowly grows to a huge size, and gains a degree of sympathy from Gotham's populace, conveyed through the very Dark Knight Returns means of talking heads on television shows, excerpted ad naseum throughou Starlin's script. These sewer-dwelling faithful fight crime in Gotham, by emerging from manholes and stabbing, chopping and bludgeoning criminals of any kind with knives, axes and clubs.

They eventually break Batman's will, and he joins Blacfire's murderous mob, until Robin Jason Todd is able to find and help Batman break his programming, a scene that culminates with a two-page splash page of the Dynamic Duo in a cavern filled with corpses (slowly revealed by a three-page build-up of many-paneled lay-outs of dialogue bubbles over all-black panels, gradually giving way to a twelve-panel page in which Todd's flashlight plays over the dead bodies. It's as grand guignol a moment as anything the more adult-oriented, death and dismemberment-filled DC comics of today offers—in fact, Batman: Earth One has a fairly similar scene—but it's so carefully constructed and meticulously dramatized that as over-the-top as the imagery may be, the comic and its makers earn the shock it brings with it.

Things spiral further and further out of control, Blackfire's cult doing to Gotham what it took the earthquake of "Cataclysm" to do to the city in the late '90s. They kill the mayor and assassinate the entirety of the city council. Commissioner Gordon catches a bullet that lands him in the hospital for the rest of the narrative. The police try to challenge the cult, and are mostly killed. The governor declares martial law, the city is evacuated and the National Guard get sent in...and they die in the sewers as well.

It eventually comes down to Batman, Robin and the new Batmobile, a sort of tank on wheels so gigantic that calling them monster truck wheels is an understatement; they're kaiju truck wheels (Batman tooled around in a similar vehicle during "Cataclysm," but the wheels of this Bamobile are the size of the entirety of that Bat-monster truck).
With this Batmobile's missile launcher, tranq dart machine gun and their rifles, Batman and Robin storm the city, taking out an army of hobos.
When Batman finally descends from the driver seat of his three-story tall truck, he does so on a long gangway that looks like something that would descend from a UFO. There he faces the last conscious hobo soldier, and tells him to warn Blackfire that he's coming for him (That's the splash page atop this post).

It all comes down to a fight to the finish between Batman and Blackfire, and, when Blackfire's followers see him laid low in physical combat by the Dark Knight, the cultists turn on their leader and kill him.

The end.


An appearance as a Black Lantern in 2009's Blackest Night: Batman aside—Batman has so few dead enemies that actually stayed dead—that was all we heard of Deacon Blackfire until this year's weekly series plotted by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV, Batman Eternal.

In the second issue of the series, drawn by artist Jason Fabok, a skeletal specter wearing the garments of a priest appears within a cell at Arkham Asylum, and is identified by the inmate it approaches as "Blackfire."

The ghost of Deacon Blackfire is one of several major antagonists from throughout Batman's history that Snyder, Tynion and their co-writers have introduced into the series, and Blackfire is the villain of the supernatural sub-plot in which Batwing and Jim Corrigan struggle against worshipers, possessed victims and demons apparently serving a now out-and-out, unequivocally supernatural Blackfire.
The seventeenth issue of the series, scripted by Ray Fawkes and drawn by Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs, includes a flashback to Snyder and Tynion's "New 52" version of the events of The Cult. In their rebooted version, they seem to have kept only the beginning and an element of the end of the story. It still begins with Batman starved, drugged and sleep-deprived, hanging from a pipe with his bat-symbol torn from his costume, but he rallies and escapes as soon as Blackfire comes within kicking range, and Blackfire's followers turn on and kill him immediately.
The whole bit with the taking over the city, killing hundreds and Jason Todd and the missile-launching super Bat-truck was apparently rebooted away.

It's one of the peculiarities of the New 52 DC Universe that the publisher and its editors and writers want to make near-constant use of the stable of characters and the elaborate backstories and history of the DC Universe, but they don't want to be beholden to those stories. So, in general, there exists this weird, quasi-secret crypto-continuity, where everything that happened before the reboot maybe/probably still happened in some form or another, just not the way you remember it, and not the way it happened in any of the many collections of older series DC would be happy to still sell you. The hows are generally ignored and glossed over unless they are meant to play a prominent role in the events, in which case they are dramatized, as they are here, but in a way that manifests the differences.

So I guess Snyder and Tynion and company wanted to use Blackfire, and some events of The Cult, and so reduced the story in size, scope and scale, to just two story beats of the original? It's a shame. Because The Cult is, as I said, insane, and Batman Eternal could and should draw attention to it. It's the reason I read it this month. I just find it peculiar that DC would drive readers to an old story, one that is likely still readily available at your local comic shop and library thanks to a 2009 reprinting of the collection, where they will only discover how drastically different it was from what the new, canonical version.


The trade collection opens with a three-page foreword by Starlin, originally penned in 1990, and sounding like it (he specifically mentions televangelists, Tipper Gore, Jesse Helms, the movements to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and to ban or censor rap albums). He writes about his history with the character and with comics, and how Baman comics have been negatively effected by public moralists seeking to control the contents of comics (i.e., the Seduction of the Innocent era scrutiny and the resulting Comics Code Authority, which kept words like "shithead" and scenes set in caverns of corpses out of Batman and Detective Comics, forcing the Caped Crusaders to do battle with aliens and robots).

I like introductions in my collections. If a comic book story isn't worthy of the writer or someone else writing a few hundred words about it, it probably isn't worth collecting in the first place, I say.

The very first words of the script are "This is insane!" So Starlin wasn't unaware of how crazy this story is. Those words are narrated by Batman, and appear in a narration box of an establishing shot of a gothic looking Wayne Mantor, high atop a steep hill and shaded mostly black, with a red, blood-splattered looking sky behind it, and the tiny figure of a boy also colored in red at the foot of the hill. This is Bruce Wayne as a boy, and before the page ends, he'll repeat "It's crazy...almost unreal."

It's a dream sequence, and Starlin and Wrightson send young Bruce Wayne wandering through the halls of his parents house until he meets The Joker, who offers one of those uncomfortably suggestive remarks he sometimes makes towards young boys, "My! What have we got here? Such a cute little boy! Just my type!"

"Ol' Uncle Joker" reveals a vest of dynamite, which he proceeds to light, and after a tense 13-panel page, it explodes, showering them in flowers. Young Bruce Wayne morphs into a full grown, long-eared, red-eyed, sharp-toothed Batman, looking a bit like a less exaggerated version of Kelley Jones' vampire Batman (Jones' Batman, I see, owes a lot to Wrightson).

Batman then proceeds to hack the Joker to pieces with an axe.
This is mere pages after Starlin's intro complained of the Comics Code stripping away Batman's "fearsome anger" and forced the character "to be something he wasn't: A happy, smiling father-figure chasing aliens around a Day-Glo Gotham City." Apparently, this is what Batman should be doing: Hacking his archenemies to death with axes. (Has DC Direct ever released an Axe-Murderer Batman action figure...?)

This was all in Batman's head, of course; we find him chained to a drain pipe underground, covered in blood, which is probably mostly his own, with his bat-symbol torn off his costume. One of the cultists tells him the story of Blackfire, which begins "over a thousand years ago" with "these Indians" that called themselves "The Miagani...The people."

I honestly thought they were an invention of Grant Morrison's, as he used them in his Batman run, specifically during the Return of Bruce Wayne stretch of it, making them into a sort Native Americans who have special reverence of the bat. Snyder has also mentioned them, in reference to the cave system that connects under Wayne Manor. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that they predate Morrison's story, as so much of it was devoted to synthesizing various detritus from throughout Batman's 75 years of comics history into one big, mega-story.

The Miagani were the first people to meet "Shaman Blackfire," but they didn't believe in him, instead trying unsuccessfully to kill him and then sealing him away in a cave, where he waited, never dying rom the many arrow and spear wounds he suffered. Bad fortune then befell the Miagani. Blackfire was released centuries later by Dutch colonists, and the same pattern was repeated.

During the course of these events, Batman flashes back to how he wound up in these circumstances, how he first became aware of Deacon Blackfire and the mysterious murdererous that emerge from the sewers, massacre criminals, and descend back to whence they came they find a badly wounded Batman, and take him down with them, for conversion.

Gordon and Robin consult about Batman's disappearance, when he's been MIA for over a week. It's interesting how they solve the "problem" of Robin, this one still wearing the original yellow, red and green costume with shorts and pixie boots, for the dark, grim, gritty 1980s. Wray simply colors the panels extremely darkly; when Robin first appears, its in a dark office lit only by a desk lamp and a burning pipe, so he's all shadow, tinted in either yellow or blue.

Meanwhile, Blackfire debates with the now quite-rattled Batman, at one point injecting him with a powerful hallucinogenic drug. It's really rather hard to imagine this comic drawn by someone other than Wrightson. Check out this panel, as Batman is carried by two men while freaking the fuck out:

Here are some more of Wrightson and Wray's great Batman-out-of-his-Batmind images:

Gradually, the cultists start targeting less and less evil criminals, like teenager Don Perry, who simply works as a bagman for a numbers guy. He dreams, the narrator tells us, of becoming "a famous comic book artist. Just like Jack Kirby."

I don't know why, but that struck me as super-weird, seeing a real comic book artist name dropped like that, and as an artist a teenager in 1988 would aspire to emulate. Kirby's career wasn't exactly ideal, despite his titanic creative achievements and the regard his peers held him in. If Don really wanted to make money, he should be seeking to emulate Stan Lee or, I don't know, in the late '80s? Frank Miller? Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird? Alan Moore....?
It ultimately doesn't matter, as he's brutally killed. Off-panel. If you look at his sketch on the far right there, you can see he does a pretty good Kirby-style hand.

Here's another odd scene, in which the character Batman knows only as Ratface introduces him to a neighbor of his, and tries to convince Batman that the character is a pimp. It feels odd in 2014 for how blunt and unequivocal the racism on display is, not only in Ratface's confessed motive ("I've seen him with white girls!"), but the way Wrightson draws the cartoon pimp, and way Wray colors the the "real" panel vs. the suggestive, hallucinatory panel.
The man is a black man, but you can't tell in the more realistically colored ones, where his skin is the same shade of shadow as his clothes and car, as the white skin of Batman and Ratface, where his skin pops as brown in the cartoon-colored hallucination.

Batman's not convinced entirely. Ratface kills his neighbor, and when a police officer arrives, Batman sees Ratface as a little red devil. He knocks him out, but then also knocks out the police officer, and then runs away to the park, where what is probably my favorite part of the whole crazy story occurs.

The part where Batman turns into Yogi Bear, stealing picnic baskets:

Eventually, Batman and Robin reunite in the sewers, discover what goes on behind the scenes of Blackfire's cult, including the aforementioned cavern of corpses, and they make their escape. The Boy Wonder, who Wray still colors in a very muted palette, so even when his more garish colors are on display, they're not bright primary colors, but reddish-brown, green-ish brown and yellow-ish brown, helps Batman keep it together:

Finally, Robin gets his revenge for all those slaps Batman's delivered via meme over the years!

Things get worse and worse for the city, until Batman and Robin gear-up, and things get less horror movie, and more 1980s action movie.

It is, as I said, insane, culminating with Batman and Robin running through the sewers, gunning down their opposition, until Robin takes a slug to the leg. Batman picks up a revolver—a real, bullet-shooting kind—and goes to face a Blackfire who is intent on being martyred. Batman decides not to shoot. He beats the living hell out of Blackfire and takes his knife, ultimately deciding not to kill Blackfire at all. Blackfire's followers do the job instead, in a decidedly bloodier way than its staging in Batman Eternal:
The death of Blackfire, in The Cult #4.

The death of Blackfire, in Batman Eternal #17.
(One strange aspect of the stating of the rebooted version of Blackfire's death is the fact that Batman makes no move to save his foe, despite being mere steps away from him, and in apparently in much better shape then he was in The Cult. In the first version, he at least makes an excuse for not attempting to save Blackfire from his followers.)

All in all, it's as weird a Batman story as I've ever read, if not the weirdest, and that weirdness is in large part what makes The Cult awesome, and probably well worth revisiting and reconsidering.

I remain puzzled by semi-reboot aspects of The New 52, as both a business model and a mode of creating good comics, but as puzzling as the decision to make Batman Eternal at least partially a sequel to The Cult while rewriting the events of The Cult may be, at least Snyder, Tynion and company are potentially driving a new generation of readers to Starlin, Wrightson and Wray's demented should-be classic.


Scott Peterson said...

Nice to see some love for one of the stories that made me fall back in love with comics at the time. (Bill Wray was the colorist, I believe--pretty sure Wrightson inked himself.)

SallyP said...

This does sound...intense. But "gearing" up by slipping on your elf booties...somehow takes away from the least for me.

But I DID enjoy seeing Robin slap Bats.

Caleb said...


You're right. I credited him Wray as inker in the first draft, then noticed he was actually the colorists, and went back and changed...almost all the references to him as inker. Guess I missed that one, though. Fixed it, and hopefully it's the last one I missed it.


Yeah, the panel of Robin slipping on his bootie during the gearing-up montage was one of my favorite parts of THE CULT. I have like 85 favorite parts of it, though.

Jer said...

An excellent review of The Cult - I enjoyed this story a couple of decades ago when I first read it, but I haven't re-read it recently. I think I need to go back and read it again - I don't remember it being that over-the-top violent, but maybe my memories give it a pass because it's Wrightson on the art.

its editors and writers want to make near-constant use of the stable of characters and the elaborate backstories and history of the DC Universe, but they don't want to be beholden to those stories. So, in general, there exists this weird, quasi-secret crypto-continuity, where everything that happened before the reboot maybe/probably still happened in some form or another, just not the way you remember it,

To be fair - this is how I felt for, oh, about the first 5 years after Crisis. Especially after Byrne et. al. decided to take an axe to Superman's continuity.

They weren't selling nearly as many collected trade paperbacks in those days, though, so I will admit that it seems a bit worse these days than it did then since then they were encouraging you to half-remember stories that you might never had read in the first place while now they're encouraging you to half-remember stories that you can still buy and read directly from them.

The first Crisis Reboot was a giant mistake and, instead of learning from that mistake in retrospect, DC decided to make all of the same mistakes again and throw some new ones onto the pile for good measure.

googum said...

For some reason, I've had two copies of The Cult #4 for twenty-plus years; and am not positive I've read the rest of it. Still, it's Jason Todd's finest hour.

I was going to assume the cultists broke Batman's will with a catchy chant. "The Leader is good, the Leader is great, we surrender our will, as of this date." Or some such.