Batman: The Cult (a review)
I can’t stress enough how influential Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was to the comic book industry. It, along with Moore’s The Killing Joke, shaped the tone of Batman stories for the last thirty years and practically kicked off the whole “dark age of comics” in the 90s. I’ll admit that it’s been a while since I read it but, from what I remember, it was a good story that presented an interesting “what if” future for the DC universe. (The sequels, not so much from what I’ve heard.) And I totally understand why so many creators wanted to replicate it for their own projects; thought results varied from good to edge-lord cringe.
Fortunately, this week’s comic sits firmly on the “good” side of that scale.
Batman: The Cult is a four-issue mini-series that was published by DC back in 1988 (two years after The Dark Knight Returns). It was written by Jim Starlin who not only wrote A Death in the Family, a very important story in the Batman continuity, but he was also the creator of Thanos. We also have the co-creator of Swamp Thing, Bernie Wrightson, as the illustrator and colors by Bill Wray, who’s actually worked on a couple animated shows such as Ren & Stimpy and Samurai Jack.
Anyways, plot time!
Recently, a string of murders plagues Gotham city that catch Batman and Commissioner Gordon’s attention. Normally this wouldn’t be considered noteworthy, given that Gotham is already a death trap to all who live there, but there seems to be an implication that it has something to do with the homeless population suddenly disappearing off the streets. One thing leads to another and Batman finds himself captured and tortured by the Underground Empire, a cult made up by the city’s homeless.
The leader of this cult is one Deacon Blackfire, a charismatic sociopath working under the guise of wanting to rid Gotham of evil because God instructed him to. Of course, Batman is immediately calling bull**** on this but the days of torture, starvation, and drug-laced slop wear him down until he is psychologically broken into being one of Blackfire’s mindless followers. Soon, he’s back on the streets, ready to doll out Blackfire’s twisted version of justice. This usually involves killing anyone Blackfire deems to be “evil” or “destroying the city”. Can Batman snap out of it in time?
That was a rhetorical question but still.
Not gonna lie, this is one creepy Batman story even for late 80s Batman comics. This is one of the few times where you see Batman, the Dark Knight, get brainwashed into becoming someone else’s tool. And it’s made even creepier by Deacon Blackfire, who puts on such a kind, caring façade but is seriously one of the most f***ed up villains ever.
Not only does he successfully put so many people under his spell, but he carries out and justifies some of the most heinous acts depicted in comic books. You’re basically watching the comics version of Jim Jones take over Gotham’s underground with the intention of taking over the surface world. All you can do is hope that Batman can snap out of it or that Robin can save him in time.
Side note: the Robin we see here is actually the second Robin, Jason Todd. Yeah, he’s no Dick Grayson, but seeing him here makes me wonder why so many fans voted for him to die.
(Had to explain all that for my dear family who probably has no idea that there were/are more than one Robin. Or that one of them was a girl who lasted all of five minutes.)
The Frank Miller influence is heavy in this one. From the panel layout (especially with the newscaster scenes), to how Batman is portrayed, to the social commentary is so Frank Miller. It’s interesting to me just how strong it is, which is not at all a bad thing. Miller was a big name back before he went senile so it makes sense that the creative team decided to remake the magic from DKR.
I guess that brings us nicely to the art of this book. Like I said, the panel layouts are very Miller but the overall style is reminiscent of Neal Adams or, oh, Bernie Wrightson…… Anyways. Muscular heroes but very grounded in reality except for the few times we see Robin fighting where his thighs look a little too bulky. The colorings are also spectacular with pallets ranging from neutral colors in stark reality, to crimson red for the violent scenes, and rainbow for the psychedelic scenes when Batman is drugged. Very old school but in a good way.
The only thing that I wasn’t too wild about was Blackfire’s backstory. In this book, he was a Native American shaman who was killed by his reviles then sealed away in a cave. But then the settlers came to roll away the stone a la Jesus style and he’s revived by….magic? Then he continuously baths in blood to maintain his immortality? When I read this part, all I was thinking was “why can’t he just be a crazy, power-hungry preacher”? This just seems excessive to me.
(It’s probably more likely that Blackfire made up that backstory to seem magical and bathes in blood for funzies.)
Anyways, if you don’t mind the older art style or the strong Miller influence, give this one a shot. It’s super creepy and interesting and showcases a little-known Batman villain. Win, win. Being a fan of psychological thrillers and true crime, this scratched a very particular itch for me and I’m will to bet it will for you too.
Next week: Huck