Batman: The Cult
By Andy Frisk
January 24, 2010 - 19:24
Writer(s): Jim Starlin
Penciller(s): Bernie Wrightson
Inker(s): Bernie Wrightson
Colourist(s): Bill Wray
Letterer(s): John Costanza
Ah, the mid to late 1980’s…The Punisher reigned supreme in comics and Schwarzenegger and Stallone dominated the big screen. It seemed like nearly every hero was toting a gun (namely big machine guns and Uzis). At the same time, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns had just revolutionized the comics industry along with Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. The Dark Knight was on the rise, mostly due to the aforementioned books, and Batman Year One by Miller and Mazzucchelli rounded out the Batman Revolution. Batman’s new mantra was grim and gritty, and where applicable, gruesome, but Batman didn’t do some of the things the other popular heroes did. He didn’t carry an M-60 machine gun, pile up a big body count, or look like Rambo (all of which were in some combination a prerequisite to being a successful hero in the mid to late ‘80’s). The grim and gritty comics revolution might have reached new heights with Batman, but he didn’t quite measure up…until Batman The Cult, which portrays The Dark Knight’s battle with a supernatural cult leader, came along.
Batman The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One are two truly innovative and ground breaking works that have stood the test of time. They continue to be relevant and influential. Their influence can be seen in various works from Superman Red Son to The Dark Knight (2008). These two works have left their marks on the comics world and Frank Miller will forever be regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern comics. If not for Dark Knight Returns and Year One we never would have had the above mentioned epics as well as a myriad of others. Also, we never would have had Batman The Cult, and this is perhaps the one instance were we as fans can collectively wince. Unfortunately, all of the works inspired and influenced (however incrementally) by Dark Knight Returns can’t be masterpieces. Batman The Cult is far from a masterpiece. In fact it can’t really be considered a product of, or descended from, the two Miller Masterpieces. The Cult is much more a product of a cashing in on the new found affinity for graphic violence and high body counts in comics, which was inspired by 1980’s gun and gore hero cinema. Basically, The Cult tries to be a mature and dark masterpiece, but really in the end is simply Batman: First Blood.
In The Cult we get to see Batman slaughter The Joker with an axe (quite graphically). Later on we witness Batman mow down Two-Face with an Uzi. Granted, both of these events are drug induced dream sequences, but there’s plenty more that aren’t. The cover to Chapter 4 of The Cult sports a gun wielding Batman grimacing as he stares into the readers’ eyes. Batman and Robin brandish rapid fire sniper rifles during their assault against Deacon Blackfire. The guns are armed with tranquilizer darts, but both heroes get to strike blatant Rambo/Punisher type gun-hero poses. Robin gets to man a rapid fire gun turret on the Bat-Monster Truck (the tires on this thing would put Big Foot the monster truck-another 80’s icon- to shame). Finally, Batman carries a revolver to the final show down with Blackfire, which he thankfully forgoes using.
When we turn to Blackfire and his army of homeless men, the blatantly sensational violence and gore is ramped up ten fold. His army shoots, stabs, beats, batters, chops, hacks, and rips (with their bare hands) their victims to bloody shreds. Blackfire himself bathes in an unbelievably deep cauldron of blood which is running from the slit throats of upside down hanging victims. There’s plenty more to describe, but the point should been gotten by now.
Quite simply, this overwhelming amount of goofy graphic violence is unprecedented for a Batman story. The guns and gore are reminiscent of such hideously inane 1980’s over the top shoot ‘em up films such as Commando, Rambo, Raw Deal, and the king of them all for simply silly slaughter and graphic gore, Robo-Cop. While these films are inherently and overtly bad, they were blockbusters that raked in the bucks, so characters like The Punisher (which can only be considered to be a direct knock-off of these silver screen “heroes” in the comic book world) became inevitable and reigned supreme for a time. The zeitgeist of the time was guns and gore, so Batman had to partake in this inanity, at least according to Starlin, Wrightson, and Wray. With The Dark Knight Returns opening the doors to “mature” storytelling, and muscle bound, gun toting clods rulling the big screen, Batman The Cult became inevitable.
Okay, at this point you might be wondering “Why is The Cult so awful compared to The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One besides the fact that The Cult owes more to ‘80’s action flicks than these two works? Didn’t Batman actually kill The Joker in Dark Knight Returns?” Yes, Batman did, sort of. He breaks The Joker’s neck, and The Joker himself finishes the job. It is an agonizing decision that Batman makes and can’t follow through on. Batman also uses a Bat-Tank that fires rubber bullets (potentially way more harmful than tranquilizer darts) in Dark Knight Returns. The Cult fails though where Dark Knight Returns succeeds because the violence in Dark Knight Returns is in no way as sensational and over the top as it is in The Cult. In Dark Knight Returns, the violence is an outgrowth of the story, whereas in The Cult the graphic violence is the story.
There are a myriad of holes in the plot and mischaracterizations of the main characters in The Cult that simply are never addressed, and actually are purposefully used to progress the story from one graphic scene to the next revealing that The Cult’s main purpose is not to tell a good story, but to sell its “edginess” through violence. For example: Deacon Blackfire’s full history and the supernatural elements in his background aren’t really ever defined. He bathes in blood, and that’s the secret to his longevity. He’s a gory knockoff of Ras Al Ghul. Yes, it can be argued that his longevity and bathing in blood is some sort of religio-political commentary on the evils of religion and that Blackfire is some sort of Anti-Christ and all, but this idea is never fully and competently developed in favor of rushing from gory scene to gory scene. Batman is held captive for quite some time and Blackfire and his army never once tries to unmask him. The U.S. Military cannot defeat Blackfire’s homeless army, but Batman and his monster truck make quick work of Blackfire. Batman himself is captured by Blackfire because he makes a mistake in hand to hand combat and is, in his own words, “dumb, dumb, dumb!” Batman is “broken.” Really? The world’s greatest detective is dumb and easily broken? Worst of all, Batman is so skittish after his ordeal that he actually allows an innocent bystander to be horrifically murdered before his eyes since he “has to survive to face Deacon Blackfire.” None of these characteristics and actions define Batman. It can be argued that this is what makes The Cult unique. Batman is tested beyond measure, and fails. In reality, those weak plot devices and mischaracterizations exist (once again) only to present a sensationally graphic and violent Batman story.
The Cult does retain some modicum of redeeming value though, and this stems from the artwork. Wrightson does a great job of bringing to bloody life some of the most sensational scenes ever depicted in a Batman story. Particularly engaging are his renderings of Batman’s hallucinations, such as when he crumbles and oozes into a gore dripped skeleton signifying his mental breakdown. His Gotham City is perhaps one of the most realistically depicted versions of the fictional city ever drawn. It really is a New York style looking city complete with Brooklyn Bridges of its own and canyons of glass and steel. The dark and dank sewers, which are dimly lit by Wray’s colors, are particularly frightening. Batman himself, when he’s not cowering, hiding, and wailing, (or brandishing a gun) looks imposing and frightening, as he should be most of the time.
The Cult is often listed or ranked with Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, and Batman Year One as a revolutionary and industry changing Batman tale. IGN ranked it #6 out of the Top 25 Greatest Batman Graphic Novels. Such Batman classics as Batman: A Death in The Family, Batman Black and White, Batman Gotham by Gaslight, and Batman A Lonely Place of Dying, all of which are incredibly better, ranked lower than The Cult. Mature and edgy comics, especially Batman ones, have to do more than splatter blood and put a gun in the hands of its hero to deserve having the adjectives of “groundbreaking” or even “great” attached to their names. Batman The Cult, notwithstanding some great artwork, is simply a late ‘80’s over the top action gore fest marauding as art. It’s a shame since it did have potential, but failed miserably.
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