A much-appreciated piece of Comics post arrived a few days back as the good folks over at Titan Books sent over a copy of their new edition of a truly underrated 80’s Batman tale, THE CULT, written by Jim Starlin and with art by the brilliant Bernie Wrightson.
These days, it’s all too easy to heap scorn and derision on the so-called “Grim n’ Gritty” period of mainstream superhero comics that dominated the late-80’s and 90’s in the wake of WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. And, yes, while it’s certainly true to say that most of it was gratuitous nonsense, there were undoubtedly some diamonds in the rough, of which I would unquestionably nominate THE CULT. Moreover, as far as Batman tales go, it’s one of the best.
Originally released in 1988 – the same year as Frank Miller’s masterful BATMAN: YEAR ONE – Starlin and Wrightson’s controversial four-issue series is a superb tale of urban horror, set almost a decade in to Batman’s mission and placing The Dark Knight in a well and truly beleaguered position against an altogether more realistic villain: a dangerously-charismatic Fundamentalist Christian named Deacon Blackfire.
The Deacon – who is implied to have attained immortality – has an unnervingly-plausible plan: to take over Gotham City with the aid of an army made up of the city’s homeless, whom he has offered spiritual salvation in return for doing his murderous bidding. As the story opens, Batman has fallen prey to the Deacon’s minions and is undergoing a hideous indoctrination process that has broken him and rendered him inert.
What was, and remains, particularly engrossing about this story was the focus it placed on Batman’s only-too-frail humanity: that, despite the ruthless and implacable persona of the Batman, driven as it is by a ferocious will, it was still built on fallible humanity of Bruce Wayne. From this perspective, the story is a worthwhile companion to Miller’s Year One, itself anchored on the theme of the sheer tightrope existence of a man trying to be something more than human and how easily shattered that can be.
It’s shockingly violent, too. Coming the same year as the sight of The Joker shooting Barbara Gordon at point-blank range in unflinching detail in Alan Moore’s THE KILLING JOKE, THE CULT upped the ante somewhat with Wrightson displaying imagery of outright blood-soaked slaughter, with The Deacon’s troops attacking and beheading a politician, shooting a TV newscaster in the back of the head with an Uzi – as they broadcast! – or Batman driving down a Gotham street with the corpses of policeman and innocent citizens hanging from the lampposts.
Grim stuff indeed – but which amply served to underline the supremely vicious hypocrisy of the Blackfire character, one of the truly malevolent examples of Batman’s Rogues Gallery, made more potent by the fact that such people – to varying degrees and, of course, sans the mystical element – actually exist. Starlin and Wrightson expertly capture the behavioural traits of such charlatans: the smug self-righteousness, the smirking bigotry, the barely-disguised cynicism and the glint of undiluted hatred in the eye.
Consequently, reading this as a teenager at the Suffolk boarding school I attended, along with my comic reading friends, all of us firmly in the midst of developing a burgeoning disgust and outright hatred for organised religion, there was something incredibly satisfying about the book’s climax, where Batman indulges a rare moment of revenge.
Having faced off untold hordes of the Deacon’s followers and having finally reached his prey, the Batman, armed with a handgun, sees that Blackfire actually desires his own murder, thereby ensuring his martyrdom (“There’s nothing more boring than a deity who hangs around past his allotted time…” he cynically notes beforehand). Batman, however, is in no mood to grant the Deacon his fervent wish. Instead, he drops the gun and over nine panels, proceeds to beat the ever-living shit out of the Deacon:
“No easy way out for you, Blackfire. I go to work on him. I’ve never gone at a man like this before. I’m not trying for the knock out or the kill. I go for pain. I concentrate on the nerve centres. My aim is to break the man. Just the way he broke me. May God forgive me. I enjoy it. The mask is stripped away.The Deacon lies revealed in all his human weakness, begging for the mercy he denied so many… can’t bring myself to regret what I’ve done to the man. I’ve seen his handiwork.”
Yeah, that hit the spot.
Twenty-two years on, THE CULT is a Batman tale that remains terrifically potent and dramatically rich and man, is it dark…! Granted, it may not have the Gothic flamboyance of, say, THE LONG HALLOWEEN or the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink fanboy flavour of HUSH, but, it’s a gripping story where Batman shows his indomitable spirit having tasted bitter defeat through a pernicious enemy, making him all the more heroic.
…and it’s a Batman story where Jason Todd isn’t an annoying brat!