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My Life is Choked with Comics #8 – Batman: The Cult

Joe McCulloch

Hey there folks. It’s past the stroke of midnight. The sky is clear. I’ve finished hanging my latest superhero rasterbations. It’s one week later, plus a bunch of hours. It’s time for another column.

First off, I really need to thank everyone who’s dropped electronic money into the PayPal slot over to the side. Prior to this, my most vivid memory of making money off of internet writing was the check I was sent for a sci-fi prose story I wrote when I was 19, about space aliens who inspire the development of the American cinema by hanging out with some guy at his home. I do believe there was an Irish fellow with a jetpack in there too. Needless to say, of the 1,000,000 bad words I’d have to write before getting to the good ones, those were #2,750 through #4,015, so I’m much happier with this recent experience. Me and the counterfeit anime wallscroll operation your generosity has supported salute you!

Ok, enough introduction. As you may have guessed from this column’s prior coverage of an 18-year old anthology comic, a low-selling X-Men spinoff from the turn of the millennium, and a barely-translated French sci-fi series, I’m all about contemporary funnybook publishing. So I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this week’s Dark Horse release of City of Others #4, the final installment (for now) of a new horror series from artist/co-writer Berni(e) Wrightson.

Now, I won’t gloss things over – Wrightson’s and Steve Niles’ script never rises above the level of cute, when it even gets that far, and the decision to have colorist José Villarrubia work straight from Wrightson’s pencils results in a sometimes rich, sometimes muddy visual display. Moreover, Wrightson’s layouts are clear, but very staid. Save for several key splashes of mandatory gross-out impact, there’s a lack of energy to the story progression, and even the character designs. It’s on the low end of EH, all things considered.

Yet, Wrightson is one of those artists I’ll always at least take a look at; there’s something about his distinctly playful approach to drawing his beloved monsters and ghouls — not to mention his slick, caricature-friendly human figures — that invigorates his obvious EC influence with an extra youthful glee, as if every reader is made to stare at the art as a child would upon opening a beloved comic for the fifth time, still far from getting bored.

Some of this feeling is present in all of his work. For stronger semi-recent Wrightson material, I’d recommend hunting down his 1993-94 Kitchen Sink miniseries Captain Sternn: Running Out of Time (never collected, so you’ll have to sniff out all five issues on their own), an apparent attempt to smooth out his venerable Heavy Metal character for wide consumption. It didn’t catch on, but it did give us 240 full-color pages of Wrightson tossing every damned fun thing he felt like drawing — dinosaurs! zombies! zombie dinosaurs! sci-fi gizmos! vainglorious hair! — into a single, exhausting plot. It seemed more summary than anything, but its accumulation was a trip.

But you know, for better or worse, that’s still not the Wrightson comic that first springs to mind when I look back on his intermittent last two decades of comics work. No, I suspect the book I’m thinking of is the same one a lot of comics readers will have in mind: a very high-profile four-issue DC superhero miniseries titled Batman: The Cult. But I don’t know how many people share my reasons for thinking of it.

I’ve tried to fish around for reactions to this series. I can’t find many online, and I don’t have much of a library of comics magazines from the late ’80s. From what little I can gather, the story has a reputation for being dark, weird, dark, dark, violent, dark, disturbing and dark. It is clearly a child of its time, those blood and thunder superhero years following the 1986 one-two punch of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and the debut of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.

The Cult (as I’ll now call it) was released in 1988. It doesn’t have the wild innovation of those earlier books. It wasn’t written by anyone venturing onto semi-unfamiliar ground; the script was by Jim Starlin, who had been the regular writer of Batman (er, Batman: The New Adventures) since 1987. You might be tempted to call Batman: The Cult the quintessential post-DKR DC superhero project, what with all the darkness and bleeding and such, bereft of funnybook leadership qualities.

That wouldn’t be exactly it, though. The Cult wasn’t inspired by The Dark Knight Returns. It comes off as an utterly slavish homage to it. Hell, call it a rip-off (I’m sure many have), but this book’s appropriation is a bit too comprehensive for that. If Frank Miller’s book is the big tough dog with the bowler hat in the Looney Tunes, this book is the jumpy little dog that races around and does nothing but tell it how completely fucking awesome it is. I don’t know if that was even the creative team’s intent, but that’s nonetheless how it is. There’s more than a little Watchmen in there too. Indeed, one of the book’s main henchmen bears a… striking resemblance to a certain bearded comics writer whose visage would have surely been all over the place at that time.

But this is Batman, and Miller wrote the big Batman work.

As a result, The Cult has real enthusiasm, enough to transform itself into a sort of jarring carnival mirror version of Miller’s work, while also chasing after the interests of its artist and writer. Wrightson gets to whip up all sorts of horror images, for instance. And Starlin, bless him, dives into a broad statement about religious opportunism in a politically divided America, albeit one that involves Batman staggering around on drugs for the better part of three issues before transforming the Batmobile into a monster truck and invading a Gotham City taken over by homeless madman and conservatives.

That’s the real pleasure this book has in store. It is dark, I guess. It’s certainly violent. But it’s also very, very silly, seemingly inspired in its final pages by Golan-Globus action movies and buddy cop films, and so broad in its political statement that the plotting tumbles into absurdity. There is no modulation to any of the book’s moods, rendering it a tonally inchoate mix of gory shocks, bathetic capes ‘n tights angst, and occasionally intentional comedy. It appeals to me, despite its many glaring flaws. If I were to give it an official Savage Critic(s) grade, it could only be AWFULly GOOD.

I think the statute of limitations on spoilers has run, so get ready for ’em.

The tale begins in high style. Young Bruce Wayne is nosing around an unfamiliar mansion, making his way down deep into a cave. There, he’s confronted by the Joker, who declares “Such a cute little boy! Just my type!” in the overtly effeminate manner employed by Frank Miller. He then scares poor Bruce with dynamite, but the explosion only produces lovely flowers. Then young Bruce literally mutates into Batman, and whacks the Joker to pieces with an axe, the villain’s smiling head bouncing merrily away to panel right.

We soon discover that Batman is bound and bleeding, hung in the sewers and being lectured to by homeless folk who think that one Deacon Joseph Blackfire, leader of the sewer people, is an ancient and powerful messenger from God. Deacon Blackfire’s ranks have been growing, thanks to Gotham’s hordes of street persons, starving for any purpose in the world – the Deacon sends them up to the streets to unleash bloody murder on criminals (a reaction to “weak liberal laws,” in the words of the Deacon), and talking head news reports of the type employed by Frank Miller inform us that the good people of Gotham kind of like it. There’s a teeny little bit of play with Batman’s distaste for killing, but that’s mercifully brushed aside as the Deacon pumps Our Hero full of hallucinogenics and brings him before a decidedly phallic giant totem that inspires the woozy Batman to sign on to… The Cult!!

Did you pick up on any moral ambiguity there? Well, don’t worry about it – by issue’s end, Starlin has already flung nuance aside as the street people murder a good-hearted small-time crook in an aspiring artist-themed killing faintly evocative of the mom-with-art-supplies murder bit employed by Frank Miller. Blood spatters the boy’s portfolio of bright superhero drawings, providing just the level of subtlety required. Meanwhile, the Deacon confides to his hairy number one underling and possible former Sounds contributor Jake that this religion trash is all a plot to take over Gotham.

It goes without saying that Wrightson has a ball drawing all this stuff, with tightly-arranged panels packing claustrophobic sweat into Batman’s and his city’s predicament. He excels in dreams and visions, depicting Batman as a writhing green monster to convey his drug haze, or conveying his loss of consciousness over the course of four panels through the very walls of the frames themselves shattering like glass around the same kneeling image of the character. A later return to the waking world is shown in overlapping partial-image panels, arranged in homage to Bernard Krigstein’s Master Race.

All of this is soaked in the sickly, spotty colors of Bill Wray, which occasionally adopt the washed-out feel employed by Lynn Varley in a famed Frank Miller comic, but mainly soak in their own vomitous splendor. Some may find this approach to be distracting, but to my mind it compliments the book’s lurid, druggy point of view nicely, especially when the Deacon has Jake (in between drawing episodes of Maxwell the Magic Cat, I guess) bring Batman out with the gang on murder sprees. Wray splashes the page with watery mixed reds and yellows as Wrightson depicts gun & axe bedlam like something out of George Romero’s The Crazies, although the virus here is religion, manipulated by the powerful to exploit society’s poorest.

I don’t mean to make this story out to be some cunning statement on the society of 1988. It’s not. The main problem with Starlin’s grasp of satire here is that he’s so angry, so strident in making his points about cynical political-religious manipulation that the story eventually fails to work on its own terms. Soon, the Deacon’s people are running rampant through the streets, putting criminals to death left and right, then assassinating the whole of Gotham’s legislative body; still, half of the city’s citizens side with the Deacon, who writes it all off as the work of criminals.

I see the point Starlin is attempting to make, but it’s unbelievable that most of the city wouldn’t think that maybe the horde of vigilantes on the streets is possibly responsible for the systematic slaughter of their elected officials. What he’s doing is painting ‘the other side’ as complete idiots, utterly beyond being afforded the slightest consideration, because they’re depicted as having given in to an impossibly stupid situation. And even then Starlin works to squelch ambiguity further – the more the Deacon gains, the more he strives to take, until he’s literally forcing people into slave labor gangs, and bathing in a swimming pool of blood, fresh corpses hung from the ceiling with their throats cut open. The book pats itself on the back for having defeated its opponents in as rigged a match as possible, then spells out how wrong there were all over again.

Still, even if I can’t take the book seriously as a statement, it does provide some strange fun. Batman eventually escapes the clutches of evil, stumbling through a park and scaring away picnickers to gobble eggs out of their basket like a bloodied, drug-addled Yogi Bear. He winds up experiencing visions for most of the story, even after meeting up with Robin (Jason Todd version), and ends up muttering “Welcome to Hell” over and over when the two find themselves stuck in a mooshy heap of rotten bodies. I love drug Batman! The Dynamic Duo escape, Batman destroys a television set because the news talk shows have too much bullshit, and Alfred picks them up in a limo. “Have any trouble getting here, Alfred?” asks Robin. “Nothing I couldn’t handle,” replies Alfred, clutching a pistol in one hand and the steering wheel in the other.

Eventually, martial law is declared, most of Gotham is evacuated, and the military moves in while Batman & friends chill out somewhere else. There’s talk of nuking the city, thus raising both the anarchy in the streets doom specter employed by Frank Miller, while also anticipating the 1999 No Man’s Land Bat-crossover. Just for the sake of balance, Starlin also throws in glasses-wearing, mussy-haired, bowtie-sporting namby-pamby liberal politician caricature to suggest appeasing the barely-situated villains with diplomacy. Bah! Real liberals don’t negotiate! We fight threats to decency! Just like… Frank… ahhh! I’ve heard it said a bunch of times that Miller ‘snapped’ at some point, and went politically wacky. But to me, Miller’s current politics are no more than a fairly straightforward extension of the old chest-thumping liberalism espoused by him in some of his works, and Starlin in this particular work (see also: American Flagg!). It’s not the only possible extension, but it’s a an extension.

Thankfully for Gotham City and us all, Batman & Robin already know the future South Park rule that the correct path always can be found somewhere in between grotesquely caricatured extremes, so they decide to take back the city the Batman & Robin way. Which involves driving a big-wheeled monster truck into Gotham while firing tranquilizer dart machine guns and shooting missiles at buildings that explode and miraculously never kill anyone much like in the hit cartoon show G.I. Joe. At this point the story has given way to total insanity, with the Dynamic Duo rumbling through the streets gassing crowds of people before leaping out into the sewers, locked and loaded with goggles on over their masks and non-lethally shooting the entire remaining population of Gotham City. I wonder if Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have read this?

Nobody has their face impaled on a model church steeple, though. Instead, Batman faces the Deacon hand-to-hand Captain Kirk-style in an underground fighting arena, eventually handing out such a phenomenal ass-kicking that it ruins the Deacon’s entire religion. Just to put that in bold: the book climaxes with Batman beating the shit out of an entire religion. Can’t you see why I like this thing?! Oh, and there’s also a question of whether Batman will *gasp* *choke* kill the Deacon, but he doesn’t, and the evil man’s followers wind up tearing him limb from limb in plot-resolving anger. Also, Alan Moore goes down like a punk when Robin shoots him with a knockout dart. You were a terrible auxiliary supervillain, Alan Moore.

So ends Batman: The Cult. It’s not much of a superhero classic, but I like it for its misguided energy and healty appreciation for excess. Some superhero books from that time are just frustrating, but this one is too mad for that.

Starlin wouldn’t have much longer to go with Batman; he’s said that the project is actually what prompted him to quit the main Batman book, since DC didn’t want a regular Batman writer handling a special project. He’d have one storyline left after The Cult finished, the infamous phone-in death of Jason Todd gimmick extravaganza A Death in the Family. It wasn’t the best way to go out, being a malformed piece of work seemingly unaware of what to do with itself after the bomb went off. As such, the last chapter of the story saw Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appointing the Joker as Iran’s ambassador to the UN as part of a scheme to gas the world’s diplomats, prompting Batman to team up with Superman and glower a lot since his sidekick got killed and stuff. It reads just as smooth as it sounds.

But that wasn’t the end of the Starlin/Wrightson/Wray team. In 1991, a crypto-sequel to The Cult was produced at Marvel, another four-issue project titled The Punisher: P.O.V. And yes, as the link just above indicates, the plot really is a sequel to The Cult with the Batman parts replaced with Punisher parts, since DC didn’t accept the pitch. It’s not as good a work on any level, although the core idea of Frank Castle (in his early ’90s prime with Microchip and the Battle Wagon!) taking on a paroled ’70s relic trust fund anarchist who’s literally been turned into a zombie by his arch-capitalist dad is kind of neat. Wrightson is given some real monsters to draw, and there’s a few striking pages. But the series is burdened with a clunky, Meltzeresque multiple narration concept (the Point Of View of the title) that Starlin loses interest in halfway through, the plotting is disjointed, fight sequences drag on forever, and Castle’s ‘voice’ isn’t really nailed. It feels like something that should have been something else, which is what it is.

Not like The Cult. It’s an awful lot like the popular works around it, but it’s finally only itself.

One Response to “ My Life is Choked with Comics #8 – Batman: The Cult ”

  1. […] course there’s Jim Starlin’s and Bernie Wrightson’s The Cult – to quote the always quotable Joe McCulloch, if ‘Frank Miller’s book is the big tough dog with the bowler hat in the Looney Tunes, [The […]

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