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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Panel Vision - Batman: The Cult

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This weekend the comics world lost a legend in Bernie Wrightson.  Wrightson stands tall as one of the most influential artists in the comic medium’s history, not just a great talent but someone who changed how we thought about comics.  

His career history is massive and littered with awards and standout work, including his incredibly beloved Frankenstein illustrations and the credit of co-creating Swampthing, the character that helped launch DC’s mature reader’s imprint Vertigo Comics. 

Wrightson is the father of horror in comics as we understand it today, revitalizing the genre after it was neutered by the comics code in the ‘50s.  His illustrations were the first time in the era of the big 2 that comics were actually scary and unnerving, a terrifying dive into the strange and disturbing.  

He’s the man who helped horror books transition from funny, spooky tales to something actually frightening, a talent he brought to all of his work.  So, to honor this great man I thought I’d take a look at my personal favorite work from him as well as my favorite Batman story- Batman: The Cult. 

Published in 1988, Batman: The Cult was part of a series of big storylines and event comics that emerged in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as part of DC’s effort to re-invent who Batman was.  Previously, Dark Knight Returns and Year One, a pair of comics from ‘86 and ‘87 that revamped the caped crusader into a gritty urban defender, had defined Batman.  This was the stuff that took Batman from the globe-trotting, bare-chested, James Bond riff he was in the ‘70s and made him into a brutal, hard-bitten, ‘80s hero fighting the intercity blight and decay. 

However, that vision of Batman didn’t really gel with DC’s upcoming plans for the character, namely the 1989 Batman movie.  Batman was becoming a huge, multi-media franchise at the time and box office film star.  As such, his stories needed to be bigger in scope, to fit the stakes of a summer blockbuster, and more contained in size so as to better fit into the graphic novel format.  This led to some strange misfires like Batman: Blind Justice before eventually bearing profitable fruit in 1993’s Knightfall, but between the two there was The Cult. 

That particular period setting is actually a big part of why The Cult works so well, though it also helps that everyone involved was allowed to just cut loose in terms of the actual content.  Seriously, this comic is some of the most brutal and disturbing stuff I’ve ever seen in a Batman comic, a lot of which comes down to the great work of Bill Wray and Bernie Wrightson on the visuals.  

The whole book is draped in this beautifully blended aesthetic of classic, Gothic horror meets the high gloss urban sleaze and ultra-violence of a low budget ‘80s action flick.  Make no mistake, this is a horror comic first and foremost, even accepting that the finale involves Batman and Robin loading up with tranquilizer weapons and driving a monster truck into Gotham City.

Before I go on, let’s talk about the story.  The plot of The Cult revolves around an army of homeless people who’ve been congregating in Gotham’s sewers under the leadership of Deacon Blackfire, a charismatic Native American priest whose crafted an immense legend around himself for his followers.  

Batman aims to investigate the goings on only to be kidnapped by the cultists, tortured and drugged for days, and eventually brainwashed into joining Blackfire’s cultists.  Eventually, Batman breaks free of the Deacon’s influence with the help of Robin, but not before the Cultists army completely take over Gotham City. 

I’ll discuss the finale in a little bit as it’s the most removed from the tone of the main comic, though still very much on point with the horror-disaster aesthetic going on.  The first three issues where Batman is captured and brainwashed works for the cult, and ultimately escapes with Robin’s help while Gotham is completely overtaken are just incredible- a perfect blend of writing, coloring, illustration, and lettering.  

The pacing and plot structure from Jim Starlin lays out a rock solid framework for the story, that shines especially in how confident the movement is.  The story is willing to spend 50 pages developing this mythos around Blackfire, with a lot of implication that he’s more than he seems, while Batman is being tortured and drugged by the cultists. 

This leads to a lot of surrealism and dreamlike story construction in the structural design of the book, which really helps the horror angle.  The plot is continually slipping into protracted hallucinations, parables, stories from the cultists, and a talking heads style media feed.  The hodgepodge of elements is constantly disorienting and keeps the reader from ever feeling really safe or stable in the story, as Batman’s sense of reality slips so does ours. 

Also, just the fact they were willing to have Batman get beaten so thoroughly is a big deal.  Along with Ten Nights of the Beast, this was the first time Batman had ever been bested by an opponent, even more so in The Cult with him getting thoroughly brainwashed and joining Blackfire.  We’re left with the greatest superhero entirely beaten into submission in this waking nightmare as every other hope like police, officials, and even the army fall to Blackfire’s will.  It’s a bad dream that Batman can’t wake up from, and we’re right there with him. 

At the heart of this is Wrightson and Wray’s artwork, which elevates the whole thing to a new level in terror.  A lot of that comes from how well the two complement each other in depicting scenes of violence.   Nothing is ever clean or tidy, the weapons are never pure or simple.  

The cultists come at people with axes, hammers, hooks- it’s always a bloodbath when they strike, and Wray’s splattering of gore is so persuasive and incredibly disturbing.  Even the gun violence that eventually erupts is infinitely bloodier than comics were ever willing to depict previously.  There’s one scene in particular where a news anchor is shot live on air that stands up as one of the book’s most disturbing moments. 

Even the non-violent scenes have a dreamlike quality in the blend of illustration and color.  Wrightson’s work has always had a Gothic feel to it with a kind of inhumanity to a lot of the humans, and here that’s cranked up to 11 thanks to Wray’s color work.  He baths the whole book in a sleazy neon aesthetic along with the dirt palette of urban blight and decay, it all seems like some bizarre, nightmarish vision of what a city would be.  Like I said, everything in the book feels calculated to make you feel trapped, right down to the claustrophobic paneling and tight lettering. 

Where things finally break free from horror story to action blockbuster is in issue 4, where stuff gets excellent.  By this point, Blackfire has killed or wounded any elected official who stood in his way, blockaded the city, and managed to murder any National Guard forces who move on him. 

He runs Gotham with his massive cult and a bunch of followers in the city who see him as a preferable alternative to the corrupt and failed system.  All of this forces Batman to retake Gotham in a heavily armed monster truck and a tranquilizer gun assault rifle.  This is where people tend to get more split on the book as Batman with a rifle isn’t nearly as cool or stakes-raising an image as the creators probably hoped it would be.  It is a little weird, I’ll concede, but it isn't exactly a big enough part of the book to ruin it in any way. 

Even with the big, action finale blow out the book never loses sight of its horror identity.  Batman and Robin’s slow crawl through the overrun city is a macabre death march through a Gotham-sized haunted house, peppered with inhuman cruelty and deeply human ugliness at every turn.  

It’s a city of horrors and monsters that never end up feeling too far beyond the realm of possibility, again thanks to Wrightson and Wray.  The ultimate confrontation with Deacon Blackfire is one of Batman’s best moments as well- a brutal, torturous beat down that you feel in every panel. 

I haven’t spoken too much about Blackfire, which is because there’s not a whole lot to say about him.  He’s an incredibly effective villain in that his reach and power are insurmountable, but what really makes him impactful is how mysterious he is as a character.  

We hear the stories of how he’s some kind of immortal being, stories he clearly believes, and there’s just enough evidence provided that he might be what he says, but we never end up knowing for sure.  The ambiguity fits well with the dream-like nature of the story and the fact that we finish with even Batman unsure of who Deacon Blackfire was and still afraid of him, just cements his creepiness. 

If it’s not obvious by now, I thoroughly recommend Batman: The Cult as it really does stack up as one of the best Batman stories you can read.  It’s like a visitor from another time and place where creators fully embraced the creepy, trash, lurid horror identity of the Batman franchise instead of chasing the ultra-violent rage warrior side of things.  It’s most similar to the 1989 comic Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, which was later used as the basis for the Arkham Asylum video game. 

Speaking of, fans of that series know Blackfire was a villain in Arkham Knight, but that was just a very weak misuse of the character, much like his role in the mega-series Batman Eternal.  All the attempts that’ve been made to re-visist this series have fallen flat, as the visitors don’t seem to get what made it work- tight pacing, a surrealist atmosphere, brutal horror, and a colorist/artist combo that could truly terrify. 

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