Batman: The Cult sees Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson collaborate on one of the more adult-oriented Batman stories that I’ve read. Clearly heavily influenced by Frank Miller’s classic Dark Knight Returns (it first appeared just a couple of years afterwards), The Cult nonetheless has quite an original story of its own to tell.
The story involves a religious zealot who plans to take over Gotham City with his own vigilante group--first by recruiting suggestible homeless people to his cause, then by moving on to do the same with higher-class citizens. In the process, he manages to brainwash Batman into being one of his loyal subjects, before a little help from Robin helps him turn things around and reclaim the city.
As I already noted, I couldn’t help but detect a heavy Dark Knight Returns influence whilst reading this book. Not only is the original four-issue prestige format of this title identical to the format of that series, but some of the specific storytelling techniques (and, occasionally, specific images) used by Starlin ape those used by Miller in the earlier story.
Thus, we have talking-heads TV screens providing opinionated exposition and presented in exactly the same manner as DKR (all the way down to the shape of the TV screens). We also see a regular employment of 12-panel grids that use the same elongated vertical panels that cropped up so frequently in Dark Knight, and we’re treated to a flashback to the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents in which certain images (like that of a bullet casing flying out of Joe Chill’s weapon) are freeze-framed in high-contrast monochrome panels, just as in Miller’s story.
Artist Bernie Wrightson also seems to have been influenced by Miller’s work, with a blocky, muscular take on the caped crusader, a heavily militarised take on the Batmobile that’s just as unusual as the one seen in DKR, and a frequent use of stark lighting and shadows to draw attention to particular characters or concepts.
However, these derivative aspects don’t detract from The Cult’s ability to tell its own unique story--with many elements distinguishing it from its more famous predecessor. Most notably, Starlin seems willing to show a lot more weakness on the part of Bruce Wayne, beginning his story with Batman already in the hands of his captors and taking the surprising route of showing the hero beaten down and broken by his enemy at a very early stage in the series.
Starlin's approach is instantly disconcerting for readers who are used to Batman being depicted as the unbeatable master tactician, and it helps to establish his enemy, Deacon Blackfire, as something special.
Wrightson also channels his own distinctive style into the book, drawing on his horror roots to create some truly unsettling images. Particularly memorable is the double-splashpage that closes chapter two and which shows Robin arriving to rescue Batman from a rat-infested sewer littered with dead bodies. The shackled Batman is so deranged that he can only repeat the phrase “welcome to hell” over and over.
Thanks to Wrightson’s dark, atmospheric art, the hellishness of Bruce’s surroundings is self-evident--as is the grotesque dankness of Deacon Blackfire’s sewer hideout, in which much of the book’s action takes place. Throughout the early stages of the story, we see Blackfire psychologically manipulate Batman into doing his violent bidding, and those scenes are just as difficult to read as the book’s more graphically violent action sequences.
The scenes in which Bruce has clearly lost the plot [or lost his marbles] are just as disturbing as anything seen in Grant Morrison’s recent Batman R.I.P. and it’s only at the halfway-point of the series that Starlin grants us a reprieve--allowing Bruce to return to sanity (with some help from Jason Todd) and begin to plan a way to retake control of Gotham City from the clutches of his enemy.
However, even as the story begins to draw to a close, Starlin manages to throw in some fairly challenging developments. One of them sees Batman and Robin use firearms in order to retake the city--something that made perfect sense to me given the gravity of the situation, and which didn't feel like a violation of Batman's code in the way that it might for some readers.
Another disturbing scene shows Batman consciously allowing an innocent citizen to be killed by the zealots, grudgingly rationalising it as an acceptable loss in his overall strategy. It’s a very powerful take on the character, and one that retains a sense of humanity and fallibility that can often be lacking in other writers’ interpretations.
I'm surprised that The Cult doesn't feature more highly on most fan lists of classic Batman stories because it has a lot going for it--an unusual and unsettling premise, some great artwork, and some close stylistic ties to the much-loved Dark Knight Returns. It's gripping stuff, with a challenging-but-faithful characterisation of Batman, and dramatic stakes that become incredibly high by the end of the story.
The Cult is something of a lost gem for Batman stories, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in the character. The book is published by Titan books in the UK and DC in the USA.
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