Batman: Death and the Maidens review

Few of Batman’s villains bring with them so much potential for truly deep storytelling than Ra’s Al Ghul.  With a life that spans centuries, the Demon’s Head is formidable not only in his cunning and physical prowess, but with the loyalties he’s amassed over the years.  Whether by blood or by oath, his followers have a quality that makes them more dangerous than the came madman: zeal.

While Ra’s’ most familiar allies are his daughter, Talia, and his right-hand man Ubu, surely a centuries-old man would have fathered more than one child.  With 2003’s miniseries Batman: Death and the Maidens, Greg Rucka and Klaus Janson explored that very idea and introduced another of Ra’s’ progeny: Nyssa Al Ghul.  It’s a story and character that have become more and more popular, especially in recent years, but does it hold up?  Read on, detectives, to find out.

Collects the series’ prologue that appeared in Detective Comics #783 and issues 1-9 of the Death and the Maidens miniseries.

At its core, Death and the Maidens has three main themes: family, time and apathy.  The three are intertwined in the narrative, exploring the impact of each and how they relate to each other.  Namely, how the loss of family effects you over the years, resulting in numbness and complacency.  It’s some powerful, mature subject matter, and the story mostly covers it well.

Batman’s name is in the title, so of course the story focuses on him quite a bit.  Despite that, this is more a Ra’s Al Ghul and Nyssa Raatko story than it is a Batman story.  That’s not to say that Bruce is a side or secondary character, though.  He spends a good deal of the narrative wrestling with his parents’ deaths, which may seem par for the course, but he’s struggling for a different reason here: their murder has lost its impact.  He still remembers it and knows that it’s why he’s driven, but memories from when they were alive are slowly fading.  They have slowly become an event in his life, not actual people.

That’s a disheartening feeling.  Here’s a person that you know you love and had great memories with, but the tragedy of their passing overshadows anything real and tangible about their life.  If you’ve ever lost a loved one then you may know exactly how that feels: the empty pit in your stomach when you realize you hadn’t thought about them in a while.  A sudden realization that you think more about losing them than you think about living with them.  Their death becomes foremost in your mind, not their life.  It’s an awful feeling, and it can strike at any moment.

Knowing even Batman is capable of this humanizes Bruce a great deal, and it brings an extra dimension to the Wayne murder.  He begins to question his entire reason for being, wondering why he does what he does when he can’t remember his mother.

In the middle of this emotional crisis, Bruce is approached by Ra’s Al Ghul, who was one simple request: “stop murdering me.”

See, Bruce has been locating Lazarus Pits around the world before Ra’s can, covering them up and making them unusable.  With limited access to the healing pools of the Pits, Ra’s is becoming more and more frail each and every day.  Soon, his centuries-long life will end.  His accusation is an interesting one, too: is Batman depriving Ra’s of the pits any different than, say, depriving a cancer patient chemo treatments?  If Bruce prevents Ra’s from extending his life, is he, in effect, murdering him?

That theme isn’t explored nearly as much as it should be, but it still leads to some great scenes between Bruce and Ra’s.  I find that those two characters work best when they approach each other as equals, using words rather than actions to get what they want.

That doesn’t mean Bruce can’t be stone cold about not caring when Ra’s takes a tumble, though.

No lie: I about died laughing at Bruce’s nonchalance.  He just does not care that this centuries-old maniac took a spill.  Hysterical.

It’s not a one way conversation, though.  Ra’s wants Bruce to give him the location of even one Lazarus Pit, and in return he’ll give the young Wayne something he sorely needs: the means to communicate with his parents.  Naturally, Bruce is skeptical, and Alfred scoffs at the very notion that he would even entertain such an offer.  Accept it he does, though, which leads Bruce on a bizarre headtrip.  He hallucinates communicating with his parents, first his mother alone then his father when Thomas “joins” her, and it’s honestly the weakest part of the book.  The idea isn’t bad, but the delivery was a bit lacking.  Seeing Bruce communicate with his parents, who are still bloody and bruised since that’s how he remembers them, should be moving, but it never quite gels.  A lot of that may have to do with the fact that there’s so much stuff in the book that’s more interesting than Bruce’s struggle, because there is.  In this Batman book, Batman may be the least interesting character.

There is one line in that scene that is absolutely devastating, though.  I’ll leave it devoid of context so the actual power of it can hit you in the moment: “I’m a detective, dad.”  It might be the single best piece of dialogue in the book, wrapping up all of the themes in one simple line.

So that’s Death.  What of the Maidens?  That’s where Nyssa Raatko comes in.  In hindsight we know that she is the lost, forgotten daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul, but her role in the story remains a mystery for much of the narrative.  Rucka’s script is actually fractured, frequently jumping back and forth between time periods, and that makes Nyssa’s story all the more gripping.  We get little pieces here and there about who she was, who she is, and why she’s come back into Ra’s’ life.  Put simply: she wants revenge for his carelessness.

As the story goes on, Ra’s becomes far less sympathetic and much more vile.  See, Nyssa had also taken to using the Lazarus Pits to extend her life, so she’s quite old as well.  Early on she’s a prime candidate to continue the reign of the Demon’s Head, but as time passes she falls out of her father’s favor.  This culminates in an absolutely brutal, heartbreaking scene in the 1940s where Nyssa is a prisoner in a concentration camp.  She pleads with her father to deliver her from her captors, and Ra’s brushes her off.  He has no love for Hitler and his regime, he says, but his tactics, cruel and vile though they are, help get Ra’s a little closer to his goals.  It’s awful and disgusting, an astonishing amount of apathy for a man to explain to his own daughter.  He just does not care, and if a tool stops being useful to him, he’ll discard it and get a new one.  To him, Nyssa is one of those tools.

That betrayal is what drives Nyssa.  She survives, regains her strength, and builds a network of companions so she can confront her father.  She wants to prove that she is as cold and unfeeling as he is, so as to show that she is the right person to lead his armies.  It’s heartbreaking stuff, hearing a woman lament for all of her own children she has watched die or be taken from her, only to be brushed aside and discarded by her own father.  It makes Ra’s more of a threat, too, showing that for all of his seemingly civil mannerisms he’s still a cold, genocidal monster.

The one misstep Nyssa’s story takes is in how she uses Talia.  A lot of that has to do with Talia’s characterization, where she comes off as… well, a bit of an airhead.  At this point in comics she had distanced herself from her father and was working for LexCorp, but she’s still a shrewd, incredibly intelligent woman.  At times she comes across as almost naive and childlike, being subservient to her newfound sister rather than a partner to her.  It gets a little better at the end, but for most of the narrative Talia is a plot device, not a character.

And, boy, does Klaus Janson have a rough time drawing her.

I mean a really rough time.

I… I don’t know what’s more alarming: that obviously broken leg or her possible malnourishment.  Janson is a legend in the industry, there’s no doubt about that, and his inking skills are second to none.  I’ve long posited that the opening chapter of The Dark Knight Returns looks so different than the other three precisely because Janson had a bigger influence on it, and come on, you’ve read it.  That first issue looks so good compared to later chapters, which are definitely much more Miller.  I don’t know if it’s true, but you can definitely see more Janson than Frank in Batman’s triumphant return.

As a penciler, when Janson is good, he’s really, really good, but when he’s off, it’s pretty rough.  He seems to have a tough time drawing females well, as you can see, and oftentimes his images can look a little static and flat.

But man, like I said, when he’s got it he’s capable of some truly beautiful images.

There isn’t an awful lot of action in this story, so Janson has to make long scenes with lots of dialogue appear visually engaging.  Generally, it works, especially in the quieter moments.  Having an industry vet like Clem Robins on letters doesn’t hurt, either, with a pitch perfect style that makes even the most dialogue-heavy scenes fly right by.

Besides his missteps, I think Janson was the right choice for this material, as I have a hard time imagining, say, Jim Lee or Scott McDaniel’s style having the same impact.  This isn’t a frenetic, action-packed story about gods among men, but a quieter, more introspective tragedy.  Warts and all, Klaus Janson works.

While this story isn’t perfect, I’d go so far as to say it’s essential Ra’s Al Ghul reading, right up there with Batman #244 and Son of the Demon.  Ra’s is too often portrayed as merely the head of the League of Assassins/Shadows.  That’s fine, but that’s not all he is.  At his core, Ra’s is an intelligent man who puts on an air of civility to legitimize his monstrous, genocidal desires.  He isn’t sympathetic, but at times he’s almost civil, if not for his total disregard for humanity.  Death and the Maidens reinforces that, and it makes him all the more interesting for it.

Bonus features: A foreword from editor Matt Idelson and a gallery of unused sketches and layouts.  The two go hand in hand, as Idelson discusses the genesis of the story and Janson explains where and when the sketches were to appear in the story.  Just as insight into the storytelling process it’s interesting stuff, and even more so coming from those who created the story.

Value: It’s a great story with some solid re-read value, so $16 bucks digital is pretty good, but $24 for a hardcover is a tad steep.  I’d say buy at full price digitally, but wait for a sale if you want a physical copy.

Overall: It’s hard introducing new characters and elements into the back story of another beloved character, but I’d say Rucka and Janson were mostly successful.  The actual story of Death and the Maidens is intriguing, with some of the best Ra’s Al Ghul material to come along in years, at least at the time of publication.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say there’s hardly been a Ra’s story to top it since then, either.  Some of the art is pretty off in places, and the ideas presented here never really go anywhere beyond the final page, but that isn’t the story’s fault.  As it is, Batman: Death and the Maidens is a strong Batman story, and essential reading for fans of Ra’s Al Ghul in particular.

SCORE: 8/10


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