Welcome back to the Batman News Quarantine Book Club! This week we will be discussing Batman: The Cult by Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson, with colors by Bill Wray. This is probably the most obscure story we’ve covered so far, and it’s also probably the darkest. Where Batman: Prey and Batman: Ego both had a strong, thematic commentary on Batman himself, this book creates a commentary on society.
Josh: Alright, I think everyone knows the drill by now. Any initial thoughts on selecting this book?
Casper: Yeah. From the moment we selected this one, I’ve been looking forward to having this discussion. I read this story a while ago for the first time, and I like it quite a bit, although this book definitely has its shortcomings. What I remember mostly is the beautiful art and colors by Bernie Wrightson and Bill Wray. I could stare at these pages for…well…for a long, long time.
Josh: I feel like I also know the answer to this, but has anyone not read Batman: The Cult?
Nick: The Cult is a story that always intrigued me—Deacon Blackfire’s small but significant roles in both Batman Eternal and Arkham Knight were thanks to this story, yet the specifics of the comic were unknown to me, and not exactly regularly talked about in comic circles. I was excited to give it a read!
Michael: This was my first time reading it and unlike our previous selection, I was not at all familiar with it.
Matina: It’s another I had little familiarity with myself.
Josh: Yeah, out of all of the titles we selected, I feel like Batman: The Cult will probably be the one that our readers are less familiar with. It is a solid story, though, so I look forward to people discovering it.
Much like Batman: Ego, this story starts by throwing us right into the middle of a conflict. Missing person reports are spilling into the GCPD, and with them is the confirmation that Batman is missing as well. In fact, he’s been missing for about a week.
Because of how this story is set up, you could potentially make the argument that this isn’t necessarily a Batman story, but a story with Batman in it. More than anything this is an ensemble story about Deacon Blackfire recruiting and gaslighting the homeless community to carry out his deeds. Batman just happens to be one of the people Blackfire is trying to convert. And through all of this, we get a glimpse of society throughout every phase of the narrative. So, I’m curious, what were your thoughts on the core plot of Deacon Blackfire manipulating the vulnerable so that he can take control of the city?
Michael: Initially I found the premise very intriguing, despite it being yet another “killing criminals is the only way to clean up Gotham.” I feel like right now there is a special interest in cult-like communities that rapidly spin out of control and this storyline taps into that in a major way.
Matina: I agree, I thought the premise was interesting.
Josh: I also agree that the premise is intriguing. So many elements of this book remind me of the Waco Siege, and I have to wonder if those events actually inspired The Cult. And for the most part, I loved everything about Deacon Blackfire recruiting people and turning his sites on the city, but I can’t say the same about the scenes with Batman, which I’ll get into later.
Michael: I do feel that after a while, the book loses focus and becomes ridiculously large scale in a manner I had no idea was coming. It’s also an incredibly mean book and maybe the current state of the world that created this book club in the first place made me a little less endeared to its plot.
Josh: Uh, yeah… “Losing focus,” is probably the best way of putting it. I was going to say the ending is rushed, and I feel like it is rushed, but just saying that didn’t feel like a complete assessment of the problem. Good call on that.
As for being mean… Well, yeah. Some of the actions that are taken are definitely mean, but it’s the villains committing or influencing these actions. That’s what the bad guys are there to do. Also, I think it’s very important that we always look at context. This was written and published in the late 80s. The Comics Code Authority had just disbanded, there was a strong desire to tell serious, dark stories within the industry, and if you were to check the temperature of the world, much less the U.S., people were not overly happy during this time. It all kind of plays into the story.
Nick: I can’t speak for Matina, but, to me, I think it is a little mean beyond just the actions of the villains. I don’t know, I understand that this was a product of its time, and that public opinion and the disenfranchised can be manipulated; but seeing it happen, especially to the most vulnerable of the city, and using it as a justification for them becoming ravenous beasts, doesn’t entirely sit well with me. I felt the same with Joker, though that grew on me after a few re-watches. Here though, it feels like many members of the community turn into “monsters” (Batman’s words) for little reason, and the “mass brainwashing” they allude to doesn’t really hold up to me as a good justification, after spending so much time on the individual brainwashing of Batman.
Josh: Casper, what did you think?
Casper: I like it for the most part, but my favorite bits aren’t the bits with the homeless. I like the scenes where Batman’s basically tripped out of his gourd, and I like the bit where he’s in Central Park a lot. But the homeless stuff…you know, at the start of the story it’s all right, it works well enough. But then we get to a point where the National Guard comes in, and they are unable to stop homeless people who behave like a bunch of wild, out-of-control animals rather than actual people. I really can’t take that seriously. Why can’t the army stop the homeless? It just becomes unintentionally hilarious! What is this? An episode of South Park?
Michael: I never thought South Park would be a plausible comparison to a Batman story, but you’re completely right. If the entire book had been more camp it could’ve worked.
Josh: So, this is kind of what I was hinting at a second ago when I mentioned Batman. There appear to be two completely different approaches here. When Starlin is writing the homeless, he takes a hyper realistic approach of, “What could this realistically look like?” But then when he’s writing Batman, it’s almost as if some of the scenes are written to be reminiscent of Batman 66. They don’t mix very well. And the ending… I know you liked it, Casper, but I don’t know. Haha!
Casper: I mean, the stuff at the end with the enormous Batmobile is awesome! I just love how over-the-top that is.
Matina: I’m torn because I like how wacky it got at the end, but beyond enjoying it for what it was I don’t feel like the second half lived up to what the first half seemed to promise. Like Michael said, it loses focus and becomes bombastic. It’s fun, but everything moves and grows at such a pace it seems to change courses completely.
Josh: Agreed. I promise we’ll talk more about the ending later, but I want to focus on the homeless attacking criminals for a second because I think this is a really raw, disturbing, and unexpected aspect of this book.
Michael: Blackfire recruiting an army of downtrodden and homeless and turning them against the criminals that plague their lives is a great angle that I wish the story focused on more.
Josh: I agree. The one thing that I remember most about this book when people reference it, is exactly this. I’d forgotten how much the pull away from this in the final issues, though. What’s crazy, is that early on, you almost want to side with Blackfire and the homeless. Makes you question your sanity a little.
Michael: It’s hard to argue against Blackfire when he’s saving prostitutes from their pimps. Also, the positive public reaction is believable. Once we move into public assassination attempts and outright anarchy, any sense of sympathy toward the homeless evaporates and they quickly become a horde of bloodthirsty zombies that rip apart anyone who crosses them.
Josh: Oh, yeah! I’d lost all sympathy by that point.
Michael: The first issue rides this line incredibly well. There’s a great moment near the end of the first issue where a young, aspiring comic book artist is killed since he works as a “bagman” for a numbers runner. He’s a criminal, sure, but given a degree of empathy, that makes his demise gut-wrenching. The slippery slope of Blackfire’s morals is more engaging at these street-level stakes, and his minions’ actions less cartoonishly evil.
Josh: I really like the example you mentioned because that moment speaks volumes. There’s such a strong argument to be made about people doing what they have to do to get by, but also a socioeconomic commentary as well.
Casper: I pretty much agree with you there, Michael. Just one thing I want to nitpick on is that these things have nothing at all to do with anarchy. I dislike that the book presents sheer chaos, riots, and bloodthirsty homeless raging in the streets as “anarchy.” What anarchy really means, basically, is that there is no hierarchy, but there is still order. In this book there is most definitely a hierarchy in Blackfire’s organization, but there is absolutely no order, so that is really the opposite of anarchy. This book gives anarchy a bad name by completely misrepresenting it. Most anarchists are pacifists.
Michael: Very good distinction there. It even has a religious angle that I kind of forgot about that was interesting but wasn’t delved too far into in lieu of drug induced mind control.
Josh: You could argue that it’s anarchy in the respect that there’s an absence of government, which there is, eventually. But even when looking at Blackfire’s “hierarchy,” I don’t feel there really is hierarchy. I mean, yes, he claims there is, but I think it’s manipulation more than anything else. He identified people that had ripples of “leadership” or clearly weren’t afraid to question authority, so he gave them something to hold on to.
Casper: I guess it depends on how you look at it. Blackfire has a second-in-command, who the homeless take orders from—more so than from Blackfire himself—so in my opinion there’s this top-down hierarchy in place in the cult, except it’s not very ordered. And order is a key component of anarchy. I’d also say that the government isn’t absent here, they are just completely incompetent—haha!
Josh: I think when things really take a turn, though, is when Blackfire starts targeting leadership and the elite within Gotham.
Michael: I got some major The Dark Knight Rises vibes from the anti-elite angle so I wasn’t surprised to learn that Christopher Nolan took inspiration from this book.
Casper: Yes. I was thinking of The Dark Knight Rises, as well. Particularly the scene where Batman visits Gordon in hospital to let him know that he’s back, that’s pretty much the same as in the movie, save for the obvious differences.
Josh: Yeah, the lift here is quite apparent, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. This is definitely where you see a tonal shift within the story. At this point, I think the element that makes the sequences actually work are the interviews with Gotham citizens.
Casper: Oh, no, it’s not a bad thing at all. It’s just something I noticed!
Nick: I’m glad other people noticed these references and comparison points! I think there’s an important distinction between the stories, though: while Bane’s uprising is specifically targeting the wealthy and upper classes of the city, Blackfire’s revolt seems focused on directly eliminating crime—often committed by other disenfranchised members of Gotham—and eliminating the elite is essentially a means to that end. That kind of connects to what I was referring to about the story being mean-spirited, in that the plot revolves around Blackfire causing those suffering under poverty and crime to turn on themselves, rather than rallying them under an uprising and moral crusade that he was speaking of. That said, this was all deliberate, and executed quite well—which is why I agree that turning the story into a bombastic battle, instead of diving into Blackfire’s manipulations and the truth behind them, felt like a weak way to conclude the story.
Michael: Unfortunately I don’t think it’s totally out of the realm of believability that some citizens wouldn’t leave Gotham once Blackfire takes it over. But when talking about Gotham’s response as a whole, that’s when the book really started to lose me. The scope of the story is outrageous in my opinion. Unlike Batman: Prey, which I think is a masterclass on how to use the media to enhance a story, The Cult has talking media heads tell half of its story. There are great moments (like the end of the first issue) where an average citizen, who happens to be a minor criminal, is given a page to live and die and feel empathy towards. Unfortunately, there are multiple times in the second half of Cult where I feel like I was reading a wikipedia summary rather than really understanding how the citizens of Gotham would fall under the sway of a tyrant.
Matina: I’m very much with you on that, Michael. I agree that the media is used effectively in the first half, and to the story’s detriment in the latter. It feels like a tool used simply to speed up the process of Gotham’s fall. And for me, I think that’s something that should have taken a little more time. The general population shouldn’t have been swayed that quickly, and honestly? I’m not even sure how fast everything happened. This period of the story has me a bit confused because everything seems to move impossibly fast. Someone correct me if I’m wrong but the story posits that Gotham is taken over, falls into total chaos, and empties out halfway in the time it takes Batman and Robin to escape the sewers, right? To me this is too much going on in too little time. The attempt at making me believe this through talking heads on the news just doesn’t work here. I’d have rather seen less of that and more of what’s physically going on in Gotham.
Josh: Well, the story occurs within the course of a few weeks, so I do think there’s some believability there, especially when you consider that Blackfire has spent so much time recruiting the homeless. As for the people that stayed, I feel as though both of you missed what their intentions were. They didn’t stay because they believed in Blackfire or because Blackfire recruited them, I think they stayed because they felt that Blackfire wasn’t a threat to them directly, and because Gotham is their home.
Look at any natural disaster that occurs within the U.S. Whether it is wildfires, hurricanes, etc, when people are told to evacuate, many of them don’t. When asked why they didn’t leave, they often cite these two reasons, and ultimately end up needing to be rescued.
I fully believe Matina is right, though. The interviews with citizens moves from an effective technique—which is very similar to what Frank Miller does in The Dark Knight Returns—and becomes nothing more than a plot device to deliver exposition. Which, unfortunately, plays into the pacing issues of the book.
Nick: I actually had to take a moment in the middle of reading the story to look up when it was released, and the comic coming out two years after The Dark Knight Returns doesn’t surprise me in the least. Honestly, it feels quite derivative of that story; not only due to the over-reliance on news reports as a crutch, but also because of the imagery of the final battle. The ridiculous looking tank, the monsters on the street running amok, the giant gun that “only fires non-lethal rounds,” the one-on-one fistfight between Batman and Blackfire—it all feels like it’s paying homage to a work that only just came out, which weakens the impact of it for me, ever so slightly.
Regarding the citizens, I want to take a moment to shout out “Roving Reporter Ted Rogers,” who is the MVP of this story by constantly reporting Blackfire’s revolt from the front lines, even when they cut off Gotham from the rest of the world. It’s a serious shame he was implied to have died.
Josh: I want to step away from the story and themes to talk about Batman specifically. When we first see Batman, he’s being held hostage and tortured. He’s been deprived of food—aside from small, rancid portions to keep him alive—and he’s been drugged. While it isn’t uncommon for creators to start their story or feature with Batman in a dire state, they tend to write their way out of that situation rather quickly. Starlin does the opposite, though. He revels with the idea of Batman in this state. We get nearly 70 pages of Batman defeated before we ever see any sign of life from him, and even then, his victory doesn’t last long.
Michael: I was shocked how long it took for Batman to start acting like himself again. Even well after he escapes his initial confinement, he still suffers from lingering pains due to him being under Blackfire’s control.
Casper: And that’s precisely what I appreciate about this story!
Josh: Same! But you have to keep in mind, when we first see Batman, he’s already endured a week of torture (we know he’s been beaten and stabbed), starvation, and been drugged semi-regularly. Then he endures roughly another two to three weeks of this. Batman is a beast, but he’s still human, so seeing this made me happy.
Casper: It also shows how much of an opponent Blackfire is. He broke Batman long before Bane did. And throughout those 70 pages I’m waiting for Batman to snap out of it and take back control, and when he finally does it’s one of those moments where I go, “Yes, here we go!” He’s back, and I really feel that moment. Even though I know Batman will get back up, the creative team manages to make this more thrilling and exciting than most other stories. It’s because here, there’s so much conflict going on, both internally and externally, and it all plays into each other. It’s really good.
Matina: Me too, I kept going “Come on, Batman! You got this!” just waiting for him to break out or fight back. One of the moments I enjoyed most with Batman after he’s escaped is how it takes Robin being overwhelmed for him to jump back into action, and even after he’s won he’s exhausted.
Michael: I definitely had brief flashes of excitement when we see Batman regain his confidence and head back to Gotham to take on Blackfire. I was less thrilled when he justifies letting a woman get torn apart by rabid homeless people for the greater good. I understand the stakes are dire in this story, but there are multiple times where the book takes on an “ends justify the means” approach which in my mind is very un-Batman like. Perhaps I just don’t like how many people die in the book, but it’s also a consequence of Starlin’s script ramping up to, in my opinion, an unsustainable scale.
Casper: You make a good point, Michael. There’s definitely an element of “ends justify the means” here. But that incident with the woman that gets torn apart, I didn’t read that as Batman justifying it, but rather acknowledging that he was powerless to do anything about it. That said, in hindsight, surely there must have been a way for Starlin to come up with something clever to save her!
Michael: Exactly! I don’t think anyone would have cared about plausibility at this point in the book, so he could have easily just had Batman go down and save her real quick. I get that it’s about raising the stakes, but things were so insane by that part in the book I didn’t see it as necessary but just absurdly brutal. Starlin’s morality was definitely on a sliding scale as things ramped up.
Nick: I straight up do not believe Batman would ignore the screams of a dying woman. I’m sorry, but no circumstance would call for that, and the way he wrote it as being impossible for Batman to save her felt incredibly cheap. It took me out of the story, which sucks because up until that point I felt Batman was written fantastically, slipping in and out of delirium and a brainwashed state, even in the third issue. The cop-out of Batman leaving Gotham “never to return” only to immediately say he’ll be back at the start of issue 4 felt cheap, too.
Josh: I agree with you all here. I got a sense of “the ends justify the means” but I also got a sense of “there’s nothing I can do.” I think there could have been a better outcome, and I’d almost be willing to bet that the team probably considered having Batman save the woman…but then you’d have to figure out what to do with her afterwards since they go directly into the sewer.
That being said, in general, I’m not overly thrilled with the fourth issue of this story. It’s almost as if the wheels just came off, and I have to wonder if there were changes from what was originally planned for the book’s conclusion. There’s just such a strong departure in tone, focus, plot, and pacing that it feels off.
Nick: I also want to take this moment to point out that we’ve seen Batman’s parents die in all three book club stories so far, and I’m starting to get lost in the déjà vu. Which book are we reviewing again? Oh yeah, Batman: Ego was great!
Josh: Matina mentioned Robin earlier, so I want to make sure we give him the credit he’s due, especially since this is Jason Todd. Now, there aren’t a lot of great Jason Todd/Robin stories that come to mind, so this, for me, really stands out for Jason’s career as Robin.
Matina: Listen, I am so happy we finally read something with a Robin featured. And I’m delighted it was Jason! I haven’t had a chance to read a lot of stories featuring him as Robin, so this was a lot of fun for me.
Michael: I’ll tell on myself and say I didn’t realize this was Jason until later in the story. I’m really not all that familiar with him, but I thought he was very likable and well utilized in the story, but I can’t say he felt all that distinct.
Josh: Don’t worry, the first time I read this, I didn’t realize that either.
Casper: You know, Jason’s portrayal here actually really strikes me, because it’s a well-known fact that Starlin hates Robin. So much so, that he was kind of eager to kill him off in A Death in the Family, already convinced that readers would vote for Jason’s death. And if I remember correctly, throughout Starlin’s Batman run, Jason wasn’t really in the spotlight or anything. Starlin just tried to focus as much as he could on Batman, and whenever he had to use Jason, that was kind of a necessary evil to him. Mostly, Denny O’Neil made him use Robin. If it was entirely up to Starlin, he would’ve just left Robin out entirely. So it’s really interesting that Jason is totally badass and kicks so much ass in this story. It’s almost like someone else wrote Jason’s parts. So unlike Starlin!
Michael: That’s really interesting, because Robin does kick a lot of ass here and comes off more level headed than Batman for the majority of the story.
Matina: He really is! I think that level headedness is used really well in this story as a driving force to help Batman get back on his feet. Jason’s first real moments with Batman are snapping him out of his hallucinations, and then he’s used to help spurn him into fighting, and staying in Gotham, and generally pushing him all the way up until Bruce has to face Blackfire on his own. But by that point he’s ready, and Robin has done his job. It’s a great path, at least to me, of watching Robin do what he does best for Batman, which is backing him up and inspiring him.
Nick: Jason’s attitude was very refreshing in such a sombre story! Speaking of slapping Batman out of his hallucinations, I got a good laugh out of this role reversal:
Josh: I think Matina mentioned a key word, “drive.” She referenced it in terms of the plot, but it really describes Jason here. And if we’re being honest, when we look at what separates all of the Robins from one another, for Jason, it kind of is his drive. He’s so driven in his mission to the point that it’s a fault—which really comes to fruition with him as Red Hood—so this kind of tips a hat towards that in some ways. I really liked it.
Michael: I think the book is absolutely gorgeous but definitely suffers in the talking head scenes where the same face is plastered over an entire page. The exposition in the book is lousy and the visuals don’t do much to make it go down easier. Despite that flaw, Wrightson’s pencils here are incredible but Bill Wray’s colors are outright gorgeous. I love this style of coloring and I hope they never recolor this stuff as some publishers are apt to do. Who cares if it makes no sense that the streets are purple?
Matina: Yeah, unfortunately I found myself skimming many of the “talking heads” scenes, after a while they’re simply not engaging anymore.
Josh: The repetition of heads were exhausting after a while. More than anything, Wray’s colors stand out for me. I can’t say that they’re my favorite, but they’re so unexpected and striking, that they demand my attention… And I kind of think that’s what he was ultimately going for.
Nick: While I love that psychedelic color style, especially in the drugged sequences, I think it did sacrifice a bit of coherency for me during scenes that felt like they were supposed to be gritty and, well, a little more comprehensible. That said, I have endless respect for artists who can draw so many panels per page, even if many were just talking heads.
Casper: Yeah, the talking head scenes are kind of annoying at times. Every time there’s a page of that, I sigh and try to get through it as fast as I can. It does give a good idea of how Gotham reacts to all of this, but the same facial expressions and the boring page layouts make it a chore to read. But man, Wray’s colors are so beautiful. I mean, Wrightson is as amazing as ever (aside from the talking heads), but those colors—I can’t get enough of that. Especially in the psychedelic sequences Wray shines—quite literally, in fact!
Michael: The scene where Bruce looks up at the huge Blackfire idol was horrifying in a beautiful cosmic way. It’s easy to forgive some simplistic talking head pages when there are multiple moments of striking beauty.
Casper: Dude, those pages with the idol are breathtaking. Wrightson and Wray belong together on the page.
Matina: Yeah! Those pages are stunning.
There are so many moments in this comic where I found myself stopping just to enjoy the gorgeous colors or clever way a series of panels was set up. I particularly enjoyed a number of sequential panels Wrightson does, for instance after Batman’s been shot and he’s trying to get up, instead he literally falls to pieces. It’s just a gorgeous example of him falling unconscious but drawn in such a creative way.
Michael: I can’t say Batman: The Cult is a bad book, but I don’t think it’s the type of story for me. I was totally on board in the first half. I love a compromised Batman and the idea of him being entwined in a cult that does his job “better” than him is ripe for drama. I just have to admit that the level of carnage was not just unsettling to me, but worse so, unengaging. He has a tank, he has a gun that shoots tranquilizer darts, he leaves people behind for dead, and by the end it felt less and less like a Batman book I want to read. Wrightson and Wray’s artistic efforts are stunning to behold, though, and I can see myself revisiting the story for purely aesthetic reasons.
Casper: I like this one. It’s atypical for a Batman book, and you could argue that Batman acts out-of-character here, and I can totally get why that can be a problem for some readers. But I like the psychedelic stuff, and I like the idea of this underground cult that tries to take over Gotham. Basically, the first two issues are the best, because there’s this mystery and you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. The third issue is so-so. And the fourth issue is so ridiculously over-the-top that I can’t help but enjoy it. I do think that the National Guard not being able to clean up some out-of-control homeless people (who aren’t really as organized as the story wants you to believe) is utter nonsense. So it’s a story with good moments and bad moments, but the good outweighs the bad for me, and Wray is the star of the show! Recommended if you want a different kind of Batman book.
Nick: I struggle when starting a Jim Starlin book—his dialogue is so heavy and meaty that you really have to be in the right zone to read one of his comics. That said, it gets easier as you go, and while the finale wasn’t as ponderous or as impactful as the fantastic first two issues, I felt there was a decent enough connective tissue throughout the arc. Deacon Blackfire was truly a fantastic villain, walking the line between conman and demon in such a way that I’d love to see him reappear (with a little more impact than his underwhelming performance in Batman Eternal.) Definitely a solid read, in my opinion, though I can’t say you’re missing out on much if you don’t read it. Most of what’s done in this story is done better in other stories, save maybe the compelling and legitimately unsettling brainwashing of Batman.
Matina: I am mixed on The Cult. I like a lot of what this book is trying to play with, but I’m not all the way there on the execution. It feels very much like two different books between the first two issues and the last two. I enjoyed what it did with Batman at the start, but I’m definitely not a fan of how brutal it gets towards the end. Hanging bodies everywhere and women being torn apart was a little too horrific for me, and didn’t quite fit in with the wacky feeling of Batman driving a tank and especially not with the more psychological edge the first two issues had. That said, I also loved Robin’s inclusion in this story and how he played into everything. I’ll probably continue to go back and forth on how I feel about this book and while it’s got its problems, it is something I would read again.
Josh: For me, Batman: The Cult sticks its landing as often as it completely fumbles it. The book starts incredibly well, and creates an interesting, dark, and brutal look at society, how they view the world, and how easily people can be manipulated into a belief. The book is uncomfortable at times because of how real and believable it can be… And then the wheels begin to fall off the wagon. The focus of the story wanders, and the tone of the book shifts drastically from a mature story to a campy story (most of Batman and Robin’s scenes together), to a full-blown, over-the-top comic book extravaganza. Essentially, what starts as strong and focused, unravels into a bit of a mess of ideas with an abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion.
Nick: Speaking of abrupt ways of concluding things, can I end this article by asking what the hell Batman is doing to this egg?
Thanks for joining us this week! We’d love to hear your thoughts on Batman: The Cult. Do you agree with our assessment? Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments! And be sure to check out our previous discussions on Batman: Prey and Batman: Ego. Also, if you haven’t already, make sure you read up for next week’s book, Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City!