What is the most positive character trait you can think to give a fictional character? The kind of thing that uncontroversially portrays them in a positive light. “They love puppies” has to be pretty high up there, I would imagine. Batman: One Bad Day: Ra’s al Ghul #1 opens with a sequence letting the reader know just how deeply Ra’s al Ghul cares about animals due to being saved by a pack of wolves as a child. He even rescues one and has personally been caring for it for nineteen years. It’s an emotional sequence which frames Ra’s’ crusade as just as possible, almost as if his actions are meant to avenge the cruelty inflicted by man on a helpless dog. Now imagine you wanted to go a step further and construct an entire comic based around presenting Ra’s as righteous. It would probably look something like this.
Ra’s’ motivations have had a environmental angle to them for a long time. In his initial appearances he had more of a vague “cleansing the Earth” rhetoric, but it makes sense for writers to tap into the growing ecological concerns to make his motives more sympathetic. What can become a problem with this approach, however, is when the writer gets so lost in the sympathetic aspect of the motive that they forget about or completely disregard the actual villainous part. There’s a sort of retcon that happens where all negative elements of their actions are whitewashed so that they can become heroic. It’s something that I see sometimes happen with another one of Batman’s environmentally-themed villains, Poison Ivy.
One of the major consequences of writing with that kind of intention is that it often necessitates completely changing the behavior of the villain in question. Whatever his motivations might be, Ra’s’ plans have always involved grand, sweeping goals that include wiping out most of, if not all of humanity. He is a character born out of the vein of Batman’s James Bond-esque globetrotting stories, and as such always has a grandiose master plan fit for a James Bond villain. These can range from launching missiles at major cities or unleashing a plague on the population. Whatever it is, “restrained” is not a word you use to describe him.
However, that’s explicitly how Tom Taylor writes him here. It would be hard to agree with the bad guy whose plan involves wiping out the population of the Eastern Seaboard, so instead he’s only killing 30 people. Only the very heads of the organizations which are causing the damage to the planet, and that’s it. This both oversimplifies the important, complex problems Ra’s wants to solve so that they can be fixed by killing a tiny handful of people at the top, and lessens the narrative and rhetorical impact of one of Batman’s most iconic foes.
Not to get too political, but the destruction of the environment is a fundamentally systemic issue that not simply a result of having a few of the wrong people running things. Exxon Mobil doesn’t pollute the planet because the CEO is a jerk. They do it because the global capitalist forces which dominate the planet drive any company to behave in a way which will most benefit its shareholders by generating the largest return on investment. Get rid of one and another will take its place. Ra’s knows this. The fact that he is faced with such an overwhelming force like the global human political economic system is exactly why he feels the need to constantly resort to such catastrophic, drastic measures. If it were so easy, then he wouldn’t be doing the things he does.
Not only is Ra’s only killing 30 people, but every single one of them is a right bastard whom no one loves. Even their closest friends and family all talk about how much they hate them. We see them being spitefully cruel to everyone around them for no reason. Upon first learning of their deaths, Damian quips that no one will ever miss them. Obviously I’m not saying that the head of a major petrochemical company should be a standup guy, but this sort of commentary is laid on so thick it becomes cartoonish. It strips every shred of nuance away from the polemic being made so that the victims are about as deserving as a target as you could ask for. There’s even a cherry on top where each of their deaths involves some level of ironic punishment, such as the big game hunter being mauled by wild animals.
It would be one thing if Ra’s had suddenly decided to take a new, uncharacteristic approach to his plans to save the planet, but in this case he’s actually correct. His plan works. After stabbing Batman so that he’d be out of commission for a few months, Ra’s finishes killing the CEOs. All of the companies are now being run by better people, making Ra’s essentially correct. Moving past the reasons why that wouldn’t work, which I’ve already covered, what this does from a narrative perspective is completely dismantle any dialectic between the hero and villain about a potentially interesting motive. It artificially removes any objections in order to create a strawman of the opposition.
Instead of the trolley problem of “would you kill 5 people to save 1” it becomes “would you kill 30 people, all of whom had it coming and were pretty objectively evil, in order to save billions and the planet, which the 30 were personally and totally responsible killing because they just liked doing it. Also there are no negative repercussions or collateral damage from killing those people. Even their families are happy they’re dead.” That’s less of an ethical thought experiment and more of a fantasy where the author creates about an airtight justification for murder as possible.
When Damian eventually revives Bruce with a Lazarus Pit, he informs him that Ra’s succeeded and that he (Damian) chose not to interfere because of how morally correct his actions were. Throughout the story Damian is used as a mouthpiece to defend the actions of Ra’s. By the end of it, even Batman is implicitly told to begrudgingly approve of his actions, because after Ra’s is temporarily killed, we learn that Batman chose not to reveal what had happened, lest he undo the good that was done.
There’s even a scene during the confrontation between Batman and Ra’s which, possibly unintentionally, mirrors the famous confrontation between Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach at the end of Watchmen. In the Watchmen scene, Rorschach plans to defiantly tell the world that Ozymandias had killed millions in order to blame aliens and prevent a nuclear war. Doing so would undo everything and possibly even trigger the war. In response, Dr. Manhattan kills him in an act of coldly calculated pragmatic murder. It’s an iconic scene, and the book even leaves it open ended whether Ozymandias’ actions were effective, calling into question whether killing Rorschach even made a difference.
In this scene, we get a similar confrontation between Ra’s and Batman. Batman wants to tell the world what Ra’s has done, which would undo the utopia built on a lie that he’s created. Here, the question is ludicrously weighted in favor of Ra’s. He didn’t kill millions, he only killed 30. He didn’t spend the entire book coming to terms with the innocence of his victims, his victims were all awful and deserved it. In the best case scenario, Batman would be equated to the character of Rorschach, who is clearly mentally unstable and so enamored with his own righteousness and absolutist morals that he would doom the planet. Except, in this circumstance, Batman would be even more unreasonable if he didn’t let Ra’s get away with it.
What all of this does is create a comic that feels less like a story and more like a soapbox for the author to air his grievances using Ra’s as a mouthpiece. Some of those grievances don’t even really make sense within the framework constructed. Apparently the 30 people most damaging to the planet’s ecosystem include social media influencers and fake news? That feels like a stretch.
It may seem like I’m hyperfixating on relatively minor elements of Ra’s’ motivation, but that’s really the entire comic. It’s a meticulously laid out scenario designed to make Ra’s al Ghul correct. The rest of what’s here is competently done, but is nothing that we haven’t seen before a dozen times with the character, right down to the obligatory shirtless sword fight between Ra’s and Batman. That is to say nothing of how this barely meets the premise of the One Bad Day series. I suppose Ra’s being attacked by raiders as a kid technically meets the definition, but if that’s supposed to be a pivotal moment then it’s incredibly underwhelming.
Ivan Reis’ art is at least very pretty to look at. There are a number of action set pieces involving Ra’s taking down his targets, as well as the final confrontation at the end, and they’re all impressively drawn. The two-page spreads draw you into Ra’s’ mission and successfully make the entire story feel larger than life. It’s fittingly dramatic for a megalomaniacal character like Ra’s al Ghul, even if the story isn’t.
- You want some impressive action sequences between Ra’s and Batman
- Ra’s al Ghul has been right the entire time
- You don’t mind a story that gets preachy
Batman: One Bad Day: Ra’s al Ghul #1 focuses less on exploring the character of Ra’s al Ghul, and more on using him as a soapbox to oversimplify important global issues. Doing so requires that Ra’s’ character and motivations be altered, and the world itself bend over backwards to fit that rhetorical goal. It’s a comic that wants you to come away thinking “wow, maybe Ra’s was correct” but can only accomplish that by creating the perfect scenario where he would be, regardless of whether it makes sense.
DISCLAIMER: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purposes of this review.