Comics: Batman: Gothic

Warning: the following contains some spoilers for Batman: Gothic. I’ll post another warning at the actual spoilery bits.

Curious about how everyone’s favorite bat-garbed vigilante hero was used in media other than film (my experience there is the campy Adam West flick Batman, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Saga and the absolutely terrible  Batman and Robin), I checked out the Batman comics most readily available from the city library that were on the IGN ” 25 Greatest Batman Graphic Novels” list: Alan Moore’s one-shot graphic novel (it’s pretty short…graphic novella?) The Killing Joke, the mini-series Batman: The Cult and the slightly shorter Batman: Gothic. The Killing Joke is pretty different from the last two, and it deserves its own discussion, but by sheer coincidence, the two Batman comics that came next from my request list dealt with a similar topic–religion–in very different ways. This post is only about Gothic, because I didn’t want a college essay-length post.

Gothic is clearly the more intellectual of the two, with a villain who is fond of sending bits of Paradise Lost and Shakespeare to his future victims and who enjoys Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and with a plot inspired by Don Giovanni, Paradise Lost, the Fritz Lang film M and possibly Lord Byron’s Manfred. Said villain is the apparently unkillable Mr. Whisper, whom Gotham’s mobsters thought they killed 20 years previously because he was a serial killer targeting children (and Gotham’s police forces were cracking down to find him, hindering the mobsters’ criminal activities). When Mr. Whisper comes back and starts killing mobsters,  they call on Batman for help. Although he refuses, he starts investigating anyway, and finds links between Whisper, Gotham’s newly-renovated cathedral, an ill-fated Austrian monastery, and his old boarding school…yeah. I don’t want to spoil, but the plot is pretty fantastic (both in the “awesome” sense and the “fantasy” sense). It’s the sort of thing that reminds you that, while Bruce Wayne doesn’t have any supernatural powers and fights crime with his wits, ninja skills, and money, he shares a comic-book universe with a flying, super-strong, invulnerable space alien, a magical warrior princess, and a corps of intergalactic space cops who get their power from colors, among others (that’s Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Green Lantern Corps, for those unfamiliar with the DC universe).

As such, Gothic seems to take the “all legends are true” approach. [Spoiler warning] Basically, Christian theology is right, you can actually make deals with Satan, and measuring your shadow with a string will trap both soul and shadow in it.  It turns out that Mr. Whisper is Manfred, an Austrian monk from the  who was too proud of his piety and thus fell to  thinking that indulging in vices would lead to salvation. When “God’s vengeance” came to the fallen monastery in the form of the plague and a flood, Manfred made a deal with Satan, exchanging his soul for immunity to death for three hundred years. He did the aforementioned soul-trapping trick, traveled to the newly built Gotham Town, and hid the string in a time capsule in the foundation of the cathedral, which he designed. He also engineered an aerosolized version of the plague, which he plans to unleash on Gotham and use the shape of the cathedral to send the souls of Gotham’s inhabitants to Hell, in exchange for his own soul. Batman, of course, defeats him by getting rid of the toxin, and Satan shows up to collect on Manfred’s bargain. [End spoiler warning.] This might sound incredibly silly, and it is, but somehow Grant Morrison (the writer) and Klaus Janson (the illustrator) created a very serious atmosphere around it all that hardly ever breaks down. The only moments that really threw me out of the story were the kind of silly-looking Bat-plane (at least he doesn’t call it that) and a bit where Mr. Whisper leaves Batman in a Rube Goldberg death trap, but that was a semi-necessary plot contrivance. Everything else in the story is very, well, gothic, from the plot to the drawing style to the architecture of Gotham Cathedral.

Surprisingly, given the overt religiosity of the story, Gothic never comes across as terribly preachy. The abbot who provide a lot of exposition to Batman and the reader presents his information as a story that he, personally, doesn’t believe, but one which bears investigating given the happenings in Gotham. Most of the more extreme religiosity comes from Mr. Whisper, and it becomes clear that he probably only believes what he’s saying because he’s extremely desperate and probably insane. All in all, Christianity (Catholicism in particular) is presented in Gothic as a modern, sensible religion like any other, but with a uniquely dark medieval past. And if there’s one comic that loves dealing with problems of the past, it’s Batman.

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