Comics: Batman: The Cult

In the preface to the trade paperback of The Cult, writer Jim Starlin reveals that he liked Superman better than Batman when he was growing up in the late 50’s, because his persona seemed less lame in the context of the wholesome, lighthearted adventures that both were having in that time. He writes that in the mid-60’s, “Batman started to mature. His stories became more interesting. Over the years the artistically strait-jacketing restrictions began to loosen up,” allowing his character to become darker, deeper and more interesting.

Restrictions continued to loosen until a new moral crusade began at the end of the 80’s and beginning of the 90’s, when The Cult was written. “The self-righteous,” says Starlin, “began to unfurl the crimson banners of censorship” in the name of decency and “the children.” I’ll let his more eloquent words tell the tale:

After the Comics Code was forced upon Batman, the Dark Knight was stripped of his fearsome anger and forced to be something he wasn’t: a happy, smiling father-figure chasing aliens around a Day-Glo Gotham City. It was years before determined writers brought back the Batman we all know and love. In THE CULT that subjugation was fictional and Jason Todd rescured Bats in considerably less time, but when certain parties voiced concern over the violence in the story I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of deja vu.

…entertainment or fine art, it makes no difference. Free speech of any kind is protected by the First Amendment and we have to remember that that protection is something we have to fight for. And don’t believe for a second that there isn’t a bogeyman just outside the door.

There are folks who don’t want you to read stories like the one you have in your hands. Too much death. Too much violence. Too much horror. They form committees against tales of this sort. They pass laws forbidding their sale. They burn books like this.

The idea is to go back to a simpler time when all the real and terrible problems that face us these days didn’t exist–or were at least swept under the carpet where they belonged. The censors think that by banning certain books this goal can be reached. Kill the messenger and the message will be the one you want to hear. Makes sense to me.

So there you have it. It’s a simple choice, really: you can either accept the sway of public opinion and read whatever is acceptable at the time or you can stand up and tell them to keep their filthy hands off your First Amendment rights.

But whatever your choice, remember this: Tobday it may only be a rap group or a horror story or a comic book that gets suppressed. Tomorrow, though, it might be a novel by James Joyce or D. H. Lawrence they’re referring to when they cry, “Burn this book!”

While Starlin may sound a bit alarmist, I agree that legislation shouldn’t dictate what can or cannot be published or created in the name of art, or even entertainment. The rules of the Comics Code Authority were probably made with the best of intentions, but banning vampires and werewolves? Banning seduction? Banning “all scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism?” Granted, no one in their right mind wants to see gory or gruesome crimes in real life, but the Joker would lose a lot of the narrative power he has today if he had to go back to being a silly prankster instead of his original portrayal as a homocidal maniac who leaves his victims smiling gruesomely and his trademark card at the crime scene. Seriously, that’s how he was originally portrayed in Batman #1, in 1940. Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight was only slightly more hardcore than the original.

But I’m straying from the topic, and the issues of censorship and free speech are far too complicated to delve into here. I just liked how Starlin phrased his argument. Now, on to The Cult!

The Cult gives a very different view of religion from Gothic, though it only deals with Christianity indirectly. The four-part miniseries shows Batman tortured, starved, drugged, and eventually brainwashed into joining a messianic cult led by the charismatic Deacon Joseph Blackfire, who has done the same to Gotham’s legions of homeless and poor. They practice vigilante justice (with killing) against criminals, which earns them the admiration of many of Gotham’s citizens. However, Commisioner Gordon and Robin (Jason Todd, who is less obnoxious so far than everyone seemed to think he was) are not amused, especially since Batman has been missing for a week. Eventually, Batman escapes and recovers enough to go back and investigate Blackfire. [Spoiler warning] Seeing Blackfire’s luxurious quarters contrasted with the abject poverty and near-starvation of his followers makes Batman realize that the deacon is nothing more than a con man, preying on the hopes, fears,and anger of the poor in order to take control of the city. Unfortunately, a) they recapture Batman and b) they succeed. Gotham’s mayor and the entire city council are assassinated, Commissioner Gordon is shot, the SWAT teams and military units sent into the sewers are all killed, and the city turns into a miniature police state. Robin rescues Batman and they escape Gotham, only for Batman to declare the city lost and retreat to the Wayne estate. Eventually, of course, he recovers enough (and has nightmares that convince him) to retake the city. [End spoiler warning].

While religion in Gothic is generally a force for good (with the villain as an example of someone who has defied the main religion and is now paying the price), the only view of religion in The Cult is exactly what the title says it is. Blackfire’s followers genuinely believe he is their savior, but he only maintains this control with a combination of charisma, psychology, criminal know-how, and making sure that the only food his followers eat is drugged. His religion is a scam, and although there are hints that he may have some actual power (he has a criminal record that lasts back to the turn of the previous century, and he claims that bathing in blood has given him eternal life), most of it is based completely on illusion, and he loses control as soon as Batman and Robin show him to be merely a man. Early in the story, one of the deacon’s followers tells Batman the story of how Blackfire was an American Indian shaman who was killed by the chief of his tribe, then buried in a cave, which was sealed with a boulder…you know where this is going. Instead of his devotees rolling back the stone and finding his body missing, the tribe left the area and got massacred. European settlers rolled back the stone and discovered Blackfire alive…and then he killed them all. Not exactly the god of love, this one. This is about as close to a “religion is bullshit” message as you can get in a mainstream comic like Batman.

Apart from the religion angle, what sets The Cult apart from Gothic and other Batman graphic novels I’ve seen is the tone, particularly in the art. This is by far the reddest Batman comic I’ve seen (red doesn’t show up well in the dark, so usually the predominant colors are blue and grey for outdoor night scenes and yellow for indoor scenes…fitting, considering the costume). It gives the immediate impression that while other stories are about Batman the rational, crazy prepared detective, this is about blood. The saturation of red is used to show Blackfire’s influence and evil/criminality/brutality in general. Wayne Manor and the estate is almost completely devoid of red, while Gotham under Blackfire’s rule is blood-soaked. It really drives home the brutality of the story in a way that using more natural tones wouldn’t.

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