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Batman: Son of the Demon (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises this week, today we’ll be reviewing the complete “Demon” trilogy, exploring the relationship between Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul.

Son of the Demon is an interesting graphic novel. Written by Mike W. Barr and illustrated by Jerry Bingham, it occupies a strange place in the Batman canon. A story in which Bruce allies himself with his old enemy Ra’s Al Ghul and marries the villain’s daughter, Talia, the story was all but forgotten for years until Grant Morrison unearthed it for his Batman run, reuniting Batman with the child fathered in this story. Son of the Demon has an intriguing premise, even if Barr’s execution feels a little clumsy and overwrought, and it makes for an interesting exploration of some of Batman’s deeper facets.

He shall become a bat…

It’s worth noting, before we go any further, that Barr’s dialogue has a tendency to get a bit… melodramatic. Everybody speaks as if they are heralding the end of the world, seemingly pouring the weight of their soul upon each and every syllable. For example, when Talia refuses to side with Bruce against her father, this triggers a strange outpouring from Bruce, who suddenly lays his innermost desires to bear. “I understand,” he states, which might seem like an appropriate response. Instead, Batman keeps going. “I hope someday I’ll experience that kind of respect, that kind of loyalty… that kind of love… the love of a child for his father…”

Far from being the stoic and introverted hero that many associate with the cowl, Barr’s Batman seems to wallow in his own angst and self-pity, keen to hit the drama button with the slightest provocation. This feels strange when Barr pairs it with a more traditional portrayal – Barr’s Batman is as much a military strategist as any iteration of the character, single-handedly and effectively taking down a platoon of terrorists in a matter of seconds using smoke bombs and misdirection. As he strikes, one shouts, “There can’t be many of ‘em.” As his colleagues lie on the ground, unconscious, the leader observes, “He’s one man, only– Jesus…!”It feels strange for such a hard-ass Batman to seem like such a whiner.

Go on, Talia her how you feel!

The plotting also feels a little awkward, as it sees Batman allied with Ra’s Al Ghul to take down the villain Qayin, who vows to start a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. Naturally, this is not in the mutual interest of Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul, so the pair combine their forces to stop him. However, Barr glosses over the fact that Ra’s Al Ghul is a murderer and eco-terrorist, downplaying the fact that the fiend has attempted genocide in the past in order to make it more reasonable for Batman to bond with him.

Explaining the situation, he states, “Put briefly, Detective, during the last World War, I had an organisation of my own, which I often used to combat the Axis Powers.”It seems quite strange, given that Ra’s probably had no reason to pick a side in the conflict, and that he has attempted to practice his own form of genocide. Naturally, this presents Ra’s as something of an anti-hero rather than an outright villain, but it feels like shallow manipulation in order to justify Batman’s alliance with him.

Bruce is naked!

Barr seems to acknowledge this, with Batman lamenting the fact their alliance is most likely only temporary. “But it would be a shame if you and I had to become foes once more, after we’ve taken care of Qayin,” Batman informs the villain. However, it doesn’t explain why Batman feels so strangely comfortable with the madman, despite Barr’s best efforts to present Ra’s as a well-intentioned extremist. It feels just a little bit awkward, as it’s hardly the most elegant plotting imaginable.

I can’t decide if I love or loathe the way that Barr handles the subplot that sees Batman finally assuming the role of the heir to Ra’s Al Ghul, a position that the would-be tyrant has planned for Bruce since they first met. It is glorious pulpy fun that never takes itself too seriously, but there’s something a little bit too ridiculous about the fact Bruce never seems to take off his Batman costume. On a purely practical level, how many did he bring, or has he been hearing the same one for his entire stay? There’s something gleefully and cleverly ridiculous about a bunch of trained assassins referring to a man dressed as giant bat as “sir” and following his orders to the letter.

A bit of a demon himself…

On the other hand, there’s a lot of clever stuff here, buried beneath the clumsy plotting and awkward execution. Barr writes a version of Batman we rarely get to see – one concerned with the future, beyond whether the Joker will poison the reservoir next week. This version of Batman is reflective, and concerned about his own legacy and his own future. He might not dream of a time when he isn’t Batman, but he wants to know that his own religious crusade against crime hasn’t cost him the opportunity to have his family and to live a full life outside of his quest to avenge the loss of his parents.

Barr knows that Batman’s can’t have a “normal” life involving settling down and raising a family, because Bruce is inherently dysfunctional. The best he can do is to find somebody who is as deeply screwed up as he is and who can accept him for who and what he is. In that respect, Talia is the perfect match for Bruce, if only because the presence or absence of the mask doesn’t affect her attraction to him. Selina Kyle is attracted to Batman moreso than Bruce Wayne, and the “Wayne girls” Bruce has on his arm date Bruce rather than Batman, while Talia seems just dysfunctional enough to accept both facets.

A nuclear family…

Barr’s Batman is undoubtedly screwed up psychologically, as became the style in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns, when something approach psychological realism became the norm in the Batman books. Barr’s Batman is aggressive and violent, and is especially protective of children and families – reflecting his own loss. After foiling a hostage situation, Bruce won’t abide a doctor treating a terrorist when a pregnant woman needs attention. “That man can wait, Doctor,” Bruce tells the man. The Doctor challenges him, “He — he has some rights, you know.” Batman responds with a cold, “That woman has more.”

This might seem like typical eighties Batman machismo, the hard-ass right-wing straw man with little patience for the rights of lawbreakers (“I’m all broken up about that man’s rights,” to quote a similar character), Barr suggests it’s something a bit deeper and more complex than that. Bruce is fixated on children, and the suffering of families. The scene repeats itself, almost word-for-word, later as Bruce tries to get Talia some attention. “Dr. Weltmann, Talia needs an examination,” Bruce insists. She begins to counter, “But this man is –“ Even though he looks to be a friendly wounded soldier, Bruce is just as blunt, “He can wait.”

Bruce ventures to the dark side…

Barr is very clear on this. Bruce is compromised when families are involved. He loses any hint of objectivity he might have had. When Weltmann finally examines Talia, we discover that Bruce has actually been blocking access to the emergency room for any and all wounded soldiers. (Yes, Ra’s Al Ghul’s mountain fortress has an emergency room.) “Can we get through now?” a field medic asks, impatiently. “This man needs help.” That’s hardly the most heroic side of Bruce, blocking access to medical care for those deserving.

There’s a sense of finality about this tale – despite the fact that Barr returns things to pretty close to the status quo by the final page. Batman is preoccupied with the prospect of dying without an heir to succeed him. Ra’s is drawn with what seems to be (although it does seem to vary from panel-to-panel) completely white hair (rather than the conventional clearly delineated black-and-white style). It seems like this could be something close to the end for either character. Outlining the stakes to Bruce, Ra’s explains, “And it may be my last mission, for should I perish in this endeavour, the Lazarus Pit may no longer be able to restore me.”

You know, given how many of his foes were created by toxic waste or acid, you think he’d be a bit less glib…

Perhaps that explains why Bruce is so willing to get on-side with his deadly foe, as he recognises that both men are reaching the end of the line, and they both need to make peace with themselves and one another. I think that Ra’s Al Ghul is a remarkable creation. Denny O’Neil created the character during the seventies, long after Batman had debuted. It’s rare for a character created so long after the hero in question to truly latch on, but I think you could make an argument that Ra’s Al Ghul exists as the quintessential Batman villain, supplanting even the Joker.

After all, both men have similar goals and obsessions, to bring order to the world in order to avenge the loss of a loved one. The difference is, of course, the methods that both will use. While the Joker stands for chaos in contrast to Batman’s order, Ra’s and Bruce both strive to make sense of an insane world. They both are in their physical prime and they are both defined by their strategic and intellectual prowess. In short, they would – as Son of the Demon suggests – make perfect allies if they weren’t such perfect enemies.

Hm. I though Bats slept on the ceiling…

“You know, we spent so much time in opposition, when we really make better allies,” Ra’s observes, and he has a valid point. It’s telling that later iterations of Batman – from Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins – seem to suggest Ra’s as the most perfect foil for Bruce. I think a lot of that can be traced back to Denny O’Neil’s early work and the work of Mike Barr on Son of the Demon and Bride of the Demon.

Barr is accompanied by Jerry Bingham on art. Bingham’s artwork looks beautiful, but he also has a natural flow to his work. it’s very easy to follow Bingham’s beautifully constructed pages, to the point where it’s almost difficult to separate individual panels. They seem to flow into one another, which is the scene of an artist who knows his work. In particular, the introductory sequence that sees Batman taking down a hostage situation is superbly illustrated. It’s a shame there isn’t more Bingham material readily available, as it fits the character and his world remarkably well.

It’s Al Ghul in the hood…

Of late,Son of the Demon has attracted a fair bit of attention because Grant Morrison softly brought it back into mainstream continuity. There appear to be some minor difference between the events here and the back story to Morrison’sBatman epic (for example, Morrison suggests that Talia date-raped Bruce to produce Damian), but one can sense the affection Morrison has for Barr’s work. (Indeed, even Barr’s run on Detective Comics seems to have influence Morrison.)

There’s quite a few places where you can see Barr’s influence on Morrison. The notion of Batman leading an army as he does here, doesn’t seem quite so ridiculous in the wake of Batman Incorporated. Similarly, Bruce’s fixation on the right of every child to grow up with loving parents seems especially cruel given that Bruce has been incredibly absent from Damian’s life, even after he eventually found out that he had a son.

Ra’s-ing hell…

Despite all this, I wish I could say I loved Son of the Demon. It has some very clever and intriguing concepts, but Barr’s Batman is just so overwrought and melodramatic. It’s a bit of a shame, as there are any number of smart ideas here, many of which would go on to inspire Grant Morrison. There’s a considerable amount of food for thought here, even if the execution is a little disappointing.

You might enjoy our reviews of the other books in the Batman “Demon” trilogy:

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