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Batman: Birth 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.

Birth of the Demon is very much the odd one out of the Demon trilogy. Of the three stories, it is the only one not written by Mike W. Barr. It also is arguably the most reflective of the three stories in the series, focusing on the origin of Ra’s Al Ghul more than in any modern conflict with Bruce Wayne. Still, it all feels strangely appropriate that, more than a decade after his creation, Denny O’Neil should return to tell the back story of his most iconic addition to the Batman mythos.

Shadow of the bat…

Denny O’Neil is, if you ask me, the unsung hero of modern Batman. Frank Miller’s monumental Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One tend to usurp a lot of the credit for updating Batman for the modern age, but it was really Denny O’Neil who helped shepherd the character back from the camp excess of the Adam West era. It was O’Neil who supervised the reintroduction of adult themes into the books, who gave the Joker back his teeth and developed a somewhat darker iteration of the Caped Crusader. It remains a shame that so little of O’Neil’s work on the character is readily available to modern audiences, scattered throughout artist-centred collections.

Even a nice hardcover collection of O’Neil’s earlier Al Ghul stories, in paperback as Tales of the Demon, would be more than welcome, as it’s very rare to see a single writer so steadfastly guide a particular character within a broader and wider mythos. Those early stories define the character of Ra’s Al Ghul wonderfully and efficiently. Here, Batman refers to Al Ghul as “my greatest enemy”, and it’s thanks to those early stories by O’Neil that one could credibly make that case. Al Ghul remains perhaps the largest and most important addition to Batman’s iconic rogues’ gallery in the past fifty years. Only Bane could argue to have made an impression relatively close to Al Ghul’s, and he had to break Batman’s back in order to do so.

Holy undead Caped Crusader, Batman!

So it feels somewhat fitting that O’Neil should finally present us with the origin story for this super villain, even it it is pretty much what one might have expected. There aren’t too many surprises to be found here. I do love the fact that the last of the Demon trilogy is the one that deals with Ra’s origin and birth, after Bride of the Demon showed us something approaching his “death.” It feels like an appropriate comment on serialised fiction, where major characters are rarely truly allowed to die. Any major death in comic books is almost immediately followed by a resurrection (or rebirth). So it feels like a smart bit of meta-commentary to follow one of Ra’s deaths with the story of his birth.

While the content of the story is pretty predictable, O’Neil does a rather wonderful job here establishing Ra’s as an effective foil for Batman. In his previous life, we learn, Ra’s was a man of science and a healer – much like Bruce’s father, Thomas. Indeed, it’s not too hard to imagine that Bruce would have gladly taken on the younger Ra’s as a father figure, despite his resistance to the modern Ra’s attempts to coopt him as an heir to his vast criminal empire.

Calling a spade a spade…

I’ll confess that I’ve always found that connection somewhat tenuous at best. While Ra’s and Bruce both share a keen intellect, I find it strange that Ra’s is somehow under the illusion that he might convince Bruce to support his genocidal plans. Bruce could not continence the murder of a single criminal, so it always seemed strange to me that Ra’s would think it possible for the hero to ever except the death of the majority of humanity as a justifiable end. I think that the best Ra’s stories, like this one, play down that sort of fundamental difference, and instead focus on the methodologies that link both Ra’s and Bruce.

Like so many of Batman’s villains, Ra’s has endured what Alan Moore described as “one bad day” back in The Killing Joke. Like Bruce, he lost his family to a random act of violence. Unlike Bruce, he was never able to get past that fact. Bruce keeps his family name alive through his charity work, and he lives in a house named after them, with their portrait looking down on him. Ra’s, on the other hand, divorced himself from the family that caused him so much pain. While Bruce holds on to the joy that his parents brought him, Ra’s seeks to forget that happiness – leaving him only pain and anger.

He had his scroll life ahead of him…

“He wanted nothing of his people to survive,” Talia suggests, “not even a word from their language. He would say it was part of his revenge. I believe there was another reason. I think he wanted no reminder of his dead wife, so great was his grief.” Ra’s sees that emotional link as a weakness. He warns the sultan, who allows the love of his son to blind him to reality, “Excellency, your love twists your mind, counterfeits your memory…” Ra’s perhaps rationalises his decision to try to suppress his own memory as an attempt to avoid diluting his anger and rage – to him, to remember the happiness and joy would soften his resolve, and betray his wife.

As such, O’Neil suggests that Ra’s genocidal rage is rooted in that most tragic of losses. He wiped an entire civilisation off the face of the planet (including their language) because they reminded him of his wife, so it’s hardly unlikely that the same loss motivates his attempt to wipe out all civilisation. He might justify it with his call towards harmony, but it’s possible that his love for his wife was so all-consuming that any human contact can’t help but remind him of her. Perhaps. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it.

A fight to the undeath…

Of course, O’Neil shrewdly suggests that such things are open to interpretation. He’s not as skilled a writer as Alan Moore, so it isn’t as deft a suggestion as Moore’s “multiple choice past”, but the idea that Ra’s history is open to interpretation is broached. Talia and Bruce clash over the motivations that drove Ra’s. Talia is inherently sympathetic, while Bruce is less so. When Talia suggested his purge was motivated by grief, Bruce responds, “Or his pride.” Talia counters, “You refuse to allow him his nobility.” Bruce answers, “I refuse to believe it exists.”

Similarly, they disagree over Ra’s refusal to allow Talia’s mother access to the Lazarus Pit. “He couldn’t save her?” Bruce asks. “He chose not to,” Talia replies. Bruce observes, “Probably found her unworthy.”It’s worth noting that Ra’s himself is silently observing this conversation, and never interjects to support one side or the other. Each interpretation is plausible, but O’Neil leaves it up to the reader to weigh in on the nobility of Ra’s Al Ghul. All while, it must be said, being sure not to present him as a hero. Even in the version of history recorded by his own people, his actions are truly horrifying.

Go on, Talia him everything…

There is one difference between Ra’s and Bruce that O’Neil returns to, time and again, and it’s actually quite fascinating. O’Neil suggests that, despite their similarities, Bruce lacks the sort of faith to believe in the same mysticism that Ra’s takes for granted. Ra’s isn’t a blind zealot – he’s smart enough to invent biological warfare, for example – but he is open to more magical subject matter than even Bruce will allow.

When Talia suggests that Bruce is using magic to find the sites of the Lazarus Pits, Ra’s immediately (and correctly) dismisses the possibility. “No,” Ra’s assures his daughter. “He is a creature of intellect. Employing the occult would be abhorrent to him.” As such, Ra’s sees the world in more mystical terms, haunted by nightmares of a dragon (or a bat) that seem almost prophetic. Although he’s a man of science, he finds the Lazarus Pit through his dreams. When Bruce states they’ve been enemies for years, Ra’s corrects him. “No, you’ve been chasing me for centuries.”

Even the Demon has his demons…

I think that’s actually one of the aspects of Ra’s that helps him stand out as a Bat-villain. He has a distinctly mystical edge, as a man who has lived for centuries through some strange hybrid of the occult and the sciences. He’s not so far outside the norm that he can’t blend in with Batman’s more grounded selection of villains, but he has that additional edge. He challenges Batman’s stoic rationalism, without veering into the realm of aliens or mutants. His very existance as an immortal sets him against Batman’s rigidly-defined mortality. Batman is, after all, merely a man. Everything featuring Ra’s somehow feels greater and more epic and more significant than a confrontation with the Joker or Two-Face or the Penguin. Ra’s has a sort of permanence that makes him almost unique among Batman’s core villains, a quasi-immortality in contrast to the decidedly mortal aspects of Batman’s world.

It’s worth noting that O’Neil’s portrayal of Batman is as skilled as ever. Bruce is intense, but not quite the “Bat-jerk” that he’d become during the nineties. Batman is brutal and terrifying, but not without cause. “Don’t hurt me,” a goon pleads. “I won’t,” Batman promises. “Not if you leave now.”This version of Batman is obsessive – to the point of ignoring his failing health while he hunts Ra’s Al Ghul. He is occasionally short tempered, although he does immediately apologise when he crosses the line.

Getting a few digs in…

It’s interesting that O’Neil’s version of Batman, perhaps the most archetypal long-term portrayal of the character, seems to be willing to consider killing Ra’s Al Ghul, despite his rigid “no kills” policy. Of course, Al Ghul is typically an exception to Batman’s rule – perhaps because of the scale of the threat, or perhaps because of the massive personal danger he poses to Bruce’s friends and family. Even Mike W. Barr, the writer who started the trilogy, seems to deem Ra’s an exception. Batman Begins allows Bruce to kill Ra’s through a technicality.

Here we see Bruce strategically attempting to deny Ra’s access to the Lazarus Pit. It’s not technically murder – it’s more allowing nature to run its course. It’s actually wonderfully in character for Bruce as a tactician – strategic resource denial. However, when directly confronting Ra’s Bruce seems to accept that it’s a kill-or-be-killed situation. And he doesn’t seem to mind. When Ra’s suggests that that there are two outcomes (Ra’s dies or Bruce dies), Bruce posits a third. It’s not – as one might expect – that nobody dies. It’s that they both die. I wonder if Bruce’s “one rule” has a codified “Al Ghul exception.”

You shall not pass…

O’Neil’s writing is a little strange here. On one hand, it’s just a little bit flowery. At one point, Al Ghul seems like he’s about to compose epic poetry about his man-crush on death. “Mankind’s greatest and final enemy,” he laments. “The merciless felon who is always lurking nearby, ready to snatch from us all we hold dear. The mocker of all our dreams, hopes, aspirations. Our cruel master. Death. How I do hate death.” Sure, he says he hates it, but methinks he doth protest too much. Of course, this purple prose actually fits the story quite well – it is, after all, supposed to be an epic saga.

That makes it, on the other hand, a little awkward when O’Neil uses the odd colloquialism. When the sultan remarks on Al Ghul’s magic, the villain corrects him, “Not magics, Excellency. Science.” The Sultan replies, “Whatever.”It feels like a very strange statement to read in a story set so long ago. I mean, I understand we’re supposed to accept that there’s some translation convention in effect, but if feels more than a little odd when O’Neil goes to such pains to ensure he case speaks so eloquently. Still, it’s a minor problem.

Beating up an old man? That’s a bit much, Bruce?

The art is provided by Norm Breyfogle, who paints it. The result is a lavish and stylish saga that feels somewhat more epic than most classic Batman stories. Breyfogle is, to me, one of the great Batman artists, and I’m amazed that DC have yet to put out a collection of Breyfogle’s work with Alan Grant on the character. The pair were largely responsible for guiding the character into the nineties, and I’d love a nice hardcover collection to sit alongside my other artist collections.

Birth of the Demon is a nice little story. It’s not quite solid enough to join the pantheon of truly iconic Batman stories, but it is a solid read, and one of the best Ra’s Al Ghul stories ever written. Any excuse to have either Denny O’Neil or Norm Breyfogle working on the character is worth your time, and to see them paired on a tale featuring one of the truly iconic Batman characters is icing on the cake. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty impressive.

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

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6 Responses

  1. Based on your review, I’ve ordered the Demon trilogy paperback, Darren. Thanks.

    • Thanks. I hope you enjoy it. I have a very soft spot of Ra’s as an opponent of Bruce – although I’ll confess my Batman favourite villain is The Riddler.

      I hope you enjoy it!

  2. I’ve still never read a superhero comic book of any kind, but that artwork is gorgeous. Is this trilogy an okay place to start for someone who has never read the Batman comics and is only familiar with his story through movies and pop cultural osmosis?

    • David, they should be okay. Being honest, if you’ve seen Nolan’s three films, you should be perfectly fine. (Just because Nolan’s establishes Ra’s quite well, and while he skips certain fantastic aspects of the character, he sets up the Batman/Ra’s dynamic perfectly.)

      However, there are a bunch of better “jumping on” points – although I’m not sure that any of them look quite as lovely as this. Tim Sale’s and Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween is painted superbly be Sale and quite close to The Dark Knight in theme. (The “freaks” replacing the mobs.)

      Incidentally, I’ll be doing a quick list of comic book recommendations next week. Because Batman is so vast, I’m just striggling with how to break it down. Thinking by entry point. So “if you liked Nolan’s Batman, then try…” or “if you liked Adam West’s Batman…” or “if you liked Tim Burton’s Batman…” and so on.

      • Sounds like I’d be fine starting with this series, then, if I decided to jump in. That could be a good way to break down recommendations on entry points for the comics, although I’m not sure if there would be any point to “If you liked Joel Schumacher’s Batman…” +)

      • Yep. I had to skip Schumacher. Or maybe incorporate into Burton.

        (Actually, I think Grant Morrison’s Batman & Robin is Schumacher done right – the bright aesthetic with the darker themes. And a damn fun series.)

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