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Batman – The Cult (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Dark Knight Returns has a lot to answer for.

Although written “out of continuity” as the last Batman story, critically deconstructing and examining the Caped Crusader, The Dark Knight Returns remains a hugely influential piece of the Batman canon. It’s a story that was hugely influential in comics as a whole, but which understandably had a major influence on Batman. To pick an easy example, both of the recent “guiding” writers on the Batman franchise – Scott Snyder and Grant Morrison – can be seen to react to The Dark Knight Returns a variety of ways.

They are dead to him.

They are dead to him.

In a way, no author was more responsible for porting over concepts from The Dark Knight Returns as effectively as Jim Starlin. Although Starlin is perhaps most associated with Marvel’s cosmic saga, the author did write two massively iconic and distinctive Batman stories. Starlin was the author who wrote A Death in the Family, the story that killed off Jason Todd. He also wrote The Cult, a story about Gotham under siege from an evil religious leader who manages to “break” Batman.

The Cult itself was influential. Aspects of The Cult can be seen in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, a story about an urban uprising from the sewers and Batman’s attempts to rebuild himself to save Gotham. Unfortunately, as with Starlin’s other iconic Batman story, there’s a sense that The Cult works better in theory than in execution.

A Deacon of light...

A Deacon of light…

The influence of The Dark Knight Returns is all over Starlin’s Batman work. In The Dark Knight Returns, it was suggested that the death of Jason Todd had forced Bruce Wayne to retire from the cowl. Given the popularity of Frank Miller’s vision, it was no surprise that DC sought to integrate certain elements into regular continuity. Since Jason Todd had never really caught on with readers, and since DC was looking for a high-profile event, the company decided to kill off Robin in A Death in the Family.

The Cult doesn’t borrow anything quite as significant from The Dark Knight Returns, although it borrows quite a few smaller elements. The story climaxes with riots in Gotham as Batman struggles to bring the city under control. Martial law is imposed to keep the city under control as the authorities collapse. There is even a re-designed Batmobile that evokes the tank from The Dark Knight Returns.

Batman is gunning for crime...

Batman is gunning for crime…

Starlin’s writing seems to channel Miller. There is the same grizzled and cynical tone to Batman’s narration and observations. “I’ve seen their type before,” Batman reflects as he encounters a bunch of violent teenagers. “Creatures without conscience or remorse.” During the fight, he reflects, “I decide to take it easy on them. But not too easy.” Starlin’s writing captures a lot of Miller’s voice, but there’s a lot less irony to The Cult.

One of the strengths of The Dark Knight Returns was that it seemed to be cynical and jaded about everything; Miller seemed to full of anger directed at the whole damn world. In contrast, The Cult seems a bit more reactionary. It is almost as if Starlin took everything in The Dark Knight Returns at face value – one of the biggest problems with the waves of imitators inspired by Miller’s work. It seems as if Starlin takes this jaded and bitter Batman as an ideal towards which he should aspire.

Talk about a short fuse...

Talk about a short fuse…

The first few pages feature an imaginary confrontation between Batman and the Joker. “I’ve taken more than enough of your garbage!” Batman protests. “Too many people have died because of you! Those poor souls haunt my nightmares!” As he hacks away at the Joker, Batman reflects, “It feels great! Why did I wait so long?!! If I’d known it would be satisfying, I would have done this a long time ago!”

The layout of panels featuring televisual panel discussions, and the thin veneer of social commentary, feel like they owe a debt to the work of Frank Miller. The problem, as with a lot of the imitations of The Dark Knight Returns, is that The Cult is not nearly as smart or as subversive. The best media gag comes as a city council man tries to spin the mysterious disappearance of Gotham’s homeless population in his favour. “Gotham is the first major city in this country to have solved its homeless people problem.”

Bullet time...

Bullet time…

The debt owed to Frank Miller becomes particularly obvious when the comic flashes back to Bruce’s origin. The panels are grouped tightly together to create tension, with a clear border existing between each evenly-spaced panel. It is a technique that Miller used very well in The Dark Knight Returns. Here, however, it feels like the comic book is simply treading familiar ground. Rather than taking the gauntlet thrown down by The Dark Knight Returns to push Batman into the future, The Cult is content to do the same stuff over.

This is a very clear attempt at imitation, and it feels like imitation. Miller was clever enough to break quite a few of the key rules of Batman. The story was shrewd and wry and ironic enough that it could bend Batman out of shape. One of the biggest problems with The Cult is that it lacks that knowing sense of humour. There’s a sense that too much of all this being played perfectly straight. There is a sense of humour, but it unfolds around Batman – as if the character himself must be taken seriously at all times.



This causes problems when The Cult goes a little off the rails – there’s a sense that The Cult never things about anything beyond what exists in the panel. The climax of the story features Batman using a machine gun. Given the character’s historical aversion to firearms, this is a pretty big deal. In Batman Beyond, being forced to use a firearm led Bruce to retire as Batman. He is forced to use a gun once in The Dark Knight Returns, in a moment of desperation, but he still gives a big speech about how guns are the weapon of the enemy.

However, The Cult doesn’t seem too bothered. “Seems strange, us having to use guns,” Jason confesses as Batman and Robin engage in target practice. However, the pair are discharging their bullets like nobody’s business by the climax. When the gun jams at a crucial moment, Batman laments, “This is another reason I hate using firearms… they’re undependable.”  There should really be only a single reason that matters, and dependability should not factor into it.

The Commissioner is out of commission...

The Commissioner is out of commission…

Similarly, the comic glosses over what Batman did while brainwashed by Deacon Black. Did Batman kill anybody? Or did he stop just short? How does he wrestle with that guilt? The Cult never confronts Batman’s actions. While it’s clear that his experiences with Blackfire have shaken him, The Cult never delves too deeply into the matter. Bruce sleeps in Wayne Manor for a little while, works up some courage, and then returns to vanquish Blackfire. It feels a little superficial, especially given the scale of the story.

This is to say nothing of larger plot holes. For example, why wouldn’t Deacon Blackfire unmask Batman while the Caped Crusader is in his custody? The answer is obvious – having Blackfire discover that Bruce Wayne is Batman would complicate the plot significantly. However, the plot never explores the idea. As with A Death in the Family – which features the Joker becoming the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations – the plot follows the arc Starlin wants it to follow, with little room for logic.



To be fair, there are some interesting aspects of The Cult. It is easy to see how it could have inspired Christopher Nolan. In some respects, The Dark Knight Rises owes as much to The Cult as it does to No Man’s Land, with Bane using an almost religious fervour to raise an army of the dispossessed to claim Gotham as their own. Even the iconography is similar – the bodies strung up on the street lamps here evoke the bodies dangling from the bridge in The Dark Knight Rises. (The Cult also provides the inspiration for that lovely “Batman visits Gordon in hospital, vows to return” scene.)

It’s also nice to see Starlin exploring the history of Gotham. In the late eighties and into the nineties, DC worked quite hard to construct a social history of Batman’s city. Here, for example, we get to meet the Miagani tribe – the Native Americans who inhabited the region before the European settlers. The Miagani would become incorporated into Grant Morrison’s history of Gotham, appearing in The Return of Bruce Wayne.

Letting it all hang out...

Letting it all hang out…

The Cult benefits from atmospheric artwork by Bernie Wrightson, the artist who helped Len Wein to create Swamp Thing. While Wrightson’s artwork does evoke Miller in places – particularly at the climax and in structuring the media panels – it retains its own identity. The Cult is a very moody, very dark piece of work. It looks absolutely stunning, and its unique style and atmosphere undoubtedly contributes to the book’s reputation. Starlin plays well to Wrightson’s strengths – at one point, Bruce is attacked by zombies of his parents, in a scene that works much better than it should.

The Cult is a mess. It can’t help but feel like a misfire, a clear attempt to capitalise on the success of The Dark Knight Returns without fully appreciating why The Dark Knight Returns worked so well in the first place. Much like A Death in the Family never lives up to the potential suggested by its premise, The Cult feels more like an imitation than a masterpiece.

3 Responses

  1. One tiny issue with this review- the guns Batman was using were tranquilizers- not that it matters a lot- the Cult was a disappointment. One scene of note- when the young would-be comics artist gets killed by the underworlders- the full page of simply the blood stained artwork- is exceptional- and moving.

    • Fair point, and good spot. But there’s still something uncomfortable about Batman holding guns. (Which is admittedly an arbitrary line at points. The Batmobile and Batbike frequently have machine guns and missiles, making the criticism a little hypocritical.) But there is something about image of Bruce actually holding a gun in his hands which is quite unsettling, and The Cult doesn’t seem to acknowledge it. (For example, his biggest complaint being about how guns are unreliable. Batman’s biggest problem with guns is not that they are unreliable!)

      • Agreed about the use of guns overall. Seems so cavalier about it. Would have liked more desperation- concern before he simply built bat tank version 1.0

        Still can’t figure why the writer (Starlin) – who went to all the trouble of having Jason Todd risk his own neck to save Batman (and Jason was not at all annoying or whiny in this issue) – was ok with the PR stunt of killing him off later. I suppose that team (Including Denny O’Neil) simply went ahead because Todd is seen as dead in Dark Knight Returns.

        Humph. Anyhow- good review overall- I’ll be checking out your other reviews as I go.

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