Since I've started reading more, I've quickly come to realize that I am a slow as heck reader. Even books that are engrossing me seem to take forever to get through. This is often due to the fact that I only read during my commute, and I sometimes interrupt several days in a row of reading in favor of listening to podcasts or digesting something else (perhaps my Instapaper backlog or pieces of an audiobook) in favor of sticking with the book on which I'm currently working my way through.
That was the case with Kavalier & Clay, which I heavily enjoyed, but after finishing that I decided to make my way back to my Batman list. (Side note: I've started a more colorful index of my Batman reading here, mainly for my own enjoyment -- I like seeing all the books I've read laid out this way.) It's much easier for me to keep focus when I'm reading a trade paperback, where I don't let the process drag on for days. The size of these books, which usually chime in under 200 pages, is the primary reason for that ... along with the fact that I simply love reading comics more than I do books right now. My list picked up again (kinda) with The Cult, after most recently making my way through A Death in the Family and A Lonely Place of Dying.
So, uh, first things first. This was not read in the correct spot on the list. This is my fault, because I forgot that I had included The Cult in the list of Batman books I wanted to read -- I purchased it on Amazon and sorta forgot to add it to my list. It should have slotted in either right before or right after The Killing Joke, but certainly before Death in the Family, since it features the second Robin (Jason Todd), who is killed in Death in the Family. So, my bad on that. But a fun side effect of being a bit neurotic in my Batman reading is that I'm informing what I hope will be a useful list for people who want to get into reading Batman books themselves, not that my list would be the first of its kind.
It ultimately doesn't make a huge difference because of how detached The Cult feels from the Batman canon. It holds the weight of a major event in the Batverse -- something that brings Gotham City to its knees and almost destroys it -- but everything from the plot to the writing to the art separates it quite holistically from the more well-known books in the Dark Knight's career.
The brunt of the plot here is that Batman has been kidnapped and brainwashed by a religious cult leader named Deacon Blackfire. This dude's backstory is that he's a zillion years old and has made himself somewhat immortal by ... drinking blood. Hang onto your capes because this is a friggin' weird story. Blackfire has brainwashed a sizable chunk of Gotham City's homeless population, controlling them via "religious teachings" alongside some fair amounts of poison and general techniques of starvation, effectively creating for himself a huge army of people with nothing to lose. He mobilizes this army to become ruthless killers, and they start out by primarily targeting criminals in Gotham.
Between the effects of a reduced homeless population on the streets and the ridding of criminals, Gotham City citizens are actually torn about whether Blackfire is good for the city or not -- especially since they aren't fully aware of his methods. He runs his operations underground, in the city's abandoned sewer system, and operates relatively unseen. The police are, frankly, completely clueless and unable to stop him.
This story is trippy as hell because it begins with Batman being a useless shell of a hero. He's been shot, starved and brainwashed. He "sees the light" and becomes a part of the Deacon's army, even participating with a group that kills several men one night. We even see him hold a rifle, though he never shoots it in real life (he does kill many of his villains in daydreams / nightmares ... these scenes are especially weird and memorable). It's left ambiguous to a certain degree whether Batman actually kills anyone, but he struggles with his brainwashed mind serving up some nuggets of truth (like the fact that he's actually not a cult member most of the time) while he's acting in service of Blackfire. It's frustrating because the writer, Jim Starlin, renders Batman completely incapable of fixing his own issues due to the fuckery that's gone on inside his head.
Robin meets with Commissioner Gordon to express his concern that Batman is, uh, missing in action, even while a mysterious cult army is assassinating gang members. This is the type of thing that Batman normally pays attention to, when he's not otherwise preoccupied by joining said cult. Through a spurt of lucidity, Batman temporarily escapes and manages to get enough food in his system to come up with a plan for taking the cult down, before he's knocked out again and dragged into the sewers. While on his way to be killed by Blackfire's men, he manages to wrangle free and is eventually found by Robin in a truly gruesome scene as they're standing on a mound of dead bodies.
Oh yeah -- that's the other thing about this book. It's horrific in terms of its art. Not horrifically drawn, but drawn horrifically. Bernie Wrightson is a horror artist, and there are countless scenes of bloody murders and all-around gore. It's bad enough in spots that I felt self-conscious about having this thing out on the train -- not exactly what people associate with the lore of the Caped Crusader. Wrightson's talent is undeniable, though, and I'm semi-interested in eventually picking up some of his other work in non-Batman mediums.
Skipping forward through some sketchily laid out parts of this plot, the Deacon's plan is eventually exposed in public and his army goes on a killing spree. They attempt to assassinate Gordon, and they do assassinate the mayor and the entire Gotham City counsel, effectively rendering Gotham leaderless. The governor declares the city to be in a state of emergency, and the army is eventually called in as citizens are told to evacuate. In a division that resembles in some unsavory ways the political climate of modern times, there are still thousands of everyday people who decide to stay in Gotham, claiming that the city has been made better by the riddance of criminals, and these people are eventually rounded up into enslavement camps and forced to work. It's dark as hell. Most of this plot is told in a series of newscasts, which is a bit of a cop-out in my opinion, but it gets the job done without wasting too many pages.
Batman gets out of dodge with Robin and Alfred, and they set to work on a plan to retake Gotham, which has fully fallen into Blackfire's hands. Attempts by the army to infiltrate the city are spoiled by the sheer number of Blackfire's followers, so we find ourselves in a situation where Blackfire has near-total control of the city, and he feels he has fulfilled his destiny and is ready to die a legend. He waits for Batman to come back in the hopes that he will be killed while killing Batman, dying the grutesque death of a fucked-up martyr.
Together, Batman and Robin work up a plan that involves a Batmobile that's been suped up into a tank, a few rocket launchers, lots of knockout gas, and automatic rifles that fire knockout darts. It is still totally weird to see Batman wielding a rifle like this, even though you know it's not filled with IRL bullets. They slowly make their way through hordes of Blackfire's followers, knocking them out in droves with gas and darts. Batman faces off with Blackfire and beats the everliving crap out of him. It's a really rewarding scene, because the book portrays Blackfire and his followers as this horde of unstoppable monsters, when we know that Batman would be able to dispatch of this entire operation with relative ease if he were right in the mind and in the body. He doesn't wind up killing Blackfire himself, of course, but Batman and Robin both watch as the Deacon's crazed followers turn on him and literally rip him to shreds. This is a dark book.
Peace gets restored to Gotham in the last two pages, because who wants to examine the logistics of rebuilding an entire city's infrastructure? Not us, at least not right now. My final feelings on The Cult are mixed. It's a decent read overall, but I definitely would not recommend it to a novice Batman reader, nor would I recommend it to a reader who's looking for "the hits" in the Batman collection. It's definitely more up the alley of a person who wants to do a fairly deep dive into the character, or a person who is open to seeing the Batman character placed into some pretty weird situations. Even in that case, I don't view it as an essential pit stop in the road of the Batman chronology that I'm currently laying out.
Before The Cult's story gets underway, there's a forward by Starlin that explains his inspiration behind this four-issue mini-series. The forward was written in 1990, a few years after this mini-series was released, and Starlin is known best in the Batverse as the writer of A Death in the Family, so this is a bit of a curveball from him. He explains that in the '70s, comic books began to become a popular and more respected means of storytelling again, before the '80s brought around a more mature take on these characters. It made comic books a vehicle that adults could enjoy, rather than just teenagers. There was a lot of political action that ensued after this development, though, with lawmakers and religious leaders putting down comic books as poisoning the youth of America with evil thoughts -- a lot like the committees against comics back in the '50s and '60s, which, incidentally, is a topic touched on near the end of the book I just finished reading, Kavalier & Clay. This book was Starlin's gnashed, over-the-top response to the people who downed comics in that manner.
In that way, the book makes sense as a statement. But that doesn't necessarily make it required reading in modern times. Up next is the celebrated Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison, so I'm looking forward to getting back into a more standard swing of things with the Batman chronology.
Batman: The Cult is available on Amazon in physical format. It's also on Comixology if you wanna go digital. Clicking on and purchasing from Amazon links on this blog provides a small kickback to the author.