By Jim Starlin & Bernie Wrightson, with Bill Wray (DC Comics)
After the runaway success of The Dark Night Returns proved that fans wanted tales with darker, edgier heroes and would stump up big bucks to get them, the floodgates opened for miniseries released on expensive Baxter paper in book-like formats. DC quickly complied, following up with this deceptively effective thriller by two of the industryâ€™s biggest fan-favourites: Jim Starlin and master of horror Bernie Wrightson, ably augmented by colour artist Bill Wray.
The story begins with â€˜Ordealâ€™ as the Batman, experiencing mind-bending hallucinations and irresistible cravings to commit bloody slaughter, slowly awakes to the realisation that he has lost track of how long he has been a has been a prisoner of the army of hoboes and gutter-trash who have taken over Gotham Cityâ€™s worst streets. They are being organised and led by a charismatic quasi-priest named Deacon Blackfire.
Moreover the dark messiah claims to be an immortal medicine man of the lost Miagani people who ruled the land before the White Men cameâ€¦
Batman knows what Deacon is doing: using standard techniques developed by cult-leaders and spies to break down resistance. Pain, isolation, starvation and drugs are all employed to break down resistance and individuality: but he just canâ€™t stop his iron resolve crumbling under the assault. It is more than any man can bearâ€¦
In flashbacks that heighten the aura of confusion, the story unfolds: the cityâ€™s worst predators were being found beaten or dead and the worst areas of the metropolis suddenly became safer to live in. But the good news soon took a dark turn. Fewer thugs were worked over and dumped but far more went missing with only bloodstains and silence to mark their passing. Batman followed the clues into the sewersâ€¦ and wasnâ€™t seen again.
Crime levels are down: thieves, pimps and muggers too scared to venture out. Commissioner Gordon and Robin know itâ€™s too good to be true, but public opinion is hugely supportive of Deacon Blackfireâ€™s campaignâ€¦
And deep underground the Dark Knight is crumbling as the army of derelicts find they have a taste for blood. Already their definition of what constitutes valid targets has slippedâ€¦
In â€˜Captureâ€™ the broken bat becomes one of Blackfireâ€™s army but he balks at murder and instead escapes into the night, rambling and incoherent as he fights off the drugs and conditioning. When Blackfire moves to seize control of the entire city, assassinating police and officials, Batman is recaptured, but this time Robin follows him to the grim world of tunnels and terror. The dynamic duo make a break for freedom, but end up deeper underground and find horrifying proof of the depths of the Deaconâ€™s terrible madnessâ€¦
â€˜Escapeâ€™ sees the hobo army amok in the streets as Robin struggles to break the broken Batman out of the sewer citadel and Gordon finds impossible evidence that Deaconâ€™s claims to immortality might not be spurious. However total anarchy has taken hold with citizens being casually murdered in their homes and when Gordon is gunned down the National Guard declares Martial Law. With Batman mentally incapacitated, when the military units are massacred the federal government pulls out, abandoning Gotham and its helpless population to Blackfireâ€™s disciplesâ€¦
With the situation hopeless Robin and Alfred can only wait to see if Bruce Wayne will ever be able to become Batman again. After a harrowing reexamination of his history and purpose, a determined, angry and far Darker Knight emerges with new tactics, harsher weapons and an unshakable hunger to destroy Blackfire and take back his cityâ€¦
Batman: the Cult is a grim and powerful thriller that emphasises the psychological rather than physical or technical attributes of the most popular superhero in the world, but the saga is still packed with tension and suspense peppered with spectacular action set-pieces. Fierce, frenzied and ferociously fun, this is a long neglected slice of Batmania ripe for reappraisal.
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