By Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Dick Giordano, Michael Golden, Don Newton & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1401299439 (HB)
After three seasons the overwhelmingly successful Batman TV show ended in March, 1968. Clocking up 120 episodes plus a theatrical-release movie since its premiere on January 12, 1966 it had triggered a global furore of “Batmania” fomenting hysteria for all things costumed, zany and mystery-mannish.
Once the series foundered and crashed, global fascination with “camp” superheroes burst as quickly as it had boomed, and the Caped Crusader was left to a hard core of dedicated fans and followers who hoped they might now have “their” hero back.
For comic book editor Julius Schwartz – who had tried to keep the most ludicrous excesses of the show off his pages whilst still cashing in on his global popularity – the solution was simple: ditch the tired shtick, gimmicks and gaudy paraphernalia and bring Batman back to basics, solving baffling mysteries and facing life-threatening perils.
That also meant phasing out the boy sidekick. Although the college freshman Teen Wonder would pop back for the occasional guest-shot yarn, this monument to comics ingenuity and narrative brilliance features him only sporadically. Robin had finally spread his wings and flown the nest for a solo back-up slot in Detective Comics, alternating with TV-derived newcomer Batgirl.
This themed collection re-presents some of the key clashes between the Gotham Guardian and immortal mastermind eco-activist Ra’s al Ghul – a contemporary and more acceptable visual embodiment of the classic inscrutable foreign devil as typified in a less forgiving age as the Yellow Peril or Dr. Fu Manchu. This kind of alien archetype permeates fiction as an overwhelmingly powerful villain symbol, although the character’s Arabic origins, neutral at the time, seem to embody a different kind of ethnic bogeyman in today’s post 9/11 world. These legendary tales and supplementary material come from Batman #232, 235, 240, 242-244; DC Special Series #15; Detective Comics #411, 485, 489-490; Limited Collector’s Edition C-51; and Saga of Ra’s al Ghul #1-4.
The concept of a villain who has the best interests of the planet at heart is not a new one, but Ra’s Al Ghul, whose avowed intent is to reduce teeming humanity to viable levels and save the world from our poison, hit a chord in the 1970s – a period where ecological issues first came to the attention of the young. It was a rare kid who didn’t find a note of sense in what the Demon’s Head planned. I wonder how the latest crop of youthful would-be planet-savers feel about him?
Background and more is discussed in screenwriter Sam Hamm’s recycled 1991 Introduction to that year’s landmark graphic novel compilation of this saga, before the timeless contest of indomitable wills begins with a seminal story from Detective Comics #411. ‘Into the Den of the Death-Dealers’ was written by Denny O’Neil, illustrated by the great Bob Brown, and inked by Dick Giordano, featuring the sinister League of Assassins and introducing exotic mystery woman Talia.
Neal Adams & Dick Giordano joined O’Neil for Batman #232’s ‘Daughter of the Demon’: a signature high-point of the entire Batman canon. It details an exotic chase and mystery yarn drawing an increasingly Dark Knight from Gotham’s concrete canyons to the Himalayas in search of hostages Robin and Talia. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t read this much reprinted tale, I’m not going to spoil the joy that awaits you…
Batman #235 sees penciller Irv Novick join regulars O’Neil & Giordano for ‘Swamp Sinister’, a tale of bio-hazard and double cross affording some early insights into the true character of Talia and her ruthless sire. The same creative team sets the scene for the groundbreaking “series-within-a-series” soon to follow when ‘Vengeance for a Dead Man’ (Batman #240) has Batman uncover one of Ra’s Al Ghul’s less worthy and more grisly projects. As a result, open war begins between Batman and the Demon…
Batman #242-244 and an epilogue from #245 (still-infuriatingly absent from this supposedly definitive collection) formed an extended saga and was taken out of normal DC continuity. It promised what was to be the final confrontation between two opposing ideals. Novick pencilled first episode ‘Bruce Wayne – Rest in Peace!’ wherein Batman gathers a small team of allies – including still-active-today underworld insider Matches Malone – to destroy the Demon forever. Adams returned with second chapter ‘The Lazarus Pit’, which offered titanic action, rollercoaster drama and what seemed to we consumers of the day to be a brilliant conclusion to the epic. But with the last three pages the rug was pulled out from under us and the saga continued!
How sad for modern fans with so many sources of information today: the chances of creators genuinely surprising devoted readers are almost non-existent, but in the faraway 1970s we had no idea what to expect from #244 when ‘The Demon Lives Again!’ hit shops and newsstands.
In a classic confrontation, Batman ultimately triumphs and Ra’s Al Ghul disappeared for years. He was considered by DC as a special villain and not one to be diluted through overuse. How times change…
By 1978 the company was experimenting with formats and genres in a time of poor comic sales. Part of that drive was an irregular anthology entitled DC Special Series and from the all-Batman #15 comes an oddly enticing gem scripted by O’Neil and drawn by a talented young newcomer called Michael Golden, with inks from the ubiquitous Dick Giordano.
‘I Now Pronounce you Batman and Wife’ is a stylish, pacy thriller that anticipates the 1980s sea-change in comics storytelling, but its most interesting aspect is the plot maguffin which later inspired a trilogy of graphic novels in the 1990s and today’s Damien Wayne/Robin.
September 1979 brought another key multi-part epic, represented here by Detective Comics #485, 489 and 490. Although picky me still wishes that all parts were included, the truncated version here suffers no significant loss of narrative flow as Batman is dragged into a civil war for leadership of the Al Ghul organization between the Demon and the aged oriental super-assassin the Sensei – whom older fans will know as the villain behind the murder of aerialist Boston Brand and birth of Deadman.
O’Neil, Don Newton & Dan Adkins open proceedings in ‘The Vengeance Vow!’ as a long-standing member of the Batman Family is murdered, drawing Batman into battle with deadly mind-controlled martial artist Bronze Tiger. After thwarting the Sensei’s schemes for months, the saga cataclysmically concludes in ‘Where Strike the Assassins!’ and ‘Requiem for a Martyr!’
Whilst perhaps not as powerful as the O’Neil/Novick/Adams/Giordano run, this serial is a stirring thriller with a satisfactory denouement, elevated to dizzying heights by the magnificent artwork of Don & Adkins. Newton’s Batman could well have become the definitive 1980s look, but the artist’s tragically early death in 1984 cut short what should have been a superlative and stellar career.
In recent years, Ra’s Al Ghul has become Just Another Bat-Foe: familiarity indeed breeding mediocrity, if not contempt. But these unique tales from a unique era are comics at their very best in this definitive archival landmark.
Adding lustre to proceedings is a gallery of pertinent covers taken from early trade paperback collections. Brian Stelfreeze produced a brace of stunners with 1991’s Batman: Tales of the Demon TPB in editions for DC Comics and Warner Books; Adams created the potent image used on this very edition in a wraparound treat gracing Limited Collector’s Edition C-51 (August 1977) whilst Jerry Bingham & Dick Giordano and Adams & Rudy Nebres delivered a quartet of covers for Saga of Ra’s al Ghul #1-4 (January-April 1988). Also included here are an Afterword by Denny O’Neil and John Wells’ ‘The Saga of the Demon’s Head’ detailing the later schemes of the eternal thorn in humanity’s skin…
With the game-changing classics in this volume, Batman finally returned to the commercial and critical top flight he had deserved and enjoyed in the 1940s: reviving and expanding upon his original conception as a remorseless, relentless avenger of injustice. The next few years would see the hero rise to unparalleled heights of quality so stay tuned: the very best is just around the corner… that dark, dark corner…
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