Please note that this review was written before the death of Bernie Wrightson. The score at the end of this review does not reflect his passing. He was a great artist and I respected him as much when he was alive as I do in death. I hope you enjoy the review
Batman: The Cult Review By Deffinition
I have fond memories of Batman: The Cult.
Back before I was a huge internet celebrity (just joking, but not really). I worked a minimum wage job and had to scrape every penny together that I could in order to buy comic books. Batman The Cult was out of print at the time and therefore, very expensive. This was before comic book apps too. EVERYTHING was physical. If you wanted to read a story you had to purchase it in real life (or piece together the story from Google Images).
Anyway I saved and I saved and I saved and got enough money to buy it and boy was it worth it.
This is probably my fourth read through of the story and I’m really anxious to get back into one of my favourite books to see how it has held up over time.
The book opens on Bruce Wayne as he dreams of murdering The Joker. He pictures how truly satisfying it would be. We know instantaneously that this will be a dark psychological look at the caped crusader and this is confirmed when he awakens from the dream to find himself captured, tied up (in bondage) and at the mercy of Deacon Blackfire. A near immortal Shaman who first arrived on the Gotham shores centuries ago with the Miagani people.
This is a brilliant tie into Batman lore.
Spectacular in its opening, the graphic novel throws you into the story at the deep end. Like the Dark Knight you feel delirious, unsure what’s going on, unable to remember what the shit you did last night.
It’s reminiscent of the morning after a heavy night out of drinking alcohol, where you spent most of the night making a fool of yourself. You idiot!
Something bad has happened and you don’t know what.
Throughout the opening, Batman is broken down, drugged, starved, preached to and the worst (or best) thing is…it works. He becomes converted and follows Blackfire as a mindless zealot doing his master’s work. This is an exciting take on the character, he is at the most vulnerable we have ever seen him and it truly feels like a book of despair and the fall before redemption.
A look at Gotham City
I chuckled to myself upon reading that the Deacon had used his network of homeless people to murder all the criminals in Gotham. The police didn’t know what was going on. They had no jobs to do, what with there being no crime now, and they didn’t like it. Gotham is such a bad place that it actually feels worse if there is no crime. It’s a paradoxical comedic look at the city that subtly lets you know how bad things got and how there may even not be a need for Batman when the Deacon is doing a better job.
This is like when the new guy starts at work and he’s better than you, you better start looking for another job pal because Batman has a new one now and he seems to be having a laugh…before the killing starts anyway.
It’s tough seeing our hero indoctrinated throughout the book. This is a true psychological look at drug abuse and regression as well as an abusive and submissive relationship. Batman idly stands by and lets his allies murder mobs and there is a true sense of terror both to the story and art. More so because all we can do is watch as Batman gets sucked into the underworld, a world that we have probably witnessed at least once in our life.
It’s like watching a friend slowly become addicted to drugs and lose who they are. Or a girl who has a controlling and abusive boyfriend who you can’t free because they don’t realise they are trapped. Harrowing throughout this tone elevates the book above a mere comic.
What do you mean I don’t have any friends? Or know any girls?
Starling has expertly juxtaposed the fantastical beginning of the book, gone are the vivid violent dreams, this time they are a reality. Batman is living in nightmare and one that we are desperate for him to get out of. It is really gripping stuff that will definitely keep a hold of your attention throughout.
‘The cure may kill me…but it’s better than the disease fear’
Batman’s redemption is enthralling. I always find that when the character has a fall, watching him stand back up is the most interesting aspect and this is no different.
The book makes it difficult for the Dark Knight to return to what he was. But what else can you expect when the plot is this steeped in reality. Batman has to go through hell to escape and with a little, actually a lot, of help from Jason Todd he makes it to the other side.
It’s a shame that Todd was killed off so shortly after this as it shows that when cradled by the right creator he can fit the role of Robin effortlessly. He too gets to be the hero, saving the caped crusader a couple of times and there really isn’t a dull moment in Batman’s redemption. The way the art has been crafted with hallucinations and the primality of man not only elevates the work, it also packs a punch and subtext that is missing from most modern comics. The road to recovery is a long one, taking up a good quarter of the story with Batman almost leaving Gotham to its fate at one point. However, this allows you to really feel for the character and gain pride for him upon his return. Which wouldn’t happen if he hadn’t been dragged through the guano (that’s bat crap if you didn’t know…which still makes that a poop joke…if not a slightly more sophisticated one).
‘There’s only one guaranteed way to ensure that everyone wants what you want. Religion’
It has to be noted that Deacon Blackfire is an outstanding villain. I love when writers create a formidable foe that enforces the plot instead of just forcing one of the rogues (or more famous villains) into the book to fit the story. Starling really put his all into this nemesis and he is the first person to truly break the bat. When he takes over the entire city and it descends into martial law we see the plot escalate to a level that it really hadn’t in the run thus far. His immortality is ambiguous and the plot keeps you guessing as to whether he is all powerful or just a very good conman. I wish that he would be used in more stories, however, this standalone performance is enough to still cement him above the likes of Mad Hatter (not him again) and the ilk.
The climax is a masterpiece, Bruce finally realises that he didn’t become the Batman to avenge his parent’s death. He did it to overcome the fear. The fear he faced in that alley. Plucking up his strength he and Robin head out in one of the best batmobiles ever…a giant monster truck. The entire final chapter is a thrilling ride that delivers on action, psychology…and…well…everything. It’s the perfect climax to the perfect book.
This is my fourth time reading The Cult and I am still completely blown away by just how good it is. I can see the influences of this book in almost all modern Batman Media from Arkham Knight to The Dark Knight Rises. It is the perfect tale the rise and fall of man and it manages to pack a sobering punch on several levels.
Ever since I read The Long Halloween 10 years ago I have always said that it is my favourite Batman Graphic Novel and always will be.
Today I realise I was wrong.
The Cult has now gained the title of The Best Batman Book that I’ve ever read (in my opinion…subject to change at any time). I highly recommend it to everyone. If you haven’t read it then you owe it to yourself. It’s perfect from start to finish.