Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Batman: Tales of the Demon review

*Major Spoilers*
  Oh boy, is this collection a primer on how overrated some creative teams and characters can get. This isn't a "best of" collection showcasing Ras Al Ghul, but his first appearances. Al Ghul was odd in that he was fairly subtly introduced through a name drop and then made cameos over various issues before taking center stage as a major villain. This gives the collection a disjointed feel at times (Batman says at one point that he’s tangled with Al Ghul many times even though all the previous times they’d met it was as uneasy friends), but it was unique for its day because it was an ongoing serial.

The first story, with Batman in Asia on the trail of a criminal named Dr. Darrk and his encounter with Al Ghul's daughter Fah-Lo-See Talia, has a great pulp atmosphere, so too does the first appearance of Al Ghul himself in the second, which is justly celebrated as a classic. Well-plotted, beautifully drawn, building up layer and layer of intrigue about Ras Al Ghul and his daughter, and best of all, giving Batman an actual chance to act as a detective, this one's a keeper. Only problem is, it's a bit too good, so good that its humorous ending seems abrupt and unsatisfying.
 Al Ghul and Talia continued to appear as wild card supporting characters that may or may not be evil. Ultimately, writer Denny O' Neil appeared to lose interest in developing the characters, and their characterization becomes spotty, with Batman unarguably considering the Al Ghul's allies at times, then treating them curtly at others and attacking members of their organization even though they fight for the same cause.
  As a result of this, when Batman finally becomes aware of their villainy, it comes across as extremely unconvincing since it’s treated as a big shock for Batman, even though it’s clear that he’s never been too comfortable with them in the first place. Batman seemingly has no trouble with the shady and sinister actions the two have taken, many for frivolous purposes, such as seeing whether Batman is a suitable boyfriend for Talia by kidnapping Robin and threatening to expose Batman's secret identity, and he surprisingly doesn't seem too dissatisfied with either of them killing people.

 So what finally alerts him to Ra's villainy? Ras harvests a murder victim’s brain so he can probe it for information. Okay, that is pretty disturbing, but it's only to obtain essential information for solving a case. Batman blows a gasket over this, and immediately decides that Ras is power-hungry and must be destroyed. Now, probing dead brains isn't exactly something you see good guys doing, but look at some of the things Batman himself has done to interrogate criminals! To be fair, the brain is depicted in agony, and Batman puts it out of its misery, but just because someone is inhumane doesn't automatically make them "a modern-day Hitler" (a term used repeatedly to describe Al Ghul). Possibly Batman concluded that Al Ghul had committed the murder to obtain the brain himself, but we never actually see him make that conclusion or learn if that's the case. Like I said, Batman’s seemingly been okay with these people committing cold-blooded murder and threatening his friends and identity, but keeping a guy’s disembodied brain alive is where he draws the line?

 Maybe he just had bad memories of this old adventure:

 Batman also misconstrues a line Ras delivers about making the world a better place to mean he intends to conquer it and forge it into a utopia, without any proof Ras means such a thing (Although to be fair, his assumptions were correct in this case). Yeah, we're expected to believe that Batman has never made a similar statement or heard it from one of his superhero buddies, but when the creepy foreign dude makes it, he's a megalomaniac that has to be put down at all costs (Batman actually fakes Bruce Wayne’s death). So basically Batman's entire reason for concluding Al Ghul is an evil monster who has supplanted the Joker and Adolf Hitler is based off of jumping to a conclusion. We later learn that Ras intends to make the earth beautiful once again by purging it of all humans save for a select few, so that it can resemble the barren deserts and snowy mountains he feels at home in. If that had been what Ras had said, it would have made more sense for Batman to conclude he’s a monster.
You're none of those things Ras, you're an errand boy...collecting slutty outfits for your daughter
So what does Batman do to take down these sinister, inhumane, untrustworthy former allies of his? He recruits….sinister, inhumane, untrustworthy people as allies......fuck it, makes sense to me!

 Batman's team is made up of a whiny, reluctant professor named Blaine who pretty much proves useless until the very end, a gangster named "Matches" Malone who shoots himself accidentally and whom Batman impersonates from thereon (Becoming a lasting aspect of the Batman mythos), a member of Ras Al Ghul's own cult named Lo Ling who Batman recruits with absolutely no reason to believe he's trustworthy and who spends the rest of the storyline attempting to either back out or kill him even after swearing loyalty to Batman for saving his life (The next issue begins with a five-page fight between Batman and Ling where Ling attempts to stab him), and a ski champion named Molly who wanders into all this and also just coincidentally happens to be hunting Al Ghul herself because her boyfriend became an alcoholic after an encounter with him (Seriously!!!). Perhaps I’m being too hard on her though, for a character that makes her debut late in the storyline, she actually comes off as pretty likeable. So does Matches Malone too, or at least, Batman’s impersonation of him. Good thing Bats didn’t try and pull a Weekend at Bernie’s stunt with the corpse, although that could have been amusing.
The very likeable and useful (Not) Dr. Blaine
 Still the question remains, why would Batman recruit these untrustworthy, squabbling fools? If Ras is such a potential threat, why not ask his Justice League buddies for help? Okay, that would seem too obvious or too anticlimactic. So why not recruit some obscure heroes like the Creeper? Or since O' Neil apparently wanted to make Batman's team interesting and edgy, why not recruit some of his more sympathetic villains? Nope.

  So anyway, Batman and his team arrive at Ras’s stronghold only to find out that….he’s dead. (Never is it explained how he supposedly died) only for him to be revived by his Lazarus Pit.

 By the way, on the subject of the Lazarus Pit, in its first appearance, it is depicted as a technological device inside a sterile, metal laboratory rather than a supernatural one in a cave, as has become the common depiction. It’s also shown in one of Ras’s earlier “good-guy” appearances that he has other methods of reviving himself, such as Frankenstein-like electrodes. He also specifically says that there’s a limit to how often he can use the pit, and that sooner or later, it won’t work on him. Now there’s a detail that modern writers have ignored.
  The storyline devolves from there into a pursuit story (Although for the record, it’s a pretty fun one), then into a slugfest, although Batman's sword-fight (and sucker punch) with Ras at the conclusion of the 'saga" is one of the best art jobs of Neal Adam's career, and probably the main reason this whole storyline became regarded as a classic. It aims for a sort of Bond-flavor, but comes off more like a Saturday Matinee serial.
Best two panels of Neal Adam's career, brought to you by me with the magic of MSpaint!

 The rest of the book's contents feature Ras’s other appearances, the best of which is a one-issue story illustrated by Michael Golden where Ras marries off Talia to Batman while he loots the city (and which may have inspired aspects of Batman Begins such as Ras unleashing gas on the populace). It works as a frivolous adventure, nothing more. It’s then followed by a three issue ‘epic’, which once again treats Ras and Talia as unstable allies of Batman, although they only make minor appearances and their involvement is treated as something of a surprise (Which makes the decision to include it in here sort of weird).

  All in all, while I appreciate the obvious pulpish influences that went into the concept of Ras, making him equal parts Fu Manchu, John Sunlight and the Hammer films version of Dracula, and while the character has been used to much greater effect by other writers, here in these original stories (up until that marriage story), we never get a sense or even confirmation of Ras being much of a grand-scale threat, and certainly not worthy of usurping the Joker as Batman's archfoe. Little use is made of the relationship between Batman and Talia to give these stories emotional conflict (Again, until the ‘marriage’ story, although there’s a nice ‘quite’ moment at the conclusion of the three-parter at the end), and Ras becomes the most menacing, oddly enough (Despite his reputation as a mastermind whose mind is his greatest weapon), when he’s duking it out with Batman after he goes temporarily insane following exposure to his Lazarus pit.
 At best this "saga" comes off as an occasionally entertaining story about Batman misjudging a man and turning out to be right by the dumbest of coincidences. At worst, it comes off as an attempt to create a great villain that tries waaaay too hard at times, and waaaay too little at others. And while it sounds like I'm being too harsh on Batman's characterization, really, if he was real it's his own damn fault for trusting a guy whose name translates as "The Demon's Head" then finally realizing the guy is bad news because he has a Donovan’s Brain tank. Still, get this collection for the artwork alone: Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Michael Golden and Don Newton. How could you go wrong?

 By the way, there’s also an introduction by Sam Hamm, writer of the 1989 Batman movie, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the best ever dissection of the divide between people who prefer the Adam West show and those who prefer a darker Batman; a debate that long-time readers of mine know is dear to my heart:
  Tales of The Demon is worth snatching up for some great art, a handful of stories which are enjoyable as one-offs, and some fairly amusing moments throughout. Still, I can’t say it really deserves more than a 2 ½ out of 5. It does read very quickly though.

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