Monday, April 29, 2019

BATMAN #243 & #244

Script: Denny O'Neil | Art: Neal Adams & Dick Giordano | Editor: Julius Schwartz

Note: Screenshots below come from BATMAN ILLUSTRATED BY NEAL ADAMS VOLUME 2 and are not representative of these stories' original colors (the covers are presented as published, however).

The Ra's al Ghul saga reaches its climax here, as Batman and his ragtag teams track the Demon to Switzerland. There, Lo Ling spies Talia and Ubu in a throng of people. The pair escapes, but Batman and friends, joined by championship skier Molly Post, pursue and enter al Ghul's stronghold -- only to find him dead. The groups departs with Talia, but al Ghul is secretly lowered by an automatic mechanism into a pool which restores his life. He emerges from his chalet and escapes with Talia.

Batman's teammmates are all injured or otherwise disabled, leaving the Darknight Detective alone as he tracks al Ghul and his daughter to the desert. There, al Ghul challenges Batman to a saber duel, but a scorpion's sting takes the Caped Crusader out of the fight. The Demon leaves Batman for dead, unaware that Talia has slipped her love an antidote. Batman appears in al Ghul's tent later, knocks him out, and hauls him away to justice.

I have to admit, I have mixed feelings regarding this story. Is it an epic? Yes, I'd say so. Globetrotting to exotic locales, a saber duel in the desert, a dramatic kiss to finish the story... it's all great stuff. But, much as I like it, I sometimes feel that it could've been so much more. I suspect that's due in large part to having seen the BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES adaptation, "The Demon's Quest", prior to reading these issues. Because of that, my opinion of the original story has long been colored by the immeasurable esteem in which I hold those episodes. (I generally consider them my favorites out of all the B:TAS installments.)

But even without comparing the comics to the cartoon, I have a few issues with these stories that get to me every time. They don't necessarily distract from my enjoyment of the overall adventure, but they're little nagging things.

One: In the opening scene of "The Lazarus Pit!", Batman spars with Lo Ling while Matches Malone watches. Later, after Lo departs, we learn that "Matches" is actually Robin in disguise. Batman thanks Robin for his help and sends him on his way. Now, the story does specifically state that Batman is trying to keep Robin out of his war against Ra's al Ghul; he wants the Teen Wonder to remain in Gotham City and take up the mantle of Batman should he die on this mission. And that's a touching bit; don't get me wrong. But just the same, it feels like O'Neil and Adams looking for a justification to keep Robin out of the story.

(Indeed, I sometimes wonder if O'Neil and Adams even like Robin all that much. They've included him in two stories so far "Night of the Reaper" and "The Lazarus Pit!", and in both he's sidelined early so Batman can finish the adventure alone. And let's not forget that in the eighties, it was Denny O'Neil, by then the editor of the Batman comics, who ran the notorious 800 number stunt where readers could vote on whether the second Robin, Jason Todd, should die!)

"Come to a chalet nestled high in the Swiss Alps... feel the clean bite of winter and listen to a distant scream of wind in endless crevices...

Here the Batman and his companions have captured Talia, daughter of arch-criminal Ra's al Ghul...

Here, also, they watched Ra's himself die... they thought!

But now, a powerful figure leaps toward them, a snarl in his throat and blood-lust glittering in his eyes-- the Demon lives again!"

My second issue is Batman's team. In last week's "Bruce Wayne--Rest in Peace!", the Caped Crusader attempted to recruit Matches Malone, successfully recruited Doctor Blaine, and took on Lo Ling unexpectedly. No real reason is given for why he wanted Malone, other than his "underworld contacts" -- but since the guy died before joining up, those contacts would seem to have been unnecessary. Blaine, we're told here, is along in case al Ghul throws any sort of "sciency" tricks in Batman's direction. And Lo Ling is here simply... because.

Here's the thing -- Batman doesn't need any of them! Lo Ling helps him fight a couple of goons he could have easily taken out himself. Blaine uses some phosphorous to set off an explosion and take out a machine gun nest, but you can't tell Batman, a pretty knowledgeable chemist in his own right, couldn't have done that himself. Blaine also confirms al Ghul is dead, which Batman could have done easily as well. The extra characters are totally superfluous to the story, and their presence makes Robin's omission feel even stranger.

And then there's Molly Post -- she seems added to be sort of a "Bond Girl" for this story -- in fact, to my eye she looks to be based on Jill St. John's appearance as Tiffany Case in 1971's DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, which would make sense given when this issue would've been drawn (mid-'72). St. John may have lingered in Adams' mind's eye as he drew the character. At any rate, she has a beef with Ra's al Ghul and just happens to bump into Batman as he hunts the Demon, so that works out well. Batman and Molly share a little flirtation and she tries to stop al Ghul and Talia from escaping, but she is likewise pretty unnecessary to the story. However, unlike Blaine and Lo Ling, I give her a small pass since it appears O'Neil was setting her up to be a recurring character -- he would use her one more time after these two issues before dropping her entirely.

But I think my biggest problem with these stories is the lack of stakes. We know Batman has learned that al Ghul will go to any lengths to accomplish his goals. We've also gotten occasional mentions of his desire to see Earth restored to its former glory. But we've never actually seen him do anything to further his ultimate goal. Even here, Batman has simply decided enough is enough and taken the fight to his foe, but that's it. He catches al Ghul in the desert where he's regrouping with his men, but for no other reason than to arrest the guy.

Again, I'll point back to "The Demon's Quest" (apparently I lied about not comparing these issues to the cartoon), where the producers of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES solved this problem beautifully. There, in addition to his personal grudge against al Ghul, Batman also saves the world. When he finds the Demon in the desert on TV, al Ghul is preparing to detonate bombs at all the Lazarus Pits around the world, which will wipe out most life and civilization. It's a Bond-style plot where the stakes are massive, and the villain's defeat in the end is all the more momentous for that reason.

So I like "The Lazarus Pit!" and "The Demon Lives Again!" -- they have, as always, great scripts from O'Neil and wonderful artwork from Adams and Giordano. They're filled, practically from page-to-page, with iconic moments which are ingrained in the minds of Batman fans nearly fifty years later. Even people who haven't read these stories know the imagery: the shirtless saber duel, the shirtless kiss with Talia, Batman barging (shirtless) into al Ghul's tent. These stories are, like so many O'Neil/Adams productions, stronger than the sum of their parts -- because, much as I do like them, when taken at their barest, they're pretty skimpy stories which, while dramatic, aren't actually as pivotal as they pretend to be.

Yes, I know I have the covers in reverse order up above. I wanted the more iconic image to appear first on this post!


  1. The Ra's al Ghul storyline most definitely fascinates me. :-)


  2. #243: I've never been in one of those duels where one’s hand/arm is bound to an opponent’s, as with Batman and Lo Ling here, but it feels to me like that bond is an integral part of the whole deal and severing it would be against the rules.

    #244: You’re not wrong about the lack of immediate stakes, nor that it’s a deficit the animated series more than accounts for, but there is the matter of Ra’s al Ghul being the leader of the League of Assassins. From that perspective, to me, it’s stranger that Batman appears to be taking him and only him into custody. So is the lack of reference to the fact that he knows Batman’s secret identity, which I’d have expected Batman to mention as a necessary risk if only to be dismissed by Talia observing that her father would consider its revelation for the purposes of revenge beneath him. Just what kind of custody where and with what evidence under what charges are also questions.

    1. I agree on the "bound arm duel" thing, now that you mention it. It's another shade of the Batman-yet-to-come; the more modern version of the character who is perfectly willing to cheat in order to win.

      Good point on the League of Assassins thing... it really is a little odd that Batman only arrests Ra's here and leaves everyone else. Even if he's hoping the League will dissolve without its leader, that still means a bunch of assassins will remain at large, simply as free agents rather than a unified group.

      (And I'm not even sure one could assume the League would collapse at this point... even if we assume there's not an organizational structure in place to account for a missing leader, Talia has proven herself a pretty capable leader in previous issues.)