It’s time to wrap up our shameless Avengers: Endgame tie-in with the last of Thanos creator Jim Starlin’s Batman work. This week, we’re looking at the 1988 miniseries Batman: The Cult. Written by Starlin with art by the legendary Bernie Wrightson and colors by Bill Wray who would later go on to work on Ren & Stimpy, this was published at the same time as “A Death in the Family” meaning Starlin was pretty much running the show at the end of 1988. And this was a huge hit at the time though the decades have not been kind to it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Cult was published as a prestige format miniseries, just like Dark Knight Returns. That was a big deal back then, and this is maybe the first time I realized just how derivative of Dark Knight it is. Wrightson’s usually lush art is much choppier throughout – more, well, like Frank Miller. Bill Wray’s colors are washed out to the extent that many characters are shown with perfectly white skin, which sure looks like somebody trying to emulate colorist Lynn Varley and not quite getting it. And holy smokes, does Starlin ever go to the DKR well with having newscasts convey exposition. But it’s so much clunkier here, and I say this as a guy who’s grown disillusioned with Dark Knight Returns and Frank Miller’s work in general over the years. But Miller’s newscaster device was done well, and here Starlin overuses it with full pages of talking heads on TV screens explaining a thing we saw happen or setting up a thing we’re going to see happen. It all seems clumsy now, but at the time it probably felt like a spiritual successor to DKR and that’s what drove the sales.
The story. Batman ends up in the clutches of a sewer cult led by a man named Deacon Blackfire. It begins with Batman as a captive already because there’s nothing Jim Starlin likes more than having Batman lose easy fights. I mean, I’m sure there’s something he loves more. I don’t know the man. But as a Batman writer, he sure had a lot of guys in street clothes hand Batman’s ass to him. Anyway, through starvation and hallucinogens, the Deacon wins Batman over to his cause. We get some dream sequences of Batman fighting twisted versions of his main villains, and they would have been so much more fun if Wrightson and Wray has played to their skills rather than trying to make it look like Miller/Varley. And so a Bernie Wrightson-drawn dream Joker ends up looking boring, and that just shouldn’t be.
The cult starts using Batman as muscle when they go up to street level, including an uncomfortable bit where one guy wants revenge on his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. The man is African-American, which is pointed out several times, and a drugged up Batman briefly sees him as a stereotypical pimp, which is not good. The Cult feels like it’s on the edge of being about race but it never really gets there. Eventually Batman escapes with the help of Robin (Jason Todd, at right about the time Starlin was having him crowbarred to death in the main Batman book). It’s actually the best that Starlin ever wrote Jason and it made me wish we’d seen more of him.
While Batman is detoxing and trying to get his confidence back, Blackfire wages war on Gotham. He attacks Commissioner Gordon and destabilizes the city with a couple of political assassinations, to the extent that the National Guard comes in and declares martial law. But we don’t really get the sense that what Blackfire is doing to the city that the Joker attacks on the regular is damaging enough for these drastic measures. There’s a lot of shooting high powered rifles up through sewer grates, which is apparently the one thing Gotham City can’t handle. For the most part, Blackfire feels minor league and we have to take the newscasters’ word for the damage he’s doing to the city.
Batman comes back with a wild monster truck Batmobile that’s a highlight of the story. We learn that Blackfire is bathing in the blood of the recently murdered to gain immortality and also that his quarters in the sewer are actually lavishly decorated. It’s clearly mean as a satire on televangelists, but it doesn’t really work. But a chandelier and a baby grand in his sewer room feel more dumb than clever. And yes, that’s a fine line. I realize now I should have led into the Spinal Tap quote, but one thing the Internet doesn’t need more of is dudes quoting movies.
There are some effective bits, like Batman getting lost in the sewer and only gradually realizing that he’s standing on a pile of bodies. The crazy Batmobile is fun, and I even kind of enjoyed Batman running around with a tranquilizer gun that looked like an assault rifle. Dumb, but kind of funny in those days when everybody was trying to have Batman get around that “no killing” rule.
I wish I had more to say about it, but The Cult felt like a big deal to me when I was much younger and in 2019, the attempt to be the next Dark Knight sticks out like a sore thumb and it’s apparent how much that hurt the end product. Bernie Wrightson and Bill Wray made a book that looks boring, and that’s not something they do.
Deacon Blackfire, for his part, popped up decades later in the Arkham Knight game, but rather than being a slick and well-dressed sewer priest, he was recast as a shirtless Southern revival type. The part of the game where you fight his followers is fun, though.
So all in all, while Starlin knocked a couple of stories out of the part, his Batman work is not that good. Even “Ten Nights of the Beast” has serious flaws that I look past because it’s so fun and audacious. I walk away from his run feeling like he didn’t really like Batman or his mythos. Other than Joker in “A Death in the Family”, he didn’t use established villains at all. Which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself – Grant Morrison’s celebrated run went for years and the only established villains involved are Joker, Ra’s al Ghul, and Lord Death Man. (Who appeared in America once.) But aside from the KGBeast, Starlin didn’t create anything new, either. He was a weird fit for Batman and it never quite gelled. I didn’t expect this to be my conclusion when I decided to devote three weeks to Starlin’s Batman work, but it’s not that good. I’m disappointed – I was hoping to find some forgotten classics or realize that “A Death in the Family” is better than I remembered (it isn’t).
And with that, I’m taking a break from the Batman Flashbacks. Not because Starlin broke me, but because it’s summer(ish) and that means I’m back to weekly reviews of Batman ’66 episodes and I genuinely can’t justify two articles a week about decades-old Batman material. But the Flashbacks will be bask as soon as I finish Season Two of ’66. Ideally, I’ll be starting that next week, but I can’t make any promises these days. Keep checking! Or Tweet at me and I’ll fill you in.