Four prestige formatted books, bound together in a Mylar bag rested upon a glass-encased shelf at one of West Michigan's greatest comic book stores. In spite of the sizable bundle of single issues I had already selected from the numerous back issue boxes which crowded the center of the store, and the fact that I was in the process of exceeding my self-imposed ten dollar budget for comics, I scoffed at the $12.95 price tag and asked the clerk to pull the set for purchase. It never hurts to have too many comics to read, I thought, and besides, I had been anxious to read Batman: The Cult since I first heard Kevin Smith discussing it during an episode of his Batman-centric podcast, Fatman on Batman.
I won't extensively delve into my history with the character of Batman here, but I have been a dedicated fan since I was a very small child and my father thrust me in front of the television while Tim Burton's film played. My father had just purchased a VHS of the movie from the local grocer Winn Dixie (we resided in Florida at the time), and the hype he raised for it completely sold me on the character before the tape even left its box. So, I've known of and loved the character since then and have only become more familiar with and dedicated to him since.
Returning to the present and my tale, I eventually made my way home after a Saturday afternoon spent observing the holiest of days in the week of any fan of anything either cartoon, comic, or in any way related to either cartoons or comics. After bagging and boarding something like thirty single issues, all great stories published within the last twenty to thirty years, I pulled out The Cult and proceeded to dive in.
One of the first things a reader will notice about The Cult, and one of things for which I was most excited, is the exceptional and atmospheric artistic style of Berni Wrightson. Having co-created Swamp Thing with Len Wein, Berni Wrightson has been a brilliant force in the medium since the late 1960s, working with characters like Batman and various others from both DC and Marvel Comics. I first discovered his work through a House of Secrets reprint, which bore a cover depicting a stunning Swamp Thing being assaulted by a posse of random townsfolk; a reprint which Mr. Wrightson was kind enough to sign for me at a comic convention a few years back.
Few other artists can capture anatomy in as powerful and as effective a way as Wrightson, whose Cult renderings of Bruce Wayne in particular display a weight and dimension as well as a sturdiness seldom seen in other depictions of the character. In moments throughout the mini-series he composed several memorable panels which conveyed Batman's suffering, the grim nature of Gotham after the main events of the story, and the gradual restoration of Batman's psyche as he struggled to free his mind from the hallucinogenic effects of the antagonist's tools of manipulation. Also, his skill with what is often labeled a "Horror Style" is evident in sequences throughout the series in which Batman is exposed to macabre piles of corpses and the many hanging bodies of Gothamites on display in order to discourage rebellion. In my opinion Wrightson's work was most definitely the best part of the series.
In regard to the story itself I found that I was both impressed at the scale of the events which transpired and disappointed at how the writer, Jim Starlin, used the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman throughout the series. Firstly, for those who are unaware of this fact or have not yet read this series, The Cult was one of the greatest influences upon the story of Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer's The Dark Knight Rises. From the secret society of driven individuals operating out of the "Underworld" of Gotham to that society's charismatic, extremist leader to the shift in power in Gotham into the hands of the band of extremists, so much about The Cult is familiar after having viewed Nolan's film. In terms of scale, what occurred in Gotham City through the four issues of this series was incredibly epic and dramatically altered the landscape of this familiar comic book setting.
To provide some background before proceeding into my opinions of the story, The Cult follows Batman through both maddening internal struggles and his physical journey through a crumbling society which slacks permissively before the forces of chaos which aim to surge forth from the sewer tunnels of Gotham City. His adversary this time is a character named Deacon Blackfire, a shaman with a mystically enhanced vitality and a desire to bring Gotham under his control by utilizing the down-trodden and unstable members of society. Through religion and chemical manipulation Blackfire manages to convince a sizable portion of Gotham's homeless to aid him in combating the criminal elements of the dark metropolis, and any non-criminal obstructionists, so that he might seize control of the city.
Batman falls into the hands of Blackfire after making an unfortunate mistake while dealing with street toughs attempting to rob a food vendor one evening. Having suffered a wound from a gunshot, Batman hangs chained in captivity from the beginning of the series. From there he's drugged by Blackfire and indoctrinated into "The Cult" as the Deacon discusses his warped philosophies. We follow him then through torture, mental anguish, drug withdrawal, and the crumbling and eventual rebuilding of his personality and crusade against crime.
Starlin wrote a version of Batman in The Cult which, in my opinion, proved to be both fascinating and incredibly disappointing. I found his Bruce/Batman to be interesting because he was a version of the character which seemed more human than in most other story lines. This Batman actually seemed to feel fear, he explored that fear, and often expressed serious doubts which almost completely shattered his mind. I consider this to be a brave approach to a character who is often written to be a near-deific archetype.
What I found to be disappointing about the character of Batman in The Cult was the way in which he seemed so unprepared for what occurred while in Blackfire's custody. This wasn't a version of the character which seemed to have trained himself to combat various types of mental manipulation and physical torture. He collapsed quite easily, and was almost willing to completely abandon his philosophies and mission simply because he had been starved, abused, and chemically manipulated. Now, I understand that Batman is a human - though, he is an idealized one - and that my complaints might suggest that I expect him to be handled as the archetype and immutable hero he's become, but he is also a character who exists in a world detached from reality and has conditioned himself in such a way that it's understandable to expect him to be damn near impervious. Also, he has been driven his entire life by a mission which has caused him to go beyond, establishing hard set principles from which he could not possibly stray, for such behavior would betray the very fabric of his being.
I don't believe, having read and watched various incarnations of Batman/Bruce Wayne for most of my life, that being starved, drugged, beaten, and pursued through the corpse-ridden bowels of Gotham would cause Bruce to take up a gun or cower from combat or allow the citizens of his city to be victimized. These things occurred throughout The Cult as Batman wrestled with horrific nightmares, fled from the bloodthirsty members of Deacon Blackfire's fold, crawled about in a drug-tinged stupor, allowed Robin to take a beating while leading him out of the tunnels, and sat by as an innocent woman of Gotham was dragged into an alleyway to be brutalized and slowly murdered. These things, in spite of the events through which he travailed, are not things that Batman - the man who has trained himself for every possibility and holds firmly to strong beliefs - would allow. But this is my opinion of the nature of the character and my response to how he behaved throughout this particular story.
Despite my complaints, Batman: The Cult is a compelling read for any fan of the character because it's sure to, at the very least, incite a genuine emotional response, whether positive or negative. It's aided by the masterful renderings and compositions of Berni Wrightson through which any reader can be transported to the Stygian bowels of Gotham where madness, chaos, and suffering dwell. It features a different approach to Bruce Wayne/Batman, a glimpse into the inspiration for plot of Dark Knight Rises, and one of my favorite depictions of The Joker (again, Wrightson nailed it!). It's an experience few comic books offer.