Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing Batman and Robin 23.3: Ra’s al Ghul, originally released September 18th, 2013. This issue is part of the Villain’s Month event. Click here for our Villains Month coverage.
Drew: I’m not sure I’ve ever “gotten” Ra’s al Ghul. Sure, as the immortal leader of a criminal empire, he’s a great villain, but I never fully understood why he’s a Batman villain. The best Batman rogues highlight some important element of Bruce Wayne: Joker’s gleeful chaos reflects Batman’s brooding order, for example. Without a gimmicky hook, I was always left thinking that Ra’s was meant to highlight Bruce’s mortality, which is kind of a defining characteristic, but one that is brought up every time he’s put in moral peril, so not really specific to Ra’s. With Batman and Robin 23.3: Ra’s al Ghul, writer James Tynion IV finds that parallel in the way both men wield myths to make them stronger, turning in a character-defining secret origin that actually builds on the character’s history, rather than simply rehashing it.
The Secret Society has sent an envoy to invite Ra’s into their ranks, but being the prideful, self-made man that he is, Ra’s violently refuses, leaving the leader alive just long enough to rehash his history (or at least the history as understood by the Secret Society). That history begins with the first recorded mention of the al Ghul name, as Ra’s terrorizes a group of knights of the crusade. From there, we’re taken on a tour of destruction, as Ra’s leads the League of Assassins to burn London in 1666, import Opium to London in 1721, infect New York with cholera in 1832, and incite the first world war.
We then launch into Ra’s’ history with Batman, where Tynion canonizes the conclusion of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated alongside more classic Ra’s stories. Tynion lands his second brilliant move in limiting Batman’s presence to a single spread. Unlike most other Batman villains, Ra’s isn’t defined by Batman. Where Batman might see many of his foes as mere thorns in his side, that dynamic is utterly flipped for Ra’s. While virtually every Joker story features Batman in a leading role, the vast majority of Ra’s’ life was blissfully Batman-free. Indeed, this issue suggests that Ra’s only deigned to deal with Batman in the first place because he respected the way he controlled his own mythology.
Tynion also effectively illustrates the differences between Ra’s and Talia — while Ra’s saw Batman as a mere aberration in his lifelong quest to reshape the world, Talia became obsessed. Her gamble with Leviathan was so utterly Batman-focused that it became her downfall. Actually, “mere aberration” is selling Ra’s’ respect for Batman a bit short. It’s not until the Society claims to have killed Batman that Ra’s loses it:
Batman’s soul looks like Ra’s. I’m struggling to draw a straight line from that statement to “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but it’s clear that Ra’s means that as high praise. Perhaps more importantly, that praise comes couched in a rejection of the Secret Society, which itself serves as his assessment of them: Batman is worthy of Ra’s’ time, the Secret Society is not.
It’s a surprisingly exciting issue for what amounts to a survey of Ra’s’ history. Much of that excitement belongs to artist Jeremy Haun, whose art is evenly pitched between dynamic and clear — a perfect match for a story where a scene might amount to a single panel. The scrapbook effect is emphasized by the rough edges on the panels, and enhanced by John Rausch’s muted color work. (Or, rather, the colorist credited is “John Rausch,” but I suspect DC actually meant John Rauch, the colorist who also worked with Haun on Batman 23.2: The Riddler (neither of whom are credited on this issue in the solicit).)
While the rest of Villains Month has me questioning the whole premise, this is the second time Tynion has impressed me with a thoughtful, entertaining look at a villain’s (or group of villains’) history. Beyond “good for Villains Month,” this issue is good, period. Spencer, were you as pleased as I was with Tynion’s take on Ra’s?
Spencer: You know, Drew, it took me a little bit to get into this issue, but now that I have, yeah, I’m pretty pleased as well. My early gripe with it—a complaint that I more legitimately share with most of Villains Month in general—was that the issue spent so much time recapping Ra’s’ origin, and especially that it did so by having the Society’s thug recount his history lesson while in the middle of a swordfight.
I know, I know, presenting complicated dialogue and exposition during a fight of some sort is a comic book tradition, but it’s one that’s always bugged me a little, even if the reasons are silly. If I’m willing to suspend my belief, though, then it’s a problem that easily disappears. As for the origin, well, I came around when I realized something that both Drew and the henchman in the issue already pointed out:
The story the thug tells is neither the origin of Ra’s al Ghul nor his complete life story; it is simply the legend that Ra’s has allowed to be created about himself, and I think that’s fascinating. For starters, it frees Tynion from having to slavishly lay out every beat of Ra’s’ past; at one point the Society henchman even begins to off-handedly spout off more of Ra’s’ secret origin, and Ra’s immediately cuts him off.
Beyond that, the issue never really even tells us Ra’s’ motives; we know he wants to create a “perfect world”, but just what exactly that is and how his various plans play into creating this world are left ambiguous. In some stories that could be frustrating, but in this particular instance I think it works just fine; it allows Tynion to pick and choose the moments that best display the man Ra’s has become instead of obsessively chronicling every minute move that brought him to this point. In a month full of overlong origin stories, its a breath of fresh air.
So what kind of man is Ra’s al Ghul? As Drew alluded to, he’s a self-made man of action. This is exciting in its own right, as its more fun to see Ra’s take the reins and be proactive than to simply watch life carry him along, but I also like this characterization because of what it implies about Batman and Ra’s’ relationship. Both Drew and the issue itself have pointed out how Ra’s only ended up on Batman’s radar because Ra’s himself sought him out; Ra’s has nobody to blame for his defeats but himself. Ra’s no doubt hides any guilt he feels beneath anger or deflects it towards others, but I have to imagine that—no matter how prideful he is or how much he respects Batman—he still knows and can’t deny that he’s largely to blame for Batman’s role in the life of himself and his family, up to and including the death of Talia. Tynion doesn’t really explore this himself, but the ideas he presents leads to the conclusion, and I’d love to see it explored more in the future.
Anyway, while I haven’t seen this parallel between Ra’s and Batman—this idea that they both wield myth and their own history to become stronger—pointed out much before in the comics, it was a pretty prominent theme in Christopher Nolan’s first Batman movie, Batman Begins, where Ra’s himself was the one who taught Bruce Wayne how to become “more than just a man.” Tynion even lovingly cribs that bit of dialogue from the movie for his own use:
Obviously this isn’t a part of Batman’s backstory in the New 52, so I appreciate Tynion making this thematic connection between the two characters more implicit. I think there’s a lot that can be done with it in the future.
In the end, maybe that’s what impresses me the most about this issue; it has me thinking about Ra’s al Ghul and what his future appearances may entail more than I ever have before. Its wonderful that Tynion managed to avoid the origin story pitfall that’s crashed so many Villain Month entries, and the thematic parallels he explores between Batman and Ra’s are fascinating, but ultimately, I think its the fact that this issue builds interest and excitement in the character of Ra’s that makes it a success.
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