Today, Patrick and Spencer are discussing Batman and Ra’s al Ghul 32, originally released June 18th, 2014.
Patrick: No one’s got a deeper bench than Batman. A lot has been made of the integrity of his relationships lately — it’s almost the most important piece of Batman’s mythology in the New 52. Check it out: Batman Eternal is all about Batman struggling with his relationship with the city, and even pulls Gordon out of rotation. This comes on the heels of The Death of the Family and the Leviathan killing Damian, which all just compounds the stress put upon those relationships. Nightwing, Batgirl, Red Robin, Red Hood, they all have reason to distrust the man who’s a superhero first, and a human being second. But Batman’s not just the biggest superhero in Gotham, he’s the biggest superhero in the DC Universe, so there’s no end to the relationships we can explore to learn something just a little bit more about Bruce Wayne.
Batman and Frankenstein have finally come face-to-face with Ra’s al Ghul, who’s about to submerge Talia and Damian in a Lazarus Pit. After a handful of brief history lessons, Bruce and Frank unleash their army of yetis, giving Batman the opportunity to escape with Damian’s sarcophagus in tow. Ra’s, it would seem, is not done with Batman yet. He vows that no ally of the Bat will ever find peace again until he is able to restore Damian. Then Bruce and Ra’s talk it over like grown-ups and eventually work out a civil agreement.
Whoops, I meant they punch each other into oblivion. Pushed to the edge by Ra’s’ threats, Batman puts himself in prime position to collapse the Demon Star’s skull like he’s [Game of Thrones references deleted]. All of a sudden, we’re treated to an all too familiar BOOOM, and denizens of Apokolips arrive on the scene.
For as much as Gotham is Batman’s world, there’s just as much that the rest of the DC Universe has to offer him. Those “stages of grief” issues that followed Damian’s death all stuck pretty closely to the regular Bat cast, and then we were got that multi-issue Two-Face team-up. The series found its footing again, pairing Batman with unlikely allies, like Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and mostly recently, Frankenstein. Those issues have been exercises in watching Batman practice humility, asking for help when he is out of his depth. Batman’s the consummate expert, and it was remarkable to watch him cede that expertise to other heroes. Geoff Johns may delight in subverting the “Batman is always right” trope, but never with the level of insight Batman and… writer Peter Tomasi has. In short, those earlier issues, which featured characters from Gotham’s stable, illuminated the weakness stemming from Batman’s arrogance, while the later issues, which featured strangers to Gotham, illuminated the strength stemming from Batman’s ability to ask for help.
Sorry, that’s an awful lot of context to pose the following question: what role does Ra’s al Ghul play in this issue which bears his name? Kind of neither, right? He’s not really part of that “of Gotham” camp, but he’s also not so far outside Batman’s usual MO that he qualifies as a stranger to Gotham. Ra’s is one of those bizarre characters that’s half-rogue and half-wizard, simultaneously street level, and, y’know, some kind of immortal demon. Tomasi, who has been injecting these recent issues with all kinds of history lessons, makes a special point of exploring the magical cities of Nishapur and Nanda Parabat. We don’t really need that information to understand what Ra’s is attempting in this scene – the bubbling green pit tells the story in a heartbeat. And yet it’s important that Frankenstein’s explanation is there, because it emphasizes the otherworldliness of what Batman’s up against.
I mean, come on: Batman and Frankenstein lead an army of yeits? You read that, right? It’s some next-level crazy stuff, so far away from the gangsters and corrupt politicians of Gotham City. The cherry on top of all of this is the 11th hour arrival of Glorious Godfrey. Let’s be honest, it doesn’t get much more outside Batman’s wheelhouse than Apokolips.
Artist Patrick Gleason is in rare form in this issue, and he squanders no opportunity to make Batman look fucking awesome. The culmination of all of the emotional slingshotting comes right as Ra’s makes his final play at taunting Bruce into submission. I love this page: the camera pulls in tighter as the characters move closer together, and the implied lines pull your eyes down to the bottom of the page faster that you’d like. The visual momentum is such that I actually had to make myself go back to read what Ra’s is saying.
Bruce’s resultant rage persistently asks the question of how much he’s learned from this whole experience. Is he humbled by forces he can’t possibly comprehend, or emboldened to try and stop them anyway? Spencer, I’ll leave you with that question and a few others. Were you a little bummed that we didn’t get a little bit more sympathetic view of Ra’s in this issue? He just comes off as a scenery-chewing baddie here. Also, does Apokolips feel like too hard of a left turn for this series to take? Maybe we’re just getting started and we don’t know half of how weird Tomasi’s willing to go before this thing ends.
Spencer: Ra’s has been a scenery chewer (I hope he has a good dentist) for a while now, so it’s not a surprise, but considering that he was once one of Batman’s more, if not exactly sympathetic, than at least more rational opponents, it is a little disappointing that he’s been so deliberately evil lately. Still, I’m pretty enamored with the concept Tomasi’s cooked up for him.
Grant Morrison once called the conflict of Batman Incorporated a “custody battle” between Bruce and Talia for Damian; this issue continues with this family metaphor and turns Ra’s al Ghul into the meddling in-law, the kind of relative who refuses to acknowledge his child’s partner or takes over a funeral and imposes his own feelings onto the deceased. We’ve all met that douchebag, right? Ra’s is so egotistical and so possessive of Talia and Damian that he’ll turn them into mind-slaves just to spite Batman, and that’s unforgivably evil, but it’s still essentially an exaggerated version of behaviors we’re all familiar with, grounding Ra’s’s particular form of egocentricism in at least some sort of reality.
Man, family, they really can be our worst enemy sometimes, can’t they? Batman really should have heeded that ancient wisdom, “when you marry someone, you marry their entire family.” Or in his case, I suppose it’s more like “When you’re drugged by a woman, you’re drugged by her entire family as well.” Hm, I don’t think that works as well.
As for Apokolips, I have no doubt that Tomasi can make the concept work, but it certainly comes out of left field, and depending on the reader, could even be viewed as a bit of a cop-out. After all, leading up to that moment, the conflict was Batman vs. Ra’s al Ghul. Batman vows to kill Ra’s, and much like Ra’s, I believe him; trying to break Batman’s code against killing is an old note to hit by now, but there’s something about Batman’s grief and fury in this issue that just makes me believe him.
(Note that it’s actually a little upsetting that Batman’s vow is broken by the death of his biological son — and Ra’s isn’t even the actual murderer! — while Batman never reached that depth of grief over Jason.)
Even if just the sheer intensity of Batman’s statement and the last year or so worth of stories leading up to it doesn’t convince of he was capable of killing Ra’s, the four page fight scene that followed certainly would, especially those final two pages.
Tomasi is wise to cut out all dialogue from this spread, giving Gleason a chance to go all-out and show just how brutal this battle really is. Look at that last row of panels right before the Boom Tube opens; there’s no denying it, that’s a killing move if there ever was one.
And then Glorious Godfrey shows his glorious face, putting the Batman vs. Ra’s conflict on the backburner, if not diffusing it entirely. I understand why it had to happen — DC would never let Batman actually kill somebody, but this way Tomasi can at least show that Batman made the conscious decision to kill someone even if he was stopped from carrying it through. Just the fact that Batman made that decision is probably going to be enough to justify this plot for many people, but I imagine there will be just as many who feel that it’s a cop out, that it’s pointless if Batman was stopped before he could actually do anything he regrets.
What camp do I fall into? I think it depends on how this is handled from here on out. If Batman’s near-death decision here is never mentioned again, then yeah, it’s kind of a cop out. I don’t think Tomasi will go that route, though. No doubt whatever happens with Apokolips will be totally off the wall, and it will no doubt look beautiful under the pen of Patrick Gleason.
Gleason and colorist John Kalisz keep the opening sequence of this issue looking as creepy as possible, illuminating the room only in the eerie green glow of the lazarus pit, and hiding Batman in the shadows completely, leaving only this figure of pure darkness barking out demands. It’s a breathtaking sequence, and one that only serves to highlight how downright scary Batman can be when he’s pushed to his limits (like he will be by the end of the issue). Patrick already pointed out Gleason’s superb storytelling skills with that page of Ra’s approaching Batman, but there was another page that stood out to me as well.
What a way to start out an issue! Here’s five separate images that, when combined together, basically combine to form a whole; it effortlessly and stylishly introduces the issue’s primary players and conflict without wasting space and words. Man Gleason makes it look easy.
So what can I say? There’s a lot to like in this issue; it’s off-kilter, but purposely so, and next month’s looks to be even stranger, but as the last few issues have shown, strange may just be a strength for this title.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?