While Batman’s universe is crammed full of heroes with special powers, Batman’s popularity must be at least partially accounted for by his normality. This isn’t a man who’s been sent from another planet, bitten by a radioactive spider or bombarded with gamma rays. Batman is just an ordinary guy. Albeit an ordinary guy who just happens to be a genius technologist and businessman, and hard as nails to boot.
However, this can make him vulnerable. In The Cult, Jim Starlin’s classic from the Eighties, Batman is taken to the very edge once more, very nearly defeated by a character who seems to be no more than a mortal man with a few brain-washing techniques and a messiah complex.
In fact, Deacon Blackfire has lived for thousands of years, wandering the earth and preaching his message, trying to find a congregation down-trodden and desperate enough to take him on as their saviour. Gotham’s down-and-outs end up being the perfect vehicle for his religious movement, which slowly starts to clear the streets of crime, using violence and murder as its main weapon against the horror of the criminal underworld. This is only the beginning though. Blackfire’s next steps are to take over the city in its entirety and bring in his own rule of law. After that, his plans start to get really nasty.
When we join the story, Batman has already been captured, tortured and brain-washed, leaving Robin and Commissioner Gordon to pick up the pieces. We can’t remember a Batman book that swings Batman’s character as low as this one does.
The story has a timeless feel to it. The Eighties were something of a nadir for quality Batman stories, with Alan Moore and Frank Miller producing classics that have stood the test of time. This may not be up there with The Dark Knight Returns but it’s not too far behind.
Bernie Wrightson, more famous for co-creating Swamp Thing, depicts true horror in the book but, while his art is sublime, it’s severely hamstrung by the colouring technology available at the time.
This detracts a little from its case for entering the all-time hall of fame, but Batman fans certainly shouldn’t miss it. With plotting and scripting so tight and claustrophobic it’ll restrict your circulation, and a story arc that’s more horror thriller than superhero high jinx, it remains a worthy Batman title to keep in print.
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