A Tribute to the of

As promised, I took in "Batman Begins" at the local theater shortly after its release.  I'd call it very good and certainly vastly superior to the last few efforts at cinematic depictions of the Dark Knight, but it wasn't quite what I'd describe as excellent.  I guess it's just the purist in me, but certain elements grated just a bit.  Oh, nothing terribly heinous, but those of us who are familiar with the legend of the Batman just know better than to swallow that Thomas and Martha Wayne took Bruce to the opera to see Johann Strauss' "Die Fledermaus" on that fateful night.  It was at the movie theater to see a Zorro film.  Furthermore, he was not imprisoned for a time in some isolated location that looked a bit like Tibet, nor was he trained in advanced hand to hand combat techniques by Ra's Al Ghul.  At the risk of further nit-picking, the secret entrance to the Batcave from Wayne Manor isn't opened by a series of notes on a nearby piano, but by placing the numbers on the grandfather clock in the foyer to 10:47, the precise hour and minute the watch on Thomas Wayne's wrist had shown when he'd fallen with a bullet in his chest on the night the Batman was born.  Finally, while his first encounter with the Scarecrow was early in his career (1941, to be precise) it didn't predate his initial battle with the Joker and he first met Ra's Al Ghul 30 years later in 1971.  Otherwise, it was pretty well done and I'd recommend taking it in.  Goodness knows it's had plenty of ink spilled about it, too.  I personally found write-ups in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and in general they were positive reviews. 

Since we've already explored the Scarecrow in the 50th edition of this feature, I'll take advantage of a resource the webmaster sent me awhile back, doubtless anticipating this time.  It's a collection of reprints entitled "Batman:  Tales of the Demon." (Check out the Bat-tastic Neal Adams cover art of the most recent printing.)  Included within the covers are his significant early encounters with the mysterious and formidable Ra's Al Ghul and we'll take a look at his first appearance in Batman #232, the June 1971 issue entitled "Daughter of the Demon!" (+ The rare hand-colored printer's color guide.) Writing credits belong to Denny O'Neil with art by the incomparable Neal Adams and Dick GiordanoTom Ziuko is the colorist and the legendary Julius Schwartz rounds out the all-star team as editor.  It also occurs to me that this effort qualifies as another in our series of salutes to the 70th anniversary of DC comics, this one being from the 70's decade.

Things begin as they usually do in the world of the Batman, in the dead of night.  This time, however, it is Robin who we see climbing through a window in a boarding house near Hudson University where he is promptly ambushed by two hidden figures in the shadows wielding lights and some sort of weapon. 

Switch scenes now to a Gotham City penthouse and a frustrated Bruce Wayne vents to Alfred that no one has seen Dick Grayson at the University for a couple of days and Bruce is getting worried.  Alfred then confirms Wayne's suspicions by presenting him with an envelope received via messenger.  It contains a photograph of the bound Robin with a menacing accompanying note:  "Dear Batman:  We have Robin!  Save him if you can!"

With that, Bruce Wayne springs into action, donning a familiar uniform and telling Alfred to cancel all his appointments while he goes to the Batcave to use his advanced laboratory to do a full analysis on the note and photo.  Soon he arrives at his ancestral home and enters through the concealed portal behind the grandfather clock.  Once inside the Batcave he is startled to be greeted by name:  "Welcome home, Bruce Wayne—or shall I address you as the Batman?"  He turns to see a well-dressed man in a cape, accompanied by a large, bald man who is obviously some sort of bodyguard.  The man's features are striking and include widow's peaks and graying at the temples, intense eyes and wisps of facial hair at the corners of the chin.  He introduces himself as Ra's al Ghul and explains his presence through detective work of his own, deducing that the Batman must be wealthy and that he needed certain kinds of equipment.  Batman acknowledges the soundness of the man's deductions, peels back his cowl and demands to know what Ra's wants.  He then produces a photo and note nearly identical to the one the Batman had received.  Instead of Robin, though, it is a beautiful girl bound in the photo and it is Ras's daughter, Talia, whom Bruce had met once before (in Detective Comics #411 dated May, 1971).  Ra's is enlisting the aid of the Batman to save Talia.  She had told him of the formidable skills of the World's Greatest Detective and al Ghul knows that only the Batman can find her. 

Bruce wastes no time in conducting his analysis, yielding a vital clue under a microscopic spectrograph.  He discovers traces of a particular herb used in ceremonies of a far eastern cult of killers known as the Brotherhood of the Demon and they are based in Calcutta.  Ra's says they will leave for India immediately and as they ascend the stairs his bodyguard, Ubu, shoves the Batman aside, insisting that his master go first. 

Soon they are airborne in al Ghul's private jet and he questions Bruce about his stoic demeanor.  The Batman explains that he has a job to concentrate on and that he does not have the luxury of giving into emotion.  He then begins to reminisce about the awful night of his parents' demise and a re-telling of his origin comprises the next several panels to include his vow to avenge their murders and his relentless pursuit of physical and scientific prowess until the omen of the bat entering his home, ultimately leading to his donning the cape and cowl of the dread Batman.  He further recalls the night at the circus when another young boy saw his parents die and he was taken in by the Batman to be his ward, Dick Grayson who would become Robin, the Boy Wonder. 

Next, the scene switches to Calcutta, where a stooped and elderly beggar is on the street seeking alms.  He is accosted by a pair of thieves wielding clubs.  The robe of the beggar is quickly shed and the figure of an enraged Batman soon vanquishes one and cows the other, demanding to know the location of the Brotherhood of the Demon.  The terrified thief reveals they hide at the end of the alley of widows.  Then the Batman, Ra's and Ubu depart for the alley. 

Once they reach their destination, Batman enters through a dark doorway, where he is immediately attacked by, of all things, a leopard.  He grapples with the predator until managing to kill it.  They then search the room and find only a chart of the Himalayan Mountains.  Batman notes a faint scratch, as if someone with a long fingernail had traced a route and the trio then depart yet again, this time bound for the mountain range. 

The next page is one large panel and the text reads:  "Mount Nanda Devi, one of the mighty Himalayas…rising from the wastelands between India and Tibet 25,645 feet into thin, brutally cold air!  Treacherous, savage terrain that allows any who dares it only one mistake…  To this nightmare of blistering wind and blinding snow trek the Batman and his two strange companions… " We see them, decked out in cold weather gear and goggles, following a trail still visible in the snow.  There's something else interesting about this scene.  The nearby mountain has a large, possibly laughing profile of a face drawn into it, rather subtly, but obvious enough.  I wonder what Neal Adams was up to with that?

Up, up, inexorably they continue their ascent of the unforgiving mountain, with the Batman leading the way until the sudden sound of a rifle report and Ra's is hit.  The faithful Ubu helps his master to a nearby ledge and Bruce is left to his own devices.  First he sheds his parka and drops it as a decoy and to free him up for quick action.  Soon the superb athlete is swinging in a wide arc to the safety of a nearby slope.  He then successfully ambushes the gunman and continues on. 

Confidently the Dark Knight strides forward, his mind moving swiftly:  "Smoke…from cook fires, no doubt!  That's the pay-off!  No point in keeping them in suspense!  They're almost inviting me in…and since I've come halfway around the world I'll just accept that invitation!  There are probably a dozen guns trained on me, but nobody's going to shoot!  They'll want to watch my reaction!  A helicopter…naturally!  It figures there'd be a chopper in the area!  And I can guess who the passengers are!"  Momentarily he comes to the mouth of a cave guarded by two armed figures who demand he cease his forward motion, but the Batman merely pushes them aside, admonishing them that they don't dare shoot as they both know.  Soon he strides into a large chamber and non-chalantly greets his bound ward, Robin, who is under the watchful eyes of other guards.  After a little bantering and the subtle placement of a knife behind Robin's back, the World's Greatest Detective rises to confront The Supreme Brother, who has just arrived.  This new character provides a bizarre counterpoint to the Batman with his ram's head mask, cape and leather gauntlets.  Batman then begins his monologue:  "In the last three days, I've mixed with cut-throats and a killer leopard…I've bruised my knuckles on various chins, I've climbed a mountain, and I've dodged bullets…so I don't have any patience left for phony rituals!  In fact, I don't have any patience left period!  You've been putting me through paces and you think I'm too dumb to understand it!  You think a man with my training couldn't see what's been happening?  From the very beginning, I saw the whole deal was a charade!  Ra's al Ghul and his ox of a servant showing right after Robin disappeared…that was a joke!  Too quick…too big a coincidence!  Al Ghul's story of his daughter's identical disappearance wouldn't have fooled a moron!  Then in Calcutta…Ubu always made a big routine out of letting his boss go ahead of me…except when there was danger!  Conclusion…Ubu knew the leopard was waiting!  The map was the clincher!  I told a little white lie…because there was no fingernail scratch on the chart—yet Ubu and Al Ghul took me to this mountain…this, of the thirteen Himalayas!"  With that, the Dark Knight invites his partner to join him and they proceed to clean house until he finally advances on The Supreme Brother himself.  He strips the mask off, revealing the menacing Ubu.  Batman goads him a bit and then methodically takes him down as well. 

At last Ra's Al Ghul and the lovely Talia emerge and Batman demands to know why he's been put through this elaborate game.  Ra's answers with a stunning revelation:  "No game, detective!  Your admirable mind has reasoned all save the obvious…that my darling Talia loves you!  My organization is vast…!  I consider retiring from my activities--!  I had to satisfy myself that you are a worthy successor to me!...a worthy son-in-law!"  With that Talia kisses an utterly stunned Batman and the surprise ending closes the tale. This story was adapted to serve as the two-part "The Demon's Quest" episode(s) of Batman: The Animated Series, first broadcast in 1992.

You have a unique opportunity this time around, dear reader.  If you go to the official website of the movie, www.batmanbegins.com and then enter the flash site, you'll find a link to "comics" and an option there for Ra's Al Ghul.  There you'll discover this very story in its entirety for your viewing pleasure.  Just use the page icon to the right to navigate.  You'll also note the first appearance of the Scarecrow, the early Batman origin story and a newer version, though still true to the mythos, from 2003.  Hopefully it will be available for awhile, so check it out and enjoy and see if I did the story justice.

Since we have left the Silver Age with this story I will, as usual, dispense with a rating, but did enjoy the tale.  As you know I like Denny O'Neil's interpretation of the Dark Knight and utterly love Neal Adams' realistic depictions.  Neal, in fact, had a major role in this story as several panels were completely devoid of text or dialogue, relying strictly on the visual action to continue the thread.  I greatly appreciated the focus on Batman's formidable athletic and detective skills, too, revealing the true essence of the character.  Throw in a new and very worthy adversary and this was every bit as good as the better work on the Silver Age Batman.  In fact, I'd also like to share a part of the foreword to the book this came from by Sam Hamm, describing just what led to this work, which, once again, was a conscious departure and reinvention of the Batman:  "Within a few months (Note - in 1969 – Prof) O'Neil and Adams had reinvented not only Batman, but his most famous foe as well—restoring the Joker to his original glory as psychopathic wild card (as seen in Batman #251, a previous subject of this feature that can be read here), an interpretation that remains in favor to this day (Note – Sam wrote this at the end of 1990 – Prof).    But there was still more work to do."  Denny O'Neil:  "There was no doubt Batman needed a worthy opponent.  We set out consciously and deliberately to create a villain in the grand manner, a villain who was so exotic and mysterious that neither we nor Batman were sure what to expect.Hence, Ra's al Ghul—"the demon's head."  "Ra's would transcend racial stereotype.  As Neal Adams described him, he was a figure of indeterminable ethnic origin, a citizen of many cultures:  "I created a face not tied to any race at all.  It had to have evidence of a great many things having happened, a face that showed the man had an awareness of his own difference at a very early age…Ra's's face had to convey the feeling that he'd lived an extraordinary life long before his features were ever committed to paper."  There you go.  An excellent glimpse into the character from his creators and a most fascinating character is Ra's al Ghul.

I thank you, as always, for joining us for another trip into the world of DC comics from yesteryear.  You are encouraged to correspond with me about this review or any other topic relating to it at professor_the@hotmail.com.  I'm always on the lookout for what you have on your mind and as always, please be sure and check back here in about two weeks for the latest installment in this ongoing feature.

Until then…

Long live the Silver Age!

© 2000-2005 by B.D.S.

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