Comic Book Review
Batman: Tales of the Demon
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Artists: Bob Brown, Neal Adams, Irv Novick, Michael Golden, Don Newton (Pencillers); Dick Giordano, Dan Adkins (Inkers); John Constanza, Milt Snapinn, Ben Oda (Letterers); James Roschell, Cory Adams, Sno Cone (Colorists)
Rã’s al Ghũl is one of Batman’s most formidable and popular foes, which is impressive when you consider that he’s a relatively recent addition to the rogues gallery. He ranks near the top of Batman’s enemies list, second only to the Joker as reckoned by most fans; but while the Joker made his first comic book appearance way back in 1940, Rã’s wasn’t introduced until 1971.
Throughout the 1970s, as superhero comics were just beginning to transition from the affable goofiness of the Silver Age to the more serious tone of the modern era, he was established as Batman’s archenemy, an immortal Eurasian criminal kingpin and eco-terrorist determined to wipe out most of humanity in order to return the Earth to a more pristine state. Following his original appearances in Batman and Detective Comics in 1971-72, and his first reprise in 1978-80, Rã’s was the subject of one-shots written by Mike W. Barr, and the villain of the “Legacy” crossover that ran through the core Batman titles leading up to Detective Comics #700, where Batman and Rã’s recreated their iconic shirtless sword duel from ’72. He was even featured (sort of) as the main bad guy in Batman Begins, where he was played by both Ken Watanabe and Liam Neeson. Not bad for a Johnny-Come-Lately.
The trade paperback Batman: Tales of the Demon, reprints the original Rã’s al Ghũl stories from the ‘70s, and makes it clear why the character was able to leapfrog nearly all of Batman’s long-established villains and establish himself immediately as a credible top bad guy. A lot of it had to do with the creative team who introduced the character to readers of the June 1971 issue of Batman: writer Dennis O’Neil, penciller Neal Adams and inker Dick Giordano — the most important writer/artist combination of Batman’s last forty years, maybe of his entire history.
Tales of the Demon can be considered in two halves — the first the original Rã’s arc that ran from “Into the Den of the Death Dealers” in Detective Comics #411 to “The Demon Lives Again” in Batman #244; the second beginning in 1978 with “I Now Pronounce You Batman and Wife!” from DC Special Series #15, concluding with “Requiem for a Martyr” in Detective Comics #490 in 1980, which Dennis O’Neil wrote as though it were his last Batman story, six years before he was made group editor of the Batman line. It’s that first story arc, with Adams and Giordano providing much of the art, that makes this a volume worth owning. The latter half has its moments, the art by Don Newton and Dan Adkins is excellent and Denny O’Neil’s premature swan song is an interesting curiosity (partly for its strong resemblance to “Epilogue,” the closing chapter of the Knightfall mega-crossover which he wrote over a decade later), but overall it pales next to what O’Neil did with Adams and Giordano.
The original Rã’s al Ghũl tales are the definitive stories of the pre-Crisis modern Batman, and, by and large, they remain DC Comics canon despite the obscene amount of retconning and restarting conducted over the last twenty years. Reading them again for the first time in a few years, I found Dennis O’Neil’s writing style a little dated, and the plot felt rushed and disjointed. I got the sense that twelve issues of material was being crammed into seven; the story progresses in fits and starts, often through expository captions or thought balloons, rather than flowing forward naturally. Still, O’Neil was clearly making a clean break from the more lighthearted stories of the 1960s and taking the character in darker, more serious directions. Rã’s wasn’t a bank robber with a gimmick, as every Bat-villain seemingly became during the Silver Age — he was an underworld despot with a desire to exterminate the human race, and the means to do it. And there was another element critical to the character’s appeal: he didn’t want to kill Batman — he wanted Batman’s help.
“Into the Den of the Death Dealers,” the first reprint included in Tales, doesn’t feature Rã’s himself, but sets the stage for his arrival. The League of Assassins is introduced, as is Talia, Rã’s’s daughter and Batman’s most compelling recurring love interest. The man himself debuts in the next chapter, “Daughter of the Demon,” an audacious story that opens with the abduction of Robin and follows that right up with Rã’s introducing himself in the Batcave, revealing that he knows Batman’s secret identity, and asking for his help finding Talia, who has apparently been taken by the same kidnappers who snatched Robin. Batman leads the search, following the trail first to Calcutta and then to the Himalayas, where the entire plot is revealed as a ruse orchestrated to test Batman, with an eye toward making him the heir to Rã’s’s criminal empire. To sweeten the pot, Rã’s reveals that Talia is in love with Batman and wants to marry him. The concluding panel has her planting a kiss on the cheek of a very surprised caped crusader.
The next two stories — “Swamp Sinister” and “Vengeance for a Dead Man,” both drawn by Irv Novick and Giordano — read like a detour from the main story, with Batman helping Rã’s find and destroy a lethal virus stolen from his organization by a rogue employee, and investigating the death of a scientist whose brain Rã’s removed for some nefarious purpose. The Batman/Talia sexual tension is tweaked a little, we get the first hints of Rã’s al Ghũl having lived more than a typical life-span, and the stories are weirdly engaging, but they feel peripheral to the principal Batman vs. Rã’s narrative that picks up again right after.
The three-part endgame of this initial Bats vs. Rã’s conflict begins with “Bruce Wayne — Rest in Peace!” Batman fakes his alter ego’s death in order to take the fight to Rã’s without having to endanger Alfred and his other friends. He attempts to recruit gangster Matches Malone, but Malone accidentally shoots himself dead while attempting to flee. Batman opts to keep Malone’s death a secret and assume his identity himself, creating a second secret identity which Batman writers continued to use for another thirty years. With the help of his Matches disguise, Batman enlists the aid of former League of Assassins member Ling, and scientist Dr. Harris Blaine, in his attempt to take down Rã’s once and for all.
Ling and Dr. Blaine travel with Batman to Rã’s’s chalet in the Swiss Alps in “The Lazarus Pit!” Their team also gains the help of world champion skier Molly Post, whose fiancé was ruined by Rã’s. They are able to penetrate Rã’s’s headquarters, whereupon Talia greets them and informs them that her father has died. Thinking his job is finished, Batman leads his team outside, moments before the corpse of Rã’s is lowered into the Lazarus pit and revived.
As the final chapter of the original Rã’s saga, “The Demon Lives Again!” opens, the rejuvenated, super-strong and totally insane Rã’s al Ghũl is racing down the side of the mountain toward Batman and company. He easily defeats Ling and Batman in hand-to-hand combat before Talia is able to calm him down and escape with him in a hovercraft. Molly is injured in an ensuing chase, and Batman determines to press on alone, with only a small bit of leather recovered from the abandoned hovercraft to point him on his way.
One incredible deduction later, Batman finds Rã’s and Talia at a secret desert base, where Rã’s offers to settle their differences once and for all in a duel to the death beneath the blazing sun. They take off their shirts, grab swords, and make comic book history. The image of Batman and Rã’s fencing in the desert is so iconic that it’s surprising to be reminded that it lasts less than two pages and ends abruptly with Batman being stung by a scorpion. Just when things are starting to look very anticlimactic, Batman is secretly revived by Talia and able to make his way back to Rã’s’s tent, where he confronts his enemy in the best panel Neal Adams has ever drawn.
Batman puts the shocked Rã’s down with one blow. When Talia asks what will happen to her now, if she is to be imprisoned like her father, Batman pulls her in for a kiss — the second-best panel Neal Adams has ever drawn — throws Rã’s over his shoulder and walks away without saying another word. What a pimp.
Like I said earlier, Denny O’Neil’s writing reads a little corny nowadays, what with the melodramatic narration and incessant expository thought balloons. But where the script falls short it is carried more than capably by the art, especially when Adams is doing the penciling. If you’ve never seen any of Neal Adams’s work and you’re wondering why after almost four decades he’s still thought of as the Batman artist, pick up Tales of the Demon and wonder no longer.