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Year of the Artist, Day 34: Bernie Wrightson, Part 4 – Batman: The Cult #4

12-15-2013 04;22;39PM (2)

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Bernie Wrightson, and the issue is Batman: The Cult #4, which was published by DC and is cover dated November 1988. Enjoy!

The Cult is not a very good comic, but I’m nostalgic for it anyway. DC doesn’t do very many comics like it anymore, and it’s sad. I’m not talking about the subject matter, which is bloody enough to fit nicely into the DCnU; I’m talking about these “prestige format” mini-series where they throw money at really good creators to go nuts with their characters. The presentation of these comics was really nice, and it’s too bad DC (and Marvel, but they did it less) don’t seem to go for this kind of thing as much anymore. When it does happen (usually with graphic novels these days), it’s a treat.

Anyway, while Jim Starlin and Wrightson were sitting around doing The Weird, they must have discussed something like this: “Hey, Bernie, you want to draw a story where Batman is brainwashed by a mysterious religious dude who takes over Gotham? Oh, and you’ll have to draw Bats straight up murdering some dude.” “Shit, Jim, that sounds awesome!” And lo, The Cult was born! Or maybe, one night over bourbon, Starlin leaned over and said to Wrightson, “Three words, Bernie: Monster. Truck. Batmobile.” And lo, The Cult was born!

As dumb and Frank Miller-influenced The Cult is (Starlin and Wrightson really go nuts with the television talking head panels), it’s a beautiful work of art, as Wrightson really shows a maturation in his style. It’s very impressive, as we’ll see.

12-15-2013 03;28;26PM

Batman was brainwashed by Deacon Joseph Blackfire (yeah, Starlin ain’t subtle), but by issue #4, he’s managed to escape and break the deacon’s hold on him. He’s still having bad dreams, though, and Starlin makes sure to put his parents into this book. Wrightson goes back to his horror roots here, and it’s a very nice page. Thomas and Martha are horrible zombies, and Bruce looks like a little boy even in his Batman outfit. Wrightson transitions from the dream to wakefulness really well, switching suddenly to Bruce crouched in bed in his underwear, looking even more lost and forlorn. Wrightson gives Bruce a terrible haircut, unfortunately, but it’s still a nicely laid out page. Colorist Bill Wray does superb work on this book – the red bleeding into purple in Panel 1 gives us the impression of the Waynes emerging from Hell, while their sickly green in the middle row helps Wrightson’s drawings almost force their way off the page. We’ll see more of Wray’s excellent coloring as we go along.

12-15-2013 04;05;49PM

Monster. Truck. Batmobile. Look at that thing!

12-15-2013 04;16;10PM

As I noted yesterday, Wrightson began to get a bit more impressionistic in the late 1980s, and this is a good example of that. It’s winter at night in Gotham, so there’s haze and iciness, and Monster Truck Batmobile has been rampaging through the streets, kicking up a lot of dust, so we get this scene, where it emerges from the cloud and Batman and Robin see what’s hanging from the street lights. Wrightson uses thick blacks for Monster Truck Batmobile, and the erratic and violent hatches around the headlights give it an eerie and disturbing look. Meanwhile, the bodies are sketched roughly, with thick lines and lots of black, adding to the horror of the executions and displays. Wrightson cleverly puts the Santa right in between the bodies in the background and the foreground, so we can’t ignore the incongruity of a happy Christmas display in the middle of the death. Wray, again, is phenomenal, as he uses hazy Christmas colors to highlight the difference between the season and what Batman and Robin are witnessing. Wrightson doesn’t place the Monster Truck Batmobile in the center of the page, which means we have to linger on the corpses on the right side of the panel a bit more, as they balance the scene. It’s a clever trick to make us take in the entire scene.

12-15-2013 04;22;39PM

Wrightson designs this page really well, as he gets the chaos of close fighting quite nicely while still keeping the action moving along. He moves us along until the center image, which takes up two panels of Batman and Robin smashing through the cultists. It’s a nice way to show a dynamic moment but keep the grid, especially as the panel border makes the entire scene look a bit more cramped. In the bottom row, Wrightson stretches the drawing across three panels, and leads our eye nicely from the explosion to Batman and Robin standing on the right side of the page. The way the page is laid out, you’ll notice that our heroes run from the upper left to the bottom right, even though Wrightson doesn’t keep that movement consistent (as in Panel 5). It’s a busy but clear page, and Wrightson builds the tension to the explosion nicely.

That’s Jason Todd, by the way. Is this the best Jason Todd story ever? Dude kicks ass in this series.

12-15-2013 04;26;39PM

Wrightson does this a lot throughout the book, and it’s a fairly clear Frank Miller influence. He uses very thin panels and cuts back and forth between characters or states of awareness – in a book where Batman’s mind is playing tricks on him, he often sees strange things. Now that Batman’s mind is cleared, he uses it to suggest jump cuts, as he zips from the deacon, trying to convince Batman to martyr him, and Bats himself, from his wretched face in Panel 1 to the gun in Panel 3 to the close-up of the eye in Panel 5 to the grin in Panel 7. Wrightson does a wonderful job contrasting Blackfire’s beatific mien in Panels 2, 4, and 6 with Batman’s hesitancy, and then when Batman smiles and tosses the gun away, we get the nice shift to Blackfire’s rage when he realizes he’s going to be “cheated.” Panel 8, where Batman throws the gun away, is ingeniously twice as large as the others in this sequence, not only so Wrightson can put both characters in the same space but because it’s the crucial turning point in the sequence, so we have to see Batman’s rejection of the gun and Blackfire’s reaction to it. It’s a very nice way to show this stand-off, and of course it leads to a brutal fight.

Wrightson’s work on this book elevates it quite a bit. Starlin does offer some insights into Batman, but the wackiness of the script overwhelms that, leaving only the stunning artwork to admire. Tomorrow we’ll finish up with Wrightson with his most recent work. His style shifts again! You can find other style shifts in the archives!

(I should point out that issue #1 of The Cult is where we first find a mention of the Miagani people who show up again in Morrison’s run. G-Mozz really did read every Batman comic in existence when he was preparing for his work on the character, didn’t he?)

19 Comments

Lookit the size of those bat ears! You think Kelley Jones was paying attention? Was this a thing before?

Man, I hated this book with the power of a thousand dying suns. It really should have gotten the Holy Terror treatment, speaking of Frank Miller.

Nice enough to look at, but sheesh, that wasn’t MY Batman on any level.

I had the poster on my wall.

Wrightson drew an awesome Batman. Those bat-ears are near perfect. I wish he had done more.

I think I remember Morrison referencing The Cult, but I do not think I made the Miagani connection.

This story SUCKS VERY BADLY.

P. Boz: Yeah, those are some ears, aren’t they! I don’t know when the Bat-ears went crazy, or who started it. Cronin can find out! I like them, though … but of course, I like Kelley Jones’s Bat-ears, too!

joshschr: I liked it a lot more the first time I read it. It doesn’t hold up too well, but I still have some fondness for it. I assume you’re saying that DC should have disavowed it. DISAVOWED!

kdu2814: Batman is such a cool character that it’s almost always awesome to see any artist tackle him. I’m just glad Wrightson got to do this sucker!

Back in 88/89 when I first got hooked on Batman and comics in general, this was one of the stories that hooked me. Dark and intense, this was not the Adam West Batman or Superfriends Batman that was still the overwhelming popular perception prior to the Burton film. Moreover, Starlin’s Batman was arguably where the darker version offered by Miller in Year One and TDNR showed up in the current (at the time) continuity. This is still my favorite incarnation of Batman, formidable but fallible, and not the invincibly perfect warrior he is today. This Batman can make a mistake on the street with disastrous consequences, but can still overcome defeat and his own personal fears and demons in order save the day. And he doesn’t treat his allies like a total jerk. This story deserves to be more widely read and known because, looking back, you can see how so many which come after cribbed from it. Sure, stylistically it was influenced by TDKR, but plotwise The Cult seems to be at least as influential: everything from Knightfall to No Man’s Land to Officer Down borrows key plot points and imagery from The Cult. Even much of the plot of the Dark Knight Rises is lifted directly from The Cult. It’s too bad that this story isn’t more well-known or seen as a Miller ripoff, because it usually doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

I have to think this was Neal Adams inspiration for Odyssey on some level. Like he read it and thought, well, “if Starlin can get away with this, I wonder if DC will let me try to top it!”

It also makes me think of the “Batman doesn’t sit” flap. Like, yeah, Batman doesn’t sit, but he gets brainwashed and kills a dude after spending most of the story just being the wimpiest wimp that ever wimped. Ugh. I need to go wash myself off. I feel unclean thinking of the story. It ranks high on my list of bat stories I hate yet can’t forget, like Sam Kieth’s Batman/Lobo crossover.

But, as you pointed out, Wrightson does some great stuff. The impressionism of the batmonstertruck page didn’t really register when I read it. I also love how Wrightson rocks the 4×3 grid. The way he switches from adhering to the boundaries, then breaking them really makes the chaos and action pop.

Those long bat ears go way back to ’73 when Wrightson illustrated a guest appearance of Batman in Swamp Thing (issue #7). Even better is the cape he drew in that issue – like a fluid sheen of silk flowing with his then hyper-detailed inking.

I really liked Starlin’s work on the Bat-titles with Jim Aparo (Ten Nights of the Beast remains a favorite) but this miniseries just had inexplicably crazy writing. Even as a kid poring through my dad’s back issues, I remember this just seemed silly and not well-written, but the art was definitely superb.

I read it only recently and it was…awful. Not as awful The Dark Knight Rises, a film very much inspired by it, but still awful.

I love THE CULT soooooo much. I’ve read a lot of Batman stories over the years, and this one still ranks in my top 5 easily. I’m not arguing that it’s not batshit insane, but it’s also one that I go back and re-read on a fairly regular basis.

And for something even crazier than this by the Starlin/Wrightson team, check out PUNISHER: P.O.V., which was another prestige-format mini-series.

I found this similar to Cosmic Odyssey: so pretty to look at, but such a bad story.

An absolutely glaring error is that in church life a deacon is a ‘helper’, ie makes sure the practical things get done like gardening, stores, cleaning, etc. A deacon is not an upfront leader or teacher.

It’s an error, of course, unless ‘Deacon’ is actually Mr. Blackfire’s first name.

Bill Wray’s colors are great, that’s for sure!

This comic is one of Wrightson’s worst (not THE worst. That would be the Angel Punisher series. To be fair, he only did layouts or breakdowns, but the art was drab). Look at the inconsistency between panels. Yes, some of it looks good, but the figures seem either heavily rendered or rushed. The action could flow better. Wrightson’s Swamp Thing seemed to bounce right out of the page, whereas his Batman seems stiffer. While the art in Wrightson’s earlier work may or may not have similar issues, he put enough cartoony-ness in it to sell the material. The Cult saw some of his characters drained of humor. The stock grim-n-gritty stuff is more boring than his more tongue-in-cheek early DC work.

Wow. You can tell Starlin is trying WAY too hard to do Miller’s DKR in this.

Jan Robert Andersen

February 9, 2014 at 4:38 am

I was so very disappointed when this was published. I knew Wrightson from his Swamp Thing and Warren short stories and I knew Starlin from Captain Marvel and Warlock stories.

This really seemed like a great team-up and should be their best work. It was the second project in the prestige format, was really hyped and could in no way not live up to the hype as it simply could not live up to the expectations.

I am also somewhat puzzled you simply skipped Wrightson’s Warren stuff, the Frankenstein novel illustrations and his Heavy Metal stuff as well. This was Wrightson at his best and while he has done some great stuff since this period is his prime.

Both The Weird and Batman: The Cult is from the same period as Marvel Grapic Novel 22 Spider-Man: Hooky and 29 Hulk and Thing: The Big Change and could have been presented together. Punisher: POV was the follow-up to Batman: The Cult when DC did not want to publish it. I once found it in a quarter bin but didn’t want it.

This was a period when Wrightson seemed somewhat like a shadow of his former self. Even Batman/Aliens from 1997 and Punisher: Purgatory from 1998 could be seen together with these. While the latter was a failed Punisher reboot under the Marvel Knights imprint Wrightson was quite good on Wrightson’s behalf.

Wrightson has returned to something close to his former prime on his later work and especially Frankenstein Alive, Alive from IDW working with horror writer Steve Niles. I really look forward to a collection of this, and so hope it will not let my expectations down as Batman: The Cult.

Jan: Unfortunately, I can only show what I own, and I don’t own Wrightson’s Warren work, the Frankenstein novel, and the Heavy Metal work. I’d love to get my hands on it, but I don’t own it right now. So I’m bound by what I have in my collection.

I think Wrightson’s work on The Cult is quite good, although it does have some problems and it’s not as good as his 1970s work or his recent work on Frankenstein Alive, Alive. Part of this series is to show how artists change, and you can’t deny this is a change, even if you don’t like it. It’s hard when you have an artist who has changed over his career but I don’t have all of the work. I know some of this will be incomplete, but I try to do the best I can.

I hope you saw my post on Frankenstein Alive, Alive, because the art is absolutely beautiful. I just hope it gets finished sometime soon!

Stephen Conway

July 1, 2014 at 11:15 am

Very late to commenting here, but just a point for Ecron Muss. In the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Churches deacons have an ordained, pastoral role but they don’t have the full range of duties of a priest or bishop. These deacons often continue to full-priesthood but can also retain regular jobs.

Starlin was raised Catholic, so I’d say Deacon Blackfire reflects the Catholic tradition of the role.

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