Batman: Son of the Demon (1987)
By Mike W. Barr & Jerry Bingham
I’m going to discuss the plot of Batman: Son of the Demon (BSOTD) in pretty close detail, so consider this a SPOILER WARNING!
Comics of the Event (What is the Event? Read the introduction.) can be mapped onto a fourfold structure of two intersecting axes. On the horizontal axis, we have the ‘art’ continuum, which ranges from experimental (or innovative) on one end, to traditional on the other. The vertical axis is ‘narrative,’ which has a similar range. Because comics are a unique melding of narrative and image, the intersections between these two continuums can result in unusual juxtapositions. Traditional narratives can be executed in experimental art styles, and experimental narratives might be assigned a traditional artist. These discrepancies were intensified during the Event, especially in commercial comics published by Marvel, DC, and other publishers where writer and artist are distinct figures.
I also want to add that I want to isolate the art & narrative innovations of Event comics from the wider world of art and literature (at least for now). This is to simplify the analysis and to avoid getting bogged down in excavating the non-comics origins of the various art & narrative techniques deployed in comics. For example, some of the artistic or narrative innovations were simply borrowed from other places, from literature, illustration, art, etc. But in the context of comics they were new and different. Still, I reserve the right to occasionally ignore this guideline.
Batman: Son of the Demon (BSOTD) falls squarely into the "traditional" camp. Batman was one of the few characters that was not hugely affected by the Crisis of Infinite Earths (Apr 1985-Mar 1986, more on that next column) continuity reboot. The monthly Batman titles were not numerically reset to #1, unlike, say, Superman. Batman’s origin was tweaked a bit in Batman: Year One, but that come out after BSOTD and had no effect on its continuity. The key revisionist Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, came out just a few months before BSOTD. The other key Batman title from that era, The Killing Joke, would not come out until 1988; post-Event.
BSOTD occupies an awkward position in the Batman canon… and in the Event. On one hand, M.W. Barr tries to disrupt the Batman mythos by introducing new elements into the canon, and takes new liberties with violence and brutality. On other, in execution, it’s a nostalgic callback to the then already classic Denny O’Neil & Neil Adams era of Batman. (That run itself was a callback to the original pre-camp, pre-TV-show Batman). The artist Jerry Bingham may have put it best. Bingham was “half-way through working on Batman, Son of the Demon, when Frank Miller’s first Dark Knight hit the comic shops. My brain nearly exploded. I felt like Roger Corman watching a Spielberg movie, and I had to force myself to pick up the pencil again.” 1This is an interesting admission. All around him, creators like Miller, Sienkiewicz, Mazzucchelli, and others were competing with each other to innovate comics storytelling. Meanwhile, Bingham felt like a dinosaur drawing in the classic Batman style.
Graphic Novel Format
Still, even within its traditional narrative structure, there are elements of the Event. Realism, violence, and brutality are all dialed up way beyond the levels of the monthlies. The format of the book was important too. BSOTD was published in the "graphic-novel format" 2 (approximately: 8 x 10.5 inches, hard or softcover, 52-80 pages). The larger canvas, longer page count, and finite nature of the story were still relative rarities at that time, especially in the superhero market. This allowed the creators to create a complete sustained narrative with an ending that does not need to set up the next issue of a series. But for a character like Batman it’s an ill-fitting format. All the characters in the book have long histories that stretch back decades in some cases. The dynamics between the characters can be understood by a casual reader, but they really reward the fan who has followed the Batman mythos for a while.
BSOTD ostensibly revolves around Batman investigating a terrorist incident and the murder of a scientist in Gotham, but the story takes a huge detour. Batman is injured when he breaks up a terrorist group that has taken hostages in a warehouse on the Gotham River. He passes out in a dark alley on his way back to the Batcave, and is rescued by Talia al Ghul—his off-and-on romantic interest. It turns out she has been tracking the terrorists, because they are led by an old enemy of her father’s, Qayin (read Cain, get it?). Qayin was once Ra's al Ghul's disciple, but when his parents were killed in Hiroshima he went crazy and accidentally killed Talia’s mother. Qayin’s group is looking for rainmaking technology, and in their quest end up terrorizing a Gotham industrial warehouse, and killing a key rainmaking scientist.
Qayin, who is now crazed, wants to take revenge on the whole planet by engineering a nuclear holocaust. His plan is to:
- hijack an American weather-making satellite
- hack it to create cataclysmic storms
- send a massive storm to Moscow
- make the USSR start a nuclear war with the USA in retaliation for the storm
- watch the world burn (like his parents did in Hiroshima)
Ra’s and Talia want to take revenge on Qayin for killing their wife/mother. They also want to prevent the nuclear cataclysm, which would interfere with Ra's's own eco-terrorist plans to ‘cleanse’ the planet. Since Ra’s also wants to get Qayin, he and Batman form an uneasy team-up. Ra's's condition for the alliance is for Batman to marry Talia, and to become second in command of the Demon (Ra’s's organization). Batman says yes, trains the Demon's troops, and gets Talia pregnant. Batman develops visions of domestic bliss, and decides this life is too dangerous for his wife and family. After Qayin attacks the Demon's HQ, pregnant Talia is almost hurt. This is no way to raise a family! Batman declares that he quits! Talia & Ra’s engineer a fake miscarriage. Batman, enraged and now looking for revenge, leads the final assault on Qayin's forces. Batman kills Qayin as Ra’s disables the weather satellite. Believing his child to be dead, Batman returns to Gotham, and finally solves the murder of the weather scientist. Talia gives birth, and gives up her child for adoption.
BSOTD was not originally conceived as an "Elseworlds" type story. 3 It was supposed to be canon. But various forces in the DC editorial and corporate structure hated the idea of Batman having a son. As a result, the story was demoted to non-canon status.4 Even though it acquired this status only post-publication and by editorial diktat, due to its deluxe format and its stand-alone story, BSOTD is now seen as a prototype for the Elsewords titles that came a few years later.
Pawn of the Demon
On the surface Batman is in charge. In reality Batman—"the detective," as Ra’s fondly likes to call him—is completely in the dark about almost every event that unfolds. For almost the entire story, he’s expertly manipulated by Ra’s and Talia. Ra’s has always wanted Batman as his heir. Here he gets his wish. He easily manipulates Batman into:
- joining his organization
- leading it
- training its army (albeit in non-lethal combat)
- fathering his daughter's child
- killing Qayin (so Ra’s eco-ambitions can survive)
- giving up on the child
Batman never figures any of it out. At every step he is manipulated by the father/daughter team. At the end of the story, he returns to Gotham without knowing any of the above.
In every review of BSOTD I’ve read, this deception is understood as Talia’s way to protect Batman. “Killed. He was almost killed… he may yet be… all because he is trying to protect me,” she thinks at one point. But that makes no sense—even if Talia loves Batman and doesn’t want him hurt, why would Ra’s agree to send Batman away? Ra’s has put his own child, his many wives, and countless followers in danger for centuries. He wouldn’t change his mind just because Batman is willing to die for his grandchild. Isn’t that exactly what all of the characters are doing in this book? Putting their lives at risk? Also, isn’t this why Talia & Ra’s brought Batman into the organization in the first place? To marry Talia? To father a child? And to become the Demon’s Head!
Batman the Coward
Since the child ultimately is born, and the child is kept from Batman, and Batman is sent away, we have to read between the panels, that something else is going on. A hint of what that is, comes on page 63. While Ra’s is planning the next assault on Qayin, Batman reiterates that he is “through” working for the Demon's Head. “So you did… but I chose not to believe that you have become a coward,” says Ra’s. “I’m not concerned for my own skin… I want our child to have a home… a family… everything I never had,” answers Batman. He may be willing to die for the child, but he also wants to give it all the bourgeoisie trappings that Ra’s despises, the very things the Demon is fighting against, the things that have spoiled the pristine planet.
Daughter of the Demon
Talia is a badass assassin. She’s the Daughter of the Demon, and she will never be a bourgeois wife. She and Ra’s engineer the pretense of the miscarriage. It’s almost as if she’s embarrassed by what she wrought. She effectively dumps Batman, because he’s grown soft and overprotective. This is presented with sadness and lots of tears, but the tears were necessary to fool Batman. Ra’s and Talia want an heir to the Demon’s Head, not a suburban dad.
Batman’s marriage and his fatherhood were supposed to cement him to Ra’s's cause. But, when he glimpses a prospect for happiness and a "real family," he reveals his true bourgeois morality: to preserve, restore, and protect his family, and by extension, his wealth. He even wants to name the child after his parents, Thomas or Martha, depending on the gender. He wants to restore his lost aristocratic happiness. The image of Batman the hero falls apart. He is once again his true self, the protector of family wealth. Ra’s and Talia see this, and are repulsed. Why else would they scheme to hide the child? They are interested in Batman the avenger, not Wayne the family man.
Grandson of the Demon
Their deception, and the resulting grief, restores Batman the avenger, and the potential heir to Ra’s al Ghul. Angry, thirsting for revenge, Batman kills Qayin, leaves Ra’s's organization, and returns to Gotham. Al Ghul is several centuries old and used to thinking long-term. He can wait for Batman, the true heir, a little longer. As Batman leaves, you can almost sense everyone laughing behind his back. The child’s name, we find out much later, is a properly demonic Damian.5
BSOTD is also about the struggle between two stateless terrorist organizations: Qayin vs Ra’s. America and the USSR are used as pawns in two struggles to destroy the modern world: burn it all with nuclear fire, or restore it to pre-industrial ecological splendor. It foreshadows our own present-day struggles with stateless actors like Al Qaida and ISIS.
Batman fits into this surprisingly well. He’s already committed to acting outside of legal norms. He also has a history of flaunting international norms. In fact, Mike W. Barr, already showed us a Batman willing to quit the Justice League because it refused to act in a foreign country, Markovia.6 When Ra’s installs Batman as the head of his organization, he relishes the opportunity. The relationship goes far beyond a temporary alliance to find the killer of a scientist in Gotham. This is an opportunity to bring his brand of justice beyond the narrow confines of Gotham, to the whole world. He immediately takes the reigns, and begins to re-make the organization in his own image, by training them in "non-lethal" combat.
Not Your Fight Batman
This is by design. Ra’s & Talia want him to be the new Demon’s Head and he delivers. When they finally track down Qayin, a blood-crazed Batman leaps at him, itching for a fight to the death. Qayin pushes Batman aside and says, “This isn’t your fight." He’s right. It’s only Batman’s fight because Ra’s and Talia manipulated him to this point. His outrage and motives for revenge are entirely manufactured. But Batman persists and brutally kills Qayin.
Of course BSOTD cannot be read in isolation. Prior to this story, Batman has had a long relationship with Talia in the Batman monthly comics. He’s encountered Ra’s al Ghul many times before. BSOTD is only a possible resolution of the many dangling relationships between those characters. It’s an apotheosis of a long term build-up. Still, the Batman depicted in BSOTD is hapless and a pawn.
The art is nice, designed to be "classic Batman." Jerry Bingham’s artwork echoes Neal Adams’s elongated, vertical, and realistic take on Batman. Complete with exploded layouts where panel borders are frequently violated, deliberately broken, or altogether dispensed-with, to give many pages an overall assemblage-like design.
Bingham does some interesting stuff with fight choreography and he’s aware of the space where fights take place and uses it to fuel his compositions. A good example is the rocket launch on pages 42 and 43. On the left side of the spread the action is horizontal, to emphasize the on-the-ground fight, split seconds before the rocket takes off on the next page, and switches to a vertical layout. It’s effective.
Sometimes the exploded juxtapositions result in somewhat comical effects. For example, on page 21, Batman speaks with the co-workers of a murdered man. It’s a somber scene, except there’s a jet airplane flying between Batman’s legs. It’s designed to visually lead the eye to the next part of the page, but in the context it feels weird and funny. There are other sequences that similarly sacrifice something by breaking the grid.
For Mature Readers
There are also moments of extreme brutality. In the opening scene, a terrorist threatens the rape of a pregnant woman and carves a ‘Q’ into her face with a knife. Batman dispatches the criminal with brutal efficiency. This scene also foreshadows his later reaction to Talia’s phantom miscarriage. In another scene, Qayin tortures a man by ripping out his teeth, and crushing his skull with his bare hands. The final result is off-panel, with tasteful blood spatter standing-in for the crushed skull. Qayin also brutally kills his patron and benefactor by crushing his chest until broken ribs pop out. Blood & guts were a one of the ways ‘mature’ themes entered mainstream superhero comics in the 1980s.
BSOD is curious artifact. It struggles to bring adult themes and situations into a fantasy world created mostly for children. This tension created a lot of interesting subtext and unintended consequences.
- Best, Daniel (2005). "Jerry Bingham". AdelaideComicsandBooks.com.
- Since 1982 DC & Marvel both published lines of graphic novels. They were ostensibly based on the European graphic album format which had started appearing in America in the '70s (Lucky Luke, Asterix). The format really picked up steam in the '80s with a wide range of material translated by various publishers. As far as I’m aware, BSOTD is the only DC GN that featured a DC universe character (except for The Hunger Dogs by Kirby, though it can be argued that Kirby’s Fourth World titles form a universe of their own). All the other DC GNs featured original stories or adaptations (let me know if I’m wrong about this). The format had a heyday during the Event and was one of the catalysts for normalizing new and higher quality reproduction technology into comics. After 1987 the format went into decline at the big two. DC had a brief resurgence for the format with Piranha Press (1989-1994) and Marvel pretty much phased the line out by the beginning of the '90s. "Graphic-novel format" is distinct from (although clearly related to) "graphic novel," the marketing term that has become the standard way to describe comics in the book market.
- "We were told to never use that child ever again, he does not exist in continuity anymore." Chris Sims, Mike W. Barr On Batman: The Comics Alliance Interview, Part One. Comics Alliance.
- DC Comics have featured imaginary stories set outside of the regular continuity since the 1940s. Some of these alternate versions became very popular and were integrated into a vast DC comics "multiverse." This is the same multiverse eventually destroyed and collapsed into a new single continuity in Crisis of Infinite Earths. However, almost immediately in that series' aftermath, alternate timeline stories like BSOTD, started to crop up again. BSOTD is a precursor to Elseworlds, which bracketed "imaginary" stories into a separate imprint. The first official Elseworlds title was Batman: Gotham by Gaslight by Augustyn & Mignola (1989).
- In Batman #655, writer Grant Morrison introduces Damian, the child conceived in BSOTD, into the main Batman continuity.
- In Batman & The Outsiders #1 (Aug 1983, Mike W. Barr & Jim Aparo) Wayne Corp CEO Lucius Fox is trapped in Markovia by a revolution. Batman asks the Justice League for help. Unfortunately, Superman already promised to keep the League out of the conflict. The annoyed Batman quits the League, goes to Markovia with Black Lightning, frees the CEO, meets a bunch of misfit superheroes, forms a new team (The Outsiders), and cancels the revolution.