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Death of a Mainstay

There are a number of problems with BATMAN: DEATH & THE MAIDENS, the nine issue Greg Rucka/Klaus Janson miniseries that just wrapped up (no doubt to be collected soon), but after reading the conclusion, I have one complaint I'm surprised to make: it changes the status quo.

Don't get me wrong--I'm not a slave to continuity and think change can often be a good thing for comics characters. But when making a change, one must consider what is gained by such a change, and what is lost.

Ra's al Ghul, aka "The Demon's Head", vies for the title of Batman's most formidable villain with The Joker, but he really stands alone in Batman's "rogue's gallery". The Joker is an agent of chaos, representing the most destructive aspects of insanity. He lives only to amuse himself and cares nothing for others. A handful of other colorful Batman villains are really just lesser versions of him, less grandiose and more reliant on specific motifs and gimmicks. Ra's is one of the only enemies Batman can engage intellectually, and perhaps the only enemy he respects. The only really essential Ra's stories were written in the 70s by Denny O'Neil, often illustrated by Neal Adams. While Ra's, the exotic schemer with carefully constructed plans for world domination, was really more of a James Bond villain, he still brought a breath of fresh air to the world of Batman, drawing him away from the short-sighted heists and anarchy of Gothamite villains and into a Bondian world of ski chases and femmes fatales. Well, one femme fatale, anyway, in the person of Ra's daughter, Talia, who falls for Batman. This was O'Neil's smartest development, as it created an odd but fertile ground for tales in which Ra's wants to defeat and kill Batman, but enjoys the challenge because it means his daughter has chosen a suitable mate. The last word on this situation, if one wishes to believe it, was Mike W. Barr's and Jerry Bingham's BATMAN: SON OF THE DEMON in the 80s, a pre-Elseworlds fantasy in which Batman and Talia finally did get together.

But officially, for now, the last word on Ra's al Ghul is to be found in this laborious, nine-issue limited series by Rucka and Janson. It starts off well enough, in a back-up story in DETECTIVE and then the first issue, as we meet Nyssa, Ra's long-lost eldest daughter, who has been nursing a grudge against him for several centuries, as he didn't act to protect her once, resulting in the loss of her children. At least, I think that's what happened; after this many issues, most readers will have forgotten her motivation, which is not a good sign in a revenge story.

So we have Nyssa seeking to kill her father and usurp his power, Talia as a tool Nyssa is going to use to do this, Ra's off his game because Nyssa is destroying his few remaining Lazarus Pits (the source of his eternal life), and Batman struggling whether to save Ra's--the devil he knows -- or let Nyssa do what he's been unwilling to do all these years. This really had the makings for a good story, and it can't be said that Rucka didn't put thought into it. He seeks to contrast how Nyssa is controlled, and ultimately, corrupted by her hatred of her father (Luke, don't give in to the dark side), with how Batman, put through an emotionally draining dream sequence/vision of meeting his disappointed dead parents) is inspired by the past but not controlled by it. Many would argue that the whole Batman "thing" is a clear sign of such an obsession with the past, but one can't expect Rucka to rationalize the entire concept of Batman within these pages.

However, one can expect that this story holds together for nine issues, and that whatever changes it brings are good ones, and neither can be said. The length of the series really appeared to bring out Rucka's worst instincts, reaching a nadir at the halfway point of the series in an issue-length torture of Talia by Nyssa. The purpose of this torture is to break Talia down so that she'll be a pawn of Nyssa, rather than her enemy, but it goes on so long it throws the reader out of the story. In some circles, Rucka has been accused of misogyny in his writing, this being but the latest example, but rather than stepping into the quagmire of writer mindset vs. character mindset, one can easily tear this chapter apart merely by noting that in order to capture Talia, a formidable, intelligent woman who has been at supervillain Ra's al Ghul's right hand through countless schemes, not to mention a recent Cabinet member, Nyssa merely has to act like a nice neighbor and sneak up behind her. Even worse, Batman's vision, which should only have lasted an issue, drags on across several, losing most of the story's remaining momentum and making Batman look like a desperate, stunted child of the past for even agreeing to experience the vision, undermining Rucka's point altogether. Ra's, as well, is demeaned, a frail, doddering old man at last, demanding help from Batman but surprisingly at a loss for a plan of his own. If this was the best he could do under the gun, one would almost welcome his being put out of his misery by the duped Talia, if Nyssa had anything going for her as a character beyond viciousness and cruelty.

And that's what it comes down to, really. What is gained by Ra's dead and Nyssa as the new Ra's? She's just as ruthless as the old Ra's, but her anger is no substitute for vision. What should be an ingenious plot to unseat an age-old menace is ultimately just about getting close enough to stab the guy. Rucka's first Ra's story, at the beginning of his DETECTIVE COMICS run a few years ago, also was less about Ra's al Ghul than it was about a devious woman connected to him, in that case a forgettable snake woman. Rucka has a better basic story here, but at nine issues it becomes one of those tedious "director's cut" dvds, where a good two-hour film becomes self-indulgent and hard to endure at three hours.

Janson, for his part, does his best with this material early on, but his figures do get blockier and less consistent around the midpoint, whether due to lack of time, lack of interest, or reasons unknown. And he's never been that great at drawing distinctive female faces, so Talia, Nyssa and even Martha Wayne look much alike, even allowing for genetic similarity for the sisters. For the most part, Janson does fine, though, except for an unfortunately timed penultimate scene, where Talia reappears with unintentionally frightening, disproportionate anatomy. To his credit, Rucka's epilogue, with Bruce Wayne having conquered his demons, if not the Demon's Head, is well done, though too little, too late to save this bloated misfire.

-- Chris Allen


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