His consistent ability to weave philosophy, morality and darkly violent action into whatever genre he works in is the aspect of Starlin’s work I gravitate to most. Even when working in the most fantastical sci-fi realms, he’s always introducing heavy existential conflict into the motives and choices of his characters.
Recently I decided to pull out a couple of Starlin’s miniseries involving two of my favorite childhood comic book protagonists – Batman and The Punisher. As a kid, more than any other super heroes, these hardcore, human vigilantes spoke to some angry and disturbed part of my own nature. Motivated by tragedy, revenge and a sense of justice, Frank Castle and Bruce Wayne both led lives obsessed with correcting the failures of a legal system that allows innocent people to be brutalized, while their perpetrators go largely unpunished. Outside of those similar motives, the two men had a vastly different perspective on how that justice ought to be doled out.
Batman worked alongside the professional police class while The Punisher had no interest in brining criminals to the law. For the stone-cold Castle, the only place he sent criminals was six-feet under the ground. Had both characters fallen under the same ownership company, the men would have been antagonists much in the same way that Spiderman and Daredevil tried to thwart The Punisher’s murderous efforts. (In fact there was a cross-over series between DC and Marvel that pitted the two icons against each other.)
Punisher P.O.V. was a 4-part graphic novel I got my hands on as a 10-year-old kid back in 1991. Re-reading the series today, I’m amazed at how incredibly graphic the violence was and how demented the story elements were. I’m pretty sure my mom had to be begged to buy them for me against her better judgment. Being graphic novels as opposed to the standard monthly publication, the creative team didn’t have to contend with the Comics Code Authority that would have cut those books to pieces for content.
In the same scenario, 1988’s Batman: The Cult, being unrated, allowed Starlin to send Batman into the darkest, adult-themed corners imaginable. I picked up the collected reprints a few years ago and feel in love with Bernie Wrightson’s artwork and the psychotic mania of the scripting. Great results follow when Starlin is free to channel his cynical anger towards organized religion or expose the moral frailties of society. Both of the aforementioned series provided him with those opportunities in spades.
“The eighties brought on a more adult version of comics. The readership was getting older and demanded stories with more meat on them. Writers leapt at the chance to expand the depths of the imaginary characters they’d grown up wit and whose destinies they now directed. Some pretty nice stuff came out of this new freedom: Moore’s Swamp Thing, Miller’s Daredevil and Batman, Byrne’s Superman and many others.” – Jim Starlin, Burn this Book
I had it in the back of my mind that the Batman and Punisher stories had a similar vibe and tone that made me want to analyze them side by side. The most obvious connection involves the creative team itself, composed in both cases of Starlin as writer, the legendary artist Bernie Wrightson and colorist Bill Wray. Even being separated by three years and produced for opposing companies, read consecutively, the stories clearly come out of the same violent underbelly of delusions and anti-heroes. They also share an odd fetish for underground sewer systems as a backdrop.
Besides the clear thematic connections, I was surprised that my intuitions of deeper meanings lurking between the shoot-outs and punch-ups proved to be correct. When I approached the works again, in both cases I discovered that Starlin was really pushing the envelope and signaling strongly towards the all too-real scenarios of government conspiracy, dangerous religious cultism, mind control and terrorism. In a few cases he may even prove prophetic judging by the 25 years since P.O.V. hit the stands. A few of his wild plotting devices may even be just beyond the visible horizon.
I’ll offer my overview of these works chronologically, beginning with The Cult books. Starlin got that series underway with an allusion to a mythic journey, designed to take us deep into Wayne's subconscious. The best writers of Batman effectively mine the twisted and haunted psyche of millionaire, orphan, Bruce Wayne. The early pages of The Cult show us a tormented man on the razor’s edge of self-restraint, desperate to maintain the boundaries of morality.
Wayne starts his journey into the underworld as a scared teenager, delving down into the basement of a cavernous mansion. Confronted by the madness of The Joker (who has in other stories been an effective mirror of Batman’s own violent tendencies), the boy Wayne morphs into the righteously angry Batman. Having been pushed too far for too long, he decides to stop The Joker’s games once and for all with the tip of an ax. The blood soaked panels that follow provide a strong signal that this story isn’t going to be a typical walk through Gotham Park. Of course the psychotic murder of The Joker only happened in Wayne’s mind as the next page reveals the waking Batman, completely dazed and held captive in an underground sewer.
The main premise of The Cult series is motivated by a vigilante cult leader, Deacon Blackfire and his army of vagabond radicals. Posing as a messianic figure sent to rid Gotham City of crime, Blackfire builds up his homeless followers via abduction and brainwashing. In reality, Blackfire’s true intent is to topple Gotham’s government and install himself as the new boss. That’s not to say he isn’t deluded by an honest religious furor.
After setting up a homeless outreach center in Gotham, Blackfire makes very strong strides towards his goals. Batman is merely another target to be dealt with in addition to highly placed city officials. Blackfire realizes what an asset Batman would be to have in his ranks and makes a strong attempt at converting him to his murderous cause.
This brings us into the specifics of a clear mind control theme in the storyline. One can assume Starlin gleamed inspiration for the Blackfire character from history fresh in the minds of a 1980’s audience. Every messiah that managed to build up a strong following did so by a few textbook means. Mind control or hypnosis being central. Every cult leader has to have a good rap, based in identifying evils of the world and an offer of salvation. Some of the most intriguing mass cults were either within the 20 years prior to The Cult or in the process of heating up as the books were being written.
One of the most tragic religious cults, The People’s Temple and their mass suicides in Jonestown, went down only 10 years prior to Starlin’s work. Dangerous religious cults charged into the excessive 80s with heavy-hitters like, Osho and his bio-terrorist Oregon commune; the beginnings of Japan’s doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, fellow doomsdayers, the Church Universal and Triumphant in Montana and Swiss suicide cult, the Order of the Solar Temple, just to name a few.
The most infamous cultist of all and perhaps the most relevant in terms of tactics we see employed by Blackfire – is obviously Charles Manson. Although Starlin created a character different in many ways, Blackfire’s use of drugs to break down mental barriers, allowing for easy access to the subconscious was key to Manson’s methods.
Once a subject fell under the influence of psychedelics, Manson/Blackfire began the effective hypno-suggestion therapy treatment. In The Cult, Batman is physically restrained, tortured, starved and drugged to the point of a mental breakdown. Blackfire and other cult members take turns going to work on the shattered psyche of the delirious Dark Knight, aggressively programming him with their twisted visions.
The parallels to the CIA’s interrogation and mind control programs, Artichoke, Bluebird and MKUltra, should also be noted as possible sources of creative influence. Blackfire essentially tried to flip Batman into his very own Manchurian Candidate, joining with the rest of his cultists to carry out assassinations that would lead to an eventual full-scale coup.
The operation comes very close to success, as Batman at one point, “sees the light” of Blackfire’s mission statement, entering a total hypnotic trance. But the mighty will of Batman proves too tough to tame and he eventually breaks free of the conditioning. This was no easy task for him though, and he suffers from a severe detoxification process, as hallucinations messed his mind up long time. His ever-reliable sidekick Robin showed up right at a critical juncture to help bring him back to reality.
As we get to know Deacon Blackfire better, we find another plank of conspiracy theory laid down to firm up his sinister character. Along with his strong mind control game used to build up his cult, we see that his human sacrificing agenda serves a broader purpose than the mere destabilizing effects on Gotham City’s power structure. Blackfire has a whole mythological backstory in which he is a reincarnating messiah continually entering the timeline in order to purify the masses. In this incarnation as the Deacon, he drinks and bathes in human blood in an attempt at gain access to the Philosopher’s Stone of immortality.
The drinking of human blood motif has been a staple in real and imagined stories, usually featuring Satanic cults. But it’s not just wannabe vampires and devils that have a blood fetish these days. Bilderberg elitists like billionaire tech mogul, Peter Thiel, are supporting scientific research into human blood as a legitimate key to life extension. What has long been a dark conspiracy rumor proves not to be that far out of the minds of society influencers. We’ll see this blood-drinking concept return later in the P.O.V. series.
On another predictive programing note that develops in the middle of the storyline, the violence of the terror cult prompts Gotham City Governor to declare a state of martial law. The National Guard is called in to confront Blackfire and his underground cult after Police Commissioner Gordon is gunned down during a press conference. The final straw comes next as a nightly newscaster is assassinated on the air and replaced with a live feed of Blackfire declaring himself Gotham’s spiritual leader.
The Blackfire sewer gang’s effective ambush on a squadron of National Guardsmen escalates the situation into a total city evacuation. Even Batman and Robin split town with Alfred at the culmination of the 3rd issue. There’s an interesting subtext of television news reports that feature interviews with citizens of Gotham. In a comment on the modern human condition, Starlin shows us that a good number of the population support Blackfire and his purported vigilante cleanup efforts. Facing little resistance for a time, Blackfire and his followers come above ground, occupying and looting the entire town. The Federal military moves in at that point to fight in guerilla fashion on the streets of a major American city.
|Martial law in Boston|
The martial law aspect of the story jumped out at me in lieu of what has become a powerful meme in very recent history. Consider the military lockdown that took place in Boston following the city marathon bombings in the spring of 2013. In the summer of 2015, American people saw the two month “realistic military training drill” known as Jade Helm, designed to simulate special forces engaged against urban resistance fighters.
“Troops engaging in the exercise assumed the roles of either occupying or resistance forces. Most locations were in sparsely populated arid regions near small towns. Some participants wore civilian attire and drove civilian vehicles.” – Manny Fernandez, The New York Times
It’s no surprise the combination of those key events and much other evidence of a mounting militarized police state, that conspiracy theorists began making heated speculations. But don’t think for a second that martial law plans haven’t been drawn up before 9/11. In Cold War 1956, the United States government developed a martial law strategy in case of a nuclear attack called, Plan C. Part of the plan included an “Emergency Detention Program” designed to round-up so-called “subversives” along with foreign diplomats and other suspected enemy allies.
Federal properties like FEMA camps would surely come in handy, in the event of such a large-scale detaining operation. Of course we can never be sure what the government will do, it's merely interesting to collect data on what they've considered doing in the past and have the capability of doing in the future.
One way of reading The Cult would be to say there are valid scenarios to declare martial law – in this case in defense against a violent religious uprising. It all sounds so disturbingly plausible these days. With massive protests on the rise, pitting demonstrators against militarized police and Donald Trump’s election trail call for new rounds of stop-and-frisk – America feels much closer to the brink of mass violence than Starlin may have imagined back in ’88.
At the conclusion of the series, the escalation of ground combat between the occupying cultists and military forces paves the way for the triumphant return of Batman and Robin into Gotham. They make a big entrance, rolling into town in a heavily armored Batmobile, raised up on monster truck wheels, featuring machine gun turrets and a missile launcher.
In the final showdown, we find out that more important to Deacon Blackfire than ruling Gotham for eternity, is the golden opportunity at martyrdom. Blackfire stands ready to die at the hands of the caped crusader, just as long as he can take him down with him. In the middle of an arena encircled by the Deacon’s followers, Batman beats the living hell out of the would-be martyr, up until the point that the cleaver crime fighter sees how he’s playing into Blackfire’s hands. Refusing to comply with his suicide by super-hero plan, he instead leaves the emasculated King to face his final judgment at the hands of his own followers.
The final pages of the story end with a newscast report of order being restored as Gotham refugees and officials return to the disfigured city. The last piece of business for Batman to address is a wooden totem pole carved in the likeness of Deacon Blackfire.
He returns to the sewers to preform arson on the last physical remnant of the failed cult. He does this perhaps because of a superstition that the totem could be some form of a golem, animated with Blackfire’s dark energy. More practically he burns it up simply to erase any evidence of the man that could potentially inspire his worship ever again.
Batman has rarely shown any spiritual inclinations as man. His obsessive focus on balancing the intensity of his double-life left little room for the exploration. In fact, Wayne and his alter-ego have always seemed to represent the height of materialism and scientific prowess – the ubermensch. He solved crimes rationally by his own knowledge and wits with technology giving an extra boon. In some way The Cult depicts rationality triumphing over the irrationality of religious fervor. Having to choose between these extremes, there's no sympathy to be found with the Blackfire character and we cheer on Batman's individual heroism, devoid of spirituality or not.
From that perspective you might interpret Stalin's message as an opportunistic swipe at alternative religions and the superiority of opposing those impulses. However, I would not draw the conclusion that Starlin is suggesting a worldview that is that binary. I come to that conclusion based on having read other books in Starlin's catalog that more depict the supernatural in a heroic light. It is clear however that Starlin suffered no system of dogmatic beliefs imposed on free-will and individuality.
In a follow up post, I will tackle the 2nd work by the Starlin/Wrightson/Wray team, The Punisher series, P.O.V. Same Bat time, same Bat channel.