We Love the City

The monologue is my preferred method of discourse.

Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul review

“Worst” is a horribly misused word. Look up any movie on IMDB and you’ll find the user reviews  peppered with comments declaring it the worst ever. There’s an astonishing lack of perspective and context on display, as though people simply don’t understand the vast amount of utter crap that is produced in any field in any year. X-Men 3 may have been a pretty damn bad movie, but it’s not Plan 9 from Outer Space, nor would it surpass any number of student and independent films produced around the world in the decades since someone thought it would be neat if they could find a way for pictures to move. It’s not even limited to a lack of historical or global context; sometimes, people just don’t think before throwing “worst” around like a Wal-Mart Throw Pillow.

I say this not to argue with the hordes of ranting lunatics on the internet, but to provide context  to this piece, to let you know that I do not say what I am about to say casually or without introspection: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul is one of the worst comics I have ever read.

Look, I think superhero comics get a bum rap from some people, with the genre bearing the brunt of complaints about wonky distribution systems and a medium that struggles with mainstream acceptance. It’s true that I don’t read a lot of Marvel or DC superhero books these days, but that has less to do with quality than it does to do with big crossovers, obsessive nostalgia, and an unwillingness to do anything truly unique or different.

Take Resurrection, for example. I didn’t have much interest in the Batman crossover when it was being serialized. Partly just because it’s a crossover, which rarely brings out the best in a creative team. Partly because Ra’s Al Ghul is one of those comic book characters I’m supposed to care about even though I don’t think I’ve ever read a story about him; it seems like he’s a big deal because Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams created him, and no one talks about how little he’s been used since. And the word “Resurrection” borders on farcical, suggesting as it does that anyone should be surprised or impressed that a supervillain is coming back from the dead.

(In fact, one of the first warning signs in Resurrection comes in the introductory character descriptions: “Ra’s Al Ghul is finally dead… or is he…?” If he’s not actually dead, then he doesn’t need to be resurrected at all, does he? Or if you want to emphasize finally dead, then if he’s really, truly, finally dead, you probably can’t resurrect him.)

But I found the hardcover edition of Resurrection super-cheap at a Boxing Day sale, so I figured, sure, why not? I like Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan, and Fabian Nicieza and Paul Dini are usually at least competent writers. And, you know, Batman is cool. So what the heck, right? How wrong can you go for five dollars?

As it turns out, it’s a lot like buying a monkey for five dollars, and then finding out the monkey is a trained knife thrower and has a nasty cocaine addiction.

It starts fairly nondescriptly, with a chapter by Peter Milligan and David Lopez that provides much of the setup for the story: Ra’s Al Ghul is dead. Batman had a son with Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter Talia, and the son is now… 13? Something like that. Ra’s Al Ghul’s followers believe the son, Damian, can become the vessel for the soul of his grandfather, facilitating his return from the dead.

Yeah, it’s kind of silly when you try to sum it up like that. But I had to explain She-Hulk to someone last week, so I can respect that awesome things can sound stupid when you try to explain them in a simple fashion.

(No, I didn’t really have to explain She-Hulk. I’m pretty sure she didn’t ask. But it came up, and I fulfilled my manly duties. I was not in any way rewarded for my efforts.)

Most of the introductory chapter consists of Talia telling Damian the story of her father’s life… except not really. The narrative skirts around Al Ghul’s life, filling in blanks that may not have been told before, but not actually covering the pre-existing story. We see him meeting a wise old man and his beautiful and intelligent daughter centuries ago, but skip over the part where everything goes horribly wrong and the noble man is set on a path to evil. We see him fighting against Napoleon, and later in Whitechapel learning how he may recover from death, but we never see the actual death that makes this story necessary.

None of it is particularly helpful. Ra’s Al Ghul may be a “classic” Batman villain, but he hasn’t appeared in a comic since 2004. In the five years since then, DC and the Batman franchise have had several creative overhauls and, just maybe, it might have added a few new readers. Unlike other iconic villains like the Joker or the Penguin, Al Ghul has a complicated backstory that everyone might not know.

But, you say, Damian, Talia, and the League of Assassins has been featured in Grant Morrison’s Batman run prior to this story, so maybe more was explained there. That may be a fair point (I’m not really sure, having ignored most of the non-JH Williams part of Morrison’s run), but it doesn’t apply to the hardcover edition: There’s no number on the spine, nor is there anything anywhere in the book suggesting where this story fits in the 60+ years of Batman stories. The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul never actually explains how Ra’s Al Ghul died.

But let’s move on. While Damian is learning about his grandfather, Batman is in the Australian outback, looking for some missing biologists and talking to people who would have been rejected for roles in Crocodile Dundee because they’re too over the top. And then this happens:

Next month: Batman travels to Sesame Street to face The Count

No, in case you’re wondering, the fourth assassin is not off-panel. At no point is Batman shown to be fighting more than three ninjas, nor is there even a mention of “oh, and that other guy I beat up between panels five and six while you were in the bathroom.” No one is alarmed when Batman later refers to the four assassins who attacked him.

Seriously, guys: This is not rocket science. It’s not a particularly complex string of words or pictures. Batman says “Four of you.” There are three ninjas.

I don’t know if it was an artistic mistake, a lettering mistake, or some sort of miscommunication, but how does someone not catch that? Moreover, how does someone not catch that a second time, since this is the second printing of the material?

On the bright side, David Lopez’s art in the prologue is probably the nicest in the book; it’s clean and easy to follow, traditionally superheroic without becoming stereotypical. The book might have turned out a little better if Lopez had been involved with the rest of the book. Unfortunately, the rest of the book is full of things like this:

"I don't know why these mirrors were on sale, I think they're great!"

That’s Tony Daniel’s depiction of Talia, daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul, lover of Batman, occasional leader of an army of assassins, generally considered fierce, intelligent, and dangerous. And she looks like a department store mannequin.

I understand how superhero art works. I know there’s often an emphasis on style over detail, and that things need to be sexed up sometimes. I was a big fan of Jim Lee in the nineties, back when he always found some way for Psylocke to lead an attack with her ass.

But this isn’t even good cheesecake. Leaving aside the outfit that makes it look like she’s waiting for a well-hung photocopier repairman, what the hell is going on with her right arm? Why does her head not attach to her neck properly? Why does she not have thighs or hips?

To bounce back to the positive side of things, we later get this depiction of Talia by Carlos Rodriguez:

Isn't it great how women can get bullet-and-sword-proof tops and bottoms, but not midriffs? Or are the ninjas just gentlemen?

It’s ridiculous. I like it.

After the prologue, the story splits into two avenues: Damian runs away to Gotham to look for Batman’s help, but is out of luck because Batman is travelling the world trying to track down Ra’s. Instead, Damian runs into Robin, and they fight. There’s a slight hint of sarcasm in Milligan’s setup – at one point, Damian is walking up the stairs with Alfred, who trips on the carpet; Robin appears at exactly the wrong moment and thinks Damian is beating up the butler. It’s so ridiculous it must be parody. Please, somebody, tell me this was supposed to be funny.

(It’s not funny. But at least that would be an excuse.)

And yet, everything still seems very serious, particularly when 200 ninjas attack Wayne Manor. Here’s the thing about ninjas: They’re totally cool, but they’re also kind of silly, particularly when packaged in bulk. Unless you are Frank Miller, it’s tough to pull off a swarm of ninjas attacking one or two targets without looking ridiculous. Unless your ninjas are utterly incompetent, they should be able to kill or maim at least one target when they outnumber the heroes 50-1.

But Robin and Nightwing have moves. Check out how Nightwing subdues three of Talia’s henchwomen:

Wait, where was I standing two seconds ago?

Smoke bombs are awesome. Smoke bombs that cause people to spontaneously switch positions are even more awesome.

And then there’s this:

Wait, whose foot is that?

I know, from the context of the story, what is happening: Alfred is pushed through the window by an attacking ninja, Nightwing jumps up, kicks a ninja in the face, and catches Alfred. But I have no idea what is actually going on in that picture, and the attempt to convey action just creates a visual mess and possibly several extra legs for Nightwing.

I’ll be honest: I kind of stopped paying attention around this point. There’s some guy known as the Sensei, who isn’t introduced on-panel but is apparently an ancient master assassin who can repeatedly impale people with a staff that seemingly has no points or edges. And there’s a blind guy named I Ching, and I have no idea what he has to do with anything. At some point, Alfred apparently lands a plane on a mountain and then takes off again.

It’s just the same thing, over and over. Explain, chase, fight, and repeat. It’s not always awful – though it certainly isn’t good – but it’s consistently dull and uninspired. While I suppose that might be expected from a crossover event, it doesn’t even work on a big, impressive, continuity wank level: There’s no artistic consistency from one chapter to another, oreven within one chapter, with sections being credited to multiple artists.

Sometimes, they don’t even bother with factual continuity: Ra’s Al Ghul is drawn looking pretty much normal on one page by Carlos Rodriguez, and then appears to be a zombie on the next story page by Ryan Benjamin.

I’d never heard of Benjamin before picking up this book; most of the time, he shows a heavy Jim Lee / Marc Silvestri influence, with a dash of Travis Charest, scratching lines across everyone’s face to indicate… I dunno, toughness? It’s not great, but it’s not too bad… until we come to this:

Batman: The Cocktail Napkin Collection

Really, DC? This is what we’re getting in the final chapter of your high-profile crossover? In Detective Comics, one of the flagship titles of your company?

I don’t know if this is entirely Benjamin’s fault; I don’t know anything about him, and this may have been a rush job. But that’s part of the problem – why do you have rushed art by an unknown artist in an event book like this? Or why wouldn’t you at least polish it up a little bit before you put out the fancy hardcover?

And then, in the end… Ra’s Al Ghul is resurrected. Everyone else is okay. I have no idea what the story accomplished, aside from resurrecting Ra’s Al Ghul, and I’m pretty sure that didn’t demand 256 pages.

Most people who are not 13 year-old boys living in 1993 would probably agree that Rob Liefeld is a terrible artist and an even worse writer. Grotesque anatomy, two different facial expressions, excess pouches, gigantic guns and shoulder pads, no feet… and I still have no idea what Youngblood was supposed to be about. But even the worst Liefeld comic has a passion and energy to it, a bold artistic identity: Every page declares I am Rob Liefeld, and fuck you if you’re not extreme enough to appreciate it!!


Resurrection doesn’t even have that. Even when the level of craft begins to creep above competency, it’s a lifeless story that has all the energy and passion of a 45-year-old McDonalds clerk. It has no greater ambition than to go from Point A to Point B, and it still keeps swerving off the road and into the ditch.

I know I’m not always in tune with what is cool and popular, but Batman is still a big deal, right? He’s one of the most recognizable fictional characters in the world, he’s had two extremely successful movies recently – one of which featured the title character of this book – and he remains popular enough in comics to support multiple books.

So why is this book so awful? Why is it such a wretched patchwork of uninspired writing and mediocre art? Why does the whole story read like it was produced by people who would rather be doing something else? How does DC let something this important get this bad?

This would be a lousy book if it came from a third-rate small-press publisher that was trying to ape Marvel and DC, but coming from DC, in an “event” featuring one of their flagship characters, it’s unforgivably awful.