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.
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.
Monster. Truck. Batmobile. Look at that thing!
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.
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.
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?)