When the Christopher Nolan film was still in theatres, there were Bat-tables prominently placed in the center aisles of every major chain bookstore I went in, and along with by Duane Swierczynski and David Lapham’s intriguing Batman: Murder at Wayne Manor, Robert Greenberger’s (admittedly essential) Essential Batman Encyclopedia, and the disappointing-but-still-worthwhile The Dark Knight: Featuring Production Art and Full Shooting Script coffee table book, just about every display was topped with the graphic novel Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul, a handsome hardcover attributed to the dynamic duo of Grant Morrison and Paul Dini. In actuality, this is what we in science fiction literary land would call a “fix-up” novel, a compilation of an eight issue comic book crossover that played out in 2007 and 2008 across the pages of the monthly comics Batman, Robin, Nightwing and Detective Comics. Morrison and Dini actually only contribute four of the seven chapters, and are aided by Peter Milligan, Fabian Nicieza, and Keith Champagne. The art is likewise divided, broken up between Tony Daniel, Freddie E. Williams II, Don Kramer, Ryan Benjamin, Jason Pearson, and David Lopez.
The results are pretty much what you would expect.
Story-wise, the plot concerns the disembodied Ra’s al Ghul—previously killed, and to insure against his frequent resurrection, cremated, in 2004’s Batman: Death and the Maidens—who returns and possesses the body of his grandson, son of his daughter Talia and Bruce Wayne, Damian Wayne. Aided by an albino known as the White Ghost, Ghul seeks to educate Damien Wayne in his long life history to properly prepare the boy for possession. Talia realizes what’s in store for her son, and helps him escape, sending him to Wayne Manor for protection. There, he meets up with adopted Bat-boys Dick Grayson and Tim Drake, who reluctantly help him despite the fact that he is an insufferable brat. Meanwhile, a mysterious old man known only as Sensei works to prevent Ghul’s return. Sensei seeks the fabled city of Nanda Parbat (the DC Universe’s version of Shangri-La , home of the goddess Rama Kushna who factors into the origin of the deceased-superhero Deadman). Nanda Parbat, it seems, could grant Ghul true immortality, and Sensei wants that for himself. Elsewhere, Batman tracks Ghul from the Australian outback to Tibet, mostly leaving Damian, Tim and Dick to fend for themselves against hordes of incompetent ninjas. It all comes together in a final showdown in Nanda Parbat, in which Sensie is revealed to be Ghul’s father, the White Ghost is revealed to be his son, Damien conveniently goes AWOL without Batman really having to come to grips with parenthood, the goddess Rama Kushna does something inexplicable and earth-shaking, and there is enough magical mumbo-jumbo for a Doctor Strange miniseries. In a hurried sequence, Batman is even mortally wounded and then magically resurrected by the waters of Nanda Parbat. (This bit of nonsense rushes by without much comment though when you think about it, it actually undermines the basis of his entire character as a non-super-powered hero pushing himself to the limits of “normal” human capacity.)
Somewhere in this disjointed mess is a story about family and a plot that might be unknotted and reworked into something interesting, but the whole thing reads like a hot potato of exposition being passed back and forth between disinterested parties. Nowhere is Grant Morrison’s trademark exuberant ingenuity visible, nor Dini’s masterful understanding of Batman’s nature. Instead, events happen offstage, each chapter is too short to provide depth of character or story, and everything is front-loaded with exposition to cover what may be backstory and what may just be details falling between the cracks in the various issues. In one chapter, a character will speculate about an unknown, and in the next, under the hand of the next writer in this musical chairs of narration, that speculation will be presented as confirmed without our ever having seen it verified. You can almost picture the white board in the conference room where they broke out the plot for this story arc, and you can feel the glaring hole where a single editor’s guiding hand is missing, one that might have helped smooth this into something more coherent. Which is sad.
Ra’s al Ghul has always been a favorite of mine, inspired as he was by the character of Marc Ange Draco in the James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (Ghul and Draco share both a mountainous secret lair and a willful and dangerous daughter in love with the thorn in their side.) Beyond his debut run in the classic Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams stories, the Demon’s Head has been done more than justice in Batman: The Animated Series, in the film Batman Begins, and in the underappreciated Mike W. Barr graphic novel, Batman: Son of the Demon (which would make a great feature film in its own right). Which is why this graphic novel is such a disappointment. Rather than produce a work that might have the lasting impact of another The Killing Joke, The Long Halloween, or Arkham Asylum, this is a missed opportunity that will probably be forgotten rather quickly and deservedly so.
It’s doubly a shame because anyone new to the character, anyone coming off the brilliant film The Dark Knight and looking for more of the same—and as the second highest grossing USA Box office film of all time there may be a lot of folks in this category—is going to be exceedingly disappointed. And since the graphic novel was so prominently displayed in major bookstore chains at the time, this story is more than a missed opportunity—it’s actually a seriously harmful impediment to gaining readers, a sloppy work that will turn away new readers rather than encourage them. DC would have done much better to have restricted their promotions to some of the material that actually inspired The Dark Knight film, namely Batman: The Killing Joke, Batman: The Long Halloween, and Batman: The Man Who Laughs. In the long run, no one is served by putting out this kind of half-hearted effort, not the (traditionally wonderful) writers who were forced to stitch their various titles uncomfortably together, not the characters who deserved better, not the publisher looking to grow its audience, and certainly not the readers. I can’t even recommend this one for the completists. Meanwhile, I’ll be back later with more graphic novel reviews. Maybe not the same Bat-time, but certainly the same Bat-Channel.