Batman was a joke. They were going to cancel him but someone at ABC thought he’d make a good comedy. That’s right, the TV show saved the comic book for a little while. But the comic went camp with the show and when the TV show collapsed so did comic book sales.
Then came Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams in 1969. Time to go old school and save Batman by threatening him like never before.
For a year, Batman faced no supervillains. It was all plainclothes crooks. It was the first Batman Year One and no one seems to have noticed that. It made people forget about the costumed gangs and the themed crimes.
When that arc was finished they added another old school touch: the Joker as a homicidal maniac. As he was in the Golden Age, he would be from the Bronze Age on. It made the Joker s modern icon. But the biggest impact was an old school new villain. Really old school. Centuries old and that’s not what you think it is.
In June 1971 O’Neill and Adams introduced the best new villain in decades going into the past or the future, Ra’s al Ghul. He is up there with the Joker and Two-Face and ahead of the Penguin or the Riddler. He was a new kind of villain for comic books, but also a very old one and I’m not talking about his age of somewhere between 450 and 700. Then again, that is exactly what I’m talking about.
The Bronze Age had dawned and whether it has set is another issue. Comics were trying to deal with mature issues like race, drug use, sex, sexual orientation, nudity, corruption, pollution and the like. They were trying to hold on to the audience they had even though it was growing up, and gather readers who had dismissed comics as being too lightweight. It was a time which offered great opportunities and even greater dangers. They started doing things in old-new ways.
One of the things the Bronze Age got rid of was the idea of one person able to do everything on their own. In the Golden Age, Starman created the gravity rod all by himself. In the Dark Ages, Batman and Robin designed themselves a new batmobile, batplane, and batboat – all at once. In the Silver Age, Peter Parker built web shooters, spider tracers, and modified a camera so it fit on the belt he made without showing under his skin-tight costume.
But as time and technology progressed the skills packed into one character to make these technical advances became less and less believable, until it became a phenomenon in Reed Richards and not long after that a joke in Henry Pym. Pym had discoveries in wildly different fields any one of which would have won him multiple Nobel prizes in physics, mathematics, chemistry, medicine, and peace. And it would have gotten Pulitzers for anybody who managed to get a bunch of interviews with him. Instead they made him a wife beater due to his low self esteem. It was a low point of the Bronze Age, but it existed because the genius of Pym was never played up and so literally became a joke and, therefore, so did the character.
In the same way, Lex Luthor, who used to be able to make a space ship out of gum wrappers and a lime tart, became an industrialist. Like others, he was genius but became the head of an organization. That’s exactly how Ra’s al Ghul is set: the head of an organization.
So, gangs turn into organizations and standing up as an individual has becomes heading an organization. Do not oppose evil, get allies and then oppose evil. Do not rob a bank, gather minions and own a bank. In this day and age, it seems to work. People don’t believe in individuals any more, it’s the individual in the group that’s the the mover and shaker.
Ra’s al Ghul figures out who Batman is by working out what he’d need to buy to fight crime. That’s right, Batman isn’t making his stuff any more. We see this in the Nolan movies, where Batman obtains all his major equipment (except the shuriken batarangs) from other researchers.
Ra’s follows the same pattern. He is not just a villain, he is the head of an organization, like both Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu and James Bond’s Blofeld. Like them he has a multi-tiered organization. He has an enforcement wing, the League of Assassins (called the League of Shadows in crossover media) which operates a bit like SMERSH in the James Bond novels.
Also new for the Bronze Age, Ra’s is an Arab villain. In fact, Ra’s seems to be a Bedouin. He is white skilled with blue eyes, which possibly indicates Crusader ancestry. There are so many stories with that sentence alone that I won’t go into them here. What I will say is compare Golden Age Wing with Bronze Age Ra’s al Ghul. Compare him to el Castigo (the whip) who is a white man pretending to be Latino to fight corruption among Latino cops. In the Silver Age By contrast, Ra’s is not captured by his ethnicity. Sure, Wing beats the white guys, but he still talks like (as) an ethnic cliche. I know of no case where Ra’s’s ethnicity is held against him.
In the Dark Ages, Ra’s al Ghul would not exist. If you don’t believe me, read about the problems EC had with some of its stories. He could not have existed in the Dark Ages, when comics books were being dumbed downed and sanitized and kept white. In the Silver Ages he would have been made into a harmless nuisance, and his willingness to destroy large slabs of humanity would have been no more acceptable than the Joker’s homicidal dementia.
The stupidity of this can be seen in the centuries old origin of Ra’s al Ghul, by which I mean he was a kind of character who had been in use for centuries. Chivalric Romance was a genre which lasted from before 1000 to a bit after 1600. The main idea was some knight errant (meaning wandering knight) would go to some strange lands, overcome monsters, giants, or Arabs, and while doing so be a really, really nice guy.
There were many plots, and one of them was fighting in the Crusades, where the hero is captured by an Arab and put in an inescapable prison. Just when things seem hopeless, the daughter (or niece) of the Arab (usually but not always called a Sultan) visits the prisoner, falls in love with him, and helps him escape. Enter Talia.
With the help of the Arab’s daughter, the knight errant gets away and goes on to more adventuring or overthrows the Arab and rules the city with the daughter as his queen, or any of the many possible variations. Sometimes he simply dumps her or she stays out of loyalty to her father.
The same idea was used in James Bond stories, and came back again almost full force in Ra’s al Ghul. Talia loves the knight errant (Batman). But where most chivalric romances had a single appearance of a knight, the Arab, or the daughter, in this case it’s a comic book, which means all the variations in a whole genre is played out with one set of characters and one title.
Ra’s al Ghul follows his own rules, but he follows them faithfully. This puts him in the category of anti-hero, something popular in the Bronze Age. The distinct lines between hero and villain from the Gold through Silver Ages were blurred. It was the era when Galactus stopped being a planet eater and became a force of nature, the era of the Wolverine and the Punisher. In another age, Ra’s would have no redeeming philosophical features. Further back was another story – many of them, remember
Now, the Arab the knight faced was not always so honorable, and he wasn’t always a Sultan, though on one occasion the Saracen followed Mahound the Prophet (kid you not). But often it was just two agents of different forces each trying to do the best for their side and ‘our’ side gets to win.
But there is an anti-hero element to Ra’s al Ghul: he’s a ecoterrorist. Remember in the early seventies we were being told that there was another ice age coming. Not only that, population growth would lead to massive starvation. The solution, according to various people, was to terraform Earth to make it warmer and to reduce human population from its unsustainable 3.5 billion to 1.25 billion in less that a generation. Suddenly comic book ecoterrorists started appearing in characters like Ra’s al Ghul and the redesigned Poison Ivy (originally she was just concerned that he committed crimes so good, no one knew she’d committed them). As the ecological message has spread, ecoterrorists become less common and increasingly the characters who are still ecoterrorists are increasingly insane.
Ra’s started out wanting to transform the world much as in Medieval Romance the Arab wanted to convert the world. In either case it is a transformation. But over time, Ra’s doesn’t need a reason to demonstrate or extend power. He becomes a less confined force. What motivates Ra’s is not some over-riding ideology, he is the over-riding factor which seeks to balance human forces on this planet.
His origin is told as a fairy tale. He was born somewhere on the Arabian peninsula near a city founded by people from China. If this is indeed the 1300s, it was a pretty messy century to live through. Sure there was the beginning of the Renaissance, but also the start of the Ottoman Empire and there were a few bouts of black death which killed 1/3 of Europe. China started out under the control of the Mongols, though that fell apart in this century. Ra’s al Ghul grew up in a tough neighborhood, and that seems never to have left him.
He does describe himself at one stage as being 450, but he says in the same breath he lived through the Black Plague. This age means he was born in about 1550, by which time the Black Plague was over. This is such an egregious error that I strongly suspect it was put in deliberately, not just to see who’s paying attention but to make readers wonder when he was really born. The sentence that denies he is seven hundred years old actually indicates that’s how old he is.
He has been plotting for over half a millennium to get the power he wants. He uses agents for most of this accumulation and has been successful enough that as far as we know, no one has successfully struck out on their own or defied him. That speaks highly of his ability to control people and/or to kill them.
And yet, there is that city. It looms just outside of the causality of the story. Presumably, it is where Ra’s tried to save the dying prince and discovered the Lazarus pit. Yet it is never named, nor described or drawn in anything like the detail of a real place. It is at this time but not necessarily in this place that Ra’s al Ghul discovered the Lazarus pits. But the prince or his father do not get named, we don’t know what philosophy they serve (if any), or anything else about them. It is as mystical as Alan Scott’s Green Lantern ring ever was. It is a mythical place where Ra’s al Ghul once hoped for a normal life. But once he had a trajectory in another direction, he never came back to where started from.
At least not emotionally. Physically we don’t know if he went back to that city. We don’t know what technology it had or has, whether it was wealthy, clean or dirty: are it’s people Chinese, Arab, or a mix of different ethnicities? Is it high crime or ordered? For that matter, does the city still exist? How does it not get noticed by satellites?
Whatever the answers to these questions will be revealed more slowly than the background of the Wolverine, surely. Then again, maybe it everything is in the League of Assassins one-shot.
What we know is Ra’s al Ghul traveled far and built a wide network of criminals and fanatics dedicated to Ra’s al Ghul. In this he parallel’s Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu – who gave his name to the mustache – went through many changes during the many decades in which he has appeared in novels and movies. His namesake mustache, for example, came from the movies, not the books.
More important, Fu Manchu began as having a definite headquarters in England but as time progresses he becomes more of an international figure. He has interests all over the world and can appear anywhere to tend to them. The first novel is set in 1911 and the last Rohmer wrote came out in 1959. Fu Manchu begins as a man of about 70 and does not die in the intervening 48 years because he has the elixir vitae, a Lazarus pit of his own invention that keeps him young.
Originally, Fu Manchu worked for Si Fan, a criminal and terrorist organization he would rise within and eventually take over. By contrast, Ra’s al Ghul has only been seen as the head of the Demon, a standing more in keeping with the needs of the story. Both men have a very competent daughter, but Fu Manchu’s daughter is wholly loyal to her father and his aims. Both men had notable agents working for them, like Darrk (Ghul) and Karamenah (Fu Manchu).
Fu Manchu influenced the creation of or was the outright prototype for several of villains including the Mandarin and the Yellow Claw in comics, Ming the Merciless in Flash, and Dr No in James Bond. And James Bond helped create Ra’s. So the tendrils of influence and inspiration flow over, around and through each other.
And yet, Ra’s al Ghul is his own character. He is more likely to take an active hand than Fu Manchu and other masterminds, such as Professor Moriarty. There would be no desperate lunge at Reichenbach Falls under Ghul’s watch (and that wouldn’t kill Batman, anyways). Ra’s is a master particularly of fencing, which is old world as well as old school. But like Green Arrow’s mastery of the bow, it shows Ra’s believes he needs to establish precision.
This gives the character a need to make complicated, precises plans. Add to that his longevity, and hence his ability to let plans ripen over time make him a perfect villain for the longer arc stories that emerged in the Bronze Age. Look at his appearance in the Legion, a plan which could not exist in less than centuries. But Ra’s has gone far beyond that, though I don’t know if they intended to take him in this direction.
The Bronze Age switched to aiming at a long-term readership. From Gold through Silver Ages it was assumed readers lasted for a short time. Long term readers get the kind of villain that fits the model.
As I’ve mentioned, Ra’s al Ghul faces the legion in the 31st century, something he and Darkseid will both do. So Ra’s will outlive the Batman by about a thousand years. Since he was among Batman’s greatest enemies to begin with, this fact alone probably boosts him to a higher level.
Thus it is arguable that Ra’s al Ghul has replaced the Joker as Batman’s greatest villain. Ra’s is a villain who doesn’t need specialized circumstances like Kite-Man or has limited appeal like Calendar Man. Like the Joker’s real identity, there are questions about Ra’s al Ghul that need to be answered. His long age raises such questions.
For example, was Moriarty a member of the League of Assassins? Could Batman follow clues to prove this and uncover a mystery from the 1890’s? Not who Jack the Ripper was, Batman should be able to figure that out reading books. A man who can be established as taking years to get his plan to the next step can be frightening.
In the fifties, Joker squared off against Penguin, in the seventies he fought Two-Face to stay Batman’s greatest enemy. Would we have the hidden evil or conspiracy in Ra’s and chaos and anarchy in the Joker to see who Batman must fear the most? That would be interesting.