The most significant addition to Batman’s rogues gallery in the 1970s first appeared in June 1971, in BATMAN #232, “Daughter of the Demon,” by writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, which saw the introduction of the immortal ecofanatic Ra’s al Ghul. The story opened with Bruce Wayne receiving a disturbing letter, containing a photo of a kidnapped Robin. Before he can begin his own investigation, Batman is surprised in the Batcave by Ra’s al Ghul (meaning “the Demon’s head” in Arabic, by the way) and his manservant Ubu, who are seeking Batman’s help with their own investigation, into the kidnapping of Ra’s’ daughter Talia, a beautiful and intriguing adventurer whom Batman had earlier encountered.
(Ra’s explains that he had deduced Batman’s identity by correlating the materials needed to support a crimefighting career with the men of wealth who had purchased or procured such items…) Ra’s and Batman embark on a globetrotting journey in pursuit of the kidnappers of Talia and Robin, with Ra’s’ servant Ubu repeatedly pushing Batman aside for perceived slights to his master.
Along the way, Batman and Ra’s encounter various assassins and deathtraps, including a leopard, which Batman has to wrestle into submission.
The trail leads then to a snowy retreat in the Himalayas, where Batman winds up forging ahead by himself, defeating numerous assassins and guards as he makes his way into the compound, where he finds Robin, under guard but unharmed. There, Batman, in classic “Agatha Christie” style announces that he’s known who the culprit was all along, revealing that Ra’s al Ghul was behind the kidnappings, with everything from the timing of the kidnappings to Ubu’s suspicious behavior when danger was afoot. The only question remaining was why.
The answer comes as a shock: the entire escapade was merely a test to see of Batman was worthy of Ra’s’ daughter, Talia.
Not only was Talia in love with Batman, but Ra’s had to be certain that Batman would make a worthy heir to his empire and would carry out his goal. That goal? “To restore harmony to our sad planet.”
While Batman was himself in love with Talia (as much he often refused to admit it, even to himself) he often found himself at odds with Ra’s, whose intended methods of restoring the planet to a more natural harmony frequently seemed to involve the deaths of countless innocents. Making things more difficult was Ra’s ace in the hole, his knowledge of the Lazarus Pits, a group of naturally occurring chemical springs located in various places around the world, which hold the power to restore youth and vitality to the aged and dying.
This was a power often taken advantage of by Ra’s, who had lived for over six hundred years. Despite what seemed like Ra’s repeated defeats and demises, thanks to a dip in the Lazarus Pit, Ra’s would always return to bedevil Batman once more.
While the first Ra’s al Ghul story is still the best, particularly the big finale straight out of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, with Batman and Ra’s’ bare-chested swordfight in the desert, a close second for me would have to be the 1987 graphic novel BATMAN: SON OF THE DEMON, by writer Mike W. Barr and artist Jerry Bingham. Here we get more of Ra’s al Ghul’s backstory, as Batman and Ra’s team up to track down Qayin, a terrorist who plans to use a stolen weather-control satellite to rain Armageddon down on mankind, and who also happens to be the man who, as a child caused the death of Ra’s’ wife (and Talia’s mother) Melisande. Not only does Batman finally take his place as Ra’s al Ghul’s second-in-command in these pages, but Bruce Wayne finally accepts his love for Talia, and the two live together as husband and wife (having been married against Bruce’s will in an earlier encounter with Ra’s al Ghul).
The story is notable not only for the handsomely sketchy art by Bingham but also for the novelty of Batman and Ra’s working so closely toward a common goal – making it clearer than ever that the two are far more alike than Batman would ever like to admit.
Even more surprising is how happy Batman, the ultimate loner, becomes at the prospect of a family, especially after Talia announces that she’s pregnant.
So happy, in fact, that he refuses to help Ra’s further in tracking down Qayin, asserting that the happiness of his family comes first. It’s no coincidence then, that when faced with Batman’s sudden refusal to help track down the murderer of her mother, Talia suddenly “miscarries,” prompting Batman to return to action and help Ra’s al Ghul vanquish Qayin.
With Qayin defeated, Batman and Talia go their separate ways once more, with the loss of the child seemingly driving a wedge between them. By the way, this book has been declared “out of continuity” by today’s DC editors, most likely due to this epilogue, which shows an abandoned baby at an orphanage sporting a familiar-looking strand of jewels…
Another story notion that would pay off in the pages of BATMAN decades later…