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Robin weeps over Batman’s torn and broken body on the cover of Batman vs. Ra’s Al Ghul #1, DC Comics (2019). Neal Adams/DC Comics

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Breaking down the complete and utter madness of Batman vs. Ra’s Al Ghul

Back at it again with Neal Adams

Batman: Odyssey, the comic book series published by DC Comics from 2010 to 2012, was a sprawling and invariably confusing work written and illustrated by legendary artist Neal Adams. Those who dared to traverse a sequential art labyrinth were both baffled and mesmerized by the book’s ... eccentricities.

Those quirks included but were not limited to: Batman’s frequent non-sequitur outbursts, a cameo from a mulleted Aquaman, the inexplicable appearance of what could only be described as “jazz wizards,” Batman wielding and firing many, many guns, and the existence of a vast underground world that alludes to Adams’s deeply held belief in the “Hollow Earth” conspiracy theory.

Its plot can be neatly summarized using the following image from NBC’s The Good Place:

Ted Danson next to a sign that says Jeremy Bearimy, on The Good Place. NBC

And what fresh, mind-bending horrors await us all in the newest and most incomprehensible addition to the DC Universe?

Our previous attempt at recapping Batman: Odyssey took three years, encompassing multiple life transitions. David adopted of a kitten to cope with the process. On the occasion of DC Comics recently releasing a new Adams work, Batman vs. Ra’s Al Ghul, we have returned at the behest of Polygon to test the limits of our mental stability and recap once again. — Laura Hudson


Laura: Welcome back to hell, David.

David: Laura, I have waited years for this moment. A moment when Neal Adams realized that there was a desperate need for us to collaboratively read more of his Batman comics, engaging in exegetical exercises of the highest order for the sacred purpose of understanding … what is happening in them.

Laura: Before we begin, I’d like to reference how Adams himself has described his last two comics, which is relevant both to those project and the task that lies before us:

“I did a thing called Batman: Odyssey, where I took a whole lot of pieces of Batman’s life and gathered them together and swept them out of the driveway and put them in a little pile and told a story. It was 13 chapters, and it seemed like I was alluding to stuff.”

This is both entirely correct and characterically weird and hard to understand.

David: Batman Odyssey definitely felt like it was swept out of a driveway and into a pile at times. A pile of ineffable beauty. While we never got around to reviewing his subsequent Deadman series, Adams also describes it as a book where Deadman “pretty much yells at everybody.” This is ... perfect, as all of his books and all of the characters in them could be described in the exact same way.

Laura: Also: according to the solicitations for the book, this comic ties in to DC’s “Year of the Villain” event, which means that every part of what follows is part of official DC Universe canon. I cannot stress enough how important this will be to remember.

David: Laura, I feel like you’re putting off opening the comic. Are you… afraid?

Laura: It’s more like the feeling you get as the rollercoaster is pulling up to the top when you’re scared and excited at the same time, except that in this scenario you’re pretty sure the rollercoaster will take you through at least three different continuities of narration on the same page, multiple Robins who are never explained or identified, and at least one conspiracy theory.

David: For me, it feels like the moment before a therapist asks me to talk about my relationship with my father. I know a lot of things are about to happen, but I can’t predict what any of them will be. I just hope nobody kills a dog.

Batman swings a dog around — the dog has explosives strapped to it — while a homeless man yells at him to stop because he is tied to the dog in death, in Batman vs. Ra’s Al Ghul #1, DC Comisc (2019). Neal Adams/DC Comics

Laura: And so we turn the page — and that’s when a dog covered in dynamite explodes. The dog, which belongs to a weeping, feeble old man, has been wired to explode by Batman who chases them down like this is a page from Days of Future Past. The man is also wearing a collar, which is connected by a leash to the dog. None of this will ever be explained.

David: Not only do we never find out why the dog is covered in dynamite, we also never find out who this man and his dog are. I am 100% confident we will not see them again until they suddenly reappear in like five issues and they are revealed to be absolutely pivotal to the plot.

Laura: Batman swings the explosive-covered dog around in circles like it’s a shotput, throws the dog across the panel, and it explodes. To drive home how cruel this is, the old man cries some more and says that without his dog, he might as well be dead. But don’t worry — the dog isn’t dead, because Batman, like Adams himself, just likes to psychologically torture people with fake deaths that have no apparent motivation or plot significance.

David: Yep, Batman basically gaslights an impoverished man into thinking his dog — his only friend, his reason to keep going — is dead, only to then insult the dog. True superhero behavior, A+. Who dunks on a dog? A good dog?

Laura: It turns out that like the power of friendship, the dog was inside Batman all along. Literally, he produces the dog from under his cape like the world’s most sadistic magician and grins. To reiterate, there is no clear reason why any of this has happened.

David: The driving narrative value of the Adamsverse: “There is no clear reason.”

Laura: Then Deadman appears and informs us that we are in a post-apocalyptic Gotham. There’s an editorial box with the classic “reference to” asterix that invites us to “see Cataclysm and No Man’s Land,” two Batman crossover events from 1998 and 1999 where a massive earthquake hits Gotham City and inspires a wave of supervillainous crime. Except that I thought this comic tied in to Year of the Villain, so now I have no idea what’s going on, which means that I am reading a Neal Adams comic.

Deadman floats, amazed, at a bombed-out Gotham City in Batman vs. Ra’s al Ghul #1, DC Comics (2019). Neal Adams/DC Comics

David: There is also no corresponding asterisk on the page to go with the editor’s box, and for reasons that will become clear later on, it makes no sense for this story to be taking place during that time. Anyways, it is also good to have no idea what’s going on by the time you’re like three pages into reading a comic.

Laura: A very aggressive news anchor tells us that in the destruction left behind by Justice League Kryptonian invaders, Gotham was struck by “domestic terrorism on an insane and massive scale.”

David: Did this happen during No Man’s Land or Cataclysm?

Laura: It happened during neither of them.

David: You know what I’m going to say here. I’m going to say that this makes no sense.

Laura: I thought you were going to say that it doesn’t matter, but that’s just the learned helplessness of having read too many Neal Adams comics. Anyway, the terrorists are blowing up nuclear power plants so Batman kicks the terrorists in the face while a paramilitary group shoots them. Then Batman kicks the paramilitary group in the face for shooting the terrorists.

Batman slugs a terrorist while a news anchor narrates, in Batman vs. Ra’s Al Ghul #1, DC Comics (2019). Neal Adams/DC Comics

David: My absolute favorite part of this is that the news anchor says Batman is stopping the terrorists without harming them, alongside a panel of Batman punching a puddle of blood out of a man’s face. Sounds like…*puts on shades* Fake News. (Oh god, I’m so sorry.)

Laura: Batman stopping soldiers who are shooting the terrorists is actually a pretty extreme extension of Batman’s “don’t kill” philosophy. Like, yeah, gotta take down those bad guys that are ... stopping terrorists who are literally killing thousands if not millions of people?

David: You know what I’m going to say here. I’m going to say that this makes no sense.

Laura: Then a villain named Khaos appears in a giant mech suit and Batman threatens him with “explosive soles in the gluteus maximus,” which is amazing, and also threatens to arrest him on a “4-12,” which he says is police code for overacting. David, I’m not just saying this joke isn’t funny, I’m saying I don’t understand why Neal Adams thinks this joke thinks it’s funny, or why it’s a joke at all.

David: I would remind you that Odyssey featured Batman telling a “What’s a henweigh?” joke to a giant purple cyclops. But according to the internet, 4-12 refers to a joke from a 1953 holiday comedy record by Stan Freberg called Christmas Dragnet, so I can’t believe you didn’t get that very topical reference. Also I like how Batman sees Khaos and thinks to himself, “What in the Sam Hill is that?” Batman’s inner monologue circa 2019 should definitely sound like a crusty old authority figure in a movie from the ’70’s.

Batman kicks a robot with a big-lipped human face in the gut with both feet, in Batman vs. Ra’s Al Ghul #1, DC Comics (2019). Neal Adams/DC Comics

Laura: Then Deadman, who has the power to possess people’s bodies, appears in the body of an escaped prisoner, tells us he can’t take over the mind of Khaos because he’s a “radio-controlled robot.”

David: And as promised by the title of the comic, Ra’s al Ghul shows up and it turns out that

  1. He’s a professor now?
  2. The paramilitary group running around shooting people is his private security force.
  3. He’s BFF’s with Commissioner Gordon and they’re working together!

I really need someone to explain to me how noted criminologist Jim Gordon — who collaborates with Batman on the regular — does not recognize Ra’s, who is a big deal villain guy.

Laura: Oh he recognizes him, he just doesn’t care because why would he care? Why would anything mean anything?

David: Then after spending a third of this comic literally narrating Batman’s actions, the news anchor goes “Wait ... is that Batman down there?” You know what I’m going to say here. I’m going to say that this makes no sense. And oh god, we still have like 10 pages left.

A news anchor holds up photos of “Professor Al Ghul” on live TV, in Batman vs. Ra’s al Ghul, DC Comics (2019). Neal Adams/DC Comics

Laura: You need to stay strong, David. Also, as we know that Adams often likes to have people narrate things about other times where they are also narrating things, so it’s possible that the news anchor is telling a story about the time he told a story about the time that Batman did a bunch of stuff.

David: I’m still stuck on Ra’s al Ghul being a professor. PROFESSOR OF WHAT THOUGH? This is like human Funko Pop Sebastian Gorka using his PhD in security something to sell fish oil on TV. It doesn’t make any sense, Laura. If you’re in charge of the police during a crisis, any crisis, and Professor Whatever show up and says “Here, have my private security force” you would question it! Any sane person would question it!

Also important to note that Adams’ overuse of ellipses suggests that folks are taking pregnant pauses in the midst of a very intense shouting match.

Laura: This was, by his own admission, the entire plot of his Deadman comic. I’m gonna try to zip through the next several pages because my brain feels like it’s breaking: After Batman yells at Commissioner Gordon for a while, Deadman flies over to a warehouse, finds the mad scientist controlling the robots, calls him daddy-o, possesses him, and starts playing with the Khaos robot like a kid taking his first ride in a giant mech. Look, when he lifts his hand, the robot lifts its hand.

People are dying, Deadman!

He commands the robots to herd up the escaped prisoners wreaking havoc and take them back to jail, thus restoring order to Gotham. So of course, Ra’s al Ghul and Commissioner Gordon immediately blow them up.

With Commissioner Gordon’s agreement, Ra’s Al Ghul blows up the robots that are right next to Batman, in Batman vs. Ra’s Al Ghul, DC Comics (2019). Neal Adams/DC Comics

David: They blow up the robots because the robots are returning terrorists to jail?

Laura: Yes.

David: And when Batman is caught directly in the blast, Batman’s close friend Jim Gordon does not react at all?

Laura: Correct.

David: You know what I’m going to say here. I’m going to say that this makes no sense.

Laura: Perhaps the only moment in the comic that makes sense to me is when one of the paramilitary dudes turns to R’as al Ghul and says the same thing I said when I saw the cover of this comic: “Look… it’s Nightwing… and Robin, and ANOTHER Robin. What’s going on?” But don’t worry, because we won’t find out.

David: I’m fairly confident there was only one Robin during Cataclysm and No Man’s Land. Which means that ... this … never mind.

Laura: The three former child soldiers of Batman arrive in time to find his bloody cowl in the debris from the explosion, but no body. Naturally, they start freaking out and grieving, because Batman has never been injured before or taken off his costume, so they assume that he’s dead despite the fact that again, there is no body.

Then one of the soldiers says, “There’re no body parts ... unless … *choke*” I’m being serious: What is this supposed to mean? Does he think the robot ate Batman? Or that explosions blow up everything but cowls?

David: And why is there an extra Robin I CAN’T WAIT ANOTHER MONTH TO UNDERSTAND THIS. Anyways, then Bruce Wayne appears out of nowhere wearing normal goddamn clothing.

Laura: When I saw this splash page, where Bruce Wayne speaks about Batman as though he is a different person, I thought it would be the final page of the comic, because that’s pretty standard formula. You think someone is dead … but then here they are, alive! DUN DUN DUN. But no. That would make too much sense.

Instead we get another anticlimactic page of all the Robins talking to each other like Batman is still dead until Robin number one asks Nightwing if Batman is, in fact, dead. Nightwing informs him that this is unlikely because Batman is … wait for it … Bruce Wayne. Robin is shocked — shocked! — by this news.

David: Extra Robin doesn’t know that Bruce Wayne is Batman. And we don’t know who Extra Robin is.

Laura: We also don’t know who non-extra Robin is or which is which at any moment or why they both have the exact same face as Nightwing. And we still don’t know why Batman pretended to blow up a dog.

David: Well, I mean … why simply save a dog when you can convince a man that his dog blew up?

Laura: I don’t think it counts as saving a dog when you are the person who puts the dog in danger to begin with, David.

David: The real question is: Why was the dog wrapped in dynamite like an explosive burrito?

Laura: You know what I’m going to say, David. But don’t worry. We still have… five more issues to go.

David: Oh no.