Eye of the Gorgon
DC Comics, Aug 2012, Color, 32pgs, $2.99
Written by GRANT MORRISON ; Art by CHRIS BURNHAM; Cover by CHRIS BURNHAM; 1:25 Variant Cover by CAMERON STEWART
This is the story of a man and a woman fighting over the heart and soul of their child. Unfortunately for the world, the man is BATMAN, the woman is TALIA AL GHUL, and the child is DAMIAN.
The Secret Origin of Talia Al Ghul! With flashbacks, callbacks and homages a-plenty this issue was a pleasure to read but a bugger to annotate. Morrison and Burnham keep up the impeccable standard and deliver a genuinely threatening, non-token female adversary for the Dark Knight, with more character development for Talia in these 20 pages than probably the rest of her appearances combined.
Yet again, this stands head and shoulders above anything else the Big Two are churning out, and contnues to be a model for how to use continuity in super-hero comics - as texture rather than whole cloth. .
Cover -Burnham's regular cover features, clockwise from the left, Talia - rocking the exotic not-quite European, not-quite Asian look - Batman, embroiled in the tentacles of the one-eyed gorgon's head; El Gaucho, who we found out was still alive last issue, with Looker and Halo of the Outsiders on his arms; the empty helmet of the mysterious Wingman (who get's a spotlight issue in October's Batman Incorporated #4); Batwing, The Hood and Freight Train, and finally, Damian Wayne.
Talia's costume is the same as the one she wore in 1971's Batman #232 by Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams - the issue where she first professed her true love for the Caped Crusader. The twin syringes hint at the genetic engineering angle that Morrison has subtly brought to the forefront of the character's M.O. As usual, and it almost goes without saying at this point, Burnham is in fine form and the cover is excellent.
Cameron Stewart, who's a bit of a specialist in drawing beautiful women these days, delivers a variant cover every bit Burnham's brilliant equal. Stewart sticks broadly with the same vintage outfit for Talia, who's flanked by Batman and her father, Ra's Al Ghul. It's a fine piece of art in itself but the colouring, particularly the negative space of Talia's dress in the bottom half of the piece, and the splash of blood on the dress really make it. Incidentally, Cameron Stewart has recently resumed work on his webcomic magnum opus Sin Titulo. You can find daily updates along with an archive of all the episodes so far on the Sin Titulo website. Unsettling, dream-like horror of the highest order. Very much recommended.
Page 1 -"so Neptune is in Capricorn..." puts us somewhere between 1984 and 1998, most likely the DC Universe equivalent of 1985 given the thinly veiled references to Live Aid here and in the following panels. Ra's Al Ghul was of course a commited environmental crusader long before it became fashionable in the late eighties and here serves as a mouthpiece (most likely) for Morrison and all right thinking socialists everywhere. Difficult as it may be to believe today, Live Aid and it's accompanying charity drive was far from universally popular at the time, with many pointing out as Ra's does here that responsibility for relief for the desperately poor in Africa should not fall in the lap of the man in the street, but to the world's richest institutions and nation states.
The Live Aid scene is an update of a scene from 1992's Birth of the Demon graphic novel by Mike W. Barr and Norm Breyfogle, where Ra's meets Talia's mother at Woodstock
Melisande is likely named for Melisende, a Queen of Jerusalem in the twelfth century, who, whilst serving as regent in place of her young son, was widely admired as a ruler equal to any man - a compliment almost unheard of at that time in that region. Her story echoes many of the beats of Talia's own - a woman manipulated by her father into giving birth to a son and heir who would inherit the world, via a wealthy and corageous crusader whom the father regarded as a threat to his powerbase. Melisande is also the name of one of the protagonists in Maeterlinck's Pelleas and Melisande, a 19th century symbolist play based around Pythagorean metaphysics. Certainly sounds like something that might appeal to Morrison...
And after writing all of that it turns out Melisande is in Son of The Demon, and was created by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham... Still, it's all grist to the mill.
Page 2-3 - Ra's Al Ghul's baby-carrying ascent of the Himilayas echoes a similar journey he and Batman took to "rescue" Talia and Robin in her second appearance, the afforementioned Batman #232 from 1971.
The mountaintop fortress and beautiful villainess really give this the sort of James Bond vibe that Morrison has been periodically reaching for in the series. You can almost hear the John Barry score.
Burnham gives us a close up of the eye of the Gorgon herself as he leads us into the title, writ large across the clear blue sky with the blazing naked sun taking the place of the 'o'. Like i said last month, there's a level of techincal expertise with the panel transitions and page composition here that's difiicult to find in any other title currently being published by the big two.
Page 4 - Can't find a reference at the moment for the League's henchmen - they look too eighties to be new, and they're not Ra's henchmen from his early appearances. 1971's in-thing for henchmen was all about green pants and orange cagoules...
I'm pretty sur
Talia's comments about being consistently underestimated extend out to the readership also. How many of us really saw her coming as the face beneath the mask of Leviathan?
Netz's suggestions for the colour scheme of the Leviathan symbol - black, white and red - echo both the Nazi flag and the symbolism so heavily present back in R.I.P. The Yantra of Kali Ma is essentially a gentler verision of the Leviathan sigil. Kali herself is the four-armed Hindu goddess of Time and Death. Medusa, the Gorgon in Greek mythology whose gaze turned men to stone, was beheaded by Perseus, who used the monster's head as a weapon before turning it over to the Gods. Tiamat is the monstrous Babylonian goddess of the ocean, an embodiment of primordial chaos. All three were invoked by Professor Pyg during his attempted takeover of Gotham back in Batman and Robin (as pointed out by amypoodle over at the Mindless Ones). And still none of us linked it back to Talia...
Ra's thinks he's on top, but he's making the same mistake as everybody else...
Page 5 - The first panel is a callback to Andy Kubert's 'Who He Is And How He Came To Be' double pager from Batman #666, only there it was Damian fending off the ninjas rather than his mother.
Ra's henchmen (who all look like top henchman Ubu. Is there more than one of him?) are lowering him into a Lazarus Pit in order to bring him back from the dead. Though the process works time after time, it always results in temporary insanity for the resurrectee, as seen previously in Morrison's Bat-run in the 'Blackest Knight' arc of Batman and Robin.
Page 6 - Bookending the flashback at the other end, Talia kicking the tree is a callback to this panel by David Mazuchelli in his and Frank Miller's Batman: Year One.
Page 7 -The pictographic smoke is a cute conceit that pops up a few more times this issue; a neat visual indicator of Talia's chemistry talents.
Just like in my house, "Daddy I want a pony" soon turns into "Daddy I want an airship".
Page 8 -Anyone have any ideas on the girl in the picture in panel one? Purple hair, red dress, crash helmet?. Not a clue...
Talia visits her mother, a fortune teller. In Gibraltar perhaps?
The Tarot card is La Papesse, the High Priestess, from the Tarot de Marseilles. It's clearly representative of Talia herself. Amongst the other standard fortune-telling fare on the left-hand wall of Melisande's parlour, partially hidden beneath the tarot card, is a map of the Kaballah, the Tree of Life. There's also a representation of the Zodiac on the back wall. Could Talia's outfit here be meant to evoke Alice in Wonderland?
Though the constellations are based fairly closely on their traditional representations, I think Chris Burnham has taken the opportunity to add a little artistic flourish to the Gorgon's head, which also informs its representation on the cover.
Page 9 - Medusa was originally a Chthonic monster, that is a creature that emerged from inside the dead Earth (i.e. the Underworld) rather than the living surface of the land. Later Roman versions of the myth align more closely with what Melisande relates here - that Medusa was a beautiful maiden priestess. When she was 'caught' in the temple being raped by the god Poseidon she was cursed and transformed into the Gorgon by Athena, a punishment that Perseus describes as "just and well earned"....
How did Talia know to come to the fortune teller if she doens't believe that she's her mother?
Page 10 - The "Devil Doctor of Limehouse" would be Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, who also had a daughter, Fah Lo Suee, who was fiercly independent and had an on-again off-again relationship with his arch foe.
Talia put the submarine that came with her hideout to good use back in 'Batman and Son', and indeed in many of her Bronze Age appearances too.
Just like Melisande warned, Ra's main concern is keeping the magic of the Lazarus Pits to himself. On the other hand, eternal life has brought Ra's little happiness - is it Melisande and Talia that are covetous of the Lazarus Pits' rejuvenating flame rather than their father?
Page 11 - The Sesei is the one-time leader of the League of Assasins and Ra's Al Ghul's father, as revealed by Grant Morrison in one of the only worthwhile chapters of 'The Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul'. It's fairly unlikely he'll play into the story much given that, pre New 52, Tony Daniel was using him pretty extensively as the big bad in his Batman run. His power struggles with Ra's over who will command the League of Assasins have been part of their respective stories since the characters' debuted in the early 70's.
Ubu and Talia make short work of the Sensei's men. Ra's of course doesn't get his hands dirty.
Page 12 - Though its mentioned and not seen in the original tale and seen but not named in this one, Talia is attending the University of Cairo, where she studies medicine. This is a pretty bang-on representation, as you'll see if you check it with Google Images.
Morrison and Burnham launch into a full-on panel by panel re-telling of 1971's Detective Comics #411 by Denny O'Neill, Bob Brown and Dick Giordano. Massive props to Burnham here, who even uses the same background characters and scenery to fill the panels. I think its well worth looking at two of the panels specifically -
Amazing stuff. Burnham's attention to detail on this is second to none.
Page 13 - Talia makes a significantly better showing of herself here than in the original story, where she is what she pretends to be here, a helpless kidnap victim. Still, less enlightened times and all that.
In a typical throwaway Morrison idea, Talia inverts the Male Gaze into the Eye of the Gorgon. One look and she'll have you squirming in your seat.
Page 14 - The little old lady was Batman in disguise in the Detective Comics issue too, though his dialogue (like all of the dialogue throughout this retelling) is new. The original has a really peculiar line about Batman feeling 'undressed' without his mask. Coupled that with Batman battling a bull for Talia's affections and the Comics Code must have had a field day with this one.
In the original tale, Talia shoots Darrk dead after he nearly throws Batman in front of a train, then collapses weeping into Batman's arms. Its not until the the following month when the tale continues in the Batman title that Talia's more... frosty nature is revealed.
The last panel is the only one that doesn't reference Detective #411, being as it is a straight callback to Batman #243, dialogue and all.
Page 15-16 - Talia's reference to 'rites' ties into what Ra's was attempting during the 'Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul' - to transer his conciousness into the body of Damian Wayne. It's a development of a story beat that's followed Ra's around since his early appearances, or more specifically those of his mentor and father the Sensei in the Deadman strip from Strange Adventures.
The famous shirtless sword fight is from 1972's Batman #244 by Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams, probably one of the best regarded (and most reprinted) tales in modern Bat-history. Burnham's re-framing of the action from the point of view of the scorpion gives a fresh twist to this iconic scene. In case you haven't read the issue, Batman loses the sword fight because, in a cruel twist of random happenstance, he's stung by the scorpion.
Page 17 - Talia's kiss delivers the antidote and Batman lives again to confront Ra's like "a fiend from hell!" (dialogue form the original).
The sexy scenes come later, in Barr and Bingham's Son of the Demon graphic novel, and I'm not especially keen on the retcon that Talia had to drug Bruce to get him into bed. I do however love the Mindless Ones' (and commentators) theory that Batman has rationalised these moments by imagining he must have been drugged, rather than succumbing to basic human urges like the rest of us.
Page 18 - Panel one is another reference to Kubert's origin spread for Damian from Batman #666, along with the panel 3 which we mentioned earlier. Panel 2 is a bit too general for me to place specifically but rings true for most Batman-Talia encounters post O'Neil/Adams and pre-Morrison. Don't know if there's a specific reference for panel 4 but its referring to Talia's alignment with villainous conglomerate The Society in the midst of Geoff Johns' Infinite Crisis, alongside Deathstroke, Vandal Savage, Lex Luthor , Black Adam and the Calculator (who are pictured), and many, many others.
The last panel is a prequel of sorts to Morrison's run. Malenkov was one of the Black Glove members during R.I.P. before being killed by The Joker. The fact that he was a Black Glove mole for Talia doesn't seem to have any bearing on proceedings (in that I can't think of anything he'd know that Talia either doesn't already or doesn't care about). Given that it seems so unimportant and throwaway, it's probably - along with the secret of Sivana's diamond - the pivot on which the final act turns, and is in fact desperately vital to unlocking the secrets of how this is all going to end.
Page 19 -The finale of 'Batman & Son', with the Rock of Gibraltar in the background.
Of course, Talia was about as fooled by the end of last issue as we were. I think it's going to be getting pretty complicated round here with all of these plots and counter-plots.
The monster "grown in the belly of a whale and stealthy as Batman himself" is The Heretic, also called The Nameless, who first appeared when this whole Leviathan business kicked off in Batman:The Return #1.
Page 20 - There he is!
Hmm, maybe that ruthless bastard Leviathan last month really was Talia after all...
And that's it for another month. See you in thirty for The Resurrection of Matches Malone, and then 30 more for the zero issue co-written by Chris Burnham. As ever, any corrections, omissions, comments or anything else are always welcome.