It’s rare that a comic completely subverts my expectations, and yet Birth of a Demon did just that.
Glancing at the front of this trade, I assumed it would be a direct sequel to Bride of a Demon, focusing on the birth of Ra’s Al Ghul’s child. As it turns out, this story is actually the origin of Ra’s, going back many millenium to before he called himself “the demon’s head.”
That’ll teach me to judge a book by its cover.
The story within these pages is a detailed account of the pain and suffering Ra’s went through in his early life, events that helped mold him into the man he is today. Originally a physician to an obnoxious ruler, Ra’s discovered the secrets of the Lazarus Pit and used those powers to save the king’s dying son. Plagued with the sudden madness all who emerge from the pit experience, the king’s son kills Ra’s wife in front of him.
The king, truly a despicable character, refuse to acknowledge what his own son has done, and so condemns Ra’s for the murder and sentences him to be placed in a small cage with his dead wife’s body, which will then be lowered into a pit:
It’s a pretty dark story, to say the least.
I won’t spoil the details, but needless to say Ra’s escapes and has his revenge. From this anger is born a new type of leader, The Demon’s Head, or Ra’s Al Ghul as he’s more commonly known.
The reader learns all of this after Batman tracks down an ailing Ra’s and his daughter Talia as they seek out another Lazarus Pit to restore him. Talia reveals her father’s history, providing a background on which to place his brutal nature.
As would be expected, Batman wants to prevent Ra’s from entering the Lazarus Pit, and the two end up in a heated battle. At one point, Ra’s gains the upper hand, seemingly spelling the end for Batman:
It was a little predictable, because of course this would happen right next to a Lazarus Pit, the one thing that could save Batman’s life. Still, the artwork saved the day, making the story far more emotional and horrifying than had another artist worked on it. Breyfogle’s artwork throughout the entire trade created a much more compelling story, and definitely impacts my overall view of this trade.
Batman and Ra’s fall into the pit together, and the comic closes with Batman emerging. Ra’s and Talia are nowhere to be found, but I’m sure they won’t be gone for long. They and Batman are in a seemingly constant struggle, and one that won’t doesn’t likely have an end in sight.
My initial assumption about the nature of this comic leads me to wonder about its location within the continuity. Truth be told, there were one or two plot points that didn’t match up with previous stories (most notable, in Bride of the Demon Ra’s talks about loving Talia’s mother deeply, while in this trade it is noted that her mother was a drug addict whose life Ra’s didn’t bother saving). There was no reference to Al Ghul’s wife, how he escaped the Antarctic fortress, or Batman and Talia’s lost child. This story seemed far more self-contained, and while I enjoyed it, I would have liked to see it connect to these past events. Given that those were done by a different writer, I suppose it’s not surprising that they’re not as big a plot point in this story. Had they been more fully connected though, it would have made an already good story even better.
I’m enjoying learning more and more about Ra’s Al Ghul from these stories, as well as the complicated relationship Batman seems to have with him. Ra’s is a truly crazed villain, but his arguments come from a sense of reason and rationale, making him that much more terrifying.