This is truly one of the most horrific Batman stories I ever read and I'm not just talking about gore (which might be considered tame by todays' standards.) This one is brutal and scary because for most of the story Batman has no control of the situation. He's not the flawless badass that we know today that even has a plan for being mind controlled. This one stands out for a lot of reasons, it's also the second most known Robin tale for Jason Todd where he plays a rather interesting role. So why is this such a well known story for Batman fans?
SPOILERS for ALL Four Books
Basically homeless people are missing and crime is getting cut down. Literally. Batman isn't at his best here, even before he gets messed up. The only reason he finds out the truth is because he was careless one night and one of the murdering undergrounders kills the man who shoots him then drags Bats to their hideout. The villain of the piece is one Deacon Blackfire. A man that promises a 'better way' while brainwashing his people into following him: hence THE CULT. When word reaches the people of Gotham of his brutal methods of cleaning up the street the city is split down the middle on whether the man is what they really need.
Batman is taken for a week where he is deprived of food and when he is feed it's drugged. Blackfire breaks him long before Bane ever does (although why he never unmasks him is beyond me.) Under his influence Batman joins the cult and under a hallucination kills a man WITH A GUN. Which is never mentioned again neither in the book or elsewhere. Bruce doesn't even seem to make the connection. I mentioned the Bane incident but there are other storylines that look like they could have been copied from this. One of them being No Mans' Land. Yeah, the US government gives up on the city in NML where else they bring in the National Guard here. The people are completely overtaken, half leaving to flee to Jersey (dear god they were desperate, I kid I kid.)
Most of the story deals with the gore of the attacks for the undergrounders, the reports on the news and Batmans' drugged addled mind (Morrison anyone?) Blackfire is given mythos that his people give their new members of his immortality. Strangely enough these stories appear to be true since Gordons' men find years upon years of files of Blackfires' previous crimes dating back years where the man couldn't have been alive. We sort of get a explanation later on why it's possible though it's never really confirmed. Batman doesn't know what the true story is at the end although I think he really doesn't care at that point.
The writer Jim Starlin was known for his Jason-bashing so it seems odd that he writes Jason to be a damn good Robin in his story. It's actually a prefect example of why he needs a Robin without beating you over the head that Robins' supposed to be the light to his darkness. The funny thing is that you can see how these events could shape Jason into the man he becomes, hell you get to see a glimpse into the skill set he'll need to be the Red Hood. He takes it upon himself to go to the undergrounders lair himself where he finds a completely crazy Batman in a truly horrific environment. All while wearing Dicks' insanely designed costume with panties and pixie boots. He witnesses awful things in both the carnage around them and Batmans' mental state.
Jason also gets the greatest moment of any Robin by slapping Batman to get him to snap out of his drug induced fit. This story shows the absolute worst of humanity. This is the kind of stuff Jason will be fighting to stop. Really you get a sense that he's being stripped of a lot of his innocence here. He's shocked at the intensity of everything yet he keeps it all together. He has to, he's Batmans' strength.
They break out with Robin--okay he is a little gleeful at kicking ass but he's a Robin. (Even at this age Jay has no qualms with bringing guys down with a swift kick to the nads and when the other guys have axes you can't blame him.) They both know that Batman is really out of it and that it's up to Jason to do most of the work. And he does. Throughout it he's the one that Bruce reveals his darkest fears to and you can tell it's not easy to hear.
I have to say that the most surreal moments for me aren't the ones where we see Bruces' freaked out visions. One of them is having the dynamic duo picked up by Alfred in a limo, which is actually an awesome Alfred moment:
Jason Todd: Have any trouble getting here. Alfred?
Alfred Pennyworth: (Holding a hand gun in a half shrug) Nothing I couldn't handle.
Batman tells them their getting out of Gotham which Jason takes to mean that their calling in reinforcements. But no, he means that their leaving because it's Blackfires' city now. It's a very disturbing moment where you feel just as shocked as Alfred and Jason. There's also the batmobile they return in that made me wonder if it was supposed to be humorous. Probably not but let's just say it's a G.I. monster truck. I also felt a little unsettled that Batman doesn't even attempt to save a woman thinking that all that matters is getting Blackfire. Something that he later repeats about his freaking Robin!
But back to Jason. He tries to be upbeat and you can tell he wants Bruce to be okay. Like a lot of his term as Robin (the original run not the retconned stuff) I don't think Bruce does a good job of being there for him. Yeah he snaps out of his funk to help Jason at different points, he's just not being a very good teacher. Unlike the other stories it's perfectly logical that he's not in the best of places to be giving moral speeches. Oh, and he teaches Jason how to shoot with a gun. A tranquilizer gun but even so it give Jason pause.
Jason Todd: Seems strange, us having to use guns.
Bruce says that their not facing criminals, their facing an army so it's okay. BTW they have dummies set up for them to shoot. Jason gets off three shots that land: dead center on the forehead, the neck and in the heart. Batman puts him in charge of gunning down the crowds with these darts later on. Oddly enough there's text that reads "in games like this you don't get second chances" in the panel with Jason shooting.
They make their way to the Deacon when a shot grazes Jasons' leg (maybe if he wore pants he'd have better protection Bruce.) You gotta love how nonchalant Jason is about the whole thing. He doesn't even react to the pain just ties a bandage around it, asks for the other tranq gun and promises to watch Batmans' back while he presses forward. Damn good soldier.
Taking the hand gun from the man who shot Robin he goes off to face Blackfire. Yes, Robin clearly sees him doing this too. All too ready to die in order to inspire his followers Blackfire engages Batman, enraged that the gun is thrown away. He beats the crap out of the Deacon wanting to cause as much pain as possible. Seeing their leader weakened and begging for mercy breaks the followers. His right hand man tries to kill Batman before it gets out of their control but Jason takes him out. When the crowd rips Blackfire apart Batman stops Jason from trying to save him. The last panel with Jason in it you can only see his mask up. Where Batman seems in control again Jason looks really uncomfortable.
In Death Of the Family Bruce briefly mentions that he's still recovering from his fight with Blackfire so this might have been a big factor with Jason having a death wish. (Although his death had nothing to do with that.) I think it could have been better told but you can see the inspiration for a lot of Batman tales. And something a lot of later Batman writers fail to do, showing him being human.
Say What?: Since Blackfire comes back in Blackest Night it seems The Cult still happened. Well in that canon but most of the Bat canon transferred over.
Questions Raised: A lot but I'll settle for this. Why are actual guns banned in the Bat Family except when used by Alfred? It's suggested he used the gun here and he shot Rip Hunter in Booster Gold so we know he'll pull the trigger.