Last month we took a look at Detective Comics #411, featuring the first appearance of Talia al Ghul, and the first mention of her father, Ra’s. As we noted at the time, despite that story giving the appearance of being one chapter in an extended story arc dating back to the first appearance of the League of Assassins in Detective #405, with the next installment already lined up for the very next issue of Batman, #432 (per a blurb in the story’s final panel), that wasn’t writer Denny O’Neil’s original intention at all. Rather, as he’d later tell fellow Bat-writer Mike W. Barr in an interview for Amazing Heroes #50 (July 1, 1984), Talia was created specifically “to serve the needs of that plot and that story [i.e., Detective #411’s “Into the Den of the Death-Dealers”], with no thought that she would ever appear again, or that she would have a father, or any of that stuff.” But somewhere in between the writer’s original conception and the story’s final published form, someone — perhaps Detective and Batman editor Julius Schwartz — had another idea; and the League of Assassins story arc, rather than concluding tidily with its third installment (fourth, if you count Detective #408’s “The House That Haunted Batman!”), instead became just the prelude to what was ultimately a much more influential saga, that of Ra’s al Ghul, “the Demon’s Head”.
But whence came Ra’s al Ghul?
Based on all the accounts that have appeared over the past half-century, it seems reasonable to conclude that Ra’s was joint creation of three men: O’Neil, Schwartz, and — last but certainly not least — artist Neal Adams.
Perhaps it all started with Schwartz, who flatly asserted in his 2000 autobiography Man of Two Worlds, “I came up with the idea for the character.” Whether that’s entirely accurate or not, Schwartz is credited in virtually all accounts as having at least come up with the villain’s distinctive and memorable name, which he said was inspired by his reading in an astronomy book about Algol, the “demon star”. (Algol’s full name in Arabic is, indeed, رأس الغول , romanized as raʾs al-ghūl.)
Both Schwartz and O’Neil (who Schwartz acknowledged “fleshed out the character’s background and manner and made him real”) — and perhaps Adams as well — seem to have felt that the time was right for the introduction of a major new Batman villain, to complement the darker, more serious direction in which they’d recently taken the hero himself. In the introduction to a 1977 tabloid-sized reprinting of four key Ra’s stories (aka Limited Collectors’ Edition #C-51) O’Neil was quoted as saying:
There was no doubt that Batman needed a worthy opponent… We set out consciously and deliberately to create a villain in the grand manner, a villain who was so exotic and mysterious that neither we nor Batman were sure what to expect.
For his part, Adams appears to have been given carte blanche to design this new villain however he saw fit — a circumstance the artist wasn’t necessarily all that thrilled about. As he would later tell Michael Kronenberg for The Batcave Companion (TwoMorrows, 2009):
…my initial response to that story was that Denny had given me too little to work with. He didn’t give me a character. This Ra’s al Ghul was simply a bad guy. And the guy would not stand out in a crowd. You know, he was not big, not small, just a slightly exotic businessman.*
Obviously, Adams rose to the challenge, crafting a visual that would play no small part in the new villain’s success with readers. But since we can’t really see Ra’s all that clearly on Batman #232’s cover (as iconic as it is), we’ll postpone further exploration of that aspect of the character until he appears on panel within the story, a few pages in.
Of course, to reach that point, we have to actually begin the story. So, without further ado…
Though what happens to Robin in this opening scene is certainly shocking, his presence in the story is hardly a surprise. After all, we’ve already seen him on the cover, not to mention the fact that his name appears in the title logo. Yet it’s worth noting that in this era, the Teen Wonder wasn’t normally part of Batman’s adventures, even while being a regular fixture in the Batman title. Dick Grayson’s leaving Gotham City for Hudson University (and the concurrent “ending” of Batman and Robin’s regular partnership) had been a key element of the “Big Change” for the Bat-titles instituted by Julius Schwartz in 1969; Robin’s ascension to the cover logo of Batman with issue #230 was occasioned by the transition of his solo backup feature from Detective to Batman, one issue earlier.
The fact is, however, that for all the lip service paid in this era to restoring Batman’s status as a “solitary creature of the night” (a status he’d actually only ever held for roughly the first year of his existence, in 1939-40), it was evidently damned hard for DC’s creators to keep his stories strictly Robin-free.
The story premise of “Robin has been taken captive, Batman has to find him and save him” was hardly an uncommon one for Batman stories; nevertheless, in April, 1971, this set-up couldn’t help but have echoes of “The House That Haunted Batman!” from Detective #408, published just four months previously. Like this story, that one had begun with Robin going missing at Hudson U., then, he’d been missing for twenty-four hours, rather than this tale’s “couple of days” — but it still all felt rather familiar to my thirteen-year-old self, especially considering that the art was provided bu the same team of Adams (on pencils) and Dick Giordano (on inks).
Like his separation from Robin, Batman’s leaving the Batcave behind was supposed to be a key element in the “Big Change” — but, just like Robin, it kept finding its way back into Batman stories. My younger self was only an intermittent buyer of the two Bat-books at this time, but even I had seen the ‘cave featured as recently as November, in Detective #407.
Neal Adams has discussed his process in designing the visual for Ra’s on a number of occasions. Here’s one of his earliest statements on the matter, from the Limited Collectors’ Edition intro quoted earlier in this post:
I created a face not tied to any race at all. It had to have evidence of a great many things having happened, a face that showed the man had an awareness of his own difference at a very early age. His forehead shows great intelligence, his receding hairline, age and experience. The lines in his cheeks show stress as well as age. He is purposely without eyebrows to add to the mystery. Ra’s face had to convey the feeling that he’d lived an extraordinary life long before his features were ever committed to paper.
As I recall, when I first read this scene in 1971, the revelation that someone had figured out Batman’s true identity was genuinely stunning; while I’d read other stories in which villains (or others) gained access to a superhero’s most closely guarded secret, it was still a really big deal whenever it happened.
“The Brotherhood of the Demon”? Say, doesn’t Ra’s al Ghul mean “the demon’s head”? (C’mon, you know Bats speaks Arabic.) Seems like that ought to raise a red flag…
Ubu’s insistence that his master always go first (and his getting up in Batman’s face whenever the hero forgets to let Ra’s do so) will be a recurring bit throughout the issue — usually played for laughs, though it’ll prove significant in another way before the end of the story.
On page 6, the narrative departs the familiar environs of Gotham City, and (with the exception of a roughly 2-page flashback sequence that begins almost immediately) it won’t return for the course of the story. O’Neil and Adams had taken Batman away from home before — their first Bat-collaboration, Detective #395’s “The Secret of the Waiting Graves” was set in Mexico, and “Red Water Crimson Death” in Brave and the Bold #93 took place mostly on a remote Irish island — but his jetting off to Calcutta (which, as we’ll see, won’t be the story’s final stop) seems to kick the “globe-trotting adventure” angle up a notch, to a level we’re not used to seeing in Batman stories (at least not recently, and not in his two core titles).
This flashback to Batman’s origin story, laden with visual as well as verbal quotations from Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s original telling in Detective #33 (Nov. 1939), was incorporated into the story at Neal Adams’ request. In every interview or other article I’ve read mentioning the topic, Adams has expressed no motivation for including this sequence any grander than a simple desire to draw Batman’s origin; nevertheless, its inclusion here serves as a sort of “mission statement” by both Adams and O’Neil for their version of the hero, appropriately placed here near the beginning of their first proper full-length Batman story.**
Extending the flashback sequence so that it also encompasses Robin’s origin (originally chronicled by Finger, Kane, and Jerry Robinson in Detective #38 [Apr., 1940]) not only completes this retelling of Batman’s beginnings, but also anchors the entire sequence within the story’s main plotline: Batman’s recollection of his and Robin’s origins helps explain the deep bond between the two heroes — the primary motivator for the Darknight Detective’s actions throughout the story.
Yeah, I’d have to agree with you there, Bats — your dressing like a beggar to attract thieves, just on the chance that one might know where to find the Brotherhood of the Demon, was indeed “a long shot” that you’re damn lucky paid off so well. (Of course, we’re not told if this is the hero’s first attempt at this gambit, or if he’s been doing this kind of thing all day, which would certainly have improved his odds.)
The trio of Batman, Ra’s, and Ubu enter the Alley of Shadows (though not before another minor kerfuffle when Bats forgets and tries to go first). At its terminus, they find the building which presumably houses the Brotherhood, and then…
After a brief discussion as to which of these two rich guys will finance their impromptu Himalayan expedition — Ra’s takes the hit — the trio is again on their way. (If you’re keeping score,, Batman remembers to let Ra’s exit first this time.)
See that face in the mountainside? Pretty hard to miss, right? Several months after this issue’s publication, in Batman #236’s “Letters to the Batman”, Julius Schwartz printed multiple readers’ guesses as to the face’s identity. Wrong guesses included Abraham Lincoln (hmm, maybe) and Richard Nixon (no way); but several readers (including future DC writer and staffer Bob Rozakis) did manage to correctly identified the “man in the mountain” as Deadman. As Schwartz explained, it was all part of “Neal’s personal battle to keep Deadman… alive,” Adams having drawn all but one (and written seven) of the character’s fifteen solo appearances to date.
Deadman’s “presence” in the Himalayas might not even be considered all that unusual, considering the importance to his mythos of Nanda Parbat, a mystical hidden city located there (maybe not all that far from Mount Nanda Devi?). Intriguingly, there’s an even closer connection between Deadman and Ra’s al Ghul, although it wouldn’t become known to readers for another few months (and might not even have been conceived of at the time this story was crafted): The League of Assassins, — which, despite being responsible for Talia’s kidnapping in Detective #411, actually serves Ra’s — was, years ago, behind the murder of Boston Brand (Deadman).
According to Peter Sanderson’s article “The Lives and Times of Ra’s al Ghul” (Back Issue #10 [May, 2005]), Denny O’Neil considered Ra’s’ “love for emptiness… desolation” to be one significant thing he had in common with his co-creation.
Batman, Ra’s, and Ubu proceed to scale the mountainside, with our hero taking the lead (though only after making sure Ra’s and Ubu don’t mind, of course). “Fingers and faces grow numb, and the breath rattles harshly in their throats –”
Proceeding onwards from the brilliant, nearly silent sequence, Batman is certain that his quarry is nearby, and that they’re expecting his imminent arrival — but he doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned about it.
Discussing the mystery at the heart of “Daughter of the Demon” with Mike W, Barr for the 1984 Amazing Heroes article referenced earlier, O’Neil had this to say:
I wanted you to not be aware there was a mystery to be solved until the last page. I wanted you, the reader, to think it’s a straight action-adventure chase story, so that it would come as a surprise at the end that there was ever a mystery there at all, much less that he solved it as he went along.
Umm, OK. It’s a good idea, no question; unfortunately, it’s seriously undercut by the cover, which pretty clearly fingers Ra’s as the bad guy responsible for Robin’s being in jeopardy, as well as by the story’s title, which obviously can refer only to Talia, and which thus implicates her dad Ra’s as the “Demon” of whom there’s a “Brotherhood”, as well as a “Daughter”.
On the other hand, when I try to recall my experience of first reading this story fifty years ago, it seems to me that I was surprised by this twist. So… maybe Denny O’Neil knew his audience, after all.
It’s the Dynamic Duo, together again for the first time. (The first time in an O’Neil and Adams collaboration, that is.)
Batman and Robin dispense with the “Brothers” within a couple more panels of expertly choreographed action, and then…
In their Amazing Heroes interview, O’Neil told Mike Barr:
…at this point in my personal, inner biography of Batman he is really stirred by a woman for the first time in his life. He may have flirted with flirting at various times in the past, and of course, as part of his playboy image, he probably did… But I think probably, in that last panel he feels some little stirring within him, that we might call normal in the presence of a comely female.
The first time? Really? I have to say that that doesn’t really fit my own personal conception of Batman’s personality. Nevertheless, I respect the right of Denny O’Neil, one of this classic hero’s defining writers, to his interpretation… while at the same time, I’m grateful that he chose to be subtle enough in his scripting that I can exclude that particular aspect of his interpretation from my headcanon if I so choose (which I do).
Setting aside all that, the ending is a wowser, likely to surprise even those readers who haven’t been taken in by Ra’s’ issue-long deception. (Or maybe not, if they happen to recall the situation James Bond found himself in with Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo and her father Marc-Ange Draco in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service [either the 1963 novel or 1969 film]. For the record, O’Neil claimed not to have had that or any other Bond material in mind when crafting his Ra’s al Ghul stories; not that that’s stopped many observers over the years from classifying Ra’s as a quintessential “Bond villain”.***)
But in any event, we’ve come to the end of our journey… at least for now. From the perspective of a half-century later, it’s interesting to step back and take note of how much we still don’t know about Ra’s al Ghul at the conclusion of this introductory story. “Daughter of the Demon” has nothing to say about ecoterrorism, for instance, or about the Lazarus Pits. We haven’t even learned that the League of Assassins, whom Bats probably thought he was done with following the violent death of their “leader” Doctor Darrk (actually merely the head of a renegade faction) in Detective #411, is actually still alive and well, not to mention a fully-owned subsidiary of Ra’s own organization. For that matter, we still don’t know for sure yet that Ra’s is even a criminal. Nor does Batman, though surely the World’s Greatest Detective must at least have a few suspicions at this point. (On the other hand, in Ra’s’ very next appearance [Batman #235], Bats will still be treating Ra’s as an ally, if only a provisional one — so, maybe not.)
Still, all in all, while the conclusion of “Daughter of the Demon” leaves a number of questions unanswered (including, but not limited to, the one actually asked in the story’s final caption), I think the story still works well as a stand-alone. It effectively and authoritatively reinforces O’Neil and Adams’ vision of the character as an obsessed crusader for justice, while also demonstrating the viability of a more expansive milieu for the hero to operate in beyond Gothan;s mean streets. In the end, while the story may not be quite as perfect as my thirteen-year-old self thought it was back in 1971 (few things are, frankly), I’d say it still holds up as a damn fine yarn — and that it remains deserving of its reputation as one of the most definitive Batman stories of its era, if not of all time.
UPDATE/SPECIAL BONUS FEATURE, 4/17/21, 1:30 pm:
Courtesy of comics historian Arlen Schumer at the Neal Adams Almanack Facebook group, here’s a look at how Neal Adams put Batman #232’s iconic cover together, from his original concept sketch through the steps of the overlay process. Thanks, Arlen!
*Asked in a separate interview for the same volume what input he’d provided Adams on how Ra’s should look, O’Neil basically confirmed the artist’s account: “Nothing, absolutely nothing. I was sort of, ‘There’s the character’s name, here’s what he does, good luck.’ (chuckling]”
**All of the team’s solo Batman stories to date had appeared in Detective, where as the lead feature in a two-feature title, none had run more than 15 pages. Their only full-lengther featuring the character had been a “team-up” between Batman and the House of Mystery, appearing in Brave and the Bold #93 (Dec., 1970).
***O’Neil also claimed to have never read Sax Rohmer, and pled ignorance of most of the lore surrounding Rohmer’s most famous character, Fu Manchu — despite such parallels between Fu and Ra’s as their both being heads of worldwide criminal organizations, both using artificial means to unnaturally extend their lifespans, and both having beautiful and formidable daughters romantically attracted to their fathers’ greatest nemeses.
In my opinion, for what it’s worth, O’Neil could have been (and probably was) on the level about not having been consciously influenced by either Rohmer’s Fu Manchu or Fleming’s James Bond, and yet could still have been influenced by them, unconsciously or indirectly. Powerful tropes have a way of getting around, burrowing deep into our popular culture and then emerging in unexpected places.