Title: Batman – The Book of Shadows
Writers: Pat Mills and Debbie Gallagher
Penciller: Duke Mighten
Inker: Bill Oakley
Colorist: Digital Chameleon
Summary: “…One must choose that victim who contains the greatest and purest force.
The Holy Fool.
The Hanged Man.
The King of the Lonely.
Thus shall the demon Archon arise and bathe the Earth in blood.”
— The Book of Shadows
Back in the 1990s, one of the semi-big things in the comics industry were prestige format one shot stories. They were bound with glossy covers like trade paperbacks, but small enough to be individual issues. Their placement in the continuity of ongoing comics was debatable at best, since they were so rarely every mentioned in the main titles published by DC and Marvel. What was great about them is they were often self-contained stories which featured original antagonists and supporting casts beyond the main characters, but like I said the characters would hardly ever appear in the regular comics if they were lucky.
I own, well, I wouldn’t say a HUGE number of Batman prestige format books, but the entirety of my Batman collection of trade paperback issues and similarly printed stories takes up most of one shelf in my collection. “Batman: The Book of Shadows” was a story I stumbled into blindly, having never heard of it before my purchase and the action taken solely because the title intrigued me. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else written by Pat Mills and Debbie Gallagher, but from what I’ve determined the two are frequently published under 2000 A.D.. Likewise, I’ve only fond Duke Mighten’s artwork in an early 90s Marvel series called “Wild Thing.” “Book of Shadows” is a pleasant, creepy little story using tarot card themes and a group of monstrous villains whose designs are reminiscent of the Xenomorphs from the “Alien” franchise.
The issue begins literally with the Book of Shadows from the title. For the opening pages we’re reading the inside of the tome from the first person P.O.V. of four individuals, referred to as “Gerard,” “Mrs. Peace,” “Ms. Mercy,” and “Mr. Gentle.”
The first page is adorned with The Hanged Man tarot card and speaks of something known as “The Bornless One.” The other pages of the book appear to be filled with missing persons reports, newspaper articles, email print outs, and photos. The mysterious Gerard and the other three are reminiscing on their handiwork.
Mr. Gentle was responsible for the disappearance of Wendy Drake, a married housewife and mother. The police found what was left of her dog and described it as “The work of a maniac.” Gentle’s not too insulted by the description.
Gerard flatters Mrs. Peace’s performance before she murdered Al Wallace, a man she romanced over the internet. They saved one of her emails, plus a dried rose and a love note from Al. Mrs. Peace can’t believe Gerard thinks so highly of her work.
And finally, we come to a taped wrist watch and a flattened milk carton with a photograph of missing teenager Jed Foster. Gerard reminds the group they all had a hand in THIS particular episode. Ms. Mercy adds none of them called Jed’s family because they offered no reward. Gerard’s still happy because what they did to Jed was bad enough to finally get the attention of their “King of Fools,” a.k.a. Batman. A brief flashback shows one of them approached Jed while he was in a video arcade and offered him some money. Next thing you know he was on all the milk cartons in Gotham City.
On that note, Gerard promises they’ll be adding plenty of new pages to the book later this evening since they have to get started on setting up their appointed sacrifice for the Bornless One.
It then cuts to Batman, overlooking Gotham from high upon a ledge and delivering one of his many internal monologues about the city. It’s late at night and pouring, lightning flashing in the sky and the rain intensifying the glow from many of the apartment windows.
Batman makes an acrobatic leap through the air as a bolt of lightning makes everything seem like an inverted photo, but when he looks up he sees the pale image of… something, etched across the sky and moon. Yet before he can figure out if what he saw was real, he hears a scream coming from a nearby alleyway.
On the ground, a bespectacled man, a teacher, desperately clutches a briefcase and is frantically apologizing as he tries to flee. He’s got claw marks on his back and says he assumed his attacker was a, well, you know. The attacker turns out to be Ms. Mercy, which she makes perfectly clear as she scratches him across the chest with her claws. The man says he’s never paid before and wanted to find out what it was like before she asks if he’ll be grading her. Batman enters the scene before Ms. Mercy can deliver the killing blow, but he has no idea who, or more appropriately what, she is.
Batman struggles with the monstrous Ms. Mercy while the teacher slowly bleeds to death from the many claw marks on his body and face. The man says he only wanted to try it because he was so lonely. In attempting to determine what Mercy is, Batman delivers a blow he knows would’ve killed a human opponent; it barely makes a dent in her. Not only that, but she reeks of decay. Mercy is definitely turned on by what a hottie Batman is and says she’d love to make some private time together, but Batman’s focused on saving the teacher’s life. Teach is delirious, rambling about the shame he’ll bring to the school and fears he’s dying. Mercy suggests Batman can let the man die, because that’s what people like him are for. Batman ignores her, earning her disgust at the sight of “The all new, caring Batman,” and leaves him to take care of the trash. While administering first aid to the teacher before he contacting an ambulance, Batman thinks about the tracer he stuck on Mercy’s neck and knows they’ll be meeting again.
In the gutter mixed with the teacher’s belongings is a tarot card. It’s the Hanged Man.
Far away, Ms. Mercy slowly shifts from a clawed, leather-skinned monster to a beautiful, voluptuous woman with several facial piercings and wearing a tight leather one-piece. She heads to the Elysium Club and reconvenes with the rest of her little group. Inside we find:
- A smarmy looking blonde guy in a green suit (Mr. Sincere)
- A nervous redheaded woman with rather prominent cheekbones (Mrs. Peace)
- A cheerful looking, balding musclebound guy (Mr. Gentle)
- And a skeezy, skinny creep (Gerard/Mr. Innocent)
Mrs. Peace is talking about how hard it is to keep up with the Nameless One’s demands, while Gentle and Gerard both assure her she has what it takes to do what’s necessary. Mercy enters the room demanding a drink. Peace can’t believe how brave she is to face the Batman one-on-one and Gentle applauds her. Gerard especially is pleased with her, and is super thrilled to find the tracking device on her neck because it means their sacrifice is making things easy for them.
Gerard decides it’s time for some late night sport and has Gentle bring the car around. Gentle suggests they can find “Some sweet innocent” at the bus station when Gerard reminds him only the five of them are truly innocent. After all, they’re no longer concerned with such petty trivialities like right and… no one remembers what the other was.
Batman’s immediately on their tail, which is exactly what Gerard wanted. Inside the Batmobile, Batman contacts his butler Alfred, through the video phone built into the dashboard, to track down the registration on the car he’s following. Gentle suggests the five need a distraction so Batman doesn’t get too close. Gerard begins to invoke the name of the Bornless One, the Archon, and bids it lend power to warp the Batmobile.
Batman starts to lose control of the car as it shifts into… well, I don’t know WHAT the fuck it is but it’s not good. The car’s metal is taking on obscene shapes as eyes begin to manifest on the windshield and controls. Behind the wheel, Batman’s surrounded by spikes and eyes when a head like a snake emerges from the top. Batman recognizes the creature’s face as the one he saw in the sky, but tells the thing Gotham already has a boogeyman.
Batman dispels the creature manifesting through the Batmobile and stops the vehicle just as it was about to strike down a bag lady. The car returns to normal as Alfred calls back; because of the “Interference” he didn’t get the registration. Batman responds the license plate is “INNOCENT.”
At the bus station, Mr. Sincere and Mr. Gentle put on a show as they look for a victim. For as it says in the Book of Shadows, those who are reborn under the Archon shall discover their sacred birthright to exploit and destroy the weak, stupid, and vulnerable. The two “Men” set their sights on Sammi Rivers, a small town girl looking to make a name for herself in the big city. The minute she steps off the bus, Sincere approaches her and asks if she’d like to see some action. Sammi immediately threatens to get a cop when Sincere adds the two can be friends. On cue, Gentle shows up and punches Sincere’s lights out for being grabby with a vulnerable young lady. Gentle asks if Sammi has any friends or family in Gotham, then suggests she get back on the bus because the city’s not a safe place for someone like her. Gentle walks away and practically counts to three when Sammi asks him not to leave.
From within the car, Gerard and the others are applauding such a “Gentle” performance while Sincere wipes the blood from his nose.
Unfortunately, Batman doesn’t find Sammi until AFTER Gerard and the others are through with her, and locates the Hanged Man near her body. He knows the card was deliberately placed there for him to retrieve. Batman thinks to himself these “People” have made a big mistake feeding on the lonely of Gotham.
We then cut to Sweet Solitaire’s, a singles club run by one Nina Kolchak. It’s after hours and she should know better, but Nina’s entertaining a gentleman caller. There’s something different about this one compared to the other assholes she’s encountered. So… genuine. So… sincere. Batman bursts through the front window, much to Nina’s anger as she starts threatening to sue him. The Caped Crusader’s more interested in Mr. Sincere, having followed him because of the tracker. Batman wants answers about the tarot card and Sammi’s death, but can barely restrain his rage as he backhands Sincere across the face. Nina advises Sincere not to fight back because Batman’s obviously mental, when Sincere decides to slip into something more comfortable.
Taking on his true, monstrous form, Sincere nimbly slips from Batman’s grasp as he jokes about the corniness of his name. Sincere grabs Nina and starts mocking her, asking if she likes being held this way and if she wants a kiss. Batman responds with a firm boot to Sincere’s, I guess you’d call it a head, and launches him into the display of liquor bottles behind the bar. There’s nothing but anger in Batman’s voice, seeing the contempt Sincere and his group show for the lives of ordinary people. Sincere argues the ordinary are worthless and doesn’t understand why anyone cares for those who don’t matter. Batman responds HE cares; Sincere asks if Batman knows how innocent he’d become if he lost that bleeding heart. As Sincere gets thrown around and has several limbs broken, Sincere declares Batman can’t really hurt him.
Too bad he doesn’t notice Nina using her lighter to set the puddle of alcohol Sincere’s lying in on fire. BURN!
The drenched creature is engulfed in flames as Batman holds Nina back from the fire. Unfortunately, what they don’t know is those reborn under the Archon’s power don’t ever really die. If the vessel’s destroyed, their essence rejoins with the source for the chance to live again.
Needing answers about the tarot connection Batman tracks down Rosita, a local specialist, for answers. In an all-night diner, the old woman isn’t too shocked by the sight of Gotham’s famous vigilante. She jokingly asks, based on his costume, if he wants to do a “Seeking Your Power Animal” workshop. Batman shows her the Hanged Man card and asks what it means. Rosita explains the card represents those who sacrifice themselves for the greater good; the imagery means the king figure going into the underworld, mentioning characters like Odin from Norse Mythology. The particular version Batman has comes from “The Tarot of the Innocents,” drawn and published by Gerard Machen. Rosita used to be friends with Gerard before she found out about his channeling the Archon. She recognized Gerard got in touch with a corrupting influence, but the police wrote her off as a nutjob when she sought their help.
Meanwhile, the Innocents are currently discussing Sincere’s passing. Mrs. Peace is upset, but Gerard assures her from personal experience that dying is something she’ll enjoy.
Rosita details the dangers of blind channeling and what beings like the Archon do, stripping away someone’s humanity leaving their shell to mask the new corruption. Before Batman leaves, Rosita warns him Gerard spoke about the Archon physically manifesting in their world. Heading to the Batmobile, Batman contacts Alfred and asks him to find a decayed sample from their medical bins so he can perform an experiment.
The Innocents are worried they’ll lose Batman again with the tracer destroyed alongside Mr. Sincere, but Gerard knows what a master detective the Dark Knight is. All they have to do is keep the trail warm for their star victim, so now it’s Mrs. Peace’s turn at bat. Peace is a nervous wreck, stammering she can’t do it, but Gerard is confident she’ll do what needs to be done. Ms. Mercy snarks at Gerard’s “Priestess” before Peace relents and asks for the phone.
Enter one Morris Smalls, single and lonely, still up at 3 AM hoping to get a call from his beloved Myra. Morris has accumulated a pretty big phone bill from the hours spent on the True Heart Chatline, but he’s sure he’s found the woman of his dreams. Even though it’s so late he’s hoping for Myra’s call, and is more than thrilled when she gets in touch. Morris remembers what she said during their last conversation, about really caring, and tells her it meant a lot. Myra is relieved to hear that, saying she’s been hurt in the past but feels safe and happy with him. In fact, she wants to do something different. She finally wants to meet, face to face. They don’t have to do anything special, just talk…
Morris eagerly heads to Myra’s apartment and is dressed for the occasion. He rehearses his greeting all the way to the front door… and then starts running for his life when he sees what “Myra” is really like. As Mrs. Peace chases after him, she moans all her dates end this way when Batman intervenes. Batman sneers at this creature for thinking she can call herself innocent. The fight gets taken outside and the two struggle while plummeting down the building. Peace insists it’s true, because the world is a prison and they’re the only ones who try to free the prisoners. Actually she realizes that sounded off and apologizes because Gerard’s better with metaphors.
Batman doesn’t want to hear her talk about human beings like she was one. This hurts Peace, who stammers she tried her hardest before her rebirth, went through all the surgeries and treatments to keep up with the world, before Gerard entered her life. Batman’s disgusted she believes Gerard helped her by turning her into THIS. She claims it’s a definite improvement after once being known as “The Collagen Queen of Gotham.” Batman’s had enough, declaring as a creature who’s not human nor is she even technically alive, she has no place in the world. While Peace keeps tumbling down to the ground, Batman grabs hold of a nearby ledge and watches as the creature lands on some electrical lines and gets fried.
Following Mrs. Peace’s dying declaration of being a decoy, Batman tracks the Innocents down to Gerard’s penthouse apartment and finds their temple. The place is empty save for a multitude of chains, iron cages, and torture devices. The Book of Shadows is propped up beneath a statue of the Archon, and there’s another Hanged Man gracing the pages. Batman understands the Innocents see him as their sacrificial king, with the book reading he will be fed to the Archon in the “Place of blood.” A slaughterhouse stun gun conveniently placed on the altar lets him know where they are. However, the sight of Jed Foster’s missing poster and the implication around all the torture devices starts to overwhelm Batman. While trying to get some air, he sees the image of the Archon in the sky again, only it’s more defined.
Knowingly heading to the trap the Innocents have set for him, Batman’s thoughts on Jed’s death makes him relieve the deaths of his parents. It’s a moment he’s relieved millions of times, of course, but no less painful than the night he saw it happen. From up in the rainy night sky, the Archon watches with anticipation.
The Batmobile is headed in the direction of Gotham Abattoir, where the Innocents have prepared a little welcoming ceremony amid all the animal corpses and vats of blood. Gerard’s prayer to the Archon and the arrival of its lightborn twin is cut short when Batman swings in on a chain and kicks the little shit across the face with both feet. The three remaining Innocents transform and start the hunt for Batman through the slaughterhouse. Ms. Mercy is amused Batman willingly showed up, unaware of the chemical surprise Batman cooked up to speed their decaying process. You can’t really kill what’s not alive, but as Batman shoves a vial of the chemical down Mercy’s throat he thinks it will at least delay them.
While Mr. Innocent and Gentle hunt for Batman themselves, Innocent sermonizes those who the Dark Knight feels compassion for are nothing but parasites sucking the blood of the strong. Gentle stops as he hears the sound of something falling, and the two watch as Mercy’s melting body plummets from the ceiling. Innocent takes matters into his own hands, calling on the Archon’s powers to animate the chains around them to ensnare Batman.
With Gentle at the controls, Innocent has Batman properly trussed up and lowered upside down into a vat of blood. Batman’s glad they only searched him as far as the knife in his boot when he’s thrust into the blood.
The Archon is waiting at the bottom of the vat, and it’s… I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s like some grossly distorted, oversized infant. Its head is the majority of its body, with arms and something attached to its lower body like a placenta or amniotic sac. SOMETHING. It’s clear this is not a thing which should be alive.
The Archon grabs Batman, shushing him and telling him he’s safe. A tube extends from the Archon’s sac and it starts to pump some sort of noxious bile into Batman’s body. Batman feels his vision blurry from whatever the Archon’s feeding him and tries to break free, puncturing the fluid sac and throwing vials of the chemical compound into the monster’s mouth. He’s only out of the blood for a moment when the Archon pulls Batman back under; the chemical’s not strong enough to work on the creature.
Images start to manifest in Batman’s mind as the Archon reaches in, taking the form of tarot cards predicting the outcome of their struggle.
There’s the Hanged Man, but also
- STRENGTH: Batman struggling against the Archon.
- THE CHARIOT: Batman transformed into the same kind of creature as the Innocents, what would happen if the Archon overcomes him and wins.
As well as
- THE TOWER: Gotham is destroyed if Batman is turned, sudden change and destruction.
- DEATH: The Innocent Batman reaping the dead of Gotham, including his allies, the end of their relationship.
Batman does his hardest to resist the Archon’s pull, and goes after the thing attached to its lower half. The “yolk” or whatever it is seems to be the creature’s weak spot, so Batman slices through it with a Batarang. The Archon begins howling in pain within the blood, while Batman uses his new advantage to fight back in the hopes of quickening the decaying process.
Escaping out of the vat before he suffocates, Batman sees the Archon pulled out of the blood by the slaughterhouse tether and holy shit it is no less pleasant to look at when perfectly visible. Mr. Innocent and Gentle hear their master’s cry for help and gladly sacrifice themselves. The two throw themselves at the Archon and starts to physically meld with the monster’s flesh; at the same time, the bodies of Ms. Mercy, Mrs. Peace, and Mr. Sincere start to manifest on the Archon as well.
When the creature speaks, it has two voices: the amalgamation of the Archon and the other four, and Mr. Innocent. The combined force calls itself the One and Many and plans to devour Batman, unaware its still attached to the cable. Batman uses the controls to throw the monster into one of the abattoir’s acid vats, noting he’s gone from the Hanged Man to the Hangman.
The combined Archon is dropped into the acid and starts writhing in agony as the combined voices start begging Gerard for help. Batman says nothing as the last of it is eaten away and dissolved. As dawn finally comes, all Batman can think about is his failure to save Jed Foster and reaffirmation all he can do is keep trying.
Well that was a pleasant little dark and disturbing one-shot tale. Mighten’s artwork is definitely the right fit for whatever the fuck the Archon was. I appreciate the portrayal of Batman by Mills and Gallagher is of the Batman motivated by trying to save the oppressed of Gotham, rather than some violent thug. It even acknowledges he’s capable of failure instead of going the “Bat God” route frustratingly used so much in recent comics.
I’m curious as to who the Innocents were before they were transformed, since only Mrs. Peace sheds some light on the subject. I’d definitely love to read more about Ms. Mercy. And isn’t it funny how Gerard was the only one of the five who got to hold onto his past identity while the rest are only referred to by their nicknames?
The one thing that bothers me is the pace; was everything supposed to have occurred within a single night?
As a funny side note, there’s this one panel showing a map of some of Gotham’s streets and I had to take a second to reboot when I recognized some of the names Mighten used.
There’s Oblina Ave, Krumm Ave, Ickis Av, Bjork St, as well as Klasky and Csupo. Klasky-Csupo’s the production company that created such iconic 90s cartoons as “Rugrats” and “Aaahh Real Monsters.” Oblina, Krumm, and Ickis are the names of the main characters from the latter.
This always makes me smile because it’s the last reference I’d have expected to see in a Batman cartoon. Of course, Mighten also included a photo of Asuka Langley Soryu from “Neon Genesis Evangelion” in the bar scene, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.