Batman has been in fights all his life: physically, mentally, spiritually. But who or what is his greatest foe? Shelfdust asked some of our favourite comics critics to pick Batman’s Greatest Enemy… but who do YOU agree with?
By Lachlan R.
The most tried-and-true piece of Bat Wisdom is that the Caped Crusader’s enemies are a warped reflection of himself. Scarecrow strikes fear into the hearts of Gothamites. Two Face is literally two people wrapped up into one. Bane is a personality worn down to the singular desire to conquer his foes.
But there’s one name that’s never mentioned in this hall of funhouse mirrors. And that’s a shame, because I believe he’s richer and more layered than he’s given credit for. I’m talking about Barbathos, specifically the Barbathos featured in the “Dark Knight, Dark City” storyline written by Peter Milligan and drawn by Kieron Dwyer. Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder had their own, much more famous takes on him, but since they’re different enough to be entirely new characters I’ll be focusing purely on classic flavour Barbathos.
Barbathos captivates me for three reasons: he inspires feelings of numinous horror, he’s a great stand-in for Gotham City itself, and as mentioned before, he’s a strange mirror to the Dark Knight. These three qualities are closely interlinked, and you can’t discuss one without looking into the others. As we explore these traits one-by-one we’ll see how they build one each other, and create a monster that’s more than the sum of his parts.
Barbathos brings a palpable sense of horror to the book. And not just any horror, but gothic horror. Gothic horror was the atmosphere that ran all throughout Golden Age Batman, the original Caped Crusader comics that first captured the hearts of millions. Early Batman was as much like Van Helsing as his modern incarnation, battling werewolves and Monster Men and Jekyll-and-Hyde pastiches. Adventures took place in gloomy castles and the Joker’s moonlit graveyard. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula debuted just eight years before Batman, and that influence is everywhere from the hero’s dress to the sinister European aristocrats who tried to ensnare him. Of course I don’t wish to imply that comics should remain fixed in a Golden Age stasis, but this is a mood and aesthetic move me deep within my heart.
Barbathos brings back that feeling of gothic dread, and to a degree unequalled by anything in those Golden Age comics. How does he do it? Barbathos is a powerful demon, summoned by a group of wealthy elite and then unwittingly sealed away in a makeshift crypt. But powerful gods and demons are a dime a dozen in comics. They make great opponents, but not many of them are frightening.
What sets Barbathos apart from most of his peers is his pervasive sense of influence. From the start of his misadventure, the Dark Knight can sense Barbathos stalking him from every shadow. In Batman #454, the Caped Crusader confesses to the Riddler in a rare moment of vulnerability “…ever since you started this, I’ve had the weirdest feeling, of being watched, or something bigger, watching waiting…” The Riddler, of course, is confident he’s pulling his own strings. And then in the very next panel, his true puppet-master steps out from behind the curtain and immediately reduces him to a state of gibbering terror. Like many demons, Barbathos prefers to prod and nudge our souls from a position of invisibility.
Barbathos can manipulate individual souls, but his talents extend far beyond that. Near the start of this essay, I said that Barbathos made an excellent stand-in for Gotham City, but in a very real sense he is Gotham City. One of cape comics’ most atmospheric and haunting locations gets a rattling voice in him. As Barbathos explains himself, he was sealed in his makeshift crypt when the city was small and young. As the city grew and grew, his spirit seeped “…in every brick, in every inch of timber. The whole city a bent and misshapen echo of my own desolation…” Imagine all you see and all you know is just a mask for a malevolent god. That’s who Barbathos is. That’s what makes him terrifying. He’s one of the malicious puppeteer-gods of Thomas Ligotti’s horror stories reimagined as a Bat-Villain.
Of course, he wouldn’t be a proper pastiche of a Ligotti anti-god if he didn’t work some terrible influence in the protagonist. Barbathos’s essence is filtered through every aspect of Gotham, and that includes its favourite son. “Batman and I are… closely related.” explains Barbathos. “He is Batman. The Dark Knight… I am Gotham. The Dark City…” Barbathos takes the dark qualities of Bruce Wayne and inflates them to an almost cosmic scale, giving the world’s most famous street-level hero a Cthulhu to grapple with. He asks the question “What if Batman were an Elder God?” and makes it work.
At first glance, the similarities between Batman and Bat God are obvious but merely cosmetic. Everyone can see that Barbathos takes the appearance of a bat and has the word “bat” in his name. But their kinship runs deeper than that. Look closer, and you’ll see that Barbathos has the very same modus operandi as the Dark Knight. Their means of controlling their destinies and the destinies of their city are identical in principle.
Barbathos is a creature who operates behind the scenes, in the shadows. He lives in whispers and half-remembered legends. Batman himself, who has learned everything and knows Gotham like the back of his hand, has never heard of him. The Batbooks of the nineties insisted that most Gothamites regarded Batman as an urban legend, (I know, I know. But to be fair, most superhero comics require ignoring vast swaths of continuity.) strengthening the connection between the two living myths.
In the last issue of this storyline, Batman #454, Barbathos’s other Batman-ish qualities are laid out at a machine-gun pace. He inspires great terror, frightening the Riddler and the cult that summoned him so long ago. He is a master of disguise, gloating to the cowed Ridder that it was “…so easy for me to slip into you. To disguise myself as you…” He is adept at long-term planning, implying that the entirety of Batman’s and the Riddler’s career was just a stepping stone in his scheme to break free. He even talks in the terse, broken fragments we associate rightly or wrongly with post-Miller Batman.
Even the rituals for summoning them are comparable. The first scene of “Dark Knights, Dark City” focusses on the Ceremony of the Bat, the black magic rite that will bring Barbathos to our mortal plane. It’s an occasion of great pomp and circumstance, with blood-red robes, an ornamental dagger, a burning chalice, occult tapestries… The very next scene is Commissioner Gordon on the roof of the GCPD, with a shape deliberately evocative of the Bat-Signal in the sky. Gordon calling Batman is specifically described as a summoning, and we’re reminded that procedure for signalling the Dark Knight is an arcane ritual of its own. Few in fiction are as bound in symbols as Batman.
So, Barbathos is a mirror to the Dark Knight. Or is it more sinister than that? In his (for now) final confrontation with Barbathos, the arch demon claims to be “The city that modelled you, that shaped you…” Barbathos expounds on the chess pieces he needed to manipulate into position, including “…a man who would set a trail of riddles.” With his unparalled influence on the city, did Barbathos create Batman to free him? In a rogues gallery of twisted reflections, is Barbathos the only figure for whom Batman is a reflection of him?
These existential questions haunt the Dark Knight in the last pages of Batman #454. It’s one thing to stare into the abyss only to have the abyss stare back into you. It’s quite another to realize the abyss stared first. “…for the last two days its words have been running through my head…” admits Bruce at the graves of his parents. “…it was on Gotham’s street that you were killed… But was it the city or the demon? Accident or design?” Heavy questions, and ones that don’t really have an answer. So… Bruce pushes them from his mind. Because there are still innocents to protect, and neither man nor demon nor Bat God can stay him from his course.
Batman #454: Dark Knight, Dark City
Writer: Peter Milligan
Artist: Kieron Dwyer
Inker: Dennis Janke
Colourist: Adrienne Roy
Letterer: John Costanza
Hailing from Australia, Lachlan R. has been published in Horror, MicroHorror, and several non-horror related publications!
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