Baby Mama Drama:

The Feminist Changes in Talia al Ghul

For years, the character of Talia Al Ghul was essentially Batman’s version of a Bond-girl. While she was impressive and attractive, she was typically under some sort of dominant male personality (Batman or her father Ra’s Al Ghul). She was a simple character that performed whatever function that was given to her while also enticing Batman in a strange relationship.  However, in the last few years, we have seen a radical shift in her character development from pawn to the strongest player on the chessboard, the queen.

When Talia Al Ghul was first introduced into the Bat-Family titles, she was very capable and talented in regards to the actions she undertook. But after Batman discovers that she is the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul (genocidal megalomaniac warlord) any trust that had grown between Bruce and Talia became suspect.

As the custom of many different ancient cultures (Ra’s being several hundred years old made him a bit of a stickler for tradition) he chose Talia’s mate for her. Naturally, he chose Batman. Luckily for Talia, this pairing is one that she desired anyway so the reader never sees much in way of parental resentment (in regards to this particular issue).

Throughout her existence in Batman’s life, her relevance has only increased since her conception. Her character change really came into play during the Batman & Son story arc (starting with Batman # 655) from Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert in 2006.  What the reader first sees in this arc is just Talia being her usual enticing and moderately superior self, but this is just the ground work of what would become a radicalization of her characterization and motivation.

During the Batman & Son story arc, we start to see a more aggressively power hungry Talia Al Ghul. At this time, she is the head of Ra’s Al Ghul’s empire which includes the league of assassins. Her motivation is to take over Gibraltar and use it as a tactical base in the expansion of her own empire. She sends her son Damian Wayne to Batman for keeping under the issue of him becoming too much for her to control.

This is when Batman first becomes aware that he has a biological son. Talia is officially constituted in the DCU as Batman’s baby mama as well as former lover. While Batman is dealing with this revelation and testing it to determine its truth, Talia is making moves to take control of Gibraltar by kidnapping the family members of ruling officials. After she militarily attacks the area with ninja man-bats, Batman returns with Damian to stop her and saves the day as per usual. This move against other countries puts Talia in the scale of an independent power and not just that of Ra’s successor. During the final confrontation between her and the Dark Knight, she gave Bruce the choice of joining her as a family and ruling the world by her side or she would wage a war upon him. Batman refused and then due to an explosion she and Damian disappear in typical comic book style.

As other story arcs were published by DC, more about the new Talia was revealed especially in regards to her role in the return of Jason Todd (second Robin and first dead Robin). In Judd Winick’s Under the Red Hood storyline, the reader sees that Talia is responsible for Jason’s return to sanity and reemergence in Gotham. After Jason’s resurrection, he was in a catatonic state. Talia put him in a Lazarus Pit (the secret to Ra’s Al Ghul longevity and healing) which brought his mind back into reality along with his memories.

This relationship and guidance that Talia gives Jason Todd is revealed more in depth in Winick’s Red Hood: the Lost Days miniseries. What the reader sees there is not only Talia saving Jason Todd but also the start of a masterful manipulation. Talia’s subplot throughout the Lost Days storyline is very well defined and obvious to the reader. She makes it known to Todd that Batman had not avenged his death by killing the Joker and that the Joker was still alive and well. This information does not sit well with the naturally angry and volatile Todd. She sets Jason up with supplies and funds to start a very specific journey.

Talia puts Jason on a path that follows Bruce Wayne’s own original journey around the world to obtain his skills and mastery of his talents. But Talia takes it further for Jason and sets him up with masters whose aims are specifically in the context of killing. She has him go all around the world collecting skills and tricks, while also manipulating him into the mind set of “putting down” criminals.  When Jason Todd discusses having killed one of his teachers (who happens to be making money off of child trafficking) she replies, “You’re learning.”

Her manipulation of Jason Todd is very deep and it is towards the end of this arc that she starts to put in Todd’s mind the idea of being a better Batman. A Batman that kills. She gives him his dagger along with his dual handguns which would become Jason Todd’s (now the Red Hood’s) signature weapons. What the reader sees here is Talia building her own Batman. She not only shares her guidance with Todd, but also her bed which brings into view a very strange oedipal situation. Jason Todd wishes to kill his mentor and father figure (Batman) and sleeps with Batman’s baby momma. She provides the role of nurturer in addition to the sexual component that seemed inevitable in her manipulation.  The guidance along with sexual aspect of their relationship gives her the upper hand in her dealings with the Red Hood. Later, readers would see Todd attempt to replace Batman and even Nightwing a few times while trying to gain control over Gotham and its criminals.

Talia uses Todd as a pawn and has created a warrior that was raised and trained by her designated mate but corrupts the training he had received. She created a self-destructive antihero missile and aimed it at Gotham.

Talia does not stop there in regards to her entering the world stage as her very own powerhouse. In the New 52 Batman Inc. #2, the reader sees Talia’s back story in a quick issue that establishes her on top of the criminal food chain. It starts with Ra’s Al Ghul meeting Talia’s mother (whose place has been relegated from Ra’s “great love” to birthing machine that would be thrown away) at a Woodstock-like concert where he seduces her with his intellect in relation to the earth and ecology and all sorts of highbrow ideas that Morrison has been tossing in his work as of late.

After Talia is born, the reader sees Ra’s have a Lion King moment and he lifts Baby Talia over his head on a mountain peak and promises her the world. But what we see occur is the life of a child that is indoctrinated and trained to her father’s specifications. We also see many revelations of Ra’s plans that he had prepared for his daughter. It’s also reveal as readers already suspected that Ra’s was very much an absentee father, as trying to take over the world and topple governments has long hours. He tries to make up for this fact as many wealthy stereotypes do by buying her everything she wants instead of fatherly love.

Talia also finds her mother (who somehow has aged a significant amount even though Talia is still a child, which creates another Morrison-timeline problem which Batman Inc. has become famous for) and she learns about the connection between the Eye of the Gorgon and Algol (Al Ghul). As her mother is dragged away from her under the pretext that Talia is in danger, her mother yells, “If you want to survive in this world-if you want to win- – Appear helpless!”

This really is a master stroke for Morrison because it not only adds depth to Talia’s character, it also realigns the former passive Bond-girl attitude the character displayed as a ruse. There are times when this ruse is dropped, even in the issue where we see a teenaged Talia kill and defeat several assassins. In this issue, the readers also see Doctor Darrk return to the mainstream continuity as he kidnaps Talia. What needs to be noted here is that Talia chooses to go along with this plan and could easily ended this attempt to take her at any moment she chose. She even admits this fact to her captor who states that he plans on having her prostituted out for his monetary gain after he “tires of her company”. Talia matter-of-factly states that he would never tire of her company but Darrk will never be given the opportunity to have her in a sexual context. This moment is brilliant. It reaffirms Talia’s control of the situation while also implying Talia as a sexually liberated woman but does not overtly place her in the role of a simple seductress archetype. It creates a female character that is not what would be considered promiscuous while promoting a sense of female sexual liberation.

That character of Darrk is very confused and made anxious by the nonchalant reply from Talia about the rape he was plotting. This further demonstrates Talia’s control of the situation. It is in this moment that the Batman and Talia meet. He “saves” her from Darrk and their relationship begins. The following panels paint Talia as a young woman that is very taken by the Dark Knight. The panels are also broken up by a contemporary version of Talia, who is talking to the recently resurrected Ra’s about his role in Talia’s and Batman’s relationship. It is revealed that Ra’s orchestrated their relationship knowing that Talia would fall for the “Optimum Man”.

In the original meeting between Batman and Ra’s, Ra’s tells Batman that he wants an heir to his kingdom. This heir would wed his daughter and become the ruler of a new world that Ra’s would have made a paradise. It’s revealed here that Talia knows that Ra’s has no intention of sharing or giving up his power to any heir and that she knows that Ra’s has been looking for a way to cheat death other than the declining Lazarus Pits. Ra’s states that he only wants the best for Talia and that Batman will have to prove himself to be the best.  This is a direct connection to The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul event in the pre-New 52 Bat-Family titles.

What this means is that Ra’s Al Ghul had intended from day one that Damian Wayne be born for the specific purpose of being Ra’s Al Ghul’s new body. He would become his daughter’s son. This idea equates Damian to a meat suit. The pinnacle of human perfection (Batman) and the bloodline of Al Ghul (Talia) have a child and create a new vessel for Ra’s.  This shows how Ra’s objectifies his own daughter to a means to an end and makes her greatest accomplishment to become a birthing machine (just as he had with her mother).

Batman eventually defeats Ra’s and the contemporary version Talia makes the assertion that it was the only time she had ever seen Ra’s afraid. This only further demonstrates the tension between the father and daughter. The reader also sees in the following flashback panels that Talia drugs Batman’s drink (having already been unmasked by her the first day they met) and they take each other to bed; this is the night that Damian was conceived.

After Damian is grown in an artificial womb, unknown to Batman, he dissolves the romantic relationship between himself and Talia. Immediately after this parting of ways, the reader sees a toddler Damian being trained in exactly that same manner as Talia was at the same age. What Morrison has done is place Talia in the exact same parenting model as Ra’s.

In Batman and Robin #0 written by Peter J. Tomasi, the relationship between Talia and her son is seen in a disturbing light. In this issue, we see that Damian did not know who his father was until his tenth birth day (which means that he has only known who his father was for a year and a half in current continuity). Talia challenges Damian to a physical confrontation every year on his birthday. This challenge is not just some obstacle he has to overcome by being tough and smart, he has to fight his mother with swords, knives, fists, etc., in a bloody understanding that only after he beats her that she will tell him who his father is.

In addition to the panels that are over laid on each other to demonstrate the passing of time between challenges, the readers also see his upbringing. He learns art, music, and diving in addition to guns and swords.He even spears a great white through the nose (as is common to today’s ten year olds). The tenth birthday battle has Damian jump out of an air plane while shooting bullets from automatic weapons through the bodies of assassins and slicing through the wings of a man-bat. Then he has a rather violent sword fight with his mother. When he wins, she tells him who is father is and she obviously proud of him. She is proud of the trial by fire that has been his childhood. This is a radically different temperament than what Talia had displayed in the years before Batman & Son in 2006.  The work of Grant Morrison, Judd Winick, and Peter J. Tomasi have enhanced the character of Talia Al Ghul to a level that has been reserved for the classic comic book villains  such as the Joker, Lex Luthor, and her very own father Ra’s Al Ghul. She makes readers nervous. The reason…she might beat Batman. (Not that she ever would because if Batman were defeated, what would we read?)

Looking back at the last two pages of Batman Inc. #2, we see Talia sum it all up herself. After taking over her father’s lair and taking him prisoner, she has beaten him at his own game and usurped the position that he so casually takes for granted. Ra’s thought that he would imprison her in his lair “for her own good” to keep her from warring with Batman. In a brilliant turn, all of Ra’s guards turned on him and show their loyalty to Talia’s reign as her new alter ego/ cult movement Leviathan.  As Ra’s begins to realize that his lair and men have been compromised Talia states, “Underestimating me is a common and fatal error.” As Talia displays her dominance and bests her father through this power play, Ra’s states that he is proud of her for the first time in her life and that he is afraid for the Dark Knight. Talia has become a pivotal character in the Bat-Family titles. Not because she is Batman’s former lover, or the mother of his child, or even because she’s one of the most alluring female comic book characters in existence but because she is a force to be reckoned with.

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Nathan J. Harmon is a graduate of Missouri State University and teaches English in southwest Missouri

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