(Metagame Archive) Voices from the Past: The Demon’s Head

By Ben Kalman

With Batman Begins making huge waves in the theaters, I figured that now would be a good time to take a little break from the Green Lantern mythos and veer into the Batman mythos. Batman has been done to death, but the movie specifically dealt with another classic figure from the Batman mythos: Ra’s al Ghul. While the movie changed a few minor details for the sake of plot continuity, Ra’s is still one of the most interesting villains to pop up in DC in the last few decades.

So, here is a brief history of Ra’s al Ghul and his family.


Ra’s al Ghul, The Demon’s Head

“From death comes life. This is the way of the Demon’s Head.”

In June 1971, history was made when Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, who had previously teamed up on the superb Green Lantern/Green Arrow story arc, entered the mix in Batman #232 with a story called “Daughter of the Demon.” Ra’s al Ghul had kidnapped Dick Grayson (Robin) and his own daughter and enlisted Batman’s aid to help him “rescue” them. This was all a staged test to ensure that Batman was worthy of the task Ra’s had set out for him—to help Ra’s eradicate the human race and use the survivors to rebuild an environmentally pure Eden. Ra’s would eventually tell Batman of his plans and reveal his secrets of immortality—using a Lazarus Pit or a pool of chemicals which, when properly leveled and balanced, can heal and restore youth and strength to human beings, even to the point of awakening the dead. In the game, this is represented by preventing a character from being KO’d, circumventing the rules of the game to keep a stunned character “immortal.” The card also KO’s to recover a character, reflecting that a Lazarus Pit can only be used once for rejuvenation or resurrection.      

But Ra’s al Ghul’s history goes much further back than his encounters with Batman in the 1970s. Instead, we must look back centuries in time, over the endless generations that Ra’s al Ghul has lived through via his frequent baths in various Lazarus Pits.

Born several hundred years earlier, Ra’s was a member of a nomadic tribe in Arabia. He fell in love with science and moved to a city to gain knowledge and truth through scientific theorem and experimentation. He became a physician and married a woman named Sora, whom he loved more than life itself.

While working on ways to increase life expectancy and perhaps even conquer death itself, the local Sultan called upon him to restore his dead son to life. The brilliant physician went on a foray into the desert to seek out some answers and perhaps gain some hidden insight or divine inspiration. He stumbled across what he would term Lazarus Pits after the biblical character Jesus resurrected four days after death in the Gospel of John.

He summoned the Sultan, and they bathed the Sultan’s son in the pit. But the Lazarus Pit was also a Pit of Madness. A side effect of the resurrection or restoration is that you are driven temporarily insane by the process, which also happens to heighten your strength and endurance. The Pit of Madness card reflects this attribute by increasing a character’s resilience through his or her fallen comrades. The Sultan’s son, who already had a track record of sadism and violence, fell to the madness. In a fit of lust-driven violence, he strangled Sora to death. The Sultan, refusing to admit or even believe that his son was capable of such a heinous act, accused the physician of being responsible and sentenced him to death. The physician was rescued by a friend whose life he had saved previously, and he later had his revenge by sending the Sultan’s son gifts that were contaminated with a deadly virus. When the Sultan begged him to cure his son, he instead killed the prince and the Sultan, and then led his nomadic tribesmen into the city and razed it to the ground. Legend has it that in the center of the village was the statue of a demon that was worshipped by the townspeople. The physician shattered the statue and kept The Demon’s Head, earning the worship of his tribesmen and the name “Ra’s al Ghul,” which in Arabic translates as “The Demon’s Head.”

Ra’s spent the next several centuries secretly amassing a vast empire of wealth, power, and knowledge*. He frequently bathed in the Lazarus Pits to keep himself young and vigorous, and this may have driven him to insanity (or at least to mental instability). He trained in swordsmanship and fencing and kept a cadre of fierce tribal warriors beside him. The best became his bodyguard, Ubu. Every servant that rose to the position of Ra’s bodyguard would be christened Ubu, a fact that remained unchanged over the centuries and remains to this day. He also gradually became disenchanted with humanity; already having developed a distaste for aristocracy after his dealings with the Sultan, the waste and pollution spawned from the rise of industry and the overpopulation throughout the metropolitan world started to gnaw on him. Ra’s began to dream of a world where humanity basked in the glory of their environment rather than exploiting it for their own ends. For this dream did Ra’s begin to prepare, with the eventual goal of a worldwide, enforced social Darwinism. He would level the Earth and rebuild it from scratch, leaving humanity dead save for the few survivors who would band together and recreate Eden. He would Remake the World by culling the dead weight (or the dead cards, in game terms) and replacing it with a better, brighter path.
Daddy Demon

While traveling through Russia in the 18th century, Ra’s al Ghul unknowingly fathered his first child. His daughter, Nyssa, grew up to stories of his charm and prowess. Wanting to meet this man of power and mystery, she tracked him down in North Africa. So impressed was Ra’s with her strength of will, discipline, and resolve, he took it upon himself to train her, place her highly within his organization, and teach her his secrets, including that of the Lazarus Pit. She would master the Pits’ chemical makeup in order to make them reusable, which Ra’s had never been able to do.

Nyssa became Ra’s right hand, but as she gained in stature and became closer to her father, she grew more and more distant from both Ra’s and his ideas. She eventually severed ties with him in the late 1800s, which Ra’s allowed, assuming she would come back to him after some time on her own and that she or her children would become the heirs to his fortune and organization. No dice; she refused to acquiesce, and her family would all die in concentration camps during World War II. Nyssa would survive but be rendered infertile via experiments performed on her by colleagues of Dr. Joseph Mengele. Furthermore, she would vow to destroy Ra’s for refusing to help her and her family—help which he offered at the expense of returning to him with her family.

Ra’s did have a second daughter, Talia, Daughter of the Demon’s Head, conceived at Woodstock. She also grew into the position of Ra’s al Ghul’s right hand. He would train her as he did her older sister, and also teach her of the Lazarus Pits.

Talia was the first to meet Batman, and she fell in love with him. She would always refer to him as My Beloved, which is why the Gotham Knights/League of Assassins team-up card shares that name. This did not displease Ra’s, who not only discovered Batman’s true identity, but thought of him as a suitable heir. The Lazarus Pit treatments were growing less effective, and Batman (or “The Detective,” as Ra’s al Ghul referred to him) had the necessary level of strength, intelligence, background, and resources to fit nicely into al Ghul’s plans and organization.

Wishing Batman to be his future heir and son in law, Ra’s put him through the final test. He staged the kidnapping of his daughter and Dick Grayson (Robin) and enlisted Batman’s aid in “rescuing” them. After Batman’s success, al Ghul revealed all, including the Lazarus Pits and his plans to Remake the World. Batman, shocked, flat-out refused him. This was the first of many, many conflicts to come between Batman, World’s Greatest Detective and Ra’s al Ghul, Eternal Nemesis to Batman. Ra’s was shortly after unmasked as the leader of the secret League of Assassins**.
The Legacy of the Demon

 

Failing to nab Batman as his heir, Ra’s would later name Bane as heir instead. This act, and the possibility of a forced marriage between them, would be one of many pegs that drove a rift between Talia and her father. This rift led her to help Batman defeat Ra’s at every stop. Unfortunately, Bane couldn’t protect the Wheel of Plagues from Batman. Ra’s had found the ancient Wheel and used it to launch the Clench Virus on Gotham City. Batman defeated Bane and then destroyed the Wheel. Bane was a weak link and unfit as heir, so Ra’s dropped him like a bad habit. Bane’s revenge would be to help Batman destroy as many Lazarus Pits as they could find (they ended up totaling all but one).

When Ra’s had an affair with the Back Canary***, Talia began to drift further and further away. The final straw was during the Tower of Babel storyline. Batman had kept a file on his fellow Justice Leaguers that outlined the strengths and weaknesses of each of them and included plans and hypotheses for how to take them down in the event that any of them ever turned evil (particularly with the possessing powers of Agamemno in mind). Ra’s had Talia steal this file, and he used it to implement a plan to wipe out the Justice League. First, he removed the power of language from the world, turning all speech into gibberish (hence the name of the device, Tower of Babel, and its biblical reference), and then he led each Leaguer into a trap engineered specifically toward their individual weaknesses****. While Batman was able to help overcome Ra’s plans, he was thrown out of the Justice League as a result of his note-taking. It was perceived as a major betrayal of his friends and teammates.

Talia’s involvement finalized the split between her and her father. She left his side to live her own life, joining LexCorp as Lex Luthor’s replacement while he ran off and played President. No longer simply Talia Head, she was now Talia, LexCorp CEO. She would end up as Talia, agent of Nyssa, however.

Indeed, after years of fighting the Caped Crusader, it would be his own daughter who led Ra’s to one final defeat. Nyssa would concoct a revenge plan that she implemented by befriending Talia, kidnapping her, and killing her. She then resurrected Talia, only to repeat the process. Through the repeated cycle of deaths and rebirths, Talia’s will broke and she was brainwashed into being Nyssa’s loyal servant. Nyssa’s plan was to have Talia kill Ra’s while her lover, Misha, killed Superman. The former was for revenge on Ra’s, and the latter was for revenge on the world. Both were because of the betrayal she felt after losing her family to the camps.

She stole into the Batcave and swiped some Kryptonite to fashion bullets to fire on Superman. Misha was stopped, however, as Batman warned Supes of the impending attack. Meanwhile, Nyssa took Talia to kill daddy, and although he defeated Talia with ease, he pulled an Obi-Wan and allowed Nyssa to strike him dead, charging her with his dying words to take care of Talia. The tribe, or Ubus, declared Nyssa the new Ra’s al Ghul, and the sisters were united in the al Ghul cause—they would now be Nyssa and Talia Head.

While Talia was wounded with a fatal blow, she somehow survived; the next time Batman ran into her, he was her beloved***** no more. Instead, she coldly referred to him as “Detective.”

Talia and Nyssa are apparently fiercely loyal to one another and follow their father’s legacy, which includes being guarded by loyal-unto-death Ubus and leading the League of Assassins. Where this path will lead them is yet to be discovered.

Questions? Comments? Send them to Kergillian (at) Hotmail (dot) com.

* The reason the League’s power centers on locations is Ra’s al Ghul’s huge underground empire of resources. His resources are so vast that he can easily rebuild, replace, and search for whatever he needs to fulfill his goals. In the game, his and the League’s abilities reflect this.

** Batman had dealt with the League earlier, when its previous leader, Dr. Ebenezer Darrk, had kidnapped Talia to use as a hostage and bargaining chip with her father. This was how Talia met Batman, and she simultaneously learned his true identity.

*** He wanted to spawn another heir with her, and she didn’t know this (or even who he was). Although she spurned his advances when she discovered his identity, it was Ra’s who recovered her voice through one of his Pits.

**** The card has great flavor, as your non-League characters lose their team affiliations during your attack step. It works on two levels. On one, they lose their ability to communicate effectively, and on the other, they are split up and therefore cannot work together.

***** In the “Son of the Demon” story line, Batman and Talia actually married, and she became pregnant. She left him, fearing that she would end up responsible for his death through one of many assassination attempts on her. She claimed a miscarriage and had the child, who was left in an orphanage. This son, with the adopted name of Ibn al Xu’ffasch, has appeared in several alternate story lines (such as “Kingdom Come”) but does not exist in the regular continuity of the DC Universe.

Also known by his screen name Kergillian, Ben Kalman has been involved in the Vs. community since day one. He started the first major player in the online community, the Vs. Listserv, through Yahoo! Groups, and it now boasts well over 1,600 members! For more on the Yahoo! group, go to http://web.archive.org/web/20070425150457/http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Marvel_DC_TCG

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