Previously I discussed the short-lived, though fascinating career of the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Ragman. For several years after Crisis reshaped the DC Universe, Ragman was absent from comic book pages. Given his failure to ever gain much traction with fans, this was hardly surprising. However, in 1991 DC decided the time was right to revisit Rory Regan, handing the assignment to a pair of established writers: Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming. Together they would radically rework aspects of co-creators Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert’s original concept, broadening the scope of who Ragman is without losing Ragman’s essence as the avenger of the least fortunate.
In the 80s, Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming had collaborated on the satirical masterpiece, Ambush Bug, before Giffen would go on to revitalize the post-Crisis Justice League with J.M. DeMatteis. Ragman was a different type of project, however. While there were still occasional moments of humor, the tone was much more serious. Giffen and Fleming’s eight issue Ragman limited series kept many of the same elements of the original. Rory is still a Vietnam veteran, who returns to his father’s shop after the war. (Giffen and Fleming do make more of the lingering trauma from the war than Kanigher, who never seemed interested in Rory’s veteran status beyond a backstory detail). As before, Rory cannot help but be compassionate to those who come into the shop hoping to exchange their treasures for some quick money. Gerry still dies at the hands of criminals, in this case drug dealers who want to use his shop as a front for their trade. Gone, though, is the mattress of loot or power granting electrical wires. This time around, the powers are located in the Ragman suit itself. As the series progresses this choice proves to be its most significant departure.
One letter writer to the original series remarked on how interesting it was that Ragman had two Jewish leads (Rory and Bette), a conclusion the reader drew based on their names. The reply to this statement is that while Bette Berg is naturally Jewish, Rory Regan’s heritage is nothing but Irish. According to Kanigher “if Rory was Jewish, he’d have a Jewish name.” Well, that is exactly what Giffen and Fleming remedy. (As with Ambush Bug, Giffen is credited with the plot, while Fleming did the scripting). Rory learns that his father’s original name was Jerzy Reganiewicz, whose homeland was not Ireland, but Poland. Jerzy lived in the old Warsaw ghetto, where he protected his community as the Ragman. Giffen and Fleming reinvent the Ragman as more than a random costume Rory dons one evening, changing it into a mantle stretching back over the centuries. After their failure with the golem, the Jewish Elders of 16th Century Prague decided that their protector needed a human presence to ground it. Thus they created the Ragman. Jerzy was the Ragman when the Nazi’s stormed the ghetto in 1943. Jerzy’s failure to stop the slaughter broke him. Ragman disappeared and eventually Gerry Regan drifted into America. The name change was indicative of more than one way in which he wished to leave the past behind him.
Only the past never quite disappears. One of the interesting consequences of a living costume is that it creates a new dynamic within Rory. Not only does he now have this link to Jewish mysticism, but it forces him to confront dark inclinations within himself. The costume is more than simply alive, it consumes evil souls, adding them to its patchwork design. As a result, Rory is consistently struggling to retain the right balance between his actions and those of the suit. If he lets the costume’s criminal components take over, he finds himself killing recklessly where he should be sparing lives. The motif of mercy runs prominently throughout this series, as Rory grapples with his newfound responsibilities. At the same time, Rory is haunted by the question of whether is actions amount to anything significant. A conflict with Batman which dominates #8 is resolved not through fists but a show of the community standing up for its protector.
Giffen and Fleming do grant Ragman a supernatural foe in the form of golem who is tracking Ragman. The plot thread involves the idea that there is only enough magic to animate one of them, yet, again their clash is ultimately concluded through love, not violence. Golem aside, Giffen and Fleming stick to the type of street crime antagonists that populated the 70s series. One interesting addition is a real estate developer who having risen out of the slums, is determined to raze them, as if he could bulldoze away his own past. It is a great character sketch, though, the reader does wish that the writers had developed it a little bit further.
The one change that is the oddest is Bette Berg. No longer a newspaper reporter, she is a derelict who frequents the Rags ‘N’ Tatters. Her mind is a bit foggy, and Rory is never sure whether she is being delusional or not. Hints are dropped that she worked in connection to the Kennedy Administration. Did she burn out? Grow disillusioned? These are intriguing possibilities which are not pursued. She is also aged, made a contemporary of Gerry. In fact, it is implied that she carried a torch for the old shopkeeper. These moments in which she speaks tenderly of Gerry are sincerely affecting. Still, while her character is interesting, the reader is left wondering why it is Bette instead of someone new.
Giffen provided layouts for the series, which is clear from his fondness for the nine panel grid. The book is dominated by this design motif. However, the layout never feels monotonous. Part of the reason for this is how Giffen often alters the perspective within the panel, so that the visual flow is never static. In addition, for some of the action sequences, images spread across panels increasing their dynamic nature. Still, these smaller panels can serve as a reinforcement for the feelings of restriction which plague several characters. Giffen alternates this ambiance with the open-air of full pages splashes. The finished art is by Pat Broderick. Broderick conveys some of the energetic flair of the original series (it is hard not to with that costume) while also channeling the sketchier style of Giffen’s own pencils. The combination melds well, never coming off as cloying. Broderick updates the 70s aesthetic for the 90s without losing the sense of what made Ragman leap off the page in the first page. There are several striking images in this book, such as Jerzy/Ragman gazing down into the flaming streets of the Warsaw ghetto. The reader cannot see his face, yet the mood sufficiently conveys his sense of helplessness. Ragman’s face is always hidden, making it vital that the artist is able to communicate emotion through body language. Giffen and Broderick meet that challenge aptly.
While Ragman did not receive an upgrade to an ongoing series, he did receive a sequel as well as a few more team ups with Batman. While never booming in popularity, he did gain a higher level of visibility, including a place on the rooster of the magic-based team Shadowpact. The New 52 mostly ignored him (probably for the best), while Rebirth has yet to touch him. That may change if his character in Arrow connects with viewers. His blend of urban crime-fighting and supernatural abilities would be a good mix for the Arrowverse. Perhaps, Ragman’s 40TH Anniversary will finally be his breakout year.