Sep 14, 2016

He Gets It Now: Ten Year Anniversary of Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic

He Gets It Now:
Ten Year Anniversary of Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic
Travis Hedge Coke


“I can tell you exactly where Batman is. Batman is everywhere.” 
“A myth where Ultimate Evil turns its gaze on humanity and humanity gazes right back and says… Gotcha.”

Ten years ago (give or take a couple months), the first issue was released, of what became an epic story of Batman by Grant Morrison and many, many divers hands. Serialized, in several titles, over quite a few years, every time it seemed near a culmination, it surged forward, not so much recreated as reiterated, restated. We were looking at facets of the same jewel, sometimes under new light, from a new angle, or, sometimes, simply with new appreciation.

Morrison deliberately tried to let Batman and Batman comics shine with the best roles, the best characters in entertainment, the best tales out there. He compares him, within the comics, to Hamlet, to Willie Loman. I love the references to old Batman comics, but also the shoutouts to Buddhist parables and Greek myths, to Modernist literature and magical realist games of the early 20th Century. Batman came on the heels of Modernism, in a very Modernist city, an unintentionally Modernist first comics story, even. It’s only fair that we get a lighthouse and a Dedalus in. That Borges, that Stendhal are thrown in the game of Batman. The game of Gotham and the bat-world.

He, and the artists he worked with, the pencilers, inkers, colorists, co-plotters, letterers, and other collaborators, they were trying to make something to stay in print, something to be reread and shared. If Morrison’s epic does not convince you that Batman is important, at least, maybe, it will make it more agreeable to believe that Batman can be important.

Classes are starting, and I’m swamped with work, but I don’t care. This is important! It could be important! This is Batman! This is Grant Morrison! This is… okeh, to be honest, this is fun and that’s that. Rereading this is, for me, a vacation. Halfway through it will feel like pulling out my own tooth, but it’ll start fun, and two weeks after release, I’ll like it again.

I know why people move to Gotham. I know why people take vacation there. And, that’s not even taking into consideration that, statistically, there probably is less crime in Gotham than in real life New York City, and that, for me, naturally, it isn’t even real life. The Joker can’t hurt me. Penguin can’t cheat me. Hurt probably could get in my head, but Batman won’t let him.

Vehicles

“Mother. I want a batmobile.”

The first thing I noticed, this time around, is just how much vehicles get shown off, and certain unusual types keep returning. There are helicopters all over the section serialized in Batman from issue #655 to 683 (or Batman and Son to Batman RIP), always with villains. When we meet the Club of Heroes, aka the Batmen of Many Nations, they almost all have special planes. Batman has a rocket. He and Talia both have submarines. There are upwards of five different batmobiles showcased over the entire story. Tank batmobile, sportscar batmobile, flying…



When I was a kid, there was never any chance I was going to have a complete set of any action figure line, even if there were only eight figures, there’d be one we couldn’t afford or couldn’t find. And, vehicles? Vehicles that your toys could actually get in, or straddle a seat on? I had a couple Cobra vehicles from one birthday party, and my brother and I had the same Star Wars speeder bike and Stormtrooper set, each, from one post-Christmas sale.

So, I have, somewhere in my head, a very immature fascination with high concept, weaponized, tricked out adventure vehicles. And, this bat-epic pays out big.

Some of Morrison’s earliest comics work was in toy tie-in comics, and it’s easy to get caught up in the mystique he sells and forget that he is one of the most commercially-minded successful writers in comics. Or, at least, he’s one of the best at being commercially-minded. Batman, already, is toyetic as all get out; bat-stuff makes for good toys. But, Morrison ups the game and really does make a toy display out of Batman, out of Gotham and this world. These are showpieces and toys. The batplane! The whirlybat! The Leviathan!

Playsets

“Who but the daughter of the ultimate international criminal would have her own secret lair in London’s Sewers?”

The Leviathan is huge, for me, because it isn’t just a vehicle, it’s a vehicle that’s also a playset. The best of two worlds! A massive ship that is also the enemy base, that is also a submarine of death, plunging below into the deep ocean depths! There are secret rooms! Traps! Command center! This is good stuff!

Morrison has always been fond of using place to establish character. If we see a character’s apartment or office cubicle, it probably reveals a lot about them, and suggests even more. Yanick Paquette redrew a couple pages for a recent collection of the Batman Incorporated chapters of this epic, in which El Gaucho’s version of a batcave is revealed, because the previous work by a pinch-hitting artist of this magnificent garage and rec room wasn’t fleshed out as well as it could be. It had all the right pieces, but no flair. It lacked personality.



Under Morrison, stately and familiar Wayne Manor became big and strange again, as he brought in additions of earlier bat-authors, from the elevator to the batcave to the subway system running away from the manor and the row of patriarch portraits down a long hall, but also added in hidden rooms, boobytraps, and deliberately uncompleted plans that, when factored altogether, create a batsignal through time.

As with vehicles, everyone worth anything has cool bases here. Places become palpable and exciting. Abandoned mines, repurposed theaters, underground lairs on the London docks, caves, shrines, hidden cities! Space stations! “Time’s last chance saloon” at the edge of eternity! Horrible, crime-ridden abandoned theme parks that they can’t seem to get demolished.

The kid inside me, who never got these playsets, is seriously thrilled by this. And, the adult who can see how each place echoes characters, reaffirms themes, reveals interests, habits, and fears, is equally rewarded.

Cycles

“I watch him go through cycles.”

Dick Grayson stands clutching Batman's cape and cowl, fearing him lost forever to an ocean. On other waters, some time before, Batman stood clutching his son’s cape and cowl, fearing him lost forever. They’re both wrong. This cowl-clutching returns a few other times, spaced out enough it never feels repetitious, but the repetition is deliberate. And, each time builds on the last and strengthens those earlier occurrences.



Morrison knows there is strength in repetition.

There’s a secret origin to Talia’s secret London lair, unveiled in issues far apart from one another, only coming together if one reads it all close together or has an astonishingly good memory. She has a lair in London she got for a birthday present. Then Dr Hurt goes to London, with a tophat and bloodlust, in time to probably be Jack the Ripper. And, then, even later, we learn the lair once belonged to a “devil doctor” from that same era as Hurt’s visit. Now, the Limehouse devil doctor is, most generally, a reference to Fu Manchu, but there isn’t a Fu Manchu in Batman, in the DC Universe. There is, however, as we’ve seen, Hurt, a literal devil doctor. And there the gears lock together and make a new picture for us.

Morrison has been commercializing this technique since, at least, the opening “so we begin again” in The Invisibles, that has been inviting and encouraging rereads of that comic since day one. He really ups it with his bat-epic, working wheels within wheels, worlds within worlds. Under Morrison, certain motifs become touchstones, or perhaps pylons embedded in a sheer cliff, to which we can cling securely if things seem to perilous. It is too his credit, too, that things can seem perilous.

There is something amazing in RIP’s ability to get otherwise jaded comics fans worried that Bruce could be insane, or evil, that Alfred could be a criminal imposter, that Dr Thomas Wayne and his wife might have been drug fiend satanists. RIP ends without really explaining much of anything, which to many has and does feel like a cliffside in a storm. Falling into a lack of answers is as frightening to some bat-readers as it is to Batman, himself. And, so, the pylons are embedded for us. “Batman and Robin will never die!” is a flash forward that opens RIP. From moment one, we are reassured, even if we forget we were reassured, and this scene returns in the opening arc of Batman and Robin, and later on, at the end of Morrison’s run on that title, with Dick Grayson, having taken on the identity of Batman, telling his Robin, Bruce’s son, Damian Wayne, “Batman and Robin will never die.”

The last chapter of RIP features a quote from the I Ching, but there’s also a character in this run named I Ching, who quotes from the same. So it a quote from I Ching the book or I Ching, the man, quoting the book?

In the epic, we see Bruce, as Batman, of course, but also his father wore a bat-costume, before him, and his adopted son, Dick Grayson will be Batman in the run for over a year, realtime. Damian, his biological son, is Batman in a distant future they all hope to avoid. Another former Robin is alluded to having made a go at being a new Batman, even though the story itself happened in someone else’s comics (Battle for the Cowl). And, of course, there are two Batwomans, three Batgirls (two former, one current), multiple Robins (past and present), The Knight we are introduced to took over from his father, and he is honored, after his death, by his Squire taking on the role. There are something like six or seven iterations of the Joker are covered (the Thin White Duke of Death, the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker of “the satire years,” New Homicidal, et al). Batman franchises the bat-signal and bat brand. The original Batwoman dresses troops in a death’s head parody of her old costume.

All the way back to vehicles, we see repetition in the simple elegance of villains and helicopters all the way through, from beginning to end.

There are three roses representing Orion’s belt, rare Pennyworth Blue roses, a rose garden, a rose on the floor that opens up a la the gate in Revolutionary Girl Utena. A pirate ship called The Black Rose. Rose wreaths poisoned and provided by the Joker. Falling rose petals to show the last vestiges of love withering away into betrayal.

We see the infamous dead man’s hand laid out in playing cards twice, in completely different eras. Batman, Doctor Hurt, and Talia descend the stairs to the batcave in remarkably similar fashion. Putting Batman in boxes, physical and metaphorical becomes a special pastime of villains. Talia spends the last couple years worth of this lengthy run playing up recurring motifs in Batman comics, in Batman’s life, that she assumes he must enjoy, and perhaps enjoys more than he likes her.

These lists can start to look stilted and heavy here, abstracted from over fifty individual issues. This is the problem with pulling this stuff out for the autopsy. Autopsied organs don’t beat with life and move the body around the way they can if you leave them inside a living form.

The murderer of Batman’s parents lost his own boy. Batman inadvertently saves his ancestor from committing suicide and simultaneously introduces him to the woman who will become his wife. Dick’s parents are dead. Bruce’s parents, dead. Ra’s is dead and then not. The Heretic murders Damian. Damian kills and then swears off killing, but breaks the oath to save lives. Heretic is murdered by his own mother. Batman unable to make a killing stroke, Talia is taken off the board by Kathy and a golden gun.

More than the “red and black” theme that plays out over more than a dozen issues, or the chess motif, the dominos game and allusions, the cycles of proteges and masters, the echoes of lineages and basic “Batman appropriate” storylines, Bruce Wayne dying becomes a connective tissue to everything, that is still somehow both underscored and quietly played.

Death

“The dark ain’t so bad when you learn how to make friends with it.”

It is often a point of superiority with certain fans, to scoff at those who say Batman died in RIP or died in Final Crisis. Hahaha. He didn’t die.

Ah, but he did die just before RIP. He has a heart attack and experiences clinical death immediately before, a fact alluded to by Robin in the first chapter of RIP. And, he experienced death, metaphorically, and perhaps religiously, going through a specialized buddhist ritual, prior to that, in which he experiences flashbacks and flash forwards in time, with remarkable accuracy. Then, too, he goes through a series of bizarre, fantastical deaths in a comic not written by Morrison, but folded into his epic after the fact, during the period he is experiencing “the death that is life,” the omega sanction, in this bat-epic. Bruce is shot, beaten, poisoned, and set on fire in The Return of Bruce Wayne, resurrected the next issue, in which he also is killed so fundamentally that the universe, itself, acknowledges his death, only for Superman, Wonder Woman, and a former Robin to resuscitate him.

Grant Morrison has said, in interviews, that “Batman fights death.” And, to be massively reductive: that is this epic story. It is Batman over Death, Batman beside Death, Batman as friend with and constant critic to Death. BatJesus who, at the end of all time and history, racing to save the universe, takes time to lament the passing of a woman he barely knew, murdered by police in the 17th Century.

The bat-epic at hand begins with Joker killing a Batman and crowing about it. His declaration was premature, however, and that Batman shoots Joker in the face, then does die. The “real” Batman is, of course, alive. And, the Joker continues to live. But, there is, by the final issues of Batman Incorporated, a serious chance that Batman dies every time he goes out at night. As valid as the pop psych assertion that Bruce died as a child and Batman is something else is the notion that Bruce lives every day because he has Batman in him. Batman is a saving angel he made up for himself and all the rest of us. Batman can survive, and at this point mostly has survived everything. Anything.



But, Batman knows death on a basic level. He would if he is, in fact, an eidolon. A haunting, visiting shade from beyond the grave. But, he’d know it to, just being a perceptive adult who has seen his parents go too early, too violently, and many a friend and occasionally an enemy fall seemingly forever, while other people get to bounce back from anything. Batman has a respect for death that is further entrenched, more palpable than anything comparable from most superheroes.

Throughout the epic, we have a variety of immortals, of kinds of immortality, from Vandal Savage, a caveman seemingly cursed by gods who became a pirate, a general, and eventually a supervillain. Dr Hurt, aka Thomas Wayne, a man eaten from the inside out by a devil he thought he consumed, living decadent and self-flagellating lives of crime and cruelty. Ra’s al Ghul, possessing lazarus pits, submerged in which he can return to life, also escapes having no body to return to in the middle of Morrison’s epic. Ra’s’ grandson, the son of Bruce Wayne, is a genetically and surgically modified wonder whose spine can be replaced, whose wounds can be stitched, and who can always be replaced by a clone or a brother. The Batman, who as an identity and not a man, can never die, but also as a most famous creature of entertainment possesses a special immortality. Bruce, himself, receives injections of the miraculous fluid of the lazarus pits.

Batman knows death is unfair. That death is inexplicable. Death is weird. And, death is lonely.

Batman, in this epic, is keenly conscious at all times how much death can make both sides feel or seem forgotten. He memorializes the fallen with fetishes, gravemarkers, journals, commemorative displays, and with his everyday actions. He tries to honor and to remember those who have passed on. And, he knows, too, what it felt like to have his parents go irrevocably away at a young age, to feel abandoned, cut off and blocked out. Lost down a well, sent away to school, alone in a cave, to be on his knees in blood-stained gravel beside two corpses who once loved him.


Emptiness

“One of man’s primitive fears is loneliness.”

Just prior to the beginning of the epic, Batman has undergone a seven-week isolated meditation on death in a cave, in the dark. Just prior to the beginning of this epic, Batman has undergone an isolated meditation on death in a dark cave since the creation of the batcave. He discovers in this ritual a hole or a scar in his spirit, a lesion in his thoughts, a hole in his heart. Apropos for a man who saw his parents shot down, Batman has a bulletwound in his soul. A cave he can’t ever fill. A well he won’t stop falling down. A big, lonely house just outside town. The Dzogchen ritual he undergoes is, like the wholly fictional ceremony wherein his soul is carved up by ten-eyed tribesmen who tattoo eyes on their seeing fingers, is a smaller recapitulation of the time in loneliness that is at the sad, brave center of Morrison’s Batman.



Batman does not just sit in the Batcave and sulk. He fills the cave. He puts treasures, toys, memorials in there. He sets up track lighting and a garage. There is a staircase, an elevator, two bat-poles to slide down, access by subterranean river, by other caves, by an abandoned underground railroad path, by a secret subway train system. For a hidden place, Batman makes sure people can get there if they need to. Like he wants visitors.

In many stories, including the ones that make up this epic, Batman feels lonely, he feels a great emptiness. But, it is really more received wisdom and comedy memes to post on Tumblr that Batman’s entire life is taken up by feeling lonely, abandoned, and “Waaaah! My parents are dead!” There has never been a serial Batman with no friends, no allies, no people and no stuff. Batman is a billionaire. He’s a superhero. He’s been a father or father figure since the 1940s.

The first truth of Batman, we are told at the end of Return of Bruce Wayne, is that - appearances and received wisdom aside, he was never alone.

This is true for everyone, honestly. None of us make it alone. The totally self-made man, the myth of the self-made man is solely that. A myth. Pernicious myth. But, to be lonely is not to be alone. To be empty, to feel emptiness, is not the same as having nothing or there being nothing. This is the silly nihilism of cranky teenagers, for when your lover has packed their bags and moved on and you’re still standing there frozen. It is transitional.

Crime

“I trade in drugs, weapons, human lives, mind control - and I already rule the world.”
“I intend to beat the devil… for all of us.” 
“But it’s only a hole.”

Loneliness is probably the first crime Batman fights. His first story is him chatting with a friend, after all. Bruce Wayne and James Gordon, shooting the breeze.

Crime, when Batman says he’s fighting crime, is not to be understood as a set of things explicitly punishable by law or prosecutable by the state. Batman sees Catwoman break into places and steal all the time, and mostly, as long as she returns the items taken or loses hold of them, he looks the other way while she escapes. We see him do this in Batman Inc, as we see him also ignore the crimes of various superheroes, the world over, and the illegal drug use and other violations of actual law by singer, Lumina Lux. Batman tolerates certain neighborhood dealers and pimps. He is, in this epic, notably kind and understanding of prostitutes, getting one young girl out of that market and into a job as a receptionist for one of his buildings, but he doesn’t preach to the other hookers. He doesn’t bust them, either. But, when the police are sacrificing prostitutes to a murderous, rapist cop gone bad on drugs and fantasies of being Batman, our hero does bust the cops’ heads and he does shake down the pimp for information, while, again, being civil to the prostitutes.

Some of this folds into the unavoidable fact that canon comics Batman, main universe Batman, however you want to say it, is a man who deals with women differently than he does men. Batman cannot really grasp women as fully human, fully autonomous people, and especially not as horrible criminals. Criminals are men. Criminals are Joe Chill or a nameless dude with a gun mugging families. He’s not only far easier on Catwoman and Talia than he would be any male career thief or lifelong terrorist who deals in slaves and chemical weapons, he’s often unable to see when he is being played by women, manipulated into harm’s way, until it’s too late or nearly so. He really did fall for Jezebel Jet, for a moment there, and he does miss her when it’s over. Maybe it’s because Marsha Lamarr is dressing up like his mother, but Bruce can’t see her lead him around by the nose until she’s poisoned him, hit him with a shovel, and lights him on fire. Annie’s a killer and a witch (and a thief), and of course Batman falls for her.

Morrison regularly reminds us that Batman does not care much about actual law, nor about police or government as stations or authorities. He’s down on crooked cops continuously. He helps Gordon nail a criminal mayor. Engages in violent and “criminal” behavior in many countries all over the world. He deputizes Commissioner Gordon as a kind of Batman, part of Batman Inc, the team and brand.

What Batman really fights is people being hurt. He, paraphrasing his journal entry from the epic, prevents people from being hurt by getting into fights on their behalf. He hits people who are trying to hit other people, to put it simplest and nicest. But, he does not just fight this kind of crime by punching or kicking. He adopts kids. He redirects lives fallen on hard times. He takes money out of the batmobile dash and gives it over to a homeless guy who just almost got hit by a road-ragey villain. The epic introduces Batman Inc, a venture of establishing the bat-brand and protection worldwide, but it also reintroduces Victims Inc, an earlier ill-named attempt by Bruce Wayne and his corporation to protect and care for the victims of crimes.

This is why Batman, violating this, brings him his lowest. Jezebel Jet suggesting he’s wasting his fortune on toys and playsets when he could be funding humanitarian aid and food drives. Talia making it all seem childish and petty. Talia creating a child army to mock his Robins and tagalongs. Batman is virtually traumatized by Hurt faking trash about his dead parents, even though he knows it is untrue, Alfred reassures him it’s untrue. It’s besmirched their memory. He failed to protect the memory.

And, Batman brutalizes a kid and sends him to his mom to die.

That happens.

The Heretic is like nine feet tall and armored and pompous, but he’s also about five months old. He’s got a big round baby face to show it, too, once the mask is gone. An oversized, infantile, desperate child. And, Batman pounds the tar out of him. His kid, actually. His son. He electrifies him. He punches him. Kicks him. Humiliates him.

That isn’t Batman victorious. That’s Batman at his lowest. That is a Batman who lost. And, he lost two sons. One he knew, one he tried to educate and save, to care for, the other he did not know, was never close to, never invited in despite him having killed and being a pompous villain. Batman, traumatized and terrorized, grieving and exhausted, destroyed a kid who was already having a monumentally unpleasant life.

The Morrison epic ends in tragedy, but it’s tragedy with promise. With aspirations. Batman can succeed and Batman can fail, but ultimately there will be another chance, there will be another Wednesday release of new issues, another movie, another new trade or oneshot special. There’s going to be more Batman. And, in the world of Batman, there are always more victories than losses.

1 comment:

Tony Laplume said...

Thanks for the extended thoughts on a well-thought-out run.

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