Jun 4, 2018

Grant Morrison's Batman: The Other Reading List (Part 1 of 3)

“I wanted to force people to be on Wikipedia looking up obscure tales from Dzogchen Buddhism to understand stories.” - Grant Morrison (from an interview with Patrick Meaney, published in Cody Walker’s The Anatomy of Zur-En-Arrh)
So, Grant Morrison has said, more than once, that he enjoys inspiring people to researching philosophies, history, or outside texts, with references or allusions in his comics. Either he, or someone at Barbelith, was calling this “supertext” back in the early 2000s, in relation to both his “supercontext” from The Invisibles, which was the whole of everything, and subtext.

Yet, when we see reading lists for his Batman comics, of which he has written many, what we inevitably receive are lists of other Batman comics. No shame in that. There are some great Batman comics, but if Morrison is, as he did with Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and later with Professor Pyg, in his  Batman and Robin run, bringing in real, serious, clinical descriptions and defining factors of mental illness, how much more use is it going to be to go, next or beforehand, to Detective Comics #118, to look for a line of dialogue or a character’s third appearance, than to seek out a text on medical conditions that delineates obsessive compulsive disorder or coprophagia?

Get deep enough into superhero comics, and you know the “Pieta” pose is everywhere, a person cradling another in their arms, forlorn. But, the presence of paintings on walls, of sculptures in museums is seen as frivolous background, or gag presences, and rarely afforded a serious consideration as paratexts. Every chapter of Batman and Robin Must Die is named for a painting that appears in the comic. The paintings are visibly present in-world and they’re the titles of the chapters/issues that comprise the story.

At one point, while discussing real life Modernist writers, we get a supervillain named after the co-protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses (Stephen Dedalus), who is resigned to a lighthouse prison that evokes a particular Virginia Woolf novel of the same period and set. The leap isn’t too huge. We can make that jump and probably outdo it.

This is one of those lists. No comics. No other Batman. British plays. French novels. Buddhist parables and Chinese prognostication texts. A “reading” list that includes paintings, sculptures, and films. None of it necessary, none of it required for anything. It’s not even very seriously compiled. They’re in there, they’re interesting, and they might open back up the comics for you in new ways or throw a fresh coat of paint on the old bat signal. Or, they may seem like so much nonsense, and make the comics seem like even bigger pretentious gobbledygook.

Let’s go!

The Other Reading List
A List of Books, Sculptures, Plays, Etc, Relating to Grant Morrison’s Batman,
That Aren’t Old Batman Comics
Travis Hedge Coke


Hamlet

William Shakespeare. It’s a play. You had this in high school.


During Last Rites, the Batman mythos is mapped over the concern of Hamlet, who is, after all, a man-boy avenging his father’s death and attempting to make sense of a broken world. Beyond that, though, one can see the resemblance in Hamlet’s sexist, adolescent version of sexuality and dismissal of real women, the precarious position Batman has as a “playboy” who more often than not is disdainful and dismissive of the women he dates, never intending intimacy or sex with them, and simply needing adorning props for an evening’s affair. Women in Batman’s world are Hamlet’s devious mother and/or Ophelia, hit on, dismissed, and then tragically lost.

Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony


Alfred, Batman’s tenacious gentleman’s gentleman, reads Artemis Fowl novels, and so should you! A teenage master criminal with a bodyguard and a sister named butler, do crime and adventure things in a fantasy realm.

How can we, or Alfred, ever compare this to his life ironing the Batman’s socks and airing the batmobile tires when Grant Morrison isn’t looking?

Messe Noire

An anonymously-made French porn film, from 1928, Messe Noir (or, Black Mass, if you prefer the English, also the title of Morrison’s final Batman and Robin issue) is purportedly a real life satanic ritual, which it probably really is not, and to be a recording of the sort of multi-person live sex performances that were not uncommon in that era, in France, which probably rings more true. In whichever case, you’re seeing staged reality, and reality, staged.

And, the mise en scene, costuming, and other design elements, including the domino masks, resemble more than one scene in Morrison’s Batman comics, including Batman RIP and Batman Incorporated.

Population Density and Social Pathology

An article by John B Calhoun, of the National Institute of Mental Health (you’ll recognize this, more likely than not, as the NIMH in The Secret of NIMH), on his experiments with rodents, to model closed, and variably restricted communities and map those findings onto humans and human societies. Dr Calhoun gave us the term, “behavioral sink,” from these experiments, and some genuinely terrifying, enlightening, and sometimes blankly baffling discoveries as rat cities were flooded with food and water, deprived of essentials, and ratios of females and males were staggered.


And, so those cities, so Gotham. This is directly paralleled in the texts, particularly by Professor Pyg, an insane body-mutilating criminal, who also knows there are string-pullers and feed-shoot-controllers above us all.


Là-Bas

A beautifully quixotic Decadent novel, by Joris-Karl Huysman, seeking a chord melding the Romantic and Realist, or a Spiritual Naturalism, Là-Bas (aka, Down There or The Damned) is concerned with modern Satanism, the often solitary pursuit of noble and socially-uplifting arts, and how cities build and reify us without our awareness. It is and is not a roman a clef, with characters modeled on real life figures, and others implying they are, without being. A fictive tell-all, damning and examining what, ultimately, are unlikely to be reflective of real, actual concerns or instances.



The phrase comes into play during Batman RIP, shortly before its own black mass is performed, featuring real relatives of Bruce Wayne masquerading as other relatives, and levels of performative fictions and degrading lies, including that Wayne’s mother was a junkie, his father a sadist, and his actual father a con artist and thief pretending to be a consummate gentleman’s gentleman, Alfred Pennyworth.


Piss Christ

Andres Serrano’s Immersion (Piss Christ), a 40-by-60-inch glossy polyester print of a photograph of a small plastic crucifix submerged in the photographer’s own urine has been a mainstay of praise and scandal since its debut in 1987.


In Morrison’s Bat-epic, it appears in Batman & Son, in parody, as an inverted Godzilla submerged in a gigantic tank of yellowish fluid. A “Piss Godzilla.” As the original has been seen as an attack on Christ/Christianity, and, by Sister Wendy Beckett, as a metaphor for, “what we are doing to Christ,” I suppose Godzilla, as much a pop figure as Jesus or Batman, can be interpreted under similar conditions.


The Red and the Black

The original psychological novel, The Red and the Black, by Stendhal, gives Morrison what may his largest overarching patterning game during his lengthy Batman run. A social satire, the eponymous Red and Black apply to the secular and clerical tensions of the era and protagonist, as well as the colors of the roulette wheel and therefore of chance, but in most clear reality, is probably meant to be eternally open, a naked symbol that can represent, for different audiences at differing times, many meanings and resonances.


In the context of this Batman run, red and black are paired, repeatedly, to establish a pattern that Batman will, in his zeal to solve mysteries and resolve patterns, chase back up through its own self.

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