Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Batman and Son

Grant Morrison and Batman aren’t an obvious match. He wrote a fantastic version of the character for his run on JLA, but that was as part of a larger, crazier world than Batman usually encounters in his solo title. Reading the first trade of his run, it’s pretty clear this is a minor Morrison work, engaging in very little of his typical philosophical exploration. It’s the weakest thing he’s wrote in a while, or at least the least ambitious, but he did manage to bring a freshness and excitement to the Batman mythos. It’s a rollicking, very funny book, and does represent a kind of growth for Grant.

The thematic center of the series is Batman rediscovering Bruce Wayne, which takes the form of a performance. One of the central themes of superhero comics is the notion that putting on the costume allows the real person to come out. Batman Returns, the definitive superhero film, gives us Selina Kyle, mild mannered secretary, constantly struggling to please her boss. However, after she transforms into Catwoman, she becomes a hedonist pleasure seeker, feeding her own appetite for destruction and power. Wearing the costume allows her to engage in a part of herself that society doesn’t permit.

The interesting thing here is the reversal of that trope. Bruce has become so enmeshed in his Batman persona, he’s forgotten that Bruce Wayne can be a fun guy too. So, we get the emergence of this ultra-smooth playboy version of Bruce, dazzling the ladies at a party. It’s fun to watch as people fall for what we know to be a performance. Bruce has put on a new fiction suit, discarding grim and gritty Bruce Wayne for a Bond like character. That’s the thematic area where the series meshes most closely with Morrison’s previous work, the taking on and discarding of identities, this personal reinvention paralleling the evolution of the character over decades of comics.

Fittingly, the new foe menacing this Bruce Wayne is his illegitimate son, Damian. Damian is the breakout character from this book. Before he appeared, I was liking the series, but it hadn’t really hooked me. He kicked things up a notch, moving the series into a bizarre comic world. I love his ridiculously violent attempts to find a place in Bruce’s life, killing Robin and delivering the head of a villain being two of the most grievous. It’s so ridiculous, this little kid going around killing people, but it works as absurdist comedy and just straightforward drama. Is he an annoying character? Yes, but that’s the whole point. In Damian, Bruce sees a reflection of himself, and the old grim and gritty Batman is made into a parody.

The stuff with Bruce, Damian and Talia is all top notch. I really like the over the top selfishness of Talia, and her shameless attempts to use Bruce. However, the series slips a bit when dealing with other stories. The police Batman story is alright, but not that impressive, however I’m thinking that the three Batmen will play a crucial part in the series’ mythology moving forward. The apocalyptic Damian in the future story is reminiscent of “Here Comes Tomorrow,” an entertaining, but not quite cohesive dystopia.

The oddest story here is the Joker prose story. Morrison’s prose is very tactile and imagistic, but the cheesy computer illustrations let him down. I would have much rather seen Dave McKean come in to illustrate this. The story once again brings the notion of self reinvention to the fore, and it’s a quite entertaining vignette, but ultimately feels removed from the rest of the series.

My major problem with the run is the lack of substance next to Morrison’s other work. It’s not that he can’t do thematically substantial stuff on a mainstream title. His New X-Men is full of important themes and ideas, but that’s a series that’s a perfect vehicle for him. Evolution is at the center of Morrison’s worldview, but how do you fit that into a Batman comic? I think he does a great job of making a fresh, fun comic, but it’s clearly a minor work.

Even though I’m a bit frustrated that he’s spending his time on this book instead of something more substantial, I do admire the attempt to move beyond his usual concerns and write a new kind of book. He’s never done something this funny before, and the street level work is different from his usual cosmic focus. I’m eager to read more, particularly the JH Williams arc, but I wouldn’t be disappointed if this run ends at 20 issues and he moves on to creator owned stuff.

No comments: