Monday, October 20, 2008

Batman: #672-674

Until a few days ago, I looked at Morrison’s Batman run as one of the weakest things he’d ever done, a series of workmanlike stories that while entertaining enough in their own right, didn’t do anything particularly interesting with the character. Even the JH Williams arc, while really good, doesn’t hit me in the way the best Morrison did. That all changed with the three part arc that resolves the three Batmen mystery, and sets the stage for Batman RIP.

Let me start off by writing about the art here. Before reading these issues, I saw Tony Daniel get torn apart, people considered his art a travesty next to Morrison’s great writing. Now, I don’t love his art, but I don’t think it’s terrible either. I find it pretty close to what Kubert was doing in the first volume. I’d have loved to see someone like Chris Weston drawing the entire run, but because Kubert started things, I feel like this art style is what’s ‘real’ in the run. JH Williams is obviously far superior, but he also takes me out of the reality of the story a bit, like if Wong Kar-Wai or Terence Malick all of a sudden came in to direct an episode of Buffy. It would be awesome, but it would also be jarringly different from what had come before. The ‘Club of Heroes’ stuff does come back in interesting ways later on, but I feel like the run flows a lot better if you just read the Kubert/Daniels issues, excluding the Ra’s Al Ghul issues.

So, I’m not thrilled with the art, but I think it’s sometimes good to have Morrison’s craziest stories grounded in ‘regular’ comic book art. Much like Chazz Truog on Animal Man, the utter banality of the art makes the strange things stand out more. What is Batmite doing in this gritty Batman world? I think Daniel’s art here works better than someone like Ashley Wood’s would.

Anyway, on to the story itself. Things open up with a catchup on the Bruce/Jezebel Jet relationship. The early days of the run were about Batman rediscovering Bruce Wayne, and this scene is a perfect example of the more Bond than Bond persona Morrison’s given him. Bruce is trying to do it all, be an international playboy and be Batman, and that dichotomy of roles is going to contribute to his breakdown. I love him and Jezebel soaring out of the Batsignal-illuminated hot air balloon. You’re thinking, would Bruce really abandon the role of Batman at this moment, only to realize that he’s one step ahead and is already working on this scheme about being lost in the alleys.

The Batman heart attack is where things start to go insane. Crucified on the bat signal, he starts to hallucinate, seeing a weird purple masked creature and the words Zur En Arrh in neon green. I’m still not through RIP, so I’m not sure what this stuff is all about, but it’s really alien and disturbing. That purple mask guy in particular looks on the surface so cheesy, but I don’t know, there’s something unnerving about him, tapping into something deep in my subconscious. It all culminates in the sudden appearance of Batmite.

This leads to Batman #673, easily the high point of Morrison’s Batman run so far, one of the best things he’s written in a long time. I suppose what happens is Bruce suffers a heart attack, and for four minutes, he hovers between life and death, flashing back to his Thogal Ritual in Nanda Parbat, to a sensory deprivation experiment he took part in years ago, and also to his early days as Batman, when he went after the man who killed his parents. It has a lot of echoes of the issues of The Invisibles where characters merged with Barbelith and were initiated into the cosmic mystery. Batmite plays the same role that the death gods did with Fanny during “Sheman,” and the structure here resembles the jumps through time King Mob took in “Entropy in the UK.” Either way, I love the structure of the issue and the way it mirrors the fractured mind of Bruce/Batman. In one issue, Morrison totally turned my feelings about the run around.

As he often does during an extended run on a corporate superhero property, Morrison is carving out his own definition of who Batman is and what’s central to the character. The ostensible concept of the run is that everything that’s happened to Batman over his seventy years of publication happened to the same guy. So, the crazy 50s stories happened to the same guy who was in Batman: Year One. For Morrison, the problem Batman faces is trying to integrate all that’s happened to him into a coherent identity. As such, he focuses on a few significant events, the Joe Chill attack, the isolation experiment, and his own Nanda Parbat addition to the mythology. As he lays dying, Bruce flashes through his whole life and experiences the contradiction, “Flashing lights and intimations of mortality are normal. All of this is normal. This is my life now. I’m Batman.”

I like the notion that Batman’s hard boiled voiceover narrations are just an affectation, put on to entertain Alfred. Morrison also raises the notion that all the Batman comics we read are based on these accounts Bruce writes down in his notebooks. “No one’s ever really done what I’m doing before. It might never happen again. It’s important to keep a record.” Those lines feel weird for me. They give the events of the comic a reality that you don’t usually feel. This arc is largely about Bruce confronting how strange and singular his life is. In such an ever changing world, it’s his record of events that creates his self image, if he doesn’t keep track of that, he’ll get lost in whatever he’s doing at the moment.

The juxtaposition of Batman’s monologue with Joe Chill’s frightened discussion of class warfare and what he’s done to survive makes the initial menace of Batman a bit clearer. Because we’re so used to the character, and all the people in the DCU know him, there’s no sense of the bat suit as something scary to criminals. Once the criminals are dressed up too, the fear is gone. But, in these scenes, you get the sense of how scary a guy dressed as a bat could be. He’s this ultra-efficient assassin who can do anything, and he’s also totally insane. The image of Batman falling into the darkness, a trail of laughter behind him says it all.

Morrison’s use of the 50s isolation experiment story as an insight into Batman’s psyche reminds me a bit of what Alan Moore did in Miracleman, using the raw symbols of the story to delve into the psyche of the characters. Having read a bunch of Silver Age stuff, it is full of emotional turmoil and repressed desires, and I can see why Morrison would use it as an example of Batman’s unstable mental state. I just wish those stories were more readily available so I could get the necessary background for this run.

I love the concept of sensory deprivation chambers in general, and the way Morrison manages to tie it into the Nanda Parbat thing from 52. Batman went under to experience insanity, “I wanted a glimpse of how the Joker’s mind worked.” As we see in the next couple of issues, Batman has an obsession with defeating criminals, with finding out how they think and getting one step ahead of them. In the context of this story, he’s cleaned up the streets of Gotham and has no major foes to match up with. So, he’s forced to delve inside and confront his own psychological troubles. The question arises, if he’s willing to go so far into the criminal psyche, doesn’t touching evil become an addiction of its own? Can he ever go back to a normal life?

The next issue brings some answers about what’s been going on. The three Batmen were trained by Gotham PD as potential replacements should Batman ever die. This is juxtaposed with scenes of Bruce giving up the Batman identity out of fear that he’d hurt Robin. It’s motivated by his blackouts after the sensory deprivation experiment. But, Batmite claims that Batman’s fear was hidden by some larger menace, possibly this Doctor Hurt. The question that arises is what exactly Batmite is. Is he a 4-D being, as in The Invisibles’ aliens, guiding Bruce in the right direction, or is he an expression of Bruce’s own insanity, a paranoia that may have caused him to invent his own ultimate enemy to battle.

The entire arc is designed to lay the groundwork for RIP, and as such, the last issue is mainly about setting up Batman’s paranoid mindset. He understands now that the three Batmen he’s faced were created by the Gotham police force, but he was led to believe that they were ghosts from his isolation experience. So, he now suspects that there’s secrets hidden in his head, a force that’s controlling him. Batman speaks about how “Every day I run through a thousand different scenarios,” endlessly trying to perfect his attack on crime. And, now he imagines that there’s someone out there who’s his equal, the Black Glove, this group that’s always one step ahead of him. The Black Glove doesn’t even need to exist, it is evidence of Bruce’s psychosis, of the endless striving for something he’ll never actually achieve.

More on this when I write up RIP. I’ve read the first couple of issues, and have the other three that have been released so far. Once I wrap those, I’ll write them up, and then count the days until the last issue comes out. This week is also notable because we’ve got the next issue of Final Crisis, and Grant’s Final Crisis: Submit. The massive delays on the series have hurt its momentum, but I’m still eager to see what happens next.

As for Morrison’s Batman, this arc changed it all for me. After reading #673, I wanted to go on my own sensory deprivation experiment in Nanda Parbat, to tear down my own identity and rebuild it into something different. The issue has stuck in my head and influenced my thoughts ever since I’ve read it. It has a lot of motifs and concepts I really like, but even beyond that, there’s something so psychologically affecting about the story Morrison’s telling. I want to experience the same strange world that Batman has faced in these issues, to confront my own Black Glove. This is what it felt like when I read The Invisibles the first time, this desire to become a part of the story world. Is there a hypersigil at work in the pages of Batman. Seems to me like there is, and it’s working.


Anonymous said...

I thought this was a fantastic arc for many of the reasons you touched on. I had resisted this run until these issues, but they retroactively make the whole run much better. As you point out in your other reviews, month-to-month this run had been very disjointed but this arc finally brings all the stories together. Unfortunately, 675 follows it up with some BAD fill-in art. RIP I am really struggling to enjoy, but so far has just been a few great ideas surrounded by events that are so obtuse as to be near unintelligble (although possibly deliberately so according to Dr. Hurt?) And it certainly is not helped by Daniel's seeming regression in panel-to-panel storytelling which makes some sequences almost impossible to follow. Here's hoping the final issue does for RIP what this arc did for the rest of the run.

Patrick said...

I've got to disagree with you on RIP. As you probably saw from my posts about it, I really enjoyed the storyline. It's definitely challenging, and I think there's a lot of skipping on a linear narrative level, but emotionally, I totally followed it.

I couldn't tell you exactly what happens at a lot of points in RIP, how Batman becomes homeless, how much of a heroin addict he is, all that. But, that seems to be the way it is in a lot of recent Morrison work. He's cutting all the fat off, to the point that some of the narrative mechanics go as well, and we're left with stories that are all about narrowly targeting concepts and character moments. That's what Final Crisis is, and it's what RIP is.

And, I'm eager to see how things turn up in that final issue. I think he'll be able to make sense of some of the craziness that's gone before, and if nothing else, it should be a pretty awesome action scene if Damian and the Club of Heroes come in to help out Bruce.