Saturday, October 18, 2008

Batman: "The Club of Heroes" (#667-669)

There’s an ongoing debate in my mind over who’s the best comic book artist, Frank Quitely or JH Williams III. Reading something as great as All Star Superman or We3 makes me think that nobody could be better than Quitely. Then, I read Promethea or Seven Soldiers #1 and I find it hard to believe anyone could top Williams. But, it doesn’t have to be an either/or, they’re both amazing, and luckily, they’ve both done a lot of work with Grant Morrison lately. I’m still waiting for the previously mentioned Morrison/Williams creator owned series that’s likely still a ways off, but more recently, we got their three issue arc on Batman, a great story in its own right, but one that only adds to the fractured inconsistency of Morrison’s Batman run on the whole.

Reading Batman straight through is a schizophrenic experience. We jump from the Kubert stuff to a seemingly totally disconnected standalone tale with The Joker, back to regular continuity for a couple of issues, then it’s over to a similarly disconnected tale set in the future. Then, it’s over to this Williams stuff, which doesn’t seem to flow that logically out of the previous issues, then over to the Ra’s al Ghul crossover, and it’s not until Batman #672 that we’re back to the ‘normal’ storyline, with the three Batmen and all that. I’m on issue #673 now, a dazzling, brilliant issue, and it’s possible that all these disparate issues will come together in the RIP storyline, but for now, the rapidly swerving art styles and narrative focuses make it difficult to take away anything coherent from the run.

Still, as an essentially standalone story designed to reincorporate some 50s motifs and introduce the Black Glove, the “Club of Heroes” arc is great fun, with art like only Williams can do. Reading a Williams issue, you get the feeling that everyone else out there is lazy. He puts so much detail into every panel, using color and layout to help tell the story, and create something that’s aesthetically interesting on its own terms. He draws all the different heroes in a slightly different style, giving Batman a very monochromatic mysterious look, while El Gaucho has a slightly fuzzy European feel and Wingman has a very Image look. It’s a smaller scale version of the stylistic variations he used in Seven Soldiers #1, and it helps to make the characters distinct in a very short period of time.

The story picks up on a lot of the themes of Seven Soldiers, particularly its exploration of what it means to have been a hero and not to be one anymore, of this struggle to live up to the legend of a guy like Batman. One of Morrison’s central conceits in his run is the notion that its one guy who’s been through all the adventures that Batman has had in comics. So, for the Club of Heroes, Batman has ‘matured’ while they’ve stayed the same goofy people. The arc is told from their perspective, Batman is more of an absent father figure, the guy they all blame for their personal failures.

My major frustration with this arc is that it’s so thematically close to what Seven Soldiers did, but without as much of the relatable emotional feel. In Seven Soldiers #0, and in the minis, the attempt to be a hero is analogous to all of our attempts to do things in our life, to be better. The DCU and superhero milieu is used as a way to dramatize these essential conflicts, it functions as a meta comment on superhero comics, but also as a comment on life itself. Here, because the characters don’t get as much time to develop, it becomes more about wallowing in comic book history and while I do enjoy any time spent with Man-o-Bats, Morrison has done similar, better stuff in the past.

Much of Morrison’s Batman run has been about exploring the different aspects of Batman himself. The initial arc is about Batman trying to rediscover Bruce Wayne, then he has to deal with Damien, and after that the three Batmen. Here, Batman’s surrounded by a legion of imitators, but the only one who can actually match up to Batman is John Mayhew. The arc begins with Batman saying he’s always been interested in what super-wealthy men do when they get bored, obviously a question he’s got an interesting answer for himself. Mayhew is a twisted reflection of what Bruce Wayne could have become, as are pretty much all the motley crew we see here. If Batman loses his intensity and discipline, he could just as easily become one of these guys, struggling to keep up with the times.

While I do have some quibbles with the storyline, it’s a lot of fun, and the kind of book that makes you realize just how good a monthly comic can be. Reading All Star Superman makes it clear just how large the gap between what a comic can be and what most are is. Joss Whedon said that part of the reason he made “Once More With Feeling” was to show what a regular TV episode could be. And, reading an issue like All Star Superman #12, you realize how much can be told in 22 pages, how many concepts and ideas can be in there, how much emotion. If every comic was like All Star Superman, or these Batman issues, there’d be a lot more comics readers. There’s a lot of great moments in here, Man-o-Bats saving Raven Red from the tank of piranhas, Batman on his jetpack cutting across the page, the abstract watercolor pages that close each issue.

Like a lot of Morrison stories, this one is teeming with potential stories. I’d love to see more adventures with Beryl and Robin. Their teamup to save Raven Red is so much better than the lame Robin solo stories in Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul, and ties nicely back to Morrison’s JLA: Classified arc. He’s built his own corner of the DCU to mess around in, and the stories tie together nicely.

But, at this point, it’s hard for me to connect this story to the rest of the run. I respect and really like these issues, but it wasn’t until I read issue #673 that I found a Morrison Batman issue that I really loved. That issue was the kind of insane story that only Morrison can do, unhinged in a way he hasn’t been in a while. At that moment that Batmite appeared, everything changed, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. I’ve got all the single issue of RIP to date, so I should be able to catch up on them this weekend, and be ready for the big finale.

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