Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Batman: RIP: Part I (#675-677)

Previously, when Grant Morrison wrote a major mainstream superhero title, he wrote it with a lot of his voice and ideas, but also a general respect for what that title had been and what readers expect from it. So, New X-Men might have some philosophizing about the single human organism and the nature of evolution, but all the core elements of an X-Men story remain in tact. I don’t know that any of his mainstream superhero works have gone as far out there as Batman RIP does at times. It’s a surreal journey through the debilitating mindscape of Bruce Wayne/Batman that features, among other things, Batman becoming homeless, Batman getting addicted to heroin, Batman hallucinating gargoyles talking and Batman wearing a red/yellow/purple costume and hitting people with a baseball bat. And yet, as strange as things get, this is also what I want from a Batman story. It’s got a huge all encompassing threat and the most menacing Bat-villains to appear in a while. It’s got some mixed moments, but on the whole I loved the storyline.

This story follows almost directly from the three part Third Batman story, in which Batman actually did die, for a couple of minutes. First up is the prelude issue, #675, in which Jezebel finds out Bruce’s true identity. This issue plays very differently in light of what we see in #680. The end of that issue implies that Jezebel has been one of the masterminds behind the entire scheme, so it’s excruciating to look at her tap into Bruce’s guilt as a way of getting him to open himself to her emotionally and reveal his secret identity.

Next up is the start of RIP proper, and the introduction of the ‘Club of Villains.’ It’s notable in a story about Batman’s psychological dissolution that all the villains he faces should be the foes of different versions of himself. In the ‘Clown at Midnight,’ The Joker talks about the inevitability of Batman, the Joker/Batman dynamic will forever play itself out, and it makes sense that so many of these villains also use a clown theme, and visually echo The Joker. And, like the Club of Heroes is in awe of Batman, they’re in awe of the Joker. The Club of Villains looks vaguely absurd at first, but as the story goes on, and we get more and more drawn into Batman’s psychosis, their appearance makes more and more sense. The world warps so that they become normal.

As the storyline begins, things are going well for Batman. He’s still running at full speed, despite concerns from Robin and Alfred about his need for recovery time. The criminals left in Gotham are all lame wannabes, and when it comes to the Green Vulture, Batman won’t even hit him, to legitimize him as a criminal. But, the best of all is Bruce’s relationship with Jezebel. He sheds the mask and walks in to kiss her in a wonderfully over the top romance novel cover image. The image is particularly interesting bcause it has Bruce in a state that’s between Bruce Wayne and Batman. Just seeing her like that, partially in the Batman outfit, represents so much trust. We won’t see him like that again until the end of #680 when his trust is rewarded with betrayal.

Alfred and Tim talk about Bruce, in a conversation that likely has resonance with what the final fate of Batman will be. Alfred describes Thogal as the “rehearsal, while living, of the experience of death.” The meditative experience is about confronting the darkness then returning to the world reborn. You could read the entire storyline as a Thogal experience, Batman confronting his greatest darkness, his greatest fears, shutting down his surface personality and retreating into his mental ‘cave.’ He then allows the Batman of Zurr-en-arrh persona to take charge and guide him back to the light.

The issue ends with our first glimpse at the reborn Joker. I really like the way Grant and Tony Daniel reimagine him, wearing this long Butcher’s coat/dress thing, and very controlled, slicked back hair. He’s stylish in a way the guy with a purple suit rarely was, as Batman spins out of control, the Joker seems to get it more and more together. But, more on the Joker shortly.

The next issue is where everything turns to shit for all involved. Batman is increasingly paranoid, in the absence of major criminals in the city, he becomes more and more convinced that the Black Glove is behind it all, an omnipresent crime organization that’s perpetually one step ahead of him. But, what if the Black Glove doesn’t exist? What if Bruce/Batman is so addicted to the war on crime that he’d invent this organization as a way to ensure his war never ends? This is the question that Jezebel raises when they’re together in the bat-cave.

I absolutely love the scene where she tells him that she loves him, and she wants him to get better, to get over the trauma of his parents’ death. Batman comics have always treated that as a perfectly valid motivation for a lifelong battle against crime, but in this moment, she tears it all down, calling his cave “a disturb ed little boy’s response to his parents’ death.” She says this in front a giant dinosaur, and a giant penny, two utterly absurd symbols of the world that Bruce lives in. Perhaps Morrison is pointing out the incongruity of Batman’s inherent craziness and the attempt to ground him in this very gritty, very real milieu that so many 90s and 00s comics have. He is emotionally damaged and alone, drawing others into his psychosis so that he’ll feel better about himself.

But, Bruce won’t hear it. He continues to spin an increasingly paranoid story about the Black Glove, about how he’s got two mainframes seeking out data. In the previous storyline, Batman talks about how he’s always formulating plans, trying to stay one step ahead of his enemy. His mind is his greatest weapon in the war on crime, but that also means that the fight is driving him insane. Now, it’s the absence of criminals that’s destroying him, he assumes that this is a plot so sophisticated, he can’t even see the seams. And that’s why Jet believes that he created the Black Glove, as a way to keep himself in the fight, to not have to confront the trauma that lies underneath everything he’s built.

Now, in light of what Doctor Hurt says, it’s likely that the Black Glove actually is masterminded by someone, not Bruce himself. But, I still love the idea that the Black Glove is the resentment of the Bruce Wayne that could have been, the person who would have exited if he’d gotten over his parents’ death and never become Batman. Batman at this point is like Bush’s America at this point, so addicted to wars that it’ll create one out of nothing if need be.

This leads to the fantastically surreal scene in which Bruce’s psyche dissipates and he is taken over by Zur-En-Arrh. He sees that purple mask again, a weird, creepy image.he collapses and the Black Glove rushes in. In retrospect, it would seem that Jezebel deliberately came there to do this to him, to break down his identity and make him react like this. It ties in with what Doctor Hurt was saying earlier, that their greatest achievement will be the utter destruction of Batman.

The issue is about the utter destruction of Bruce’s confidence. Jezebel reduces everything he’s done to a damaged child’s attempt to cope with something he couldn’t deal with. It’s hard to watch her tear down everything that Bruce has built. She’d probably tell him that the billions of dollars he spent in his one man war on crime could have been better spent giving food to third world countries, or something like that. She implies that all Batman is arrest Bruce’s psyche and prevent him from growing.

But, this is just the beginning. Next time, Bruce/Batman is utterly destroyed, and then reborn again in a strange, new persona. I’ll be writing that up soon, as well as the new issue of Final Crisis.

No comments: