Saturday, October 25, 2008

Batman: RIP: Part II (#678-680)

When we last left Batman, he was sprawled over in pain, contemplating the idea that the Black Glove may in fact be nothing more than a figure of his childhood-trauma fueled imagination And now, things get weird. The last few issues of RIP have all been amazing in their own way, pushing the character to a place I’ve never seen him, doing things you’d never expect Batman to do. Batman doing weapons grade heroin while homeless on the street? Yup, this is not your everyday Batman story.

Issue #678 begins with Batman’s Black Casebook account of Doctor Hurt’s isolation experiment. As I mentioned earlier, interpreting the bizarre excesses of Silver Age stories as mental dillusions brought on by psychological experimentation has a lot in common with what Alan Moore was doing in Miracleman. I think the central difference is Alan Moore’s story is about trying to find a way to incorporate these stories into a rational universe. The absurdity of those stories is evidence that they could not be ‘real,’ and his interest in that run is exploring what a character like Miracleman would do when confronted with reality.

Morrison’s interest with this run is basically to explore what it means that Batman experienced all these things, and what that does to his mind. He’s lived a schizophrenic life, jumping from strange experience to strange experience, and that’s gradually broken down his sense of self and reality. The only constant has been his childhood trauma, the death of his parents. That’s the reason he became Batman, and no matter what changes, that trauma lingers. Morrison then uses the Silver Age stuff as a way to spin a stranger story, taking elements of Batman’s insane Silver Age hallucinations and translating them into reality. If he lived through those stories, he believes they are real, and consequently, the lines all blur and we wind up with the insane purple suit Batman from the end of this issue.

In the casebook, Batman says that “I don’t want to know what goes on in the Joker’s head. I have to know.” His mission to eradicate crime, and The Joker is his greatest foe because he’s so utterly unknowable. He can be a goofy Silver Age prankster criminal one day, and a Killing Joke style murderer the next. The Joker is able to seamlessly move between selves, as we saw in the “Clown at Midnight” story. Batman is not able to integrate his many different selves as easily, and I’m guessing the end result of RIP will be the synthesis of crazy Silver Age Batman and gritty Batman into a new stronger Batman at the end.

Notably, Morrison places a major emphasis on Robin in Bruce’s narration. The central trauma at the heart of this arc is the “Robin Dies at Dawn” story, in which Bruce drives himself insane over guilt he feels for letting Robin die. Robin is the counterbalance to Batman, drawing him closer to humanity and not letting him indulge in his greater excesses. This is the same story that Frank Miller’s telling over in the Goddamn Batman, Robin humanizes Batman. It’s notable that as RIP goes on, Batman disconnects from everyone, living in his own head, he goes gradually more and more insane.

The majority of this issue chronicles Bruce’s time living as a homeless man on the street, along with his spirit guide, Honor Jackson. As I mentioned earlier, I see a lot of similarities between this arc and what’s going on with Don Draper over in Mad Men. In both cases, we’re watching someone strip their personalities to the bare essence, taking all the societal trappings that have made them who they are and getting to the core underneath. In this case, the wealthy Bruce Wayne self is totally destroyed by Doctor Hurt, and consequently, the wealthy, well equipped Batman is also destroyed, to be replaced by the homeless insanity of Zurr-en-Arrh Batman.

I love the alien quality of Doctor Hurt in these first few panels. Surrounded by demon henchmen, lit only in grey and red, he’s the most menacing Batman villain since the Joker. I particularly like the fact that somehow DC allowed Batman to be injected with “weapons grade crystal meth” in an issue that came out the same month as The Dark Knight movie. Could you imagine a kid who just saw The Dark Knight going in to buy a Batman comic and coming out with this? You’d either have someone who’s totally put off, or a comics fan for life. Normally, there’s a moral code that’s used for superheroes, mainstream characters like Batman. They don’t indulge in crystal meth, thankfully DC fell asleep on this story or something and is just letting Grant run wild with it.

At the end of the story, we find out that Honor died a while ago, from the $100 bag of heroin he bought with the money Batman gave him, another great twist that just messes with the Batman character. Anyway, I’d argue that Honor is the same essentially entity that we later see incarnated as Batmite. Both of them are either figments of Bruce’s subconscious, the piece of him that becomes Zurr-en-Arrh, an autopilot that keeps him going even when his conscious mind is destroyed, or they’re fifth dimensional entities, like John a Dreams in The Invisibles, inserted into the game to fulfill a specific role and help Bruce defeat the Black Glove. And, as Batmite says in #680, “Imagination is the fifth dimension,” so I guess they’re both.

Either way, Honor helps Bruce “get into character” as a homeless man, the first step towards rebuilding him into the Batman of Zurr-En-Arrh. It’s interesting that Honor talks about making “a declaration,” then puts on a sign declaring himself a Gulf War Veteran. Batman is a soldier in his own war on crime, and now he’s come back mentally damaged, unable to fit in with mainstream society. The heroin addiction ties in with that, so many Vietnam vets became addicted in the course of the war, and found no support system to help them when they came home.

At the end of the ‘odyssey,’ Bruce finds out that all Honor wanted to do was buy some booze. But, in the process Bruce rediscovered something about himself. He still doesn’t know who he is, but he’s getting his fighting skills back, and he’s seeing the clues again. He’s thinking like Batman. He soon finds out that Honor was dead, and is offered a bag of heroin, “the keys to heaven.” Batman has reached the bottom, he’s alone the streets, doing heroin and left with nothing except a bunch of scraps of cloth.

He now shuts off his conscious mind and reverts to his backup persona, the Batman of Zurr-En-Arrh. Stitching himself a new costume, he emerges sublime and ridiculous on the final splash page. On the one hand, this story is full of darkness and grim and gritty tropes, but the costume here totally undercuts it, as does the great Batmite “uh-oh” line. Bruce has gone fully insane at this point, he thinks it’s all a dream, he couldn’t be Batman. This leads to the classic line “For in my hand…I hold the Bat-Radia. And I…I am the Batman.” Of course, the Bat-radia is a beat up transistor radio, at this point, he’s so insane that his skewed perception of the world makes him believe that he actually is sane. Well, whatever works.

The next issue opens up with the classic scene where Batman is on a roof talking to some gargoyles. In another so insane he’s sane moment, Batman asks Batmite if the Gargoyles were really talking and is reassured, that yes they were. I love Batmite, the absurdity of the character and the juxtaposition of this crazy looking hallucinating Batman and Batmite with the gritty world of Gotham. Another instant classic line is Batman telling Batmite to be quiet, “Shh! The city’s talking.” This bit ties in with the city magic from The Invisibles, Grant’s first pop magic column, the idea that if we shut off our conscious minds, the forces underlying the universe will speak to us and answer our questions. Batman sees the city now as “a machine designed to make Batman,” he sees no coincidence, everything has a purpose and tells him something. He has transcended to a magician’s consciousness. Perhaps it’s delustory, perhaps there was no tracking chip in his teeth, but either way, he’s doing his thing and it’s working.

Next up, we get an explanation of the whole Zurr-En-Arrh thing. Morrison has equated Batman’s 50s and 60s adventures to one decade long acid trip, all finally catching up with him. He built this Zurr-en-Arrh world in his mind during one those trips, a fantasy world where he’s like Superman, lacking the mental anguish he has in the regular world. During the isolation experiment, Batman reached his low ebb, and as a result, built a backup personality so that would never happen to him again. That’s who the Batman of Zurr-En-Arrh is, his spare self who will take over when the original breaks down.

I continually see people cracking on Tony Daniel’s art, but I think he’s a perfect fit for this arc. The dirty Image 90s style grounds everything in a ‘reality’ that’s totally broken by the crazy things that he’s got to draw. I love the panel here of Batman pulling on the purple mask, his eyes clearly exposed, as well as the weird looking shot down at the bottom of the page where Batman stands in front of the mirror shirtless, and we see Batmite with some weird tentacles coming out of his back.

Even as Batman stumbles deeper and deeper into isolation, we see the seeds of his rescue and salvation brewing all around. In this issue, there’s the great scene with Cyril and Beryl, setting the stage for the eventual return of the Club of Heroes to help Batman battle the Club of Villains. I love those characters, and Cyril kills it in the last line “Club of villains? Can’t have that, Beryl. Better put in a call to the lads.” The run is tightening up, that seemingly disconnected “Club of Heroes” arc is playing a larger and larger role in what’s going on now.

From there, we jump to a red herring scene playing with the idea that Doctor Hurt is in fact Thomas Wayne. I love the crazy 1920s style pulp villain look Hurt is rocking at this point. Despite the fact that the whole Club of Villains ostensibly tracks back only 10 years, Morrison plays it more like the whole of Batman history happened in real time along with history. John Mayhew’s films look like they’re from the 1930s, and Batman’s isolation experiment, despite taking place “ten years ago,” feels more like it took place when those comics were published, in the 50s. I like that strange treatment of time, it fits more with what we know as readers, even if it doesn’t make sense within the diegetic world. Hurt promises that “We’re breaking the Batman at midnight,” and at this point in the story, he’s done a pretty good job. They may have committed that classic villain mistake of letting the hero go after you’ve got him, but in this case, the goal is to utterly destroy him, and it doesn’t look like Bruce can really get it together to get back at them.

Batman has a fantastic scene where he roughs up Charlie Caligula, promising to see through him with the Bat-radia, prompting Charlie Caligula to exclaim “You’re nuts! You’re crazier than all of us!” Except for one of course, the club of villains are all imitators, trying to live up to The Joker, just like the Club of Heroes tries to live up to Batman. Batman breaks down Caligula’s tics, and proceeds to assault him with a bat. This is what it’s come to for Batman, beating this guy up in the theater where he went to his last movie with his parents.

This brings us to issue #680, and the inevitable confrontation between Batman and the Joker. I love this entire arc, but this issue has been the high point to date. It’s got all the intensity and edge of your seat stakes that are so often absent from big character corporate superhero comics. While I have issues with both this book and Final Crisis, I think Morrison has done a fantastic job of creating stories where every page feels like it could hold a massive revelation, or an incredible, unforeseen moment.

That’s hard to do in the DCU, where everything tends to normalcy. I think a large part of it is the fact that Morrison has essentially disconnected from the DCU as a whole and opened up his own little corner of the universe. I don’t see how this book can mix with something like Trinity, that’s supposed to be a back to basics Batman story, or even the Paul Dini stuff, which has a similar modus operendi. In those books, obviously Batman isn’t going to die, but in this Morrison book, it’s possible, and I think Grant has essentially stopped caring about what the people who come after him do. Final Crisis may be getting essentially ignored by the rest of the DCU, but reading his books, it’s an epic, crazy story full of really meaningful events. Few moments in big superhero comics can match the sudden return of Miracleman last issue, or the descent of Turpin to Darkseid. Will it be the new status quo for the universe after Morrison is done? Probably not, but much like with New X-Men, you can usually just stop where he does. His last Batman story can be the last Batman story, All Star Superman can be the last Superman story and “Here Comes Tomorrow” is the end of X-Men. So, who knows what else Batman is doing, but in this corner of the universe, he’s totally losing his shit.

There’s a very dirty, creepy vibe to this issue, starting off with the images of the people coming to the event. We’ve got an old man with a little girl, an oil sheik, a cowboy, a military dictator. These are the people who run the world, and they’re all here to watch the utter destruction of the Batman. I’ve heard the issue compared to “120 Days of Sod All” from The Invisibles, and I can definitely see the parallels. These are wealthy people who live beyond the limits of the law, and can do whatever they want.

The scene where Bossu discusses his transformation with The Joker is another disturbing highlight. He lives a normal life, but longs for the total insanity of The Joker. This whole thread reminds me a lot of Seven Soldiers, of The Whip wondering at which point she stops feeling like an imitator and stops feeling like a superhero. Bossu works so hard to be evil, but society just doesn’t see him that way. They’re in awe of The Joker, and he has to put on a mask to capture what The Joker has naturally. Particularly disturbing is the idea that Bossu wants to do awful things to his daughter that “polite society” will not permit. In this moment, this danse macabre, they all seek to transcend polite society and legitimize their evil. Too all of this, The Joker simply yawns.

Batman and Batmite part in a scene I mentioned earlier, where Mite says that imagination is the fifth dimension. Batmite claims that he is the “last fading echo of the voice of reason.” I think it says something about Bruce’s insanity that a floating elf dressed as Batman represents his voice of reason.

Over at Wayne Manor, we get the return of the well written Damian, not the bratty teenager of Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul, but a brutal assassian in the body of a twelve year old. The action sequence here is well done, setting up a lot of tension, then paying it all of with the badass return of Damian. This issue has a ton of momentum, from the cross cutting buildups, so the tension of the rest of the book makes the scene with Gordon seem tenser and more apocalyptic than it would in isolation. The cross cutting also works really well during the Batman/Joker confrontation, where our glimpses of the Club of Villains only enhances the epic nature of the confrontation. This is the ultimate battle, such that all these people have traveled miles to see it, to watch The Joker finally destroy Batman.

Next up is the final stage of Batman’s descent into insanity. For Doctor Hurt and his crew, fighting Batman is an elaborate intellectual exercise, an attempt to outdo the master detective at his own game. For The Joker, it’s pure instinct, he just walks into the room and is able to finish the job better than they ever could.

Batman and The Joker are fighting in what looks like the black lodge from the last episode of Twin Peaks, all black curtains and checkerboard patterns. There, The Joker expresses his anger at Batman breaking their ‘pact’ by shooting him in the face. The Joker doesn’t care about the fact that the guy who shot him wasn’t the ‘real’ Batman, his mind doesn’t see the world that way. Batman shot him, nobody can dispute that. This leads to that particularly nasty panel where he cuts his tongue in two, evoking a serpent.

This leads to the brilliant exchange where The Joker says that Batman’s attempt to understand him, to find meaning in the dead man’s hand and the search for the Black Glove is not life, “that’s just wikipedia.” Batman clings to the idea that there is a rational explanation for everything that happened to him, that there’s an elaborate conspiracy out there, and if he can just knit together all the different threads, he’ll be able to find the meaning of it all. Batman has descended into this strange Zurr-En-Arrh state, but if he can discover the meaning behind the Black Glove, it’ll all be worth it. But, what if there’s no meaning? What if his attempt to find out what it’s like to be the Joker was all futile?

The Joker pulls back the curtain and behind the glass is Jezebel, crying. Batman pulls back his hood, and the relentless backup personality recedes. He no longer speaks in those purple word balloons, he’s left with the uncertain speech of the human Bruce. Jezebel was a reminder of what he was clinging to, the human attachment that kept Batman from being like the Batman of Zurr-En-Arrh all the time. Jezebel is his only hope, his chance to be a better person, to grow up and stop being Batman. In #677, it’s Jezebel who equates his being Batman with being trapped in a prolonged state of adolescent trauma. She wanted to help him grow out of it, but he only fell deeper in.

And then, Doctor Hurt and The Joker toast their ultimate victory. Bruce is tripping out behind the glass, trying to use the bat-radia to save her, only to find out that she has turned, she’s been in on it the whole time. Or, so it appears. I’m still not sure whether Jezebel was actually evil the whole time, or whether they’ve done something to turn her. There’s a lot of gas and weird stuff floating around, so it would make sense for her to be mentally altered in some way. But, at the same time, her being evil would fit. Doctor Hurt’s plan hinges on totally destroying both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Having Jezebel find her way into his heart, then tear it up would be the perfect way to cap off Bruce’s insanity, to utterly break him.

At this point, Bruce has totally exhausted the Batman of Zurr-En-Arrh persona, he’s broken and collapsing on the floor. Evil has won, and it looks like we’ll soon see exactly what the fate worse than death that awaits Batman is. Unfortunately, we’ve got to wait until November 19th for that.

But, I’ve really got to give huge props to both Grant and Tony Daniel for this issue. Reading Final Crisis, there was an underlying disturbing darkness to everything that was going on. This issue amps that up to the extreme, every single panel is full of tension and evil. Those final moments are utterly devoid of hope, they represent Batman literally brought to his knees, with absolutely nothing left. I didn’t think I could be this concerned about Batman, or this anxious to find out what happens to him next. This story is a masterpiece, and though I still have issues with much of the early run, this last ten issues or so is as strong as anything Grant’s done recently.

Certain stories just hit me on a deep level. I think All Star Superman is an objectively better book than this one, but nothing in that book excited me as much as the insanity of these last three RIP issues. It’s messy and frantic, and alive in a way that very few corporate superhero comics are.

1 comment: said...

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