Friday, December 05, 2008

Batman #682: 'The Butler Did It'

It’s great to get another issue of Morrison’s Batman so soon after the end of RIP. This one doesn’t exactly clear up the many mysteries that still linger after RIP, but it does a great job of showing us the revised history of Batman that Morrison’s used to underlie his run, and ends with a brilliant twist that ties Batman’s run so far into both his own Final Crisis mythology and Kirby’s New Gods mythology. The initiation never ends.

Ever since the major shift in tone with the Torture Chamber three parter, Morrison’s Batman run has been a series of death and rebirth experiences, with Batman facing down an essential darkness that plagues humanity, all on his quest to reach a higher level of existence. In the last issue, we’re led to believe that Hurt may in fact be the Devil. He is a pure source of evil that Batman has been fighting against his whole life. But, in the DCU, who’s the true source of evil. Why, it’s Final Crisis villain Darkseid, and as we find out at the end of this issue, Batman’s Thogal experience continues after RIP ends when he finds himself at the mercy of Darkseid’s eugenics experiment.

The major question left unanswered between RIP and this issue is what exactly happened to Batman after the helicopter explosion. I don’t think that was ever meant to be death for Batman, and this issue makes that clear. Sorry to everyone in the media who reported last issue as the death of Batman, but he’s back alive and imperiled again in this issue. Perhaps real death, or true transcendence awaits at the end of Final Crisis, but for now, he remains earthbound.

This issue reinforces the thematic ties between the Batman run and Morrison’s Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle miniseries. Batman #681 was essentially what happens with Mister Miracle after the end of Seven Soldiers #1, of course he’s going to rise again, and of course he’s going to do battle with, and triumph over evil. That is the nature of heroism. But, both series have their heroes dealing with something a bit more complex than simply battling evil, it’s all about doing battle with someone who’s out to destroy their minds. Shilo’s trippy journey through a myriad of alternate realities, each one bringing him closer to total despair mirrors what happens with Bruce in RIP. I love that kind of storytelling structure, breaking down strict narrative reality and replacing it with a shifting subconscious realm, where you can read the story as simultaneously a straight up, twisted superhero narrative, or as a meditation on the hero’s fractured psychology.

Last issue, Bruce talks to the evil monk about how during Thogal you see a mix of past, present and future. Here, Bruce flashes back through his entire career, as part of a psychic interrogation by The Lump. I’m not sure that we really needed another spin through the Batman origin story, but it is nice to see the schizophrenic history of Batman synthesized into one linear issue.

We start with the darkness of Batman’s early days, when he’s thoroughly committed to battling criminals, and never takes his eyes off the mission. Time blurs and soon he finds Robin entering his world, bringing “color” to their “monochrome lives.” Morrison makes a good case for Robin being essential to the Batman mythos, in the same way that Miller did over in Goddamn Batman. Robin makes Batman human, he makes him about more than just avenging his parents’ murder.

We next spin through another trippy 50s flashback with my favorite panel of the issue, Bruce and Batwoman facing a strange beast on another world, or maybe just tripping on acid together in the batcave. There’s a constant emphasis on chemicals in the story, and one of Morrison’s big concepts is that many of Batman’s strange adventures can be written off as side effects of exposure to Joker gas and other chemicals. In the cave together, I love Batwoman’s rambling monologue, “…my soul dying…on another planet…oh god…when our souls die…we die too.” It’s the sort of stream of consciousness raw emotion that Morrison does better than anyone.

Next, we reach the introduction of Simon Hurt. Here, he’s equated with Darkseid’s Lump monster, a parasite that digs through Batman’s memories and uses this knowledge to attack his weak points. Hurt is the Lump, and he is, in some ways, Darkseid. He’s all the evil that Batman’s ever faced, and this Final Crisis story is just a heightened stakes version of the same stuff we saw in Batman RIP.

This section has a strange panel in which they bury Alfred, then all of a sudden he’s back. I’m not that familiar with Batman history, but I believe this refers to a death of Alfred at some point in the 60s, before he came back during the TV show era. I do like Morrison’s nod to the 60s series with Batman and Robin stream of consciousness solving a riddle. However, I can’t help but wish that JH Williams had been drawing this. His ability to blend styles from disparate time periods together would have made this a much more visually compelling issue, and also helped clarify the changes in Batman’s world over time.

As Robin grows up, and away from him, Batman claims that he never liked any of this goofy stuff anyway. The dark age Batman reasserts itself, “Crime. Madness. Horror. These are the things I understand,” and a reinvented, more insane Joker beckons. Presumably, the next issue will deal with Batman’s dark journey through the 80s, and end in a way that sets up his final fate in Final Crisis.

But, this issue ends with a brief spin through an alternate universe, where Bruce is not Batman, all part of the process of keeping Bruce unaware that he’s under psychic interrogation. It’s understandable that he’s so paranoid, it seems like someone’s always trying to destroy him. I’m reminded of the quote from “Robin Dies at Dawn,” echoed in Morrison’s run about eyes, thousands of eyes watching. Batman thought he defeated Hurt, but now he’s part of something larger, a conflict with Darkseid and the essence of evil itself.

Morrison definitely uses some old tricks here, the journey from pulp age to silver to Bronze recalls Flex Mentallo’s similar structure, and a lot of material in Seven Soldiers. Is any medium so obsessed with its own history as comics? Whereas New X-Men and Marvel Boy were largely about new pop concepts that tie in to Morrison’s own philosophy, this is a book about riffing on comics history, and exploring things from within the DCU, rather than from our own universe.

But, I think there still is enough fresh stuff here, and I like the way it bridges the gap between the themes of Final Crisis and the themes of the rest of Morrison’s Batman run. This is another aspect of the ongoing Thogal process, the plunging into darkness before an emergence into light. The entirety of Final Crisis is a kind of Thogal for the DCU, it must die before it can eradicate its flaws and darkness, then return a stronger, more healthy entity.

Final Crisis has gotten a lot of bad press lately, be it for the lengthy delays or the art switches, but I think once all the story that Morrison wanted to tell is out, and removed from the hype, it’s going to be looked back on as a great storytelling experiment. It’s on the road to synthesizing most of his DC work to date into a single story. Batman’s running in, Superman’s running in, 52 is running in, Seven Soldiers is running in, JLA is running in, it’s all coming together in this epic, and I’m hoping he gets the chance to tell the story he wants to tell, and give the DCU the glorious rebirth it deserves.


Richard said...

Alfred was apparently killed in Detective #328 (June 1964) to be replaced by Dick Grayson’s Aunt Harriet. It turned out Alfred was actually in a coma, and revived to become a bizarre villain called the Outsider before being restored to his normal self in Detective #356 (October 1966). If you want seriously twisted silver age crack, look no further!

(I don't go around with all these issue numbers memorized, by the way; it just happens that I had to look them up for something else recently, and had the notes on hand.)

The ongoing mystery of the Outsider was in some way vaguely similar to the Black Glove storyline -- not in execution, but in the concept of "someone who knows all Batman's secrets is trying to destroy him, but who?" over a span of many issues -- leading some people to suspect Alfred would be revealed as the Black Glove. In this issue, Alfred mentioning his death and resurrection seems to be the clue tipping off Batman that "Alfred" was a fraud, since Alfred was ultimately revived with no memory of his death or brief spell as a villain.

Patrick said...

I heard that there's a Batman: The Black Casebook trade coming out, which will hopefully collect all these stories that are related to Morrison's run. I'd love to read the Batwoman/Batman story from this issue, and that Outsider stuff sounds pretty wacky too. I'm not sure why they didn't put that trade out earlier, say during the run it's being referenced in, but as long as it gets out eventually.

And, I'll also say that I think the run works fine even if you're not familiar with the specifics of these Silver Age stories, more so than say The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen's Black Dossier does. As long as you know the basic development of Batman, it's cool, and specific knowledge of past stories just adds to the experience.

Anonymous said...

The "strange beast on another world" that Batman and Batwoman face... Is that something from Crisis on Infinite Earths when that Batwoman was erased from continuity? Is she referring to her own erasure?

The creature looks kinda familiar and I can't place it.... said...

In my opinion everyone must look at it.