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.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Batman #681: RIP Conclusion: 'Hearts in Darkness'

“Hearts in Darkness,” the conclusion to Batman RIP, continues the recent trend in Morrison’s work of creating issues that are hypercondensed on the page, and just expand in your mind after reading. As such, I’ll admit that after finishing the issue for the first time, I was a bit underwhelmed. Was exploding in a helicopter a fate worse than death for Batman? What was the big reveal of who the Black Glove was? The issue doesn’t fulfill the expectations that had been built by both Morrison’s comments and DC’s framing of the storyline.

The way I read RIP, the “fate worse than death” doesn’t refer to what happens in this issue, it refers to the storyline as a whole, Bruce’s adoption of the Zur-En-Arrh persona and his descent into life on the streets and insanity. This issue is the triumphant return of Batman, literally rising out of the grave, back in his regular outfit and revealing how even in his insane state, he’s managed to stay one step ahead of the Black Glove because “Batman thinks of everything.” Batman can go away at the end of this issue because his purpose is filled, he’s inspired enough people to continue his mission, and his confrontation with Hurt at the end is the final stage of his journey through Thogal, the conquering of his greatest fear.

When I read The Black Glove hardcover, and the subsequent RIP issues, I didn’t think there would be a big reveal about the identity of the Black Glove, I thought Hurt and his crew were the Black Glove. Surely, Hurt was evil enough, you didn’t need a shocking twist that Alfred was behind it all, or something like that. It’s mostly the marketing hype that leads you to expect something so shocking this issue, admittedly some of that is Morrison’s fault, but future readers will judge the book on its own merits, not the hype.

The significance of this issue, and the run as a whole, is underlined by the red and black flashbacks to Bruce and the monk speaking in Nanda Parbat. Bruce speaks of experiencing hallucinations in the darkness, the blurring of past, present and future. This sounds exactly like the torture chamber three parter that preceded RIP, but what is the “place that’s not a place” that he refers to? That could be the opening page of this issue, where he lies in darkness, awaiting rebirth. It could be where his primary self went when Zurr-En-Arrh Batman was in control. While he was Zurr-En-Arrh Batman, his rational self was able to process all the weird stuff that happened to him, and come up with the plan he could use to take down the Black Glove.

This issue raises the question of what exactly Batman was experiencing during RIP? Was he totally insane, as it first appeared, or was he actually one step ahead of the whole thing, as this issue implies? Here, Bruce claims that he always knew Jezebel was evil, and his “love” for her was an act. On some level, I think that makes the story less satisfying, but I’d argue that it isn’t as simple as reducing everything to two competing acts, with Bruce’s as the successful one in the end.

One could argue that Zur-En-Arrh Batman is the Batman that Bruce imagined himself to be as a child, the raw force of nature who could destroy Joe Chill and save his parents. With his gaudy, multi-colored outfit, he resembles a child’s fantasy, and the last page of this issue makes it clear that Zur-En-Arrh actually refers to the last moment Bruce had with his parents before they were killed. Earlier, Hurt talks about how Zur-En-Arrh is a totally Freudian power construction, a Batman without emotional ties, just pure combative energy.

This entire arc is designed to mimic the experience of Thogal, as in The Invisibles, the initiation never ends. For Bruce, Thogal is the equivalent of meeting Barbelith, only he’s more about the journey within than the journey without. Bruce has gone through all these strange adventures, which he’s struggled to synthesize together in the Black Casebook. The great mysteries of the universe lie inside himself, and that’s why this arc, and the series as a whole, is about Batman confronting the worst in himself and deciding to press on.

Earlier in the arc, Jezebel plays her trump card, and calls Bruce’s whole life into question, confronting him with that darkness inside himself that he found in Nanda Parbat. Jezebel thinks she can blow Bruce’s mind by raising the question of whether he’s the evil force that’s been out to get him all this time, but Bruce is one step ahead, he’s already thought of that too when he asks the monk if he “I have been, even unconsciously, my own worst enemy?” Knowing that he could be turned even on himself, he creates this backup personality, drawn straight from the trauma of his childhood, and lets it take control when he seems to be in the clutches of the Black Glove.

I don’t think that Bruce is “acting” when he goes through the whole thing with Honor Jackson and the heroin addiction. I think he put the regular Bruce Wayne away, and let Zur-En-Arrh Batman go through the “weapons grade crystal meth” attack. The real Bruce is tucked safely away, waiting for his moment, and subconsciously guiding Zur-En-Arrh Batman where he needs to go. Reading the arc now, you could see Bat-Mite as the lingering remnant of Batman’s sanity, helping him get where he needs to go, then leaving before Batman confronts the worst of things. His sanity is tucked away and Zur-En-Arrh Batman goes through the Joker poisoning and Jezebel’s betrayal. I think the betrayal does hurt him because the Zur-En-Arrh Batman doesn’t want to believe she’d betray him, even if regular Batman is thinking many steps ahead, already planning how to take her down if he needs to.

One could even read it that Batman has to retreat to the Zur-En-Arrh personality just in case she’s right, and he is the Black Glove. The implication in this issue is that Hurt is the Devil, and I think that interpretation fits, but the read that makes the most sense for me goes back to the first introduction of the Black Glove, they aren’t even an organization really, they’re everything out there that could hurt Batman. It’s Jezebel, it’s Hurt, it’s the third Batman, and in the end, Batman defeats them all. It’s notable that Hurt mentions trying to take away Batman’s purpose by taking all the criminals off the street. Those criminals are just part of the same game that Batman plays, it’s what The Joker represents. They have a kind of bargain, but the Black Glove is differnet. By removing his everyday threats, they force Batman to confront something deeper, his own existential purpose. They make him question himself, and the thought is that he won’t be able to withstand their torture, that they’ll always be one step ahead.

The Joker thinks the Black Glove is na├»ve because they believe that they can beat him. The Joker may be totally insane, but Batman always remains one step ahead of him, finding the pattern and connection between his seemingly random action. As we saw in “The Clown at Midnight,” The Joker prides himself on the constant reinvention of himself, but Batman always “builds a new box around me.” That’s the conflict, and in that sense, The Joker functions as an evolutionary imperative. Batman must become a better crimefighter to keep up with what The Joker does. That’s why he went through Hurt’s experiment in the first place, he wanted to be able to feel what The Joker feels.

Hurt took advantage of Bruce’s desire to see the dark side, and implanted in him the insanity trigger. At that point, Batman wasn’t ready to deal with what he saw in the hallucination. That’s probably why he went to Nanda Parbat and underwent Thogal. He lost this battle against himself in the isolation chamber, so now he’ll take it one step further, and purge the demons within himself.

The Joker here seems to function as more of a John a Dreams type character than the pure evil of the Black Glove. Simon Hurt is predictable because he’s always going to do the evil thing, The Joker frightens them because they don’t know what he’s going to do next. Here, he essentially takes Batman’s side and tells the Glove that they’re fucked, they shouldn’t have left Batman out there because even if you think you’ve got him beat, he’s always one step ahead. As Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character made clear, he’s often evil, but he’s more interested in producing chaos. I also like the absurdity of The Joker getting tossed off a cliff by Alfred and Damian.

Throughout the story, there’s great little character moments with Batman’s allies. One of Morrison’s most underrated strengths is his ability to distill the essence of characters in a very small period of time. I think that’s why he’s such a brilliant comics writer, no one else can make you care about people in a few panels like he does. The moment between Robin and Beryl here is fantastic, and makes you want to see more of the two of them together. And, all we need to know about Damian is captured in that one panel. The Club of Heroes doesn’t do that much here, but we understand all we need to know in those couple of pages. It does make me wish that the Robin RIP tie in focused on Robin and the Club of Heroes battling the Club of Villains in Gotham, I’d have loved to read that.

The issue reminds me a bit of the finale of this past season of Doctor Who, with its cameos from everyone on the series to date. Even as Batman passes on the cowl, we know that he’s inspired a legion of people who will fight crime and keep his mission alive in his absence.

Batman climbs out of the grave in a pretty awesome sequence. I still see people cracking on Tony Daniel’s art a lot, but I think he did a great job with the arc. Sure, JH Williams or Quitely would have been better, but I think Daniel gives things a pulpy energy that the two of them might not have captured. I love the way he draws The Joker, and I love the crazy 20s pulp hero look that Hurt has. I also think he does a good job of showing Jezebel’s loss of control, culminating in her deadeyed plane ride look. I think Daniel’s better than Kubert was at the start of the book, and he’s crafted some of the most memorable images in any Batman comic ever. A lot of that is Morrison’s script, but Daniel has gotten better and better as things have gone on. And, I think the juxtaposition of all these wacky happenings with his very 90s Image style worked really well.

I think Morrison does a great job of conveying the turning point in the arc. It starts with the Bat-Radia, which turns out to be a transmitter, connecting him to the Arkham security system. Where did the Bat-Radia come from in the first place? Was Honor Jackson a John a Dreams like entity, helping Bruce fulfill his mission for the universe? Or was it that Bruce had left the radia somewhere, knowing that he could use it in the event he had to resort to his backup personality? I’d argue that it was part of the autopilot mode he went into when he became Zur-En-Arrh Batman. He built that radio, and didn’t consciously know what was in there until it was needed. Batman writes in the casebook about not knowing how things would play out, he would have to just “trust preparation to see me through.”

The Joker abandons the Glove, and Batman rises from the grave. Then, Hurt’s guests start to turn on him. The religious and political figures here echo the crew from The Invisibles’ “120 Days of Sod All,” only this time they’re confronted with their own sins. They enjoyed being in the presence of evil, but now things are spinning out of control, and they’re going to be held accountable for their sins. Batman’s raiding their mountain fortress, and they just want to get out of there.

This leads up to the final confrontation between Batman/Bruce and Hurt. Hurt is that which Bruce can never destroy, the doubt within himself, the fear of betrayal and pain, the guilt about what he’s done. Hurt tries a number of tactics to get to Bruce. First, he plays on the idea that as Batman, Bruce is really the same as the Black Glove, attacking the poor in a never ending attempt to make up for the trauma of losing his parents. He positions Bruce’s nightly patrols as something analogous to the “fox hunts” that Sir Miles does with homeless people.

Then, he quotes Batman’s own words from “Robin Dies at Dawn,” the isolation chamber story. I read that original story a few weeks ago, and it’s a good story on its own, but doesn’t really delve deeply into the psychological implications of what happened. Morrison does a great job of expanding on the basic ideas, and appropriating some of the imagery, like the strange stone idol face. Here, Hurt taunts Batman saying, “I must put away my Batman costume…and retire from crime-fighting!” Hurt is playing on all Bruce’s fears, in this case, the idea that he’s so insane, his personal crusade is endangering the lives of others.

Hurt then claims he’s Thomas Wayne, playing on Bruce’s ultimate fear, the idea that not only was his father evil, but he was the one who killed his mother. If Thomas Wayne was behind it all, then Batman’s crusade against violence was totally misguided. Hurt says that “Wayne became Hurt,” he has warped the image of Thomas Wayne into this insane doctor. That’s also what he threatens to do to all Bruce’s loved ones, spin them into drug addicts and criminals as he spoke to Alfred about earlier. Does it really matter if Thomas Wayne is Hurt? Hurt will create a new reality in which Bruce’s parents were evil.

Now we come to the one moment in the issue that I still find a bit underwhelming, the revelation of Hurt’s ultimate plan. As I just said, it makes sense, but it doesn’t seem like the ultimate capper to this storyline. I suppose the significance is the idea that Bruce has very few good things in his life to cling to, he exalts the memories of his parents, and his adopted father, Alfred. To tear them down would be to destroy the foundation of Batman, the last piece of humanity that existed before Bruce had to become Batman. But, I don’t think it totally works as a topper to everything insane that’s come before.

I do like the pay off on the next page. Batman poses the idea that he’s found a “pure source of evil” as he reached “the limits of reason.” If Batman is pure reason, always prepared and ready to deal with anything, it would make sense that his greatest foe would lie at the limit of reason. Perhaps that was the journey through the entire arc, his time as Zur-En-Arrh was a journey beyond reason to insanity. Now, he finds himself not quite believing that Hurt could in fact be the devil. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, it doesn’t matter in the end. Ultimately, the Black Glove is Batman’s ultimate foe, they will always win. But, in punching through the glass, Batman shows that he is the Black Glove, and he can destroy the evil that opposes him by destroying himself as well.

Bruce has sacrificed himself, confronted the ultimate evil within and come out stronger, but he’s going to become something else for now. In The Invisibles, we saw humanity move into the supercontext after ending the war that had raged forever. Here, Batman has been in a war with the Black Glove his whole career, what does he become after defeating them? He will evolve and become something else, leaving the Batman identity to someone else. As we saw in the page that opens this issue, and come after the end, “Batman and Robin will never die!”

The issue ends with a flashback to the birth of Batman. On one level, this shows us where Zur-En-Arrh comes from, the misheard final words of Thomas Wayne. If Hurt is the ultimate source of evil, he would know everything about Bruce, and he would know that those words would have a major significance for Bruce. By equating Hurt with Bruce’s father, his defeat becomes the ultimate cleansing. Bruce has passed through the worst shadow, this endless Thogal, and perhaps come out as something closer to the happy kid we see here.

I’m curious to see how Morrison handles the character when he hopefully returns to the book in the spring. Will we see the long promised “hairy chested love god”? I’d like to see him keep up the psychedlia of these issues, but perhaps spin it in a slightly more positive direction. Either way, it’s great that we’re getting another issue this week.

In the context of Morrison’s work as a whole, this arc and Final Crisis continue the style he first used on Seven Soldiers, the hyperdense comic that requires a lot of work to unpack, but is incredibly fulfilling to analyze and ponder. It’s interesting to read criticism of the issue because the comics world often seems totally backward from what’s praised in other arts. Nobody’s telling The Wire to do more done in one stories, or not rely so much on continuity, but here, people criticize Morrison’s Batman because they have to do a little work to understand it. Morrison may work on the most mainstream characters, but he’s using a very complex storytelling method, much more so than in his 80s superhero work or JLA. It does rely on the reader to fill in some gaps, and people can call that sloppy plotting, but I prefer it because it gives you a lot more. This issue took me over 25 minutes to read, and a lot of thinking to fully understand. That’s the sign of a great work, and it’s also why Morrison is the best writer in comics. He understands that the 22 page comic needs to be more than just what’s on panel, it’s got to be a world that’s downloaded into your head and gradually unpacked over time.

It’s strange that a comic this dense and tied into the rest of Batman continuity should get such media attention for “killing” Batman when actually reading the book makes it clear that he’s not actually dead. But, if it gets more people to check out Grant’s work, all the better. He has no illusion that Bruce will not eventually get back to being Batman, it’s the journey through the story that matters, and this was a great journey.

Ultimately, I don’t think the issue is the most shocking revelation in seventy years of Batman history, but it’s a great capper for RIP and Morrison’s run as a whole. If we don’t see anymore, I’d be disappointed, but still satisfied. This arc is my favorite Morrison work since Seven Soldiers, a constantly confounding, strange and complex story that gets to the core of Batman in a totally different way than you’d expect. I think my favorite Batman comics story is still The Dark Knight Strikes Again, but this is a close second. And, considering there’s seventy years of Batman stories, that’s pretty good.