Thursday, February 12, 2009

Batman #686: "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" (Part 1)

Picking up where Grant Morrison left off, Neil Gaiman’s Batman #686 presents yet another spin on the death of Batman. This one also appears to be taking the “It’s all true” approach to Batman, mixing elements of pre-Crisis Catwoman with post-crisis Barbara Gordon and a reincarnated Joe Chill for a pretty mysterious opening. Is this a dream like trip through hypertime that Batman takes on his journey between worlds? Are the various deaths he experiences a piece of his journey through Darkseid’s Omega Sanction? Or is it just an excuse for Gaiman to get a bunch of characters he likes together and tell some fun stories about Batman.

I haven’t written that much about Gaiman on this blog, but I do love his work. Sandman was the first long form comics series I read, and I still think it’s one of the high points of the medium. I was debating at the New York Comicon who the fourth best writer in comics is, with everyone having the foregone conclusion that Moore, Gaiman and Morrison are the top three. I can’t argue with that, Gaiman doesn’t write that many comics, but what he writes is usually really strong. 1602 didn’t work so well, but I’ve liked pretty much everything else I read by him in comics.

I’d still love to see Gaiman get to conclude his Miracleman run. I’ve only read “The Golden Age,” and there he did the near impossible of following up on Alan Moore’s legendary run in a way that didn’t step on what Moore had created, and only served to deepen and expand the universe. It’s a shame the series has been trapped in legal limbo for so long, one day, hopefully Gaiman will be able to finish the story.

When reading a Grant Morrison comic, the thing that overwhelms you is the amount of ideas. In Final Crisis, there’s a dozen cool concepts littered on every page and you can’t believe that he has this vast store in his mind to draw from. With Gaiman’s work, what has always amazed me is the huge amount of stories. Sandman knitted together its larger story with countless standalone stories. Where do they all come from? This issue is similar to a lot of Sandman arcs in that it uses a gathering of a bunch of people as a framing device for various smaller tales, each from a notable member of Batman’s supporting cast.

I’m not sure what the end result of all this will be. How can all these different incarnations of the characters be there together? I think it’s the perfect thing to tie in with the Omega Sanction, that this is Bruce’s hallucinatory journey through a series of different lives and deaths, watching all his friends betray him and leaving him utterly alone. Selina, particularly this Earth 2 version, and Alfred have always been allies of Bruce, why would they kill him?

The Selina story covers a piece of the Batman mythology that I love, but hasn’t really been touched on in either of my two favorite comics Batman stories, Morrison’s Batman RIP or Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again. The uncertain flirtatious relationship between Selina and Bruce, Batman and Catwoman, can be great because it explores the thin line between Batman and the criminals he hunts. If Catwoman can so easily switch sides from good to bad, why can’t Bruce do the same thing, and, could he find himself on the other side without even meaning to be there?

The relationship is most brilliantly explored in what is still the finest Batman film, Batman Returns. There, we see Bruce go one step further than he does in this comic and offer to throw away the Batman persona and settle down with Selina, only to have his image of an idyllic homelife rejected. The two of them need that fire to be together, they aren’t normal, and can only really be together as Batman and Catwoman. One of the things I love about the film is Selina’s defiant rejection of his offer of a classic heteronormative dream life, marriage to the most eligible bachelor in Gotham, a good looking guy who’s also incredibly rich. She has moved beyond that world now, and doesn’t play by their rules.

Wonder Woman is so messed up in a history of bondage and power/subservience, I’d argue that Catwoman is DC’s real feminist hero. Sure, she may be a villain some of the time, but the character argues for a rejection of traditional feminine roles, and the embrace of a new kind of independent lifestyle. I’d really like to see Morrison’s take on the character in his next batch of issues.

Catwoman’s story here is largely about the impossibility of being together with Batman, primarily because he has his way of doing things, and doesn’t see much room for someone with her own approach. He is attracted to her when she’s a criminal, but when she tries to fight crime, he just chastises her for doing it “wrong.”

Here, Selina does achieve the kind of domestic dream that she rejected in Batman Returns, but she gradually loses the fire that drove her as time goes on. In letting Batman die on the couch, she is making it possible for her to kill herself. As long as he was out there, there was always the hope he’d come back to her, and things could be like they were. When he comes back and she finds out that he knew she was there all the time, but never chose to see her, she decides that it would be best to let them both die together. Only, she’s too scared to do herself, and instead she just watches the man she loved, a piece of herself, die.

The Alfred story is also extremely interesting. It works fine as a straight up elseworlds type story, but I’d argue it functions more as Alfred exercising his guilt for enabling Bruce’s delusions over the years. In letting Bruce become Batman, Alfred indirectly upped the ante in the crime stakes, and paved the way for supercriminals like The Joker. We see that dramatized here with the story of Alfred literally creating supervillains as a way to make Bruce feel better.

The whole story feels a bit like the portions of Watchmen that discussed how much better it felt to go out in costume when the villains were wearing costumes too. If Alfred hadn’t created ‘The Riddler,’ Bruce might have gotten over his depression naturally and given up the illusion of being Batman. But, Alfred kept raising the stakes to keep him happy, and eventually the illusion he’d constructed spun out of control.

And, as time went on, the illusion became real, which is discussed in the scene with Bruce and Alfred at the window. The fight against evil is real, therefore the evil itself must be real as well. The whole story is interesting in light of the rampant speculation that Alfred was the force behind the Black Glove, and also in light of the idea that Bruce was his own worst enemy, another possible candidate for Black Glove status. Batman RIP was largely concerned with the idea that only Batman himself could come up with a villain powerful enough to defeat him. This story would take place early in Batman’s career and play off the idea of Batman and The Joker as symbiotic entities, each becoming more violent and powerful in response to each other, riding together on an inextricable path towards destruction.

I’m still not sure what the overall setup for the story is, but this was a great, really dense issue that brought back memories of just how good a comics writer Gaiman can be. This is stronger than 1602 or Eternals, and it made me wish that he’d jump back on an ongoing, or just do some more work in the DCU or anything. I want more Gaiman comics. But, for now, this two parter will do.


RAB said...

I've seen a lot of people theorizing that Gaiman's story is somehow connected to Darkseid's Omega Beams and will turn out to be some kind of Mister Miracle #4 replay...but I hope that's not the case and the evidence in this issue doesn't really point that way. The conceit worked in the MM story because of its symbolic resonance -- he's the world's greatest escape artist, there's trauma in his past from which he's trying to escape, and what do we all need to escape most if not the closing off of possibilities and options as our future becomes more limited and determined by each choice we make? Shilo's motif is all about seeking freedom; the story works for him. But even there, it's a total misreading to say (which you're not, but a lot of readers seem to be) that Darkseid's supervillain power is eyebeams that make people live through alternate lives. That's clunky literalism. I expect Neil has a lighter touch than that. But we'll see!

On a side note, I liked 1602 a lot. Maybe part of it is the fourth wall breaking aspect of knowing that Neil was playing with his two favorite sets of toys -- old school comics references and historical scholarship. Even if they were two things I didn't enjoy myself, it'd still be fun to see him turning that game into a story. There's a lot of heart in it, and the characters feel true while still producing surprises: I recognized them as the "real" Marvel characters more than I do anything else published by Marvel in their proper continuity over the past decade.

You're definitely onto something with Catwoman as DC's more effective feminist character...and I say that as someone who loves the original William Moulton Marston stories. There's a huge misunderstanding of the bondage stuff and the dominance/submission imagery of those original stories, especially to contemporary eyes. But I don't think any current writer could get it right...and even if one did, today's audience would never be able to accept it.

RAB said...

Er, I omitted something in that last paragraph: of course I mean I love Marston's Wonder Woman stories! And if he'd written Catwoman stories, they'd be just as maligned today as the WW tales often are...

Patrick said...

I doubt that Gaiman was directly referencing the Omega Sanction thing, if only because I doubt he'd be working closely enough with Morrison to be aware of exactly what would happen to Batman, or invest in continuing that specific piece of the story. Has Gaiman ever talked about Morrison's work? He's obviously a huge Moore fan, but I can't recall him ever mentioning or referencing Morrison's stuff. You could argue that Moore is kind of the bridge between Morrison and Gaiman, fusing Neil's interest in classical storytelling and myth building with Morrison's interest in magic and philosophy.

I'm not sure how the story will resolve itself, but regardless of the intention, I think that this story will function as a nice bridge between Batman's Omega Sanction 'death' in Final Crisis and his rebirth in the distant past that will presumably be the subject of Morrison's next chunk of Batman issues.

I enjoyed 1602 to some extent. I think the early issues are a bit goofy, with the "A devil, but one who dares!" dialogue, but I'd agree that it gets to that core joy of the Marvel Universe in a way that most of the current comics don't. I don't really like the digital look of Kubert's art in that book. I don't like Kubert that much in general, I think he's a fine storyteller here, but I just don't like the aesthetic of his stuff.

My Catwoman interpretation is largely based on Batman Returns and what I've read of her solo series, but I think in those incarnations, she's a far more interesting character than Wonder Woman, and a more legitimate example of female power that's relevant to the world today.

I've read a whole bunch of JLA, but Wonder Woman's never been established as someone with real personality or distinct character traits. Batman and Superman all have such amazing mythic qualities, these archetypal elements that they draw on, and the attempt to fit Wonder Woman in to that Trinity doesn't make much sense to me. Perhaps I just need to check out the Perez Wonder Woman run to be proven wrong, but I think Catwoman is a more resonant character.

But, as you say, in a shared universe like this, perception of characters is largely based on what you've read and who's written them. Coming off All Star Superman, Superman seems like the most vital, awesome hero, but back in the Electric Blue mullet era, he could seem just as creatively bankrupt as Wonder Woman does now.

chipsnopotatoes said...

very interesting thoughts on Selina.

I love her character as well so I'm glad she was featured prominently in this book.

I had a different take to her reason for letting him die though -- woman scorned is probably the succint way to put it. I really got a Kathy Bates vibe from her in this story. Like the romance is one sided and only in her head.

Having said that, I really like Gaiman's restrained and refined style.

I hope he features Dick (as son) and Gordon (as best friend) in the next stories.

Patrick said...

I'm guessing we'll see Dick and the Joker, you can't leave out the Joker when it comes to this kind of story, and I'm eager to see Gaiman's spin on him. But, Gordon might be in there too. With the setup out of the way, there could be time for three stories next issue.

Jacob said...

I haven't read this yet, but am looking forward to it. On a general note, though, I have to the concern that Alan Moore once expressed about this sort of story - namely, what's the point? There are any number of stories that tell us that, for instance, Batman and the Joker are mirror opposites of each other, but what does that actually mean? Neither character is really analogous to anything in the real world, and neither is their relationship.

It's solipsism, stories that are only about their own elements, like writing a fantasy story whose entire point is that "trolls are like this, and goblins are like this." I think what elevates Moore and Morrison's work is that they are deeply rooted in what this means in real terms - and while Morrison may not always hew to strict psychological realism (nobody in real life is probably as upright and courageous and smart and loveable as his Superman) he does always keep in touch with how these archetypes relate to his actual worldview.

Gaiman, though, is a literary mimic, and a literary critic, and people like that can often content themselves with making clever points about the content of other people's stories. I think this is part of why, while I love Sandman, I have often found his other work, particularly his novels, somewhat lacking - a bit thin and stretched, like a xerox of a xerox - he's too happy to just illustrate things he find interesting about Shakespeare or fairy tales, rather than make the deeper points that give those stories their power.

Patrick said...

I definitely agree with that to some extent. I think even with Moore and Morrison, their weaker works are the ones that just function as homages to the things they like. Black Dossier has a couple of real emotional moments, but the major takeaway is Alan Moore showing off his knowledge of various literary periods.

Gaiman's work, much more than Moore's or Morrison's, always seems to have the same voice. It works great in Sandman when he's able to tell a whole bunch of different stories with a lot of different tones. But, his non-Sandman work always seems to be in that same twee precious style. I think the extended nature of Sandman meant that he was more free to delve into really dark and challenging stuff without fear that he'd struggle to find an audience.

Is this Batman story necessary? Not really, but I think it's emotionally engaging enough that there's something real there in spite of the fact that it's largely riffing on the same ideas as Morrison's Batman RIP. Batman RIP reminds me of Todd Haynes's I'm Not There, in the sense that on one level it's a very specific, lengthy inside joke about its subject, Batman or Dylan, and some people have argued that it's insular and not really accessible to someone without an academic knowledge of those subjects.

But, I'd argue that the works are just as powerful as explorations of the kind of schizophrenic personal reinvention we all engage in, only seen through the historical lens of character reinvention. So, it's both a history of Batman, and a story that could be about anyone.

Gaiman's story here is more precisely about the Batman mythos, but I think it it taps into that mythos in a really interesting way that makes it worth reading. We'll see how it turns out in the second half, but so far it's one of Gaiman's stronger works.