Friday, September 18, 2009

Batman and Robin #4: "Revenge of the Red Hood: Part One: Red Right Hand"

The new issue of Batman and Robin features the predicted drop off in art quality, as Philip Tan’s murky, sketchy pencils replace the pop dynamism of Quitely. The story generally works though, the series remains very straight ahead and accessible, without the convoluted psychological insanity of Batman RIP, which most people seem to like, but I’m finding a bit frustrating on some levels.

I’m guessing, and hoping, that this new Batman series will follow a similar arc as the first part of his run, starting with just straight forward fun stories showing Batman on the top of his game, then gradually layer in new problems and issues until it becomes a complex psychological web. I think Morrison’s first couple of arcs on Batman are among the most generic comics he’s ever written. I love Damien, so he spices things up whenever he appears, but apart from that it’s pretty light ninja manbat adventures. It’s not until the JH Williams arc, and particularly the “Space Medicine” arc that the series takes off, and pretty much everything after that is among the best work Morrison’s ever done.

The new series has gone back to the original mode, focusing more on fun and light stories, with occasional moments of character introspection and thematic development. I found the psychological stuff a lot more interesting. I know that Batman RIP got some negative response, but I think it was an ambitious, hallucinatory experience. Reading those issues was like spinning down the insane rabbit hole that was Bruce’s collapsing psyche. It’s also some of the most avant garde content in any of Morrison’s big superhero titles, going further than anything he did in JLA or New X-Men.

But, I respect the direction he’s taking the reinvention and am able to enjoy the journey. It’s just a bit frustrating that it seems like the majority of these issues is action scenes that don’t really go anywhere, and the more intense character stuff is minimized to smaller interludes, very effective interludes, but if every page of this issue was as strong as the scene with Sasha talking about taking off her face or Dick and Damien on the roof, it’d be a much more emotionally engaging experience.

The Red Hood and Scarlet function on one level as another riff on the intrusion of grim and gritty supeheroics in the day-glo world of Silver Age comics. They represent the worst excesses of early 90s heroes, like The Punisher, killing villains that Batman and Robin would bring to justice, and doing so in a very modern way, publicizing their exploits on Twitter.

The Red Hood is very media conscious and sees Sasha’s mask as just another element of their image. In the same way that we wonder who’s under his hood, he claims that people will “imagine the beauty beneath that creepy mask.” That scene is the highlight of the issue, as Sasha’s inner humanity is contrasted with the Hood’s assurance that she’s doing the right thing. These two characters are clearly meant to be a mirror of Batman and Robin, and Sasha’s murders in response to her father’s death echo both Bruce and Dick’s origin. This is what Dick could have become if he was trained by the wrong man, and it’s what Dick is fighting to keep Damien from becoming.

One of the things I like about this issue is the way that Grant continues to expand the Batman universe and bring in new characters and concepts. In addition to the Red Hood and Scarlet, we get the introduction of a mysterious English author, another masked man. The Black Glove mystery in RIP was a lot of fun, and these two characters bring back the detective element to the comic, while also giving Batman some new villains.

The end of the issue builds to a flourish with Batman and Robin brought into contact with their counterparts and raising the question of who is the Red Hood. Jason Todd would definitely make sense, but I feel like Morrison wouldn’t go with such an obvious choice. Perhaps either the Hood or this English author is going to the Joker, he’s still out there, and I’m sure will return before the end of the run.

I’ve got to comment on Tan’s art, which is not a good match for the pop fun the book’s supposed to be going for. Cameron Stewart and Frazer Irving will both be a great match for the tone, but Tan stuff is murky and ugly. I think even the much maligned Tony Daniel was a better fit for the book. I actually liked Daniel, this, not so much.

As a side note, some of my waxing nostalgic for RIP was prompted by reading through Batman: The Black Casebook this week, the TPB collection of the 50s stories that inspired the early parts of Morrison’s Batman run. Why that book wasn’t out when RIP was running I have no idea, but it’s still worth a look. The thing that’s most striking about all those stories is how it’s not actually that far a leap from the strange psychological short stories in this book to what Morrison did in RIP. Many of the stories are about Batman being forced to question elements of himself and his identity, spinning into nightmarish scenarios of identity displacement and loneliness before everything is restored to the status quo on the last page.

My favorite story to date is a surreal one in which Batman wakes up in jail and is told that he’s a crazy man impersonating Batman. He goes to Wayne Manor and talks to Robin, revealing himself as Bruce Wayne. But then another Bruce comes down the stairs and our Bruce runs away. Eventually it’s revealed that Alfred was posing as Bruce, and he and Dick had set up this scheme to stop the real Bruce was dying due to a poison gas he’d been exposed to. It’s totally surreal and like a raw piece of psychological terror. He doesn’t face villains, he faces his own psychological demons. It’s a lot like the Superman stories of the era, just raw drug trip deconstructions of self in comic book form.

I’m sure there were a lot of less successful or ambitious stories from the era as well, but this book is a great compilation of ones that are fun to read and illuminate more of what Morrison was doing with RIP. Morrison has always embraced the absurdity of comics, and managed to find a way to make a story like RIP totally surreal, but still emotionally relevant in a way that more ‘realistic’ superhero comics aren’t.

And, I hope he gets back to that mode on Batman and Robin eventually. Doctor Hurt was teased to return at the end of issue one, and I can’t wait to see him back in action. After this Red Hood arc, at least we’ll have the awesome prospect of Cameron Stewart drawing a story with the Squire, one of Grant’s most entertaining pet characters in the DCU.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Our Sentence is Up Pre-Order

I haven’t had too much time to post here in a while, things have been a bit crazy on many fronts. But, I should mention that my book about The Invisibles, Our Sentence is Up, is going to be coming out in November and is available for pre-order now through Diamond. Check out the Sequart site for more info on how to order.

If you already read all the blog posts I did here, there’s still plenty worth checking out. The text is revised and expanded, with the most in depth look at the series that I think has ever been conducted. It’s also got a 50+page interview with Morrison himself, that covers all aspects of the series, and its place in both the world of the time and our contemporary world. If you’re wondering how Morrison’s world has changed, and how he feels about The Invisibles in the context of his present life and work, this is the interview for you.

I did an interview with Tim Callahan about the book on Comic Book Resources, which I would highly recommend checking out. It covers the background of the book, but also features a lot of interesting discussion about the series itself.

So, if you liked The Invisibles, check out this book, and please pre-order it from your retailers to support it and get it on shelves. And, if any media people out there are interested in doing an interview, just let me know, I’d be glad to talk to you and answer whatever questions you’ve got.