So last week I read Batman and Robin issues 15 and 16 and The Return Of Bruce Wayne 5 and 6 all within one week. I’ve only just stopped giggling – nobody should get that excited in that short a space of time. The trades will need to come with health warnings, and maybe some sort of eye protection.
The problem is, I’ve tried writing this about five tmes since then, and hit a block. There’s simply too much in these comics to talk about in one blog post, so I’m going to have to write several. This is just the first. Most of the rest will come at the back end of next week – I’ve taken three days off work next week, and I’m going to use them to read Batman comics – but you can expect at least one more between now and then.
You see, this is not just the climax of a story that’s been going on for sixteen issues of Batman and Robin and six of The Return Of Bruce Wayne, this is the culmination (or *a* culmination) of a story that includes JLA Classified: 1-3, all the Seven Soldiers minis, 52, Morrison’s run on Batman, Final Crisis and the Final Crisis one-shots Morrison wrote. That’s something like a hundred and fifty comics, and the story’s not finished yet.
That’s half the length of Cerebus. It’s half again the length of Lee & Kirby’s Fantastic Four run. It’s two Sandmans. But this has gone unnoticed because for the last six years Morrison has been telling his big story across many different titles, rather than a single one. But it’s still one continuous narrative. And it’s made all the stronger by the fact that unlike the creators of those other works, Morrison is having to work with – and against – other creators. Sometimes this has helped (as in the case of his 52 collaborators, who created something genuinely special). Other times (as in The Death Of The New Gods and Countdown) it’s been like five year olds with crayons ‘helping’ Michaelangelo with the Sistine Chapel. (I’ve not yet read the Time Masters mini – I’ll be interested to see on which side of the divide this falls).
Now, it’s impossible to say that a work of this length is ‘about’ just one thing, and in fact this is ‘about’ a whole complex of ideas – it’s about entropy, and information, about freedom, about unifying opposites on a higher level, about multiple viewpoints and multiple realities, about memory, and time.
One big, big theme in all this work is the idea of getting over one’s parents – whether it be Thomas Wayne, or Bruce Wayne as father for his various Robins, or Darkseid as an evil father figure. It came as no surprise to me that Morrison’s own father died in 2004, around the time Morrison started work on this gigantic story (and All-Star Superman, whose most touching issue is the one where Superman’s own father died.)
And this explains why Batman is so cosmically important in these stories – by RoBW 6 the entire universe is revealed to be in some way ‘about’ Batman. Morrison’s been writing, all along, about transcending, about becoming… about breaking through to another level of existence – whether (as in the case of JLA:Classified, 52 and Final Crisis:Superman Beyond 3D) an actual new universe or (as in most of the Batman work, Zatanna and Mister Miracle) a new, more mature, way of looking at the universe – a new mental plane. And of all the DC superheroes, Batman is the one who is most clearly about transcendence. With Batman, there’s a before and an after – his parents dead, and his parents alive. Two states of being. And Batman pushes himself to become more than he was.
Superman, by contrast, was always good, always powerful. He doesn’t have to transcend because he was born transcendent. And most of the other superheroes don’t really change as a result of their powers – Hal Jordan, Barry Allen and so on have had changes in their lives, but those changes are bolted on, not integral to their character. Batrman, *BY HIS VERY EXISTENCE*, is about growing up, about saying “OK, your parents are dead, you’re on your own now, you have to look after yourself” and turning that into a positive, using it to become better.
And that’s the thing that Morrison’s mega-DC-narrative has been telling us for six years – take a sad song and make it better. There are as many perspectives on any event as you can imagine (or at least fifty-two of them) and who you are is defined not by the events you experience but by how you choose to experience them. This is, of course, new-agey twaddle, but it’s also got a kernel of truth to it.
It *is* only a kernel, though, and real life doesn’t necessarily work like that. My wife’s younger brother died, suddenly, around the time Morrison started work on this gigantic story, and she didn’t become a masked vigilante and fight crime – she entered a depressive phase from which she’s still not fully recovered. And that is an appropriate and proper reaction – any newage ‘wisdom’ that says that that could be a positive learning experience is just *wrong* – it’s a terrible thing. That which doesn’t kill you can hurt a *lot*.
But we do all grow up, and we do have to cope, and where we *can* turn those bad things to the good, we should. And this is what Morrison’s recent work has all been about. You only have to look at the use of Black Holes in the mega-story. Early on they’re a trap – the Life Trap, crushing depression, the ultimate destroyer. Nobody can escape from a Black Hole, and Mister Miracle’s whole story is about how he manages to do that anyway.
But look at Return Of Bruce Wayne 6. A black hole is no longer something to escape from – it’s somewhere to escape *to*. An escape hatch for the universe. The universe, in pure information form – the universe as story – is being placed into storage in a black hole at the end of time, so even the end of the universe is only a beginning.
I *must* write about Frank Tipler’s Omega Point stuff here at some point, mustn’t I?
Christ, there’s so *MUCH* to say about just that one issue, Return of Bruce Wayne 6. It’s almost fractal in its complexity, every word containing significance as part of the larger story.
But it all comes down to depression, in the end. And to “Can man confront evil’s challenge? Turn it upside down and end it?”
Bruce Wayne is fighting a “death-idea that never stops”. It can only be defeated by destroying his nervous system. He’s fighting depression all right, and coming out the other side. And that can be a powerful message – it can give hope. I just hope Morrison isn’t also sending the message that those who fight depression and lose are somehow lesser, because not everyone is Batman, and not everyone *can* defeat anti-life.
But as someone who’s had his fair share of depressive episodes, I can say that depression is at least as evil a supervillain as the Joker or the Riddler, and I’m glad to see Batman beat the shit out of it.
More (much more) soon…
So, we’re now a month through the Batman Reborn ‘event’, it might be time to take stock of what’s been going on in the bat-titles ( I have of course reviewed a few of these titles here and here earlier…)
I’ve read all the ‘Batman Reborn’ titles except ‘Red Robin’, and it’s very obvious that despite the branding there is really no overarching ‘event’ going on at all here. Dini’s two titles are just unpleasant – Gotham City Sirens I dealt with before, but Streets Of Gotham is just as nasty in its own way, managing to combine mass-murder, child prostitution and continuity-wank into one perfectly horrible story.
I do wonder what on Earth happened to Dini. A couple of years ago his work on Detective was fresh and entertaining – fun, done in one superhero stories. But since around the time he started working on the egregious Countdown he has instead written some of the worst dreck I’ve ever read, and developed an obsession with Hush, a character that has not one single point of interest.
Meanwhile, the remaining title, Batman, is clearly the remedial readers’ title, as one would expect from a comic by Judd Winick and Ed Benes, with DIck Grayson explaining very clearly in words of one or two syllables everything that was implied by Morrison’s script for Batman & Robin#1 – that Batman is dead, that Dick Grayson is the new Batman, that he is not very happy about these things, and so on.
One could almost think that the new Bat-status had been set up specifically to educate superhero comics fans – “Look, this is what we call a good comic. GOOD comics can be recognised by having interesting stories, pictures which are nice to look at, and not leaving you feeling slightly soiled afterwards. THIS, on the other hand, is what we call a bad comic. In a bad comic, nothing happens that anyone could possibly care about, the women all look like stick figures with two circles drawn randomly in the chest area, and it makes you despair for the human race that anyone could possibly produce anything with such a grotesquely twisted moral tone. No, you CAN’T have the variant cover! BAD fanboy!” (smacks round the nose with a rolled-up copy of Gotham City Sirens)
One could think that at least, if one didn’t look through the comments on comics blogs. The comments to this post (I can’t link the comments directly, unfortunately) seem pretty typical – J.H. Williams’ art is “stagnant as the Dead Sea”, “confuses more than it clarifies”, “too hyper-realistic and stiff”, “tiresome” and “flashy show-off stuff that just distracts from the visuals”…
(Yes, that’s the J.H. Williams who does pages like this:)
So apparently the reaction of many superhero comic ‘readers’ when confronted with anything that might be called ‘good’ is to be scared and confused, because it makes things happen in their brain and that’s never happened before.
What’s particularly interesting is how much the two titles that might be called ‘any good at all’ rely on the quality of the art. Detective is a competent story with the best artist working in comics providing the art, while Batman And Robin is a very good story with the second-best artist working in comics providing the art. This is especially shown in Batman & Robin 2. This issue, the middle part of a three-part story, has very little in the way of plot, being almost all action, and most of that a fight scene, which provides a problem to reviewers like myself who can talk all day about writing but whose vocabulary for describing art stretches about as far as ‘pretty’.
It’s especially telling to compare this issue to anything from Morrison’s Bat-run from the last few years (other than the Black Glove story with Williams’ art) – the writing on those issues was just as good, but sometimes it was almost entirely unreadable, due to the artists not bothering with trivialities such as ‘telling the story’ or ‘drawing characters who look different from each other’. Here, even in a fairly story-light issue, the whole thing works, because Quitely’s ‘acting’ of the characters’ body-language and expression, and his layouts, and his staging, allow everything to move smoothly.
My favourite moment in the comic though shows what can be done by a good writer working within a superhero continuity. It’s the bit where Alfred talks to Dick about Dick’s ‘showbusiness’ background and tells him to treat Batman as a role. Not only does this work within the story, which is based in his background in the circus, while also illuminating things about Dick’s character, it also points to deeper things about Dick and Alfred’s relationship. Before becoming a butler, Alfred was an actor (under the stage name ‘Alfred Beagle’) and that shared ‘showbusiness’ background would be something Dick and Alfred would have shared, even though I’ve never seen it mentioned before in that context. So not only does it make sense that that metaphor would be one Alfred would think of, it illuminates their relationship by using a continuity point – but the story and that moment also still make perfect sense if you don’t know that.
That’s how continuity should be used – as something that adds resonance if you know it, but doesn’t detract if you don’t. Now, if only this ‘good comics’ thing would catch on…
Batman! Batman! Batman! Nanananananananananana – BAT-MAN!
Morrison and Quitely’s Batman & Robin #1 is – until the disturbing last couple of pages – the most fun Batman comic I’ve read in years. The feeling of it is summed up in the very first panel, where the explosions form the words “BOOM BOOM” in fire – the incorporation of the sound effects into the physical action of the panel (like the ‘splash’ made up of water shapes a few pages later) puts us into kids’ comic-book territory, somewhere closer to Dick Sprang (although with a big dollop of Keith Giffen) than to Frank Miller.
This is Quitely’s comic all the way. It’s a cliche to say it, but more than any other writer in comics, Morrison depends on his artists, and much of the reason for the underwhelming response his Batman run so far has had has been his pairing for the bulk of that run with the decidedly… competent… Tony Daniel. Morrison plants clues in the action, in the visual look of the comic, and to have that come off requires first that the artists draw what he tells them (at least where that matters to the rest of the story) and also that the pages be enjoyable enough to look at that one is willing to drink in all the little details, rather than just skim over the pictures looking at ‘what happens’.
It’s no coincidence that prior to this the only part of Morrison’s run on Batman that has been universally admired is the three-issue Black Glove story, drawn by J.H. Williams III, who is for my money the single best artist working in comics today. And as an artist Quitely is almost as good as Williams, while he’s someone with whom Morrison seems to have an incredibly strong working relationship, so it’s unsurprising that on the evidence of this issue, the first storyline of Batman & Robin is going to be at least up to those heights.
Quitely’s storytelling here is almost uncanny – so much of the information here is conveyed by things like character expressions and body language that even I, who have no visual aesthetic sense and a near-autistic inability to pick up on non-verbal signals, am able to figure out these characters from single panels. Even if I knew nothing about Dick Grayson or Damian Wayne – and this being a first issue one would hope (though that hope is no doubt in vain) that it would be appealing to new readers – I could tell literally everything about them from the first panel in which they appear:
Here Damien looks stern, determined, and over-confident – at least in his face. His expression actually looks like what he is – a snotty little kid who wants everyone to think he’s a grown up. But then look at his posture – tensed up, arms crossed – he’s trying to look casual but instead he’s desperately insecure. Meanwhile Dick Grayson, the new Batman, is truly self-confident. He’s utterly relaxed precisely because he knows he’s in complete control. That’s the posture and expression of someone who’s trained in something like acrobatics, martial arts or Yoga (and of course Grayson is supposed to have trained in all these and more) – someone who knows all the time what every single muscle in his body is doing, and so can relax completely because he’s in complete control of the situation. This is shown again and again in their respective postures and expressions.
Look, for example, at that big splash page with Batman and Robin jumping down from the sky in front of the Bat-signal. Damien has his arms pressed close to his body – he’s completely straight and rigid and plunging down head-first. Dick on the other hand is arcing gracefully, with his arms wide open.
And Quitely being so bloody good (and there are a myriad examples of this throughout the comic – look at the second panel of the burning man, with the evil grin on his face that the cops don’t notice) allows Morrison to just let him tell the story with the pictures and get on with writing realistic dialogue, rather than expositional.
In particular, I found it amusing that Dick Grayson recognises Mr Toad’s (and what a perfect Batman villain he is – I can’t believe that no-one thought to use him as one before now) speech patterns as “European Circus Slang”. It is – but only a character who grew up in a circus would make that association first. Mr Toad is actually speaking Polari – a slang that, while apparently originating among Romany circus-people, spread later to theatres and thence to the pre-legalisation British gay subculture, and certainly to any British person over the age of forty the first association would be Julian and Sandy rather than circus people (an association Morrison is certainly aware of, as Danny The Street in Doom Patrol also spoke in Polari.
But we also have touches like Damien telling Alfred “you can leave it by my toolkit, Pennyworth” when offered some supper, while Dick says “These chicken and jalapeño sandwiches are ferocious – I could eat them by the ton” – Damien (much like a caricature of his father) trying too hard to have self-control and self-discipline in an almost anorexic way, while the much more well-rounded Dick Grayson manages to take pleasure in the sensual world, rather than the purely intellectual. (Incidentally, is this the first display we’ve seen from Morrison of a sympathetic character actually eating meat? )
At the moment there appears to me relatively little to say about this comic as far as subtext or clever allusions or any of that stuff goes (though I’m betting the Mindless Ones will find more stuff to say about it when they all take turns in writing about it). It’s just a really good, fun, Batman comic, of a kind anyone can enjoy. I can’t wait for the next one.
Seaguy review either tonight or tomorrow.