I Don’t Know Who He Is Behind That Mask, But We Need Him, And We Need Him Now…

I *was* going to write today’s comics post on Dave Sim and Gerhard’s graphic novel Guys, but I’ve been frankly amazed by the interest the general public appears to be showing Batman’s death in the Batman: RIP storyline. I was planning on writing some stuff about that story anyway, but given the fun I’ve had with my week-long Doctor Who post series (the final post of which will be some time around midnight tonight) I thought I’d start today on another week-long series, this time about Batman RIP and Grant Morrison’s Batman work in general.

(This one will have the advantage that I can reread comics on the ‘bus to and from work, rather than rewatch DVDs for two hours every night, thus essentially not seeing my wife for a week).

However, the readership of this blog appears to fall into four categories – comics fans, especially fans of the work of Grant Morrison, Liberal Democrats (both capitalised and otherwise), fans of Doctor Who and fans of melodic, 60s-style pop music (the latter don’t comment as much as the other three groups, but they’re there). Actually, most readers fall into at least two of those groups, but I can’t think of anyone reading this who falls into all four categories.

So for those who *don’t* fall into the comic-reader category, or who do but haven’t been keeping up with Batman, a brief explanation as to what’s been going on, whether Batman is ‘dead’, and what’s happening next. I’ll assume you know what a comic is, what a Batman is and so on, but very little else.

If you weren’t already aware, superhero comics – and periodical comics generally – aren’t very popular any more. The very *best* selling titles tend to sell, at most, 100,000 copies or so a month, and even very well-known characters like Batman and Superman sell considerably less than that. Those comics which make a significant amount of money, selling to anyone other than the hardcore obsessive fans, are generally those which sell in ‘trade paperbacks’ – collections containing several issues, usually telling a single story, which are often sold in normal bookshops rather than specialist comics shops.

The problem, though, is that the things that appeal to the 100,000 or so obsessives are not the things that appeal to the general reading public – reading a superhero comic normally requires a great deal of knowledge about previous issues, and often the interest in a particular issue is not in what happens in that story itself, but in how it relates to other issues. The storytelling in superhero comics bears a closer relation to soap opera than to anything else, and unsurprisingly this means that the market for collections of, say, Aquaman comics in trade paperback form is about the same as the market for DVDs of a week or two’s worth of Coronation Street or EastEnders. So just like TV shows, what sells well in serial form is not the same as what sells well in permanent form, and what is critically successful differs from both.

Now, roughly two years ago, DC Comics made one of its increasingly rare clever editorial decisions, and put a writer called Grant Morrison on the main Batman comic (there are several comics every month featuring Batman, as he is a popular character). Grant Morrison is very unusual in that he is relatively popular among superhero comics fans (he is not as popular as some writers, because he’s regarded as ‘weird’ and ‘incomprehensible’ by a section of the readership who are accustomed to having stories spoon-fed to them rather than having to actually pay attention and read between the lines a little), he is also popular among the more sophisticated (as a rule, all exceptions duly noted) readers who buy the collections, he is *also* relatively popular among critics (as he is an actual good writer), and his comics – even his superhero ones – sell very well in collected form for a very long time, while also being popular as serials (his Batman ‘original graphic novel’ (a comic that has only been published in book form rather than as individual issues) Arkham Asylum has remained a consistent best-selling comic for twenty years, selling in the millions over its print history).

Grant Morrison is particularly known as a writer who comes up with very long, intricate plans for his comics, so that even when the individual stories seem like they stand up well on their own, there is often an issue, usually close to the end of his time on a comic, which suddenly throws everything into a new and more interesting light.

There is also a tradition in superhero comics of a superhero apparently ‘dying’, only to come back to life, usually within a year or so. In many cases the ‘death’ is a rather perfunctory story, intended merely to set the scene for the longer story afterwards dealing with the ramifications of the death – see for example the ‘deaths’ of Superman or Captain America.

Grant Morrison has built up to the death of Batman for the best part of two years, but this death issue is still rather in that mode – Morrison has talked about how he has plans for at least another couple of years’ worth of Batman stories to tell, which would presumably include the tale of Batman coming back and so forth. Before that, though, there is a planned break – Morrison is doing two more issues following up the death story, then Denny O’Neill (a writer who wrote many popular Batman stories in the 1970s and edited the title in the 1990s – he created the character of Ra’s Al-Ghul who was the villain in the film Batman Begins, among other things) is doing two issues. Then Neil Gaiman (an extremely popular comic writer who also has written a string of best-selling novels and the film Beowulf) is going to write two more. There will then be a special storyline called “The Battle For The Cowl”, about people trying to take over the job of Batman, and after that we don’t know what will happen.

It was originally planned that Grant Morrison would return after that storyline, but recently there have been rumours that he has fallen out with various people in the DC Comics editorial department over changes to his stories (and other writers are getting annoyed that his stories affect the ones they want to write), so it may well be that the next two issues are the last ones he will do with the character of Batman. If so, that would be a shame, as he has clearly not yet wrapped up his various stories in the way he normally likes to.

One way or another, Batman will be back – next year is his 70th anniversary year, and if Grant Morrison doesn’t come back to the title to finish off his story, someone else will bring him back. Next year, for example, DC Comics have a big storyline involving all their characters in which the villains are Black Lanterns – zombie superheroes given special powers – which will involve a lot of ‘recently dead’ characters. If Batman isn’t back before then, that will almost certainly be used as the excuse to bring him back.

In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the next few issues, and keep my fingers crossed for Morrison’s return. And now that I’ve explained that, I can start tomorrow with some discussion of the whole huge story Morrison’s been telling…

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