So, I’ve been promising to write about Grant Morrison’s Batman run for quite a while, and the things I have to say have just been getting longer and longer. And then the first of the Last Rites issues comes out and it becomes apparent that the whole story has just been leading to Batman’s part in Final Crisis and everything becomes even longer. So consider this the first of a series of posts that may well continue at least until Final Crisis has finished, looking both at the Bat-books post Infinite Crisis and at Final Crisis – as well as looking at some other comics that have relevance to these.
Before we start, I just want to echo amypoodle’s post on Final Crisis. I think these comics are *great*, some of the best superhero comics ever written, and if you don’t agree you are, objectively, wrong. I can prove it. I have graphs.
I do think, though, that Morrison’s Batman has been less successful than Final Crisis – partly because of the artists (who, with the exception of the always-wonderful J.H. Williams III, have ranged from the competent to the incompetent, never touching ‘good’), and partly because, as my friend Tilt put it a while back “It’s like if the Beatles made Sgt Pepper, but only after ten years of everyone making Their Satanic Majesties Request“. The Batman-facing-the-worst-foe-ever-and-getting-broken-by-it storyline is one we’ve seen so many times before that even though Morrison’s doing it better than anyone else, the story still sagged a little in the middle just because of its similarity to other stories (roughly the couple of issues before the appearance of Bat-Mite, when everything went all Morrison). Having said that, it’s still the best run on Batman I’ve ever read, by a very long way.
I want to look at every aspect of these stories, and also as far as possible at what the creative process was and to what extent these works have been shaped by editorial diktat rather than the ideas of the writer. I think that any honest assessment of these comics has to take those factors into account, bearing in mind the widespread rumours of disagreement between Morrison and the editorial teams he has been working with, and the extraordinarily non-committal statements those editors have made (along with Morrison’s virtual absence from any publicity for his recent work – odd, given that he is one of the most publicly visible comic creators).
One of the standard phrases that comes into pretty much every internet critique of Morrison’s run on Batman is ‘except for the editorially-mandated Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul crossover’. I must have read that phrase at least twenty times, and yet nobody writing it has explained why Resurrection should be left out of consideration when considering Morrison’s run. I think that the phrase is actually code for “You got other writers to mix with the sacred Morrison! Blasphemy!” – even when the people writing this then go on to damn the rest of Morrison’s run with a variety of types of faint praise.
Now, if you’re going to think of writers to collaborate with Morrison, I would suggest that Dini, Nicieza and Milligan are at least as reasonable a set of choices as Waid, Johns and Rucka – Milligan is a genuinely great comic writer for whom Morrison has expressed admiration in the past, and Dini and Nicieza are both very competent journeymen (much as it pains me to say that about Dini, who I still hold responsible for the execrable Countdown), so I don’t think that this, on its own, removes Resurrection from consideration. But is it ‘editorially mandated’? Was it imposed on Morrison from above?
Now, the main way to tell is just to see if it fits into the larger picture of his run – which I will do when I get to it – but for now I shall stipulate that I can make a good case that it fits with both the larger narrative and themes of Morrison’s run. What does an ‘editorially mandated’ crossover involving Morrison and Dini usually look like?
Well, as we’ve seen recently, what it actually involves is Morrison and Dini writing totally different, mutually incompatible stories, and Dini throwing in one or two lines referencing something that almost-but-not-quite happens in Morrison’s story, and then everyone complaining vociferously about this afterwards. That is clearly not what Resurrection looks like. Some people have complained about aspects of the storytelling, but the fact is, it reads as one story with a beginning, a middle and an end.
It also follows from Morrison’s work in a way that it doesn’t from the others – Dini obviously hated doing the story, having Ra’s effectively destroyed again in the very next issue after the crossover finished. Nicieza and Milligan were brought in just for this story. So if the story came from any of the writers, as opposed to editorial mandate, it must have come from Morrison.
This also fits in with what was said about the storyline in advance of its publication (more than a year ago now – scary how time passes so quickly) – that the original idea of Ra’s coming back was suggested by DiDio to Morrison (presumably to tie in with the character’s increased popularity post-Batman Begins), that Morrison liked the idea and plotted the story, and that only later was it decided to make it a crossover between all the Bat-books.
So to my mind, while that may count as an ‘editorially mandated crossover’ in the sense that it was the editorial team that decided for the story to *be* a crossover rather than a story taking place in only Morrison’s title, it certainly doesn’t seem to me like the storyline, or the effects on the rest of Morrison’s run, were in any way imposed on him. Other things later on may have been (and we’ll know more about that in the inevitable angry interview about how Morrison’s work was fucked around with by editorial after it’s all over – Morrison’s work is *always* fucked around with by editorial in one way or another, and he’s always angry about it) but to my mind, Resurrection is part of Morrison’s Bat-run, and will be discussed as such.
Tomorrow – the Joker.
I’ll be posting about music tonight, but in the meantime, you should go and read pillock on scale…
Agreed. I actually had a discussion about this in my local shop this past Wednesday where I argued the same point. It has to be treated as a part of Morrison’s run, especially since it picks up on so many plot threads and themes of his run that ignoring it would be an incomplete look at his run. Now, how much of the issues written by the other writers you include is debatable since they aren’t part of the run and may or may not provide useful insight. Since I’m planning to do a write-up of Morrison’s second year on the book (did one of the first year a bit over a year ago), I haven’t actually decided… the other issues provide useful plot information as far as that story goes, but does their touching on or contributing to the themes and ideas of Morrison’s run necessarily “count” towards Morrison’s run or would they just be unavoidable on the other writers’ parts considering that the plot they worked on stemmed from Morrison’s run?
Re: the quality of FINAL CRISIS, I’ve noticed a few things about the reviews.
By and large, it’s the more intelligent, more widely-read, and more literate-minded reviewers who are loving it to pieces. Okay, that’s usually a good indicator.
What I’ve also noticed is that almost every reviewer who glows about it … is talking, invariably, about the IDEAS. About the THEMES. Which are, I grant you, an important factor (and are criminally underrepresented in most mainstream comics – if they’re considered at all).
But where FINAL CRISIS fails for me – and for many people – is in its STORYTELLING. Its ability (or lack) to convey a compelling and comprehensible story, in a single read, to the average reader.
Reading a story over and over again to notice the subtleties – to see where the clues are first laid, to note the different ways in which the relevant themes have been seeded in parallel arcs, etc – that’s fine. That’s what a second or third or fourth reading SHOULD unearth.
But if the average reader doesn’t know who these characters are – because they haven’t read issues X, Y, and Z of a Kirby comic that was published 30 years ago, and the current author hasn’t bothered to introduce them (or what their status quo was before the plot begins) – then that author has on some level failed.
The shorthand that the series is only comprehensible to readers who have a PhD in “DCU” isn’t completely wrong. Whether it’s who Barry Allen is and why it’s a big deal that he’s back; the fact that characters called New Gods have been around in certain forms, recently died, and why it’s a big deal that they’ve been inhabiting new bodies; what a “Kamandi” or a “Nix Uotan” is… These are all things that in a successful story should be (re)introduced to the audience, instead of just assuming prior knowledge.
And I understand that Grant structured his comic with sharp “jump cuts” between scenes because he intended it be jarring. And that’s a laudable experiment of form. But the actual effect – for me, and for many – is that the individual scenes lack the emotional content they should carry (shock, despair, fright) entirely BECAUSE the jump cuts never give us the chance to connect to the characters as human beings. (I’d be charitable and say that we might be able to sustain our initial emotional connections with these characters if read in a single sitting. But that would require letting the story start with the characters in small moments, and only then having the jump cuts start when the action explodes.)
Understand, I’m not asking for dumb comics. I’m not asking for comics to spoon-feed its audience. But I am suggesting that while the themes and ideas which Grant are playing with are indeed interesting, there are certain requirements of *basic storytelling* that are arguably complete or partial failures.
I think that Grant is a fascinating creator who goes places no one else does. Places no one else even knows exist until he takes us there. But one also gets the sense that the ideas in his head don’t always make it to the page. (Often, that’s partly the fault of the artist. But not always.)
And I think that a second, or third, or fourth read of a text is where you should be getting the SUBtext. Where you should get the METAtext. I think that the first read should always be comprehensible to the vast majority of your audience … and I don’t think it’s going too far to suggest that if it’s not, the author hasn’t fully done his job.
I want to like this comic. I really do. But honestly – if it weren’t for the Final Crisis Annotations page, I’d be as lost as everyone else.
Is it just me, or do people who dislike Final Crisis use the word should an awful lot? It’s amusing to see Universal Principles of Narrative proclaimed that are routinely violated by any number of successful stories. Do they find sprawling ensemble pieces in other media that cut between different characters, locations, and scenes, such as Traffic or Magnolia or The Wire or Lost, equally bewildering?
And if you go back and look at FC #1, there are really very few cuts and scene changes. The book starts with seven pages of Anthro, then moves to Dan Turpin for almost the entire rest of the issue, with the exception of a few pages of Green Lantern stuff, a few pages of Nix Uotan being exiled, and the Anthro/Kamandi scene. If anything, Morrison shows a lot of restraint in avoiding midpage scene changes, aside from Turpin’s narration starting on the last page of the Anthro/Vandal Savage confrontation and the match cut from the Alpha Lanterns sealing Earth to the representation of Earth in the multiversal orrery.
Speaking of The Wire, for another perspective on the artist’s responsibility to the audience, see David Simon’s comments early on in this roundtable discussion. Spoilers commence only after the moderator mentions watching all 60 hours of the series in three weeks.