alfred-gets-it-right

Batman & Robin #2 would appear to be the book where the uncommitted became converts, or at least became considerably more interested. People have made the usual gestures towards Quitely’s wonderful art, and highlighted the elegant conceptual economy evident in Morrison’s character work and its meta-textual dimensions. And here we get to the first object of this droplet of criticism – a slice of meta-commentary of surprising value, in that it makes a strong case for shedding our fears and anxieties about this ersatz Batman. By framing Dick’s tenure as a performance, Morrison shows us how both the characters and we, the audience, can engage with the new status quo without feeling that anyone’s toes are being trod on. The real beauty of this idea is that it brings with it the flexibility and permissiveness of adaptation and interpretation (key elements of any performance), and consequently lends the book a lightness and unboundedness (made much of by Amy in his review) that is all too rare in A-list superhero books. Put simply: a lot more can happen because this Batman isn’t Batman. Implicit to this way of approaching the comic is the understanding that theatrical performances are there, largely, to be enjoyed. Morrison is tacitly telling us to allow ourselves to sit back and have fun, to take pleasure in the unfolding of the role, to view it for what it is: entertainment.

The sad thing is that superhero comics have become so insular, so continuity obsessed that Grant should feel the need to supply us with this altered perspective in the first place

That not insignificant worry aside, Alfred’s dialogue can also be viewed in terms of character development: Dick and Alfred are bound together by Alfred’s references to both their shared heritage as performers and the implicit understanding that they were both extremely close to Bruce Wayne. A point emphasized by their mutual recognition that Bruce would “hate” to think of Dick’s taking up of the mantle as a “memorial”. Additionally the dialogue paints Alfred as a sensitive, empathic and very clever customer. This is Alfred as both support team and close confidant, the archetypal manservant – exactly the kind of Alfred we want to see but so rarely get.

Finally, to go back to meta-commentary for a moment, Alfred’s dialogue also works to reinforce the conceptual and thematic coherence of the piece by tacitly demonstrating that the Circus of Strange and Professor Pyg can be read as part of a wider conceptual and thematic framework. We can plausibly read them as externalisations of Dick Grayson’s very own haunted psyche made manifest at the moment of his greatest confusion of identity (this side of his parents lying dead on the circus floor)*, but Alfred’s pep-talk works to highlight them as performers, as signifiers of the kind of entertainment that Dick’s Batman embodies, as part of the argument that this should all be understood as some fantastic show.

*I could probably bring in method acting here, and the ways in which it attempts to build a bridge between an actor’s life experience and their performance and how that particular lens might help us get more out of the text, but I’m worried that I might end up heading up my own arse, so I won’t.

What we have here, in short, is a veritable tour de force. 3 or 4 panels of sleek dialogue that punches so far above its weight it’s almost absurd. The kind of work that most writers working within the superhero genre simply couldn’t conceive of, let alone execute, and an argument in and of itself in favour of the attention we give Morrison.

And so to the second object of my critical ministrations

robin-gets-his-arse-handed-to-him

There’s something slightly depressing about the ways in which this fight sequence has been discussed. Lots of references to its prettiness, the quality of Quitely’s work, etc… but sadly the focus has tended to build upon the art/writing divide, and lose sight of the fact that rarely are we treated to fight sequences of this caliber, and by rarely I actually mean hardly ever. Here Morrison eschews the tricks of his JLA run – there’s very few idea bombs in evidence, ala Batman’s many and varied plans to take down the Shaggy Man – and instead relies upon the clarity, formal inventiveness and beauty of Quitely’s art and choreography; and layers of story. The most exciting beats aren’t to be found in demonstrations of Batman’s overwhelming hyper-competence, or even the left-field berserkness of the supervillains (although they’re dead bloody good), but in the ebb and flow of the combat itself, and the drama of the unfolding narrative, generated primarily by strong character conflict.

This powerful melding of writing and art puts the focus on comics as story, as movement. Too often we can drag plot away from art not simply because our critical language is broader in that arena and our confidence consequently greater, but because there is frequently a disconnect between the art and the story in that neither is working hard to service the other. Here, thankfully, that’s far from the case. Of course, the other common critical focus, particularly in discussions of Morrison’s work, comes in the form of an attempt to list and explicate the conceptual easter eggs and examples of momentism that litter so many superhero comics. This impulse naturally arises from the fact that such easter eggs and moments are one of the principal ways in which the genre attempts to entertain. Again these elements have a tendency to drag one out of the flow of story, as they often exist, at least on some level, as things to be enjoyed in and of themselves, as mini-entertainments. Intriguingly for Morrison there’s very little of that here, and this serves to smooth the experience still further. What’s particularly interesting to me is the way in which Alfred’s dialogue later in the book works, on a reread, to build upon this sense of slick, holistic storytelling. We’re encouraged not to read this with expectations of momentism* (or not as much expecting, anyway – follow the link if you want to get a handle on what I’m talking about), where the pleasure is to be found in demonstrations of the quintessential Batman experience, but as something less defined (Batman isn’t Batman, remember), more capable of delivering entertainment through the simple joys of brilliantly executed fight sequences and the momentum of the story.

*I should probably point out that the one great big example of momentism in the comic is probably Alfred’s dialogue. As I have noted above, one of its functions is to give us a quintessential Alfred moment. Momentism certainly hasn’t deserted this title (see the paracapes panel in issue #1 for further evidence), but I would argue that at this stage it’s been complicated in an interesting way, and that the book emphasises other pleasures

Seen through this lens the fight at the beginning of the issue is positioned as key driver of the book’s appeal. Yes it’s better because it’s an action sequence featuring Batman, as fans we’ll always feel that way and Morrison and Quitely know it and, yes, they do act on that information, but the fight as the purest, surest path to the quintessential Batman experience is largely rejected in favour of more traditional action sequence fun: the flow of combat, the action beats, the story of the engagement. Because of this deprioritising of momentism and the scarcity of easter eggs it’s works as an entertainment high point for both the hardcore and casual fan alike, after all everyone likes well done action sequences, but not everyone will find the introverted language of quintessential superhero moments comprehensible let alone fun.

To go back to the art and its role in delivering an experience that keeps one’s attention focussed on the flow of story, Quitely’s work during the fight sequence emphasises movement over moment in a variety of ways, from the overlaying of panels and the genuine narrative responsiveness of their shape, size and positioning, to the use of background or ambient detail to economically and elegantly draw attention to motion – Robin’s leg arcing through the smoke comes to mind as a rather good example of the kind of thing I’m talking about – to the under-reliance on splash pages, or even large panels. Then there’s the fact that Quitely’s fight is comprised of panels that build on one another to create sequences of interlocking action, mini stories that add up to a grander whole. Too many fights simply list a series of barely related kicks and punches, and even when they do marry up there’s seldom much storytelling force to speak of, with most fights simply coming down to two guys hit each other, one guy wins. Sometimes by doing something clever. Sometimes for no discernable reason at all. Sometimes, quite often in the case of Daredevil, because he’s the angriest (oh, Brian Michael Bendis!)

Here not so much. Take the sequence where Robin attacks the siamese ninja-triplets, in addition to telling us that Robin is overconfident, rash, tough and tenacious – in that he almost gets his arse handed to him, then comes back for more, then almost gets his arse handed to him again – it also provides him with strong motivation for taking on Big Top single-handedly: he lost one round and someone has to pay (hey, he’s also angry and vengeful!) – which consequently leads to the dissolution of the Batman and Robin team both within this scene (they split up and lose: Toad gets croaked), and the comic as story arc as a whole. But that’s not all, the sequence of panels works not simply as a series of cool looking pictures of flailing extremities but as a cogent whole, one panel leading inexorably to the next. The other day I read a chap complaining that the fight suffered from the same problem as many of the fight sequences in Batman Begins: over reliance on close-ups in an effort to communicate the confusion and violence of combat (without resorting to blood and other PG 13 unfriendly antics), but failing thanks to the way in which the technique tends to work against clarity. That’s not what’s going on here. To begin with Quitely doesn’t overuse close-ups, and where he does use them he uses them with purpose. We get tighter and tighter because that’s what Robin is experiencing: a closing down of options, a tighter and tighter spot. Also note the juxtaposition between the final extreme close-up on Robin’s eyes, and the next panel where we pull out to take in the action and Robin leaps to safety before the ninja does to his head what he ends up doing to the wall. This dramatic change of perspective and influx of motion is like the air hitting your lungs after a long spell holding your breath, and is a trick which Quitely memorably brought to bear in We3 (I won’t say where, but it’s one of the most effective sequences I’ve ever come across and probably warrants a Fuck Yeah essay).

Unlike JHW3, Quitely isn’t composing pages that function as artifacts, that encourage the reader to step back and consider them not simply as storytelling elements from which additional meaning can be drawn, but also as beautiful, self-contained objects – artworks. If William’s has a weakness it’s that his glorious pages all too easily lend themselves to fetishisation and as a consequence can work to rip one out of the narrative experience and into something else entirely – something that might well benefit the text, but something that can also be said to stand alone. To his credit his work on Batwoman actually benefits from this, he uses it to super-charge the character with the electricity of meaning and significance, but I’m glad to see Morrison and Quitely demonstrate that unknown quantities like Dick Grayson’s Batman, indeed, like Batwoman, can find strength in their inauthenticity and lack of weight.

13 Responses to “Yet more bloody thoughts about Batman and Robin #2”

  1. It Burns Says:

    Greetings from America, MO’s; it’s my first post. I’ve been following your site for almost a year now, and want to bear your children: everyone except Tymbus (I couldn’t deal with all the defects). Sadly, science (ever disappointing), hasn’t figured out how to induce male pregnancies so we’ll have to wait. Here’s hoping!

    Seriously, you all have something wonderful here and I hope to post more often now that I’ve stopped being a timid 8&*$ and said something.

    Hooray

  2. lanmao, the blue cat Says:

    One of the things that interested me about the page above is the degree to which the extreme closeup on Damian’s eye reminded me of Batman (by which I mean, Bruce Wayne). It’s got a look of calm and clearheaded evaluation, the cold pragmatism of Bruce in combat. Given what happens in the next panel, the most obvious thing might have been to depict the eye going all buggy, to indicate “Oh shit! I am going to be kicked into the wall by some weird Siamese triplet ninja!”, so I think that Quitely gives Damian the look in order to drive home the reversal of roles that takes place in this iteration of the Dynamic Duo.

    Also, say what you will about Bendis’ Daredevil winning by virtue of being the angriest, it was totally badass when he beat the shit out of Sano Orii at the end of “Lowlife.”

  3. Neon Snake Says:

    Good shout, blue cat. I like the way the eye narrowed at the end, it’s like he’s blocked everything, hasn’t been able to throw a single strike of his own, and calmly concluded “Nope. Not gonna win this one. Think I’ll get the fuck out of Dodge before I get my arse kicked. And there is no way I’m letting Grayson see me get my arse kicked.”

    Between this and ‘Tec, we’re in for something of a treat for the next year, methinks.

  4. Zom Says:

    Yeah, good call on the eye. That’s totally the best way of reading it.

    Daredevil effortless beating the crap out of Bullseye, because he was the angriest, was extremely rubbish for all sorts of reasons

  5. Thrills Says:

    The art in this issue really made me wonder if Quitely has any animation work in his past – he really does seem to understand how movements flow. If not, I’d suggest he gets into animation, but that’d not only lose the comic world a fantastic artist, but really, who’d want to be an animator? It’s a life fraught with frustration, menial work, no funding, and very little realisation of your own ideas.

    Ahem.

    Which is to say, Quitely’s fight choreography really is fantastic, and I agree that for some reason this is not something comic artists often do well, which is frankly bizarre.

  6. Zom Says:

    I imagine it’s in part because they’re often not given the wriggle room by the writer or given the appropriate guidance, and in part because a lot of artists actually aren’t that good at drawing comics

    What I was trying to emphasise here is the way in which this book flows, and doesn’t foist a kind of staccato reading experience upon the reader (unlike most comics)

  7. Thrills Says:

    Oh yeah, completely. The comic reads so smoothly and satisfyingly, it feels effortless (as a result of lots of effort going into it) and RIGHT.

  8. amypoodle Says:

    the same animated quality is evident in all his stuff, tbh. I was looking at ASS #10 yesterday, and was struck by some of the panel transitions. just little things like the movement between the universe q cube in one panel becoming the offices of siegel and schuster in the next. i think the difference in b&r is that it’s necessarily more overt. afterall it is an action book.

  9. amypoodle Says:

    i like to add that i love the way zom brushes off the dk movie criticism with a simple, totally dismissive ‘that isn’t what’s happening here’.

  10. Zom Says:

    Because it’s demonstrably untrue.

    Just look at those fighting panels. They’re just bloody brilliant

  11. lanmao, the blue cat Says:

    Oh hell, I forgot about that Bullseye fight. Yeah, that was pretty dumb.

  12. Yop! Says:

    Ideas like the “SMASH” writing on the wall just make me think that Quitely is more than a standard penciler. He’s got style in design and narration.
    Guess working with a great writer like Morrisson is like an artistic shhot of adrenaline for him.

  13. Tymbus Says:

    Dear It Burns,
    So you break cover merely to insult me! Sure, I may be short sighted, have various skin complaints and be marginally obese, however I regard these as human all too human not “defects”. Besides, our love child would be blessed with a quick sarcastic wit that would guarantee a life of splendid isolation.
    Yours insincerely,
    Tymbus

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