February 2nd, 2010
Bob: This is not only the best issue of B&R yet, but the best single issue of Morrison’s batman run by some margin, and as dense and full a piece as he’s written since Seven Soldiers #1, with which it shares many links and referents, both deliberate, accidental and incidental.
Zom: Tan’s a nice chap, some of us around here were quite keen on his work, but if you ask me thank God for Cameron Stewart: Batman & Robin is back at long last. This isn’t my favourite issue and I’ll get into some of the reasons why later, but it’s a bloody good one.
Bob: Don’t forget to check out the excellent annotations of this issue up at Funnybook Babylon - we’ll be covering much of the same ground as them, and throwing our own bent and battered Alfred Pennyworths in too. Rich Johnston has also got a couple of posts up on today’s topic, and Rikdad‘s knotty look at it is worth your time too.
Bob: To these eyes, this is the best art of Cameron Stewart’s career. It’s clear what he’s up to from this opening splash, on which more later: that’s a Quitely Batman.
Zom: Ah lovely, a good old fashioned action sequence (as opposed to a fight sequence). You get surprisingly few of these in superhero comics today more’s the pity.
Bob: Panel 1 – That’s Mickey Eye the London Eye – great views of the city and river from the South Bank, the leisurely rotation of the wheel providing hundreds of slightly differing angles and perspectives as you complete the cycle. It takes about forty minutes to go round, which is nearly enough to notice one phase of the London circadian rhythm begin to roll into the next.
Panel 3 – In London camera phones outnumber people by ten to one. Fact. It’s a battle between them and the rats as to who really runs the show. Interesting that that’s how Dick Grayson chooses to play the role – all over Youtube, none of this shadowy ‘is he an urban legend’ stuff for this bat.
Bob: Panel 1 – ‘Enough to wipe W1 right off Google Earth!’ Our cheeky sparrow’s embedded suggestion of how to plot this route online is a total pisstake – do not try to plot this scene on G.E if you value your sanity. (Mindless Ones Dot Com reserve the right to have a go later in the week.)
‘Speedboat chase on the Thames’ is like the perfect, primal scene of action sequences. Morrison last did one briefly in The Invisibles 1:17 featuring Gideon Stargrave and a St. Trinians escapee versus the grey faces of control, or something, soundtracked to ‘Set the Controls’ by Pink Floyd. See also this clip below (starting about 07.30. See here for part two), the greatest scene in any Bond movie, taken from one of the very worst Bond movies. Should have left the cinema when the titles started:
Bob: Panel 1 – Off he hops at Westminster Bridge.
Zom: Foreign readers might think I’m overstating the case, but take it from a Brit, these vehicles carry immense symbolic charge. The white van is popularly understood as the workhorse of the British working class and brings with it a whole heap of stereotypes and class-based discourses, mainly centred around the “white van man” and the link between the working class and particular manual trades.
The red double-decker bus, particularly for those who live outside London, has connotations of tourism, but perhaps more importantly, the Routemaster, now that it’s being withdrawn taps into discourses around British heritage, about who we are as a nation and how we want to be understood
Del Boy and his younger brother and business partner, Rodney “Dave” Trotter, the central characters of the phenomenally successful TV show Only Fools and Horses belong to that exclusive club of British fictions that are deeply embedded in the national psyche, and that have much to say about the history of social representation, fictional or otherwise, in England.
So what does this all add up to? Well by admitting all this stuff however offhandedly, however playfully, it helps to bring a rich texture to the comic. There’s enough oomph in those four vehicles to power 100 Five Live phone-ins, 1000 newspaper headlines, countless books and telly shows.
But there’s also something very enjoyable about the juxtaposition between Batman and all this British dreamscape. One must remember that despite the best efforts of Barbara Broccoli and Russell T Davis, and unlike Los Angeles and New York, London’s fantasy life isn’t super-charged with raw spectacle. The Trotter’s van and the Routemaster represent fictional and social constructs that are very grounded. Captain Britain and Excalibur notwithstanding, the superhero in London has always felt special and a little bizarre. By having Batman rub against these earthy cultural touchstones these feelings are accentuated, making Batman, to these eyes at least, appear even more exotic and even more incredible (in both senses of the word) than usual.
There’s also the fact that a foreigner abroad, the London Eye, a red bus, a black cab, the Tower of London and a Thames cruiser, London itself bring to mind holidays. Holidays are fun. Batman on holiday is even more fun.
Bob: Panel 8 – The Number 15 doesn’t go this way. It’s only a comic.
Panel 9 – That’s Westminster Abbey in the background, site of a previous Morrison/Stewart caper, ten years ago almost to the day, in The Invisibles 3:3 /3:2. It’s where the Royal Coronation takes place, traditionally, but to any true born Englishman these days the immediate cultural connection is with the final showdown with the alien mutation in Nigel Kneale’s seminal 1953 SF TV-show The Quatermass Experiment (remade as a movie by Hammer Films in 1955.)
Bob: Harridges is an amalgam of Harrods (which the building clearly is modelled on) and Selfridges, neither of which are in that precise area, and, Beryl, taking a shortcut through a building means we really can’t trace you on Google maps, doesn’t it?
It looks like a throwaway reference, but it fits the issue’s theme of monarchical power-struggle like a black glove. Harrods lost their Royal patronage in 2001. Shortly afterwards, Selfridges received the Royal warrants instead. Harrods’ owner has been waging a one-millionare media war on the Royal family ever since (Di and Dodi, y’know. ) Royal warrants will pop up later in the issue.
Bob: Tothill – sounds like a made up street name, doesn’t it? NO.
Bob: The Tube scene obviously echoes the subway-pirate territorial wars of All-Beard and No-Beard, in Stewart and Morrison’s Seven Soldiers series Manhattan Guardian.
Old King Coal‘s burning coal-black heart adorns the front of his train. What the symbol is about, I just don’t know.
‘I’m cool’ – he fucking is. I’m really starting to like how Dick Grayson plays Batman.
Panel 7 – Smooth Eddie English is dressed in the uniform of a Pearly King. More on them later. Look at hm closely though, beyond the clothes – that’s a Baxendale crook. In an explicit shout to JH Williams III (it becomes quite clear when Batwoman appears at the end of the issue), Stewart is showing that he can do the chameleon thing too. In Seven Soldiers 1, Stewart’s was one of the styles Williams imitated directly; and it was the first Knight & Squire story, also the first Black Glove story, of Morrison’s current Bat-run where Williams started doing spins on several artistic styles at once, sometimes within the same panel.
Stewart doesn’t miss a trick – the English caricatures in this issue are drawn in a style heavily derived from the never-quite-dead weekly British Boys comics like Dandy, Beano and Buster, of which Leo Baxendale is a widely acknowledged and hugely influential master. (Baxendale draws a page in Bryan Talbot’s 2008 Alice In Sunderland, which might be handy for a reference.) (I’m using Baxendale here as a lazy shorthand for ‘DC Thomson house style’.)
As I said earlier, to these eyes Stewart’s Batman, all square shoulders and solid chins, in his opening, introductory splash at least (the echo does diminish throughout the rest of the issue, becoming something more recognisably Stewart-like) is a Frank Quitely figure. When she appears later, Batwoman ‘s colouring, the tight flutter of her cape and the clearness of the line all too-closely resemble the baseline style of Williams’ recent run on Detective Comics. Stewart’s throwing his hat in the ring with the greats, and coming out of it looking kind of pretty.
Zom: I wouldn’t go as far as to say that she’s drawn in the Williams’ baseline style, but the vampiric way in which she is holding her cloak certainly suggests that Cameron has taken the right lessons from Williams’ reimagining.
Bob: Wow, the Batplane can land anywhere. The Tower of London has been where the rottenest apples have been left to ferment for… what, a thousand years maybe? Tower Bridge in the background.
Panel 2 – Note the Royal Warrant on the prison wall.
That’s The Beefeater, from Justice League Europe. Little known fact: The Beefeater’s battle-cry is ‘Eat My Beef!’
The Beefeater’s roll call of British villainy is exactly the kind of thing we’re really after. Don’t forget to enter the competition!
The Radio Ghost – First thing that comes to mind here is the Ghost Box record label, they of the excellent sleeve design and hauntological music stylings. Their unique vision of a parallel Britain – roughly summed as a vision of what the 21st century would be like from the perspective of an alternative late 1970s/1980s where the flattening cultural imperatives of neo-liberalism never took hold – resonates through this issue, with its updated, backdated and outright skewed versions of traditional caricatures, landscapes and histories.
The Radio Ghost is the DC Lord Haw Haw/Horror, known to the public at large as a steely disembodied voice, hacking into public broadcast networks and transmitting hypnotic drones, fascist propaganda, bowel-breaking infrasound, and pulses of pure sonic cancer to the petrified masses.
Dai Laffyn – Presumably the Welsh equivalent of The Joker. In the real world, Batman, of course, is Welsh. Scroll to 7.18 on this clip here, for a possible source for the idea of a Welsh version of The Joker.
Big Don Drummond – Not a Morrison original. Obviously based on Bulldog Drummond, a pulp ‘hero’ from the twenties, who no-one except Alan Moore and, apparently, James Robinson, gives a fuck about. It’s been a while, so let’s chuck in a link to his namesake, the real life British supervillain who once, in the post-War period’s single greatest artistic statement, burnt a million quid.
The Morris Men – My Great Uncle was a Morris Dancer. Named Morris. ‘Uncle Morris, Morris Dancer’, it would have said on the business cards, if they’d had them back then. If Morris sides had them today. Morris Men are an effortless choice of Brit supervillain, almost too obvious. Like the clowns they resemble and remind us of, everyone is a bit scared of Morris dancers. Although they are still far from being a rare thing (though members are reputedly in steep decline from their whenever-it-was heyday), you’ll see them at fairs and fetes throughout the summer, in the cities as much as the shires. Despite the familiarity, there is, and to my memory always has been, even to someone with a family connection, a distinct feeling of the unheimlich, the un-homely or uncanny about them. They are inescapably creepy – this widely recognised feeling has something to do with the way their dress and dance is so ritualised – even though you do not know what the common signifiers mean, except for bells to ward off spirits, vague harvest-fertility ritual associations, it is clear even to children that their treasured accoutrements and mannered, over-rehearsed and curiously arrhythmic movements are intended to carry meanings readable only by other Morrises, and the darkling gods of yesteryear themselves.
Watching Morris Men is unsettling like being spoken to in a language you have no hope of understanding. (The dread they evoke is communicated quite adequately in the original movie version of The Wicker Man.) As representatives of a diminishing tradition aping the modes of a lost tradition, signalling their weird semantics to you all the while, they are the living undead, revelling beerily toward the grave with their sinister, jingling zombie dances. Their ossified yearning for a lost, or probably entirely invented and phantasmic Merrie Englande, also feeds in to discourses about cultural conservatism, purity and superiority that personally makes me feel uncomfortable in a very concrete and political way.
The Highwayman – the most famous example of this breed is Dick Turpin, though, ask Adam Ant, the coolest Highwayman was Sixteen String Jack (a local boy). The Highwayman is a fixture of British folk-history, roughly on a par in the schoolchild’s imagination with King Arthur and Robin Hood. Of the three forms, the Highwayman is the only one to date remaining thoroughly unrehabilitated, denied the glory of a Saturday night family-friendly action drama in his or her honour. Adored in their day, one suspects for their mobility as much as their rebellion, with their apparent, short-lived freedom contrasting romantically with the often village-bound lives of so many people, it’s difficult to make them work as virtuous paragons these days. At least, without getting into the thorny issue of Class War, which our betters have decided is strictly not something the proles may now discuss.
The 21st Century British are such a road-bound, moaning mass, the state of the hopelessly outmoded road infrastructure being a constant antagonist and subject of conversations in the pubs and dining rooms the length and breadth of the island. To revive the figure of the Highwayman as a modern villain is totally necessary, almost a natural, impersonal act of vacuum filling, rather than a personal act of (re)creation. This Highwayman is a Ballardian beast of the motorways: carjacker, carswapper, dogger, the archetypal phantom hitchhiker – stalking the traffic jams and the car parks and the service stations, with the endless reaches of the central reservation as his own criminal fiefdom. His first crime – two in the back of Richard The Hamster Hammond’s head. Knight & Squire vow to bring him to justice for this foul deed by… next week maybe, week after? Just whenever alright? No rush.
Metalek the Xenoformer – Morrison refs this Constructicon-looking gent all the way back in JLA Classified 2, in the arc that had the very first appearance of the modern Squire, and relaunched the Morrison micro-continuity which had lain dormant in the DCU post his original JLA run. Looking to all the world like an alien, gatling-gunning Scoop from Bob the Builder
As Botswana Beast remarks elsewhere, Metalek is Zoidsy and Transformersy enough to be claimed as a British native. Under the pens of young lunatics like Morrison and the oft-eulogised Simon Furman, these eminently disposable Japanamerican franchises were given a compellingly violent dramatic charge in the Marvel UK comic books that remains unmatched in toy-ad/funnybook history. If you think the stormy horrorist dread of Final Crisis was something, you are going to love The Black Zoid. (Question for interviewers to put to Morrison: What the hell was going to happen with Sgt. Sclater?)
Panel 4 – Batman can’t get a word in edgeways. Funny, Beefeater does bang on.
On Saturday, when I bought this issue, I was waiting for a long overdue visit from honorary Mindless Brother Yawn. His train was delayed by two hours by a fatality on the track. At Purley.
Pearly Kings & Queens, like Morrisers, are a familiar but inexplicable figure on the cultural landscape. Here’s some having a piss against a wall. It’s a well known fact that Pearly Queens piss standing up:
A definitely and defiantly London tradition, even country boys like me will be unable to remember a time when they weren’t aware of Pearly Kings. There’s always one or two knocking about the fringes of folky festivals, around Bonfire Night perhaps, even far out into the countryside. The polished buttons gleaming on their costumes wink at you soulessly, implying an accusation: why are you so confused? What are you afraid of ? Why are you afraid of me, me old china? Their outfits are pure coded language, and if you haven’t the wit to decipher them, they are simply alien, a total threat to the stability of a child’s world.
Zom: Don’t think they’ve ever elicited that sort of reaction from me, but they are strange. It’s all very well pointing out that their roots lie in charity, but most people almost certainly have no idea about any of that. They’re curiosities, anachronisms, a bit of colour to spruce up local news stories, and as such they’re better left unexplained and slightly mysterious, to do otherwise would be to rob them of their appeal. Remove their true history*, which the majority of us have no choice but to do given that we know bugger all about it in the first place, and like Bobsy says you’re left with the weird language of their outfits, and a plethora of odd and ill fitting connotations.
*Thinking about it, like morris men, in many ways like the iconography of Bonfire Night (hey, come to my local, Lewes Bonfire, and tell me that it’s all about Guy Fawkes or the 17 Protestant Matyrs, for that matter), the strength of the Pearly image overwhelms any factual account of their origins.
Bob: Pearly has previously been glimpsed in the shadows back in Bulleteer. He’s still in the shadows now, but we get to know him quite well. He’s playing dominoes, but surely he’s not The Domino Guy - it’s too soon for that reveal, got to be…
His cell is one of several silly visual gags in the issue – it’s pretty cramped, but for all that it’s basically a Cockney paradise. He’s got a compendium of board games, a dartboard, an old joanna (piano), and even a tank full of eels ready for the jellying (jn the wild, cockneys survive on a diet of jellied eels, cockles, whelks, weak tea and cheap gin).
The echoes here with Batman’s interrogation of the Joker on the nature of the Black Glove in DC Universe #0 are pretty clear, and this scene also goes out of its way, starting with the boot-level view on page 9, to make explicit parallels to the interrogation scene in The Killing Joke, which by now is like the ur-scene of Batman/Joker sit-down pow-wows. The battle of All-Beard and No-Beard continues, but it isn’t really a battle.
Pearly’s speech in panel 1 is pure self-mythologising bullshit, traditionally unappealing trait of the London criminal classes. For competing royalties, read feuding underworld empires, simple as that.
The watermark on the bottom of Pearly’s mug is a potential saga in itself. Is it simply branded prison issue? If not, is a chunky big mug like that the sort of design favoured by Royal appointed potters? Or is it Pearly’s own Royal crest? Is his family’s power a bit more well established than one suspects? Is his rhetoric in fact true?
Zom: Considering that the royal crest is used as the HM Prison logo I’m going with not a pottery seal pottery, but it does resonate nicely with his claim to the royal line.
Bob: If Pearly is using the Royal crest to signal to Batman where the mine is, then it would probably be one of the famous Northern pottery companies.
The reference to Arthur and the cauldron of rebirth brings to mind stern Tom Eliot’s famous Modernist Grail epic The Waste Land, which Morrison can never go for long without nodding to. It mentions ‘Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks‘ which could provide a clue to the nature and identity of King Coal’s formidable wife; refers to an underground pool, has the words ‘those were pearls that were his eyes‘ (twice); and contains the famous lines:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over Westminster Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Zom: The cauldron of rebirth combined with Pearly’s talk of Donna might add up to an obtuse reference to the Waste Land, but what it definitely does is add more fuel to the Arthurian fire. Wait a minute, didn’t Grant Morrison once visit the DCU’s Arthurian period..? More of that lovely Morrisonian private-continuity stuff.
Bob: Talia’s money is so good she can apparently hire doctors who live an entire universe away… Or do AIM have a universe-next-door franchise too? I guess if anyone’s going to, it’s them.
Panel 1 – So it’s December 21st-22nd when this takes place, an auspicious date in Morrison comics, going all the way back to The Invisibles again. (The lack of Christmas decorations in the London scenes is a little odd though.)
Panel 2 – That Ley node is hilarious – ‘Yeah mate, follow the standing stones to the old abandoned mine shaft, take a left, past the barrow and on to the church. Can’t miss it.’ They’re not normally that easy to spot.
‘Rendle Colliery’ – That’s got to be a reference to the Rendlesham Incident. This helps us a bit with the location too – If the mine is in northern pottery country, King Coal’s territory (where he does what he wants), then there’s no way you could get there from London by Whirly-Bat. If it’s in the county of Suffolk though, just a little way north-east of the capital, then it works a lot better. As well as having Rendlesham, Suffolk is also the spiritual home of British hauntology …
‘Mrs Thatcher’ – King Coal was one of the press’ nicknames for Arthur Scargill, leader of the miner’s union at the time of the Miners Strike c.1984 and Mrs. T.’s archenemy (one of several). Please note: pro-Thatcher comments left on this thread will result in the author being banned from posting on Mindless Ones Dot Com for ever and ever.
Zom: Add together a (haunted) coal mine, an oblique reference to Arthur Scargill, and Pearly’s warring tribes of Britain, and you can’t help but evoke memories of the Miners’ Strike in British readers. Not that I think Morrison has anything particularly political to say here, or if he does I don’t think he has said it yet, just that by gesturing towards the Miners’ Strike he’s borrowing some of its ominous energy. People died; families were destroyed, torn apart from without and within; communities – whole towns – lost; the dream of a different kind of Britain was thrown into a deep dark pit and the Thatcher-Blair era ushered in.
There sure as hell are ghosts down there in the dark, as Morrison well knows.
Bob: Beryl’s line here feeds into the strange justification that Dick has for his plan, more on which in a minute.
Luminous miners. See, if the National Union of Miners had been able to show that kind of ingenious adaptability then they wouldn’t have got shut down, would they?
Get in there Cyril! I think this is the first time we’ve seen The Knight get his hands properly dirty.
‘Mad Mental on Magic Mushrooms‘ indeed.
Hammer again. Uncle Amicus would be a good name for a British supervillain with a dodgy regional accent, btw.
Zom: Amicus being in this instance not a trade union but Hammer House of Horror’s rival film company
Welcome Batwoman, the JH Williams III/Alex Sinclair version.
Page 19 I
Is there a marked simplicity of line on Beryl and Cyril’s mugs that gives off a very strong DC Thomson vibe? Am I looking into it too much? Thomson were Morrison’s first professional comics employers, of course.
Panel 3 – You know you’ve probably been reading too many Grant Morrison comics when you look at at a panel like this and, instead of assuming a technical error, decide that there has probably been a dimensional jump since the last panel, or a demonic bodyswap, something like that. Serendipity is at work in this panel – with the speech balloons where they are, this micro-scene takes on a new psychedelic unreality, recalling the Batman-Batwoman alien space drug flashback from the first issue of the Batman/Final Crisis interlude:
Where am I ?
I’m the new Batman.
Panel 4 – Speaking of which – the Bruce’s body question: it’s just one of Mokkari & Simyan’s clones, from the Bludhaven bunker, that somehow got into a Bat costume, isn’t it?
Batwoman’s argument is right, at least within our normal human logic – the resurrection of zombruce is a bad idea. But in superhero logic, it’s necessary. Dick has been doing this since he was a child, and knows better than anyone how it works. Superheroes personify their troubles and hit them with their fists until they’re gone. Traps must be sprung, and bad ideas must sometimes be seen through to their grisly conclusions. In the logic of the superhero, the inevitable confrontation between Batmans new and old must be hastened. The psychodrama cannot be evaded, but must be worked through – battled with, risk and all, in order to achieve healthy reconciliation.
Beryl knows what’s what – see her pointed remark as she and Dick get into the mine elevator – this is the secret reason why Dick has brought her and Cyril along- it will be good exorcise for them too to go toe-to-toe with the Batman-sire, helping Cyril come to terms with his father’s tragedy, and Beryl more meaningfully wriggle her way into the broken Squire role that Cyril in his distress left behind.
This helpfully fanwanks away the ‘hypocrisy’ charge, re: when Dick fought Tim Drake to stop him resurrecting his parents. Dick knew then that the real issue at stake wasn’t Tim’s parental loss, which he had to work out for himself, but was Robin vs. Nightwing, how each would cope with their legacies and destinies, working out their own anxieties of superherodom in the only way that makes sense – it just hadda happen, because X demanded it.
Page 20 panel 4 – ‘Wouldn’t You?’ Largely contradicting what I’ve said above, Dick invokes the dark magic of the classic Burroughsian curse.
Page 21 panel 4 – Nice Bat-knuckles.
Zom: Hypocrisy might concern others but not I. Morrison’s comics always pick and choose their continuity. It’s all about his vision and what makes the floppy on your lap fun to read (Grant often seems to privilege the experience of reading a monthly comic over the logic of the story arc – should write a post about that one day but it would take research and I struggle to be arsed). Anyway, Bob’s intriguing fanwank aside, I think Dick’s justification works just fine on a psychological level. People define themselves by what they do, and Dick has always been Bruce’s little monkey wrench (to quote the Tank), always there to get him out of the tightest of spots. It’s who he is, and it’s one of the pillars of their relationship.
Zom: These ‘next time on Batman and Robin’ bits are good fun. They have the intense energy of any good trailer, reinforced by the all deadly all the time red on black colour scheme.
Only problem is that they spoil! Which brings me to the only problem I has with this comic. I knew Batwoman was going to show; I knew that there was very likely going to be a Lazarus Pit and an attempt to ressurect Batman. I would rather not have known these things, especially the latter.
Bob: How can something in the comic be a spoiler?
*This is a lie of course. the line is ‘flowed over London Bridge‘, which is a mile or so east of where Dick Grayson does his car-hopping trapeze act. It’s only comics. Maybe in the DCU version of The Waste Land, it is Westminster bridge.. it’s literally umpossible to know for sure…