Caped Crusader vs Dark Knight

October 29th, 2010


‘thing is, i know we at mindless ones don’t really feel the need to justify these things or to bother kicking the argument about the way they might at, say, funnybook babylon, but i think the answer to the question ‘does bruce wayne work in cosmic scenarios? – in this PARTICULAR cosmic scenario?’ and the conversation one could have around it is probably an interesting one.

for geeks.’

There will always be a section of fandom who dislike Batman being placed in outlandish situations and believe it or not I understand where they’re coming from. DKR was a tremendous blow to the bat-membrane, one whose aftershock was felt for years to come, so it was necessarily taste and character defining. But, and I know this is so obvious it makes one wince to have to say it aloud, Miller’s Batman, despite the decade long shadow he cast, isn’t the only Batman.




(I could go on forever.)

Because Batman’s been around for a very, very long time. To quote Batmite in Batman Brave & The Bold:

‘Batman’s rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it’s certainly no less valid and true to the character’s roots as the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.’

Whether certain sections of his readership like it or not, Batman is a many angled beast. Some view what happened in the fifities and sixties as a ghastly aberration, the character mutilated by the effects of the Comic’s Code – ‘This isn’t the REAL Batman!’, they cry – but what about the fans who complained at the time of DKR’s publication that Miller’s Dark Knight was the imposter? I remember hating those guys, but surely they undermine the idea that Batman *belongs* to anyone, and I’d suggest that these conflicting takes demand a more accomodating position. That’s if the inner fanboy is ever going to assimilate change. Because change had to come to Batman, like everything else.

Grant Morrison, with his love of all things damned and fortean, was always going to excavate the stories hated by Miller worshipers, but as far as this reader’s concerned it’d come steam engine time anyway. Those stories were bound to be reintroduced into bat-canon at some point. Like it or not – there’s no point disliking it really because this is the way it is – we live in a post-modern Internet culture where everything bat-related is available at every single moment, it was only a matter of time before some young turk raised on Grant Morrison comics – arguably the writer who more than anyone else represents the post Miller age – began to reappraise the Batman of Zur en Arrh. But happily enough, praise be to Barbatos!, in the end it turned out to be Grant himself.

It was a dirty job but somebody was going to do it.

But because I’m a rabid Millar fan too, because I like Bob Kane’s early take as much as anybody (and, btw, Millar’s Batman *isn’t* a return to the pure, unsullied kanite vision, but rather a reimagining and reincorporation of it for a new decade, just as Morrison’s Batman isn’t a replaying of the sixties all over again) and as a backdrop to my bat-adventures, a genuinely gothic Gotham, I still think if you’re going to fiddle with the way a character’s been written for however many years it was between DKR and the start of Morrison’s run, you have to earn it. You have to make the stranger bat-stuff make sense and ensure the character doesn’t lose focus.

Because if Batman’s all things to all comers, then he’s nothing at all.

So let’s be clear, the grimier elements are hardly being ignored by Morrison, in fact I can recall certain posters on the much maligned but also missed Barbelith webforum complaining at the time it’s sixth issue came around that Morrison’s Batman run was conservative and represented a return to a Milleresque approach many of them wanted to see jettisoned the moment the bat-poles were reinstalled. If this was the better batmobile, with all the rape, pimps, purple dialogue and Batman bleeding out on the backseat it looked one hell of a lot like the old one.

But issue six also saw the introduction of a new bat-element, one that would allow for the reincorporation of an apparently totally different and tonally divergent Batman and put the above guys’ fears to rest (I know, I saw one of them the other day with a home-made Batman vs Robin T-shirt on) – the Black Casebook.

Back when Grant was writing the JLA I knew there had to be a batman front and centre and I never gave any thought to the heavy lifting that would get him there. All I needed was a bit of surface-deep resistance on his part, the odd grumble about untrained, superpowered civillians in combat zones and a few dark shadows to be totally convinced. It was a light strip, with character and motivation drawn in broad strokes, so expectations on that front were rather low. And Grant didn’t need to justify or explain away any of the weird shit for exactly the same reasons I didn’t. In fact, I expect the thought barely occured to him. But upon the arrival of the Black Casebook the picture changed altogether, leading many readers to wonder aloud how this Batman could have ever enjoyed those JLA adventures in the first place, when according to his own notes he finds events as relatively everyday for the DCU as alien invasion so sanity challenging. There’s lots of ways around this problem ranging from the argument that the diary entries in question represent a Batman whose mission is in its infancy and less used to dealing with monsters, ghosts and suchlike, to the more meta take that Morrison’s DCU output whilst possessing strong thematic links binding each project together are in the end modular, self contained fictionverses possessing skin deep or no causal relationship to one another. The Black Casebook, in that it allegedly contains all Batman’s adventures defying rational explanation, all those that do not fit, is a plausible way of filing and explaining away otherwordly elements, but it is also a trojan horse for the readmission of same and in the end Grant’s definitive mission statement – this stuff shall not be denied. The book shall be opened.

I used the word ‘otherworldly’  to describe this stuff, but I think a better word would be incongruous. Because the casebook not only serves to demystify the rainbow monster, but in the end is a fantastic lense through which to understand all the different chapters of Batman’s life. If everything can be analysed and potentially explained then it can all fit. And this doesn’t seem so crazy afterall, does it? Not when you consider this is the approach a detective would always take. On the surface of it The Hound of the Baskervilles seems bizzare and improbable, a monster straight out of the pages of a Carnacki the Ghost Finder novel and not at all the purview of a rationalist detective like Sherlock Holmes, but of course, it all makes sense in the end.

The casebook is an elegant way to remind Batman’s readership that we are dealing with a detective. And a good detective loves a mystery, whether or not it’s the mystery of Batmite, who, it turns out, is a drug induced invisible friend, exteriorising Batman’s basic survival trait, his imagination, his ability to do the impossible and make friends with the dark, his inner demons, his id, or the Adam West years which really represent the arrival of Robin on the scene, a happier Bruce and, correspondingly, a more light hearted Joker, and the inevitable rise and labelling by the Gotham Gazette of the pop crime phenomenon. The casebooks taunts us, challenging us to look again, framing our desire to shun the things we don’t like about the Batman’s 60 year history as pure denial. Cases unsolved. Aren’t those the juiciest ones?

The focus isn’t lost, everything is in the end figured to a very specific ground, forcing us to relate to these elements the way Batman would. The way the world’s greatest detective would. So it reinforces the rational, earthier aspects of the character, while at the same time expanding him.

It’s a neat trick.

But what happens when events defy explanation, when try as you might you can’t escape those pesky superheroes and all the other stuff that arrives with them because they’re hunting you down and plucking you from your dingy little cave and out into a world of supergods and devils from another universe? What happens when there’s a CROSSOVER?!?

You see, I strongly suspect there are two reasons informing some of the negative reactions to what happens to Batman in Final Crisis and ROBW, the first being that Batman’s eventual fate should have been decided in his own comic and not in Grant Morrison’s crossover event and the second being – what the hell is Batman doing taking on Darkseid in the first place? It’s difficult to argue with both positions to be honest. Batman’s apparent death and the events leading up to it really do represent an incursion from beyond, beyond the confines of his book and the character’s trajectory at that time, and no matter how hard the events of Return and the casebook entries of Batman 702 and 703 conspire to weave it all together, many readers will always find Darkseid and the New Gods’ overturning of their monthly Batman book a teethgrindingly jarring event. Because it was. That said, however, if we look a bit closer perhaps the overall theme of the piece doesn’t lurch about as much it would at first glance appear to.

If Morrison’s run has concerned itself with a refocusing of the batverse’s tattered edges, it makes sense that in the end it would need to incorporate that tricksiest of bat-elements, the DCU itself. This isn’t the MU, where you feel you’re on a pretty even footing the multiverse over, but the bendy home of Plastic Man, Clock King and Mr Mxypltk. Jeeze, i may as well say it, it’s the home of Superman. For many of us, and this may explain their enduring appeal, Superman and Batman represent the fundamental polarities within every superverse, the super-man and the superman and resultingly they’ve taken on totemic qualities. As teens many of us were careful to draw a very clear line between anything Batman and Superman related. Supes was only allowed in a Batman comic in the guise of a stupid government stooge, and Batman definitely had to be beating him up. Batman was like one those leering Gotham gargoyles warding off any of the embarrassing superdog shit that reminded us we were still in many ways children. Afterall, Batman comics were hardcore. Girls would put out if only they knew how hardcore they were. So this is in all likelihood the way many fans stave off invading tonalities from the DCU’s other spheres, the way I did it – they stay away from Superman comics. They pretend they don’t exist. Ah, but they do!

The difficulty has always been in figuring out how everything slots together. Let’s face it, it’s this relationship that forms the root problem people have with the silver age stories and so forth, they’re too superheroey.

Anyway. In that they broke down into various denied bat-tonalities (Batman as overseas adventurer, Batman as pop art icon, Batman as FUN! to name a few) the man bats of London in issue two of Grant’s run would have been difficult for some fans to parse. They were the first, concentrated and unprecedented blast of what would follow, a taster if you like, but one could hardly argue that in isolation they represented a reason to pursue these long neglected aspects of the hero’s title, other than perhaps ‘But I liked it!’, which is fair enough but never going to convince fandom in the long term. No, the manbats were a body blow to soften the readership up. The real whammy came at the end of the issue, with the arrival of Damian Wayne.

Metaphorically speaking it could be argued that everything really begins with the arrival of Damian, Batman’s son, straight out of a conveniently forgotten piece of bat-lore nearly twenty years previous. Damian represents the beginning of the unearthing that the casebook represents in its totality – the Batbooks’ bastard spawn, abandoned on the doorstep of a post Death in the Family bat-universe. And like the casebook, Damian really is an instory excuse for the writing to get wilder and weirder. To explore the secret Batman. To strip the character back and see what he’s made of? And didn’t you know therapy can never work unless we confront the apparently not-self, the animus? The Rainbow Monster itself?

In hindsight it’s quite clear that this is the main theme running through Morrison’s bat-project, this stripping Batman back. Exploring what he is at his core. And once you get beyond Bruce Wayne’s, albeit brief, destruction at the hands of his ultimate enemy, Dr. Hurt, then it makes sense that the next conflict should be between Batman and his ultimate enemy, the ultimate enemy of all superheroes, Darkseid. The rights or wrongs of whether or not this should’ve occured in Final Crisis aside, it does make thematic sense that the stakes moved up a gear so dramatically, because in the end a thorough excavation of Batman always had to make the transition from the personal to the universal, from the man to the myth he represents. And in the end that’s why he’s allowed to have a crack at  the Devil. Like Inana in the old myth Grant’s so fond of quoting, Batman was divested of everything during his descent into Hell, we got a look at all his dirtiest draws, but what Hurt left was his shining core, Man against the Unknown, and that’s been taking on Darkseid forever.

You see, the Deer People were right – he is a Shining One.

(But his lessons aren’t couched in anything so obvious as a burning bush, but in his actions. Smashing Vandal Savage’s face into a rock. Resisting and SURVIVING.)

We’re in danger of veering off course here, but I think if one’s going to bother to write an essay arguing the case for a morrisonian Batman, then it’s important to explain exactly why it made sense for the New Gods to invade Batman’s world. At first glance it seems like a scene shift too far, probably doubly so because it plays out in an alien book, but any reader playing close attention to Batman’s journey at the time would be able to wrap their head around it fairly easily.

And isn’t the effort itself rather enjoyable?

You see, in the end that’s my main argument for the incorporation of the superheroic into the batverse, because so long as the rules of the house are adhered to, it’s FUN! Much more fun than it all going off in a Superman book where battling Starro is just another chore to slog through after breakfast.  Many people appear concerned primarily with the scaling up needed to get Batman into that room beneath Command D, but what of the scaling down required to get Darkseid there? The New Gods are much more interesting placed under Batman’s microscope than anywhere else.

‘It was the Blueprint, the template for every bullet there has ever been. It was the original of the bullet that killed JFK, Martin Luther King… Thomas and Martha Wayne.’

‘The New Gods are incredibly powerful living ideas from a kind of platonic, archetypal world.’

‘Whatever they touch turns to Myth. Remember that much.’

See what I mean? In his own book, you don’t just have Batman beat Desaad in an off panel mind war, you show the process as in Last Rites. You don’t have Batman simply driven MAHAAAD by his enemies, you get the freudian monstrosity that is the Batman of Zur en Arrh. You don’t have Superman show up without a bunch of caption boxes detailing how bizzare and unearthly he is….  Sure, the crazy stuff the DCU throws up is great left hanging there as mystery, but we’re so used to it that we’re blind to its charms most of the time. Not so in a Batman book. The close analysis, the unpacking via monologuing, the unweaving of the rainbow he insists upon I think infuses the superheroic with power and meaning and we’re really missing out on something great if Batman isn’t used as an occassional reframing device. In this respect, he’s a story engine. Because once you know more about these things you can take them in more directions, and the good thing is they’ll never be truly earthed because they’re so damn weird to begin with. Batman in that he more closely aligns with a real world point of view is a perfect bridge, our eyes and ears in the DCU, and being so he’s really its greatest explorer. And he’d want to explore it. Taken en masse the DCU is the ultimate Arkham, rich with psychological metaphor, unbridled imagination and reified internality, it is the very world Bruce Wayne dons his bat costume in order to negotiate.

Let’s never forget that.

Morrison hasn’t.


Here’s to two more years of outlandish adventures!

(And hopefully more. Please. Grant?)

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