November 26th, 2010
In which I throw up some random, barely organised/edited thoughts about a couple of comics
TO BEGIN WITH:
So Grant Morrison has found a way to facilitate one of those scene shifts that’ve been such a central component of Batman’s history…. We began with a modern take on sixties, sci-fi, supernatural bats, with the odd nod to Gotham-funhouse bats along the way, and now we’ve arrived at his retake on those seventies/early eighties globetrotting stories. And it makes all the sense in the world, the supernatural elements having actually begun to feel, by becoming literally so in plot terms, like a millstone around the character’s neck, generating in the reader a real desire for something new. This wrapping up also sees the end of the road, at least for now, of Morrison’s heavily psychologised Batman, with the writer’s penchant for collapsing the boundary of interiority and exteriority, something I’d argue the character has always encouraged, playing beautifully into the aforementioned framework for the last five years, but reaching its natural conclusion in ROBW six and a Bruce Wayne worn ragged by the rigours of bat-mystery finally finding peace in the arms of his bestest superfriends.
And don’t you just love how Morrison work seems implicit with the suggestion that these transformations are only possible because we’re dealing with Batman? That they’re rationalised by the idea of the survivor, an articulation of the ‘optimum man’ conceit? Batman doesn’t simply escape death-traps, he escapes whole modes of being. The Omega Adapter never stood a chance. Batman’s the Alpha Adapter. No other superhero, or villain, can perform this trick.
Regardless, anyone who’s been following Grant’s run will really feel everything lift with these two issues, and, no matter how much they enjoyed what’s come before, breathe a sigh of relief.
OLD BASTARD BAT
This is genuinely new, isn’t it, the backstory of the DKR bat? This guy was the one ostensibly supernatural component you could point to in a story as obsessed with street level superheroics as its possible to get while still incorporating Superman and bat power suits and its inclusion here is telling to say the least. Actually, thinking about it, last time we saw the bat from the origin myth it was as an avatar as Darkseid, and that’s as supernatural as anything’s ever likely to get. So, yeah, It could easily be described as the last vestige of supernaturalism to be carried over into this bold new bat-era. But that’s just it.
Here it’s not.
The National Geographic tone of the first page’s captions (esp the talk of these bats being as conventional as any other) combined with Grant’s providing this mysterious, unholy terror with an actual personality and character arc, far from encouraging a supernatural vibe, only serves to earth this comic – in fact the bat’s literally earthed within the first four panels. This is obviously a statement of intent for the Batman Inc phase: here everything will be figured to a very concrete ground. We’ve left Hurt, Darkseid and the rest of that weird stuff behind – now it’s time for jet-suits.
This is not to say that symbolism and metaphor are off the menu permanently – this issue contains both, and, indeed, some real depth, especially this first sequence, as we shall see – just that the story’s no longer drenched in these things. The reader won’t need to employ a mastery of bat-occultism in order to understand what’s going on, as was the case with ROBW6, for example. For instance….
Without even reading the script it’s obvious the Old Bastard Bat (best. name. evaaaah! Make it possessive and it’s obviously referring to Miller: ‘The Old Bastard’s Bat.’) and his bloodyminded sense of self preservation is supposed to find its correlate in Bruce, and that when the bat dies its soul effectively leaps into his (‘I shall become a bat.’), the two being effectively one anyway. You don’t have to get that to understand what’s going on here at all. At all. It’s just the cherry on the cake.
You also don’t have to understand that Morrison’s following through on Batman’s promise to turn Evil’s challenge upside down by inverting the tonality of the scene as it was portrayed in ROBW6. There the Bat was an agent of darkness waiting for Bruce to die in order to claim his soul, but here, its wings outstretched atop Thomas Wayne’s bleeding bust (Zom: the bloodied bat on the bloodied bust work to conflate the man and the bat), it’s a screeching symbol of victory, representing the moment Bruce Wayne’s life explodes with direction and meaning. Again, you don’t have to understand this stuff or understand why the bell glows – you’ll probably feel it anyway.
Speaking of these inversions, it’s awesome that the house is basically ‘a warm [bat] heaven of divine proporation’ (but are we talking about the mansion or Bruce Wayne’s body? – it flies in through the window and then in through his eye…) ? From the Old Bastard’s point of view there’s nothing dark or grim here at all, there’s just a golden, perfect cave and a good death.
This is the origin of Batman as stirring myth, not gloomy curse and it feeds into the second and perhaps most important theme running throughout this book and issue one of Inc, because we’re not just dealing with a Batman who’s come down to earth, but a Batman brimming with HEALTH. Here Batman is brimming with vitality and a newly positive relationship with his own and the broader batbody and the tone of the new series likewise. We’ll get onto more of this later.
One final gander: If a straight line can be drawn between Bruce and the bat, then all this talk about how conventional it is, is true of Bruce also, both of them only achieving the status of myth upon encountering each other. Prior to this the bat has always inhabited these climes, and this opener is a fun study of its (and any everyday object’s really) transition from the mundane to the immortal. All anything needs to acquire numinosity is a sharp injection of meaning, just being there at the right place and at the right time….
YOU DIDN’T EXPECT TO SEE ME HERE, DID YOU?
Amy: Given that Dubai is a sunny, gleaming city over the other side of the world from and the opposite of Gotham, no, it’s fair to say that prior to the events of the last few months, we did not.
Growing up with a big Death in the Family sized dent in my head means that Batman in the middle east has always resonated powerfully with me (and likely with Grant also (?)), and this fact combined with the one above really sells me on the middle east as a perfect starting point for Batman’s globe trotting adventures. That is to say, the abrupt scene shift underlines the massive tonal about-turn the bat-books are undergoing – it’s a statement of intent, really – while at the same time hearkening back to a reassuring, though new and improved, iconography with which long term bat-fans will be familiar.
And where else could this sequence take place than the Burj Dubai, the world’s first mega-scraper? If this monster of glass, steel, money and human ingenuity can be completely pwned by the bat, then, well, that says it all doesn’t it? He owns this planet, Planet Gotham.
One final thing, and I don’t know if it’s intentional, is the way Dubai, a city synonmous with commerce if ever there was one, foregrounds the whole businessman thing, a key element of this new story. I don’t know, it just feels thematically and tonally appropriate.
Zom: the Middle East also resonates because of the confused strain of orientalism that feeds into Batman’s international adventures in the form of Ra’s al Ghul. On an unrelated note, I think the scene shift works as a statement of intent for all the reaons Amy’s listed but primarily because of the newness: new costume, new and improved Batman, new location, new criminals, new operating methods, and brute fact that we associate globalness with all things modern.
VEHICLES AND SHIT
The fantastic job David Finch has done here really only serves to work against sales for his book. By this point I challenge anyone who could be convinced by Batman Inc not to be. Anyone who likes Nolan’s take has got to love this (and that’s why the inclusion of the Tumbler, the tech, David Finch generally and the dialogue almost directly lifted from the recent films – to provide the skeptical reader with an easy way in, to remind him or her that they know this Batman already). This is fucking Nolan PLUS. The Batman of the films ten years older, wiser, tougher and all round sorted. Batman Inc is the logical conclusion of R&D Batman and this time, because it’s just drawings on a page, with an unlimited budget. With each new ‘And I want this… And this…’ from Bruce, I’m swept away with excitement, because Morrison’s imagination has really become the upper limit to what’s possible for Bruce Wayne and this book now, so there’s no upper limit at all really. God, it’s so exciting to see a Bruce Wayne this focused and in control. It feels like decades’ worth of seething internalised energy is finally being released, like he’s a bloody sun or something. Superman of Bats.
This guy really is much, much cooler than James Bond.
And you know why in the end everyone’s going to love this new take? Not because it barrels ahead at breakneck speed without even a glimpse behind, absolutely self assured and insistent on its own rightness, not because of the amazing art which totally sells you on the new blueprint for this better batmobile, not even because everything’s shining with so much possibility and potential, but because this book has tatooed on its heart the idea of Batman fucking winning. This is what non stop Batman winning looks like, and that’s in the end is why we all love the character. Kill his Mom and Dad, kill him, kill his soul… Whatever, punk! Here’s MONEY UNLEASHED!
Batman. Fucking. Winning.
Amy: This is clearly an online VR space similar to the ‘Toytown’ I posited in my Batman 666 scripts, hence the avatar, the vehicles and the cheat codes. Hopefully it’ll allow for a riffing on the pop crime, giant typewriter-gotham of ye olde. Clever, too, because it effectvely provides Oracle with a country all of her own to defend: cyberspace.
TWO HOURS LATER: WAYNETECH R&D
Anyway, why has no one commented on the fantasticness of Bruce and Damian robo-fighting yet? I mean, it’s brilliant, Bruce kicks the living shit out of his ‘son’. There’s no leeway, no quarter, no provision made for the fact that Damian’s just a kid, he’s expected to perform at the top of his game and if he can’t, well…. This is just good character stuff, as well as a way of underlining how bad ass and ultra modern this Bruce is (even the tech-savvy new generation don’t have a patch on him!) and very funny to boot. Blackly funny. Just as Bruce should be. Fuck, he punches the little guy’s head off, for god’s sake!
But moving on (as Bruce always is now)…
‘What else have you got for me?’
‘What else can I mutherin well WIN at!’
WE WANT THEM TO LOOK LIKE BATMAN AND ROBIN, LUCIUS
Batman Incorporated absolutely underlines the fact that, even if he didn’t consciously articulate it to himself, Bruce has always understood the power of branding. A businessman would. The bat-hubcaps and the rest have always made sense in the bat-universe.
This one GUY. On paper the Heretic just doesn’t work, does he? If someone had told me, ‘Yeah, the big bad of this season’s a cross between a bedouin, the King of All Tears, Batman and A CYLON!’ I’d've…well, I’d probably think he sounded well cool, but I’m sure many wouldn’t. But they would be wrong. The only part of him I resist, to be honest, is the Batman bit, because prismatism prismatism shmism, however, given that this is obviously a clue to his identity of some kind, and that he looks so cool, I’m not going to go on about it. So the good money’s on Damian’s clone right now, is it? It certainly makes sense of some of his dialogue, all that ‘YOU will know ME.’ stuff, however I think the real clue is his other name: Fatherless. He’s Damian Wayne with the Bruce bit taken out – the soul.
I’ll tell you who else he reminds me of, in fact what this whole scene reminds me of, the set up with all the designer superhumans and the cracked glass canopy covering it, The World from New X Men… and Weapon 15. And this is the thing getting in the way of the clone theory, that the Heretic was born here, inside the belly of that weird….leviathan. Whatever, it’ll all come clear in the end – maybe the clone was just incubated in there.
Which leads me to another thing I wanted to say….
Catwoman in this sexy scene is basically purring around like a cat on heat. I guarantee that shit was in the script – solid gold guarantee – so this is all a character moment as much as anything else. I solid gold guarantee this partly because this is Morrison and I can read his motherfuckin mind (no, honest – he said I could! Really) and because it’s perfectly in keeping with the way Selina’s played this issue, mewling and haunching (I made verb up, but don’t tell me it doesn’t work!) around, constantly referencing her own anthropomorphised cattiness. This Catwoman is an updated Catwoman from the sixties TV series and the way she carries that over, the sense of fun she brings with her, is exactly the right tone for this comic – again with the light and healthy. The Batman of RIP and all the rest couldn’t of spent more than five minutes in this woman’s company, but this new Batman can. In fact I think she’s pretty much pitch perfect for the first issue of Inc.
Saying that, I do appreciate that this Selina, just like this Batman, might jar with some reader’s expectations for the character, but I think you can easily rationalise this if you need to: she’s being playful, flirting. This what she gets like when Bruce is around. I, however, don’t need to explain away this behaviour because I’m not sure Catwoman should’ve ever diverged too much from her campy template. I like the idea that during the pop-crime years certain villains learnt the pleasures not just of crime, but of performance. This is deep superhero psychology, sophisticated stuff I think modern writers could have enormous fun with. When Selina Kyle dons that outfit she’s not just a thief, just as Bruce Wayne isn’t just a superhero, she’s CATWOMAN, and part of her armour is the inhabiting of her catty role. It could work as a defense mechanism, as ‘make up’, drag, just as pure theatre, and it certainly provides her with the kind of opacity a master thief would enjoy and makes absolute sense of all her costume changes. People can’t second guess you when they don’t know who you really are. Selina street crusader is all very well – I enjoyed the Brubaker books as much as anyone – but I could really dig this take also. No one blinks when Bruce Wayne turns into TEH NIGHT!, so why should they begrudge Selina her transformations?
GIANT ROBOT MICE
Yes with the funny, but NO.
I used to keep mice, well rats (same diff), until one of them tore the other’s throat out. At which point I relaised I hated rats and they weren’t cute at all. And they’re certainly NOT funny. They have eyes and they’re furry, but they’re more like a bug than a mammal.
Regardless, what I really like about this mousey security system is the implication that he prepared his defenses with Selina in mind. Think about it – this is Dr Sivana we’re talking about, a criminal genius, so of course he’s going to factor the world’s greatest cat burglar, and what might deter her, into his equations.
This is a cheesecake scene, yes, and, yes, women take their pants off far too much in comics, but the scales are tipped towards balance here because BRUCEWAYNEHAIRYTCHESTEDLOVEGOD. That guy over there, the guy doing the weights with no clothes on, that guy is just as much there to be wanked over as the girl is. He’s all over the camera, ripe and ready to be leapt upon by anyone, male or female (this deffo shades into gay porn), and being so massively queers the dominant unsexed nerdboy gaze prevalent to modern comics. I can just imagine my thought process when I was fourteen… ‘Catwoman’s hot, but, jeeze why’d the guy have to take off all his clothes…’ And this is a good thing, there needs to be this dissonance, because other ways of viewing the world, other sexualities, have to be included, not just mine. Here Bruce is just as sexy, just as naked as Selina, and it’s Spike in Buffy all over again. This is a superheroic depiction of real, not imagined sex, where both people have to get their clothes off and both people have to desire and be desired .
Anyway, another thing this scene does is feed into the theme of HEALTH that runs throughout these two books. And not simply because inclusivity is a healthier mindset than exclusivity, but also because, come on! there’s no bullshit going on here with Bruce and Selina. There’s none of the usual bat-fascination with fucked up femme fatales a la Bruce’s ‘relationship’ with Jezebel Jet. Here there’s just good, honest screwing between two equals who care for and respect one another – the power fucking with buddies I talked about in my last batmanotations is in full effect in the first issue of Inc, making good on Grant’s eternal promise of a Bruce Wayne who’d view an active, if slightly detached, sex life as a central part of his bat-lifestyle.
It remains to be seen if any attachments do form, however, and I’m betting if they do we won’t be looking at the same disaster we saw last time.
Health, as I mentioned above, is a key ingredient here. How does it manifest? Well, to begin with there’s the weightless, breakneck pacing of these two books, utterly unecumbered by the baggage of the last five years worth of bat-comics, then there’s the sex, then there’s the playfulness and humour, then there’s the inventiveness and energy – Internet 3.0, jet-suits, everything – and new locations galore, suggestive of a completely new, expansive bat-paradigm. If these comics were a person, they’d be at their peak. Batman Inc is Batman Ink, limited only to what can be drawn on a page.
LORD DEATH MAN
I love getting a new bat-villain. It brings out the anally retentive fanboy in me. I want action figures of all the characters revamped, recreated and created during Grant’s run. And Lord Death Man is no exception. The ‘They’re [Unknown's hands] are in Hell, awaiting the rest of you!‘ line is gleefully, evilly funny and disturbing in equal measure… and his costume? Skeletons are just bloody creepy, aren’t they? They’re an underused monster outside of roleplaying games and that means they still have charge, which is great. But for what I really like about Lord Death Man, the thing that really creeps me out, you have to turn to the last couple of pages of Batman Inc. To begin with there’s the way Morrison (or is it Paquette? Nah, I bet this was in the script) has him move like an evil noh theatre dancer (see page 21, panel 2), transforming him from supervillain to pure oni mono. And that’s the thing, the graceful, overly precise quality of the movements in japanese theatre always lends its actors an eerily ethereal quality and leaves me with the feeling that underneath those masks there’s something genuinely supernatural going on, so in Death Man’s case I can’t help wondering if there really is (there is). This is aided and abetted, of course, by Paquette’s mazzuchelli-esque line work, its solidity set against and highlighting the latent otherworldliness. And, let’s face it, Lord Death Man’s ‘death’ and promised ressurection would be a hell of a lot less skin crawling if it didn’t all feel so real, if he had the kind of cartoony body that could easily sustain a bullet sized hole and a however many feet plummet to the pavement.
Aaah, again with another wicked Morrisonian conceit no-one else has made much of, the mined floor. I mean, seriously? The transformation of this completely, mundanely, safe space, the carpet, into a battlefield is genius as far as I’m concerned, and dementedly original and scary. Again, its the juxtaposition of the apparently everyday reality of this scene with what’s really going on that makes it work so well. As far as I’m concerned this is horror comics, and not funny at all.
And it gets worse.
See, some reviewers thought this was funny, and while I know there’s a smirk written all over this cliffhanger, I wasn’t feeling it at all. Long time mindless readers may know that I have an absolute horror of all things mollusc, so the idea that the world beneath my carpet might be crawling with mines and giant octopi is utterly horrendous. Not only that but it’s just an incredible, wonderful, stupid conceit, an entire flat flooded and turned into a tank for a sea monster! Pure Morrison. The weightless room is set off really nicely by the detailed scene beyond its windows, the bird being a particularly nice touch, really contributing the strange, detourned atmosphere. As is so often the case with Morrison’s material, I honestly believe whether or not you experience this stuff as pure horror comics depends entirely on the amount of imagination applied. Given more than a moment’s thought, this page isn’t so much ‘Fnurrr’ as ‘Aaaargh! Yuck!’.
DID ANYONE NOTICE
how Batman’s prancing about during the day in this comic?
THE OMNISCIENT NARRATOR
Another thing I’m surprised no-one’s really commented upon except to say ‘Wooah! Cool!’ or ‘Derivative!’ (FUCK. OFF.) is the omniscient narrator trope Grant employs both at the beginning of Return and the end of Inc. I thought about saying a whole bunch of stuff about this device, but the most exciting thing about it is that it’s being used at all. I must be right in assuming that the new generation of readers, the people between 12 and 25, have hardly read anything incorporating it, and if they have, in old Claremont books or Secret Wars or whatever, they probably found it more than a little bit clunky or old fashioned.
But that’s hardly the case here.
Because both Return and Inc are so modern in their concerns and execution and because this trope is only employed at highly specific, dramatically appropriate/significant moments, here the omniscient narrator comes off as nothing other than total skill, absolutely fresh and exciting. Morrison talked a lot in his promo interviews about the musicality of this kind of narration, and I kind of understood what he meant when I read them, I thought I got it, but frankly it wasn’t till the end of Inc that I knew I had. The Batman TV series voice he employs, the way it serves as narrative percussion between each life-flashing-before-your eyes story beat of the comic’s penultimate page and the way it addresses the reader directly, white text on black field, the inverse of a wordballoon, really causes us to HEAR the text. It’s a massively neat trick, a little bit breathtaking, and enormously effective.
Made me giggle with pleasure.
WHERE WE MIGHT GO WRONG
I’ve read (and heard) some fairly lamentable criticisms of this book, ranging from the utterly ridiculous ‘Batman can’t steal the project x [read: potential SUPERWEAPON] from Sivana, because it’s against the law!‘, to the tired old complaints about originality. That’s one argument I wish I could put to rest right now – I am so completely sick of the comics community piffling on about this stuff. To begin with it’s the complete lack of understanding that by riffing on pre-existing tropes and conventions, for instance the tv series’ cliffhanger voice-over mentioned above, Grant absolutely isn’t slavishly copying, but rather synthesising, sampling and reappropriating. We know this because the element in question has been recontextualised and doesn’t feel the same! It doesn’t matter if some of the plot beats are shared between Batman’s story and Captain America’s, because in its detail, its structure, tone, atmosphere, themes, etc., Batman’s story is completely different. Just because a hip hop record lifts a break from another track, it doesn’t make it that track.
At my lowest ebb, when I’m feeling particularly uncharitable, I start to wonder about the weird mindset that collects and can’t see beyond these surface level self-similarities. It’s peculiar to the comics community, let’s put it like that.
And obvs I couldn’t give a monkeys about whether dark avenger bats goes MIA for a couple of years, and Inc works for me…etc.
No, the only thing that I’d really like to see, and I’m worried I won’t, is Morrison writing a self contained story with little to no spillage into stuff like Multiversity. Do it Grant! Keep Inc as fresh, weightless and selfcontained as it wants to be! FO REAL.
In closing, if there’s one other thing I can stone cold guarantee, it’s that if you gave a Batman virgin Return or Inc they could not only follow what was going on, but they’d really like it. So much of the bat-readership’s taste is weighted down by specific sets of expectations and I honestly believe it’s getting in the way of…umm… PLEASURE. I say getting in the way because on their own terms these new comics are immensely fun. I know some of you probably have doubts in your mind – the savage critics boys said they weren’t entirely convinced, etc. – but imagine being fifteen and picking up these books, long, long before a monolithic Bat-idea calcified in your mind, and how much you’d've dug them. It’s really only the post DKR poodle who would’ve had a problem with this direction, and I’m sure that’s true of much of our readership also. The Batman Inc thing is a welcome zap in the arse for all things Caped Crusader, one that I think was sorely needed, and so easy to accomodate when it’s as enjoyable as this.
(So enjoyable, in fact, that I’ve actually bothered to pick up Tec and Batman, and, now this is embarrassing, I kind of enjoyed Batman. Daniel doesn’t write a bad Grayson. So far.
Shhh! Don’t tell the cool kids!)