March 14th, 2011
bobsy: My own and only objection to how Batman Incorporated is proceeding, amidst so far a hat-trick of rapid high impact 21st century superhero comics, is the slight familiarity of the beats as the overarching story begins to emerge. Though it wasn’t to be expected, more refreshing and radical than those ominous bell-notes as the latest cosmic conspiracy begins to emerge from the murk would be a comic that stands entirely on its own, 22 or whatever pages of unencumbered violence and costumes, a purity of blank abstracted spectacle that doesn’t even pretend to that common fallacy: that a wider world exists beyond the totality of its stapled covers.
Minor quibble best dispensed with early. This was a fun issue, and in the so-far absence of Annotations Goddess Uzi Mary, la belle annotateur sans merci, a few pages in particular require a closer look.
[Before we get started I'm thinking of the excellent 'No Lucifer' by the otherwise not all that great British Sea Power for the soundtrack to these few pages.]
Page 1. Panel 1.
Landing in the middle of the action like a biomechanical terraforming invader disguised as a kid’s toy, this panel is easily the most exciting thing ever to have happened in a Westcountry churchyard. Except for maybe that bit where Adam Buxton gets the headsplat from that bit of broken steeple in Hot Fuzz.
It depicts a Metalek reconnaisance unit shortly after it has crashed rather heavily to earth. Dedalus, our new Big Bad, appears to have been expecting him, as is to be expected. It’s tempting to suppose at this early stage that Dedalus is a reasonably similar type to the Terrible Time Tailor from Seven Soldiers – one who makes intricate things for superheroes to dance their wonderful fights in. He creates labyrinths to trap them, but also smashing magic wings to help them escape in style. An enemy then, but also an enabler. A nasty, necessary thing.
Illogical Volume: Hot Fuzz is a neat reference here actually, since the question of how to make a big, crass American action movie play out convincingly in a sleepy English village has parallels with the question of how to make a British superhero team work.
And yeah, the Buxton headsplat was great, but my childish man-brain is pretty fucking clear that Metalek is far more exciting.
Amy: Agreemence with bobsy re the most exciting panel thing. So this is the backstory of the Metalek we saw in Batman and Robin, yeah? A scout captured by Dedalus and now undergoing analysis in the super-prsion beneath the Tower of London? The Metaleks are Simon Furman’s transformers shot through the prism of the DCU…. Man, I want to see more of these guys. I wrote a script for the Knight and Squire featuring these things and it was both funny and icky – all flailing cranes like spider legs and fanning wing-mirror eyes.
bobsy: The Falkland Islands, 1982. Spring or Summer, Northern Hemisphere time.
Amy: Morrison’s attempt to give ‘voice’ to his comics continues in this issue. In interviews he’s talked about a constant switching up from first, to second to third person narration generating aural-illusion and he appears to be striving for a similar effect here. Being as it’s not the sort of thing we expect to find in the second panel of a Batman comic, the map grid location aggressively occupies the ‘sensory’ foreground, but even it is quickly jostled out of the way by the doomy deathknell of a classic newsreel headline: ‘IN TIME OF WAR’ addressing us directly out of our collective unconscious. The text is accompanied in the mind by the dull donging of a doomsday clock. It’s all massively effective – very visceral.
bobsy: English superteams are always hanging around lighthouses. It’s a fitting spot, boundary and beacon, brave but tragic outpost of civilisation standing in erect defiance of sea’s eternal message to mankind (roughly: ‘you are tiny and without true hope.’) I refuse to use the term ‘liminal space”.
Amy: Nice jump from the postcard pic of the lighthouse to the wrecked war zone left in Dedalus’s wake. The disorienting quality of this first page articulates the shock and awe of war and Knight’s temporal/ontological confusion.
bobsy: We are in Percy ‘The Knight’ Sheldrake’s eyes, taking his POV. [Percy Shel(...) - hadn't noticed that before.] He’s just had his arse kicked by Dedalus, is probably the last surviving member of his superteam the Victory Vs, and is all in all a bit headfucked by recent events. His left hand appears to be injured, a real blow for one whose identity is strongly defined by roles like ‘warrior’ and ‘inventor’. Probably safe to assume Percy’s consciousness has recently undergone traumatic exposure to extratemporal perspectives, and as a result time, space and mind are probably a little bit unsecure and frightening for him at the moment – see how the POV tips from side to side. Although maybe he’s a bit drunk, knowing his family…
He asks ’Who am I now?’ – at this exact point in time, of course, with us nestling neatly there in his occipital lobe, he’s us. That’s got to be a headfuck.
Illogical Volume: I’m never entirely sold on these sort of Peep Show style POV shots in comics, but awkwardness works here like it did in the third issue of Rock of Ages. It gives the sense that everything’s already happened and there’s nothing you could do about it but stagger through the story like you came in drunk. Which, as bobsy says, is quite possibly what’s actually happened here…
bobsy: Victory Vs are super-strong and super-horrid liquorice flavoured mint things that blast red hot vapour through your mouth, nose, eyes and ears. They were basically cough-candy for those plucky lucky Brits who lived through, and developed heavy masochistic-austere survival strategies during, World War 2. As these people are slowly dying out, you can’t really get Victory Vs any more, and no one misses them, although everyone feels they kind of should. Great packaging you see, a true design classic:
In this respect they have another similarity to the superteam Victory Vs, who look great but are basically a bunch of dicks (a quintessentially English superteam, written by a Scotsman – how could they be but?) Being two members shy of the magic number, the Victory 5s were fucked from the start. Presumably (and luckily) Cyril isn’t there because he was considered too young to be dropped into a war zone, and it’s not clear who the crucial seventh member would be. But then, it never is, is it?
Panel left lies The Iron Lady. Given that this is taking place on oily UK soil, where superheroes are never safe (and tend to actually stay dead), it’s safe to assume she’s a goner. Good. So for those at the back that’s Maggie Thatcher, lying dead among the wreckage of the British Army in the Bay of Harbours. Grant Morrison ladies and gentlemen – this is why he’s the best.
Illogical Volume: Of course, we all know that hatred only makes the real Margaret Thatcher stronger, and that the sheer pleasure this image provides readers like me with will keep her rancid heart beating for another few months. Since Morrison does magic, he should probably have known all of this, but I can’t exactly criticise him here – the strength of my desire ensures that Maggie will never die on my Birthday, for example. That’s one present that I simply want a little bit too much, you know?
This might explain how The Iron Lady’s continues to draw breath in our reality, actually – someone in Britain probably fantasizes about her popping her clogs every day, so now that Moz has offed her avatar, we really need to stop thinking about her and hope that time does its thing.
Also, for what it’s worth, this Iron Lady is convincingly nasty, but Raymond Briggs’ Old Iron Woman captures the spirit of the real Thatcher just that little bit better:
bobsy: ‘The never-ending ring’ Percy mentions simultaneously refers to the Ouroboros-motif annulet Batman will find later in the issue; the creepy Ouroboros conspiracy itself; the brutal cycle of violence superheroes perpetually endure; and to the echoing cathedral bells that in Morrison’s recent Bat run signify both a thinning at the edges of spacetime and a key symbol of Bruce Wayne’s Batman origin. Oh, and it probably refers to something completely else as well, just covering my back.
Amy: Dedalus, or Daedalus, was the architect of King Minos’s Labyrinth and the meanings embedded in his name spin out in a variety of different ways. It’s fitting that a super-spy should inhabit a ‘maze’ of conflicting identities and allegiances. It’s also interesting to note the thematic connection to the symbol of the Ouroborous, a shape from which there is no way out. And then there’s the link to Stephen Daedalus from Joyce’s Ulysees, which is fitting considering the other literary allusions present in the comic, who of course also exists in a textual maze of sorts, designed to ‘keep the professors busy for centuries’ arguing over its meaning. This is one tricksy character.
How all of this ties in with the shadowy organisation we met in Return is anyone’s guess, but it seems we could be in for a bit of a treat here. Batman, the ultimate super-spy, vs the ultimate super-spy.
bobsy: The dialogue and thick panel border combine to tell us that we have jumped in time back to when the Victory Vs were just landing. The first Victory V is named: Fadar! Fey-Gay-Radar-Gaydar. Pretty sure Gaydar wasn’t invented back in 82. Think more primitive technologies such as handkerchiefs hanging from pockets or public conveniences were used instead.
A British warship is in the background. The Falklands War for dummies goes like this: Our ships’ big guns could fire 12 miles or something, theirs only 10. So easy-peasy, we kept at a distance of about 11 miles away and blew the unholy shit out of them, even when they were in retreat. Rule Brifuckingtannia, home in time for the August bank holiday.
There are exactly four things worth knowing about the Falkland Islands. The first three are sheep, oil and inbreeding. The last one is that the territory’s capital town, Stanley, just a couple of bays north of where the Victory Vs are landing, is twinned with the Yorkshire town of Whitby. Boat landings = Ominous.
Page 2. Panel 1.
bobsy: Here they are then giving with a classicaly convenient lineup shot. L-R we have Percy Sheldrake aka The Knight; The Iron Lady; Fadar; Mr Albion and Captain Carnation. Despite strong visual design and that instant narcotic hit of intrigue and wonder that you get from seeing a panel crammed with new superheroes, in their brief on-page life the Victory Vs come across as one of the least appealing superteams this side of a Green Lantern board meeting.
We’ve only seen a couple of infinitesimal glimpses of Cyril’s dad, but a surprisingly clear portrait of his character is coming through. He’s a bit easily led, a poor judge of character, someone who needs like-minded companionship to reassure himself of the rightness of this strange vocation he’s got into. He’s the kind of hero who needs a team for validation, but from Mr. Albion to Peter Mayhew he’s in a habit of picking his friends unwisely. It’s tempting to think his problem may be a simple lack of super-sincerity, that traditionally necessary narrative tragedy, in his motivational make-up. Irony and concomitant forms of intellectual distance as a national affliction. He is quite simply that thing that Bruce Wayne warned of – a rich man with too much time and talent on his hands.
His ill-fated hero career itself becomes the tragedy that motivates his son to become better, and even then only after Cyril has traveled through Chapel Perilous in his own right. Today, Cyril wears the chainmail tights because not to do so, or to do anything else, is to invite addiction, penury and ruin. His is a clear choice to make between heroism and heroin, and a large part of what now makes him a viable and interesting character, despite recent mishandling, is the tension of his tightrope walk between the gutter and the stars.
The super-psychotic Iron Lady is, as we’ve seen, Mrs. T. turned up to 111. A Blakean angel, inverted.
Fadar, with his Morrissey hair, post-punk styling and pisstaking tongue feels like he’s walked straight out of an episode of Zenith. His obvious delight in tormenting Mr. Albion marks him out as, after Percy, the least arseholeish of the lot.
Mr Albion himself is a deceptively difficult character to pull off. It would be easy to write this kind of pure little-Englander petit-bourgeoisie micro-fascist type of as a cliche, but given that these shitbags are once again very much in the ascendant on this our septic isle, all over the fucking place in fact god help us all, to shy away from depicting him in all his rancid glory would deprive the soon to be vanquished Vs of their stony heart.
Amy: Bobsy sidestepped the more obvious reading of Albion in the hope of something more superheroic and complex. I won’t. Albion is the nastier side of eighties’ British nationalist culture wrapped up in a skin tight, Sun banner red St George’s cross and spouting unpleasant and inane tabloidisms about ‘Good Old British Tommies’, ‘every good Englishman’ and in all likelihood about how disgusting bloody pooftahs are. An arsehole in other words. Interestingly, the Hammer of Wayland Smith he wields finds its roots in teutonic mythology, which not only strengthens latent fascist readings of the character, but also highlights the contradictions at the heart of the fascist project, because, even in a figure as ostensibly English as Mr Albion, there’s no pure English mythology, no pure blood and no pure Englishman to be found.
bobsy: If Fadar has fallen into this dimension from mid-80s 2000AD, Captain Carnation appears to have landed in this comic from a late-70s issue of Near Myths, Gideon Stargrave with a New Romantic makeover.
Amy: Yeah, but he’s also this guy. It is a year since Prince Charming was released afterall.
Perhaps we’ll get a closer look at his and Iron Lady’s homeworlds when Multiversity comes out later this year.
bobsy: 633 Squadron is one of those old movies that your dad and your uncle will tell you ‘everyone’ has seen, and during the Falklands was indeed very likely on TV every other Sunday, but I mean really. The fact that I haven’t seen this film says a lot about the effete wastes of space we have risibly calling thesmselves ’men’ in this country in this century.
Seeing this, we kind of have to assume that the toy planes and tanks of Cyril’s that we’ve briefly seen are, like a lot of his things, hand-me-downs from dad. Assuming Percy designed and built the tiny army himself, he has another reason to be wary of Dedalus. Ask Perdix - he doesn’t take well to competition. Cap Carnation gives away some suggestive info regarding the threat – super-spy turned double agent (i.e. no-one knows what the hell is going on). He also mentions ‘Spyral’, which I think is a new one but is presumably the DC-UK’s version of SHIELD, though the name seems to allude to the maze-making skills of Dedalus, and sounds more like the kind of name a baddy would come up with in the first place…
With his every word Captain Carnation is being painted as an absolute coward, but then again if I had a nice cravat like that to look after I probably wouldn’t be too keen on getting killed by a supervillain either.
Its use is probably quite deliberate, signifying Mr. A’s ignorance and hypocrisy, his transparently condescending and venally opportunistic attempt to be down with the common man, but I’m pretty sure ‘up for the craic’ is an anachronism, not at all in common usage in England ’82. (I could be wrong, I was only four at the time and didn’t have much cause to speak to soldiers.) But you don’t impress a Tommy in the 80s, or ever, by dropping Irish slang into the conversation. After all, if they weren’t being shot at by Argentinians or sent spastic in time by Odin-alike magic spy bastards, they’d be off dodging Derry carbombs while supposedly taking a ‘crack at the Mick’ (points for identifying the quote).
Weird panel this – it’s basically a vertically-aligned rectangle that’s had to be put on its side in order to fit on the page. The required head-tilting suits the manic, war-torn time-and-space out of joint vibe of the overall sequence.
‘I can’t spare any more of my lads.’ Is it cynical to think that British superheroes operate in a slightly different way to their transatlantic counterparts? Proles at the front, the celebrity-aristo supers deigning to get their hands dirty only after a few pints of common blood have been shed in entreaty?
Page 3. Panel 1.
Just quickly, the reason we don’t really have superheroes over here is becasue we can’t easily imagine them amid the backdrop of the British landscape. If you have ever been through the UK countryside you will know that it is peaceful and beautiful in a calm sort of way. But it s not exciting or challenging, its charms turn the mind reflective, not flood the glands with adrenal fight and flight responses. It requires some feat of will to credibly insert a primary-coloured cape into those gentle skies. There ain’t no spandex in England’s dreaming. (An American city, on the other hand, feels as though it should – as though it already does - have a superpowered psychopath lurking around every corner.)
On the rare occasions when a British superhero has worked (and there are so few examples we can actually list them all: Zenith, Marvel-Miracleman, Captain Britain/Excalibur/The Knights of Pendragon… That’s about it really, isn’t it? The Leopard from Lime Street?), the fantastic element, the moment of movement from quotidian reality, our universe here and now, to one where the possibility of the extra-normal arises, is uniformly an incursion into this reality from an alternative and hence fantastic version of here. Parallel Englands where the excitement we all pretend we don’t crave is actually real. [Sorry for all the England-Britain conflation here - not that fussed by it though, as being English it's not like any UnAnglo Brits don't hate me already.]
Illogical Volume: Well, speaking as one half of Mindless North, I certainly despise you, yes. If I get close enough to you English Mindless, you’re done for. I’ve been studying the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider, and should we ever meet, I’ll trap you all in a giant web made of my own bodily fluids then suck the blood from you one by one.
Sorry, you were saying…?
bobsy: It may be Excalibur’s dimension hopping larks or Zenith’s existential and extradimensional Lovecraft beasties trying to get in from the outside, but there us always a place next door, just like here but not boring, where the wonderful enchantments of the superhero are naturally accessible. The big exception to this is Marvelman – but Moore & Gaiman’s M-Man arcs are all geared to one point: a precise and realistic description of how our society could in fact transition from here to there.
[The other exception here is Jack Staff, which for the most part operates via two different dynamics - firstly that The Otherworld is The Past, specifically the past as it is revealed in a certain class of artefact: British adventure comics and other pop-cultural ephemera such as sitcoms and whatnot; but secondarily with the understanding that while The Past is a different place where things are done differently, it is also always here, always the literal material stuff of the road beneath your feet. Its cross-contamination of Our reality, aka Today, is a given, occulted by familiarity, but retaining enough power for its occasional eruption into Now to violently refresh and refigure quotidian existence.]
Hence the necessity of Iron Lady’s lengthy aside here: DC-UK sticks to the pattern – the super-threat is always a neighbourly dispute between competing next-door realities.
Amy: And I’d love to know all about the trinity of ’Bloopeter, Crikey and Thatcha’. Thinking about it, perhaps Iron Lady’s ‘future walls’ talk suggests she’s not from another universe at all, but from a high-tech junk(ion)yard future, where Blue Peter and Thatcher have achieved the status of myth.
bobsy: Perhaps she’s some dreadful Thameside sentinel keeping the tides of parallel reality and bad futures from lapping our shores too closely. Evidently our Adam Adamant-esque dimensional tourist Cap Carnation gets a pass, for reasons unclear – the pair don’t seem like natural allies, but then no-one on this team does. He can only visit for an hour at a time, so even her legendary lack of tolerance can put up with him for that long.
‘Arch-Drood’ (Where ‘Drood’ = Dude/Druid/Droog/the mysterious & unfinished Edwin/etc.) is one of many mostly self-awarded real-life honourifics of Lord Julian of Yatesbury. On Earth-Here, the antipathy between Saint Julian and the grocer’s daughter (who, lest we ever forget, is more truthfully in spirit ‘the oilman’s wife’) is well recorded and much cherished, and it’s far from surprising that the conflict might spill over into DC territory too.
‘Golgonova’ – ‘New Golgotha’. Keeping with English Zionism hints here, maybe worth a mention that Golgotha, site of the Crucifixion, was pointedly outside the walls of Jerusalem. Iron Lady’s alter-future appears to be one where the stones of the New Jerusalem have indeed indeed been laid in this green and pleasant land. Typical – finally get the future we’ve been singing about all this time and look at the shite superhero we get stuck with.
The figuring of The Iron Lady here is in its own quiet way very daring indeed. It appears – and this is the best set of superpowers of any hero anywhere – that Iron Lady is armed with the celestial arsenal sung of in verse three of unofficial English national anthem Jerusalem:
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
Damn! Though much beloved of English revolutionaries, progressives and heretics of all kinds, from Keltic Christians to English Zionists, there remains a strong reactionary streak at work in the song, which equates industrial development with Satan, which is usually glossed over. Giving the song ‘back’ (it never really left them, we have to share, more’s the pity) to the forces of evil in this way cocks a snook at England’s risible ‘heroic’ self-image. These are sharp knives – only a Scot or Irishman could sacrifice the visionary delight at work in Blake’s in order to get a snide dig in at the oldest enemy. It’s harsh, it hurts, but it’s fair.
Illogical Volume: Aye, see, while I’d agree that an incursion from elsewhere goes a long way to making a British superhero comic “work”, I think there are other ways to do it too. Morrison’s brief gestures in this direction in Batman & Robin were very effective, and they seemed to rely on Morrison’s oft-acknowledged fondness for Alan Garner’s work than anything else.
(You can insert your own terrible pun about how he mined a seam of strange British fantasy here if you like.)
Our Moz has been known to court cliché when he goes global, and he’s guilty of the same thing when he does superheroes from the UK too, but on the whole he manages to bring a different sort of multiplicity to the DCU. Which is brilliant, obviously. I mean, a Multiverse is a wonderful thing to explore, but it’d get pretty boring pretty quickly if all it contained were a series of alternate Americas.
Amy: The Ur superpower is flight, yes? so the space has to be very big to accomodate that. I mean, Superman would cover the distance from John o’ Groats to Land’s End in, what, a couple of minutes? Epic happenings occur in epic places. Historically things need to be bigger, faster, more technologised to produce beings ‘faster than a locomotive’. I guess the UK superhero, while always overlapping into the cosmic and the world shattering as all superheroes do, works best against a backdrop of fantasy, ghost story, le Carre-lite espionage, folklore and psychedelia – British staples all. So it’s a tonally different playing field, but not an excuse for the big two never to holiday in the UK. In the end I’d put the inability to pull off British superheroes down to deficiencies in individual writing styles rather than to the project being doomed right from the outset.
This is something I think Morrison’s trying to tackle with his comics. He’s trying to see how we can make superheroes work in locations other than the US, and while Batman Inc falls into cliche and caricature at times, I still feel like he’s succeeding. In one way it’s weird that we’re more used to seeing superheroes on Mars than we are in Japan or Britain but that’s actually the way things are, and proof of this lies in the fact that these locations appear so much more exotic and interesting to the reader. Forget Oa, setting Batman’s adventures in Argentina really expands the DCU and makes it feel convincingly vast. Also, if Inc’s overarching narrative conerns a global threat, it seems right and proper that we should get a good look at the world that’s threatened. This is a rare thing in most superhero books. The menace arrives to take over the planet, but there’s no stakes really, at least not to anyone who doesn’t live in the States. Here all of this wonderful stuff is at stake, from the Falklands to Tokyo to a churchyard in a forgotten corner of Dorset.
bobsy: The aero-cams go out as the hammer starts to burn cold. Weyland’s hammer isn’t a weapon – it’s a thing for making weapons with. This is a point of some national pride – we will sell build and sell weapons to fucking anyone. Percy is the weapons maker here, so hand it over Mr Albion you sunburnt cock.
The spi/yral interior of the lighthouse, the whirl of the black smoke (which is a kind of anti-stuff that several DC characters can access I think?) and the wheeling confusion of the labyrinth all seem to come together under Dedalus’ hand.
Amy: Alsoohuhooowuh! Given the Knight’s babblings and the meanings implicit in Dedalus’s name, the weird sigil Knight’s holding could indicate they’ve dished out some poetic justice, trapping Dedalus in some sort of time loop. Afterall, Morrison’s big on time as a web. Dig out your old Invisibles’ back issues and you’ll see.
Aaah, but is it the Knight who returns from that lighthouse, or is his mind now possessed by someone else? ‘Who am I?’ indeed?
bobsy: The eye at the heart of the web as a post-digital glyph of social structure, to replace the eye atop the panoptic pyramid. Are we going to see I, Spyder, or maybe the Sheeda’s 8-legged yeth-dogs (or Odin’s Sleipnir) running amok again? These revelatory flavours and oblique hints at a future of mystery and catastrophe offer, in utter contradiction of my opening point, a fine foretaste of thoughtmeat so delicious you just know we’ll be back for more in a fortnight’s time.
Page 4. Panel 1.
Meanwhile, years later, on the mainland…