January 22nd, 2012
For some reason, probably because I found the Chief Man of Bats issue so meh and the following one bloody awful, and because I was in the Isle of Man, I didn’t pick up this, ahem, *special* (way to throw a cover together, DC art dept!) when it came out a couple of weeks back, but I’m pleased I have now because this book’s back on track in a big way. We all moan about the Big Two, but DC aren’t stupid enough to completely overhaul one of their most popular titles, and, as with Snyder’s book, now that we know Batman Inc will stay pretty much on point after the reboot, I’m prepared to invest myself again.
Now that I know I won’t get hurt.
As was somewhat unsurprising, the second part of this story really divided fans. You know my take on this by now. There are problems with Grant’s writing, sure. I know all about them. I’ve been reading him since Zenith. But they have nothing to do with the writer being on bad drugs. If people want a more traditional take, they can read Snyder. If they want a more colourful one that’s not afraid to push the boat out, then Morrison’s the man for them. If you belong to the former group, you should know now that what you’re about to read is going to take it for granted that experimentation in comic books should be the norm rather than the exception. There certainly won’t be any time wasted on justifying such an approach.
The first half of this zombie battlecry is one of Morrison’s evil secret societies’ typical sales pitches: ‘Join us! You’ll no longer be plagued by human concerns…. because we’ll cut off your humanity with a carving knife!’ It’s so close to the other side’s pitch, almost identical in fact, but with added soul castration. Superman achieves ego loss via supersenses which connect him to the beating heart of an ever needy humanity, Batman locks himself in a cave and engages in a month long blast of super-Chod, but Leviathan go the rock star route, drugging you up to the eyeballs and threatening you with extinction. This is the left hand path to enlightenment, the one that travels through Hell. The undead superhero look sported by the girls resonates really well with this – since the Invisibles – recurrent theme.
Further to that, the skull masks are reminiscent of the getups worn by Yale University’s Skull and Bones Society, which, purportedly, has for the last a hundredish years kept the CIA and in all likelihood the gosh darn Illuminati itself in secret agents, assassins and presidents.
Also, bright sexy youth juxtaposed with death? Always freaky. Both poles collapsed.
There’s a lot of information encoded into this scene. We’ll expand on the other stuff when the comic picks it up later on.
Perhaps it’s stretching the scene’s symbolic potential to breaking point, but the image of Batman as gardener armed with weedkiller ‘disinfecting’ the bright young blooms could be read as a codified mission statement.
This isn’t the first time Morrison’s posited a link between celebrities and global conspiracies. The Outer Church had these people coming out of its arse. Here he’s cheekily suggesting that today’s biggest female pop stars, Madonna, Katy Perry, Rihanna and Lady Gaga, are all former alumni of St Hadrians, returning to their alma mater as consultants and teachers, their blessed lives the product of their star pupil status during their time at the school. Giving something back, as they say – for a fee that would bankrupt Europe.
I particularly like Madonna in her role as the Deputy Head. The leather clad dominatrix role has, since Sex, always been an embedded aspect of her star persona, and the idea of her as a killer St Trinians girl grown up makes a lot of sense.
I should have known that Morrison would cram a reference to If in this issue. St Hadrians is the dark side of his original Invisibles’ as psychic boyscout army pitch. Hand grenades in the classroom, ninja training between dirty bomb construction classes…. But as I say, the equation is reversed. Instead of representing the potential to blow a hole in the establishment, here the pineapple serves as its prop, with the teachers offering it to the students as a kind of ‘bad apple’, a death apple, tempting them into a life of conformity with the promise of sexy anarchy.
‘St Hadrians girls are proud venus flytraps, not shrinking violets’
(cut to Stephanie’s purple caption box)
leads directly into what I want to talk about on….
PAGES 4, 5 AND 6
With her blonde hair and doe eyes, Stephanie Brown has landed herself the role of the Good Girl in the Killer Sorority movie.
But the exchange
‘You like to fight?’
‘I like to keep fit…’
contains another meaning. It’s not just what a Good Girl would say.
It’s a superhero’s answer too.
They don’t *like* to fight.
But, oh man….
This is the first of four instances where Batgirl abruptly reverses the power dynamic to fun effect. With her permanently hyperdefensive, indeed, utterly submissive rabbit in the Death Star’s headlights expression/demeanour, surrounded by jeering enemies at all turns, everything about Stephanie screams ‘PREY’. But then we turn the page and – WHAM! – she explodes into lethal Kung Fu action. It’s testimony to Stewart’s art that she sucker punches us as much as the bad guys every time.
As the script says, this skinny little thing contains the combined might of Cluemaster, Batman, Black Canary and Robin. She’s packing.
I can just hear her deliver that line about the other girls’ thanking their lucky stars they don’t know her Dad. Like all the best cover stories, all lies, to be convincing hers has to contain a grain of truth, and I’m sure her words would resonate with all the conviction of an abused child. Cluemaster may be a figure of fun in these pages, but I’m certain he isn’t any fun if he’s your Father.
And here’s Rihanna.
I’m sure it was unintentional, but there’s a horrible irony to her inclusion here given what the real life Rihanna’s been through. However it’s cool to imagine a parallel universe where she’s a ninja badass and those bruises were battlescars, mementos of an especially deadly and exciting mission.
PAGES 7 AND 8
So along with Madonna, it seems Scorpiana and a host of other female supervillains schooled at St Hadrians. Who sends their kids to this school? I suppose it’s a question not worth asking in the real world, and the answer’s obvious enough. There’s probably a million crime dynastie who want to see their daughters get a proper education, as is evidenced over the page when Jolisa reveals her parentage.
‘She trained here and was personally selected by Miss Delicias [that never fails to get a chuckle] to test the Leviathan technology.’
This is the first indication that, far from being a front set up by Leviathan, St Hadrian’s has always been a school for super assassins/spies. and has only recently been co-opted for its malign purposes. More on this later.
The ‘Leviathan technology’ referred to here must be the mind control wafers, etc that show up later and poor, smiling Una the first unwitting test subject. We already know Scorpiana has a kinky nurse fetish and I can just see her conducting the experiment herself in an imagined scene where Morrison’s script suddenly performs one of his trademark u-turns into antiseptic, white tiled horror……
Does Scorpiana teach at the school between missions?
Jolisa is a typical morrisonian double agent. Smarter than everyone else, always one step ahead of the well worn bright-young-things-inducted-into-evil-secret-society plot that both she and Stephanie find themselves in (‘Well either we’re in trouble, or they want to recruit us to their mysterious elite… What do you think?’). Heck, even her colouring marks her out as a black sheep, Jolisa is the last person we’d ever suspect of being a baddie…. and therefore the first.
Given that the Highwayman was originally conceived as a rogueish cross between Russell Brand and Adam Ant, his place at the top of the villains poll makes sense. *Sigh!* – I’m sure Morrison would handle the character well, and I love his dancing around his new creations, the tease, but frankly I think the Highwayman’s a missed opportunity. For me the name evokes some godawful ballardian nightmare of a supervillain, British, but in an utterly modern way, the man from the road sign climbing down from his triangular perch and terrorising the M25 – the Harrower of Heathrow, the ghost haunting suburbia, his base a concrete island, his kid sidekick the child from the school crossing sign.
It would be awesome, if a bit high concept. And not sexy.
One of the weird things about seeing pop stars in this issue is the intrusion of contemporary fashions within a superhero book. The zeitgeist doesn’t normally make its way into capes and tights comics. Even Frank Quitely, who many people laud as the guy who’s able to reflect current trends, had Jimmy Olsen sport a haircut which at the time of All Star’s release was already becoming popular with estate agents (seriously, they still wear it). The woman on the cover to his latest book, the one with Millar, looks like an indie girl circa 1995, not modern at all (we love you Frank, but it’s true). Jamie McElvie’s about the only one who gets it right, I think. Oh for the days of Zenith when superheroes were designed with one eye on the high street (dig the Fall badge!), with Billy Whiz as a young Soul Boy, a smiley face bedecked robot and the titular hero himself conceived as a cross between Morrisey and Luke Goss. If comics ever want to attract that ‘hipster’ crowd Grant was always going on about in the early zeroes then artists need to pay attention to this sort of thing. I wouldn’t bring it up, but after reading Supergods I’ve overdosed on Grant’s belief that comics are some kind of barometer of cool, and, you know, they’re not.
Stormers…. I ask you.
(But in the spirit of fairness I’ve included a well argued link in favour of the Sekhmet Hypotheis anyway. Aren’t I nice? Still a load of twaddle though….)
Inspite of the thigh highs and stockings, which are a nod to genre convention more than anything else, this is is a book on the side of the angels. To begin with Cameron takes what in other hands could’ve been one dimensional, exploitative material and gives his characters actual personality, and then there’s the big reveal about who’s running Leviathan that puts the whole thing into stark relief. That Talia, a woman, so effortlessly co-opts the narrative, the entire bat-novel Morrison’s been writing these last six years, transforming Hurt into little more than a footnote, is a tiny comic book victory from an equal opportunities point of view. We thought we were in a another kind of story, where titanic masculine archetypes fought over a narrative which was always their’s in the first place, but it turns out we were wrong, and now, whoever wins the final battle, I’m pleased to see that Grant respects women enough to position Talia as the real threat. Okay, she’s neurotic and hysterical and a baddy and this isn’t perfect, but the reveal made me shiver. How often, and in how many writers’ hands, do you think that would happen? I want more badass girls in my comics. Women have had a real presence in Batman Inc, and whether or not their inclusion has been a conscious decision on Morrisons part – and for the record I think it has – this is a very good thing. The bullet holes in Green Lantern’s crotch confirm the writer as someone who’s not afraid to hit the Status Q where it hurts. And, again, regardless of intentionality, the final blast piercing Superman’s eye reminds us that perhaps the bullet in Return wouldn’t have crumpled and bounced off if Luthor understood the Super Man’s true weakness, and had a woman pull the trigger.
Seen from outside, and the perspective of this story *is* firmly outside, Hal and Kal’s (just saying the names like that – URRGH! so annoying!) easy, nothing-can-hurt-me! posturing is revealed as smug and irritating, and it’s so satisfying watching them get de-cocked. I can envisage a deleted scene where one of the girls sneaks into the firing range later that night and draws motion lines on either side of Hal’s wrist. Seriously, take Leviathan out of the equation and we’d be rooting for these plucky little castraters.
But as I concede above, none of this is to say that the women in the comic aren’t problematic from a feminist point of view. As it is much of the comic’s cast, all the students basically, with Stephanie as a notable exception, are currently the victims of terrible exploitation, regarded by Leviathan as little more than a resource and by their other employers as pretty, karate kicking trophies. In the last panel, Stephanie’s description of a student’s typical life beyond the school gates is shot through with the predatory whiff of the paedophile, and while no-one’s denying these young women can look after themselves, they’re weird relationship with powerful (indeed, super) men, which, reading between the lines, seems to vacillate wildly between teenage infatuation and antagonism, coupled with their eventual commodification, makes for a potentially icky picture. This is how supervillainesses are born. Yeah, i’m sure their conversations are ‘creepy’. Very creepy indeed.
‘The Headmistress is dedicated to insuring that her girls achieve their personal and professional goals, according to the prospectus.’
More evidence that whoever’s running the show may have set out with a different kind of school in mind, before the dark days, before Leviathan.
‘I still remember rule one. Proper planning and preparation.’
This is Batman’s no. 1 rule, and that she follows it rigorously confirms Steph as a true Robin whatever Didio and a certain section of the sexist fanbase say.
‘In my experience, it’s so often the rebels who turn out to be the most loyal soldiers.’
The Outer Church to a T. And in hindsight we can see that in Jolisa’s case this has already been proven true.
Now we know where the Mind Control tech comes from.
And so Johnny Valentine, who, when last we saw him, we dismissed as little more than a hired hood, is revealed as Janosz Valentin, Son of Pyg. I dread to think what the (barbed wire) mother looked like.
Janosz represents another iteration of the child abuse theme running underneath the action (maybe it’s a bit dodge that one of the key people behind this child slavey ring happens to be of eastern european extraction, but that’s another conversation), which of course connects to the larger narrative in that it’s yet another signpost pointing to Talia and Damian, the ur abusive relationship upon which the whole run hangs.
This scene includes a very clever reimagining/reappropriation of Batwoman’s make up bag of tricks that shouldn’t pass without comment. Like the hand grenade in the previous scene, the cosmetics, laid out in front of the students like holy relics on an altar, represent an exciting, glamorous future – womanhood, unpacked. But a highly specific kind of womanhood. Because these objects contain a second, hidden meaning beneath their sweetly scented surface, which only becomes apparent when they’re used: all of these things – hairdryers, brushes, lipstick, perfume – are in reality lethal weapons. The make up table is a poisoned chalice. Here the process of becoming a woman contains a sinister self nullifying aspect; one that destroys. Beneath the surface glamour hides a grinning skull. These aren’t the symbols of transcendence one expects to find in a church, but their opposite: unholy symbols of ego, vanity and capital.
the zombiefication of the school’s best students clearly contains this metaphorical dimension, an accusing finger pointed squarely at mindless consumer culture and a self, in this case a female self, comprised of shored up objects. We’re back to the old good corporation versus bad corporation theme I’ve discussed before, where Leviathan represents passive consumption and the attempt to keep death at bay by distracting him with silky skin and an all over tan, and Batman incorporated fearless, active agency, life. An investment in people and tomorrow.
The inverted christian imagery continues with the drugged communion wafers and Janosz’s half hearted cruxifiction. The Son of Pyg, Dollotron the First, has come to bring the Bad News.
It’s also worth noting, because I didn’t before, that the make up bag makes even more sense as Batwoman’s utility belt when you consider that Kathy was a spy. We know from James Bond films that secret agents use weaponry disguised as everyday objects. I wonder if Morrison intended this rationalisation, because it’s latent in the text. It’s a confident writer who doesn’t flag this stuff, one who likes his readers to dig deep.
Leviathan’s focus on children reflects traditional al-ghullic concerns about recreating the world. But whereas Ra’s came off as a rejigged villain in the Dax from Moonraker mould, an old man dreaming of a chrome suited future of sexy Adam and Eves presiding over a new Eden, Talia’s goals are far less clear. Perhaps she fully intends to continue her father’s work. Perhaps she’s a tyrant. There’s also the awful, and given the preponderance of zombies and Kali yantras on display (another clue) highly likely, possibility she’s taken a leaf out of her Grandfather’s book and just wants to kill everything….
Afterall, she never seemed that enamoured of Ra’s's mission, did she? And now she intends to turn the whole world into a substitute child, broken and loyal at last, but empty. Talk about displacement activity. The remote controlled child army was probably always the biggest giveaway that it was Talia behind the curtain. The scene at the end of Return, where she has Farouk’s son kill his Father, now reads like wish fulfilment.
PAGES 14 AND 15
Stephanie’s no messing appropriation of the enemy’s tools to her own, superheroic ends, her ability to instantly see through the glamour to the cosmetics’ true meaning, frames her as exactly the kind of agent I was talking about before. She owns these things, they do not own her.
‘I said there’d be a bat-daughter!’
Isn’t Jolisa giving herself away a bit here? The rumour began with her. Afterall, she did say she knew ‘everything’.
This is a nice reversal. Again, we’re lulled into thinking Batgirl’s outmatched and that she’s fleeing, only to turn the page and see her lock the school gate, penning herself in, with only one option left: to fight until she drops.
‘”School of Night”? All I see here is young girls under the spell of unhealthy roll models.’
It couldn’t be made any clearer.
‘Outstanding work, Batgirl. When you’re done here, meet me in the headmistress’s office.’
I love Batman’s absolute confidence in his co-workers. Morrison appears to want to erase Batman’s lck of belief in Stephanie from the continuity. And damn right. The only time a girl gets a proper look in in years and she’s not only rejected by Bats, but tortured to death too. Fuck all that. This comic’s a great final salute to a superhero I now wish I knew a bit better.
I don’t need to tell you how skill Batgirl’s dialogue is in this scene. The final reversal.
Damn right. We don’t need to see what happens next.
Batman lays down the history of the school up till this point, just in case we weren’t paying attention. And Hexley?
I missed it the first time around, but now it’s as clear as day.
‘But you don’t have HER, do you? The Headmistress. You never did and never will.’
But Batman gets it.
‘I know who runs this place now.’
(Or does he? It could be that he still thinks the headmistress is Jet.)
Kathy Kane of course. Still playing hard to get with the Dark Knight even after all these years. I mean, the outfits the girls wear (which I’m sure most of them would’ve worn to their graduation ceremony in the pre Leviathan years – St Hadrian’s cap and gown…) couldn’t be more of a giveaway, or the make up bag, but rereading again now the biggest clue has to be the kind of girls St Hadrian’s produces – lethal, supremely self sufficient young spies with a suicidal streak and a love/hate relationship with mystery men. All of them adolescent Ms. Kanes.
It certainly seems in keeping with Kathy’s wayward personality too, the selling out of her school. The kind of grand fuck up someone as gloriously, glamorously rash and narcissistic as Batwoman would make. But we know she’ll regret it. She’s one of the good guys at heart. I reckon the school’s going to get another client soon, someone who can easily compete with Leviathan’s bank account, someone whose name rhymes with Shane.
And Kathy will throw away her death mask for something more fitting. An old favourite. In scarlet.
PAGES 21 AND 22
Stephanie’s a creature of the night through and through.
But I don’t think we need the inset panel. Of course Batman caught the damn thing.
And see you guys next/last time…..