February 6th, 2012
Flashback to 2011 and the world is ending. Again. The signs are easy to interpret now, when they require any interpreting at all: a news anchor blathers away on TV, building up so much expectation that the large hadron collider, suffering from a fit of performance anxiety, unravels and takes reality with it; meanwhile, under the sea in a parallel Earth, an archaic supervillain announces that he has “hung a deadly necklace of deadly meta-bombs around the world like precious pearls“; on the internet, or rather in a dated parody of cyberspace that resembles nothing so much as X-Box live for “edgy” business folk, a rapidly mutating program tries to take over everything.
Responses to this are equally typical: standing in a futile crowd beside a fatbalding awkwardman, a disinterested woman holds up a sign informing everyone that “THE END is NIGH!“; a bloodied hero crawls forward, trying to save the world again, knowing that all he has to do is push a button, but that even this might be to much for him now; elsewhere, tough men decide to make tough decisions with predictable results.
I’m talking about Batman Incorporated and Indigo Prime here, because they were the two garish fantasies that played best for my (semi-informed, heavily solipsistic) sense of panic throughout 2011, that end of season finale of a year.
After all, if you feel like everything’s falling apart, sometimes it helps to be able dress these feelings up in twisted words and garish costumes instead of focusing on the garbled socio-economic truth.
Spacetime becomes jelly.
The walls of reality buckle and fold.
Higher Dimensions intrude into the supersymmetry.
Dark Matter condenses as worlds collide.
Mmmmm, yeah, that’s the stuff.
2. Picking Up Your Prescription
It’s doubly helpful if these fantasies have already broken in, and neither the recent Indigo Prime stories nor Batman Incorporated exactly make it difficult for you on that front.
Grant Morrison has been writing Batman since 2006 now, endlessly replaying and revising and running down the themes and techniques he perfected in his mid 2000s superhero work. In truth, his Batman run has been an exhausting experience at points, lacking as it does both the superdense complexity of Seven Soldiers and the sky blue clarity of All Star Superman. It’s also increasingly hard to evaluate as a whole, given that the best issues are both every bit as good as the very best superhero comics AND only fully appreciable once you’ve read a lot of dull-to-middling comics.
Still, the sheer size of the run is a strength as well as a weakness – as Michael Moorcock hinted while reviewing Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, it’s possible for an author to use sheer volume of a piece of writing like a rock band would use sheer loudness. And so, instead of feeling a dull sense of familiarity as yet another lithe, optimistic re-envisioning of Batman’s status-quo is swallowed by the black hole of the overarching megaplot (as has happened in both Morrison’s original Batman run and in Batman and Robin previously), long term readers might have found the back half of December’s Batman: Leviathan Strikes potentially overwhelming.
So, as the needle pushes into the red again…
…and you find yourself reading yet another scene in which Batman’s reality is Batscrambled so that he find himself reliving his Secret Origin, two responses present themselves – exhaustion or invigoration. Recently I’ve started to wonder if these two states aren’t dependent on each other, which is to say, whether the relationship between them isn’t part of the appeal. Sixty issues into this glorious mess, it’s not always easy to tell signal from noise anymore- after a while, they both seem to tell the same story anyway, but since that story is all about man vs. entropy, that’s okay with me.
If John Smith’s Indigo Prime comics feel as if they’re drawing on a body of work that’s every bit as dense as Morrison’s Batman run, that’s probably just a byproduct of Smith’s notoriously suggestive plotting and sensuous wordplay. For those who came in late, Indigo Prime is an organisation of inter-dimensional trouble shooters whose agents are “recruited after death”. Entropy and catastrophe are their business, and – if you’ll allow me to adopt the gravelly tones of a voice over artist doing a trailer for a few seconds – business is good!
Back in 1991′s Killing Time, we saw Indigo Prime agents Winwood and Cord travelling back to the start of the time with Jack the Ripper in order to a curdled wrongness at the beginning of history. Chris Weston was on art duties for that story, and his work there suggested the mix of grotesquely knotted horror and fleshy fragility he would later bring to The Filth:
The two Indigo Prime stories that appeared in 2011, ‘Everything and More’ and ‘Anthropocalypse’, were drawn by Cradlegrave artist Edmund Bagwell. While collaborating with Smith on that earlier title, Bagwell matched an eye for the fousty details of life on the shitty side of the modern Britain with a propensity for fingers-through-your-eyeballs horror. Bagwell switched up his style completely for these Indigo Prime stories, placing fragile cartoon characters in environments that managed to dazzle like the work of a young Jack Kirby trying to find an outlet for his weirdbrained characters while doing design work for unfilmed (and possibly unfilmable) Hollywood shlockbusters:
Taken as a whole, Smith and Bagwell’s 2011 collaborations managed the odd trick of making all that was creepy and jarring about the original Indigo Prime stories seem thrilling and exciting. You can watch this happen throughout the course of the first story arc, and if you want to draw parallels between the way that the strip moves from presenting the reader with a series of ever-more-cryptic conversations to taking them on an extended thrill ride…
…with the fact that this shift takes place only when the entry point character has been mind-fucked into ignoring how horrible his destination was, well, that’s up to you.
3. Taking Your Medicine
When he started Batman Incorporated, Grant Morrison asked us to imagine something far stranger than any of the clockfaced monstrosities that haunted his Doom Patrol run – a genuinely altruistic corporation.
If, like me, you think “ethical capitalism” is a tired oximoron that should be filed alongside “military intelligence”, then it might be important to remind yourself that Morrison’s Batman has never pretended to take place in our world, that it’s always operated in a the gothic theater of the mind that is Batman’s natural habitat, whether he’s haunting the night or digging the day. Batman Incorporated represents the point where Morrison’s Batman run – which was originally about Batman dealing with his own reflections in a broken mirror, then about his replacements picking up the shards just in time for him to come back through the looking glass – starts to concern itself with the outside world again.
The trick being that it’s still Batman/Bruce Wayne’s idea of the outside world, and honestly, Bruce Wayne probably sees Batman in his Smash these days, just like Grant Morrison! Those guys have got the Burroughsian Bat-Virus so bad that they can’t think about safe sex without busting out the bloody Bat-Condoms, so of course this latest attempt at saving in the world involved a period of aggressive expansion in the superhero marketplace.
There’s something very naive and primal about this idea – it reduces the whole world to a series of tragic origin stories waiting to happen, origin stories that can only be prevented by the presence of an army of Batfolk, each of them with their OWN psychotic breaks safely embedded in continuity, just waiting to be rewritten. And yet somehow Morrison has managed to make a miraculous prism out of this strange shadow, with everything from brand war to class war via the history or art beaming out across the sky every time his Batman is called to duty.
And so I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with amypoodle’s assertion that issue #7 of Batman Incorporated (the “Chief Man of Bats” issue) was in any way “meh”. I would actually argue that from the first page on, issue #7 was the issue that was closest to being something more than a “fast-paced team-up book”, though it most certainly was that.
In fact, let’s look at that first page closely, to see what it can tell us:
I was slightly worried when I started reading this issue that my brain had been programmed to say NATIVE AMERICAN COMIX EQUALS SCALPED, but as Botswana Beast pointed out on That Twitter at the time, that could be Granny Poor Bear right there in Panel 3.
In fact, all the events depicted on this opening page could come right out of the pages of Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera’s comic, but even before those fucking superheroes make a proper appearance (they’re only present in the form of a t-shirt logo and a couple of silhouettes here, about which more shortly) there’s an obvious difference in tone, best encapsulated in the interplay between Chris Burnham’s art and the colours provided by Nathan Fairbairn. While Scalped occasionally falls back on the purply brown tone that is the default colour setting for so many comics that strive to seem gritty, Brian Chippendale was still right when he pointed out that “R.M. Guera delivers impeccable darkness”.
In Batman Inc #7, Chris Burnham made sure that his Quitely-crinkles — and I hope he won’t mind me calling them that, he’s a great artist in his own right but I can still see a heavy influence on his linework here — created a sense that the people and places we visit on this page are a little rough and battered without making it all too busy. Because really, Nathan Fairbairn’s colours need a little space here – space to balance the grime and texture of these scenes with a sense of brightness, of possibility.
If Batminge #7 reads a little bit like an issue of Scalped that has been cheerfully damaged by contact with a strange, Lovecraftian Batgod (which, to be fair, it probably doesn’t, unless you’re me ), then it’s worth noting that the vastly different worldviews of these two series are both pretty unreal. Oh, sure, Scalped might not take place in a world where superheroes swagger into town with SUPERMONEY to burn, but it’s still a nunchuk-addled fantasy, albeit a rather grim, fatalistic one. One of the great thing about Scalped is that every time it seems like things can’t get any worse, Aaron and co somehow find a way to make the characters’ lives just that little bit more horrible; one of the great things about Batman Inc #7 is that even if everything seems pretty grim from this page onward, you still get the sense that people haven’t given up on the idea of a better world.
Well, except from that wee old lady in Panel 3. She could fit into Scalped without too much difficulty, just like Botswana Beast said.
Anyway, let’s talk about superheroes for a minute! We don’t get to look any in the eye on this page, but we do get intimations of their arrival on three out of six panel – you’ve got Man-Of-Bats’ striking shadow on the first and last panels, and then you’ve got the chap with his Superman t-shirt in panel 5. It’s a slightly soiled t-shirt, wet from rubbing up against a simulacra of reality, but it still pops like art from another world. Also, I love the fact that the guy who’s wearing it is harassing Man-Of-Bats to become more political – I guess that he prefers the businessman busting of the Sigel and Shuster strips and one or two panels of the current Action Comics run to the more commonly spotted “whatever the fuck he’s doing, walking around and speachifying probably” version too, huh? Speaking of action, we get precisely none of it on this page but I like the way it comes full circle, from one closed door to another.
What’s really interesting to me is that when Chief Man of Bats forces access to that second door he bursts into a proper superhero story, albeit one set in an unusual milieu, but before that he’s taking part in a different type of story altogether.
Conveniently enough, back in June 2011 Brother Bobsy was working on a draft review of Grant Morrison’s Supergods in which he got to wondering about whether the figure of the superhero, with its strange mix of gaudy glamour and aggressive selflessness, might have some sort of utility in the world as a way of helping us to re-imagine ourselves in opposition to the current orthodoxy. This idea might not be robust enough to survive in the outside world, but within the confines of Batman Incorporated #7 its potential seems huge. What we we’re presented with here is a bubble world in which Morrison’s obsession with hyper-aware superpeople is transposed into a four-colour approximation of a real poverty stricken community.
Taken in this context the silhouette of Chief Man of Bats that we see in the first and last panels of page one isn’t just a taster of the gritty Bat-Action to come, but a shadow that hangs benevolently over the whole landscape, providing that little bit of hope that’s missing from the world of Scalped. It’s the most surprising adaptation of the Batman idea that Morrison’s ever come up with, and as such I couldn’t stifle a grim chuckle when I saw the lovely Ben of Deep Space Transmissions worrying about the bit on page 3 where Man-of-Bats says “Better send a Bat-Signal”, because in Man-Of-Bats’ world you know that this just means calling an ambulance and contacting the relevant social work department. You know, just like it does in our world.
The rest of Batman Incorporated #7 concerns itself with an evil drug conspiracy as inflicted on this community by Leviathan, a slightly-too-obvious conceit for pitting Batman Incorporated against its shadowy double that nonetheless allows Morrison and Burnham to assuage Botswana Beast’s worries that Batman’s enemies in issue #6 were also the enemies of neoliberalism (“Working men, children denied their futures”).
It’s all about who can offer the most for the people the world’s left behind see, and if you think this sounds a little bit patronising, you’re not wrong. When Batman tries to offer financial assistance to Man-Of-Bats and his son Red Raven, he’s slapped in the face with the idea that his SUPERMONEY might not be as essential as he’d like to think. “We don’t need Batmobiles,” Red Raven says, and he’s right. Building a Better Batmobile is fine and well, but there are other concerns, and while it’s clear that Raven might occasionally wish that he could sometimes get dressed up to hit town with the Teen Titans and make out with Alexander Skarsgård (which, after all, who doesn’t?), he’s able to find plenty of EXCITEMENCE looking after his community too.
Of course, this communitarian vision of superheroic action is still tainted by some of Batman’s nightmarish disregard for evidence and privacy…
…and we all know that in the real world Superman t-shirts are marketed as emblems of human kindness and aspiration by a company that’s happy to fuck over the families of the men who created the character…
…and that a lot of people, myself included, wished that the guy who wrote Batman Incorporated #7 would publicly stand up for those creators last year…
But why let facts get in the way of an idea, right?
After all, as any random taxi driver will tell you, you can prove anything with facts…
4. Amputating Limbs
Let’s put the harsh realities of Batman aside for a minute so that we can better appreciate the equally harsh unrealities of Smith and Bagwell’s recent Indigo Prime strips.
I’ve already suggested that the widescreen sheen of these comics is designed to dazzle you into cheering for some fairly ugly events, but I’ve always been a fan of verbal overkill so I’m now going to quote The Galaxy’s Greatest Comics Reader, Joe McCulloch, who’s also made this point with his usual unfair elegence:
…Indigo Prime looks to the big picture: the implications of high-stakes action storytelling that can’t help but kick off with the detailed destruction of millions of human lives as a means of turning us on to the dangerous life of science heroes. Semi-protagonist Danny Redman — who, remember, has been plucked out of an entirely different comic — spends much of the comic’s space flipping out and committing suicide in reaction to the sights he sees, only to be re-built yet again by his supportive, controlling science team. The story of his evolution to hooting inter-chronological hero — as much as Smith is willing to slow down to observe, at least — is marked by tactical memory blockage and a general willingness on everyone’s part to emphasize the big, big, BIG picture over the petty moralities of basic human survival on the micro scale of, say, humanity going extinct in one timeline, or laying dead in another…
It doesn’t even really enter their minds that non-talented, non-super human lives have any especial value, which is a logical enough conclusion to arrive at if you think for a second about actually living in, say, the Marvel Universe, where cities are torn to pieces and mass killings are pulled off so regularly you can’t help but question the place of the average life in this blockbuster schema.
He’s not wrong you know!
There’s a cruel subtlety to the way Smith and Bagwell set their traps here, letting their crisis-addled readers seethe at the callous efforts of a fictional world’s ruling classes to abandon the planet when shit gets real…
…so as to warm you up for their eventual fate at the hands of Indigo Prime:
FUCK YEAH! TAKE THAT, THE ONE PERCENT!
Except that, like Joe said, this incarnation of Indigo Prime takes the casual approach to collateral damage that’s implicit in so much adventure fiction to its natural conclusion. You see, these failed escape artists don’t get brutally slaughtered because they’ve abandoned everyone else on their planet to die, they get killed because they back-engineered Indigo Prime technology and this version of Indigo Prime won’t take that nonsense from anyone.
Described in such blunt terms, this all sounds a bit schematic but while there are plenty of dialogue exchanges that throw fluorescent paint on the dodgy ethics Indigo Prime are indulging in, there are so many different colours in the mix that it’s easy to enjoy the “big picture” Joe invoked in his review without quite realising what you’re looking at.
That Indigo Prime manages to both suggest a depressing truth that haunts the page like the meta-story of Morrison’s Batman run while also indulging in Thrill Powered escapism is a testament to the cruel power of Smith’s non-figurative captions and Bagwell’s ravaged dreamscapes. But to appreciate the sheer extent of the cruelty of these stories, you have to dig a little deeper, into another John Smith comic, 2008′s Dead Eyes:
Created in conjunction with artist Lee Carter and serialized in 2000AD progs #1577-1588, Dead Eyes introduced Danny Redman, soldier-turned-test subject-turned-man on the run-turned view point character in the relaunched Indigo Prime.
Dead Eyes initially seemed like a quaint throwback to the conspiracy thrillers of the nineties (hey, do you remember the X-Files? Shite wasn’t it, but that Invisibles comic was alright I thought!), but it eventually revealed itself to be something slightly different in its last few installments, a parable of imperialist role-reversal in the style of Wells’ War of the World.
Sure, there was plenty of stuff about aliens, and secret government conspiracies to harness their power, that not even a few discrete nods to then Prime Minister Gordon Brown could modernise. In fact, there was so much of this stuff that it was almost possible to forget that the story started off in Iraq, a country that the UKs armed forces had been shedding blood in for half a decade by the time Dead Eyes was published. Like so much in this story, the obvious truth of WHAT IT WAS ALL ABOUT was sometimes obscured by murk and shadows.
Turns out the British establishment don’t like the idea of being occupied and “improved” by a bunch of cavemen very much, but that’s okay, they know how to deal with that:
As the plot slips into pointless violence, Danny Redman manages to express a simple, familiar wish before the whole universe turns toxic:
When he wakes up in to find that he’s been recruited by Indigo Prime, it might seem like his wish has been granted, but the events of ‘Nothing and Everything’ and ‘Anthropocalypse’ have made cruel joke of that idea.
No wonder the poor bastard wouldn’t stop topping himself until they turned his brain to mush, eh?
5. Bedford Falls State of Mind
As the snow failed to fall in late December, it occurred to me that Grant Morrison’s Batman has spent the past few years living in a real Bedford Falls State of Mind – he never has to stay in Pottersville for long, but from Being Batman, there’s no escape. Amypoodle has already covered Batman’s most recent disintegration pretty fucking thoroughly in his annocoms for the second half of Batman Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes, so rather than trying to outdo Poodle, I’ll just note that the inevitability of this latest collapse into psychodrama was still somehow crushing – “Batman, no! Remember what happened last time!”
I’m not complaining, mind – the revelation that this years Batman: Leviathan will bring Morrison’s run straight back to the parental drama of its opening story arc has a pleasing sort of circularity to it, and these Borrenean rings that Morrison’s seems to have become fixated on bring it all back round to the shattered physics that initiated this new run of Indigo Prime strips too – but even though the promise of twelve issues of Chris Burnham‘s art is pretty fucking glorious, I’ll still be glad when it’s over.
No one actually thinks that comics are going to save them, just like no one things that pop songs can mean anything, or tell a story, or make you laugh, or evade, or suggest, or evoke. And yet. And yet. And yet. And yet.
And so, faced with the horrors of a world that always seems to be finding new ways to rip itself apart – and to be clear, I’m not talking about the freshly announced Watchmen prequels here, I’m talking about US hunter-killer robots, and the systematic demonisation of the disabled, and the suicide factories that make your overpriced novelty phones, and about bullshit “neutrality” rules designed to prohibit adults from acting like decent human beings when faced with struggling LGBT kids – maybe it’s actually quite easy to find yourself looking for something transformative in your fantasy, some suggestion of an escape from these luridly (un)familiar horrors.
Batman, at least in Morrison’s conception, is a survival mechanism, a persona designed to deal with the protean horrors of modern existence. The trouble is that both within the story and outside of it, Batman’s too much of a creature of this world to ever see a way past it – like Kanye West, he can gesture at the idea that “you and me should have all that power”, but the conventions that make him who he is are seemingly inescapable.
Perhaps we’d better start dreaming of something else, lest we find ourselves stuck in this one forever, like Danny Redman at the end of ‘Anthropocalypse’, looking into the mirror and seeing only a very toxic sort of nothingness staring back at us…
I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of living in reflexive fear, sick of giving money to horrible bastards in exchange for shiny toys, and sick of feeling hopelessly overwhelmed, always. I’m not sick of Indigo Prime, because it still cuts so deeply and lightly that I can’t help but be grateful, but I’m almost (almost!) sick of Batman at this point too.
Time to stop fetishising the end of the world.
Time to work out how to make a better one.