Review to go! Batman 678

July 5th, 2008

I’m very definitely not the best choice for a weekly reviewer. I’m extremely narrow in terms of the number of comics I’ll pick up each week (prefering to buy trades and graphic novels as opposed to individual issues), and I really dislike most of what passes for superhero fiction, so I’ve opted out of sharing any responsibility for our regular (!?!) review section, but it doesn’t look like anything’s going to emerge this week unless I man up…

And here we are.

Another reason I shy away from reviews is because, if I am reading about mainstream superheroes, I’ll mainly have my nose buried in one of Grant Morrison’s, and I’m absurdly uncritical when it comes to his stuff. Sure, I think New X Men was pretty poo, but generally speaking the man can do no wrong. So if it’s balanced criticism you want then you might have come to the wrong place. No, I’m afraid that we’re going to have to start from the position that Batman 678 is awesome and work out from there. Which is cool because, well, I suspect that so far RIP actually has been no holds barred, honest to goodness, objectively good right from the off.

So 678 finds an amnesiac Bruce Wayne on the streets undergoing a full on breakdown, loaded on ‘weapons grade meth’ and heroin, while his superpals attempt to evade capture by the Club of Villains, and Dr Hurt makes himself at home in the batcave. Simple, eh? Well probably not given the confusion that has, since last Wednesday, riven the internet. Typically, people are divided on the book. There are those of us who love the morrisonian bat-weirdness that seeps out of the still wet (if you squint hard enough) psychedelink, through our fingertips and out into our bloodstream, and then there’s the people who, well, don’t. I think the most common criticism is the one that’s dogged Grant since he started on Batman – that the book’s difficult to understand, especially without an obsessive knowledge of bat-continuity.

Well I say ‘balls’ to that.

I don’t have a particularly strong handle on any superhero’s continuity, but even though 678’s last panel saw me scratching my head and whadafugging, I still got a thrill from it. Because there’s two ways to respond to the Batman of Zur en Arrh – angry head scratching, or happy head scratching. You either enjoy high strangeness or you don’t, and I’m firmly on the GIVE ME MORE ZEBRA BATPEOPLE! side. I especially love the way Grant has, throughout his run, balanced these elements with the grimungritty ones – it’s a real testament to his ability as a writer. And what a great thematic and narrative starting point – the problem of making sense of the entirety of batman’s life without resorting to universe destroying meta narratives like Crisis, and thereby evading the question altogether! Where other writers see an intractable poser worthy of the Riddler, Morrison just sees possibilities. I know who I’d rather hang with. And anyway, you don’t really need to have the outer space Batman explained away – you can just chalk up the bizzare costume change as the latest indication that Bruce Wayne’s undergoing a psychotic episode. The lovely Mario on Barbelith provided this link to help get the final scene into context, but what help is it really? Does it force what’s happening now to make any more sense, or does it just add texture and colour, but ultimately more LSD to the kool-aid? All we really need to know is that Batman’s had some weird adventures in his time and this might have something to do with it. And that we’re very afraid of anyone in spandex who’s tipped that far over the edge.

There’s some nice resonances going on in the book too. The whole having to start from nothing thing mirrors Chill’s words in 673 when he complains about rich kids having it all handed to them and coming up from the street. There’s also the fact that Bruce has, by the end of 678, become the homemade superscary whose rampage he stopped just two issues ago. Morrison’s putting the ‘but he couldn’t do it if he wasn’t rich!’ argument to the test. And Batman’s winning: the autopilot street fighting;
the tiny aside about his accent and his hair (I love the mental image of Bruce wayne at the salon [he only ever let’s Cindy cut his locks – he just doesn’t trust the rest…. I mean he tried Timothy once, but it was a disaster!]) that indicates that even with his mind overthrown he’s still the world’s greatest detective and he’s fighting back. Heck, even the candy-coloured batman he later becomes, whilst a little worrying, is a sure fire sign that there’s still a superhero in there.

Bruce’s journey across town is classic, mythic Morrison territory. Batman in the underworld, interfacing with all the deep bizzareness that buzzes around in the gutters of the batverse, finally succumbing to its distorting, mind wrenching power. He’s finally taking that last perilous step down the Joker’s ‘rabbit hole’, and he’s got good guides in the shape of Honor Jackson, Batmite and the bat radia. The point is, if we want to see Batman pushed to the limits psychologically then what better bat-totems to employ than those that have typically signified the stranger reaches of his world? These are the things that go bump in the night/come to the rescue when you’re exploring the frontiers of the character and what makes him tick – the denied, forgotten, wonderful and childlike creations that most creators want to shove under the carpet. The secret language of the bat-fairies. You can’t help wondering if, after making friends with the crazyness and his own darkness, Bruce’ll have the same reaction to the Joker’s poisons as everyone else. Perhaps the laughing toxin will just give him a serious dose of sense of humour.

There have been further complaints that some of Morrison’s stories fail as individual issues – that they’re so steeped, by this point, in the overarching narrative that the uninitiated will find the book pretty impenetrable. Well, yeah, maybe, but the those of us who are following Batman regularly are being rewarded with an intricately plotted and layered bat-novel the likes of which we’re unlikely to see again, plus a massive expansion of the batverse generally. Normally Morrison likes to make quick asides to cool concepts and riffs on the characters he’s writing, but in Batman, because he’s really going with the long form approach, he’s fleshing these ideas out issue by issue. The black Casebooks are introduced with a quick nod, and would work as a throwaway reference to a fun, titillating idea, but Morrison continues jamming on them from one ish to the next, until they’re not just simply an obvious answer to the inevitable question ‘how does Batman assimilate all the weird stuff?’, (or even just the delicious propostion that he puts pen to paper re his cases anyway), but that they’re written for the purposes of detective work, entertainment (see Jason scoffing the popcorn in this issue!) and autobiography (‘it’s important to keep a record – nobody’s ever done this before…’). In 678 we finally get a glimpse of what goes on inside – although it’s arguable we already have in the Joker prose story and, well, in every batbook employing a hardboiled monologue – and it’s both funny (see the space monster’s dimensions clearly worked under the ‘Robin dies at dawn heading) and deadly serious at the same time. Indeed, another revelation implicit in all this is that, whatever it’s become now, the grim narrator bit appeared to have began as a way for Bruce to get into character. That was until he ceased to be able to kick it when he was out of the costume…

Morrison demonstrates more and more effortless understandings of Batman, his psychology and his mission every month. It’s not all there shouting at you like Denny O Neil’s bat-commentary with it’s endless, empty waffling about ‘the dark heart of the night’ etc., it’s gentler and sometimes takes a bit of digging. It’s there in Honor Jackson’s comments about Bruce having ‘kind eyes’, and, in 678, when he describes him as ‘one of those mystery men roaming from town to town helping people’, or in the way the Black Casebooks acknowledge the Robins as vital lynchpins for Batman’s sanity. For such a loud, pulpy, fighty book, there’s an enormous amount going on under the covers, and Morrison allows us to do some of the figuring out ourselves, never afraid to jar, as with the ‘kind eyes’ example above, with traditional notions of bat-identity. I mean, don’t you think it’s fucked up that it surprises us and feels a little strange when someone sees in Bruce Wayne, not just a darque avenger, but a real life, in the flesh SUPERHERO?

Look, I completely know the book can be a bit scrappy, and it always reads better the 3rd time, but each issue is often soooo tonally different from the next, there’s always superhero action (a fucking rarity in comicbooks nowadays), it’s audacious, generally moves really fast and, frankly, Morrison has the voice of Batman down. I’m of the opinion that he literally sits at the keyboard and just lets the character speak through him. Never a bum note. That would be a bad thing if Morrison was a lazy writer – the book could just degenerate into hackery – but I don’t think he is. All I get from this comic is that Morrison’s having a brilliant time playing with the best toy in the toy box and he’s delighting in the childlike pleasure of trying to provide rationales for all the weirder bat-toys too.

I only wish to God he’d dress Bats up in those special outfits we saw in his third issue. Pure bloody action figure awesomeness. Morrison can make most things work – he always provides lovely spins on why people would want to don funny outfits. Take Doctor Hurt swanning around in Thomas Wayne’s old duds this ish, for example.


So, anyway, if you don’t like Grant’s Batman, 678 isn’t going to change your mind – it’ll probably only see you entrenched deeper in your little dug-out of the bat-war. But, you mutherfuhs, you’ve had your silly-arse trenchcoat pain for years now – move over and make some room for the rest of us!

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