Reading 2011’s Batman

Batman Incorporated J.H. Williams Cover

Interesting things are afoot in the realm of the Bat, dear reader.

(Side note: did you know that most of my blog’s traffic comes from Batman-related content and links from comic blogs? These things are important to me, insofar as that little counter in the right-hand column counting up to “30,000” is important to me, like some real-world Galaga score accrued in direct proportion to my writing output — sorry, I’ve been reading this.)

Yesterday, Comic Vine posted a rather good (though purposefully incomplete, as of right now) article that aims to “break down the secrets of Grant Morrison’s Batman.” It’s a worthy read, especially if you’re interested in Morrison’s veritable Batman epic, spanning (gulp) four years now, but not the sort of fanatical interested, yet, that has you literally foaming at the words “ZUR EN ARRH.” Also, the always-worth-listening-to David Brothers wrote a nice little guide on the new Batman books for Comics Alliance that should serve well as a sort of road map for comic book readers that want to jump in but are kind of intimidated by the fact that there are 10 monthly Batman-related books right now, not counting specials and upcoming books like David Finch’s Batman: The Dark Knight ongoing.


Anyway, I’ve had bats on the brain, and in the spirit of a now somewhat embarrassing post I made two and a half years ago (“Reading Today’s Batman“), I wanted to weigh in on some of the goings on in this massive corner of the DC Universe.

First, I must express unbridled, even gushing excitement at the conclusion to the first major part of Grant Morrison’s Batman tale. For those unfamiliar with his work, I’m not going to go into nitty gritty of what makes it so special as I’ve done countless times before, but you can brush up on the general points of what Morrison’s all about here, go deeper down the rabbit hole here, purchase a great documentary about him here, or take maybe the best route and read “The Invisible King” in Douglas Wolk‘s truly excellent, girlfriend-friendly book Reading Comics. If I myself had to sum up Grant Morrision quickly right now, I would probably say something about how he manages incredible artistic achievements in what has traditionally (and wrongfully) been thought of as the schlockiest of mediums, often scribing psychedelic metanarratives within the unlikely realm of superheroes. A common theme in his writing is magic (most notably “chaos magic“), and it has, since about volume 2 of The Invisibles, been specifically geared towards enabling the reader to push beyond their mental boundaries and attain a sort of higher understanding and, well, positive energy. It’s an important point because, you know, the whole comic book framing wouldn’t really work if it wasn’t geared towards making people feel good about themselves, right? Superman’s not exactly brimming with angst and all that.

(Okay, I know, I can’t help it – I love the guy.)

Anyway, what might sum up what makes Grant Morrison a little different is this half-page taken from The Return of Bruce Wayne‘s sixth and final chapter, wherein the Justice League and Bat-family are dealing with a sort of inadvertently sinister,  time traveling Batman careening out of control and distorting reality:

Grant Morrison Return of Bruce Wayne Scan

Taken out of context, that probably all seems like a big mess, but let’s take a closer look at one particular part:

Yes, Grant Morrison has, in a mainstream Batman story, made a teen sidekick comment on the nature of the comic book medium itself, thereby drawing attention to the fact that he is, in fact, a character in a comic book. The near disintegration of the universe that exists within the story, brought about by Batman traveling through time, is represented through the disconnection and, for lack of a better term, rapidity of the panels on the page. In other words, Red Robin is seeing exactly what the reader is seeing when he asks “Is this what time looks like?” He is commenting on how the panels are breaking apart and how they are representing movement and time in the story. Because this is indeed how things work in a comic book – look at this 3-panel excerpt from a Peanuts strip for example:

The panels, in sequence, represent time and space – Snoopy, throws the ball from its position in the first panel to where it lands in the third panel, with some amount of time in-between. (If this is the sort of thing that interests you, I recommend “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” by Scott McCloud, which deals with these ideas more eloquently and to a much greater extent than I do here.)

And really, this is sort of just a verbose way of explaining that what often makes Grant Morrison comics so cool is that they do these crazy little post-modern things that are really purposed towards exploding the reader’s brains and maybe making them think just a little more about something – which, frankly, might as well be the ultimate purpose of any sort of art, right?

Anyway, that was a little off-topic but not entirely, as we’ll see in a little bit. Return of Bruce Wayne is part of the grand finale to the last four years of Batman stories Grant Morrison’s been telling. If you were to read them in sequence, you would want these books in this order:

(if we were really going to be anal about things, it might also be important to pick up 52, and possibly go as far back as Morrison’s first two collected Batman stories from way back in the day, Arkham Asylum and Gothic, but we’re not going to. Further, completionists will note that part of Grant Morrison’s run is collected in The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul; this was a 2007 “crossover” between all of the Batman books, and it was an overall mediocre event that has little bearing on Morrison’s narrative. Also, another note: I recommend “Return of Bruce Wayne” before the final book of “Batman and Robin,” mostly because I think it makes the most sense to read it before the final issue [#16], but in actuality it probably makes the most sense to read them concurrently, which is as they were released month-to-month before they were collected. Confusing, I know!)

That’s a lot of books released in a lot of time (in fact, the final two collections – Return of Bruce Wayne and Batman and Robin Must Die! haven’t even been released yet, so you’ve got to pick up back issues for now). Morrison deliberately wrote them to have self-contained chunks of story – “Batman and Son,” for instance, has two story arcs in it (three if you include the crazy, often overlooked all-prose issue of Batman), and the book itself could be viewed as its own contained unit. And at times, though it had become apparent through the narrative and through interviews with the writer himself that each series of chapters was actually weaving together to form one major plot, it wasn’t always clear where the conclusion was: “Batman R.I.P.” was ostensibly billed as the closing part for the “Black Glove” story that ran through the first three books up there, but the villain in that story returns and works in the shadowy background of all three “Batman and Robin” books before he makes his final move – he’s also shown in “Return” to be directly related to the events of Final Crisis.

If there’s one criticism I simply cannot deny about Morrison’s Batman story, it’s that it is, perhaps because of how DC chose to release it, rather difficult to follow. I mean, even the paragraph I just wrote is pretty confusing, right? (Just follow the pictures!) The intricacies and subtleties make it difficult for anyone but the most engaged to follow it completely – the volumes pictured above aren’t even numbered, and there’s no way that anyone browsing in the book store would know to pick them up in this order. On one hand, it’s pretty cool that Morrison’s written an epic that can be broken up and enjoyed in easy-to-digest modules, but on the other hand, this stuff is all so much better in context — especially the stuff like the speculative future issue (#666, in “Batman and Son”), which would seem completely random and out of place if you weren’t looking at the big picture. So, in light of that, I want to call attention to one thing that Erik Norris, who wrote the Comic Vine article linked above, got very right in his piece:

It’s not easy trying to analyze the work of comicdom’s mad genius. Coming up with a through-line to sum up Grant Morrison’s entire run on Batman has been a difficult challenge, but after racking my brain for what seems like days, I think I’ve got it: Morrison’s work on Batman has been an exercise by the writer to create a proactive reading experience for comic fans that mirrors Bruce Wayne’s quest to fill in the puzzle pieces and give explanation to the unexplainable.

That is essentially what defines this entire, sprawling narrative: Batman is doing battle, sometimes implicitly and sometimes very obviously, with “the hole in things.” Both Darkseid (GOD OF ALL EVIL who invades and temporarily conquers Earth in Final Crisis) and Dr. Hurt (also sort of a god of all evil, as it happens, here manifested in human form) make deliberate reference to this concept throughout Morrison’s work on Batman, and it is vital. Though you could understand some of these chapters as literal “Batman versus X super villain” sorts of affairs, the fact of the matter is that, in a broad sense, this is a metaphorical story about good versus evil, yes, and it is also the ultimate – the ultimate – Batman story.

I’m not the first person to call it that, but why? Some have explained it in terms of Morrison’s “everything is continuity” approach – through various means, Batman encounters most every part of his literal history at some point in these stories. And he’s basically battling a metaphor for evil the whole time rather than just, you know, the Joker or Killer Croc. Why it really is the ultimate Batman story is maybe a little simpler, though, and it’s something that Grant Morrison actually makes pretty explicit in the very, very first issue of the whole ordeal when Bruce struggles to not get lost in his Batman persona: these 8 tomes are the story of Batman Versus Himself with the goal of realizing, conquering, and evolving beyond his fundamental being. It’s why his initial enemies in this entire run are copycat Batmen who were created by the police to take over his role in the event of catastrophe (of course they all wind up criminally insane), it’s why he must struggle with being a father to the son(s) of Batman (even “Batman and Robin,” which stars former Robin Dick Grayson, is really about the atmosphere that Bruce’s absence has created), it’s why the archvillain of the entire run is related to the Wayne family and dresses like a corrupted Batman himself, and it’s why Return of Bruce Wayne takes Bruce through a sort of metaphysical journey through space and time only to have him die and come back (FINALLY, just a couple of weeks ago) as a better version of himself, ready to start Batman: Incorporated.


I mean, clearly you have to read this stuff yourself, but let’s get back to Red Robin talking about what time looks like for just a minute: Grant Morrison has turned Batman inside out, spilled its guts out all over the vivid pages of these comic books, and created the perfect alpha-and-omega for Batman. It makes sense that there are moments when the nature of the comic book itself are examined throughout. I read somewhere once that Batman #666, a Morrison-penned issue set in the far future of the Batman mythos, was kind of a “Rosetta Stone” for his story moving into “Batman and Robin.” I’m going to take it a bit further: Morrison’s Batman, as published in the above 8 volumes, is essentially the Rosetta Stone for Batman history, 1939-2010.

Now, with Batman: Incorporated, with the demons exorcised and the super hero evolved, we’re moving into Batman 2011.

A million comic books have been billed as a “rebirth” of whatever to move issues and sell product. For once, though, the term feels legitimate.


One Response to “Reading 2011’s Batman”

  1. […] note 12/03/10: You may find this piece to be somewhat more relevant now that Grant Morrison has concluded his stint on Batman & […]

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