Saturday, February 11, 2006

Batman: 1970s Hairy-Chested Love God

My favorite comic book writer is taking over the reigns of my favorite comic book character.

And I couldn't be more worried.

Grant Morrison is indisputably the most creative person working in comics today. While he doesn't always succeed with what he does (IMHO), he dares more than anyone else, and the level of his invention is just astounding.

He's also responsible for two of my three favorite runs in the history of comics: his Doom Patrol and his The Invisibles. (The third, in case you are wondering, is Alan Moore's Swamp Thing). Morrison has an enviable ability to see right to the heart of a character and pick up on some essential truth that has always been lying there unexploited, obvious in retrospect.

Case in point is what he did for Cliff Steele in Doom Patrol. A former athlete, injured in a car crash, who is resurrected as a human brain in a robot body, "Robotman" was a relatively uninteresting second-string character until Morrison came along. His Doom Patrol run opened with Cliff on his ranch, riding a Clydesdale (the only horse strong enough to carry him), driving it faster and faster. But having a steel epidermis, Cliff can't feel the wind. He's pushing the horse harder and harder, all in an effort to feel a sensation he's forever denied. Morrison nails the essential pathos from the get go. Later, when Cliff's artificial body is deactivated and his organic brain torn out and stomped flat, he's surprised not to be dead. Then he's told that he comes equipped with a hard disk in his chest, and that they booted him up from a backup. While everyone else glosses right over this - isn't he happy to be alive? What did he need a vulnerable brain for anyway? - Cliff says, "But that was the only human part of me left."

Morrison's Invisibles, for its part, is a really clever melding of Philip K. Dick's Valis with Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! Trilogy and is probably the most ambitious comics series I've ever encountered. Sure his New X-Men didn't live up to expectation, and while I'm not following his current Superman effort, but I've no doubt it will emerge as one of the definitive works in the Big Blue's cannon.

So why am I worried about him taking on the Dark Knight Detective?

Because I love Morrison for precisely the opposite of what speaks to me in Batman. Morrison grooves on obscure continuity, on looking at the utter absurdity of comic book history, and bringing in precisely those elements we'd like to sweep under the rug when talking about the maturity of the genre. He's a genius at finding the weird nth degree implication of a character's powers, or bringing back that intergalactic romance from a character's wackier Silver Age past. And Batman is a character that has always danced a line between its more realistic and more absurd interpretations. The Dark Knights first year, back in 1939, was utterly grim, but it didn't take more than a few more for Batman and Robin to rapidly descend, in the post-WWII world that had had enough grimness in real life, into zany adventures every bit as silly as the Adam West television show. Soon after this, Batman and Robin were swapping places with their far-future counterparts (something Morrison has already revived) or taking off to be the "Super of Planet X," (also known as planet Zur-En-Arrh.) It was from this past that Denny O'Neil rescued the character, reinterpreting him along his grim detective roots, and banishing most of the rogues gallery for a decade while Batman dealt with mobsters, corrupt politicians, and international terrorists. But the rogues gallery crept back in in the 70s and 80s. While the Joker and Two-Face are fundamental villains that shouldn't be omitted when done well, we got everything from the King of the Cats to both versions of the Mad Hatter, and Batman became a schizophrenic comic book, insisting on its maturity while parading out villains from its early continuity like the Calendar Man. Personally, I miss the brief run Detective had as a sort of House of Mystery style title, in which the Batman would arrive (often on foot) at a mysterious house or would encounter a phantom woman in the woods, and have a very Weird Tales adventure. But I digress...

The point is, with Morrison at the helm - and he's already describing his Batman as a "hairy-chested, love-god" (his take on the Neal Adam's era) - can a return of Bat-Mite be far behind?

Then there is Arkham Asylum, which is a brilliant examination of Two-Face's character, and a more than passable Joker episode. Morrison understands, as Batman never has before, that the Joker is trying hard to communicate something to him, and that by listening, he can defuse the Clown Prince of Crime entirely. There he goes again - right to the heart of a character. Brilliant. But the stand-alone graphic novel disappoints horribly as a Batman story, because of Morrison's fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Batman's masochism, which would never EVER be so blatantly direct in its self infliction. Nor does it take anything but a few choice words from the Mad Hatter before Batman is plunging shattered glass through his palm. Christ-symbolism aside (and Batman is the wrong hero to deify folks; he's the Count of Monte Christo, self-damned for assuming God's rightful claim to vengeance), this comes out of nowhere character-wise. It says to me that Morrison just doesn't get Batman the way that Frank Miller used to or Paul Dini (late of the brilliant Animated Series and related) does. But then, few people at DC do get the character these days. Which is what prompted me to stop reading the monthlies over ten years ago when they phoned in Jason Todd's death and then had Bane break Batman's back. I gave up after that, only picking up the occasional graphic novel to keep tabs on what was going on (best of which is Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale's contributions). But now.. well, now I'm going to start picking up my first monthly in over a decade to see what Mr. Morrison has going.

He's already stated that the first issue has Batman facing off against 15 Man-Bat ninjas (a perfect example of Morrison ferreting out that bit of continuity - after all, in 30 years nobody else has thought to have Dr. Kirk Langstrom's extract administered deliberately to someone else, and why not several someones?). And the issue will feature Talia and be called "Batman & Sons," a suggestion that it will go back into Mike W. Barr's exceptional Son of the Demon, picking up a plot thread nobody else has touched (and one near and dear to my heart).

So, I'll be watching you Grant, to make sure you don't destroy the character forever, not that you care! I'm sure you are going to be infuriatingly brilliant. I'll probably pick it up in trade hardcover when it comes out that way too, damn it! You've pulled me back to monthlies where nobody else could.

But hey, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Paul Dini's going to be taking over Detective, and he wants to make the title about actually solving mysteries. Like I need anything else to read!


A.R.Yngve said...

I have read Grant Morrison's BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM... it wasn't wholly successful, I admit.

One *might* argue in its defense that Batman was "driven to the brink of madness" by the asylum itself -- it's a "cursed place" -- but that's the reader's choice, and the plot is just too vague on that point.

I felt that the writer could have done more with one really intriguing suggestion that was mentioned in the plot:

"The Joker HAS no personality. That's why he's a harmless clown one moment, a homicidal psychotic the next."

Imagine a mad scientist/psychiatrist thinking: "The Joker has no personality. The cure is to CONSTRUCT a personality for him, from scratch..."

And then he tries to mold a healthy personality onto the "blank slate" that is the Joker... (The Joker is drugged, dressed up as a kid and actors pretend to be his loving parents... "Now be a nice little Joker! No playing with sharp objects!")

Or has this been done already..?

RobB said...

DC Comics is looking like a very exciting place in 2006.

Lou Anders said...

Yeah, and I'm sure I will enjoy the Morrison, but in the way that I enjoy the 1960s television show, and not the way I enjoyed Batman Begins.

Anonymous said...

Yeah... but how do you feel about Batman kicking Al-Qaeda's butt?

Lou Anders said...

I wish Miller would just stay away from Batman completely. Morrison may groove on the aspects I'd rather sweep under the rug, but what he writes will be uber-competent and masterful, even if it's not how I would like to see it done. What Miller writes these days is just embarrassing.

Jess Nevins said...

I wish Morrison would take a different tack with his Batman, but not the one you want. For me, Morrison is best when he's wrenching the heartstrings--WE3, the ending of Invisibles (which I found epiphanic and almost transcendental), the issue of Animal Man when Buddy Baker has to deal with the death of his family, and more I can't think of right now. And my favorite Batman stories don't involve the Joker or the return of, I don't know, Doctor Death, but where there's a real sentiment to the story.

The best example of this I can think of was from a Batman: Black and White issue from several years back, written and illustrated by Ted McKeever. It was about Batman reconstructing a murder victim's death from her body, and it was about the Batman contemplating the victim and essentially vowing that as long as he was around, she wouldn't be forgotten. It was only a few pages long, but it was better than any other Batman story I've read in years.

Lou Anders said...

Agreed. The McKeever story was wonderful. There was also a stand-alone a few years back in one of the monthlies, in which Batman notices a cop who was supposedly murdered in the background of a tv news report in the DC stand-in for Cuba. As the crook who "murdered" him, a former member of Two-Face's gang, is going to the chair, Batman asks Gordon for permission to remove Dent from Arkham and use him to track down his old minion. Batman shows up at the grave of Gordon's wife. Gordon is miffed Batman has forgotten the anniversary of her death, and even more miffed when he shows up only to ask a favor. He tells him know. Batman busts Two-Face out, takes him to San Marcos (or whatever it's called) and promplty loses him retrieving the cop - a worthwhile trade to prevent the criminal underworld from seeing Batman make a mistake. Gordon says to him at the end, "What makes you think he didn't kill the John Doe we found [in place of the cop's body]? How many people do you think Two-Face will kill before we catch him again? What makes you so damned right?"

Batman doesn't answer. Just leaves.

A.R.Yngve said...

Powerful stuff.

But you know, every Batman writer has editorial guidelines.

He can ask the editor: "How WRONG can I make Bats be in a story? How far can he stray before you say stop?"

And the editor says: "Not that far." (Though you'll have to ask Ted McKeever if he had to argue with his editor to get approval.)

Graeme said...

I think you're missing out on one vital piece here, Lou, and that's the fact that Arkham as your template for Morrison's Batman is simply out-of-date. Morrison's portrayal of Batman in JLA was the best thing about the book. Batman there was the 'hairy chested love God' he talks about, which isn't presaging a fall back to the 50s or 60s but rather the dark, romantic, genius adventure hero I loved in the 1970s before the 80s told us he had to be 'dark'. That's the one great thing about Batman in Morrison's JLA: you have the sense that he has a tremendous sense of purpose, and he's as grim as ever...but he *likes* his work too. In JLA, it was Batman that usually pulled everything together and used his brain to do all the lateral thinking that the character *should* be doing by virtue of being the world's greatest detective but we almost never see anywhere else. It truly was Sherlock Holmes as an action hero. Absolutely brilliant. I don't think you have anything to worry about. -Graeme Burk

Lou Anders said...

Good lord, Graeme!
How are you?
Yeah, I'm aware that Morrison used Batman (and Ras Al Ghul for that matter) to good effect in JLA. Believe me, I'll be reading every issue of his run - but the Bat-space ship better not make an appearance!

Anonymous said...

Whatever directions Morrison takes Batman in (and I'm digging the "hairy chested love god" plan, as well as his superb All Star Superman), it'll no doubt be a fascinating ride...

"Ozone Stigmata" by Will Dockery

The Ride (Combat Zone) by Shadowville All-Stars
Video by Janis Petersen:

Lou Anders said...

I'm sure that it will be. Believe me, I'm there for it, only with a certain amount of trepidation. If Bat-Mite doesn't show up, I'll be very suprised.