Friday, December 30, 2011

Batman: The Grant Morrison Odyssey Part The First

For months, longer actually, essentially as long as I have been writing this blog I have wanted to sit down and re-read Grant Morrison's Batman epic...narrative...saga, whatever your noun of choice may be, and take a look at how it all links together one Hardcover chapter at a time.  First I figured I would just take it from the starting point contained within the above book and run it through to "Batman: RIP".  Then that changed to waiting until Grant's run on "Batman & Robin" was completed, which thus gave way to waiting for "Batman Inc." to wrap up its tale. 

Now given that I will likely be waiting until the end of time for this "Leviathan" story to actually come to a close, assumptions based solely on the asinine delays in getting the last two issues of "Batman Inc." released, combined with the simple fact that the old DC is "dead" in large part, and that the initial phase of "Leviathan" wrapped with the recently released "Leviathan Strikes" book, I have decided that this is my cue.  It is finally time to sit-down and peruse these tomes once again and follow the white rabbit from issue to issue to see how Bruce & his Bat-family go to where they were when Grant's story closed in "Strikes".  I did this as a play-by-play via twitter while I was reading, which kind of gave me some bullet points, this is the long form version.

So to quote what was apparently the most annoying movie quote text alert sound in history (based on the audience approval of friends & family), "Here we go..."

One Batman shooting Joker in the face while another swoops in from overhead just moments after Jim Gordon has been tossed off a rooftop, his face contorted in the stylized smile of The Joker, while "a bunch of  vulnerable, disabled kids" look while the Bat-signal sits there cracked, and the clown prince of crime has apparently killed Batman with an all-too familiar weapon of choice: a crowbar. All that goes down in the span of only 5 pages...welcome to the world of Batman as seen through the eyes of Grant Morrison and brought to life by Andy Kubert, Jesse Delperdang, and more.  This world, as the story unfolds over the course of several years, turns out to be an intertwining, crazy ride where even the most minute of details could have later meaning or significance.  For example:

It seems so trivial, that the spray paint covering the walls, and it would likely be so in the hands of most other writers.  Spray paint in comics has a tendency towards inside jokes, shout outs to other creators, or tags for in-story gangs, but in this case with "Zur en arrh" it is none of the above. It is seemingly gibberish, but when you look closely at just the page above, as well as the proceeding one, you will notice that it is gibberish that is everywhere.  Be it a wall or the dumpster in which Bats throws The Joker's body, look and you will see "Zur en arrh" in 3 out of the 6 panels that make up these 2 pages. Is there meaning it?  Time will tell...

I'm not looking to do a page-by-page here but there are moments on most of them that are worth mentioning, whether be overarching importance, or simply something...simple...that I appreciate.  The hospital scene between Bats & Gordon that follows the Joker encounter is interesting to me for two main reasons, the first being Jim asking "What do you do now, Batman?" in reference to his locking up essentially every major criminal in Gotham save Two-Face, and the second being that as Gordon references Harvey Dent, his face (well recovering from the Joker toxin) actually LOOKS like Two-Face!

Alfred encouraging Bruce to go out and BE Bruce Wayne is great because it had been awhile prior to this, maybe since the "Murderer/Fugitive" debacle (fuzzy memory), that this issue had been addressed. It's a constant pull; this dual identity, which is the reality and which the fiction, so I always appreciate when it gets injected into the storyline.  Also, it is a rarity in ANY comics that the actual sound of a character's voice is every mentioned (if they're gruff, whiny, baritone, etc) so as a result I actually appreciate Alfred referencing the growl of Batman's voice...and how it has essentially become Bruce's voice as well.  There's also moments such as the once below that seem rather innocent, pointless even, but if I learned anything from film classes, and from reading Morrison as much as I do, it is that very little of what sees print is meaningless or accidental.

The work Alfred puts into actually teaching Bruce how to be Bruce Wayne again is endearing, showcasing the familial relationship between the two that, although we know it exists, it is something that should be refreshed every so often, and it helps to demonstrate that Mr. Pennyworth is much more than just a butler. 

Always been a fan of Man-Bat due to the animated series so great to see the Langstrom's brought into play, especially seeing Kirk as the genius scientist he actually is instead of just as the mindless beast. The art show charity function is amazingly drawn, colored, and lettered with great little touches such as a painting of a crying woman saying "I'm in love." hanging over Bruce's head while he hits on three women simultaneously.  And then the big close of chapter one, the first step of the big reveal, a young child in shadow pointing at a monitor with the face of Bruce Wayne on it and saying the words, "That's my father." with Talia Al Ghul's hand on his shoulders, and a legion of Ninja Man-Bats hanging over their heads! WTF?!?!?

And that's how we kick off part two of this arc, introducing a woman who would have a grand effect on the lives of Bruce Wayne & Batman: Jezebel Jet.  Jet's appearance is so brief that you wouldn't expect it to carry much weight, but there is something in the way she departs, telling Bruce "Don't worry. I know where you live." that carries sinister barring in retrospect. Now back to the balloons! 

That word balloon floating over her head reading "WOW!" is exactly what I was talking about with the way the art of the exhibit is intertwined into the action playing out before us.  It's a grand way to make your "background" something more, something alive if you will, and it plays throughout the entire fight with the Ninja Man-Bats. A painting reading "Yikes!" as they crash through the ceiling, another screaming "Ouch!" as Bats punches a Ninja-Bat in the face, a giant "BLAM!" on another as Batman fires a grappling line, and an Andy Warhol style Wonder Woman painting watching the fight unravel...I'm just amazed at the use of background to tell a story in this chapter.  The numbers overcome Bats, he wakes up a hostage for Talia & her Ninja-Bat army, and we get a little insight into what this all about...a little tryst she & Bats had in the desert back in the (until this very moment) non-canon "Son of the Demon" story:

Bringing the non-canon into active continuity....interesting, and it also brings us to our first look at a character who may have ranked amongst the most hated in all of comics for his first few years: the appropriately named Damian Wayne:

The next chapter revolves around Damian's introduction to Alfred, Tim Drake, and the Wayne Manor and to say it does not go well would be an understatement.  This chapter also makes it very easy to understand why Damian was so easy to hate in his early days...he's a little prick, a child raised with no restraint, taught to murder, and told he would one day rule the world.  Of course he's a total bastard!
What's really intriguing for me about this issue is that, aside from maybe 5 pages, the whole of the story takes place in the mansion, the exception being a brief couple page scene where Bats leaves Damian locked in his room to go stop some criminals only to find one of them beheaded.  Prior to that little fight though I appreciate the Bruce-Damian-Tim interactions; how Bruce seems to be handling Damian they way he likely remembers his father coping with him if/when Bruce acted out. It doesn't work, what does seem to work is Bruce talking at him like a drill seargent/sensei handing an unruly solider/student.  Damian is also plays Tim Drake perfectly, where Tim approaches him like a normal child, severely underestimating the kid, while Damian comes at Tim with aggression and intolerance, provoking a fight by unveiling a severed head in a bag, calling Tim a surrogate son, and mocking him for being adopted.  Oh yeah, and then Damian steals a Robin wardrobe and meets Dad on the rooftops, closing this chapter with the following image:

The image of a beaten Tim isn't what's important to me here, it's the case sitting to the left of his unconscious body.  I may be wrong, and I may be reading into things, but that certainly looks like a certain Bat-inspired Thomas Wayne costume that rears its head later in Morrison's tales.

The last chapter of "Batman & Son" is the big, bad fight against Talia & her legion of Man-Bats but reading it closer, I realized there's a lot more going on than that.  This is the chapter that actually sets the stage for Leviathan several years later and it is so inoccuous that the only way to notice is to have read that "Batman Inc" story and then go back to this one.  This chapter also offers great insight into the relationship between Talia and her son, as well as Bruce & Damian.  There are moments of child-like behavior in Damian during the all-too brief period before the arrive at Gibraltar, like the way Kubert draws Damian's face as he tell's Bruce where his mom is hiding out at.  It screams of a desperate desire for his father to approve, particularly when combined with the "See? I can be useful!" proclamation Damian makes as he tells his father.  The smile as he takes off in a rocket with his father, the brief banter during their flight from the Manor to Gibraltar, even his "Do I have to choose? I would much rather we were all togther." line in the closing pages offers some insight into where Damian's head is truly at, and shows some layers beyond the spoiled brat of a child.  There is obviously more to the Damian story than this, and reading closely I can see the foundation of Leviathan being laid out by Talia in the two panels on page 101 where Talia states "Then it's war. And you're responsible...For people like us, the world is the gameboard, and nations are pawns."

Then they all go boom...and it's time for the strangest single issue of a Batman book I have ever read: "The Clown At Midnight"

This is not a comic book, not in any traditional sense of the style, rather it is a prose-piece with some art that is so intricate and gorgeously rendered that it blew my mind.  I think I read this book three time on the day it was first released, in part to truly grasp just what the hell was going on, and in part to take in all the little details worked into the pages.  There are not traditional comic book panels, no flow of words and art necessarily, but some powerful images nonetheless.  One thing I had never noticed before until my re-read of the HC collection is how the actual background contain images all their own, images that simply look like fog but are in truth the faces of mad clowns looming over as the Batmobile enters Arkam Asylum grounds,  as well as in the "Her Special Day" and "Nirvikalpa Samadhi" chapters, and there is text in the background of the "Joker Unbound" chapter, right below the image of The Joker spitting venom into the guard's face, but it's text that I cannot make out for the life of me.  The detail in the images, both prominent and those hidden, is excellent but detail isn't reserved for simply the art. 

The prose scripted by Morrison borders on Hawthorne levels of description in some instances but it gives a life to Gotham City in "The Knight and the City" chapter and gives depth to Solomon & Sheba in their respective chapters that they obviously never had when first introduce (and summarily forgotten about) in "The Killing Joke". In fact, that is a facet of Morrison's work in the Bat-books thus far that is often overlooked.  He manages to give personality, life, to characters that otherwise have none.  The bats in the Batcave in "Batman & Son" are given some identity in their food preferences, the usually faceless & nameless cronies of The Joker are given a sense of self in the "Putting Bozzo to bed" chapter of this story, as are the security guards of Arkham Asylum in those sections.  Even The Joker is given an identity via Morrison, a "superpersona" that explains the constant variations on his character over the years, again showcasing Grant's desire to make everything that has ever happened in the world of Batman be logical and to have some meaning. 

My favorite two scenes in this story are the initial Harley scene in "The Checkerboard Doll" chapter in which the following dialogue takes place:
 "You tried to kill him! You shot him," she works out.
"I didn't shoot him," the Batman is telling her."That was someone else."
"Batman shot him!" her voice is becoming shrill, agitated, and distracted. "And you're Batman, aren't you? Dressed up like that?" Her gaze zigzags around the room as her muscles shift under her costume, making the checkerboard ripple.
"I don't use a gun, Harley." Batman says. She seems to return from a dream and focuses on him with a bellowing snarl. "YOU USED A GUN ON HIM!"
"That wasn't me," he says again, hut he's wasting his time and Sheba's time.
"So now you're NOT Batman?" She can hardly believe his audacity.
"Of course I am."

Identity, Batman versus Bruce Wayne, there's only one Batman....all of these things come into play during that brief dialogue. My other favorite moment is the description of The Joker's "change" that is laid out in the "Joker Unbound" chapter.  His body physically changing, his voice cracking, his brain racing as his newest persona takes hold and we finally get the unveiling of this:

The Thin White Duke of Death, The Clown At Midnight, just two of the names that have been bandied about to label this itteration of The Joker and both are apt.  In addition to this unveiling, the pieces of the puzzle truly come together when Harley Quinn gets to Arkham.  This whole story has been about The Joker eliminating any connections to his previous personas, hence killing off the clowns at the funeral and going after Sheba as well, and now it is Harley's turn to die at the stroke of midnight right in front of the Bat, and she was going to let him...

This whole sequence almost makes you feel bad for Harley, although she is the one to put the bullet in The Joker's shoulder that stops him from leaving Arkham before midnight as she utters the words, "Don'tcha love me no more?" and wipes a tear from her eye.

In addition to being a very ambitious and daring story for a mainstream comic, this story also introduced several plot points, themes, & motifs that would prove to play out over the long haul of Morrison's Bat-Story including the red & black motif, the new Joker juice variation, Joker's desire for Batman to finally get the joke, and this quote, "Life and death. The joke and the punchline." which I am pretty makes a reapperance in the DCU #0 issue, but I'll have to wait until I hit "Batman RIP" again to be certain.

And that brings us to the final three issues of this volume, two that are tied together, and one that is distinctly seperate from everything that comes before yet, yet intimately tied to everything that the future will bring.  We start with Grant taking a dip into the ocean of history once more in "Three Ghosts of Batman", but before we delve into that, it is the return of Jezebel Jet as Bruce parachutes onto a mountain top to meet her skiing, "accidentally" causes a helicopter to crash, and then hits the town for dinner with his newest prospect. 

We hit the streets of Gotham once more with a gaggle of call girls and their pimp trying to deal with the police as someone is killing the girls, someone who turns out to be a cop, but a "Monster on smack" as one of the girls calls him.  Also, as Bats comes crashing back down into his real world of the Gotham City alleyway, you will once more notice a plethora of "Zur en arrh" tags on every wall surrounding him.

The monster cop Bats confronts looks like like Bane in a Bat-uniform, but somehow juiced up even worse, and it harkens back to the man dressed as Batman that began this whole HC, the one that shot Joker, who also happened to be a cop and as Bats puts it "a series of locks open up in my head".  Unfortunately...and unusually...he proves quite distracted, lost in thought about this Black Casebook, leaving Bats open for this:

Battered, beaten, and bloodied, one of the hookers helps Bats to a safehouse where he passes out and dreams of Damian telling him "The third ghost is the worst of them all" only to awaken to find Alfred & Tim caring for him.  What I appreciated most in this scene was Morrison's acknowledgment of fear in Bruce as he flashes back to Bane breaking his back, enhanced by Alfred informing him that the spinal brace in the costume was shattered.  It is rare that Bruce shows fear and it happens once more in these scene as Tim goes off to battle the "ghost" himself, perhaps harkening back to his other primary fear: having another Robin die.

The next scene between Alfred & Bruce finally tells us what The Black Casebook is all about, and also give Morrison a chance to take all the crazy antics that happened to Batman during his life-span and wrap them up in a bow.  All the sci-fi, supernatural, inexpliciable cases chalked up to Joker Toxin & Fear Gas exposure in massive cumulative doses...which leads Bruce into explaining the three versions of himself including one with a gun, a bestial strength enhanced version, and one who sold his soul to the devil & destroyed Gotham.    Obviously we are dealing with the second one...

Combined Bats & Robin beat him, leading to a conversation between Gordon & Bats I find interesting simply for the closing dialogue when Gordon asks, "Why did you have to choose an enemy that's as old as time and bigger than all of us, Batman?" to which he responds, "Same reason as you did, Jim. I figured I could take him. This isn't over."  Doesn't seem like much on its own but in light of the overreaching story arc of good vs. evil, it reads wholely differently than it did years ago.

Also, I find something in the scene of an obviously battered Damian having his organs harvested and replaced.  Whether it is an allusion to a future scene in "Batman & Robin" may entirely be in my own  head, but else is literature if not open to interpretation?

Oh yeah, and Brucie Boy finally opens his heart up to another woman, one not in a cat costume, whilst someone in black gloves holding a pair of binoculars watches them.  End scene, leading to the final part of this collection, issue 666, the future tale known as "Bethlehem":

This is a story set in some future time where Damian is all growed up and has taken on the Mantle of the Bat.  Aside from a quick backstory double-pager, the reader gets tossed right into the thick of it as Damian battles Dollotrons, crucifies Professor Pyg, and then goes home to see his kitty cat Alfred.  Obviously we didn't know this at the time...but this would mark the first apperance of characters that will be a major part of "Batman & Robin" in the years to come.  Damian talks about the last of the three Batman who thinks he's the Anti-Christ, makes reference to his own bargain on the night Batman died, name drops several other villains, and pops pills.  Barbara Gordon, now the Commish, alludes to Damian being responsible for the death of a friend, and then we get introduced to this 3rd Batman who wears a costume that is now all too familiar:

At this point it's a fresh look, but in the months to come it is a visual we will see again, and since it doesn't really crop up again in Grant's run, I want to address the significance of what Damian said about this 3rd Batman.  Damian stated that this Devil-Bats believe he is the Anti-Christ coming to judge Gotham; well as we know now, this costume was worn by Michael Lane until the close of the "Batman: RIP" arc, at which point he aimed to repent, became the new Azrael, and donned the Suit of Sorrows (to be addressed in "Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul") along with a pair of swords.  Well to make a badly drawn, unimpressive story shorter, Lane went nuts again after finding out he was somehow releated to Jesus Christ and tried to destroy Gotham. Hopefully that is an accurate description, my memory of the book isn't the clearest because it was drivel, and it also appears no one on the internet bothered to chronicle Lane's fate much past him first becoming Azrael either.

I bring that all up wondering if this future Devil-Batman is still Michael Lane, or if what goes down in "Batman & Robin" effectively changes this from ever happening?  What happened in "B&R" you ask? Well you will have to wait until I get there! Manical laugh...manical laugh...manical laugh...

Back to the story itself and in the wrap-up we get a cameo from Flamingo (another "B&R" villain making his true first appearance), a reference to Dick Grayson's time as Batman, and Damian basically telling Devil-Bats that he's a cheater because he's not as good as Dick or Bruce at the role.  Oh yeah, and another reference to some deal Damian made with the Devil, or the son of Satan, when he was 14 to guarantee Gotham's survival.  Curious...and with a snapping of Devil-Bats neck, and nice closing line:

...we get the close of the "Batman & Son" HC collection, and what a ride it has been!  The mystery of "Zur en arrh", the secret behind the 3 Ghosts of Batman, the "new" Joker, Jezebel Jet, Damian's future, and the big question of just when that new Batmobile is going to be ready?!?!  There was a lot of groundwork laid out in this first chapter for the years of material to come. 

Whether it was all planned out in advance, came together as it was being written, or whether Grant retroactively used his past stories to establish a foundation for present work, it all comes together quite nicely.  It amazes me that a simple pair of panels from a story done in 2006 work as foreshadowing for a story hitting print at the end of 2011. 

I am sure there are things in this volume that may not perfectly work in the larger scheme of things, as I am sure that will be the case going forward, but that's what intrigues me in doing this.  Finding the connections, the hidden material I never noticed before, or even making my own bonds from story to story that were never intended but work in my reading of the material. 

Next time out: "The Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul" & "The Black Glove" collections....

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