Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Batman: The Grant Morrison Odyssey 2.1

In the first part of this journey I covered the "Batman & Son" Hardcover, you can read that bad boy here.

In the second one I took care of "The Club of Heroes" & "Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul" arcs, and you can read that one here.

But before I can move on to the next Hardcover in line, "Batman: RIP", there are a few lingering tales from "The Black Glove" HC that I need to take care of, ones that have serious impact on that story, and feed off what has come before.

The first of these is from the issue pictured above, and it goes by the intriguing title of "Space Medicine". Chronologically speaking, this is the first appearance of Devil-Batman from issue #666 as he strolls into GCPD HQ demanding to see Commissioner Vane (who obviously is not around anymore) and claiming that "The Bat-Signal came on in my brain. The sleeper awoke".

Gordon continues to deal with the Mayor, in this instance him questioning Jim's relationship with Batman, while Devil-Bats sets fire to GCPD as well as several people in the building.

Jump to "Gotham Noir", their version of "The View", hosted by Vicki Vale as they discuss Bruce & Jezebel Jet's whirlwind romance, rumored engagement, their impending base jump for charity, and through Bruce's conversation with Alfred (harkening back to their talk from the beginning of "Bats & Son", we learn a little bit more detail about Jet's history. Assassinated father, gave up her life to carry out his work, she makes Bruce...laugh?!?

Back to the chaos at GCPD where Devil-Bats holds another officer hostage, flashes his GCPD badge, verifying he was in fact a cop, and trades up in the hostage department by taking Commissioner Gordon.

Back to Bruce & Jet as they prepare to jump, the Bat-Signal hits the hot air balloon they are jumping from, leaving Bruce & Alfred to make an on-the-fly excuse about Bruce overshooting the landing and ending up in the alleys.

Devil-Bats informs Gordon that he freed Branca, the Bane-looking "Ghost", just before Batman enters the scene for a little rooftop brawl.  The Bat-signal gets trashed, Bats gets shot in the chest at nearly point blank range, Devil-Bats laments on how the GCPD betrayed him..."sent me to hell to learn from the devil" are his words...then he shoots Gordon, and it all beings to get really weird.

Bruce's heart begins to give, Zur En Arrh is being written by some finger, a bat shatters glass, and we have the return (modern debut perhaps?) of a character that seems to utterly out of place in the general world of Batman yet somehow fits into the Morrison Bat world: Bat-Mite!

What an insane cliffhanger to the first part of this story huh? Before we get to part two, "Joe Chill in Hell", I want to point out a couple key points dropped into what was essentially a very fast-paced action issue.

One, Devil-Bats continuously referencing the devil & hell, very curious that this is how he references what happened to him as what the reader knows is that he was part of the big Bat-Experiment. Why does he look at this as a trip through hell and learning from the devil? Two, the reappearance of the Zur En Arrh theme that dominated the backgrounds of almost all of Grant's Gotham-based stories prior to this. Given that we don't see much of the city outside of GCPD HQ in this ish, there aren't any other appearances of those words, but the question now is who is writing them and where? Is it written on Bruce's brain perhaps? There also seems to be at theme of Batman look-alikes using guns, something Batman does not do...

On to Joe Chill....

This issue certainly throws the reader for a loop right from the get-go as we ended with Bats apparently suffering a heart attack and Bat-Mite popping out of the ether, then this ish starts with a guy popping a pill worrying about someone getting into his room, and some discussion of the Thogal ritual that has been mentioned previously in Grant's Bat-work.  It's an odd jump but you begin to see that there's something more to it than meets the eye.

We see Batman for the first time in that page pasted above and, between the old-style looking Bat-Copter, the costume design, and the discussion of the early days, this story is set...well...in the early days. Or is it? The story flashes to Bruce's experience that was chronicled in "52" when he took part in a desert ritual with the Ten-Eyed Men to "wound his soul forever", then back to Batman who is flashing back on his parents murder and sporting a gun, back to Joe Chill who...in this reality...has forged himself into a businessman but is being driven nuts by Batman's continued presence in his life. Apparently he is being watched every night by Batman...oh, and one of his guards looks a lot like the twins from The Matrix: Reloaded. Coincidence?

It turns out that guard, well that was Batman disguised, and he simply laughs in the face of Joe Chill, leaving him in a puddle of piss as memories drift from one moment to another, framed by words that likely come from the true Batman who suffered the heart attack.  Through this there are occasional references to days spent in Thogal

Does this mean Bat-Mite has been a part of Bruce's life since he was a boy, or is this just how it went down through the eyes of Thogal? The memories mix with reality & fantasy completely here as he reflects on Hurt's words over hallucinating Robin's death, Dick Grayson in this case, but the visual show memorials to Dick's, Jason's, and Stephanie Brown's versions of the costume. For one thing, the only Robin memorial in the cave is for JT, and even when she was "dead", Stephanie never had a memorial.  This is all part of the Thogal ritual & Hurt's Isolation Experiment...this is the reality Bruce's brain apparently created mixed with some actual reality as he tells Grayson he went thru the Isolation Experiment in hopes of figuring out how The Joker's mind works. And meanwhile there's that alternate dialogue that's coming from heart-attack Bruce providing framework to the moment. "Isolation Chamber? No this is the 30th day of Thogal. Or is it the 27th?"...all of the various experiments Bruce undertook are running together.

Batman with a gun again, the same one that killed his parents, the one Joe Chill used to kill his parents, and he passes it off as reality sets in: Joe Chill created Batman. As Chill ponders his decision, electro-shock paddles come into the scene on Bruce's exposed chest, text reads 49th Day of Thogal, Chill makes his choice, Bruce's eyes open while the text reads "Thogal Ends", BLAM!

Back to reality, Bruce's mind is sorting it all out as he realizes he had a heart attack and wakes up to this:

The next issue, "Batman Dies At Dawn", is a play on "Robin Dies At Dawn", the very first appearance of the doctor (then unnamed) who Morrison would evolve into Dr. Hurt, and the same story in which the Isolation Experiment took place.  This issue fills in a great deal of the back story of Devil-Bats and begins to get at some of the root causes of Batman's increasing mental duress. He begins to pass out, to hallucinate, and in one of those memory/hallucinations, states that "...I must put away my Batman costume and retire from crime-fighting" to which Bat-Mite retorts, "Wonder who hid that command in your head, Bruce", alluded to something being preprogramed into Wayne's mind in the way that I felt the "Zur en Arrh" from earlier was being painted onto his psyche.

The isolation experiment, it seems, went down in the very room where Devil-Bats is keeping Bruce captive...meaning it's within GCPD HQ, and Bat-Mite seems to be the guide generated by Bruce's own mind, mentally leading him to the conclusions that bring it all together.

Bat-Devil produces a folder, the secrets of the Isolation experiment contained within, and proceeds to set fire to it while repeating the same idea of "post-hypnotic keywords" that Bat-Mite mentioned. The doors in Bruce's mind are opening, memories coming back to the surface as he recalls the name of the doctor who conducted the experiments: Dr. Hurt.

Thank the inventor of bulletproof vests I suppose as we finally return to Jim Gordon on the rooftop and all he has to show for his gunshot is some slight damage to the shoulder of his jacket. Gordon gets the truth from one of his officers about the GCPD's involvement in the project that created the 3 Ghosts.

Back to Devil-Bats as he tells their tale while Bruce wonders why he thought all of this was hallucinations, flashbacks to the isolation chamber, and wonders if he was manipulated into forgetting it was all reality. More Dr. Hurt moments as we begin to see just how well he has studied Batman, and one panel in particular where I wonder if he is indeed watching footage of Bruce as a child because his words...."There. In his eyes, that moment when he vows revenge"...speak to me of a man who knows the secret of Batman's identity.

Devil-Bats, or Michael Lane as Bruce seems to have deducted his true identity, flat out states that Doctor Hurt is the Devil who "...visits this world to destroy the good and make slaves of men like me.", and it won't be the last time the reader hears that same claim. 

Bruce, using that ever prepared brain of his, breaks free and the reader gets that internal dialogue that essentially tells you what is at the heart of Morrison's take on Batman.

"Every day I run through a thousand different scenarios. I work out ways to defeat villains with M.O's and pathologies that haven't been thought of yet."

To hell with Superman, Batman is the ultimate boy scout. But everything that Bats experienced in this room, all the words of Devil-Bats, begin to take a toll on the psyche of Bruce as he questions if there could indeed be some ultimate evil manipulating everything behind the scenes, with a reach that even Bruce can't match or prepare for.

Before we get any answers from Devil-Bats or from Brucie himself, Branca bursts in but is put down by one of his own officers.  A chase ensues as Bats heads off after his devilish counterpart, but he comes up short, and gets left with one last parting thought from Devil-Bats...

"Ask yourself why we reactivated. Why your replacements are circling like vultures. Maybe it's because we know your luck is running out. You'll soon be gone"

And Bruce is left wondering, "If the king of crime is real, is he telling me his name?". 

So in this issue we get the truth behind the isolation experiment and most importantly, the knowledge that hidden triggers have been buried in Bruce's subconscious.  Reading back now, it's easy to pick up on "Zur en Arrh" being one of those triggers with the whole black gloved finger writing it in neon green across the page, but the story of Doctor Hurt remains a mystery.  We know he's a doctor who has apparently been studying Batman quite intensely for some time now but to what end beyond the experiment is unknown, and there's isn't much in this story to steer us into the direction the character takes in the future. By the close of this issue, all the pieces seem to be in place for "Batman: RIP"...Bruce is questioning the existence of this king of crime, wondering what psychological damage did he willingly let happen to him with the Isolation experiment, and seemingly unprepared for what could be waiting around the corner.  But before we get to RIP, there's one last important plot point to cover in "The Fiend with Nine Eyes"...

This is a story that takes place from two perspectives. The first is Robin & Nightwing as they battle what little crime still seems to be going down in Gotham while the 2nd take is a bit of a full circle if you will as Bruce & Jezebel Jet sit down for dinner a la one of the earlier issues in Morrison's run.

What makes their scene so interesting for me is that it goes down the road of what one would expect, the female in Bruce's life accusing him of being distant, aloof, mysterious (and not in a sexy  way), and actually refers to only seeing "...the mask of a man" in reference to Bruce.  And in typical Bruce fashion, he is about to blow her off....in fact if this had been done by different artist, it would likely have been clearer that Bruce actually looks pained by this song and dance.  Unfortunately for this blow-off, life interrupts in form of the title character of this piece...

Another wrap-around to Morrison's little piece of "52", the Ten-Eyed Men who helped him prepare for Thogal, only this one is obviously missing a finger. He seems to be there for Jet though...

Cut to the Al Ghul family as Talia laments the relationship between Jet & Bruce, ordering Merlyn to find out all he can about Jezebel while Damian takes some bow & arrow target practice.

Back to Nine Eyes as he states that he was exiled from the desert tribe & that he is working on behalf of Jet's deceased father's enemies.

Back to Dick & Tim as they hunt down some criminal while discussing Bruce's experiences in Nanda Parbat. Grayson seems to think Bruce will be fine, while Drake seems much more concerned. Seeing Nightwing discuss Bruce's hallucinations of space monsters is actually kind of amusing because it's delivered with such nonchalance that only Dick could pull off.

Before that conversation gets anywhere, the duo head towards the smoke coming from the restaurant where Bruce & Jezebel were attacked, only now the situation is reversed and it is Bruce who is on the hunt...but in his Bruce clothes.

Back to the Al Ghul's as Merlyn, somehow, knows what's going down in Gotham, fills in Talia, while Damian intimates that he feels "Someone is out to get my father". Of course no one but Talia is allowed to hurt Bruce, in her mind at least, so she decides she needs a plan...

Bruce is in full on rage-mode, assaulting 9 Eyes out in the open, hollering about The Black Glove, while Jet walks into the scene leading Bruce to shout out the following: "Walk away. You were right. Bruce Wayne is a shallow, selfish, reckless mask of a man who never grew up. WALK AWAY!"  Then, just as Robin & Nightwing make their way into the room...

Jet puts the pieces together just in time for "Batman: RIP" to begin. She's not the first, she likely won't be the last, but she may be the one (at least based on the knowledge we had at this time) most likely to get it.  So where do we sit at the end of these four stories?

Well it many ways these stories took us back to the "Batman & Son" HC to wrap-up the unresolved plotlines surrounding the "Three Ghost of Batman" and introduce Dr. Hurt in the process. It also gave us our first (chronological) look at Devil-Batman as the one we first meet in #666 is in the future with Damian serving as Batman.  These stories harken back even further than that though to the very brief appearances Bruce makes in "52" many months prior to Morrison taking over as the writer on Batman.

There is a definite feel that everything that was started back in "Bats & Son" is coming to a head with "RIP". The Black Glove, the Thogal ritual, the isolation experiments, Dr. Hurt, Damian & Talia, The Club of Heroes/Villains, the 3 Ghosts, The Devil, Hell...as we now know, it was all building to something major in RIP.  Morrison has done an amazing job of crafting a cohesive story that, at this point, had been running for over a year before it headed into the grand finale in "RIP". Well, at least the finale of Phase 1...it seems like there have been at least two finales thus far in Morrison's Batman (RIP & Batman & Robin/Return of Bruce) with a third on the way in the form of "Batman:Inc" sometime in 2012 or 2013.  It is a testament to both long-term planning and Morrison's ability to continually evolve the story that it has been rolling on for so long now and still feels fresh.

Next time, "Batman: RIP" and a look at all the little plot-threads that got us to it...

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