Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Batman: The Grant Morrison Odyssey Round Two

So I closed off last time (Part One) with the infamous Batman #666 issue that gave us a peek into the future of Damian Wayne and Gotham City, as well as introducing several characters that would rear their heads down the line during Morrison's "Batman & Robin" tenure. That's still quite aways down the line though...the immediate future brings something terrifying in the impending return of one of Batman's greatest foes, and one of my top 5 favorites in large part due to B:TAS, Ra's Al Ghul.  But before that, we get our first taste of The Black Glove and our first modern-day look at The Club of Heroes/Batmen of All Nations. 

See, in continuation with Grant's desire to make everything that has happened in Bruce Wayne's life actually be in-continuity, he brought back a storyline from the 1950's in which heroes inspired by Batman form a group, organized by a John Mayhew, and are called the Batmen of All  Nations, later referred to as The International Club of Heroes.  It doesn't seem like they existed much beyond that in the original timeframe, and Morrison's use of them here is certainly their first apperance (aside from Knight & Squire) in the modern age. 

That bring us to "The Black Glove" Hardcover, or at least the first part of it.  See the actual Club Of Heroes arc runs through Batman #667-669 in this HC, then we jump over to the "Resurrection" HC for #670 & 671, then we bounce back to "The Black Glove" HC for #672-675.  If only I had remembered this on my read-thru than I could have read it in issue-order but the ways in which the material is collected is much more...thematically...appropriate.

So the Club of Heroes...beautifully illustrated by JH Williams III...is where we get our first real taste of the mysterious entity known as The Black Glove, but it seems plausible that this may be a larger evil...something more.  I also don't find it coincidental that The Black Glove concept was introduced so close to The Black Casebook one....

Man that is some beautiful artwork, with the black background dissolving into a swarm of bats, and this zoom-out effect from the first panel to the last, but they aren't so much panels as all one larger image. I am perpetually amazed by the work Williams does....

As for the story itself, that first page up there dumps you straight into the story of The Black Glove organization, as illustrated by a black glove and, the theme returns, the red & black color pattern of a roulette wheel.  Who is the man hanging upside down? Who is the one wielding the knife?  Well it looks like we have ourselves a classic Batman mystery to solve!

It is a testament to the graps Morrison has on the meat of his characters when we are first introduced to them.  The Knight is the first member of the Club we run into, appropos since he is the only one potentially familiar to the readers, and he immediately lays the background out as he fills Batman in on what he's missed.  The Club apparently crashed and burned at only their second meeting, a meeting Bats didn't even bother to show up to. We also get our first mention of John Mayhew, verifying that he was still the motivating factor behind The Club uniting originally.  The Musketeer, El Gaucho, Man-of-Bats, and The Legionary are the next batch we meet and they could not be more different from one another, let alone Batman.  Musketeer is a loud-mouth braggart telling the tales of his story as only Man-of-Bats seems to be paying the least bit of attention. Legionary is busy stuffing his face with food, already quite a fat man, while Gaucho kind of fades into the background, silent, staring at The Musketeer's antics.

Meanwhile Batman, Robin, and The Knight walk through a hallway that essentially tells us some very important information about Jonathan Mayhew, including a film he apparently made called "The Black Glove", whose poster features a black hand, not unlike the one that opened this saga, dripping in blood.  Multiple wives, a mega-rich daredevil, money to spend on buying his own superhero team, and Knight stating that everyone was in awe of Bats so "No wonder it lasted all of half an hour".

When we return to The Club we meet Raven Red, the son/sidekick of Man-of-Bats, and we also learn that Man-of-Bats may have some drinking issues.  There's a techy looking Batman-esque guy whose name we don't initially get, and another individual, an Australian man, named Dark Ranger, who apparently had another name previously, but the other members...or at least Tech-Bats...can't be bothered to remember his name. 

Morrison bounces back to the other group, bringing The Squire officially into the picture now as she meets Robin for the first time, while Knight makes some astute observations that "I'm sure the sly old bugger's watching us." in reference to Mayhew and that "I can feel eyes everywhere."  Little do we know at this point how prescient his comments are...

Back to the Club, where you can almost feel the meeting between the two groups creeping up on you, and we get a quick backstory on Dark Ranger, and find out that Tech-Bats is named Wingman and he claims that he "...actually came up with the Wingman crimefighting concept about a year before Batman. A whole year. Possibly more."  They argue about whether or not Gaucho heard Batman's plane land, if they are playing Rugby or not, if Gaucho is an exaggerator, and they all toot their own horns as to their success and capabilities, the whole thing screaming of insecurity.  Then the shadow of the Bat falls on the door and everything changes...

Not only does the mood of the room change, but Williams art changes...gone are the 6 panel pages that have told the story since Batman & Robin landed on Mayhew's island, replaced by a less restrictive format, and even that quickly dissolves into chaos as The Club is subjected to a video of a man claiming to be wearing the skin off the face of John Mayhew who then informs them all that The Black Glove is now pointing at them.  The man stands in front of a very distinctive painting and then we see this:

Another amazing example of how Williams uses the art to tell the story just as much as the dialogue does.  The Black Hand blows the Batplane up, a mystery man murderes Legionary a la Julius Ceaser, and then, as this first chapter ends, The Black Hand envelopes Batman... "Advantage: Evil"

I feel like I'm using more art examples than normal with "The Club of Heroes" arc, but JH Williams art tells so much of that story it is hard not to.  Even the cover of Chapter Two demands to be showcased for the simple, yet highly effective, image it presents that sums up what is inside the book you hold:

Batman trapped inside a warped mansion, a noose in the lower level window, and the black glove reaching up to take him...beauty, a friend of mine even got this done as a great tattoo that I wish I had a picture of saved on my PC to show you.  The art even changes depending on the subject matter.  When Grant's script requires a look at the 2nd meeting of The Club they didn't survive, the art harkens back to an older time...the page borders are yellowed and I swear there are lingering bits of art behind the main panels, perhaps the remanants of the original Club story from the 50's? Who knows...but it's an abrupt change from that look to the bloody corpse of Legionary as Batman examines it, with the art only showing the reds of the scene, the rest in shades of grey. 

What's really interesting about the characterization of The Club is how quickly they fall apart as soon as Batman walks out of the room.  Dark Ranger is all take charge in front of Batman, but as soon as Bats is around the corner, Wingman's insecurities take over, Raven Red gets uber-defensive of his father while simultaneously being treated like a kid by Wingman; only Ranger, and to a degree Gaucho, seem to be keeping their heads about them. 

I can't stop referencing the way the art shifts depending on the subjects it's depicting.  When Batman heads off apart from the rest of The Club the art breaks from a 6-panel structure into a sort of randomness, a lack of structure, for example:

Apart from the art, what is really great about these scenes is getting the opportunity to see the detective-side of "The World's Greatest Detective" as he analyzes every detail to lead him to Mayhew's killer who they believe to still be in the house.  Batman knows there is something that the rest of The Club isn't telling  him about their last meeting, something we got just a hint of at the beginning of this chapter.  Just as we are beginning to get somewhere with this mystery, despite Legionary's death and now The Squire being forced to swallow a bomb like his father before him was by a villian named Springheeled Jack, the stakes are raised as the house comes to life...

Armored suits begin firing bullets at Bats, Robin, Squire, and the crew, seperating the younger "sidekicks" from the group, and giving Robin an opportunity to show just how adept he is on his own at the detective work while dropping the line that Batman said Squire was pretty good.  As for the elders, they began to theorize on these deaths, leaving Musketter to reference his old adversary Pierrot Lunaire, for Gaucho to stab a blue robot scorpion that is apparently the calling card of Scorpiana, and we learn of a man named El Sombrero who specializes in "fantastic, artistic death traps."

But leave it to Musketeer, the man who seemed to care less in the beginning of this tale, to put it out there that Mayhew...having failed at his club of heroes...could be making a go with a club of villains.  Oh yes, and Wingman dies...horribly, burnt alive it seems, but again in a beautiful piece of art depicting his smoldering skull inside the outline of a black hand.  And the kicker, the mystery voices statement that "We have your children. Advantage--evil." to which Batman actually smiles and retorts with "I don't think so".  It's a moment, one panel, but it is testament to the amount of faith Batman has in the abilities of both Robin & Squire.

That's the cover for the third chapter of this story and I love it because it symbolizes a unity that heretofore hasn't really existed in The Club, but it still obviously has Batman at the forefront. 

We get a flashback to that second meeting of The Club once again, filling in more of the blanks as the original Knight accuses Mayhew of killing "her", with the cut to present day having the current Knight explaining how his father never got the evidence he needed. My assumption is that the "her" in question is likely The Knight's mother.  This sequence, as Man-of-Bats attempts to remove the bomb from Knight, also serves to illustrate the inherent distrust The Club has for one another...that Morrison has managed to instill in the reader as well...as Musketeer walks in on Man-of-Bats performing surgery, suspecting that a murder is being committed, only to find the truth after being knocked on his arse.
Just another great example of JH Williams III art in a three issue arc full of them...but it's also in this panel we are given the name of another villain, King Kraken, whose weapon of choice is a high voltage electrical rifle that fried Wingman.  We meet El Sombrero for the first time as he has Robin, Squire, and Raven Red in an elaborate deathtrap and Batman pulls the curtain aside to reveal who he believes is the man behind it all, someone from The Club, Dark Ranger.  Although it's not Ranger, a moment Bats reveals in a very classic fashion.  Throw something at the man in question and see what hand he catches with....Ranger is left-handed, but this Ranger caught with his right.  It ain't The Ranger...it's Wingman!  The observational skills of Bats are on full display as he notices that Wingman's plane was dry despite the storm raging outside, and the exploding plane was a fake.  The motivation is simple for Wingman, jealousy and revenge, blame for his lack of success & the failure of The Club laid on the shoulders of Batman & The Knight.

In the midst of this fight, we also learn the identity of the "her" The Original Knight was referencing when he attacked Mayhew at that 2nd meeting; it was in fact his 5th wife, one he suspected of having an affair with a Mangrove Pierce (whose name was on that Black Glove film poster), and Pierce was falsely jailed for her death.  And in the process of this revelation, Ranger eats a bullet in the forehead, we discover that El Sombrero is in fact John Mayhew, and that "The Black Glove is closing around Batman".  Why did Mayhew do all this? Boredom essentially, and a level of disdain for Batman "killing" The Club with his disdain.  At the dawn of this arc, Batman posed a question to Robin, "What do eccentric men who have everything do when they get bored?" and Mayhew is one answer to that question.  I suppose Bruce Wayne/Batman would be another answer to the query.  In many ways, Mayhew is a skewed version of Bruce in that he is rich, he has done everything there is to do, and now looks for extreme ways to find his amusement.

I think that's my favorite spread from this entire arc as The Black Glove reaches down from above into the lives of everyone, but primarily to close around Mayhew as "In today's contest between good and evil, you gambled on evil...you lost.", followed by a massive explosion that decimates his island, which has a creepy skull on it btw (look at the second to last panel on the right), as Batman, Robin, & the surviving members of The Club make their departure from the flaming ruins of the island.

So in the big picture of Grant Morrison's arc "The Club of Heroes" has introduced us to The Black Glove, brought a group of allies into Batman's fold, introduced (at least in name) a plethora of other villians, and laid out the mystery of just what the Glove has planned for Batman.  Was this a one-time affair, or the start of something bigger as alluded to by Mayhew before his death? Before any of those questions can be answered though we enter into the only crossover of Morrison's Batman run..."The Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul"!

Man, Simone Bianchi did some awesome cover work on Detective Comics during "The
Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul" arc...

Now before I get started discussing "Resurrection", a little quick backstory: Ra's was killed by his daughter Nyssa, and his body cremated with Batman's overseeing the process, also let me point out that this was a major crossover between the Batman, Detective Comics, Robin, and Nightwing books and as such was written by 5 different authors and the art handled by numerous individuals, including Tony S. Daniel, who is a major part of the Bat-Verse now but at the time was serving as penciller on Morrison's book. 

This event  ran over two annuals and eight regular isssues, with a epilogue going down in 'Tec that is not included in this Hardcover collection.  In many ways this story feels liks an interuption of Morrison's larger tale, but I am covering this because he wrote two of the chapters and I feel like certain aspects of it do play into the larger story Grant was telling at the time.  The importance of Damian looms large in this chapter as we learn his entire existence is simply to serve as a vessel for the soul of Ra's Al Ghul in the instance that his body has died. 

The opening chapter of the book, pulled from Batman Annual 26, is an intriguing look into the history of Ra's as he developed into the person fans are familiar with today.  The second chapter from Robin Annual 7 gives us a more intimate look at Damian as he fights the ghosts of his unconscious and we first get a glimpse at the green robed, bandaged wrapped individual that will frame this entire story arc.  Then we get to Grant's first chapter of the story from Batman #670 as well as Tony Daniel's first work on "Batman", and a few elements brought into this story persisted into Daniel's run as writer, in particular the introduction of I-Ching, a blind man who apparently  has the ability to see the future to a degree.

It is in Batman's initial interaction with I-Ching that I now see some indication of the path that lies ahead, primarily in the following lines from the old man, "The superior man thinks of evil that will come and guards against it." & "Your path ahead is strewn with thorns and doubts.".  The former statment seems quite indicitive of the entire way Grant has written Bats be it in JLA or here in his own book, Morrison's Batman is always prepared for eventualities that haven't even happened yet.  The second makes me think a little of Mayhew's lines about the Black Glove closing in on Batman, but more about his increasing-fixation on The Black Casebook as seen in the closing chapters of "Batman & Son". 

Morrison introduces a trio of female villains working at the behest of a returning Talia & The League of Assassins. Actually I suppose I should say re-introduces as a quick bit of research reveals to me that Dragonfly, Silken Spider, and Tiger Moth were actually introduced a million years back in Batman #181, apparently also the 1st Poison Ivy:

Another of Grant's throwbacks to the olden days of the Bat-verse.  Anywho, the two other main themes in this Grant-penned chapter that I find of revelance to the larger epic are the idea of resurrection, of "...the survival of the mind beyond the death of the body." as I-Ching states it, and the other prominent moment being the total defiance of Damian in the face of the mummy that is apparently Ra's.  It's not just defiance though, it's the belief that his father will "...break you into little piece when I tell him you're back".  There is something more to Damian, something that makes him feel his father will save him from Ra's goal of co-opting Damian's body.  Interesting considering that Damian disappeared with this mother at the close of "Bats & Son" but you get the feeling that was more Talia's call than his.  Grant's portion ends with Damian busting loose....

...and the story picks up with Damian in the Batcave where he goes at it with Tim Drake once more, flings about more insults towards Tim's parent-issues, and generally makes me understand why he was such a despised character at this point in time.  I think part of that was intentional, and part of it was writer's not really knowing HOW to write Damian.  Grant got it, obviously since he created the little guy, but I don't think anyone else did until Peter Tomasi.  Anyway, there's some decent character interaction, especially when Nightwing gets into the picture and we have three "generations" of Bruce's kids all united, and a strong attempt at creating an underlying story of family in the process.  But the story as a whole suffers from so much inconsistent artwork, not to mention characterization where Damian is concerned.  I would never see the kid crying to Alfred at this point about the mean old man stealing his body, but that's just how he's written in one chapter and then in the next he's admitting mistakes and thanking Robin.  Nope, that is definitely not the Damian that we have got to know in "Bats & Son".  As for the art, well let's just say that in one chapter, Ra's is a barely standing husk with no hair and barely recognizable as human.  Then in the next chapter he just looks like the usual depiction of Ra's with a skin condition.  His rotting body grew hair and transfigured to take on Ra's bone structure as well....blargh. Just look at that second panel....

There is some interesting stuff dropped into the story I must admit.  The internal struggle of Tm at the prospect of resurrecting his friends & family, but I feel like it is territory we've been over with Tim previously.  The introduction of the Suit of Sorrows, an armor that Talia gives to Batman, proves to have long-lasting repercussions for Michael Lane, the future-Azrael, and the legendary land of Nanda Parbat comes into play...the very place where Bruce underwent some hardcore meditation rituals in the weekly "52" maxi-series that was partially written by Morrison as well.  Even in a mega-crossover event like this, Grant is still managing to make links to his overreaching story.  Another downside as we get back to Morrison's next chapter in this saga though, is the continued inconsistency of Ra's Al Ghul's depiction.  He goes from looking like he does in the above picture to looking like this:

It's just laziness and sloppiness from book to book and is really, really noticable in this collected form. I remember being annoyed by it in the monthly format, but like this, it is just inexcusable.  This Grant-written chapter doesn't seem to offer much more to the larger tale, save keeping the Al Ghul family involved in Bats life, but we do get some more father-son drama as we discover Sensei is Ra's father, also kept alive for centuries.  At least it ends with a cool visual:

So let's wrap up the rest of this hum-drum arc as quickly as possible. Ra's goes from being in the body of a balding monk to being in a body that looks identical to his own to possessing the body of White Ghost who, it turns out, is his son, making him biologically compatible to house Ra's spirit without killing the body.  Nightwing & Robin fight...Nanda Parbat falls apart...everyone escapes in tact...the Wayne Family makes a Christmas toast to family, and this blase story comes to a merciful end.  I remember wanting to like this so bad when it was initially published but I couldn't find that, and re-reading it now, I can truly see why I was not digging it then or now for that matter.  It just feels shoe-horned into the saga that Morrison was in the middle of writing, the art was medicore across the board (save for maybe Don Kramer's Nightwing issues), and characterizations were just inconsistent for several characters.  It didn't feel as epic as the return of Ra's should have and given the fact that Damian was wholely unlikeable at this point in time, there wasn't much sympathy to be generated from the possibility of Ra's taking over his body.  Hell, I bet a lot of people would have welcomed it if it meant being rid of Damian.  Instead we got this...

That's what Ra's looked like in the end after taking over White Ghost's body....how his spirit taking over the body of another man makes the body TRANSFORM into Ra's is something best left unasked I suppose....the logic of comic books and all that.

Now there are three more issues to be covered before we get to the finale of Chapter One of Morrison's Bat-Saga: "Batman R.I.P" but I don't think I would be doing those issues justice by cramming them in here.  Plus this blog is already long enough...suffice it to say those three issues put the final pieces into play as Bruce Wayne & Batman both crash head-first into The Black Glove.  The mystery of "Space Medicine", "Joe Chill in Hell", and "The Fiend With Nine Eyes" will all be discussed in the next installment of Batman: The Grant Morrison Odyssey, and if I don't ramble too long there, I will finally get into "Batman: R.I.P"....

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