Friday, August 2, 2013

The End of Grant Morrison's Batman

To Infinity...And Beyond!
Okay, that's not the best caption I've ever come up with, so sue me. You try conjuring up a snarky, sarcastic summation of a cover like that. Anyway...

2013 has seen the debut of two comics issues within the last few months. These issues, while written by two different scribes, have nonetheless concluded two-long running associations with a pair of DC Comics' great icons. The first was May's Green Lantern #20, which closed out Geoff Johns' decade-long redefining of the Emerald Warrior. The second was this week's Batman Incorporated #13. With its publication came the end of the multi-book yarn which Scottish writer Grant Morrison has been spinning since the Summer of 2006.

In the larger context of Morrison's run, it's the end of Act 4, with Acts 1-3 being represented by his multi-part arcs on Batman (Vol. 1), Batman and Robin (Vol. 1), and Batman Incorporated (Vol. 1) respectively. With only Multiversity and Wonder Woman: Earth One in the pipeline, Morrison has made it clear that he's finished with the super-hero genre for the foreseeable future. He's been doing it for a quarter of a century now and I don't blame him for quitting. That exit is perhaps reflected in his turn towards independent projects and in the hopeful, yet paradoxically cynical tone of his finale.

Before continuing any further, I want to make several things clear: I'm not the biggest fan of Grant Morrison's writing style, his love of meta-commentary, or his particular interpretation of the Dark Knight Detective. The problem for me is that Morrison writes Batman as a super-hero. Now, you're probably giving me a look from your computers or mobile devices. "James," you're also probably asking, "How is that possibly different than anyone else writing stories about a man who fights crime and injustice dressed up like a bat?"

Well, Bob and Alice, it's quite simple: Everyone has their own distinct interpretation of these icons and their mythologies. These exposures to the DC icons are grounded in the reader's individual circumstances: their age, their gender, their culture, etc. My personal views on Aquaman, the Flash and Green Lantern are, for example, heavily influenced by Johns' successful runs with Arthur Curry, Wally West (and to a lesser extent, Barry Allen), and Hal Jordan. Johns was writing them at the same time I began delving into comics or after I'd become a fan of his own writing style. Remember, I follow creators these days -- not characters.

In Batman's case, I grew up with Bruce Timm and Paul Dini's Batman: The Animated Series and I was later blown away by Jeph Loeb's Batman: The Long Halloween -- which to this day remains my favorite Batman story. The end result of this exposure is that I have a preference for scribes like Scott Snyder, Loeb, or Dini. The common thread linking the trio is that they write Batman as a detective first and foremost -- albeit a costumed one. And to be fair, Morrison's exposure to Batman was through the globe-trotting adventures of Denis O'Neil in the 1970's and the crazy escapades of the 1960's. That in turn influenced his interpretation and other elements (like the heavy usage of Ra's and Talia al Ghul).

I think I'm also just sick of Batman being written as the omniscient 'Bat-God' who can out-think anyone and prepare for any and all contingencies. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's been taken to ridiculous levels since Morrison introduced that concept during JLA back in the 1990's. I think the point where I gave up on his narrative (before coming back during Batman and Robin for the resolution of the Dr. Hurt mystery) was the climax of Act 1 (Batman RIP). There, Batman created an alternate personality in the event that he came under mental attack.

Again, I know these are super-hero comics and that anything's possible in this genre when your protagonist has been dressing like a flying rodent since 1939. But the whole Batman of Zur-En-Arrh backup personality...that was ridiculous even to someone like me who knew Morrison was reinterpreting a 1950's story. Ultimately, I prefer Bats being a sneaky b****** who, for all his cunning and gadgets, is still only human. That's why Snyder's Court of Owls saga was great, because Bruce felt like he was in over his head and in serious trouble for the first time in a while.

So, I hope that answers the first question. Of course, the inevitable second question thus follows:  "Why are you even writing about Morrison's finale if you don't count the Scotsman's stories among your favorite Batman incarnations?" Well, the thing is, the final battle in the Batcave between Bruce and Talia (and later Jason Todd and Kathy Kane) is rife with symbolism and meta-commentary. In this instance at least, Morrison offers meta-commentary that I can't quite bring myself to disagree with.

Let's compare Morrison's opening chapter (Batman #655) with his last. The Ouroboros -- the emblem of the Leviathan organization -- has been prevalent throughout Acts 3 and 4 and the image of a serpent devouring its own tail, of coming full circle, is fitting. I love symmetrical storytelling and Morrison's tenure opened with the viewpoint of Commissioner Gordon. Now, it closes with the same POV. The opening arc also depicted Batman vs. Talia with Damian Wayne caught in the middle. While Damian died five months ago, this extended climax has been the same: A father against a mother with their son a casualty of the crossfire.

In addition to the thematic imagery, Talia and Kathy Kane's observations in the Batcave are indicative of what I think are the Scotsman's viewpoints on the franchise. Seven years ago, Morrison set out to alter the Batman paradigm and iconography, to move Bruce Wayne away from the grim, almost hopeless tone that had been prevalent since Frank Miller's stories in the 1980's. He tried to celebrate the long history of the character and the more outlandish elements while trying to move him beyond the solitary avenger of the night. His run followed Infinite Crisis, which promised to be the last iteration of the paranoid, fascist Batman. So, it seemed like he had a chance.

For a while, though I didn't agree with it, it seemed to work and culminated with Bruce franchising the Batman mantle globally (which is still stupid given it opened a Pandora's box of legal liability for Batman-related damage, but whatever). Now, however, the pendulum has swung back the other way thanks to the dictates of DC and the darker tone being overseen by Snyder and the other writers. Everything Morrison built up over the last decade has been systematically torn down during Act 4. Damian and Talia are dead and Batman Inc. has been gutted. In essence, the serpent has come full circle and Morrison has been forced to reset the status quo for the next generation of Batman writers.

Talia's observations are also important because it's meta-commentary which is absolutely correct. By nature of being a corporate owned superhero in a serialized medium, Batman is like the Ouroboros. Bruce is trapped in a self-sustaining loop. His story will never end and he can never die. Robins come and go, but Bruce Wayne will always ultimately always be the one to wear the Cowl. He will always be fighting mobsters and madmen in the mud of Gotham. He will always take the worst punishment and get back up  -- a trait that is equal parts blessing and curse as interpreted by Morrison in this finale. It's almost as if he's mocking the readership and the companies that release these stories.

In that vein, the franchise will continually cannibalize itself for new stories (a similar theme Morrison explored with the Sheeda in Seven Soldiers of Victory). He even deliberately ended his run with a "To Be Continued" and loose ends. For example, Ra's recovered the bodies of Damian and Talia. And though we haven't seen him since 2010, the immortal Dr. Hurt is still buried alive in a grave courtesy of the Joker. Someone will seize on those threads and when that happens, the cycle will begin anew. After all, Morrison seized on both O'Neill's stories and the 1950's stories for Dr. Hurt, the Black Glove, the Club of Heroes, and Damian. Every Batman story that can be told within the confines of the mythology and the corporate guidelines has been told and will be retold in some, unending fashion.

Yet, for better and for worse, like Bruce, we keep coming back for more adventures in Gotham City.

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