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Grant Morrison’s Run on Batman – Batman & Son, The Black Glove & Batman RIP (Review/Retrospective)

I want to love Grant Morrison’s run on Batman. I really do. And I quite possibly would if I didn’t feel like I wasn’t particularly welcome at this massive gala birthday bash. I’ve decided to review all of Morrison’s run on Batman – collected in the hardback editions of Batman & Son, The Black Glove, two chapters of The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul and Batman R.I.P. – as one, because it is all one story. In fact, I’m sure it’ll turn out to be the opening salvo of a gigantic story that Morrison is weaving where it all ties together, but it might be so massive it’s impossible to review all at once. So, how do I feel after the first act?

Who says parenting isn't tough?

Basically, over the course of the three hardback volumes, Batman discovers he has a son, falls in love with a supermodel, reunites with some old crime fighting chums and discovers he has a mysterious arch nemesis he never noticed before. He also remembers all those weird Silver Age adventures he used to have, where’d go to different planets and see Robin die multiple times. But don’t worry, they were only hallucinations. Some of it plays far better than it sounds like it will (particularly over the first two volumes) and some of it is less epic than it sounds on paper.

I’ve read it twice just to wrap my head around it and it does read better the second time. Clues and references are buried in earlier chapters that aren’t developed until later on in the plot. It is a densely-layoured piece (and one I have only a slight hesitance not to label as epic) and I’m not sure what exactly Grant Morrison is trying to do with Bruce Wayne. I don’t have a problem with reimagining the character – as Bob Kane’s Batman differed from Dick Sprang’s, whose Batman differed from Denny O’Neill’s, whose is different from Frank Miller’s. I’m cool with that. However, Morrison seems to be somewhat less sure of himself, with one eye fixated on the past and another eye looking towards the future.

Batman at the gates of Arkham…

Speaking of the past and the future, I’m quite impressed by the way that Morrison has eschewed the traditional rogues (for the most part – save The Spook or a reimagined Ten-Eyed Man) for his run. I quite like the idea of The Three Ghosts of Batman (again another homage to various aspects of Bat-history), and I think the notion of a covert plan to replace Batman in the case of his death is an interesting one (and one that fits well with the themes of the run). I enjoyed Morrison’s handling of the “novelty act” side of Gotham crime (where Joker wannabes are just a day in the life of a crusader). His Gotham seems to be more than just a place where Batman fights supervillians, it is a city that is tremendously shaped by his presence, as he was shaped by it.

The one traditional rogue that Morrison embraces is The Joker. Indeed, he appears at the very start of the run, and is set up and developed throughout the piece. Morrison shrewdly explains and reconciles the various aspects of the character during his prose piece The Clown at Midnight. While the prose itself was laid on just a little thick and heavy for me, it did offer a wonderful portrayal of the character and tied together various aspects of his run in the comics (it also references other classic Joker encounters and even has room for a sideswipe at Frank Miller – “He simply wants the goddamn Batman to finally get the goddamn joke.”) Tying the character together in such a manner works because of the very nature of the Joker. It’s when Morrison attempts to do the same to Batman that we run into trouble.

Oh, Batman, you're so dark and mysterious and vaguely fascist...

Oh, Batman, you’re so dark and mysterious and vaguely fascist…

While we’re discussing villains, I’m not sure what to make of The Black Glove. We are given next to nothing on the character – a string of names, aliases and roles within Bruce’s life, but we are not told what is true and what is false. And, despite the fine setup in the early arcs (notably introducing The League of Batmen and moving the Joker to where he needs to be), we get the sense that this plot against Batman – which has seemingly been in place for years – is only really a modern thing. As with other attempts to tie it to continuity there’s the suggestion that the plot stopped-and-started, but it’s a very tough sell for Morrison to have us believe The Black Glove is that strong and that insidious. Maybe if there had been another volume of subtle machinations before launching the Batman R.I.P. storyline proper, as he spends Morrison’s run as a spectre in the background before emerging as the big bad – there’s never any sense of prelude or that he is closing in on our hero in any real sense. No sooner has Batman heard the name The Black Glove than the character is right on top of him. He isn’t a particularly interesting antagonist, because we know that the most interesting approach to the character that is suggested over the course of the story would never be allowed to be carried out.

The story is laced with all sorts of references and tips of the hat to earlier adventures. It’s no secret that Morrison has a soft spot for the excesses of the Silver Age. In fairness, I dig most of Morrison’s homages. Any modern writer who can work Aunt Agatha and Batmite into the Modern Age of Batman knows what he’s doing. I loved the re-introduction of The Batmen of All Nations in probably the best arc of Morrison’s run, even taken in isolation. I am also relatively cool with his introduction of Damian – it makes sense in context and is a particularly well-executed move on the chessboard. Morrison wants his arc to go somewhere and he is skillfully rigging the pieces. He even throws in references to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, referencing that Christian Bale growl that criminals fear and film critics mock.

Super-friends?

On the other hand, certain elements left me more than a little cold. The use of vintage wacky Silver Age tales like Robin Dies at Dawn or Batman: The Superman of Planet-X as anchor-points in his arc comes a little out of left field, particularly when the concepts are introduced with little or no lead up (Morrison seemingly believing that stories written in 1958 and 1963 serve as all the lead-in necessary). Not only that, he massively retcons these adventures as hallucinations by Batman while undergoing isolation experiments.

I appreciate what Morrison is trying to do here – he’s trying to reconcile the modern Batman with the more zany Caped Crusader of the Silver Age – but he doesn’t do it with near enough finesse. One gets the sense that the story could have been told without the clunky references and would have flowed the better for it. If Morrison is attempting to reinvent the character, he might have done better to emulate Geoff John’s superior rehabilitation of the Green Lantern, which embraces the crazier aspects of the hero, but rationalises them through reiteration rather than reference. Unfortunately I don’t believe that seventy years of backstory can be so easily reconciled without locking out those new to the party, and some times it’s necessary to strip down the story.

You must be joking…

For all Morrison’s fidelity, we get the sense that he really wants to retell the origin of Batman and craft an overarching logical explanation for everything. Batman R.I.P. finishes with an epilogue where Batman began – and offers us a logical origin for the control phrase Zur-En-Arrh. Morrison gives us a fragmented and incomplete (and unsatisfying) look at Batman’s early years in Joe Chill in Hell. But he is seemingly unwilling to completely own the character in a way that telling an overarching plot requires. Instead of commandeering the character and re-crafting the origin and early years to fit his story, Morrison attempts to make his work fit as part of a large jigsaw puzzle. It means that not only does his conception contrast sharply and greatly with what he attempts to put it alongside, but it also feels somewhat… incomplete.

I’m not sure about his Bruce Wayne. I loved the humanising touches evident at the start of the run and the excellent banter between Alfred and Bruce about holidaying and being an international playboy is light and fluffy. It’s nice to see a writer who hasn’t forgotten that Bruce is human. There are some nice internal monologues from Bruce (while fighting the Man-Bats, for example) which show a welcome wit, but also shows the thought processes that make Batman such a compelling hero. In fact, preparation is what ties Batman together and Morrison smartly makes this a recurring theme within his work – in fact the first shot of Bruce at the Manor is him going through a daily workout regime – so that we buy that Batman practices escaping from coffins and straitjackets all the time.

Body of evidence…

However, his Batman goes nuts fairly quickly – particularly after Morrison goes to great efforts to show how human he is. The actions of the Batman personality near the conclusion of the arc really wouldn’t look out of place within Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin line – and that Batman is craaazy…. Morrison makes us believe that this character remains calm under the pressure of a dozen Man-Bats sweeping the Tate modern, but goes over the edge that quickly? I don’t quite buy it.

Still, I quite like some of the nostalgic touches of Morrison’s run. Like the scene where Spanish-themed death trap designer El Sombrero places Robin in a death trap while bemoaning the modern lack of creativity in today’s supervillains (offering “an old time experience … courtesy of El Sombrero.”) Or the notion of the Black Casebook, as a way of explaining away some of the wackiness (vampires/aliens/ghosts) of earlier runs. That might have been all that was required, but Morrison goes far too deep.

Explosive action…

It doesn’t help that the climax of the story – Batman R.I.P. itself – seems somewhat forced. All these blows against Batman – on his family’s legacy, on his friends – are landed in rapid succession out of nowhere despite the fact Morrison has foreshadowed a great deal. In fact it’s the elements that Morrison does foreshadow – for example, the red and the black, Jezebel Jet, the Joker’s transformation – that pay off. The Joker’s finale with Batman (using new Joker venom introduced earlier in the run) and his subsequent verbal smackdown of the Club of Villains (stating they’ll never beat Batman) are the highlights of the book, though there are several smaller elements that also entertain (Batman going to an underworld custom tailor for information, for example). However, the threat feels more than a little villain ex machina.

I just… I don’t buy the death. Not in the sense that I don’t believe he won’t be back – I know he’ll be back – but that I don’t see how Morrison’s run has so exhausted the character that his death is necessary or justifiable. Or why The Black Glove is a villain fit to bury the character. I think it was extremely cheap of Morrison and DC to ‘hold over’ the ‘actual’ death of the character to Final Crisis, but that’s not my problem. I just don’t see any reason for the death or removal of the character. Morrison’s arc is full of meaning and hidden messages – but I see no meaning in the demise of the character. In fact, before any resurrection has been officially confirmed, Morrison has already paved the way, articulating the suggestion of “the survival of the mind beyond the death of the body” during his two issues of The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul (virtually the only thing of note in that arc).

Batman's lucky he doesn't die of pneumonia in that rain...

Batman’s lucky he doesn’t die of pneumonia in that rain…

Still, Morrison is a skilled writer and the artists are generally top notch. In particular the work of J.H. Williams on the Batmen of All Nations storyline is fantastic – right down to speckling the flashback panels for that authentic retro- feel. I honestly found myself enjoying his first two hardcovers – Batman & Son and The Black Glove – more than the climax and finale. Still, I’m hearing good things about Morrison’s continued run with the character, so it might be worth a look in.

I do think that this superplot that Morrison is weaving does have a massive potential, despite the obvious flaws in the work. For me the most interesting individual chapter in Morrison’s arc (so far, at least) is his Elseworlds-esque future-based epilogue Bethleham, which sees a grown-up Damian as Batman having sold his soul to protect Gotham. In a way that grants closure to some of the more interesting threats Morrison has developed, he encounters the third of the Three Ghosts at the central hotel in Gotham (Hotel Bethleham). The episode, though interestingly written and well-drawn, makes little to no sense at the moment beyond tantilising hints it offers of a deal that Damian will make with the devil. One of the five crimelords murdered in the opening pages of the issue – Professor Pyg – as been introduced in the ‘present’ by Morrison during his run on Batman & Robin, so I’m eager to see the issue play out. It hints at a well-developed and conceived plot that we will hopefully get to see executed in full.

Damian is a little devil…

I’ll be on board for the next run, but so far Morrison hasn’t quite delivered a masterpiece for the caped crusader. He’s too focused on the past, when the promise lies in the future. Maybe that promise will be fulfilled when Morrison is writing without having to worry about Bruce’s 70 years as Batman.

You might enjoy our other reviews and explorations of Grant Morrison’s Batman-related works:

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4 Responses

  1. wow. From my outsider P.ov. I’m currently trying to make sense of this run.

    I started, reviewed Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul http://shigekuni.wordpress.com/2009/07/09/detective-grant-morrisons-batman-the-resurrection-of-ras-al-ghul/

    and The Black Glove

    (http://shigekuni.wordpress.com/2010/03/07/batty-grant-morrisons-%E2%80%9Cbatman-the-black-glove%E2%80%9D/

    and plan to do more. I think I like this much more than you, but I’m not altogether sure.

    • Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy it. I loved the first two volumes (collected in Batman & Son and The Black Hand), but Batman R.I.P. itself just seems too far… out there for me. I get what Morrison is attempting to do, but it just seems more than a little insular and, in my humble opinion, isn’t the best fit for the character. I realise that Morrison is pointing out that the character has his roots in the kind of grand pulpy tales that resemble the one being told, but it feels a little bit too comfortable with itself and its in-jokes and references. A lot of that bad taste comes from the fact that Morriosn didn’t kill the character in his own book, making the arc a little pointless, but also that it just seems like a high concept for the sake of a high concept. It’s somewhat ironic that Morrison should claim to be striving for a clean slate with Batman & Robin (he’s repeatedly hammered home he wants an open-to-all style of storytelling), but ties this chapter up in a ridiculous amount of continuity.

      It’s a lot simpler than what Morrison was doing, but I actually far preferred Paul Dini’s run on the character.

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