Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Grant Morrison’s Run on Batman – Time & The Batman (Review)

December is “Grant Morrison month” here at the m0vie blog, as we take the month to consider and reflect on one of the most critically acclaimed (and polarising) authors working in the medium. Every Wednesday this month, we’ll have a Grant Morrison related review or retrospective.

I have, I’m not entirely ashamed to admit, grown quite fond of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman. Despite the fact I’m still not overly fond of Batman R.I.P., I really appreciated The Return of Bruce Wayne and Batman & Robin was perhaps the most fun I’ve had reading comics in quite a long time. So I found myself somewhat underwhelmed by Time and the Batman, collecting Morrison’s work on Batman #700 and the two-issue follow-up that served to make explicit the ties between Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis. It’s not that the book isn’t packed with ideas or even that it’s quite short. I think it’s more that Morrison seems to spend a lot of time here providing exposition and filling in information that perhaps couldn’t fit elsewhere in this tapestry.

Joker puts the gang back together…

I’m not implying that Morrison’s work beforehand really needed anybody to fill in the gaps. It’s a frequent criticism of the author that he’s too opaque, but I appreciate that he challenges his readers and isn’t afraid to be too outlandish or off-the-wall or insane. In a mainstream genre (and a mainstream character) that so frequently run the risk of becoming stale, that is quite an accomplishment, and something to be celebrated. Even if I have problems with the story Morrison is writing (and I have a few), I genuinely adore the energy and the enthusiasm that you can sense in these tales – the sense that Morrison is stretching the modern concept of Batman just a little bit, playing outside the stereotypical comfort zones.

Being honest, I get the sense that this might be my problem with these issue. Morrison spends a lot of time making explicit what was effectively implied across the rest of his work. The Return of Bruce Wayne made explicit what Doctor Hurt was, but in an almost poetic way – a manner which prompted a bit of thought and creativity (and, of course, suspension of disbelief) from the read. Here we’re told straight-up exactly what he is. Sure, it’s nice Morrison puts the information in “a storm of shrieking ad jingles from hell”, but it just makes it seem more like Morrison is spending a lot of time explaining in more detail ridiculous concepts that he articulated perfectly clearly before.

Bruce is not well…

The revelation, for example, that Darkseid’s “god-bullet” is the “essence of bullet” or “the blueprint, the template for every bullet that had ever been” seems a bit redundant. We get the symbolism of Batman, who has renounced the gun, firing that one shot at Darkseid. That sort of “magic bullet” is one of those great high concepts that you don’t need to spell out for the audience – as a ridiculous comic book idea, it’s fairly self-evident.

Similarly, we get that Morrison’s Return of Bruce Wayne was about the writer escorting Batman through a parade of archetypes that combine to form him, we really don’t need the importance of archetypes in such loud detail. Batman tells us that “everything had a thousand extra layers of meaning”, which seems a little bit on-the-nose. “How many times in history has this moment played out?” Batman asks us, when we were asking the exact same question well over a year beforehand.

Sink or swim time…

Of course, I am probably being harsh. Morrison has every right to expand on and explain his story. There are some wonderful gems contained in here, but I’m still not entirely comfortable with spending so much time essentially going back over what has already been explained to us in minute detail. I don’t doubt that I’ll go back and re-read the entire run and – no longer seeking to surge forward to Morrison’s next brilliant idea – I’ll be able to appreciate this chapter in the saga for what it was, but I am still more than a little disappointed.

It doesn’t help matters that Morrison’s work on the 700th issue of the Batman comic book seems unfairly compressed compared to the issues that followed. While the writer spends two issues blending Batman R.I.P. into Final Crisis, he has a thirty-odd-page story to tell a murder mystery stretched across three distinct time periods, all while celebrating a significant milestone in the career of the Caped Crusader. Reading it, it feels almost like too much happens too fast – the issue just flies by. As with most of Morrison’s work, there’s enough depth to demand more than a couple of re-reads, but I found myself just sitting there and asking, “Is that it?”

Better the Damian you know?

As I said, perhaps I’m being too harsh. There was a lot I loved. Perhaps my favourite part of R.I.P.: The Missing Chaptergod, it sounds like a direct-to-DVD movie, doesn’t it? – is the way that Morrison acknowledges that Batman is somewhat unique among the big players within the DC Universe. When the skies turn red (as seems to be mandatory for big events like this), Batman asks Alfred, “How soon before we hear from someone who can fly?”

After Superman requests his assistance, Bruce muses, “I’ve worked so hard to gain their respect, they sometimes forget I’m flesh and blood.” Batman is entirely mortal, and he’s simply not accustomed to the sorts of situations that Morrison delights putting him in. “This is your world,” he informs Superman in his last recording. “I trained to fight crime in the streets.” He’s prepared for all that world can offer “but this world of gods and aliens… it’s hard to prepare for this.”

Well, I suppose, no time like the present…

Interestingly enough, that’s probably why Morrison has taken such joy throwing Batman in at the deep end during his run. There are several decades of stories featuring Batman fighting “crime in the streets”, so it feels reasonable for Morrison to be more fascinated with taking the Caped Crusader out of his element. Even little moments, like trying to disable an alien foe reveal how Batman is out of his depth here. “I tried to kill the nerve cluster in her wrist,” he explains. “But Kraken had no nerve cluster in her wrist.”

Morrison’s Batman is such a ridiculous badass that it seems easy to overlook his mortality and the fact that he is “only human.” Throughout Morrison’s time writing Batman, Final Crisis and even Justice League of America, the character has faced down threats to the entire planet without so much as blinking. It’s nice to get a little insight into the character and just how out of place he feels amongst the big players. To Morrison, it’s that humanity which defines the character, that makes him so absolutely fascinating. He’s creating “a myth where Ultimate Evil turns its gaze on humanity and humanity gazes right back and says… ‘gotcha.'”

He’s a survivor, he’s not gonna give up…

There’s also a lot of Morrison’s Batman #700 to enjoy, even if it feels far too short. We get one storyline set across three time periods, as well as a number of epilogues which illustrate that Batman cannot die. I recognise, of course, the shoutouts to Batman Beyond, and my googling informs me that the other single one-page teasers also draw from the rich tapestry of Batman’s history. There’s even a reference to The Dark Knight Returns that sneaks into the middle section of the story as Dick faces down “the mutants” on Crime Alley.

The beginning and the end of Batman’s story, both coexisting in perfect harmony – as Morrison draws from Frank Miller’s opening and closing acts to Bruce’s life. I also like the use of the “maybe machine” as a way to suggest that all these futures are just possibilities – like Alan Moore’s cheeky “imaginary stories” bit from Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Given the fact that I felt pretty uncomfortable with Morrison tying Batman R.I.P. to a selection of obscure issues from the sixties, is it wrong that I love the manner in which the writer is tying together various iterations of Batman?

Is Bruce going to cave under the pressure?

I love that he borrows the imagery of the well from Batman Begins, a portion of the mythos I haven’t seen beforehand. I actually smiled as the writer managed to incorporate Chief O’Hara from Batman! into the issue as well, without ever drawing too much attention to it. The Adam West television show is derided for its camp, but Batman would be nearly as iconic without it. Still, I appreciate the effort Morrison makes here to ensure that the references aren’t intrusive – whether or not you recognise Chief O’Hara, you can still follow the scene.

Those opening eight pages feature the best art by Tony Daniel that I have ever seen, and they are perhaps the strongest of the entire collection. I love the way that Morrison manages to at once acknowledge the camp era of Batman and also end it, all in under ten pages. I would love to see that extended to an issue’s length, but it’s stunning how the story goes from “wacky sixties time travel adventure” to “Gordon and a heavily armed SWAT team” so fast, and so effectively. You know that the bright and cheerful era of Batman is over when the hero knocks out several of the Riddler’s teeth. The Riddler made the mistake of calling  him “Caped Crusader”, leading Batman to interrupt him mid “Riddle me th–“ In humourless fashion, Batman growls, “Don’t call me that again!”

Joke’s on Robin…

The transformation is beautifully personified by the Joker, who undergoes the personality shift that Morrison suggested back (or forward) in The Clown at Midnight. As the “Clown Prince” ingests a cocktail of Joker venom and Scarecrow gas, his mood changes immediately. He’s no longer the handy-go-lucky prankster of the fifties and sixties, he’s suddenly Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. “I promise to put a big cheeky smile on that baby face as soon as the rush lets up!” he declares, only a few words away from “let’s put a smile on that face!”

The anniversary issues allows gives Morrison an excuse to revisit the possible future he presented way back in Batman #666, with Damian succeeding his father and Dick Grayson in the cowl. While that original issue played on classic Batman ideas, his return to the time period is a practical Batman nostalgia fest, with the piece’s villain (2-Face-2) serving as a pretty efficient Batman villain greatest hits cover band. “Monster Serum, Joker venom, calendar names,” Damian list off his foe’s routine, which also includes facial scarring and (two) coins, as well as experiments on police officers and a child sitting on his knee like a ventriloquist dummy. “No ideas of your own?”

Mad as Hatter?

“I don’t invent,” 2-face-2 responds. “I innovate.” Perhaps the same could be said of Morrison’s run. Although the creator has steered clear of most of Batman’s well-known foes (save the Joker and small roles for the Red Hood, Catwoman, the Penguin, Man-Bat and Talia Al-Ghul), Morrison has taken great joy in reworking various classical and established pieces of the Batman mythos to create something which seems fresh and new.

For example, this issue alone reintroduces Carter Nichols, a scientist who helped Batman in the Silver Age. It also reintroduces the “tediously sane” imposter Mad Hatter from the fifties and sixties. By the way, while we’re listing random things I love about Morrison’s run, I love the fact that this Mad Hatter’s obsession with hats to the point of sending Batman back in time to recover “the brim size of Alexander the Great” renders him “tediously sane”in comparison to the rest of Batman’s foes.

Burning down the house…

It’s interesting that, as the title implies, the story affords Batman a chance to reflect on his origin and whether – in the magical world of the DC Universe – Batman would ever take the chance to change things as they unfolded. “Time is pliable,” comes the revelation at the end of The Missing Chapter, as Batman reflects on how he has shaped his own destiny through time-travel. And yet Batman remains curiously stoic when Robin wonders if he could ever save his parents. “Robin,” he explains to his ward, “There never was a choice. We are what we are, and we can’t change what already happened.”

There’s a hint that it’s some sense of responsibility which grounds this perspective. This Batman would, after all, use time travel to go fifteen minutes back in time and phone a tip to the GCPD, so why not go back and save his parents? Perhaps because it would mean that his world would never exist – a sense of responsibility that few time travellers in fiction acknowledge, the fact that altering any event impacts millions of lives that co-exist along with your own. As the Joker points out, if Batman could stop Joe Chill, it would “undo his own creation.” And the consequences to others would be deadly.

Batman and his alleys…

“But even then,” Robin muses, “Tony Zucco would still kill my mum and dad, right? Maybe I’d have become Batman. And what would happen to all the people we’ve saved…?” Bruce would never ask Dick to take that weight on his shoulders. It’s highly likely that, even in adulthood, Bruce was reluctant to see Dick take the Batman mantle, and to ask him to become Batman on his own while Bruce lived happily ever after seems incredibly selfish.

There are some strange moments. While it’s nice to see Frank Quitely back drawing Dick and Damian, it’s a shame he couldn’t finish his section. Instead, the wonderful Scott Kolins fills in, but in a weird style that looks quite at odds with what came before. One senses that the type of work Kolins did on The Flash might have been better suited to blend with Quitely’s quirky illustrations.

The Joker’s looking at YOU… yes, actually YOU…

By the way, as a sidenote as I finish up, I couldn’t help thinking of Colin Smith’s excellent critique of Batman & Robin as I read this issue. Always with more insight than anybody else in the room, Colin was quick to observe the reckless nature of Dick’s torture of a criminal (and Gordon’s complicity in the action). It’s a good piece, and one I couldn’t help thinking of as I read Dick remark in a rather fascist tone, “Spread the word. We’re watching you.” For the record, while Colin makes great arguments, I don’t see a major moral difference in Gordon passively condoning Dick riding a suspect through the streets of Gotham or using information Bruce got by dangling a perp off a rooftop, threatening to drop them.

In the world of comic books, either action is equally unlikely to end in death for the poor suspect involved, and they’re both rather blunt forms of coercion – the kind of thing that deserves condemnation in the real world, like a police officer recklessly discharging his firearm or tampering with a bomb before the bomb squad arrives (as frequently happens at the climax of a given action movie), but the type of irresponsibility which the laws of narrative seem to vindicate.

Three-in-one…

Time and the Batman isn’t bad. It’s quite fun and diverting and energetic, but it feels pretty much like filler – as if Morrison suddenly felt his Batman ideas were moving too quickly and he suddenly needed to slow down to let us all catch up. There are plenty of books out there moving at a slow pace, I don’t need Grant Morrison’s work to be among them.

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

Advertisements

4 Responses

  1. I loved Batman #700, probably my favorite issue of Grant’s whole run, sadly Time and the Batman (while a great title) just feels like an obvious cash-grab by DC. It’s too bad, #700 deserved to be connected to a stronger collection of stories, but I guess there was no better fit.
    Come omnibus time, which I think starts around Feb-Mar for Grant’s run, justice will be done for it.

    By the way, do yourself a favor and grab Batman: The Black Mirror. I got it over the weekend and loved the heck out of it. Really strong Dick as Batman story, almost rivals the Batman and Robin run.

    • Thanks Kyle! It should actually be in the post at the moment, but I don’t plan to review it until my Batman-ithon in July next year. I’ve been digging through my Batman media to find some fun stuff. Knee-deep in englehart/Rogers Batman now, and loving it.

      The Grant Morrison omnibus is inevitable – though I can’t fathow why they omnibus’ed the Invisibles before Doom Patrol or Animal Man. Still, I wonder if the upcoming Batman vs. The Black Glove will start it, or if it’s merely an oversized hardcover to collect the two standard-sized hardcovers. I’d expect an omnibus to cover Batman & Son through Batman R.I.P including the Lost Chapter here, a second volume for Batman & Robin and Return of Bruce Wayne, and a third for Batman Inc. But that might make too much sense.

  2. I loved Time and the Batman, but only because I love seeing modern stories with Dick Grayson as Robin. I always forget how ridiculous he was in comparison to the other Robins, what with the pants and all that.

    • Yep. What were they thinking? And you kinda figure the first thing they would have done after the whole Seduction of the Innocent deal would have been to give the athletic teenager who spends all his time with the reclusive billionaire a nice set of leggings at least.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: