To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.
Criminals used to be afraid because they didn’t know where Batman was. Things are different now. Thanks to Batman Incorporated, I can tell you exactly where Batman is. Batman is everywhere.
– Bruce Wayne, Batman Incorporated #6
I’ll admit to warming to Grant Morrison’s gigantic Batman epic. Sure, I don’t think it ranks with All-Star Superman or New X-Men or even Seven Soldiers as the very best of the writer’s mainstream work. It’s still immensely fun comics. I’ll concede that I’m still only lukewarm on his initial continuity-heavy Batman run, but the combination of his Batman & Robin and his Return of Bruce Wayne were some of the most entertaining comics produced by a major comic book company in the past few years. (Certainly the only other mainstream book that could match Morrison’s energy was Paul Cornell’s severely underrated Action Comics run.) While Batman Incorporated never quite reaches those same pulpy highs, it is a massively entertaining and very astute pulp narrative featuring one of the most enduring pop culture creations of the twentieth century.
Crime beware! Wherever you are, Batman is watching!
– Announcement, Batman Incorporated #2
Of course, I know that I’ll probably look back at this collection after I finish Morrison’s Leviathan and have a massive epiphany about how truly excellent it is. After all, Batman Incorporated is mainly set-up and misdirection. It’s beginning to look like you could divide Morrison’s Batman work into a three-act structure. I know the author has stated that he didn’t have it all planned from the outset, but I think you can divide his tenure on the character into three distinct sections, all connected through the writer’s themes and continuity of plot, but each with its own distinct identity. If his Batman and Final Crisis represented the introductory salvo, and Batman & Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne provided the escalation, Batman Incorporated and Leviathan are undoubtedly the conclusion and culmination.
Like pretty much any Morrison book, Batman Incorporated is bristling with ideas and concepts that can barely be contained within the narrative. I would sincerely suggest that Batman Incorporated #6 might be one of the best single issues of the past couple of years, so tightly packed with suggestion and observation about the nature and character of Batman. While I won’t pretend that Morrison is writing a classical Batman story that evokes everything people associate with the character, I would suggest that he is writing a classic Batman story that seeks to reconcile many of the inherently contradictory aspects of the superhero and play them out to their logical conclusions. In this respect, Morrison’s Batman reminds me of his New X-Men run, which is my favourite of the author’s mainstream work, even if I accept it is flawed and I’m in the minority on this.
Reading Batman Incorporated, it’s interesting how many of Morrison’s core ideas and themes come to the fore. I don’t want to talk about “recycling” or “reusing”, because that implies a lack of originality. Rather, Morrison has a very clear preference towards certain ideas, and you can see them echoing throughout his work, like familiar notes reverberating across a musician’s discography. Morrison has used notions like “viral ideas” in his Batman run before (with Batman & Robin featuring an addiction that innocents can catch), and those familiar with the writer will reference a thematic resonance with the rest of the author’s impressive bibliography.
There is, for example, the writer’s fondness to lean rather heavily on the fourth wall. It is telling that Doctor Dedalus and Leviathan have just constructed a series of bombs around the world. They’ve built “meta-bombs.” Lucius Fox discovers a “metamineral.” El Gaucho and Batman find themselves investigating a real novel written by a fictional author, even investigating the death of a character who never existed. It’s all quite clever, and Morrison writes with a wonderful self-awareness. Stories within stories, fiction within fiction.
Morrison’s Batman is more than Bruce Wayne – although Bruse is an essential ingredient, as Doctor Hurt found out in his attempts to build a substitute. Like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, Morrison’s Batman is an idea. The Return suggested, a book that really should have been included in this collection, Batman is an idea that exists to counter the idea of crime. “And if he didn’t exist,” Wayne tells reporters, “well… I guess we’d just have to invent him.” Batman isn’t born, or made, he is invented, created. He’s not just flesh and blood. He is, to quote Nolan’s Ra’s Al Ghul, “more than just a man.”
As the sinister Doctor Dedalus asks Leviathan, “You’ve heard the rumour the Dark Knight has become a kind of god?” Morrison’s works generally feature a sort of ascension, the idea that humanity will evolve or grow – a concept expressed through the idea in his Justice League run and his Final Crisis that Earth will be the “fifth world” and humanity will be the new new gods. As the most human of the superheroes, it seems that Batman Incorporated is the story of Batman transcending his mortality. Indeed, Bruce seems to lead by example. Not only is he empowering other heroes, Dick remarks that even the public seem inspired by his example. “People are buying shares in Wayne,” Dick boasts. “They want to be part of this.” It seems like Batman’s victory in Leviathan is assured when Leviathan makes one fatal miscalculation. Responding to her Dedalus, she insists, “He’s only a man.”
The idea of Leviathan itself will seem familiar, and not just because Morrison has already used the name in Seven Soldiers. The sinister cult-like brainwashing that the organises uses to induct new members can’t help but evoke Morrison’s version of Darkseid’s anti-life equation from Final Crisis. The particulars might be different, with anti-life treated as a formula rather than a philosophy, but the fascist philosophy of the organisation corrupting passive and innocent minds seems like familiar modus operandi. “Leviathan is the answer to all our questions!” a young class is informed. “Beyond lies! Beyond false gods! There is Leviathan!”
As with the rest of Morrison’s Batman work, a lot of the more conventional and expected Batman tropes get left behind. Much like during the author’s original Batman run, we get a handwaved explanation for why none of the traditional bad guys will be popping in. Bruce assures us, “The Joker’s in deep security lockdown at Arkham. Everyone else will get the message and keep their heads below the parapet.” I honestly don’t mind – there are a million and one other Batman books where readers can get Two-Face or the Joker, after all. Morrison’s story is much more intriguing and exciting than all that. I find it interesting how firmly Morrison rejects the classical wisdom of what a Batman story should look like, at least using the template set by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns and Year One.
Indeed, Morrison makes a pretty clever argument for the need for more imagination and creativity in mainstream comic books, instead of playing out tired concepts again and again. The central villain of this act of the story is Doctor Dedalus, an ageing supervillain suffering from Alzheimer’s. “Every day the doctors come to the terrible man on the island,” we’re told. “Every day they ask the same questions, and his answers never change.” It feels like a criticism of superhero comics, stuck in the same holding pattern again and again, acting out the same plots and struggles, but never truly progressing – and many afraid to really offer the illusion of progression. It feels somewhat fitting that Batman’s enemy is “the never-ending ring”, the image of a snake eating its own tale.
Doctor Dedalus complains to Batman, “Each time we meet you say the same.” While Morrison’s run contains several none-too-subtle jabs at Miller’s Batman, he also seems to take a bit of a shot at Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the book that really redefined the genre. Morrison is on record of not being too fond of it, and – while I certainly wouldn’t agree – I think that he does correctly identify it as a book that really confined the genre, and set editorial limits around what a superhero comic should be Dedalus himself is caught in a repeating homage to Adrian Veidt. “He will tell his captors they are too late to stop what he has begun,” we’re assured. Later, he boasts, “Why would I even tell you unless it was already far too late for you, my friend.”
Still, for all Morrison makes astute criticisms about how Batman has allowed himself to get stuck in this repeating loop, Morrison clearly has a lot of love and affection for the iconography of the character – including that really defined by Miller. He falls back on the image of the pearls and the gun time and again, but he just re-works them in new and exciting ways, rather than simply running through the motions. The villains construct “a ring around the earth,” and Doctor Dedalus explains, “I have hung a necklace of deadly meta-bombs around the world like precious pearls.” Morrison’s Batman isn’t about breaking completely from the past. Instead, it’s about finding a way to rework these archetypes and images to create some new cocktail.
Discussing the aforementioned “metamineral”, Lucius explains, “Brunnian Ring Hyperstructures can be applied to molecules to make them form exotic kinds of matter. Think of gas, solid, liquid, plasma… then something new.” In a way, he’s talking about Batman. Morrison’s The Return of Bruce Wayne set Batman against a “hyper-adaptor”, but it’s really an expression of how Morrison sees the character, about how Batman himself can really be anything from camp crusader to time traveller to pulp detective to full-on superhero and everything in between. Morrison’s Batman Incorporated has some clever new ideas, but it does draw on a rich vein of history – just from outside the field of reference that many modern writers of Batman comics might favour.
Hell, Morrison even explores how far you can stretch the concept of Batman when we join Man-of-Bats trying to police an Indian Reservation. I adore his version of “The Bat’s Cave”, essentially a shed of cheesy trophies serving as a tourist trap, charging admission to raise funds for good causes. He even has a giant Wooden Nickel instead of Two-Face’s coin. “It doesn’t have to take millions, does it?” Bruce muses as he studies the small wooden shack. “The idea works. Batman on a budget.”
In fairness to Morrison, as well, the author seems to acknowledge the legitimate criticism of his central premise. Batman Incorporated does take away from the notion of Batman as loner who can do it all himself, and creates an army of copies and substitutes. While Morrison constructs a convincing argument, he does concede that some fans might not like the idea of an international corps of Batmen. He has characters frame arguments about it. “Name one situation where we’d need her and not Batman,”Bruce challenges Kathy Kane, the first imitator in a Batman costume.
“Since when could just anybody do what we trained to do?” Robin laments. “Even the dog’s wearing a mask! It makes it all dumb instead of special. Like it doesn’t matter anymore.” Truth be told, there’s some logic to the position. While I acknowledge the genius of “the first truth of Batman”, and I appreciate Morrison’s attempt to justify the existence of a “Bat-family” built around a loner, I do think that those characters were only created to fill an editorial niche (ie, more Batman characters to sell), and that any attempt to retroactively rationalise the abundance of copies and clones is at least a little awkward. But I digress – Morrison’s ideas are smart enough and sound enough to merit exploration, and Batman Incorporated is shrewd enough that it never feels like a gimmick or a calculated rationalisation.
There’s a conscious trend here towards a lighter Batman, pulling back from the excessively dark and obsessive portrayal that dominated the hero’s characterisation since the nineties. Here, Batman seems like a guy who likes making and having friends. “Mr. Unknown is the man I came her to recruit,” he tells Catwoman. He adds, with a hint of pride, “I hoped he’d appreciate that I’d deduced his secret identity.” Morrison returns, time and again to a game metaphor, with the suggestion being that Batman is”playing.”
Repeated references are made to chess and to moves, with Bruce even telling El Guacho, “I have a game plan.” While the series can be quite series, it is also fun. Morrison’s Batman is a psychologically complex character, but he’s not psychotic. He’s not a lunatic, but a man who seems to – on some level – enjoy the challenge his mission offers. As if evoking the Silver Age, Morrison seems especially fond of using the ruse where Bruce fights his friends. In the nineties, these disagreements and conflicts would have been genuine, but here Morrison suggests they are simply pantomime. Bruce makes a point of disagreeing with El Gaucho in public, only to agree once they get inside, and the pair come to blows with laser gauntlets, although Batman isn’t really fighting, even when El Gaucho reveals a secret that should turn the pair against one another.
Morrison draws on a wealth of classic continuity here, most of it well before the modern era of Batman. For example, he seems to pull the Batmanga into continuity during the first two issues, and retroactively incorporates the first Batwoman into continuity as “the first person to bite Batman’s style.”) These references aren’t as awkward as some of the flashbacks in his original Batman run, and they all make sense in the context of the story, rather than becoming some sort of exclusive in-joke. Morrison even revisits the hallucinogen retcon from earlier in his run, explaining Bruce’s wackier adventures as the result of psychopharmacology. “Some kind of immensely powerful hallucinogen,” Batman observes during one freak-out.
Morrison does seem to have a special fondness for seventies Batman. He seems to channel the deeply awesomely surreally brilliant Bob Haney and Jim Aparo run on The Brave and the Bold, even going so far as to evoke a “team-up” spirit for most of Batman Incorporated. (“Batman and Oracle in Nightmare in Numberland!” one title boasts.) Hell, the fight between El Gaucho and Batman even evokes one particular chapter of Haney and Aparo’s The Brave and Bold, where Batman and Wildcat fought to save a puppy. Here, they fight for three blind kids. “Simply stop your opponent’s heart to stop the clock and… save the lives of three blind mice… drowning in sewage,” El Sombrero instructs.
Like Haney’s super-manly Batman, Morrison’s Bruce Wayne is an international man of mystery, with the most outlandish and exotic skills learned from the most prestigious masters. “You were instructed by secret unknown tango masters in a lost Andean Valley,” El Gaucho remarks to Batman. No discount dancing lessons at the YMCA for Bruce, then, it appears. In fact, Morrison plays Batman as a sort of James Bond figure – evoking those sixties and seventies globe-trotting adventures. It is, of course, an idea Morrison has played with throughout his run, but it finds no better expression than here. There’s even a distinctly British feel to Batman’s international escapades, as he spends a considerable amount of time around the Falklands.
Incidentally, for those keeping score, I think that this frame of reference explains a lot of the similarities between Christopher Nolan’s work on the character and Grant Morrison. Sure, both have very distinct tones when it comes to the character. Morrison is more hyperactive and more consciously pulpy, while Nolan grounds his story. Still, both are fixated on the idea of Batman as more than just a man in a costume, both enjoy the international aspect of the character.
It’s hard not to hear lines from Nolan’s saga as Morrison muses about the importance of misdirection to Batman. “Conjurers and con men call it misdirection,” the Hood muses as he kicks his plan into action, and it seems like everybody uses it. Offering strategic advice to Bruce, Alfred suggests, “Think ahead, deploy your forces for maximum impact and strike hard while the other chap’s got his eye on the wrong square.” As a wise man once told Nolan’s Bruce Wayne, “Theatricality and deception are powerful agents.”
Even the bad guys get in on it. Tim Drake remarks on the labyrinth of Doctor Dedalus, “Check this out — the lights and colours and noises are a distraction — the whole thing.” As they escape, Batman explains, “Netz was misdirection, to waste our resources on the eve of war.” Morrison even uses this logic to rationalise why nobody simply killed Bruce Wayne after he announced he funded Batman. Nobody knows for certain, as Bruce is so brilliantly muddying the issue. As the briefing states to the Average Joes, “Wayne’s in Kuala Lumpur, Batman’s in Hong Kong. Batman’s a girl. Then Batman’s in Melbourne, Australia.” Misdirection seems to be an essential part of Morrison’s Batman. We saw it earlier with the identity of Doctor Hurt, and it comes into play here as well. Morrison cleverly keeps his audiences guessing about the big picture. As a side note, my pet theory is that the new Wingman is Jason Todd, if only because Morrison’s kinder and gentler Bruce would probably do well to redeem his former ward, while Todd has been left out of the extended celebration of the Batman legacy.
I’m convinced that Nolan and Morrison actually have remarkably similar conceptions of Batman. Of course, Nolan’s Batman isn’t necessarily going to end up lost in time, but Nolan is as fixated on the idea of Batman as a symbol as Morrison is. I suspect both see Bruce as sort of a Bond figure, and I think that’s why Ra’s Al Ghul represents such a strong counterpoint to Bruce for both writers working on the character. Indeed, I’d almost go so far as to suggest that both Nolan’s Batman and Morrison’s Batman are most perfectly opposed by Ra’s Al Ghul, even more than the Joker.
Before anybody gets too upset, I should clarify. Both writers do respect the Joker’s importance and significance. Morrison wrote the Joker in Batman R.I.P., the climax of Batman & Robin and Nolan featured him in The Dark Knight, but both were towards the middle of the pair’s grand Batman stories. One might even argue that Morrison’s Arkham Asylum was a thorough exploration of the dynamic between Batman and the Joker, the insanity that they share.
Nevertheless, both writers recognise the Joker as essential to the character, but both seem to suggest that Batman and his foes need to somehow be bigger than that. Ra’s Al Ghul was the primary focus of Batman Begins and his legacy is a major part of The Dark Knight Rises. While Morrison has mostly steered clear of explicitly writing the character, the Al Ghul family are essential to Morrison’s epic. Talia Al Ghul is Leviathan. Damian Wayne is the merging of the Wayne line with the Al Ghul line.
While Morrison himself has gone on record as disliking the character of Ra’s Al Ghul, I can see the appeal of the archetype to both writers. Nolan is an avowed fan of seventies James Bond, with the climax of Inception serving as an extended homage. Morrison’s Batman has been full of comparisons between Bruce Wayne and James Bond. Ra’s Al Ghul is the closest thing to a classic Bond villain in the Batman pantheon, with secret elaborate lairs, armies of henchmen and plots for world domination – not to mention a beautiful daughter in love with the hero. I can see why the Al Ghul family make such perfect foils for both iterations of Batman, despite the obvious tonal differences between the works in question.
Indeed, Batman Incorporated actually constructs several clever points of contrast between Bruce and Ra’s. There is, after all, something strangely fascist about an international army of Batmen all working to one man’s grand plans. As cool as the Batman robots might look, they do seem like something that belongs in the armoury of a supervillain. While Leviathan might boast about having a noose around the world, Bruce has an army who are ready to shape it to his image. Beneath the bright exterior, there’s a decidedly sinister subtext, and I can’t help but think Morrison is offering some implicit criticism of his leading character.
“We’re building a ghost — a bogeyman too big to be clearly seen,” Bruce informs his followers. “Its edges indistinct, its full extent and purpose uncertain. A rumour. A terror made of shadows and flapping wings.” Of course, we know that Bruce is fundamentally a decent guy, but that is still a scary image. There is something interesting in the idea that Bruce didn’t approach, for example, the Justice League as an equal, but instead constructed an army that he could command. I know that people don’t read Batman comics for the Justice League, but Morrison didn’t hesitate to feature them supporting in The Return of Bruce Wayne, so there is something to think about.
While Bruce’s methods might not be as sinister as Leviathan – he doesn’t brainwash his followers or ask them to kill – but there are some uncomfortable parallels. We’re told repeatedly that Leviathan is a cult, and yet Batman Incorporated operated under its own system of rituals – we are shown a repeated ritualised induction built off the character’s iconography. (An image Morrison himself has subverted.) Morrison’s run is filled with absent and corrupted father figures, both hero and villain – and it seems like making Bruce a father can’t have been a coincidence. Dr. Hurt claimed to be Thomas Wayne, Jezebel Jet was “won” by her father at a game organised by the Black Glove, and Talia was abandoned by her own and also became a single mother.
Bruce arguably failed Damian, to the point where he wanted little to do with the kid even after he came back to life. Damian was shifted off to Batman & Robin where he became Dick’s responsibility. Of course, there’s a good editorial reason for that (Damian has a much stronger dynamic with Dick than Bruce, but Morrison justifies the decision within the story. In fact, he only teamed up with his father after the reboot because DC took Dick out of the Bat costume and Nightwing & Robin wouldn’t sell. Towards the end of the series, Talia places a bounty on Damian’s head, as if to encourage Bruce to actually spend time with his son.
It seems appropriate, then, that Leviathan is repeatedly condemned for using children. “The youngest and most zealous of these living weapons of Leviathan is barely eighteen months old, can you believe this?” Dedalus asks. It doesn’t seem too unfamiliar. Regardless of what the DCnU may have decided with regards to the age of Dick Grayson or Tim Drake when they became Robin, Bruce has a long history of using child soldiers in his own war. They might not be as young as the child soldiers of Leviathan, but they are still minors being coopted in Bruce’s grand schemes.
This comparison becomes especially obvious in the first chapter of Leviathan Strikes, as Stephanie Brown infiltrates “St. Hadrian’s”, a school for teenage girl assassins. Leviathon is repeatedly shown recruiting in classrooms, but here we have an entire school. “They’re turning you all into suicide troops,” Stephanie Brown protests. It’s interesting that she complains about “young girls under the spell of unrealistic and unhealthy role models” just as Batman appears – indeed, inside a caption over a picture of Batman. Hm. It can’t help but feel just a little bit pointed.
Of course, there is arguably something inherently sinister about Batman, and Morrison just pushes it to the fore. It’s all due to Bruce Wayne’s unique position as a man who chooses to be a hero, rather than a character inherently predisposed towards it. After all, Superman as super-hearing; he can’t help but pick up cries for help or hearing bank robberies – so it’s hard to argue that he’s consciously invading privacy or anything like that. Batman has to actively hack into communications systems to stop crime, which raises questions about his moral authority. Hell, Superman even has a special set of gifts one could argue he’s almost obligated to use for the betterment of mankind. Bruce is just a man, and his decision to assume moral authority must suggest some form of arrogant self-righteousness.
It’s an interesting idea, and I’m impressed at how subtly Morrison weaves it into the fabric of Batman Incorporated. I’m honestly not even sure if it’s there, or if I’m simply reading too much into it. Still, part of me suspects we might see some thematic pay-off towards the big conclusion of Morrison’s Batman run. Even if we don’t, there’s certainly a lot to think about and digest here, and Morrison never suffocates his audience or patronises them. He simply throws all these ideas out there for us to really make our own, which is something about the author’s writing that I have always admired.
Morrison is, as one might expect, accompanied by several distinguished artists. The early issues are pencilled by Yanick Paquette, who worked with Morrison on The Bulleteer. While Paquette is a superb artist, I can’t help but feel his work here is a little dark, a little too heavy, for the subject matter. Sure, the issue opens with the vigilante Mr. Unknown having his face and hands burned off, but the idea of Batman in Japan brings all manner of neon pop possibilities that Paquette doesn’t seem to bring to bear.
In contrast, Chris Burnham joins at around the half-way point, and the artwork never looks back. Burnham brings the same sort of light fluid touch that Quitely brought to his opening arc on Batman & Robin. This is pop!Batman, with pencilling that lends itself to brighter colour schemes, making everything just a bit more dynamic. Burnham brings a very sixties British aesthetic to the book – sort of like what Doctor Who might have looked like in colour and on a budget. It is perfectly in synch with Morrison’s consciously Bond sensibilities, and I think it’s great that Burnham will be the artist on the follow-up.
Morrison always works better with artists who “get” him, and it seems that Burnham is perfectly in step with the writer. Apparently Morrison is comfortable with Burnham tweaking his scripts slightly, adding and expanding on the writer’s ideas. In the superb Batman Incorporated #6, it was Burnham who came up with the idea of turning the Wayne Enterprises lobby into a “pseudo-Batcave”, including a giant quarter, and added that lovely beat panel of Gordon reflecting on his Batman Inc. “membership badge.” It genuinely seems like a collaborative process:
He gives me all sorts of rope to hang myself with. He’s pretty explicit that as long as I’m telling the story he wants, I’m free to do whatever I want with it. Adding panels deleting panels, moving panels from one page to the other, as long as I’m nailing everything he’s going for, he’s perfectly open for an artist to screw with the camera angles and panel count and stuff like that.
In fact, Morrison apparently plots the issue, lets Burnham illustrate it in his own manner and then adds dialogue after he gets Burnham’s pencils back. It actually sounds like (a much tighter variation of) Stan Lee’s classic “Marvel Method”, and suggests a very trusting relationship between artist and writer. And Burnham certainly earns that trust.
To be entirely honest, I didn’t enjoy Batman Incorporated quite as much as Batman & Robin, but that might have been next to impossible. Still, I really liked it, bristling with ideas and concepts from a writer clearly enjoying himself. I don’t know quite what Leviathan holds for the characters, but I am really looking forward to it.
You might enjoy our other reviews and explorations of Grant Morrison’s Batman-related works:
- Arkham Asylum
- Batman & Son, The Black Glove, Batman R.I.P.
- Final Crisis
- Time & The Batman
- Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn, Batman vs. Robin, Batman & Robin Must Die!
- The Return of Bruce Wayne
- Batman Incorporated
Filed under: Comics | Tagged: Action Comics, batman, Batman Incorporated, Batwoman, Beware the Batman, bruce wayne, Christopher Nolan, crime, Dark Knight Rises, dc comics, grant morrison, Grantmorrison, Hong Kong, joker, Kuala Lumpur, Leviathan, Lucius Fox, Melbourne, morrison, Oracle, Paul Cornell, ra's al ghul, robin, The Brave and the Bold, Tim Drake |