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Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s Run on Batman Incorporated – Demon Star & Gotham’s Most Wanted (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Between September 2006 and July 2013, Grant Morrison crafted his epic Batman saga from the ashes of Infinite Crisis. Over the course of seven years, the Scottish author re-worked and re-imagined the Caped Crusader, boldly trying to condense the character’s convoluted and sprawling history into a single narrative. Morrison pulled elements from across the character’s continuity – including stories believed wiped out by continuity reboots and existing as alternatives or “what-ifs.”

To describe Grant Morrison’s Batman epic as ambitious doesn’t begin to do it justice. It is a story that pushed the character out of what had been his comfort zone since the eighties and nineties. He made Bruce Wayne a father; he killed Bruce Wayne off; he banished Batman to the dawn of time and forced him to fight his way back to the present; he made Dick Grayson into Batman; he turned Batman into a franchise so that it might fight twenty-first century crime.

Beware the Batman...

Beware the Batman…

These are all seismic shifts to the status quo, and don’t necessarily conform to what people think about when they imagine a typical Batman story. The character of Bruce Wayne and his world changed dramatically. The very first issue of Morrison’s Batman run featured Batman capturing the last of his classic villains, allowing the Caped Crusader a change to face larger and more existential threats.

It is quite telling that Morrison’s storytelling became the driving force of Batman continuity, with DC spinning books and stories off from his central premise. Scott Snyder’s first Batman epic was The Black Mirror, a story featuring Dick Grayson as Batman, as part of Morrison’s status quo. When the company relaunched Batman & Robin as part of the “new 52”, it featured Damian Wayne as Robin, another innovation introduced by Morrison.

It's all connected...

It’s all connected…

Despite this sense that everything was changing, it seemed inevitable that everything would inevitably be reset. You can only change an iconic character like Batman so much, after all. If you bend Batman too far out of shape, he must inevitably snap back into his classic mould. It’s not inherently a bad thing – “Batman and Robin will never die!” to quote Batman R.I.P., and the characters endure because they revert to archetypes – but it does lend a sense of tragedy to everything.

Coming in the wake of the “new 52” reboot that represented an attempt to reset DC continuity back to its most archetypal configuration, it makes sense that Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham would write the second volume of Batman Incorporated as a tragedy. Morrison would announce his intention to step away from mainstream brand-name superhero stories in the wake of Batman Incorporated, and you can sense some of that fatigue in this story about how everything eventually gets set back to zero.

Everything falls apart...

Everything falls apart…

“Batman always comes back, bigger and better, shiny and new,” James Gordon reflects in the final issue of Batman Incorporated. “Batman never dies. It never ends. It probably never will.” As with so much of Morrison’s run, there is a great deal of mirroring and reflection at work here. “Batman never dies” mirrors the more dramatic “Batman and Robin will never die!” from the opening page of Batman, R.I.P. However, the context is rather different.

“Batman and Robin will never die!” was a dramatic declaration of intent going into Batman, R.I.P. It was Dick Grayson triumphantly declaring that crime could never defeat Batman and Robin as he prepared to punch a criminal in the face, that the legacy would live on forever and ever. It seemed triumphant, particularly in light of the “death” of Bruce Wayne. After all, Bruce Wayne had created something much larger than himself, to the point where even his death would not leave Gotham unprotected.

We never bothered to scream, when your mask came off...

We never bothered to scream, when your mask came off…

In contrast, “Batman never dies” appears over a panel of Batman as a shadowy monster attacking from the darkness. This isn’t triumphant or celebratory or proud. Gordon is reflecting on Batman’s immortality in the wake of a horrific attack on Gotham provoked by Bruce Wayne’s personal decisions, framed in a way that mirrors his own war on crime. Gordon seems exhausted and worn out. “Batman never dies” is a simple statement of fact, something to process in the wake of all that has occurred.

Conversing with Bruce Wayne in the wake of Talia’s attack on the city, Gordon admits, “Parts of the city out there, it’s like Zero Year all over again.” It is a one of those good-natured shout-outs that Grant Morrison peppers into his work, acknowledging Scott Snyder’s continuing run on Batman as a way of assuring readers that the show does go on. However, it also suggests that the clocks on these sorts of iconic superheroes always go backwards.

Terror in the skies...

Terror in the skies…

Morrison is fond of symbolism and metaphor, so the fact that Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo were taking Batman back to his origin “all over again” with Zero Year – right as Batman Incorporated wound up – is the perfect demonstration of how these characters work. Morrison may have written a story that should really be the end of Batman, but the nature of the beast is that Batman will just keep going. We go from the end back to the beginning. The end of Batman Incorporated sets Gotham back to zero year.

The circle has been a recurring image in Morrison’s Batman run. The author has very cleverly tied the idea back to the pearls that Martha Wayne wore on the night of her death, and seeded it throughout the run. Talia’s Leviathan trades on the image of the Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tale – an image directly connected by Talia’s “ring of death”, bombs placed around the world like a pearl necklace of doom.

Grave danger...

Grave danger…

“It all comes around,” Bruce states early in the run. Batman Incorporated is full of images and cycles of violence and brutality. Talia makes her headquarters above the Monarch Theatre in Crime Alley, the birthplace of Batman. Talia takes Batman back to where it began in a number of ways. She dismantles Batman Incorporated, restoring the Caped Crusader back to his default form. She also murders their son, making him the same lonely childless bachelor he was back at the start of the run.

Batman Incorporated plays with the imagery and iconography associated with Batman, just like the rest of the run does. There’s a sense that Morrison is drawing on recognisable imagery and visuals in crafting his story. Batman storms Talia’s stronghold using an army of bats, in what seems like a shout-out to one of the more iconic sequences from Year One. The closing page of one issue features Bruce cradling Damian’s dead body in his arms, just as he did during A Death In the Family.

Shocking behaviour...

Shocking behaviour…

The Heretic is just another in the long line of villains who exist to mirror Batman, a distinguished subcategory of bad guys that includes Bane and the Killer Moth and Hush. “I’ll break your back,” he boasts during one showdown with Bruce, echoing Bane’s infamous battle strategy, even if Morrison and Burnham don’t reproduce the exact beats of that confrontation. There is a sense that all of this has happened before, and all will happen again.

Morrison gets a little bit more meta and self-aware when he jumps forward in time for his last Damian-as-Batman story, returning to Arkham Asylum. This is Morrison journeying back to the beginning of his own association with Batman. “We’re defending a grubby madhouse from grubby madmen.” As such, it is an inversion of Morrison’s classic Arkham Asylum graphic novel. In that story, the inmates claimed the asylum and the sane outsiders tried to claim it back. Here, the image is inverted.

Suits you, sir...

Suits you, sir…

Inversion is a recurring theme in Batman Incorporated. Leviathan’s attack on Gotham involves weaponising children. It is a rather cruel reflection of Bruce Wayne’s own recruitment of children as sidekicks. Talia twists and turns a lot of Bruce Wayne’s ideas back at him. The tools used by Leviathan to gain control of Gotham – infiltration, child soldiers, alliance with the city’s infra-structure, terror – generally mirror those employed by Batman. (Well, except for the mind-control drugs in the food.)

Talia describes Leviathan as “a flamboyant enemy worthy of Batman. Leviathan — an empty, arbitrary suggestion of vague promises and unformed ideas, like the bat.” It’s a grim parody, a twisted reflection, a funhouse mirror. While Talia causes untold destruction to Gotham, and kills countless people, her primary objective seems to be be to undermine and deconstruct Bruce Wayne as Batman. It is striking back at Batman using his own tools and methodology.

Thinking outside the box...

Thinking outside the box…

In keeping with the Ouroboros theme, cannibalism is something of a recurring motif in this second half of Batman Incorporated. “The others ate beef,” Leviathan advises Mr. Grimm. “You ate your brother.” Part of Leviathan’s plan to conquer Gotham involves sneaking drugs into the food chain through meat that is not what it appears to be. The death of Damian Wayne feels like an extension of this theme – an example of how Bruce Wayne’s quest is a circle that will consume everything of value to him.

Patterns recur and cycles repeat. Bruce Wayne was born of the collapse of a family unit; the death of his parents. Damian Wayne undergoes a similar trauma; Morrison treats the disagreement between Bruce and Talia as an especially bitter divorce. “Don’t make me go back to her,” Damian pleads, as if a small child caught in the middle of a heated custody battle. Thomas and Martha Wayne were never around to teach Bruce how best to be a father, and that trauma plays out again.

Knight, night...

Knight, night…

It is telling that the second volume of Batman Incorporated features the most extended appearances of Ra’s Al Ghul in Morrison’s Batman epic. Although the writer contributed a few issues to The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul, Ra’s himself was a tangential figure at best in the rest of the run. Here, however, after Talia is revealed to be Leviathan, we get an extended focus on Ra’s Al Ghul as an absent and inattentive father to Talia.

“I gave you everything you asked for,” he tells her. “Without ever stopping to wonder what I actually wanted,” she replied. “I was manoeuvred into a one-sided love affair with that cold, driven man. And not because you cared about my happiness.” Morrison draws attention to the plot of The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul, where the villain planned to take Damian’s body and claim it as his own. This was another form of cannibalism – Ra’s Al Ghul feeding on his grandson so that he might live longer.

Everything comes to a head...

Everything comes to a head…

Bruce Wayne was abandoned by his parents in death, while Talia was abandoned by her father so he might claim immortal life. It’s another example of the “funhouse mirror” aspect of the relationship between Talia and Bruce. Morrison and Burnham reinforce this idea of cycles of abuse by offering duplicated panels of fancy ninja training for young Talia and young Damian. The patterns of abuse and neglect repeat themselves. We find ourselves trapped in them.

Batman Incorporated dutifully puts all the toys back in the toy chest so that the next person to play with them can enjoy much of the same freedom that Morrison had. Damian Wayne is dead. Bruce Wayne is no longer a father. Ra’s Al Ghul is plotting to conquer the world. Batman Incorporated has been disbanded, despite the fact that it performed a vital role in saving the day – even if it did provoke Talia.

Matching his meat...

Matching his meat…

(One of the great ironies of this conclusion is the fact that DC immediately began working to reverse the death of Damian Wayne. Damian Wayne had become such a popular and well-loved character that DC would scramble to find a way to resurrect him. Perhaps this is proof that change can and does happen in superhero comics, even if it isn’t as fast or as radical as people might like. It is, in its own way, an oddly heartwarming coda.)

Grant Morrison is one of the best superhero writers working in the business today. He understands how these character work, and he’s familiar with what happens when a major creator departs a high-profile book. After all, he has witnessed the disaster that was marvel trying to tidy away his spectacular New X-Men run in order to satisfy various editorial demands. There is no bitterness in the ending to Batman Incorporated, this resetting of the characters and status quo back to what it had been.

He shall become a bat...

He shall become a bat…

At the same time, there is the faintest sense of weariness to it all. Morrison’s Batman Incorporated run was bisected by DC’s radical “new 52” relaunch in September 2011. An attempt to lure in new readers by ditching a lot of the convoluted continuity and shared history of the wider DC universe, the reboot effectively wiped away decades of history from DC. In theory, it offered a new beginning for these characters. In practise, it was just a little bit convoluted and messy.

Morrison enjoyed a relatively brief run on Action Comics in the wake of the “new 52.” He got to craft his own origin for Superman that rather slyly tied together decades of the character’s history into a larger meta-narrative that also served as a link in Morrison’s own chain of Superman continuity stretching from All-Star Superman to D.C. One Million. However, the “new 52” did disrupt his plans for Batman Incorporated significantly, throwing the last arc of his Batman story out of whack.

By Gordon, that's bad coffee...

By Gordon, that’s bad coffee…

Morrison has been fairly even-handed in his discussion of how the reboot affected his Batman Incorporated, accepting it as a necessity even if it could be a little frustrating:

It’s not so much of a strain because the work stands and it will always stand, and fortunately for me, it connects to every year of Batman, so even when people pick up a 1940s collection they might be reminded of something in the story that I’ve just finished, so I don’t mind that. And honestly, although it feels like having the carpet pulled out from under you when the universe changes, at the same time it has to do that, you know? I’ve been on the book for quite a long time and I think it’s very important for new people to come in and tell the story from a different angle, and to revamp it and revitalize it for a different generation of readers. So yeah, it obviously feels weird to have my version of Batman contradicted, but I think it’s essential, and it has to happen.

There are points where it does feel like continuity is straining, as if Batman Incorporated sits between the brand pre- and post-Flashpoint versions of the DC universe.

Picking his Matches...

Picking his Matches…

There’s a sense that Morrison is making an effort to integrate the title with the “new 52.” However, there are some strange moments were it seems that Batman Incorporated is straining against the confines of the new continuity. Despite being featured as members of Batman Incorporated, Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain have disappeared. Barbara Gordon had played a vital role as Oracle in Morrison’s earlier comics, but she is almost entirely absent as Batgirl here.

The character designs have changed to reflect the redesigns for the reboot, even as the character relationships and dynamics feel strangely out of place. It feels odd that Jason-Todd-as-Wingman is treated as a big reveal when the “new 52” brought him a lot closer under the Bat-family umbrella. It is a plot point that makes sense in light of his role in Morrison’s Batman & Robin, but one that feels a lot less organic in a world where Todd ties into events like Night of the Owls or Death of the Family.

Dark Knight takes Red Queen...

Dark Knight takes Red Queen…

It makes for a subtly disjointed read, as if Batman’s own history has been quietly re-written in the middle of an epic story. There is a sense that Morrison is brushing up against the limitations of Batman and of mainstream superhero comics here. Morrison is a writer with an obvious and abiding affection for mainstream superheroes. However, this second half of Batman Incorporated feels positively cynical in its treatment of Bruce Wayne.

Over the course of Batman Incorporated, Talia repeatedly makes the case that the only way she could catch Bruce Wayne’s attention was by playing the role of a super villain. “Are you beginning to take me seriously, at last?” she ponders, drawing attention that the moth of Bruce Wayne’s child merits less attention than some new gimmick-driven bad guy. She taunts him, “Know that I’ve beaten you at your own stupid, childish game of clues and traps, masks and toys.”

Death from above...

Death from above…

“If I’m especially evil, will I be your number one archenemy?” she wonders, mocking the hero and villain conventions that Bruce Wayne has used to define his life. All of this could have been avoided had Bruce been willing to talk to Talia like a normal person. After all, Bruce Wayne has not talked to Talia since the events of Batman & Son. When Damian was injured during Batman & Robin, it was Dick Grayson who visited her, and there’s no indication Bruce tried to contact her on his return from the grave.

At the heart of Batman Incorporated is the story of a man who is unable to have a meaningful relationship with a member of the opposite sex. This is a theme that is emphasised – consciously or not, in light of the “new 52” continuity shifts – by the major roles given to the various male characters to carry the name “Robin”, but the lack of those major roles for the female characters to carry the name “Batgirl.”

Talk about making an entrance...

Talk about making an entrance…

Kate Kane’s Batwoman is also left out in the cold for the climax of Batman Incorporated, while characters like Batwing and El Gaucho continue to play a part. The most prominent female characters to to take on secret identities are Talia as Leviathan and Beryl Hutchinson as the Knight. However, it is worth noting that Talia is the central villain of the story and “the Knight” is a decidedly masculine superhero code name.

Bruce’s inability to have a mature and loving relationship with a woman dooms Damian Wayne and causes untold destruction for Gotham. This might not be entirely apparent if Talia were the only example featured in Batman Incorporated. After all, Talia is a complete maniac with no sense of respect or value for human life who is just as damaged and broken as Bruce Wayne. However, there are other major players in the Batman Incorporated story.

Looks like we have a bat problem...

Looks like we have a bat problem…

At the climax of Batman Incorporated, it is not Bruce Wayne or Jason Todd who finally end the threat posed by Talia. Towards the end of the story, it is revealed that Spyral has been doing its best to manage the crisis, without being as ostentatious as Batman Incorporated. At the end of Batman’s big and dramatic sword fight with Talia, it is Kathy Kane who shoots Talia in the head and brings her reign of terror to an end.

Kathy Kane is not wearing a superhero costume. The implication is that she has grown beyond the “Batwoman” title that she once held while in love with Batman. Having executed Talia, she is quick to thank Bruce for his assistance. “Thanks for helping us lead her into a trap she couldn’t escape.” The obvious implication is that Batman Incorporated was just a pawn in a much larger game. For all Bruce Wayne’s ambitions about changing the world, his dream was nothing be a stalking horse.

Ending a rain of terror...

Ending a rain of terror…

This was a woman that Bruce once loved. “I did all this, for you, in my spare time,” Talia boasts, emphasising how trivial this is to her. While Talia tried to lower herself to his level in order to maintain some perverse parody of a relationship with him, Kathy Kane has simply moved beyond his level. “Stick to what you do best,” Kathy tells Bruce, a rather pithy dismissal of all the work and development that Bruce has done, a sentence that pretty effectively puts Bruce in his place.

Apparently, there are limits to what Batman can do. This is a rather grim ending for a Morrison story. Morrison is an avowed and abashed fan of superhero stories. After all, his epic Superman story ends with Superman living in the sun, having inspired a dynasty in his own name. His run on Justice League of America ends with everybody in the world becoming a superhero. Morrison cheekily suggested that the only way for mankind to cope in a world without Superman would be to invent him.

Fighting all over the world...

Fighting all over the world…

So the ending of his Batman Incorporated run is tragic and bleak. Batman endures, but that might not necessarily be a good thing. This run of Batman Incorporated doesn’t end by celebrating everything Batman is or could be, instead it demonstrated that there are limits. It suggests that there is only ever so much that Bruce Wayne could be; he could not be a man who helps fix the world any more than he could be a loving husband and father.

That said, it wouldn’t be a Grant Morrison story if it were all doom and gloom. While there is a sense that Batman may have limits on what he can be – and there are tragic consequences when he tries to transcend those limits – there is also a sense that Batman does make the world a better place in smaller (and no less meaningful) ways. Ellie, the prostitute assisted by Batman early in Morrison’s run, pops up again during an assault on Wayne Enterprises.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

Damian dies to save Ellie’s life from the Heretic. “He saved me,” she remarks as Batman cradles Damian in his arms. It is a tiny sacrifice as far as superhero deaths go. Barry Allen died to save the multiverse. Hal Jordan died to reignite the sun. Damian dies to save a young woman who lived a tough life. It is still a heroic sacrifice, and perhaps a sacrifice on a scale more appropriate to Batman. Batman might not get to save the world, but he does get to save lives.

Ellie is just one example of the wonderful set-up and pay-off that populates Morrison’s extended seven-year run, minor characters and references that come around a full circle in the end. At another point, Batman visits Michael Lane – another minor character from early in Morrison’s tenure. One of “the three ghosts of Batman”, Lane is one of the failed mirrors of Batman from the run. Like Ellie, Bruce has helped Lane to find some small meaning and purpose.

Talk about branding...

Talk about branding…

It is the smaller person-to-person interactions that suggest Bruce Wayne is a definite force for good, even if his larger schemes are somewhat flawed. “Aside from all the death and mayhem and having a bomb cut out of my guts without anaesthetic, this was definitely the most fun any of us have had in years,” Cyril Sheldrake quips. Though he would die in service of Bruce, Sheldrake did get to prove himself a hero. There’s also a sense that Morrison is leaning a bit on the fourth wall.

The nods towards Cyril Sheldrake and Michael Lane serve to draw attention to the success of Morrison’s Batman work. One measure of success for a comic book is the inevitable spin-offs. Michael Lane got an eighteen issue run as Azrael “death’s dark knight.” While that is the most nineties-esque subtitle for a Batman comic published outside the nineties, it does demonstrate just how successful and influential Morrison’s Batman has been.

One last time...

One last time…

Cyril Sheldrake featured in a six-issue Knight and Squire miniseries written by Paul Cornell. As with artist Pete Woods on Cornell’s Action Comics run, Morrison includes a sly nod to Cornell’s Doctor Who run. Asking about the rumours that Bruce has a shrink ray, Cyril admits, “We had this idea about relocating our headquarters inside a post box and — look, just forget I ever said that.” Well, at least he didn’t say police box.

Batman Incorporated works quite hard to demonstrate the connections that exist to tie together all of Morrison’s Batman work. “Convince me it all makes sense,” Nightwing remarks, prompting Bruce to produce a handy character map. We get flashbacks of Talia infiltrating the the Black Glove. “I’m the wire mommy,” Talia confirms, connecting herself literally (rather than simply thematically) back to Professor Pyg.

Tears in the rain...

Tears in the rain…

Even the repeated suggestion that Gotham is a living organism harks back to Morrison’s earlier run. “Gotham’s ready to commit suicide,” Batman summaries. “Kill the city,” Talia orders. The idea of Leviathan infiltrating Gotham and gestating within its administrative and social infra-structure not only provides a mirror to the Heretic born from the inside of a whale, but also seems to reference the idea of crime going “viral.”

After all, if the city is a living organism, it is infected. Given the subtext of the relationship between Bruce and Talia, it makes sense that the “viral” crime infected Gotham mimics the AIDS virus. Talia infiltrates and replaces key parts of the administrative infrastructure to turn the city against itself (and against Batman) in the same way that the AIDS virus turns the body’s auto-immune system against itself.

Mother of the year...

Mother of the year…

This set-up also allows Morrison to play with the class warfare aspect of Batman. Much like The Dark Knight Rises, Talia dresses up her petty vendetta in the rhetoric of social justice. “You’re being groomed as slaves while the rich mock you with the eternal promise of a success you’ll never achieve,” Leviathan assures its followers, in dialogue that might easily have been read by Tom Hardy while standing on the steps of Gotham’s prison.

The artwork on the second volume of Batman Incorporated is mostly handled by Chris Burnham. The artist wasn’t able to make all of the necessary deadlines, meaning that there are a few fill-ins on various issues. Burnham will be correcting this for the deluxe Absolute Edition due for release in December, making it a must-have for any fan of Morrison’s run. Burnham’s work is absolutely wonderful.

It all comes around...

It all comes around…

All in all, Burnham is probably the strongest artist of Morrison’s run. He seems to have a wonderful relationship with the writer. At several points in the run, the two are credited as co-creators, with Burnham writing a script to compliment Morrison’s story. Indeed, theBatman Incorporated Special consists primarily of stories written by Burnham with no input from Morrison, demonstrating how fully Burnham understands Morrison’s concepts and constructs. It is a great partnership that seems to be mutually rewarding.

Batman Incorporated is a suitably epic conclusion to Morrison’s run, even if it does feel a bit more sombre and cynical than the conclusions to his other major superhero runs. It brings seven years of storytelling to a close, as Morrison gracefully paves the way for the next writer with their own unique fully-formed vision of Batman.

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

2 Responses

  1. Your writing here is as exceptional as ever. I’m reading (and re-reading some) of Morrison’s Batman now, and I’m looking to purchase the Absolute Batman Inc. shortly. I loved R.I.P. and how Grant mines Batman’s full history is just fun and fascinating. I really had an issue with rebooting the DC universe, and renumbering the issues, but I guess we have to deal with that. Anyway, great review of a great book. I’m enjoying all of your Batman reviews on the site…

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