The Stories Behind Grant Morrison’s Run, Part 1: “The Black Casebook (TPB)”

Welcome, reader, to the beginning of the end of my life for the next month or so.

If you’re discovering my blog at this point somehow, perhaps looking to read a review of Grant Morrison’s run from the perspective of someone generally unfamiliar about what’s going to happen, then you’d best read my previous post that acted as an introduction, to what will be a rather long run of posts on his Batman epic, in order to understand a bit about the history that inspired Morrison and why this book’s of somewhat importance. In fact, you’re best reading that post in order to understand how much I know about this run going in because, no, it’s not completely blind – just for the most part, it is. If you’re done with that, or already know what the deal is, then by all means read on. However, I might as well make you aware here and now that this won’t be a traditional review in the sense that I’m going to talk about this story and its art, then this one’s, and so on. That would be silly in this case as all as these stories are from the 1950’s, when Detective Comics and Batman comics were aimed at young children. It would be like doing a deep analysis of the Beano or Dandy, which where my comics of choice as a young boy. Instead, just as Morrison does in his introduction to the book, I’m going to go through each story and explain my thoughts on them and why I think he chose them for this collection, taking a guess as to how he’ll integrate these tales into the one whole continuity, or all of “the events in one man’s extraordinarily vivid life” as he puts it. It’s a little obvious in some cases, I fear, and there will be spoilers throughout my entire read of the run, so consider yourself warned.

That said, before we continue, one thing I forgot to mention as a positive aspect of The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, a book containing tales from the 30’s to 60’s that I talked about in my last post, and which also applies here, it’s that it’s interesting to read these old stories and see how far the characters have developed over the years. Funnily enough, Morrison points out in his introduction that, when he went to read some of these adventures, he was surprised to find that some of their ideas applied today and, indeed, I’ve found such an instance myself in the former book that I won’t be posting about. There’s a story in there called The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne. By complete coincidence, though an absolutely amazing one, the ending of that story practically mirrors a scene in Jeph Loeb’s Hush (which was the subject of my last review, hence the surprise I felt) between Batman and Catwoman where the former character reveals his identity to her. Another marvellous coincidence would be that the costume of this Catwoman is very reminiscent of what the character wears in The Long Halloween, also written by Jeph Loeb, and illustrated by Tim Sale. Morrison himself even mentions the cover of the one of the stories collected here, Robin Dies At Dawn, a striking cover sadly not printed here, but one that sounds suspiciously like a certain scene in A Death In The Family. How times change, eh? The artwork and writing of this collection are, of course, a testament to time, slowly maturing over the years, the tales gradually dealing with more thoughtful subjects. In fact, the very first story of this collection is one such interesting example.

It’s called A Partner For Batman (Batman #65, June /July 1951) and, told from the perspective of Robin, a young Dick Grayson, we see he has anxieties of Batman possibly ridding himself of the Boy Wonder with a replacement, in the form of a character called Wingman in this case (no, not that kind of wingman). Although there’s a chance that Morrison will explore this when I presume Tim Drake is replaced by Damian Wayne in his Batman and Robin story arc, that doesn’t actually appear to be why he’s included this tale. It’s a nice idea and definitely a bit more serious than your typical olde Batman tale but Morrison’s attention seems to have been focused on the character of Wingman, who Batman trains to act as a hero back in Europe (though he seems fairly incompetent at this). There’s another tale we’ll be getting to in here in which we’re introduced to a Club of Heroes and I’d therefore assume that Morrison’s intent is to have Wingman be part of that group during his series.

This goes for the two characters in the next tale too: Chief Man-of-the-Bats and Little Raven, the equivalent, of course, of Batman and Robin. Yes, in comparison to the previous tale only moments ago, this one, Batman – Indian Chief (Batman #86, September 1954), is typically weird. What basically happens is this: Batman and Robin are flying around in the Batplane when they spy smoke shaped like Gotham’s very own Bat Signal, and go to investigate, whereupon they find Great Eagle and Little Eagle, two native Americans who mimic Batman and Robin to fight off raids against their village tribe. But Great Eagle is injured and can’t dress as Chief Man-of-the-Bats, so the real Batman and Robin offer to take their places. Thus, if you ever wondered what Batman would like in an Indian headdress, now you know. So, again, I expect Morrison takes these characters and puts them into this Club of Heroes. Or maybe not. It’s a very strange story and I’m not sure it would make a great deal of sense for it to have actually happened. But the characters do promise to return the favour back in Gotham City one day, so perhaps Morrison does something clever here.

The next story, The Batmen of All Nations (Detective Comics #215, January 1955), is a prequel to us meeting the full Club of Heroes. This is a tale that Morrison seems quite fond of, having included the titular characters – who are The Knight and The Squire of England; The Musketeer of France; The Legionary of Rome; The Gaucho of South America; and, finally, The Ranger of Australia – in a four issue series of Justice League of America, and will seemingly integrate them once more sometime during his Batman run. It’s another interesting idea, this one, I will admit. Although we explore the likes of Metropolis in a number of Batman stories, we never do know if there are other cities like Gotham, besides Clark Kent’s home, with their share of super criminals, and if men like Batman or Superman protect their inhabitants. So it’s not a terribly bad idea that there are indeed other heroes, even if it is a little bizarre in the way that they theme themselves off of the history of their nations yet are all inspired by Batman. One thing I do wonder  is if they’ll have new designs when we run into them again, and whether or not they’ll be a bit more sophisticated in their selection of equipment. That would certainly be logical progression right there. On a similar subject, I do hope that the likes of the particularly talented artists in Morrison’s run do some interesting things with the art if there any flashbacks to these old tales, perhaps by mimicking the art style of these artists. How cool would that be?

Unfortunately Morrison quite bluntly spoils how he integrates the next story, The First Batman (Detective Comics #235, September 1956), into his run during his foreword.  The idea of this story, as the name implies, is that there was a Batman before Bruce Wayne took up the cowl…sort of. What happens is that Thomas and Martha Wayne attend a masquerade ball where the theme is to dress up as a winged creature, Thomas picking a bat costume, of course. He’s kidnapped by criminals for his medical expertise, yet manages to fight them off, and Bruce, reading his diary and watching an old film of the ball, believes he was subconsciously inspired by his father’s fancy dress choice after he was killed with his mother by Joe Chill. But, instead of Chill being a random robber, this story suggests instead that the killer of Bruce’s parents was hired by the men Thomas fought, as revenge when they were released from prison. It will therefore be very interesting to see if Morrison retcons Batman’s origin – if this story will be replacing the continuity we’re familiar with. However, he could as easily just take one part or another and not the whole of any of these stories, so I guess we’ll just have to find out for ourselves. Like I said, though, I think Morrison may have spoiled a bit of his run this time. The masquerade costume is apparently used in Batman R.I.P. by a bad guy called Doctor Hurt. Question is: how can this Hurt have gotten that costume? If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, then I fear that this was a massive spoiler.

At least the spoilers for this next story’s revival are a bit more vague. Here we have The Club of Heroes (World’s Finest Comics #89, July / August 1957) story, sequel to The Batmen of All Nations above. We not only reunite with those Batman copycats  in this story, but a new character called John Mayhew, who creates the club, enters the scene and Morrison confirms that this character will return in a story of his run called The Island of Mister Mayhew. What’s close to a spoiler is the strong implication that he’ll return as a villain: “There was just something about that man I never trusted”. Ah well, at least we don’t yet know why he’ll be an apparent baddie. If you’re familiar with Morrison’s run, you’ll know that the Black Glove is the main villain of the piece, and he or she’s mentioned by Morrison a few times in the introduction, but I thankfully have no idea who that will turn out to be or what their plan is, and therefore not a Scooby how Mayhew will be involved either. In fact, in this surprisingly funny tale we don’t really see enough of him to understand his angle. What he does is set up the club officially but with the addition of their own clubhouse to which Superman becomes chairman at the end of the story. Strange, yes, but we never see the ulterior motives that Morrison seems to have saw.

The Man Who Ended Batman’s Career (Detective Comics #247, September 1957) is probably the most straightforward inspiration that Morrison attests to in this collection but perhaps too the most revealing of what we can expect in his run. One Professor Milo, a name that rings some bells from Morrison’s own Arkham Asylum, is the bad guy here but, as pointed out by Morrison, he doesn’t use any traditional methods of fighting Batman. Instead, he uses psychology, specifically by trying to insert a phobia into Batman’s mind, which in this case humorously turns out to be a fear of bats. This again, of course, harks back to Arkham Asylum where the Batman of that story was confronted with the very strong possibility, through some psychological mind games and a different perspective on his mythos, that he’s just as insane as the super criminals that he’s constantly putting behind bars. So I should think it’s quite clear that Morrison’s Batman run, though Batman R.I.P. is what he’s specific about again, will include some manipulation of Batman’s mind. How this will be the case is, of course, the mystery but the next story perhaps helps us build a theory.

The villain behind this one is Professor Milo once more, similarly toying with Batman’s mind like he did in the last tale. It’s called Am I Really Batman? (Batman #112, December 1957) and what happens is this: Batman wakes up in a mental institution only to find everyone around him insisting he’s an impostor of the real Batman. Escaping and returning home, he finds that neither Dick or Alfred recognise him, and when another Bruce Wayne appears, he’s told that he isn’t secretly Batman, nor Dick actually Robin. As confusing as it sounds, it’s a quickly wrapped up story, really. Before it took place Professor Milo attacked Batman with a gas that was designed to make him lose the will to live by basically lazing around until he starves to death, which is where Robin stepped in, creating a mystery for Batman to solve when he woke up in order to save him. So the orderlies of the mental institution were in on the plan, the “real” Batman and fake Bruce Wayne actually Alfred in disguise. Where we can begin to see a theory about the role all of this psychology will play in Batman R.I.P. is in Morrison’s introduction once more. As he puts it, the way this story and the last will benefit him is thanks to Professor Milo’s “bizarre mind-control drugs” which provide him with “rational get-out clauses for some of Batman’s weirder experiences”.

One such inexplicable adventure is next, and the name alone pretty much sums up just how strange these old Batman stories could get: Batman – The Superman of Planet X (Batman #113, February 1958). It is, as Morrison rightfully says, one of those “It was all a dream…or was it?!?” stories that we all hate so much. What happens is that Batman goes out on patrol in his Batplane all by his lonesome…then promptly finds himself teleported to the planet of Zur-En-Arrh…where he meets an alien version of himself named Tlano…who shows him that he’s basically the equivalent of Superman back on earth on this planet, with the ability to bend mental and not be harmed by laser rays…so Batman fights off aliens and robots with these powers until he wins…and Tlano eventually sends him back home…uh, yeah. Anyone reading that is probably wondering how in hell Morrison can possibly create an explanation but, by using Professor Milo, it’s actually hilariously simple. You may have noticed that this story was in the Batman issue after Professor Milo attacked him with the gas which screwed with his head and, so, here is Morrison’s clever twist: “I chose to interpret “Planet X” as […] a self-aggrandizing power fantasy to compensate for the complete loss of motivation and strength Batman experienced at Milo’s hands.” Dastardly, no? There’s also the implication that the name of the planet will play some sort of role in Batman R.I.P., referring to it as a “dream-phrase”, certainly a curious piece of word choice which to me suggests some future mind manipulation again.

It’s safe to say at this stage, I think, with the rest of the stories in this collection being just as impossible as this one, that the Batman in R.I.P. is going to recall some of these hallucinations, and they’re going to alter his state of mind. One specific theory I have is that the Batman of that tale is going to go insane, if he isn’t already. Not in a self-harming kind of way, like in Arkham Asylum, but Morrison says it right there in his introduction: “constant exposure to Joker toxins, phobia gases and other powerful mind-altering chemicals was beginning to take its toll [in these stories]”. I’m therefore of the opinion that Batman will have a very fragile state of mind. It’s a subject Morrison’s explored before, his other crazy Batman being the one in  Batman: Gothic who said creepy things and had a creepy grin, so it doesn’t sound far fetched that this iteration of Batman will also go a bit loopy. The question is naturally how this will all come about if it’s indeed the case. As I’ve said, Black Glove’s identity remains a mystery to me, but if I were to hazard a guess, I might say that Professor Milo is a possible candidate. Then again, that almost seems too obvious, and another candidate’s in this book… On with the rest of the stories collected here then.

It’s Batman Meets Bat-Mite (Detective Comics #267, May 1959) next and, oh god, does Morrison seriously bring this…thing back? What’s that? An explanation’s required? Okay, so, um, Bat-Mite is this little guy from another dimension who Morrison says was Batman’s equivalent of Superman’s Mr. Mxyzptlk, that leprechaun-looking guy who turned out to be the villain responsible for the events in Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Anyway, in this introductory tale (yes, writers actually used this character again, apparently because the young readers at the time enjoyed having him around) the little fella appears to Batman and Robin, eagerly wanting to join them in crime fighting after observing them from his dimension and adopting his own cowl and cape. Unsurprisingly, he just causes more trouble than good, and eventually leaves after Batman and Robin practically beg him to. For once Morrison doesn’t actually have anything to say about how this ties in to his run, so it’s up to debate whether or not the little imp thing makes an appearance, or is just mentioned as having been a hallucination. But, if I am right that Batman’s going to be going cuckoo, I wouldn’t be surprised if the miniature dude perhaps made a cameo appearance as a joke on Morrison’s part.

This next tale is, along with the last in the collection, one that Morrison hadn’t read prior to including it, which means it plays no role during his run. Yet he has apparently seen the cover and, as you might expect from a story titled The Rainbow Creature (Batman #134, September 1960), it’s a bizarre one, as is the plot itself. But, seeing as it doesn’t appear relevant to Morrison’s run, I won’t bother talking about it. If the cover he mentions plays a part, I’m sure it’s only as an homage, perhaps in the form of a cover mimicking it during this run. Other than that, though, I can’t see in what way this could be passed off as an important hallucination or trick of Batman’s mind.

The next story, the longest in the book, is more relevant, actually the most out of all of them and the one Morrison spoils the connection to most. It was mentioned above that a Doctor Hurt would be using Bruce’s father’s masquerade outfit sometime in the run and, indeed, Hurt makes an appearance here, although he’s only referred to as a “military doctor” at the time and seems friendly. In his lengthiest piece of foreword in the book, Morrison perhaps gives away who Black Glove is by describing this mysterious doctor, who he alone it seems would call him Doctor Hurt, being the first to retcon the character, as “Batman’s ultimate villain”. However, as I implied above when I first mentioned Hurt, there is a possibility of an additional identity. For the sake of possibly being correct, I’ll keep my lips sealed until such a time that it seems more appropriate. As I said at the time, however, I fear Morrison may have implied too strongly a rather large plot twist. Anyway, this story is Robin Dies At Dawn (Batman #156, June 1963), another bizarre one, but not actually all that bad. In fact, I’d say it’s quite good.

Split in two parts, it begins with Batman and Robin seemingly finding themselves on another planet, where Robin sacrifices himself in order to save Batman who, terrified at being alone on this hostile planet, plainly gives up living and submits to an attacking alien. Instead of dying, however, he wakes up to find himself having taken part in an experiment. Enter the nameless doctor who, with the hindsight of knowing he’s this Hurt, says some rather curious things. The test was apparently designed for astronauts, to gauge their mental stability when alone in space and, according to Hurt – who says this with a smile on his face that looks kind of creepy, knowing his evil intentions in the future -Batman’s “reactions will help […] determine how long and what kind of strains an astronaut can endure in loneliness, before his mind starts imagining things”. It sounds very similar to the mind trickery of Professor Milo. But it’s what he says in his last appearance that gets me. When an army officer notes Hurt’s apparent concern for Batman after recording his experiences during the test, Hurt says this: “I just hope there won’t be any after-effects…” Well, then, I guess that says Morrison’s Batman will be nuts after all. But perhaps these memories will be deeply suppressed in his sub-conscious at first and perhaps, just perhaps – and this is my big theory about Hurt’s involvement – this mysterious doctor controls when these past experiences resurface, which could then be when Batman loses his mind. That would certainly be amazing, but count me impressed no matter what Morrison ends up doing. Really, I’m simply amazed to have gotten here and saw the dots connecting into a number of possible outcomes for his run.

As that last line implies, I’m ending this very wordy post here. There is a second part to Robin Dies At Dawn, but it doesn’t seem relevant to talk about without Hurt’s presence and Batman basically suffering the after-effects like he “expected” he might. It is, however, interesting that we see this from Robin’s perspective where Batman acts irrationally and nearly gets them killed. There is also an additional story called The Batman Creature (Batman #162, March 1964), but that is the other tale Morrison never read prior to collecting it here, having only saw its cover before too (though this time, I have no idea how it could be referenced), so I won’t bother with that. But as Morrison says in finishing his introduction – which I’ve probably made sound much longer than it actually is over the course of this lengthy discussion – Robin Dies At Dawn is a notable departure from the likes of the Planet X tale because the weird events that happen do admittedly take place in Batman’s mind, here in the real world. “Realism”, says Morrison, “has returned to the streets of Gotham City, and it will be many decades before any of these tales from the Black Casebook are reintegrated into Bat-continuity”.

Well, not for much longer in our case. There will be one more post for Son of the Demon, and then our true Grant Morrison run begins in which I’ll no doubt see the references to the stories here. Until then.

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One thought on “The Stories Behind Grant Morrison’s Run, Part 1: “The Black Casebook (TPB)”

  1. Pingback: “Batman and Son”, Chapter 1: Building A Better Batmobile (Batman #655) | Jordan Smith

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