“Batman and Son”, Chapter 1: Building A Better Batmobile (Batman #655)

An old friend of mine, who I walked to high school with nearly every morning of the six years we were there, once told me that if he reached the twentieth page of a book and wasn’t enjoying it, he’d simply consider the book done at that point. If it was a library book, it would be returned; if it was a book from his own home, it would go back where he found it; and if it were from a book store, it would be placed back on its shelf, and never be purchased. I believe that this was because his English teacher had told his class that this was his way of giving a book a fair chance. Personally, I rarely don’t finish a book I’ve started, good or bad, the exceptions being those by authors such as James Patterson that I hate; but I can see this teacher’s point.

Books, films,TV shows, video games, music – all of these things have a chance to grab your attention when they start. Video games least of all because most will open with the various logos of those involved before dropping you in a menu, but there’s still a chance they might play an FMV or the like. Likewise, a TV show might always open with a “Previously on…” segment, and god knows how many films or pieces of music begin in what looks or sounds similar to this or that. But books are unique, I think, and will always be something I look forward to opening for as long as I live. As Forrest Gump would say, you never know what you’re going to get. Most don’t immediately grab my attention, I suppose, but those that do are the ones that I’ve found are my favourites. “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know”, begins Albert Camus’ The Outsider for example, two lines that extend into a whole paragraph covered in meaning. Other books don’t always begin with such an unforgettable first line, but an interesting scene instead and, again, I find that you can never go into a book with expectations, the exceptions being those generally terrible ones that only seem to pop up when another author’s had universal success with some topic or other.

But comics have the extra advantage of being a visual medium not unlike cinema, as well as being works of literature, a topic I briefly discussed a few posts ago (fourth-to-last paragraph). They have the chance to wow you with any manner of things. It could be a phrase, or an image / series of images, and it could be done in an interesting way, perhaps toying with colour, camera angle or word choice. A full page shot of the main character uttering a single line like in The Long Halloween may even suffice to grab the reader’s attention. Although not as iconic as that, the first issue of Grant Morrison’s long Batman run, Building A Better Batmobile (Batman #655), begins in a way I’m not likely to forget any time soon, being a particularly memorable sequence of events.

The first page is of Commissioner Gordon being caught by a safety net after falling from a building, poisoned by Joker toxin and laughing hysterically, that grin we’re all familiar with painted on his face. We turn the page and find ourselves presented with a spread shot of the Joker, bloody crowbar in hand and straddling what’s apparently the dead body of Batman, taking joy in the fact that he’s managed to kill his foe in front of some disabled children, who are indeed in the background, tied together and hanging from a helicopter with the Joker’s face on it (possibly a reference to an older story). Turning the page again, we realise that the Joker’s actually attacked an imposter of Batman and, before the real one can stop him in time, his copycat draws a gun and shoots the Joker in the head. But to close this quick opening of about ten pages, we find out that he’s not dead, and Batman throws him in a dumpster, which earns hysterical laughter from Gordon, who is treated in hospital for his exposure to Joker’s poison but will apparently be fine. Ten pages. It’s a really frantic opening, and I believe that’s exactly the point, the parallel to having just said, “Prepare yourselves for my crazy run”, and the Joker’s brutality surely parodying “mature” comics in which the good guys are punished harshly. But, trust me, this is just the start of this issue.

Although only ten pages, for example, there’s already three interesting things that a reader may notice, particularly if they’ve read The Black Casebook as I have, this all on the page following the Joker being shot. We see Batman carrying the Joker’s body and the first thing I realised is that this shot resembles the cover of Robin Dies At Dawn even more than I suggested A Death In The Family did. Although night, there’s a red glow behind Batman like the setting sun of the planet he carries Robin’s body on; and the puddles look like the small crater’s on that planet’s surface too. Perhaps this isn’t intentional, but I’d like to think it is. What’s more obviously premeditated, however, is the graffiti. “Zur-En-Arrh” it all reads. Ring any bells? It’s a bit too out of place until such a time that we’re given a good explanation for it being sprayed everywhere, but I’m curious to find out what it’s relevance is. Is the graffiti actually there, for example, or does it exist only in Batman’s mind? The first of many questions, I don’t doubt.

But the most captivating thing about this page has to be the burning Joker card that drifts across it. It clearly isn’t real within the boundaries of the story because a) there was no fire in the last few scenes, and b) it’s closest in the foreground, so much so that it’s in front of the panel itself, the fourth wall broken. Since the Joker doesn’t die in this scene, I think it’s okay to conclude that it isn’t a metaphor for his death, at least not literally. What I’m wondering instead is what will happen to the Joker when he comes to, seemingly later in this book’s prose story. Will the persona of the Joker be erased entirely or – and this seems more likely – will he be reborn? Notice that the card is still on fire as it drifts off page. We don’t get to see if it burns to ash or not but, seeing as it doesn’t appear to burn slightly at all, I wonder if it doesn’t perhaps represent the image of a phoenix instead, never dying but constantly being reborn in some new way, which would make some sense, as it goes for a lot of comic characters. It looks like we’ll have to wait until the Joker’s return to find out.

But that isn’t happening any time soon outside of the prose section. A lot happens in this first issue, interesting stuff too no less. With the Joker out of action, so is Batman, with crime being significantly reduced in his – and other villains it appears, Batman having been busy prior to this story actually beginning (a topic I’ll cover later on) – absence. Of course, Bruce has a difficult time dealing with this, as we first see when Alfred tells him that his voice he uses around the house has the same “growl” to it of when he’s “being” Batman. So the faithful butler suggests that he socialise at a convention he’s been invited to in London and, once there, persuades him into flirting with super models and the like, which we know has previously gathered him attention in the press as a playboy, a role that has apparently been absent for quite a while prior to this story. But, as one might expect, Talia’s lurking in the background this whole time, young Damian at her side, setting up a trap for Bruce at this very pop art display he’s attending. How she does this is by manipulating one Kirk Langstrom into handing her over a serum of his which turns people into…were-bats.

We should actually stop for a moment here to talk about this guy because get this: I recognised the chap’s name from one of ye olde Batman tales. It wasn’t one in The Black Casebook either, but instead – would you believe? – the book I didn’t bother to read through the stories of on this blog, The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. The tale he appears in, Man-Bat Over Vegas (Detective Comics #429), isn’t actually his first appearance, that having been in the 400th issue of Detective Comics instead, but I was still bloody impressed to see a reference to a story outside of those collected in The Black Casebook. Mind you, through a quick Google search, I did find out that this character or his creation of the man-bat has appeared on quite a number of occasions, particularly in the animated series of Batman, so Morrison isn’t exactly the first to revive him or the creatures. But a reference’s a reference, and I do wonder if it means I’m going to be missing out on a bunch of other nods to stories that I don’t have. If something looks or sounds important, I’ll maybe do a search online to see if it’s anything related to older Batman tales that I haven’t ever read.

Anyway, we do get our first glimpse at Damian at the end of this issue, where he immediately points to Bruce when Talia asks him to spot who, out of all the people attending the pop art exhibition, is his father. It could all be taken to look innocent enough if it weren’t for the monstrous man-bats hanging above them, ready to strike. Indeed, the whole first issue feels like a bunch of things primed and ready to blow us away in the future. Seriously, Morrison’s off to a bloody good start on this run and what’s amazing is that he’s already displaying his strengths. Though the graffiti of Zur-En-Arrh isn’t exactly subtle, the setting up of the themes we’re going to be exploring is all here and carefully placed on the pages. As I said, Bruce appears to be having a hard time not going out on the streets of Gotham every night as Batman, to such a point that Alfred points out that his voice around the manor, and presumably other people, is constantly sounding like the deep, scary one he uses as Batman. And, indeed, when Alfred’s explaining to Bruce the way of the millionaire playboy and how he should revitalise that persona (one I remember most clearly from Frank Miller’s Year One), Bruce is taken aback by the thought that he must learn to be himself, with some emphasis suggesting that such a notion is insane. And just as it happens, whether this Batman would be insane or not was something I was wondering and, though I may be looking into it, I’m calling this a big hint at what’s to come.

Incidentally, a few of the first seeds of the theme of parenthood, which I was hoping Morrison would explore, are also planted in this scene and earlier ones. Of course, Alfred always has a been a father figure to Bruce, but I feel that it’s emphasised quite a bit in this first chapter, even briefly in a scene with Tim Drake too. Once Tim’s left, in a slightly sulky manner, Bruce quietly assures himself that the Boy Wonder knows how much he cares about him. And this perhaps suggests that the theme is actually family instead. That is actually my expectation if Damian really is to take Tim’s place as Robin. Although I doubt it’ll be a light hearted one, I imagine that there’ll be a brother-like fight between those two, and Bruce standing between them. And could the title of this issue be more appropriate if this really will be the first major theme?

No, it’s not actually a reference to the new Batmobile – that is merely mentioned once and shown to be covered by a sheet, its redesign incomplete for the time being. What’s not about to be incomplete any longer, I think, is the Bat Family and I expect that it will be Damian, as Robin, who Batman will first take out in his new vehicle. The other thing the title could be referring to, however, is the story itself. As I’ll discuss in greater length for the next issue’s review, Morrison does some fourth wall breaking using the pop art displays, the kind with speech bubbles and sound effects, and I therefore wonder if what he really means by this title is simply that he’s building something new, better we’d hope as readers, for the Batman series in his long run, the redesign of the iconic vehicle being little more than a metaphor for this. Alas, like everything else of this run, we’ll simply see in time.

Aside from themes, the other thing that’s immediately obvious in this first chapter is Morrison already toying with structure, the foundations of which I’m certain he’s going to be taking a sledgehammer to. As I said, though, the pop art display is something I’ll reserve for next time, so I’ll instead point out a few things other interesting things you should notice. Most obviously, we’re dropped into a scenario that’s already taken place. Some readers, I imagine, must have thought that they’d missed an issue prior to this where the fake Batman and Joker fight atop the Gotham City Police Department, from which Commissioner Gordon’s apparently thrown after somehow being poisoned, but nope – this is it. Then, before we know it, we find ourselves in the Wayne manor for all of four hours – which pass in three panels – before we’re underneath the home, in the Batcave for only four pages, at which point we’re off to London and your guess is as good as mine as to how much time has now passed. Sometimes we’re following a certain sequence when an abrupt panel happening elsewhere interjects the scene, such as when we randomly see Kirk Langstrom in a car with two hooded men during a continuous sequence between Alfred and Bruce.

Even the panel structure itself is “off” at times, the best example being on pages 28 and 29. There are six panels grouped together on those pages in two rows of three. Notice how there are two sets of these panels that look the same – three looking at Alfred and Bruce from a distance, and the other three being close ups of the two. Rather than reading these six panels from left to right on the top row, then the same on the second, try this instead: start with the one on the top left as you usually would, but then read the one in the middle of the bottom row, and finish on the right of the top row; after that, continue in the middle of the top row, then read the one on the bottom left, and finish with that to the bottom right. Try reading it like that a few times, and then read it as you usually would. Obviously, going by the images of Alfred undoing Bruce’s tie, my way can’t be the way it happens. However, you can read it my way if you like and I personally think that the conversation, as well as Bruce’s expressions, make more sense that way. It’s just one of those things you can do with comics, a cool little thing I only recently noticed after reading the From Hell Companion in which Eddie Campbell pointed out something very similar, and I’m certain it’s done here on purpose.

The final way (that I noticed, at least) in which Morrison toys with structure is actually within the panels themselves, the earliest example being on the page in which the Joker’s shot. In a few reviews I’ve read of this first issue, I’ve noticed some people express initial confusion when they read the first ten pages and then finding it was this page that caused that. It’s a confusing image because the Joker, with his back to us, takes up half the page; and Batman swooping in takes up the the other half in the background. What people seem to have missed is that the fake Batman is between the two, firing his gun at the Joker’s head.  Less confusing, but very unusual, are three panels of Bruce and Alfred in an elevator. They have their backs to a glass wall which is reflecting the number of floors. Quite cinematically, it’s these numbers we’re drawn close to by the third panel, marking their arrival at Bruce’s suite. Not to mention the fact that there’s obscure little things, like the nurse who’s attending Gordon is talking with him about a man who was beheaded, and her shadow actually looks like a that of a hooded headsmen. What a weird book this is turning out to be, eh? No doubt we’ll see Morrison play around with structure some more in the coming issues.

Before we get to the next one, in which the madness continues did I mention, finally, that this first issue is surprisingly hilarious? The scene where Alfred’s trying to get Bruce back into his playboy status ends with him instructing Bruce to repeat the line, “Ah, good evening, ladies”, as pick up line practice. As funny as this is, coming from Alfred of all people, it’s when you turn over the page to find that Morrison has used juxtaposition that gets me. Completely on the contrary to Albert’s advice of being a gentleman, we find Bruce, arms spread out, shouting, “Ladies! Where have you been all my life?” That’s the funniest, I think, but there’s a bunch of other small things. Why I’m bother to point the surprising humour out is that, back in Gordon’s hospital bed, when he’s still under the influence of Joker’s toxin (he finds the aforementioned beheading hilarious, by the way), he actually suggests that “everybody needs to lighten up”, perhaps another poke at those comics which take themselves too seriously, similar to the brutality of the Joker I mentioned above that I thought was a parody. On the other hand, it could very well be foreshadowing. Yeah, I for one don’t expect the laughs to last very long.

But hopefully they’ll be here for a good while yet. It’s kind of refreshing to have so much humour in this and the next issue when Talia’s up to no good. We’ll pick up there shortly. Until then.

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