“But that’s the thing about Batman” – Looking To The Future of Grant Morrison’s Batman Run

My last post didn’t end with any afterword about the final chapter of Batman R.I.P. It was, as I intended, a simple description of its shocking ending, but with none of my thoughts on it. A conclusion like that speaks for itself in my book. You don’t need me to tell you why it’s as powerful as it is. What you perhaps can’t fully tell from an analysis of Morrison’s run until now is exactly what my thoughts are overall in light of R.I.P.’s longer story arc.

Before I bought any of these books, I did the usual thing I do when I buy anything I’m unfamiliar with: I looked up a lot of reviews to gather thoughts on this book and that, all to to decide whether or not they were something I’d enjoy. Someone more sensible would probably just have bought Batman and Son first, read it, and decided whether or not to continue reading the series from there. Not me – I bought them all, pretty much one after the other; and that was last year, I having only started reading these back in January. But it’s paid off, as I suspected it might, and I’m quite certain it’s not buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome speaking. The interesting thing is that I already own quite a lot of Batman graphic novels, most of which were my dad’s until I read and reviewed a bunch before starting this run of Mr. Morrison’s. Although those have also been great, it’s hard to say that one’s better than the other and whatnot, as all have different qualities to them that make them special. So I’m not going to say that these first three books in Morrison’s Batman run are the best I’ve ever read. But I am going to say that, if he keeps this level of quality up, then the whole run will be, as far as I’m concerned, the ultimate Batman story.

What fascinates me about saying that is that so many people hate this run and, in particular, the last book. People fucking hate the shit out of Batman R.I.P. and I cannot for the life of me understand why. Perhaps it’s just me – perhaps I just came across a lot of reviews written by some really dumb people – but I see a lot of the same complaints in the negative reviews for that book and, by the looks of things, the series all together. “It’s too difficult to understand”; “It doesn’t make any sense”; “Why is Morrison bringing back these Silver Age characters?”; “Batman looks stupid as the Batman of Zur En Arrh”; “Where’s Batman’s other usual villains?”; et cetera. Now, to be fair, I read The Black Casebook before actually starting this series, so I do have a bit of an advantage when it comes to the return of all the bizarre characters. But, you know, if I had done what I imagine a lot of people were doing at the time of this run, using Google to find out who the hell this Club of Heroes were for example, I think I’d still love it.

It was not silly of Morrison to bring these characters back – they are not, as I see said in so many negative reviews, “better left forgotten”. In fact, I’d call it very innovative to go back to a lot of these old stories and bring them into continuity. No one ever thinks to ask what kind of life Batman led between, say, Year One and Batman: Hush that I read just before the start of this run. Which is interesting because there are some accepted “facts” of the Batman universe – that a bat really did crash through his window, inspiring Bruce to become Batman; that he did have a protege in the form of a young Dick Grayson before that boy grew out of playing as Robin; that the boy who replaced him, Jason Todd, was brutally murdered by the Joker; etc. But that Silver Age? Forget it! The funny is, it’s not as if Morrison brought back the cheesy, comics-are-for-boys-only style of writing prevalent in those old stories with him – he’s still very much the man in charge – and he doesn’t even bring them back as concrete fact, at least as we saw them back then. Going from R.I.P.’s ending, for example, it turns out that the phrase, Zur en Arrh, used earlier by Doctor Hurt as a trigger phrase to “deactivate him”, was a repressed memory of Bruce’s father telling him that someone like Zorro would be thrown in Arkham Asylum that he re-discovered in his time during the Thogal ritual, after which he decided to create the Batman of Zur en Arrh as a “back up human operating system” in the event that someone like Hurt really did attack his mind. What a coincidence that the crazy colours this Batman wears are inspired by Robin, the young boy who always keeps him grounded. It’s not only amazing, but really quite beautiful and, perhaps most importantly, honest in intent.

Which is why I love this run so much, so far. As far as I can tell from the level of effort but into the writing from him so far, this wasn’t him thinking to himself, “Let’s shake up Batman’s world with all this old shite, um, just because!” In his introduction to The Black Casebook I thought it was pretty clear that he was a big Batman fan, and had been for a long time. You’d think that’s just plain obvious – you can’t be a good writer of a character like Batman, not owned by one author, if you’re not a fan yourself – but some of the negative criticism I’ve read might lead you to believe otherwise. Seriously, this run seems to be the bane of some people’s existence, apparently the worst Batman they’ve ever read. In fact, I’ve seen some comments from people wondering things like, “Who does Grant Morrison believe he was writing this run for?”, followed by a rant about how it clearly wasn’t for Batman fans. Which is perhaps the most nonsensical thing of all to me because, when I’m sitting with these books in my hand, all I see is the love for Batman that this man has and, indeed, future story arcs like The Return of Bruce Wayne and Batman Incorporated only go to prove this, the former appearing to take place across different time periods where there’s a Batman (I’m guessing Bruce somehow), and the latter seemingly making the very idea of Batman a global-wide thing to be shared. It’s the most Batman Batman story I think I’ve ever read and I’ve only finished the third book!

But that, sadly, is the thing about Batman. Some people hate Jeph Loeb’s more human portrayal of Batman, and others love Frank Miller’s frightening old man, and vice versa. What I bet will be some meta textual irony in Batman Incorporated, when I presume we see the initial intent of the Club of Heroes taken to new heights, is the simple fact that Batman means different things to different people. Yet not only is Morrison clearly interested in taking the character to fascinating places, but he shares this very same opinion, which is why, for example, that we’ve already seen the Damian of the future, actually very similar to Frank Miller’s character; and it wouldn’t surprise me if young Dick Grayson finds being Batman a lot more difficult and stressful than Bruce, almost like Jeph Loeb’s character. Although I’ve read my share of interviews with Morrison, some about this very run, and others about comics in general, it appears to me in them all, even one I read where he ranted at length about something Alan Moore said about him, that the guy just fucking loves comics.

This is why the run is just so damn good to me – it’s honest, and honest art is the best art. It does slightly bother me then that I’ve read reviews speaking of what’s to come, suggesting that some of the new villains which will be introduced in Batman and Robin should have been replaced by the likes of Two Face, seemingly for the sake of sticking to tradition. When I read a book, play a game, whatever, the thought never crosses my mind that the writer or developer should have replaced this with that unless they’ve done something meaningless. Although it’s clearly too soon to say because I’ve yet to read Batman and Robin, I do highly doubt that any new villains have no point to them. Take the Black Glove. They’re no one – just a bunch of rich people, yet the very point being made, much like what Bat-Mite says about Bruce as the Batman of Zur En Arrh, is that it’s how Bruce could have ended up had he not been raised so well and had, sad as it may sound, his parents not have died. So, too soon to say or not, I’m going to place a bet that any new villains are going to be amazing – nay, the rest of the run shall be.

But what really kills all the criticism for me is the notion that what Morrison’s doing is all very pretentious. Here’s a fact about me: I fucking hate that goddamn word being thrown around like it is. Since writing dissertations and whatnot in high school, I’ve always taken a certain pride in being creative enough myself to see what this writer, games designer, artist or film maker is doing, and I enjoy talking about that kind of stuff because I find it incredibly imaginative. So when I see someone call something that really is quite bloody good – you know, if you can put your knee jerk anger aside for a moment and really look at it – pretentious, I swear, if I thought so highly of myself, I would feel like they were purposefully rattling my cage. The reason this run hasn’t been pretentious of Morrison thus far, and probably never will be, is because the man can do things like end a book with a massive revelation like that of Zur en Arrh actually being the repressed words of Bruce’s father on the night he was killed, but also have the same character say hilarious things like, “I’m much cooler than [James Bond]”, or have him chuckle at his own situation like he does in the opening of R.I.P.’s final chapter.

What Morrison is doing with this run is not only taking an honest to god shot at creating the best Batman story that he possibly can, but having fun while he’s doing it, and that I can get behind and really admire. It is – yes, I’m saying it again – purely honest. The man is reaching for the stars in terms of scope but, contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t mean he thinks himself superior to anyone – there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious so long as you remain in control, and I for one have faith in these books. We’re about to read a crossover event that I may not even understand, being as unfamiliar with many of DC’s characters as I am, and when we’re back on to track, we’ll actually be following Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne for three whole books before we even return to Bruce, yet I am really looking forward to it all. Beyond that, it looks like there’s a time travelling Bruce and then the guy will go and make Batman an actual corporation, and I’m betting that all of it will be very fun indeed.

Which should perhaps be my final point. Unlike what seems like quite a lot of people, I don’t believe video games have to be fun experiences because they’re games just as I don’t believe that they have to be this level of complex or simple, have this kind of art style, and so on, and that goes for any medium of art. But the truth is, a lot of things are really funny when you think about them more widely, ridiculous even, and I feel like this can quite strongly apply to comic book characters such as Batman. But you know what? It’s not any worse for the wear when viewed in that light. God knows I fucking love Frank Miller’s darker interpretation of Batman as much as I love Jeph Loeb’s softie-at-heart. So when Morrison brought back Bat-Mite and then Tlano, I didn’t feel insulted because he’d put these two characters that people have always found utterly silly into canon – I actually felt kind of proud in a way.

These particular books are in a drawer – alas, I have such little room for all my books – and sharing that drawer is Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Scott Snyder’s Swamp Thing and Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man. On my actual shelf of sorts (okay, it’s a cupboard), the books that I can see sitting from where I type this include the likes of Hellboy, Season 8 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the Sandman series, the Scott Pilgrim series and a bunch of other stuff, including the porn book, Lost Girls. The point being that I love comics of all sorts, and the same goes for the books, films, TV shows, music and games I enjoy. When you’re doing something for whatever medium of art, I don’t think there’s anything more fun than truly embracing that art medium’s qualities. Likewise, I don’t think there’s anything more enjoyable than being on the receiving end of that work of art, particularly when it’s so complex and interesting to talk about. It’s sort of why I’m bothering to sit here and write all this, even though no one may actually read it. But Grant Morrison has me in that sort of mood anyway because the guy has gone out on a limb and embraced the forgotten past of Batman because he fucking loves comics, and it just so happens that I do too.

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