The End Is Never The End: A Conclusive Post On Grant Morrison’s Batman Run

When I started this run I didn’t expect to enjoy it from the first book all the way to the last. In some of earliest posts I consistently spoke of my plans to take breaks at this point or that so I didn’t get so used to reading books by the one author that I’d get bored of him. In hindsight, I maybe should have taken these breaks, only because that when I look back now, I feel like readers can see where I was burnt out on writing up posts for each or several issues. There’s certainly quite a few posts that I’m proud of – in fact,  I’m very surprised to find that I was on the ball so very often – but I do wish I took more time to write a few instead of blasting my way through them, mentally exhausted or not. Yet I never did tire of Grant Morrison’s writing.

Of course, what probably helped it from going stale at some subconscious level was the variety of artistic talent on display. Yes, so many artists being swapped for one another caused a few bumps along the road, but the only issue that looked completely terrible, inexcusably so, in my eyes was Ryan Benjamin’s at the end of The Black Glove. The only other stuff that came remotely close to being bad – though not, I should say, anywhere near as bad as whatever the fuck Ryan Benjamin was doing – was Philip Tan’s three issues in Batman and Robin, which was far too dark in my opinion, and Tony S. Daniel’s inconsistency before the amazing job he did in Time and Batman. Otherwise, I honestly believe that everyone else was doing somewhere between a good to outstanding job.

You could level some criticism at the artists who fell into the former category for “playing it safe”, I suppose, but what you have to keep in mind, I think, is that all of these people, good or amazing, had deadlines to meet and what I can only imagine are some demanding scripts to match, so I think it’s no small feat that you can look at the run as a whole and I either like what you see quite happily, or be completely blown away by it. Though J.H. Williams III, Frazer Irving, Frank Quietly and Andy Kubert were some of those who blew my mind, I think it’s Chris Burnham paired with Nathan Fairburn, the colourist, that made my jaw drop the most. It’s no wonder those guys are creating all new pages for the Absolute edition of Batman Incorporated because it’s a fucking miracle that they managed to keep up and draw every one of their issues together so damn well. But hell, let’s not play the favouritism game – at the end of the day, every one of these books has good art in it, and that is bloody amazing.

Still, whether the different artists can keep things looking fresh or not, you’d think that I’d get bored reading the words of man sooner or later. But I truthfully did not. The only other Batman books I have, most of which are my father’s, can be read alone, technically possible here but probably not a good idea. This is the only time I’ve read a particularly lengthy run by an author on a character who’s shared with others. In all the time I collected 2000AD there was never a point where one writer exclusively worked on Judge Dredd, you know? Yet Grant Morrison spent seven years writing this epic tale, longer if you take Seven Soldiers and 52 into consideration, so you might also think that, even if I never grew tired at all, he would, the brightness that it starts on fizzling out.

This is, in fact, a point of debate when it comes to the ending. Shortly after I wrote my post on that final issue, I decided to do some looking around for what other people’s thoughts were on the ending of the run and it didn’t surprise me to find that a lot of folk see the finale as too negative in contrast to how it all began. Personally I don’t see how else it could have ended but on its bittersweet note, and I think that the darker contrast itself is actually part of what makes the ending so powerful. Like the last line of my post on issue twelve suggested, I think that the hard thing is actually letting go after all this time and looking to the future. Maybe Morrison didn’t make that point clear enough, ending Gordon’s monologue as he does with the cynical sounding, “It never ends. It probably never will.” How he should have actually ended it, in my opinion, is with some other lines before this that I think mark off the greatest theme in this run. There’s been a lot of those, some subtle, like class warfare, simply adding depth to the world; and then there have been those like family, there from the start but having developed over time.

But there is one concept of the Batman mythos, indeed its very fiction, that has reigned supreme over all: the hole in things.

It wasn’t until the end of Batman R.I.P. that Doctor Hurt spoke that immortal line about himself, but the hole has actually been there from the very start of the run, a single gunshot leaving a hole in the middle of the Joker’s forehead. Even if we didn’t see that at the time Hurt made his speech by looking back, Morrison expanded the theme in a way that was obvious. First there was a hole in Bruce’s memory concerning the Thogal ritual and whatever Hurt had done to him. Shortly thereafter there were the holes Darkseid created in his manipulation of time. And eventually, when we found ourselves reading Batman Incorporated, the holes where everywhere we looked, staring back at us. It was Talia’s dark “Gorgon eye”; it was the absence of parental guidance that she and Bruce shared; it was the bloody wound left in Damian’s chest after being driven through by a sword; it was the rupture this left between the boy’s already feuding parents; it was the clean mark left in Talia’s head where Kathy’s bullet sped through; it was their empty graves that Bruce found himself looking into after being released by GCPD; and, of course, it was the unseeable centre of Oroboros. Only…

We could see it the whole time. It’s the most obvious one of all, really: the hole left in Bruce’s heart on the night his parents were killed. “Two shots killed my father”, he tells Gordon. “The third bullet left a smoking hole in my mother’s new fur coat. It left a hole in me. A hole in everything.” Indeed, it’s this very hole that Bruce has spent his entire life trying to fill. But he can’t and won’t, not only because it wouldn’t be fitting as a character, but because the moment he does so, there’s no more to tell – it would be at that point that Doctor Hurt would finally get his wish of seeing Batman retire, and we as readers would never have another Batman story to read ever again. It’s not what I would call a limitation of the character but an actual necessity instead. By killing Talia, Kathy Kane emphasises one of these herself: “Batman doesn’t kill”. It’s one of the things that defines him, seen here alongside the emptiness the death of his parents left in his soul: “The pain was so terrible”, he tells Gordon, “I decided I could never love anyone ever again”. That won’t be a thing that ever happens either.

Which is why, getting back to point, I feel like Morrison may have ended the run sourly with Gordon’s last piece of dialogue, that comes across as being quite bleak right enough, when he perhaps should have done so with a follow up to this idea of a hole being left in Bruce. Continuing off-panel but being read back to use, Bruce told Gordon, “I looked into that hole in things over and over again until it hurt, Jim…and you know what I found in there? Nothing…A space big enough to hold everything.”

How beautiful is that? Not only is it an astonishing thing to say about the character himself, but it also represents why we love him so damn much too. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t really embrace other super heroes in the way I do Batman. Though they might be symbols of something else, the thing that makes Batman so unique is that we can empathise with him somewhat. No, I don’t mean we all have parents who were shot dead in front of us or anything like that. But I do believe that many of us, perhaps most of us for all I know, are trying to do good by ourselves – to realise that we have our own holes in our lives, our own things that make us vulnerable in some way or make us unhappy, and spend our lives fighting against them.

Which is why I think Morrison’s right – this from the afterword – that, “long after all of us have come and gone, there will be Batman” because the fact of the matter is that he, and numerous other invented characters, will still be significant then, and they always will be. Life goes on, with or without us, and as long as we all live, the possibilities of the imagination are endless; forever. A snake eating its own tail.

 

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“Batman R.I.P.”, Chapter 5: The Thin White Duke of Death (Batman #680)

Hello again, and welcome to our penultimate chapter of Batman R.I.P.

This one’s a doozy, although not a lot actually happens. Let’s get the less important stuff out of the way before we talk about Batman’s involvement in this chapter. First of all, we follow Gordon at the booby trapped Wayne Manor where – what’s this? – a wild Damian and Talia appear. Yeah, it’s a bit of a sudden appearance, I suppose only there because Damian will be the new Robin quite shortly. Meanwhile, we finally meet the members of the Black Glove who, perhaps surprisingly, and disappointing to some who were probably making wild theories at the time, simply turn out to be a bunch of rich folk, the likes of which are generals, cardinals and a Sheik, and they’re all here to bet, just as we saw in The Island of Mister Mayhew. Indeed, the Roulette wheel makes its appearance too, you know, for the sake of the whole red and black imagery. It’s all a game to Mr. Morrison and actually quite a simple one, as our unexciting introduction to the mysterious Black Glove is perhaps supposed to demonstrate.

But I really love this straightforward reveal, especially since it’s quite subtly foreshadowed as early as the first book, by Jezebel Jet of all people, a woman who, of course, is also revealed to be a member. There’s a reason she was repeating those lines about the rich after all – who’d have guessed? Honestly, I truly do wonder if anyone didn’t see that coming from the moment we began to see her and Bruce dating. Apparently Morrison wondered this too because he has the Joker say things like, “love really is blind”, and “jet-black irony” before the surprise itself, kind of like he’s knocking his fist against your head to see if there’s a functioning brain inside. Speaking of the Joker, we see him randomly kill El Sombrero (he looks pretty dead anyway, but for some reason I noticed that there’s a panel in which the cardinal pours wine over his body, which seemed kinda weird) and some henchmen, as well as attack Le Bossu, who rushes off to lobotomise Nightwing. But his scene where he transforms from the doctor of his profession to the monster within, Le Bossu, in front of the Joker is quite interesting because one might again wonder if the same isn’t true of Bruce Wayne and Batman.

So, Batman’s half of the chapter. Sadly we bid adieu to both the crazy costume and Bat-Mite. The latter’s quite a funny departure, however, and one that could have proved troubling because he flat out tells Batman that he’s “the last fading echo of the voice of reason”. Which, on the contrary to what I said last time about Batman calling the little imp “Might”, um, might mean that he doesn’t represent strength at all but the kind of deluded state that Batman might collapse into without Bruce. Or not. But it is interesting to note that, as Batman begins to return to normal at at the end of the chapter and Jezebel cries his real name (a point I’ll get back to), we see a shot of him with his cowl up where he says, “No. Not Bruce. I’m Batman”, then another with cowl down where he says, “I’m the Batman of Zur En Arrh”, only his lettering at this point has just turned back to normal too. So that’s kind of the opposite to his state with the imaginary Bat-Mite but still pretty interesting. Or not, again. Though I will say that it’s probably not coincidence that Batman asks Bat-Mite, “What’s next, soldier?”, just like Frank Miller’s Batman to Robin, and Bat-Mite then tells him that he must leave, Bruce returning at this point.

But, anyway, we get our fight with the Joker, though it ends quite simply too, which is actually quite suitable. You see, Batman yells a bunch of shit as he charges the Joker, all to do with the Dead Man’s Hand he dealt back in the prologue to this story – “Diamonds, clubs, rich people!” referring to the Black Glove, “Hearts and spades, love and death” referring to Jezebel being kidnapped and possibly killed, and then some other stuff about Harley’s pattern in The Clown At Midnight and how it all connects to the colours red and black. The funny part is that, even though he says all this, he also adds, “But that’s not it, is it?” to which the Joker replies, “That wouldn’t be the real joke, would it?” and then tells him that “the real joke [is his] bone deep conviction that somehow, somewhere, all of this makes sense!” Which is true because, as the reader, we know that the Joker hasn’t set all of this colour scheming up – the only reason he’s here, in fact, is to watch Batman fall, and because the Black Glove promised him Robin. It’s hard to say if the Black Glove themselves have been setting this up instead, but I’d doubt their deep involvement too, though Batman probably wouldn’t.

It exists for us, though, and Morrison shoves it in our faces to wrap up this chapter, so much so in fact that Batman breaks glass to get to Jezebel, only at which point the Joker begins repeatedly asking, “Now do you get it?” For those not in the meta-textual know-how, rectangular shaped objects such as the glass wall behind which Jezebel sits are often used in comics as a visual way of showing that, even within the imaginary world on the pages we’re reading, it’s all still two dimensional. So Batman does some fourth wall breaking of sorts, which gives Mr. Morrison – ahem, the Joker, I mean – the floor on which to start shouting, “Now do you get it?” as we see Jezebel Jet casually slip out of the straight jacket she’s in and pull on a black glove to complete her dress attire – and if I’ve never pointed it out before, for some reason, she’s a black woman with red hair by the way – just as Batman goes unconsciousness.

For the record, with such an epic conclusion to this chapter, on my initial reading I immediately had to read the last issue straight after. Spoilers: it’s also amazing. Really, if you think Morrison can’t do better than he does here, think again. See you then, and in the follow up post afterwards about this story as a whole.

“Batman R.I.P.”, Prologue (DC Universe #0) and Chapter 1: Midnight In The House of Hurt (Batman #676)

Welp, for a while there I thought I was never going to be writing this. “Soon” was when I said I’d be writing up this review but I see now that that was close enough to a month ago and, believe me, that list of games I’ve been playing has expanded quite significantly. Those will still be reviewed but probably no longer between posts of this Grant Morrison series, the exceptions perhaps being Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games which would be fairly suitable. Yeah, I sort of decided that I’d just focus on this long run for now, particularly since that, though I’m only reviewing this first part just now and will probably be writing about following issues alone too, I have already read Batman R.I.P. twice now and let me tell you: it is fucking amazing. So for god’s sake, let’s get into the thick of things.

So you probably noticed in the title that there’s a prologue to this particular story arc. It’s quite interesting for something that’s only three pages long but I guess it wasn’t Morrison’s plan at the time to create it. Indeed, I would assume it’s DC’s way of trying to get people to pick up the first issue of DC Universe, the sneaky buggers. But, hey, being only three pages, it’s a perfectly skippable story, though I am glad that it is included here as it’s a great introduction to what is one hell of a Batman story. In my February post I did say that I’d been in the process of actually writing this review but only got as far as spelling out my thoughts on this prologue. To be honest, though, I went a bit over the top in detail for three pages and it’s all fairly obvious. Hell, Joker’s choice of cards spelling out “haha”, which I thought was clever of me to notice on my first reading, is pointed out by Bruce in the second issue, and I don’t know why I bothered to point out the red and black colouring or Batman standing on checkerboard like tiles when the guy points all this out by repeating some of Joker’s lines from The Clown at Midnight: “Red and black. Life and death. The joke and the punchline.”

But I suppose there is two things worth pointing out that I’m sure some people might’ve missed on a first reading. First of all, the Joker only spells out “haha” and does a looping motion to the side of his head after pointing at Batman when the latter repeatedly asks, “What are you trying to tell me?” Well, he’s basically trying to say he’s crazy, and a later confrontation between the two in the book confirms a theory I had in The Clown at Midnight, which was that the Joker wants Batman to see that there is no point to his chaos and no point to him – he’s not set up a colour motive to get him thinking or, if he has, it’s only to fuck around with him. So there’s that.

The other thing, though you can’t exactly miss it, is the last two panels. The Joker reveals his signature card to complete the Dead Man’s Hand and in the last panel we zoom in so close to this card that it’s almost completely obscured by a small drop of blood. Whereas you might be led to believe, going from the title, that this spells bad news for Batman, it isn’t actually the case and I thought as much when I saw it. You see, it’s the Joker whose colour motive is black in this scene because, well, he’s the chaos; the evil that comes out at night whom Batman must face. Black might not be the perfect colour choice for all of the villains he must face but it’s very suitable here since we saw how unimaginable the Joker is in The Clown at Midnight; how unreal and undefinable, someone who defies understanding, like Chigurh of No Country of Old Men you may recall me saying, a fact that Batman is none too happy about, as we’ll discuss later. It’s Batman who stands underneath a red light. Though I’ll save it for the appropriate moment, this is a colour vitally important to Batman, and plays its role when he goes…well, you’ll see. Anyway, the blood obscuring the Joker card? Bad for the Joker and those of his ilk – not Batman.

That’s those three pages then. Incidentally, we actually reach the contents page after this prologue and not the other way about, which is another little interesting change. Before we reach the first real chapter we’re even greeted by one unusual image that we don’t see in the comic itself until quite later on. It’s a picture of a young Bruce Wayne crying in the rain, but with his arms outstretched as if he’s done something amazing (or perhaps just to mirror J.H. William’s cover of the book that’s on the opposite page where he makes a similar pose as Batman), quite reminiscent of Andy Dufresne’s escape from Shawshank State Prison in The Shawshank Redemption. It’s of course the young child by his parents graves, distraught but vowing to avenge their deaths, though he probably doesn’t realise yet that Batman is what he’ll become. There are also the words, “What we are about to do will be a work of art” above this image, words spoken by Doctor Hurt in the second issue, and I’ll talk about their significance to the story, perhaps Morrison’s entire run, then.

But let’s finally move on to the first chapter of R.I.P. now. It’s a pretty interesting start, so curious in fact that I looked up a few things after reading it. The very first page, for instance, is technically the present day of the story, this whole R.I.P. having taken place six months earlier, as is revealed on the second page. But you really need to see this first page to understand why it’s such an attention-grabbing start so, um, here ya go. Clearly that Robin is not Tim Drake and Batman’s face is completely obscured, making it unclear if it’s Bruce. It’s not, of course – this scene is from Dick Grayson’s tenure as the caped crusader which we won’t be seeing until we’ve read Final Crisis and Time and the Batman, and it is he who is shouting, “You’re wrong! Batman and Robin will never die!” It’s a bloody amazing line and I’m sure will prove significant when we catch up to this scene somewhere in the Batman and Robin series. The image itself is perfect, I might add – Tony S. Daniel is the artist behind this R.I.P. arc and, though I’ll be giving some more in-depth thoughts on his art overall at the end of the book, I will be pointing out the images he just nails of which there is quite a few in this book. Incidentally, I love the lettering used for this statement Grayson makes – it lends a certain emphasis to the words, again suggesting how significant they are to Morrison’s whole run. Oh, and notice the red skies. Though I can’t quite explain that phenomenon yet (I suspect it has something to do with Final Crisis which has a completely red front cover), it again recalls Batman’s colour, which is pretty interesting to note.

Immediately after this great little start we flashback as I say, and quite surprisingly find ourselves introduced to the complete cast of the Club of Villains, who were only mentioned in ye olde Batman stories but never, I believe, actually seen. You can probably guess who’s the nemesis of our Club of Heroes (or those that remain, I should say) from looking at them, but you learn their names as the story goes on. More surprising is that Doctor Hurt’s here too, representing the Black Glove organization that we don’t actually meet for a little while. No more secrets about who the main bad guy is then either. Straight after this we join Batman and Robin in pursuit of some crappy criminal who they capture with ease but…with their new Batmobile! Yep, it’s quickly revealed too and, though not as cool as I expected it to look, it’s still fairly well designed with red interior lighting and headlights, one might notice, once more recalling how important this will turn out to be. Next we catch up with Bruce spending some time with Jezebel, who last we met realised that Bruce was Batman, and Tim being all doubtful about how sane he is, and also whether or not Damian really is his son.

And to round things off, we do some catching up with the Joker over at Arkham Asylum in a sequence that ends in a very confusing manner. Basically the majority of his scene is a daydream he’s having when being asked what he sees when he looks at a Rorschach blot test. Though he quite humorously repeats, “Another pretty flower” in response to this, his mind is actually drifting off to a fantasy where the world dies laughing from his toxins, and he personally gets to kill Robin, Nightwing and Commissioner Gordon. But, quite confusingly, though we’ve caught up to reality by the last page’s close up of him, he’s still covered in blood from the fantasy. Somewhere on the internet this is explained as a colouring error and it’s a bit of a shame, but ah well. We learn that one of the villains, Le Bossu, has been in contact with the Joker and, sure enough, he’ll be causing his usual chaos quite soon, though you may be surprised by his latest transformation since we last saw him.

All in all, it’s a bit of a strange start but, believe me, it’s nothing compared to what’s coming. The next issue ends on quite the cliffhanger and the issue after that ends on an even bigger one, and after that…well, nothing is normal. But it’s amazing, or at least I think so, though I’ll talk about the arc overall when we reach its conclusion. Hopefully I’ll keep these posts coming as, although only six issues in length, there’s a lot to talk about, particularly since our reading chronology is going to get a little mixed up again because of two stories at the end of the book. Anyway, until next time.

“Batman and Son”, Interlude: The Clown at Midnight (Batman #663)

Boy, a lot of people sure seem to hate this one, huh? In some cases I can see why this is, and can even agree to a certain extent on some of the story’s flaws. For example, Morrison certainly does go a bit over the top with his metaphors and use of alliteration. Sure, such bizarre use of language made me wonder if there were a particular narrator behind the tale – the Black Glove of our next hardcover collection seeming a likely candidate – but it doesn’t mean he had to write long winding sentences for every little thing. But although I understand that particular irritation some people seem to have with this story, I’ve read a lot of stupid crap as well, such as the suggestion that the same story could have been told in the usual comic form. That’s true, of course, but what the people who say that don’t seem to realise is that it wouldn’t have been nearly as good or effective, and would’ve taken up at least two issues, though three or four sounds more likely. What we have instead is compressed storytelling at its finest, for managing to put together those several issues worth of comics into the one story, but also for doing so pretty well in my book.

Before we dive into an analysis in which I compare the Joker to Chigurh of No Country For Old Men (yes, really), here’s a basic story summary: some henchmen of the Joker are all mysteriously killed at a funeral, prompting Batman to confront the recovering lunatic at Arkham Asylum, which turns out to be fruitless since the chap can hardly talk after, you know, being shot in the head and all. But he does realise that the Joker’s speech therapist is actually Harley Quinn so goes off in pursuit of her before she can carry out any more of his plans. Alas, this ends in her escape just as Alfred tells Batman that the Joker’s causing mayhem at Arkham. We then follow him instead as he not only carries out his brutal escape, but re-imagines himself as a new Joker, one who has no need of Harley and attempts to kill her. Too late, though, as Batman intervenes, saving her. Which is bad for the Joker because Harley shoots him and Batman must drag him to an infirmary, at which point our story ends. It sounds simple, I know, but there’s actually a lot that goes on here. There’s throwbacks to other stories; there’s very clear themes brought to the surface; it’s a sequel, in a way, to Morrison’s own Arkham Asylum; and, most importantly, there’s the character study of the Joker, the whole point of it all.

We’ll start with the easiest thing to talk about: that it’s a sequel, in a sense of the ideas prevalent, to Arkham Asylum. Well, not only ideas within the story, I mean – Morrison brings over some familiar writing techniques, such as his emphasis on pattern, which we see here as a chessboard and in the focus upon the colours red and black. We’ll get to those, but I’d first like to talk about the parts of Arkham Asylum’s story that we see make a return. For one, there’s the concept that the Joker possesses a “super sanity” and, indeed, it plays a large role here. When I say he “re-imagines himself”, I mean that he really changes himself, in a rather freaky sequence. But what makes it frightening isn’t that he at one point during the transformation, for instance, goes through several spasms where his other incarnations wrestle for control, seemingly even changing his voice. No, what’s terrifying is that he’s actually in control – that the whole thing is planned, hence the title specifically referring to this reincarnation we’re presented with as “the clown at midnight”. It’s so planned, in fact, that Harley, who acknowledges his twisted genius quite a few times, shows up exactly as he planned her to – and ready, though not to her knowledge, for sacrifice.

That’s another thing making a return here – there’s a ritual in both stories, and they both almost end with a sacrifice. In Arkham Asylum it was the sacrifice of Batman that was nearly carried out, the ritual having been the attempt to drive him insane. But this time the Batman may as well be irrelevant, except for the Joker wanting him to witness his transformation. This is the ritual, and Harley, “the last and best of his lackeys” is nothing more than a “playing card” for Batman to witness the Joker lay out, like the checkmate on a chessboard – the sacrifice that will see the Joker reborn…or perhaps not. What’s really interesting from following the Joker so intimately in this issue is that we get a lot more insight into his own thoughts on the matter of his “super persona”. We know Harley believes in it – after all, it was she who created the persona phrase (“super sanity” is said by Ruth Adams in Arkham Asylum), to which Batman reminds her of. Likewise, Batman himself sees the patterns in the Joker’s plans. Indeed, when he rescues Harley, he already realises that he plans to kill her, having deduced it from the red and black pattern of her outfit, the very same colour pattern used in the poisonous roses he killed his former henchmen with at the beginning of the story. Back to Harley again, she at one point calls him “her Saint” after imagining that she sees a “radioactive light” emanating from his eyes.

That latter part is similar to a comparison the Joker makes of himself, or more specifically his mind, which “feels like it’s 8.15 am at ground zero in Hiroshima”.  In other words, his mental state is that of a devastating atomic explosion that was destructive in an apocalyptic sense, one thing we’ll shortly get back to. But, yes, he goes on to daydream of himself “giving birth from his mouth to pestilence and desolation”, and that he could be a personification of the bogeyman from which children will hide. To fully illustrate my point, we need to back a few pages to the transformation itself. Before the spasms begin he actually contemplates on his supposed super sanity, but his only answer to the question of it being true is a simple “maybe”, which is repeated at the start of each sentence in this particular passage. Going forward again, until the very end of the story, the Joker at that point tries to explain to Batman that there is no red and black pattern to what he’s doing, at least not intentionally. How he tries to explain that it’s little more than a fantasy that Batman’s making up, like someone trying to find logic behind the world’s more sadistic actions, curiously enough is by mentioning “a bat in a window”, which is of course how Batman is “born” in Frank Miller’s Year One, the point there being that even then our Dark Knight saw something, some act of fate apparently, that just doesn’t exist.

Before actually saying that – which Batman can’t even make out, by the way, or just doesn’t seem to understand (it’s difficult to tell but it may well be the latter since the Joker goes on to say that he could never kill him because he’s his “straight man”) – he even considers telling Batman that it’s the man himself who makes laugh the hardest because, as has been the subject of many Batman / Joker stories, they’re actually both very similar, “trying to find meaning in a meaningless world”, the Dark Knight by representing Order, and the Joker, Chaos. Shortly after saying this he does indeed say that he “simply wants Batman to give in to chaos”. Which led to me to think of this Joker as being quite like Cormac McCarthy’s Chigurh, of No Country For Old Men, in a way. That character’s a destructive force of evil too, and the other characters in that book also have a difficult time understanding him – why he kills, mercilessly and without any hesitation, anyone who gets in his way; and how he decides who lives and dies.

Which in turn reminds me of the philosophy of Frederick Nietzsche, particularly the idea that tragedy itself isn’t what gnaws at people’s minds, driving them to react in horror or disgust or what have you – but pointless tragedy. Kind of like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima that the Joker compares himself to, or the school shootings we hear about too often. Whatever the case, although the Joker perhaps thinks of himself in the same way as McCarthy’s Chigurh – as someone who acts through what they believe is common sense, and as someone who is a necessary evil – both characters actually share the same irony of being just as futile as any other human being. In No Country For Old Men it was a car crashing into Chigurh’s at the end of the book and film, as well as suffering multiple gunshot wounds before. So far in this run we’ve already seen the Joker get shot in the head by an impostor, that he probably should have seen through the guise of, and here again he is shot, this time unexpectedly by Harley, the same person he’d been planning to kill.

It’s an utterly fascinating portrayal of the Joker to me and I’m really excited to see where Morrison will take the character next. In fact, one terrifying thing I didn’t even mention is that Morrison has had the Joker’s face stuck in a permanent smile, something which even surprises Harley at first, and something which seems quite suitable. If I’m right in my comparison to Chigurh, or simply the idea of him from this point onwards existing solely for destruction’s sake, then I can’t think of anything more fitting for a character like him, killing because, as far as he’s concerned, life itself is one meaningless joke, moving forwards on his apocalyptic path with a great big smile plastered on his face. To put it simply: whenever we next see him, I expect that it will not be good at all.

Before I leave you with some additional notes I made, there’s a few more things worth talking about briefly. First of all, I mentioned that there were throwbacks to other stories involving the Joker. The brunt of these are seen during his transformation stage, but the earliest reference is of two of the dwarves from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke making a return appearance. Well, one’s killed straight off the bat, but the other, called Sheba, a name I’ll come back to, survives and we briefly read from her perspective where she recalls the Joker’s “short-lived ringmaster-from-Hell phase”, which is where she was involved in tormenting Jim Gordon at a carnival the Joker had stolen for the purposes of driving that character insane. That’s only one though. During his reinvention I mentioned that the Joker appeared to vocally change into his other other persona’s. Whether he does or not isn’t really relevant, but he does repeat familiar sounding dialogue. Alas, I only recognised two such lines. One, from The Killing Joke, is “And I’m looony like a lightbulb-battered bug”, part of the song he sings to Gordon during his little ghost train ride. The other I recognised is from Arkham Asylum, naturally, and is his “Aren’t I just good enough to eat?” line that he says on his first physical appearance in that story. There’s more, which sound like probable references as well, but either way, my point is that “references” may not be the best word. Although they could just be that, I actually think, like the character of Batman, Morrison is making all previous Joker stories canon as well. Obviously I don’t expect that he’ll go into as much depth, but I do believe that this is the case anyway, which is quite interesting.

The other thing I want to mention, quickly, is that Morrison springs up some themes here, ones that I expect we’ll be seeing more of. Most obviously, there’s the idea of transformation, emphasised further than I’ve mentioned so far with the comparison to a snake shedding its skin. The reason I bother to mention it again after already talking about the Joker so much is that I wonder now if it’ll be something that isn’t already applying to Batman. As I’ve been pointing out for a while now, this Batman is a little weird, and I can’t help but think that any major change that happens, such as my suggestion that he may go insane at some point during this run, could actually be permanent – the birth of a new Batman. Indeed, one of the later trade paperbacks is called The Return of Bruce Wayne, taking place after he’s somehow killed by this Darkseid character in Final Crisis, strongly emphasising this possibility.

Another noticeable theme, which I predicted when we first met Jezebel Jet, is that religion would be playing a role. There’s quite a lot of religious references going on in this tale, believe it or not. For one, there’s another comparison the Joker makes of himself to Shiva, a Hindu god often referred to as “the destroyer”, although also “the transformer”, I guess for the changes it can make to the world. Don’t worry – I won’t pretend I know anything about this particular religion, but I would like to mention one other god. You see, “the destroyer” seems to be more like what Morrison is referring to if you connect it back to Hiroshima, which the Joker already compared himself to. This video is an excerpt of an interview with Oppenheimer (look him up), years after his atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, in which he compares his feelings at the time to a Hindu god called Vishnu, also confusingly called “the destroyer of worlds”. So again, the Joker’s comparing himself to some hellishly angry gods. In fact, one small thing I forgot to do in my comparison of him to Chigurh was to go in depth into how the latter uses the flip of a coin, much like Harvey Dent, to decide who lives and dies to which a few character’s, particularly the main one’s wife, angrily respond to as his decision as some kind of deity who can decide who to kill and not kill.

Aaanyway, before I go off on a further tangent, the other religious reference is to the Queen of Sheba. To be honest, I cheated here and looked up some reviews of this issue going as in depth as I am, in which I found someone point out that this queen is from the Old Testament, and not the New, significant because that the character with this name, one of the dwarves from The Killing Joke, is nearly killed by Harley as part of the Joker’s rebirth. In other words, killing the Old Testament to bring in the New. Clever, eh? The only other reference, which might not even be one at all, is the line “fish being gutted” that the Joker repeats at one point. Though not certain, I could swear that has something to do with Christianity, vaguely remembering some symbol of a fish in a church I used to go to. If so, “being gutted” could be a way of saying, “In with the new religion [chaos, I suppose], out with the old” again.

The last theme ties back to that one line I said the Joker made when attempting to get Batman to understand that there was no bat that made him who he is, and that’s this belter: “Life…and death. The joke…and the punchline”. It’s literally just as it sounds – pure existential nihilism coming from the Joker. But, also, with the way he directs this at Batman in reference to that character’s birth, he’s trying to suggest that the Batman is the opposite of this philosophy, trying to create meaning out of every little detail. Which in turn ties back to what I found curious about Batman’s concern when Tim Drake was nearly killed by Damian recently: that being that he seemed more concerned about losing Robin than Tim himself. This in turn reminded me of V For Vendetta, funnily enough, in which the lead character tells the detective who kills him, “Ideas are bulletproof”. And what is Batman and Robin, if not an idea? If not a personification of Order against the Chaos of the Joker? But what if they’re not concrete at all? What if, like the Joker in this story, things will change? It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if that were actually the case, if what Morrison is really intending to do with this run is reinvent the Batman mythos itself. Alas, we can only wait to find out.

Some small notes then to close us off:

– In a section in which Batman stands atop one of Gotham’s buildings and just surveys the city there’s a curious focus on the neon colours of red, purple and yellow. It surely isn’t a coincidence that these are the colours of Tlano’s costume, the Batman from Zur-En-Arrh, the name of which we’ve seen graffitied on walls already. Not really sure what it could mean here though unless it’s merely foreshadowing through colour.

– Morrison refers to this new iteration of the Joker as “the Thin White Duke of Death” at one point, a very clever David Bowie reference. You see, David Bowie isn’t only a great singer – he’s a great showman too. And by comparing the Joker to him Morrison is thinking of other writer’s approach to the character; how he’s a fan favourite because of all the ways he’s been reinvented over the years, as has Bowie re-imagined his image.

– “I’m a cockroach!” is a phrase the Joker cries as his transformation begins and I think it might be a reference to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which the lead character wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into the insect.

– Contrary to what I said above about references not really “existing” in that way, there is one that I doubt is supposed to be part of the Joker’s entire canon, and that’s a reference to Frank Miller’s much-parodied Batman of All Star Batman and Robin: “He simply wants the goddamn Batman to finally get the goddamn joke”. This follows, if you’re wondering, the section where he considers telling Batman that he’s the person he finds funniest, meaning that the joke he refers to here is actually life itself, or more specifically, their lives as the embodiments of good and evil. Still, the “goddamn” part seems like a jab at Miller.

– With all the nods to The Killing Joke that I’ve mentioned, it may not come as a surprise that this story also begins and ends with a focus on rain. Seems Mr. Moore has himself a big fan in the form of Morrison.

Well, that’s all I can muster up for now. No doubt that this will be a story we’ll be revisiting during this run, though, as I’m sure some of the small details that I’ve mentioned, and failed to, will prove significant later on. And for the record, though this may seem like blasphemy when speaking of comics, this has been my favourite issue so far. Honestly, I just don’t understand how people can hate it so much. The only big piece of criticism levelled at it that I can perhaps get behind is that it’s retreading old ground in a way, you know, as another study of the Batman and Joker being so similar. Still, I think Morrison made it more interesting than most writers could, and I’d hope it’s a story that opinions will change on over time. It certainly kicks The Killing Joke’s ass as a Joker story, that’s for sure.

However, we’re now going back to the good old comics, starting with The Three Ghosts of Batman which I assume will pick up the pieces from where we left off in Absent Fathers. After that we only have two more issues before we round off this book’s chapter in the run. Hopefully I can get through them more quickly, as I’m eager to move on to the next book. Either way, see you next time.