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Re-Reading Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic — Part One

March 25th, 2013
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After completing my big project of catching up on Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern saga, I decide to dive back into another DC Comics epic: Grant Morrison’s long run on Batman.  Mr. Morrison took over the Batman title back in 2006, and he’s been spinning a long, complex Batman yarn on and off ever since.  (His story appears to be in its final stages in the pages of Batman Inc.).   Unlike Green Lantern, I followed this story as it was published, and have re-read many of the individual issues ever since, but I always felt this story would be best enjoyed when read all together, as a whole.  It’s been… well, interesting, to say the least!

Batman # 655-658 — This first four-part story, illustrated by Andy Kubert, starts things off strong.  Mr. Morrison is one of the best writers out there at writing a dynamite first issue, and his first Batman story is no exception.  Issue #655 kicks things off with all kinds of crazy moments, starting with Commissioner Gordon getting poisoned by the Joker and thrown off of the roof of the Gotham Police HQ, and then Batman shooting the Joker right in the head.  Oh yeah, and then Mr. Morrison finally brings the seminal but usually ignored 1987 graphic novel Son of the Demon, by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham, into continuity by reintroducing the son Bruce Wayne fathered with Talia, the daughter of the crime-lord Ra’s al Ghul.

Its a really strong opening, and the issues that follow are also very entertaining.  There’s all sorts of madcap craziness with Talia’s army of man-bat ninjas, and a bravura sequence in issue #656 in which Batman fights the man-bats in the middle of a modern pop-art gallery.  There are lots of Roy Lichtenstein-style paintings drawn into the backgrounds of the panels, and the old-style comic-booky captains and thought balloons drawn into those paintings in the background serve as a funny running commentary to the main story being played out in the foreground.  It’s a very clever piece of work.

The centerpiece of the story is the introduction of Batman’s son, Damian, an arrogant pup who is nevertheless a brutally efficient warrior, having been trained since birth by the League of Assassins.  This is a bold new direction in which to take a Batman story, that’s for sure, and Mr. Morrison makes a nice meal out of it in these early issues.  It’s fun to see how this little terror makes everyone in the Bat-family crazy, particularly Robin (Tim Drake).

But while these issues are very strong, the seeds of problems that will bug me more as Mr. Morrison’s run continues can be seen even here.  Specifically, unneeded confusion in the storytelling.  I have read that first issue, #655, countless times over the years, and I still don’t really understand what the heck happened up there on the roof of police headquarters in those opening pages.  So, the Batman who the Joker beats up wasn’t really Batman, it was someone else?  And that impostor Batman is the one who shoots the Joker?  But what them happens to that impostor Batman?  We seem to see him getting wheeled out in a body bag on page seven.  So how did he die?  And who was he exactly?  And how did the Joker survive a bullet to the face at point blank range?  I don’t know if the fault lies in Mr. Morrison’s story or in Mr. Kubert’s (otherwise very strong) art, but this sequence of events is totally unclear, and starts the whole story off on a note of confusion that I can’t believe was intentional.

Batman #663 — Issues #659-663 were fill-ins (sort of embarrassing, so early in a run), and Mr. Morrison returned with this stand-alone issue, one of the most masterful issues in his run.  This story is told in prose text, with accompanying illustrations by John van Fleet.  This story, “the Clown at Midnight,” focuses on the Joker, and introduces Mr. Morrison’s very clever idea that the Joker’s psychosis allows him to completely reinvent his personality on a regular basis. This is an exceedingly clever way to provide an in-continuity way to explain the many different depictions we have seen of the Joker over the years, from the merry prankster to the stone-cold killer.  In this issue, Mr. Morrison introduces a truly scary new look and personality for the Clown Prince of Crime.  It’s a very successful reinvention of this classic villain, and I love Mr. Morrison’s beautiful prose text in this issue.  This is a classic.

Batman #664-665 — Andy Kubert returned to illustrate this two-parter, that begins to set the stage for the next big story-arc, as we are introduced to the mystery of the three impostor Batmen. (Since we only meet two Batmen in these issues, the implication is that the killer Batman in that first issue was one of this three-some, though I am still fuzzy on who that was, how/and why he came to be released to fight the Joker atop police HQ, and what ultimately happened to him.) We also get the introduction of Bruce Wayne’s mysterious Black Casebook, in which he apparently recorded all of the weird cases from his career that he couldn’t explain (“vampires, flying saucers, time travel”). As with the Joker and his rotating personalities, this seems to be Mr. Morrison’s idea as to how to keep ALL of Batman’s adventures, including all of his goofy pre-Crisis adventures, in continuity.  But to me, this idea isn’t executed nearly as well as the Joker one, and I kept waiting for more of an explanation as to these Black Casebooks — what they were, and whether they had a greater significance in the Black Glove/Batman R.I.P. story that was coming. (It doesn’t appear to me that they did.  At one point, Batman comments that one of his casebooks is missing, which leads one to suspect that a conspiracy is afoot and perhaps the bad guy got ahold of these casebooks and that this helped in the developing plan to destroy Batman.  But then, later, we see Robin eating a sandwich and reading one of the casebooks.  So I guess not.)

Mr. Kubert’s artwork can get a bit silly at times (the issue-ending splash page at the end of #664, showing the huge foot impression the huge impostor Batman made on Batman’s back after stomping on him, is a little more cartoony than I’d usually expect, but it’s a terrifically memorable image), but overall his really enjoy his style.  There’s a great image of Batman standing in the rain, beneath the huge neon-lit signs of downtown Gotham (issue #664, page 10) that is an absolutely spectacular image.

Batman #666 — Another spectacular done-in-one issue, “Batman in Bethlehem” jumps into the future, telling a tale of the now fully-grown Damian who has inherited the mantle of Batman and now fights crime in Gotham City as his father once did.  There is no “it’s all a dream” ending, this is just presented an an in-continuity adventure, which I absolutely love.  Taking advantage of the issue’s number, Mr. Morrison spins a yarn of the Antichrist and the apocalypse in Gotham, which just happens to involve the last of the impostor Batmen.  I love this issue.

Batman #667-670 — Coming right on the heels of that great issue comes this three-part storyline, another highlight of Mr. Morrison’s run.  Batman is called to a reunion of the “Club of Heroes,” a super-friends like group of international Batman-inspired crime fighters.  The group broke up years ago, but have now all been mysteriously summoned to the island of the wealthy man who originally backed the group.  The nostalgic gathering turns deadly when someone starts murdering the has-been superheroes one by one.  I love this great mystery story, and the whole thing is taken into the stratosphere by J.H. Williams III’s gorgeous painted artwork.  I believe this was my first encounter with Mr. Williams’ work, and his ingenious device of using different artistic styles to depict the different characters.  It’s a great game of comic book history to try to identify the particular artistic style/influence Mr. Williams uses to draw each individual member of the Club of Heroes.  He goes for a lushly painted look for Batman himself, resulting in some of the most gorgeous illustrations of this character that I have ever seen.  Cross that with his very creative page and panel-layouts, often working the shape of the bat-symbol into the page designs, and you have museum-quality comic book storytelling on display.  Amazing stuff.

At this point, Mr. Morrison was off to a pretty dynamite run on Batman!  These early issues contain some really bold, original Batman stories.  But things get a lot weirder in the issues to come.  I’ll be back next week to discuss!

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