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Re-reading Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic — Part Two

Last week I began my look back at Grant Morrison’s years-long run on Batman!  His run got off to a great start, but then things got a little shaky:

The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul — this storyline crossed over through Batman, Detective Comics, Robin, and Nightwing.  I was very excited to read Grant Morrison’s take on Ra’s al Ghul, but this crossover was a huge disappointment.  The artwork on all off the titles ranged from terrible to atrocious, really downright embarrassing for such high-profile DC titles.  In addition to being just plain bad, the artwork is completely inconsistent from issue to issue, with, for example the look and costumes of Ra’s and Talia being totally different from issue to issue.  (In one issue, Ra’s is a decomposing zombie in tattered rags, in the next he looks pretty normal just with some bubbles on his skin.)  I understand different artists having different styles, but this is ridiculous.  And the storytelling is totally inconsistent as well, with, for example, Grant Morrison writing Damian as an arrogant little bastard, while some of the writers on the other books depicted him as being far more sympathetic.  (And all sorts of other snafus such as Damian escaping from Ra’s’ men at the end of Batman #670, and then the next issue, Robin #168, opening with Ra’s’ men reporting that they lost Batman.  Who they weren’t even chasing!!)  And ultimately, most damningly, the crossover amounted to nothing at all.  Rather than being the Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul, as it was titled (which I had assumed would mean the return of Ra’s to prominence and significance in Batman stories moving forward), in the story’s epilogue in Detective Comics #840, Batman easily defeats Ra’s and takes him off the board.  What a waste!  What, then was the point of that whole story??

Batman # 672-675 —  Tony Daniel, who took over drawing Batman during the Ra’s al Ghul crossover, continues as the series’ artist, a real disappointment to me.  I was let down at the time, and I still am, that Andy Kubert only drew seven issues of this run with Mr. Morrison.  I never cared for Tony Daniels’ artwork, I found it messy and lacking in clarity.  I wonder if I would have enjoyed this part of Mr. Morrison’s Batman run more had a higher quality artist been illustrating it.  It’s a big what-if for me.  In these issues, Mr. Morrison returns to the weird story he had been spinning several issues earlier, when he introduced the the imposter Batmen and the black casebook.

In these issues, one of the imposter Batmen attacks police HQ.  When Batman intervenes, the impostor shoots Batman in the chest, and he also shoots commissioner Gordon.  (In a bad case of dropped-ball storytelling, Gordon easily survives this, just as he inexplicably survived being poisoned by the Joker and thrown off a roof in Mr. Morrison’s first issue.  We clearly see Gordon get shot in the chest at the end of #672, but in the next issue he is up and about, just walking with a limp.)  Batman, meanwhile, goes into cardiac arrest, and then the weirdness begins.  In issue #673, “Joe Chill in Hell,” Mr. Morrison presents us with a multi-level tale, several stories all told to us at once as each panel hops from story-to-story.  Batman has been shot, and is being tortured by one of the impostor Batman.  A year before, Batman engages in the Thogal ritual at Nanda Parbat, seven-weeks in isolation designed to simulate death and after-death.  Some years before that, Batman agrees to undergo ten days of isolation, as part of an experiment to simulate space-travel.  (This was apparently really a story told in a Batman comic of the ’60s — specifically, Batman #156 from 1963.) Did all of these events really happen?  Did one of them cause Batman to experience a psychotic break?  And what are we to make of the Joe Chill story woven throughout, in which Batman terrifies the man who shot his parents, night after night, leading Chill to commit suicide.  Is this a hallucination?  Or did this really happen?  I have no idea!  In the context of issue #673, this enigmatic, multi-layer and fractured storytelling is thrilling.  It’s only when I sit back and try to make sense of the larger story being told that I start to get frustrated.  I want to know more about the identity of the mysterious Dr. Hurt, and the connection between Batman’s two apparent experiences with extended periods of isolation.  I want to know more about these impostor Batmen, where they have been (in the years since this crazy program to create replacement Batmen was shut down), why they were brought back to Gotham now, and what the heck happened to them at the end of the story.  (They seem to all still be on the loose, except for the one who maybe died in Mr. Morrison’s first issue.). The whole thing lacks closure, which bugs me.

Batman: R.I.P.: Batman #676-681 — And so at last we arrive at this six-part storyline, Batman R.I.P.  This is very possibly the apotheosis of weirdness in Mr. Morrison’s storyline.  With that ominous title, the story felt like it would be a culmination of something, and I suppose perhaps in the end it was, though not in the way I had expected or hoped.  At the same time that he was writing this story, Mr. Morrison was also writing the crossover series Final Crisis (which I wrote about here), in which Batman is apparently killed by Darkseid.  You’d think this parallel story being told in Batman, written by the same author and titled Batman R.I.P., would connect in some way, but it doesn’t.  Batman is still alive and well at the end of this storyline.  Well, actually, he does seem to die in a helicopter explosion at the end of #681, and we see Nightwing holding up his tattered costume, a portentous image.  But we know from Final Crisis, and also the next issue of Batman, #682, that Batman survived that explosion, no sweat.  He goes on to investigate the shooting of Orion in Final Crisis, and is then killed in an entirely different way — by Darkseid’s omega beams.  So what was the point of the whole fake-out Batman death at the end of Batman R.I.P.??

So what else happens in Batman R.I.P.?  The Black Glove turns out not to be a delusion, but in fact is a new criminal mastermind with designs on destroying Batman.  He seems to be the same Dr. Hurt who ran the space experiment isolation program that Batman participated in years ago (in a story from 1963 referenced heavily by Mr. Morrison in previous issues, as I have noted), and he is using the insight he gained into Batman’s mind through from experiment to try to break him.  He assembles a group of super villains, they attack Batman’s team (Robin, Nigtwing, etc), invade and destroy the Batcave, and activate a trigger placed in Batman’s mind years ago to shut him down.

But Batman survives, because Mr. Morrison’s version of Batman is a man who has trained himself to anticipate every possible scenario.  I love this depiction of Batman, by the way.  (And it led to one of my favorite moments from this whole run, back in issue #674, when Batman escapes from an impossible situation when it’s revealed that this impossible situation is just one of thousands of impossible situations that Batman had thought of and figured out how to escape from.)  Batman even anticipated having his mind stolen by an enemy, so at some point in the past he created an alternate personality to activate if his mind was ever shut down.  (“But that’s the thing about Batman,” we read in the beginning of issue #681.  “Batman thinks of everything.”)  And so the Batman of “Zur En Arh”emerges, stitching together a Bat-suit made of rags, and coming back to take down the Black Glove.  I adore this image of Batman as the man who thinks of everything, but the gone-insane Batman in a yellow-and-purple Bat-suit of rags that we get in the closing issues of this story-line feels like a bridge too far for me.  (This is another reference to a silly Batman story from a bygone era — in this case, Batman #113 from 1958, in which Batman meets an alien, dressed in a weird yellow-and-purple Bat-suit from the planet Zur En Arh.)

This storyline was exceedingly confusing to read month-to-month.  It makes a little more sense when when read all at once, and many pieces fit together wonderfully.  I love, for example, that the big splash page on page one of part one (issue #672), is actually the very END of the story (and should be read after the last panel on the second-to-last page of issue #681.).  That is very cool.

But I am also left with a lot of questions.  First of all, the whole Zur En Arh thing is exceedingly weird, and I kept expecting that gibberish phrase to have some greater meaning.  I’ve never read that Batman story from 1958, so I kept waiting for some sort of explanation of what that phrase meant, and where it came from, an explanation which never came.  Having read on-line about Batman #113, I guess the idea is that EITHER that silly story never happened, and was just a hallucination by Batman, OR it did happen, and that event was the inspiration for this secret sub-personality that Batman created for himself.  But I really shouldn’t have to head to google to try to make sense of a Batman story.

Furthermore, I am confused by the Black Glove.  Just who is this master criminal?  Where did he come from?  Why has he devoted so much time and effort to destroy Batman, and what has he been doing all these years (since Dr. Hurt’s space experiments all those years ago)?  Assuming he is not actually a still-alive Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father, a bizarre possibility thrown out almost as a side-bar, late in this story), then who exactly is this new super-smart character?  I actually preferred the suggestion in issue #677, that a paranoid Batman made this unbeatable super-villain up himself, to the muddied non-explanation that we got.  I also must say I did not care for the I-was-a-villain-all-along revelation about Batman’s love interest, Jezebel Jet.  A disappointingly comic-booky turn of events.  (The woman in the story MUST be evil!!  Sigh.)

Batman #682-683 —  “Last Rites.”  Anyone expecting some clarity after the confusing Batman R.I.P. would be sorely disappointed by this two parter, which if anything is even more confusing and more fractured than that story-line.  The setting of this story isn’t made clear until the very last page of issue #682, in which we learn that the story is apparently taking place inside Batman’s head after he was captured by Darkseid’s men in Final Crisis.  The issue jumps around in time all through Batman’s career as we hop around through his origin and his early exploits, veering off into tangents real and imagined as we sweep into alternate depictions of Batman’s history side-by-side with the genuine experiences.  Sometimes we wander into Alfred’s imaginations, sometimes into Bruce Wayne’s, and sometimes we see false memories implanted by Darkseid’s men in an effort to defeat Bruce Wayne’s indomitable mind.  Are you with me?

But whereas I found the confusion of Batman R.I.P. to be frustrating, I sort of adore the crazy, totally non-linear storytelling of these two issues.  If the artwork had been even half-way decent, this two-parter might have been a real masterpiece.  As it is, Mr. Morrison’s super-complex story — a game of cat and mouse inside the very mind of one of the most brilliant men in the world –is very poorly served by the sketchy, muddy artwork.  Oh well.  I still sort of love this super-weird two-parter, particularly for the glimpses that appear to be genuine of Bruce Wayne’s early years as Batman.  There are lot of clever little bits of insight into Batman, such as Bruce’s comment in one panel that he only engaged in all the games of riddles and clues with his cadre of super-villains because young Robin loved it.  (And the panel in which Robin draws a connection between Batman’s story and that of Hamlet is pure genius.)

And with the end of this issue, Batman was apparently dead and the Batman books totally reorganized themselves.  New writers and artists took over Batman, and Grant Morrison began writing a new Batman title, Batman and Robin, which depicted Nightwing (original Robin Dick Grayson) taking up the mantle of Batman, while Damian stepped into the role of Robin.

A this point in re-reading Mr. Morrison’s large story, I have very mixed feelings.  On the one hand, I enjoy the complex web of stories he has been weaving, and there have been a number of really spectacular one-shot stories.  But Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis were both big messes, very confusing to read on their own and not at all connected to one another, even though both were written by Mr. Morrison.  What should have been an epic one-two punch of stories, a culmination of Mr. Morrison’s story-lines, instead feels like a big speed-bump, an abrupt track-change that threw off what had been a fascinatingly complex Batman yarn. I have enjoyed many of the individual issues from Mr. Morrison’s run so far, but overall it doesn’t quite feel like a coherent story.

But there’s lots more to come!  I will be back soon with a look at the “Battle for the Cowl” and Mr. Morrison’s run on Batman and Robin.

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