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Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic Part 6: Batman Incorporated

Back in 2006, Grant Morrison began writing DC Comics’ flagship Batman title.  Now, seven years (and two title changes) later, Mr. Morrison’s epic Batman saga has concluded.  Over the past six months I have had a heck of a time re-reading Mr. Morrison’s story from start to finish, along with a lot of the other Batman comics written in the past few years before the DC Comics universe-wide reboot called “The New 52.”

You can follow these links to read my previous reviews of the last several years of Batman stories: Part 1 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, part 2 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, Batman: The Animated series’ Paul Dini’s run on Detective Comics, the post-death-of-Bruce-Wayne stories that culminated in Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, the re-launch of the Bat-books under the Batman: Reborn bannerPart 3 of Grant Morrison’s run, the launch of the new Batman and Robin seriesPart 4 of Grant Morrison’s run, Time and the Batman, Part 5 of Grant Morrison’s run, The Return of Bruce Wayneand The Long Road Home, the story of the return of Bruce Wayne to life and the DCU.

Mr. Morrison had killed of Bruce Wayne in Final Crisis, the DC-wide crossover miniseries he masterminded, settling off a major re-shuffling of all of DC Comics’ Batman books.  In the newly-launched Batman and Robin title, Mr. Morrison chronicled the exploits of the new Batman-and-Robin team: Dick Grayson (the former Robin who had become his own solo super-hero Nightwing, before assuming the mantle of the Bat following Bruce Wayne’s death) and Damian Wayne (the son of Bruce Wayne and Talia — the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul — from the 1987 graphic novel Son of the Demon by Mike W. Barr and Jeremy Bingham, a tale that had been considered out-of-continuity until Mr. Morrison’s story).  But, of course, it wasn’t likely that Bruce Wayne would stay dead for long, and sure enough, after just a little over a year, Mr. Morrison wrote the return of Bruce Wayne in the mini-series titled, creatively, The Return of Bruce Wayne.  Published simultaneously, Mr. Morrison brought many of his long-running story-lines to a head in the pages of Batman and Robin, as Dick Grayson and Damian confronted the villainous Dr. Hurt (a silly villain from the ’60s who Mr. Morrison brought to prominence in his story-line, making him a credible threat to our heroes despite his goofy name) and were reunited with Bruce Wayne.  In the final pages of Mr. Morrison’s last issue of Batman and Robin, we see Bruce Wayne call a press conference to reveal that he has been publicly funding the Batman’s operations for years, and to announce that he and Batman would be expanding their operations to create Batman Incorporated, a global network of crime-fighters.

The return of Bruce Wayne led to another major re-shuffling of DC’s Batman comics.  Mr. Morrison left Batman and Robin to launch yet another new Batman comic (as he had done with Batman and Robin just a little over a year earlier): Batman Incorporated.  Mr. Morrison’s run on this series would prove to be the final arc of his long Batman saga.

The early issues of Batman Incorporated show the process of Batman’s setting up this new world-wide operation.  Mr. Morrison brought back many of the international crime-fighters he had introduced way back in the “Club of Heroes” story-line years earlier, in Batman #667-670.  This is one of the great characteristics of Mr. Morrison’s work, the way small details will come back into play years later.

The first two issues of Batman Incorporated are phenomenal, and they show just how skilled Mr. Morrison is as a writer, even without the baggage of the complicated, head-spinning complexity he usually brings to his stories.  This two-issue story-line is a fairly simple Batman adventure, which makes it all the more fun to read, as Mr. Morrison spins a ripping super-hero yarn.  In the story, Batman brings Catwoman to Japan so the two of them can recruit Japan’s super-hero, Mr. Unknown, into the new Batman Incorporated.  Unfortunately, when they arrive they find him brutally murdered.  There is so much I love about this story.  I love Mr. Morrison’s use of Catwoman, and the way he picks up the threads of Batman’s relationship with Catwoman that Paul Dini had written so wonderfully in his earlier run on Detective Comics.  (Sadly, Mr. Dini’s story-line, which finally brought some forward momentum to decades of Batman and Catwoman’s flirtations, was mostly ignored by the Batman writers who followed him.  Mr. Morrison’s story in these two issues is a major exception.)  The murder of Mr. Unknown is classic Grant Morrison in both its brutality, which gives the story a real sense of danger and menace for our heroes, and also the mystery of what happened and why.  In another classic Morrison beat, he takes an old villain — in this case, Death Man, who first appeared in Detective Comics #180 back in 1966 — and turns him into a dangerous villain.  The artwork by Yanick Paquette & Michael Lacombe is staggeringly gorgeous.  Mr. Morrison’s Batman run has been marred by some sub-par art, but Mr. Paquette & Mr. Lacombe make perfect artistic collaborators for Mr. Morrison’s story.  I love their clean linework and incredible eye for detail.  They draw gorgeous women, reminiscent of the work of Adam Hughes (thus making Catwoman’s appearance in this story even more enjoyable) and incredible action sequences.  The artwork is a feast, and I would often linger on each page, just drowning in the details of the illustrations.  Magnificent.

In the fourth issue, Mr. Morrison starts to ramp up his usual head-spinning weirdness.  The fairly straightforward story-telling of the first three issues fractures and suddenly, as we read the comic, we are enmeshed in multiple simultaneous narratives, taking place across decades of history.  In the present day, we follow Batwoman’s trail of the criminal Johnny Valentine and the mystery of Oroboro (which will be a key plot point for the remainder of the series), and we see Batman and El Gaucho try to extricate themselves from a dangerous predicament.  At the same time, we follow the life of Kathy Kane, from the death of her husband, to her taking up the mantle of Batwoman, to her love affair with Bruce Wayne, to her breaking Bruce’s heart and leaving Gotham City.  That’s right, in the same story that features the current Batwoman, Grant Morrison decided to dig deeply into DC Comics’ history to bring the original Batwoman (from the ’50s-’70s), Kathy Kane, back into present-day continuity.  Ever since 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths and the continuity reshuffle that followed, Kathy Kane was no considered to be a part of current DC Comics continuity.  I am astounded by Mr. Morrison’s move to change that, and to introduce a huge new layer of heretofore unknown Batman continuity.

This is also the point at which Mr. Morrison’s story starts to get very complicated.  We’re introduced to the character, Otto Netz, who at first appears to be the villain mastermind behind the new super-villain threat, Leviathan, of which Batman is on the trail.  In issue #5, we explore the backstory of Otto Netz, also known as Doctor Dedalus, a Nazi who has been searching for the mysterious Oroboro since World War II.  Netz also seems to have a connection to the spy agency called Spyral, where he was known as Agent Zero.  He also may or may not have Alzheimers.  Batman and his team track Netz down, but while they think they have him cornered it turns out he is far away, working to create a “ring around the Earth.”  We get lots of connections and many more questions — at this point in the story neither Batman nor the reader really knows what the heck is going on.

Issues #6-7 broaden the story even further, as Batman recruits even more allies in his fight against Leviathan and its mysterious leader.  Many new characters enter the fray (several more members of the “Club of Heroes” return, and the new Batman of Africa, “Batwing,” is introduced) and the action returns to Gotham City.  Mr. Morrison is also united with Chris Burnham, who will be his primary artist for the rest of his run.  I miss Yanick Paquette’s work, but while Mr. Burnham’s style is very different, it is absolutely incredible and a wonderful look for Mr. Morrison’s stories.  Mr. Burham’s work is reminiscent of frequent Morrison collaborator Frank Quitely — his delicate lines, his eye for detail, and his wonderfully expressive faces — but with a style and energy all his own.

Issue #8 is a stand-alone story, much of which takes place in an artificial 3-D representation of Gotham City, what Batman calls “Internet 3.0.”  Fittingly, the art by Scott Clark and Dave Beaty looks entirely computer-generated.  (It reminds me of Batman: Digital Justice, by Pepe Morino, a computer-generated graphic novel from about twenty years ago.)

At that point, unfortunately, Batman Incorporated was interrupted.  In the middle of Mr. Morrison’s final story-line, DC Comics decided to completely reboot their entire universe.  They re-started all of their comic book series at issue #1, and wiped out all of the previous decades-worth of continuity.  Because they launched 52 new titles, they called his newly rebooted universe “The New 52.”  (The number 52 has actually been significant in the DCU for years now, starting with the weekly series called 52 that led up to Final Crisis, as well as the idea that there were 52 different universes in the DC Comics multiverse.)

Luckily, although Mr. Morrison’s Batman Incorporated series was ended after only eight issues, his story was able to continue uninterrupted.

First, DC published a Batman Incorporated special written by Mr. Morrison, called Leviathan Strikes.  Although presented as a special one-shot event, this special contained what was clearly intended to be issues #9 and #10 of the Batman Incorporated series.  The first half of the special (what would have been issue #9) is a fairly stand-alone adventure, but the second half (what would have been #10) is an important climax to the story and a real head-scratcher of a mind-bending adventure.  Batman and his team (Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and Damian Wayne) track down Otto Netz, but it appears they have fallen into his trap.

This issue is incredibly hard to understand, a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle.  Mr. Morrison riffs on the name of the mysterious spy agency, Spyral, that has been skirting the edge of his story, and he also plays on the idea that the super-villain, Dr. Dedalus might have Alzheimers… and that Batman might be suffering the same affliction after being dosed by a mind-altering gas.  The entire story is filled with circles, as events seem to repeat and repeat and we’re never quite sure what is fantasy and what is real.  Batman seems to confront Netz in his lair over and over again.  Is this really happening?  Is Batman just imagining all of this?  Is Netz?  To be honest, I am not really sure, even after re-reading the issue several times!  (Though it’s a heck of a lot of fun trying to figure everything out.)

We do get some important answers in this issue.  We learn that Netz has been working for decades to create a fifth element — the mysterious Oroboro — and that Netz and Spyral are one and the same (Spyral’s symbol is an eye inside a web, and Tim Drake realizes that “Netz” is “web” in German).  We learn that his “ring around the world” is a network of deadly bombs, placed along the globe.  We finally return to the character of Jezebel Jet, who was an important character in Mr. Morrison’s first year of stories but who then vanished from the tale.  And, most importantly of all, we learn the identity of the real mastermind behind all of these new threats to Batman.  It is a wonderful revelation, and a twist that connects these stories to the very beginning of Mr. Morrison’s Batman run, which is yet one additional aspect of “full circle” in this issue filled with circles.

The last line of the issue is spectacular, and a hugely dramatic opening gambit for Mr. Morrison’s final story-line.

And so, on a huge cliffhanger, ended Mr. Morrison’s pre-“New 52” story.  A new Batman Incorporated series was launched soon after, starting over at #1, along with all the other re-launched “New 52” stories.  But what would this mean for the conclusion of Grant Morrison’s story?  Would he have to adjust his ending to conform with this newly rebooted universe?

Thankfully, no.  I’ll be back next week with my final article on Grant Morrison’s Batman run, discussing his final arc of stories and the ending of this lengthy saga.  See you then!

The issues discussed in this review are available in the collection: Batman Incorporated.

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