Friday, February 27, 2009


In BATMAN R.I.P., Grant Morrison makes good on the promise that has been repeated since the 1980’s; that comics aren’t kids stuff anymore. Morrison’s style and quality writing has done something that all the killing, sex, and “grittiness” of the past 20 years has not; to create a really adult reading experience. Morrison realizes that the depth of a character, not his actions, marks the work as mature. By embracing the entire, not all together sane, seventy year history of Batman, Morrison enriched a tried and true character. By embracing stories that lesser writers treated as inconvenient, and wrote out of Batman continuity, Morrison opens up his playing field to work on the character.

BATMAN R.I.P. consists of issues 676 to 681 of Batman comics printed by DC Comics. During this story arc, this was the title that I most anticipated each month. The challenging, well executed story kept me trying to keep up with the sheer amount of stuff Morrison was packing into the story. Morrison is not afraid of a dense, intricate story. Each panel and line demonstrates an economy of storytelling that moves the epic along. I felt that even the panel dividers held esoteric clues. Morrison uses concepts and storylines from across the history of Batman to create his story. The opening chapter reveals to us that a mysterious group of super criminals have set their sights on Batman. Morrison only gives us a visual of the villains and leaves the reader to discern the identities of these new enemies as the story unfolds. We soon learn that some time in his past, before Robin came onto the scene, Batman volunteered for an isolation chamber experiment which resulted in a mental breakdown. Later in the arc we learn that the experiment was an attempt by Batman to understand the workings of the Joker’s mind. The doctor conducting the experiment is revealed to be Doctor Hurt, the ring leader of The Black Glove. Hurt used Batman’s weakened condition to implant subconscious suggestions that are to be triggered years later when The Black Glove attacks. But that is the thing about being Batman; you have to be prepared for everything. Batman created a failsafe; a backup personality in the case of just such an attack on his consciousness. Here Morrison reaches back into the long ignored past to find the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh. In a silver age story, Batman traveled to a distant planet to encounter a doppelganger, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh. Morrison crafts the admittedly silly story into the development of Batman’s subconscious back up personality. Surviving the mental assault due to his backup personality, Batman is able to endure until Nightwing, Robin, and the Club of Heroes are able to come to his aid. The club of Heroes is another silver age creation that Morrison makes relevant again. The club is a group of Batman and Robin knock offs from various countries around the world. The club has heroes such as Knight and Squire from England, Ranger and Scout from Australia, and etcetera. The idea only works under a writer like Morrison who is able to make the absurd work for the reader. The Black Glove is likewise made up of villains from around the world, including Jezebel Jet, Batman’s new love interest. Jet has infiltrated Batman’s life as part of the villains’ plot.

Part of the beauty of Morrison’s story is that he doesn’t lay all the back story of the Club of Heroes and Zur-En-Arrh out for the reader. The only reference to the origin of the Zur-En-Arrh persona is on page one of issue 678. We see Robin reading the account of an old batman case titled, Robin Dies at Dawn, which is the actual title of a silver age story. Admittedly there is a degree of fanboy glee in seeing references that are only accessible to true comics historians, but this is not just a cute inside joke for the comics nerd. Morrison is letting his Batman stand on the tradition of the literature that came before. Batman is great enough to include in his cannon the stories that are considered embarrassments by most modern writers. Morrison is letting Batman be serious literature by building on all his historical elements, just as all art builds on what came before.

On first read, you know you are only getting part of the story. Morrison is using the comics medium as part of the story; the clues are given in the art and the script. There is no use of long exposition or needless explanation that fills too many contemporary stories. Morrison trusts his reader to pick up on the story. Morrison is playing with identity. The identities of Batman, Dr. Hurt, Alfred, and Jezebel Jet are all in question in the story. All the characters assume multiple, conflicting identities. The reader questions the very foundation of the Batman universe. Could Hurt really be Thomas Wayne? The idea does not seem too big for Morrison.

The main criticism of this, and most Morrison works, is that it really does not stand on its own. You need the build up to understand the story. The more I let the story ping around in my subconscious, I’m not really sure the criticism hold up. I think Morrison should be applauded for treating the comics world as an organic system that grown and builds on itself.

The comics medium is ready for a writer that can embrace the entire continuum of comics. Silly silver age stories and modern hardboiled urban drama can be equally embraced as part of our comics heritage. There should be no shame in exploring the stories that had garish colors and ridiculous plots, they are our heritage. The decision to embrace back story or retcon it out of existent is just that; a decision. Decisions made by editors and writers are only as good as the skill used to accomplish the story. The difference between Morrison and most of the writers that have handled Batman since his rejuvenation in the eighties is that Morrison is actually skillful enough to handle the task.

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