Hey folks! I originally wrote this as part of my Comic Book Club series on Project Fanboy, but I thought I’d share it here too: a spotlight on Grant Morrison’s run on Batman. In the past, I’ve devoted whole blocks of columns to debating the validity of the superhero genre, with part of that extended analysis tackling the question of whether or not established, iconic superheroes can still be relevant. It’s a debate that often rages in comic fan circles: are these characters only around for the opportunities they offer as a brand, in licensing, merchandise and adaptation into other mediums, or are they genuinely capable of carrying great comic book stories?
While it’s true that often the tenured superheroes of Marvel and DC are reduced to a cyclical life of jumping from one crossover event to the next, treading water in stories that are more about keeping in line their continuity than saying anything meaningful, this needn’t always be the case. I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater and suggest that, because this is often the case, we should dismiss these characters entirely. Rather, I’m of the opinion that – to paraphrase a famous heroic trademark – with great brand recognition comes great responsibility, and I rather optimistically believe that the most famous heroes deserve stories worthy of their status, and that Marvel and DC should be striving to have their best creators bringing their A-game to their most valuable commodities, not only maintaining the legacy of that character, but bringing something new to it. Sadly, it doesn’t always work out like that. But every so often, a creator jumps on a long-running book with an approach that makes a decades-old character feel fresh and exciting all over again. Such has been the case, I believe, with Grant Morrison’s run on Batman.
Of course, anyone who lurks in enough comic book message boards will have a good idea of how polarizing Grant Morrison’s run has been. I have encountered a few people who despise Morrison’s approach so much that they have the entire Batman line of books on boycott until Morrison’s tenure as the architect of their direction has ended. It seems like some comic fans want to have their cake and eat it. They bemoan the stagnation of the superhero genre and its cyclical nature, but when someone tries something out of the box they panic. “Oh no, he’s doing something DIFFERENT!?!?!” One common complaint is that Morrison is spoiling what works about Batman, because so many classic Batman stories have been gritty noirs and so any subsequent stories of worth must repeat that approach. Morrison doesn’t “get” Batman, they would tell you, and he would rather just write pretentious gibberish than a proper Batman story. I disagree with this response, obviously, and believe that this will come to be viewed as one of the definitive runs in the character’s history. Far from not “getting” Batman, I believe that this run has been to the Dark Knight what All Star Superman was to Superman: a celebration of what makes the character great and unique even amongst other superheroes, incorporating significant elements from throughout the character’s varied history and revisiting them through the prism of Morrison’s own distinct authorial voice.
This becomes immediately apparent right from the beginning of Batman and Son, the first graphic novel volume of collected issues from the run. We open with what would be considered a climactic moment in your average Batman story: with The Joker holding Batman in dire straits, his latest insane scheme close to fruition:
I did it! I finally killed Batman! In front of a bunch of vulnerable, disabled kids!!!! Now get me Santa Claus!
Jumping into the deep-end, as far as opening statements go. Right from the start, Morrison is capturing a sense of a classic Batman moment, and immediately be begins subverting it. We see Batman drawing a gun and shooting The Joker in the face, intending to kill him. Then we realize it’s not Batman at all, but an imposter who the real Batman interferes and stops. Already the story feels off-kilter, like something’s not quite right. And in the background, written repeatedly into the graffiti that populates the city, we see the phrase, “Zur En Arrh”. Morrison is sowing the seeds for his multi-year epic from the very earliest pages of his run, giving us a sense of how connected a tapestry the whole story is.
Following on from this bold opening, the rest of “Chapter One: Building a Better Batmobile” reads a bit like an extended epilogue, what might happen after your average Batman story finishes. We learn that, with the defeat of The Joker, nearly all Gotham’s major supervillains are behind bars, and that Gotham is – comparatively speaking, at least – safe and quiet. Morrison devotes some time into reminding us of Batman’s status quo – Robin, Alfred, his double life as a billionaire playboy. And then in the issue’s closing pages, he throws a wrench into this status quo with the revelation that Batman has a son, Damian, who has been secretly raised by Talia al Ghul. The subsequent issues give us another example of things being thrown off-kilter, the inclusion of Damian disrupting the typical Batman/Robin dynamic.
This idea of Batman being a step off, of things not sitting quite right, is made explicit with “Chapter Five: Three Ghosts of Batman”, arguably the issue where the saga that runs up to (and even beyond) Batman RIP truly gets going. In this issue, Batman faces off against a corrupt cop who turns out to be an insane, hulking brute in a modified Batman costume. It’s a fight he loses badly, with Batman’s narration on page 20 of the chapter explaining why:
Gets me thinking about the other cop. In the Batman uniform. The one who shot The Joker. And a series of locks open in my head. And I’m thinking about the files in the black casebook. When I shouldn’t be thinking at all.
With the following chapter, “The Black Casebook”, it becomes clear that it’s not only us who feel like this story isn’t clicking the way it is supposed to, but Batman himself is feeling it, and not only that, but this could be a deliberate ploy by an unseen foe, as suggested by Bruce Wayne across the 6th and 7th pages of the chapter:
Guy beat the hell out of me. I thought he was going to break my back, like Bane did. He even looked like Bane… as if… as if he was designed to trigger my worst fears…he dosed himself with Hugo Strange’s monster serum and daily venom shots.
Note the references to Bane and Hugo Strange. Morrison is showing a recurring motif of drawing from Batman’s history, in this case referring to the two villains who came closest to “breaking” Batman and defeating him. Bane is the better known example, given that he literally broke Batman’s back and put him out of commission in Knightfall. But years before that took place, Hugo Strange was also able to conquer Batman. Pre-Crisis, as collected in Strange Apparitions, Hugo Strange kidnapped Batman and unmasked him as Bruce Wayne, discovering Batman’s true identity and then briefly taking his place: a feat which at that point had never been achieved. Post-Crisis, in the Prey story-arc, Hugo Strange again figured out Batman’s true identity, and used the knowledge to bring Bruce Wayne to a stage of near mental collapse. Any foe wanting to decisively defeat Batman would be well served to take cues from Bane and Hugo Strange, as Bruce recognizes. And so we get our introduction to Dr. Hurt – who would be the ultimate overarching Batman villain of the next few years – though at this stage we don’t yet know it. The closest we get is an oblique reference to him on page 6, where, in a dream sequence, we see his silhouette, with Damian informing Bruce, “Father, the third ghost is the worst of them all.”
Against the backdrop of this overarching narrative, Batman and Son also contains two ostensibly standalone tales which tangentially enrich the larger storyline. “The Clown at Midnight” – billed in the graphic novel as an “Interlude” – is an unusual piece, given that it’s written entirely in prose. Though ostensibly a standalone tale, it introduces the motif of red and black foreshadowing death that would recur through the rest of the run, as well as establishing a darker, more deformed Joker that would resurface in Batman R.I.P. Meanwhile, “Chapter Seven: Bethlehem” is another apparent standalone story set in the future, where Bruce Wayne is long dead and Damian Wayne is the city’s current Batman. This story, originally released as Batman #666, dealt with the idea of the Devil being the nemesis pulling the strings in the present-day story, an idea which would remain one of the most popular theories of Dr. Hurt’s true nature as the story progressed.
As well as tying into the larger narrative, these standalone stories are also fine examples of how Morrison examines the near-mythical status of the Batman lore. “Bethlehem” presents to us an idea Morrison as revisited often, that the Batman legacy is practically self-creating, endlessly repeating itself in a cycle. Even far in the future, we have an orphaned boy growing to become Batman, a Gordon heading the police force, and a Gotham plagued with a rogues gallery that acts as a dark reflection of its Batman. “The Clown at Midnight” explores the notion of The Joker as a similarly transcendent entity, but with more ambiguous results:
Like a grub growing all wrong in a tiled cocoon, like a caterpillar liquefying to filth in its own nightmares, or a fetus dissolving in sewage and sour milk, the Joker dreams, awake. His is the mal ojo, the evil eye. He wills Death upon the world.
This is one of several examples of descriptions of The Joker characterizing him not just as a villain, but as an elemental force of evil. When he is called “the archnemesis” on the story’s eighth page, the wording is interesting. It’s not “Batman’s archnemesis”, but “the archnemesis”, an enemy to all, the definitive villain.
But with the overblown prose and fevered descriptions that don’t necessarily make coherent sense, we get a sense that the very telling of the story is tainted by The Joker’s deluded imaginings, as if The Joker is being described the way he views himself more than the way he actually is. One of the most telling lines in this regard comes 16 pages in:
He tries to remember how the doctors in Arkham say he has no Self, and maybe they’re right, or maybe just guessing. Maybe he is a new human mutation, bred of slimy industrial waters, spawned in a world of bright carcinogens and acid rains. Maybe he is a model for 21st-century big-time multiplex man, shuffling selves like a croupier deals cards, to buffer the shocks and work some alchemy that might just turn the lead of tragedy and horror into the fierce, chaotic gold of the laughter of the damned. Maybe he is special, and not just a gruesomely scarred, mentally-ill man addicted to an endless cycle of self-annihilating violence. Stranger things have happened.
Here Morrison simultaneously revisits and calls into question the concept of The Joker he first introduced in Arkham Asylum, of him having a kind of “super-sanity”, of him being a prototype of 21st Century man, a grim beacon of where our civilization could be headed. He goes into detail here, building up what happened to The Joker like it could have been a seismic shift in human history, a turning point for mankind. Then, in the final couple of sentences, he deflates the notion with a suggestion that no, perhaps The Joker is just a deranged, ultimately pathetic little man, given power only by how others have granted him this mythical status.
And here we see the chasm between the myths of Batman and The Joker, one that has been further heightened with the time-travelling antics of this year’s The Return of Bruce Wayne. The Joker obsessively, endlessly creates and recreates himself, relishing in his nicknames and the fruitless attempts to understand him. He strives eternally to create his own myth, shaping himself in response to Batman, always leeching off him (note the numerous ways The Joker is compared to an insect in the story, adding to these “leech” connotations). But as I said above, Morrison presents the notion that with Batman, the myth has taken on a life of its own, how forces beyond comprehension have shaped Bruce Wayne into an elemental force for good, and creating in Batman a symbol that is bigger than Bruce Wayne the man, one that, as the opening line of Batman R.I.P. tells us, “will never die.”
While Batman and Son lays out some fascinating groundwork, it is with The Black Glove that the central mystery truly gains momentum, and it becomes clear how much Morrison’s run is built around it. And of course, like many of the great Batman stories, a mystery lies at the core. After all, this is the world’s greatest detective we’re talking about. But rather than opting for another whodunit, the mystery here is all-encompassing, bordering on the metatextual, calling into question the very nature of Batman. There are many strands, covering a long period of time and many players. At times it’s all hard to keep track of, but that’s because Morrison is not underestimating us. He wants us to think like Batman, presenting him with a baffling, nigh-unsolvable riddle, locked inside a puzzle box, wrapped up in an enigma, a mystery worthy of him, and challenging us to keep up.
The 3-part opening story of The Black Glove, “The Island of Mister Mayhew” – with some stunning art by the always-excellent J.H. Williams III – reintroduces the old Silver Age concept of the Batmen of Many Nations, bringing them together once more as the Club of Heroes. By showing how the idea of Batman has inspired similar heroes to emerge all over the world, adapting the broad strokes of the concept to suit their own cultures, once again revisits this idea of Batman as mythic icon. It also helps Morrison expand his cast of recurring players, with Knight and Squire showing up again in Batman R.I.P. and later in Batman & Robin (and now starring in their own miniseries written by Paul Cornell and drawn by Jimmy Broxton, which comes highly recommended), and other heroes set to return in Batman Inc.
It soon becomes clear that some members of the Club of Heroes are better at “being Batman” than others, and that none of them are quite Batman’s equal, with Knight even stating that they are “all in awe of Batman.” With the various Batman analogues introduced and established – all gathered on the remote island of reclusive billionaire John Mayhew – the narrative begins to unfold in the style of an Agatha Christie murder mystery with added superheroes, with a mysterious assailant picking the heroes off one by one. It is in this story that we’re introduced to the Black Glove, with a monologue by an unseen figure in the opening page:
Be assured. The Black Glove is a seal of absolute quality and ruthlessness. The Black Glove aims to deliver a deluxe service high stakes experiences at the very highest levels of the international game. Our esteemed clientele see no virtue in thinking small, nor do we. This weekend, the Black Glove settles the age-old question once and for all. Which is strongest? Good? Or evil?
In this opening page alone, some of Morrison’s recurring motifs re-emerge. The dialogue once again demonstrates good and evil being acted out on a grand, mythic scale. It has become unfashionable in recent decades for villains to outright refer to themselves as evil, but here – and repeatedly in future – Dr. Hurt does so with relish. Any by implication, establishing himself as the ultimate evil sets up his opponent – namely, Batman – as the ultimate good. As for the visuals on this first page, the central image is one of a ball being tossed onto a roulette wheel, setting the game in motion. Red and black spinning around on a wheel. As introduced in “The Clown at Midnight”, red and black act as a harbinger of death. Taking this into consideration, now skim through the book. Look at how dominant in the color scheme the pairing of red and black is. Once it’s in your mind, you’ll see it everywhere; you can’t get away from it. Even the cover is red and black!
At this early stage, we don’t yet know of Dr. Hurt. All we know about this faceless adversary is this name, the Black Glove. Despite being largely off-panel throughout this story, the Black Glove’s presence casts a long shadow over the rest of the characters and events. This is masterfully visualized by Williams through a repeated trick of drawing certain dramatic moments in panels shaped like a giant hand, creating a tangible sense of events being shaped and orchestrated by the Black Glove, of the Black Glove being all around our heroes and closing in.
The collection of issues that make up the second half of The Black Glove are where the scope of the mystery and the challenge that lies before Batman become clear, with the apparently disparate threads introduced throughout the run up until this point – the Black Glove, Damian, the three Batmen, the devil, the shifting psyche of The Joker, John Mayhew and his films, the Club of Heroes, the black casebook, Zur en Arrh, red and black – all start to weave together into a disturbing whole.
One chapter that is packed particularly densely with intrigue and possible clues unifying these elements is “Joe Chill in Hell”, a flashback/fevered hallucination (it’s left ambiguous as to which it is) experienced by an unconscious, dreaming Batman. Here, the events of the Silver Age story “Robin Dies at Dawn” are recalled and slightly altered. In the original story, Batman volunteers to spend 10 days in an isolation chamber as part of a military experiment (A general tells him, in inimitable Silver Age style, “By volunteering for this test you’ve made a remarkable contribution to space medicine.”) and while unconscious dreams of being indirectly responsible for Robin’s death. Morrison updates the story to have Batman’s motivation for taking part in the experiment be a desire to experience The Joker’s mental state to better understand him, and by fashioning out of the story’s nameless scientist the figure of Dr. Hurt, the “Big Bad” of this whole saga.
The psychedelic experiences he had while in this condition turn out to be some of Batman’s loopier adventures from the 1950s and 1960s – the ones that involved him travelling to space and the like – and working them back into Batman’s canonical continuity. Morrison has long taken the stance that the grim, borderline-psychotic avenger of the Miller era that has since been so heavily popularized is only part of who Batman is, and that all eras of his evolution should be given some credit in shaping who he is, even the periods many prefer to forget. But in reviving all these old stories, Morrison is also reinventing, giving them his own spin to fit them into the story he’s telling and his vision of the character. This is done in an effectively chilling manner for Bat-Mite, the perky little nuisance from the Fifth Dimension who had been long forgotten in the modern era. Here he returns as the voice in Batman’s head, the gatekeeper to all those repressed memories coming flooding back, but while he looks as harmless and cartoony as ever, we see a menacing-looking creature with pointed teeth and glowing green eyes lurking over his shoulder, apparently operating him like a puppet. This is never explained or even directly addressed in the script in any of his appearances through the course of the narrative.
In these final few chapters, the sense of impending doom is palpable. By this point, Batman R.I.P. had been solicited, and these issues were the countdown to the mysterious, cryptically-marketed Batman event. In the closing pages of “Batman Dies at Dawn”, the second-last chapter of The Black Glove, Batman’s narration sets up the climactic struggle that approaches:
If my hypothetical ultimate enemy can be imagined, I can’t help considering the possibility that he actually exists… And if he exists… if the king of crime is real…is he telling me his name?
That final question is juxtaposed against the image of Batman holding a black glove. And the next panel, recalling the chapter’s title, shows the dawn approaching.
After The Black Glove comes Batman R.I.P., the culmination of all the slow-boil plotting and cumulative sense of dread that has carried through the entire run up until this point. I remember the intense speculation about this event before it started, with fans wondering if Batman was actually going to die during the event, and if so, how. Others preemptively damned the whole idea, talking about how killing off Batman was a pointless stunt that would never stick months before any actual death scene had happened. In fact, I may have mentioned this before, but I think much of the negative backlash this story received boiled down to false advertising, as – spoiler alert – Batman doesn’t die in it. Yes, there’s a glimpse at fanboy logic: complain for every issue about how stupid it is to kill Batman, then when the story is done complain about feeling cheated because Batman didn’t die as promised. I maintain that the worst thing about Batman R.I.P. is its title, as it sets up the expectations for one kind of Batman story, when in fact it turns out to be another type of story entirely.
However, it certainly starts on a suitably foreboding note, even if the very first page of the story gives us the reassuring message of, “You’re wrong! Batman and Robin will never die!” Morrison outright tells us not to draw conclusions from our expectations, that he couldn’t kill off Batman even if he wanted to. But after this, the rest of the opening chapter, “Midnight in the House of Hurt”, is about the dark forces gathering, all the disparate threats of Morrison’s run – many off-panel presences until now – coming together to conspire against Batman. Dr. Hurt, the Black Glove, the Club of Villains, the new, darker, Joker, all show up here, all being revealed as having a part to play in the plan that will destroy Batman once and for all. And note, in The Joker’s chilling entry into the story, the palette shifts so that the only colors on the page are black and red.
But it is with the second chapter, “Batman in the Underworld”, that we truly get a sense of Batman being faced with insurmountable odds. On page 7, Dr. Hurt sets up his credentials as to why he will be able to crush Batman where all others have failed:
No one knows him better than I do. The extreme lengths to which our boy has gone to make himself strong are powerful indicators of the weakness he feels he must overcome. That weakness is still there, inside. The fracture that will break the man.
This fracture is linked to a trigger phrase planted in Batman’s mind by Hurt during the isolation chamber experiments: Zur en Arrh. The phrase that has been popping up everywhere since the very beginning of Morrison’s run, the seeds for Batman’s destruction carefully sown right at the foundations of the story. The precise power of this phrase and the nature of the fracture Hurt speaks of are up for speculation. But I have an idea, one that I will share later on.
Here, we see Batman fall, taken down with relative ease through Hurt’s “Zur en Arrh” trigger phrase. But as well as the physical and mental dismantling of Batman, we get perhaps the most damaging dismantling of all, in love interest Jezebel Jet’s comments to Bruce Wayne on page 12: the dismantling of the Batman myth:
It was so brave of you, Bruce, so ingenious, to make yourself into the great Dark Knight who wasn’t there for you when you needed him. But all this… this is a disturbed little boy’s response to his parents’ death… you’re over thirty years old. It can’t go on. You have to stop and take a deep breath. You could use your wealth and influence in other ways. You have to think about what you’re doing to yourself and to impressionable young people. You need to talk to somebody. My father was shot dead in front of me too, Bruce. But these sad, blood-splattered little super hero costumes… this gigantic, underground museum of death and technology… oh, Bruce. Poor Bruce. What if you’re not well?
It is later revealed that Jezebel Jet is working with the Black Glove to destroy Batman. And in that context, her stance here makes total sense. Killing Batman the man is a pointless exercise if Batman the idea is still alive. This is an idea that works on a meta-textual level too. Batman can be killed off, vaporized, chopped up into little pieces, it doesn’t matter. He’ll be brought back, resurrected somehow, because that’s how comics work, and the character has remained popular and alive in people’s imagination all these decades. The only way we can truly kill Batman as a fictional entity is to deflate the myth, which is what Jezebel attempts to do here by picking out how nonsensical, childish and crazy the whole concept of Batman is.
So far, we have what seems like a pretty conventional “ultimate threat against our hero” story. But it is with the third chapter onwards that things go headlong over the deep-end, and things take a turn for the strange. Bruce Wayne, pumped full of drugs and left on the streets as a vagrant with no memory of who he is, through a series of psychedelic experiences manages to claw together a primal, savage, rudimentary version of his Batman persona: the Batman of Zur en Arrh. And Bat-Mite shows up again. On page 5 of Chapter 4, “Miracle on Crime Alley”, we’re treated to this mind-bending sequence:
In opposition to Jezebel Jet’s deconstruction of the Batman myth, this is an example of building it back up, showing the stature and power of Batman, the cogs and quirks of circumstance all combining to create him. The very title of the chapter, “Miracle on Crime Alley”, is designed as a testament to the power of the idea of Batman.
And then in the final chapter, “Hearts in Darkness”, despite further attempts to break him, Bruce Wayne recovers himself, Batman is restored, and he beats the bad guys. Indeed, after his systematic deconstruction over the course of Batman R.I.P., this last chapter reads like a tribute to how awesome Batman is, presenting how far ahead he always plans and how well prepared he is for everything as a superpower more fantastical than any ability possessed by Superman:
206 bones, five major organs, 60,000 miles of blood vessels. All it takes is time. Days. Months. Years, spent memorizing the finite ways there are to hurt and break a man. Preparing for all of them. I’ve escaped from every conceivable deathtrap. Ten times. A dozen times.
Batman can escape from any physical predicament he’s placed in. He’d already prepared a failsafe against Hurt’s psychological attack. He knew Jezebel Jet was part of the plan against him all along. Batman cannot be beaten. And faced with this larger-than-life, iconic, mythical heroism, the petty villainy of this latest “ultimate threat” quickly falls apart. But while everything else is solved, some degree of mystery remains around Dr. Hurt. Is he the Devil? Thomas Wayne? Something else? On page 25, Hurt relishes in this enigma:
I am the hole in things, Bruce. The enemy, the piece that can never fit, there since the beginning.
But even Dr. Hurt is deflated under scrutiny, not as omnipotent and elemental as he likes to think himself. The Joker, of all people, gives a comprehensive argument on page 17 for why Hurt pales in comparison to Batman:
Get it!? But it doesn’t matter, see, because every single time I try to think outside his toybox, he builds a new box around me. Apophenia. I’ve been driven literally insane. Trying to get him to loosen up. Well, now. Now it’s your turn. The Black Glove quivering in an insane asylum. Exactly where he wants you. Now, you’re in his box, too. You can never prepare for the unexpected, the well-timed punch line. The wild card. Devil is double is deuce, my dear Doctor. And Joker trumps deuce.
This last part brings up another interesting footnote to this concept – the idea that not only can these poseurs not match up to Batman, they can’t match up to The Joker, either. The Joker’s final taunt here would be confirmed years later in Batman and Robin, when The Joker is the one who finally kills Dr. Hurt. And earlier, in Chapter 5, “The Thin White Duke of Death”, we see The Joker yawning as Le Bossu describes his villainous modus operandi – oh so tedious to one so indefinable as The Joker. Morrison jumps back and forth from The Joker being just a lunatic trying to make himself out as having mythical power, and toying with him, much like Batman, being “special” in his own right. It is appropriate for the character that we’re unable to quite pin down where he fits in the scheme of things.
So Batman R.I.P. ends with Batman still alive (his actual “death” would come soon afterwards in Final Crisis, though even here it was soon revealed he wasn’t actually dead), once more triumphing over evil and escaping apparently unscathed. But the “happy ending” is complicated by a jarring one-page epilogue that marks the very last page of Batman R.I.P.:
Could this be the “fracture” lying at the core of Bruce Wayne’s psyche that Dr. Hurt alluded to? Zur en Arrh. Zorro in Arkham. We get a sense that this is a memory repressed and hidden, that the life’s mission that Bruce embarked upon in his father’s name would have been viewed as a foolish madman’s errand by Thomas Wayne himself. Again, the idea that the myth of Batman being damaged is the most grievous wound of all.
This saga, from Batman and Son through The Black Glove to Batman R.I.P., is not even the end of the story. With Final Crisis, Batman and Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne, the narrative would enter a new phase and become even more complex, incorporating elements such as time travel and further exploring the notion of Batman’s symbolic power. Even now, Morrison’s opus continues on in Batman Inc, taking us into the next phase of Batman’s career. It will be interesting to see how Grant Morrison’s run looks when it’s all wrapped up, how readers of future generations will look at it. I believe the conflicting reactions to the book now are largely driven by current readers’ concerns about how it fits with the chronology and continuity of the other books existing in the shared universe around it. But given some degree of separation from that, looking back, I think most will recognize Grant Morrison’s Batman as one of the most potent statements on the character put into print.