Batman #655, by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert
I finished this comic with the wrong question weighing heavily on my mind: why is an African aid charity benefit decorated with pseudo-Lichtenstein prints and a... ah... a giant upside-down floating dinosaur? I realize today's fans are expected to applaud every sign of arch self-awareness in their comics--thank god there were no gorillas, at least--but does every scene have to recirculate the same devalued imagery? Or is that just a reflex impulse that kicks in whenever a writer or artist doesn't think enough about what they're doing?
We'll come back to the dinosaur later. Everything right and wrong with Grant Morrison's Batman debut is on display in the first scene, a deliberately disjoint battle with the Joker that dares you to assume it's not real--there's just no way the Joker is going to kill Batman, especially "in front of a bunch of vulnerable, disabled KIDS!!!!" In a nicely-delivered twist, the scene turns out to be entirely real (as real as it gets anyway), although not everything is quite what it seems, and it ends with a blatant declaration that we won't be seeing the same kind of stories that have dominated Batman since The Dark Knight Returns.
But the blocking isn't quite up to the task: is the Batman with the gun dead or alive? Where's the second Batman coming from? All is made clear eventually but the scene doesn't make enough sense as you read it. Meanwhile the ending--Batman tossing Joker in a garbage can--is a little too overtly metaphorical for my tastes, a little too insistent that we get the point. In short, the comic is alternately oversold or jury-rigged.
If you're tempted to attribute these flaws solely to artist Andy Kubert, consider that much of the heavy-handedness is Morrison's and Morrison's alone. Here's a nervous, sweaty Kirk Langstrom, a.k.a. Man-Bat, meeting Bruce Wayne in a hotel lobby:
Err... yes, yes... my wife and I are both very active in the... errr... the whole charity thing...
You don't have to be the World's Greatest Detective to know that when a scientist with a propensity for transforming himself into a gigantic bat starts acting jittery there'll be problems down the road, but Morrison doesn't trust us enough to signal that with something a little more subtle. Langstrom might as well parade through the lobby with a sandwich board reading I AM IN BIG TROUBLE AND I'M LYING.
The overall plot is much more satisfying than these outsized details. Batman, with a little prodding from reliable Alfred, decides to take a vacation from Gotham and cultivate his Bruce Wayne persona just as his ex-lover Talia resurfaces with a son from the long-out-of-continuity Batman: Son of the Demon in tow. It's a nice set-up for returning Batman to the "hairy-chested globetrotting love god of the 70s" Morrison wrote about in the Arkham Asylum 15th Anniversary Edition. I look forward to a barechested (but masked!) desert swordfight at some point in the near future.
Regrettably none of the edges fit together, and not just in the dialogue, orthogonal conversations peppered with non sequiturs being a Morrison tradition very much in evidence here. The plot itself doesn't quite fit the larger context Morrison was handed--didn't Batman just take a year-long vacation as Bruce Wayne to clear his head? Wouldn't this storyline make more sense if it were that trip? It's tempting, and troubling, to speculate that, between Seven Soldiers, All-Star Superman, the weekly 52 and now this, Morrison may be overextending himself again. Hopefully nothing as bad as the 1997-98 meltdown that cost him Phil Jiminez on The Invisibles, but this isn't up to his usual standards.
Or maybe I should face up to another possibility: this could be exactly the comic Morrison wanted to write, and it just isn't aimed at me. Everything from the theatrical dialogue to the washes of lurid color in the opening scene feels like it's pitched to excitable fourteen-year-olds. Did I mention the ninja man-bats? There will be ninja man-bats. This might be a perfectly fun comic for fourteen-year-olds, although I think the really good comics for fourteen-year-olds write up to their audience, not down, and can be just as entertaining for adults. I hope Morrison's Batman ends up reaching that point, but it isn't quite there yet.
Expectations with Morrison are so high that the strong initial disappointment I felt on finishing the issue is already abating a little. The plot has potential and the comic is peppered with little gems, from Commissioner Gordon's gradual detox to rumors of alternate-universe hideaways for the super-rich to Alfred's gourmet bat-menu. Unfortunately some attempts at seeding the ground with gems misfire. Bringing us back to the damn dinosaur.
I'll keep reading Morrison's Batman, of course, and I'm coming to like it more even as I write this. At the moment, though, Paul Dini and J. H. Williams III have produced a much more seamless, satisfying Batman story over in Detective Comics.
But if I were fourteen...?