Batman #669, by Grant Morrison and J.H. Williams III
There isn't a lot to say about the script for this final chapter of the Club of Heroes murder mystery that hasn't already been said about the first two parts. The overstuffed plot and its light but omnipresent themes unfold more or less as expected, everything having already been set up in the previous two issues. All that remains is for the pieces to fall into place, and fall they do, with a rapidfire precision that still leaves room for little surprises like a fistfight in the middle of an impromptu surgery or a final battle complete with jet packs and ejector seats. The issue is more of the same retro fun, and considering the first two chapters were the best Morrison has produced in his uneven run on Batman, that's no criticism.
But if you're going to review a new-release comic two weeks after it was a new release, you'd damn well better have something to talk about, and the feature that most demands and rewards attention in this comic is the art by J.H. Williams III. This installment sees the return of Williams' signature device of framing panels with icons representing the superheroes depicted therein; in one especially nice example, El Gaucho's coiled bolas becomes the panel border itself. I'm surprised Williams kept the icons in reserve this long--perhaps he was saving them for the triumphant finale, a heroic counterpart to the panel-bending intrusions of the Black Glove? They also constitute a nice, if late clue to one of the killers' identities: alone among the Batmen of Many Nations and their sidekicks, the Ranger doesn't receive any panel icons until long after he's exposed as the treacherous Wingman, at which point the proper symbol makes its appearance. If the extradiegetic images could lie last issue, showing us a Wingman who wasn't actually dead, this time they even the scales.
I've read a few comments about the ostensibly cluttered layouts, sometimes with reference to Williams' own comments about his hectic schedule while he drew this issue. It's a testimony to Williams' skill that I never got any sense that he was rushed. If the pages were busy (though still perfectly legible), that only suggested the density of information he and Morrison were trying to cram into the final installment of this plot-heavy story. In a brilliant touch, Williams even distills this overabundance of narrative action (and maybe his own frantic pace) into graphic form, overlaying two plotlines on top of one another as if they were each complete pages jostling for space in a limited field of vision. He's turned severe time and space constraints into part of his compositions! By making the art the story, he thrives where many of his peers would have stumbled.
It's a shame he has to move on. Williams was the perfect artist not just for this arc, but for Morrison's entire history-obsessed run. Faced with the challenge of writing a character who's been around for nearly seventy years, Morrison's response has not been to wipe the slate clean and replace the past with something new (as a few of the Club of Heroes tried to do, with disastrous results--not the least of which is that their modernizations now look as ridiculously outdated as the older, more genial past they rejected), but to aggregate all of it. He not only gets to cherry-pick the best elements of each period, he's also generated narrative tension by placing these historical moments in conflict with Batman and with each other. If earlier issues alternated between periods fast enough to induce whiplash, the Club of Heroes storyline has succeeded by cultivating a simple narrative hook that can accomodate all of them at once--and by placing them in the hands of an artist who can evoke all of them in a single page simply by varying his figure drawing and his line weight. If the most distinctive feature of Morrison's Batman is its omnivorous attitude towards the past, then Williams is the only artist for it.
That fealty to tradition is common to a lot of Morrison's work--contrary to his reputation among fanboys who were incensed that this Vertigo weirdo dared to take up the proud mantle of Gerard Jones' Justice League, he's always been respectful to his predecessors, and he has a knack for knowing which ones are most worth respecting. His Doom Patrol was more true to the work of Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani than John Byrne's narrow and lifeless imitation; the same holds for his use of Kirby's Fourth World characters. But his Batman tops all of them by incorporating all of its predecessors.
Ironically, this respect for tradition may be the thing that's kept Morrison from achieving the same kind of general recognition as the other writers to whom he compares himself incessantly. He hasn't written that breakout graphic novel that jettisons the burdens of continuity to tell a story that's widely accessible and appealing to an audience that can't tell Monsieur Mallah from B'wana Beast. Arkham Asylum is the closest he's come, and look how that turned out.
Morrison generally doesn't write graphic novels. He writes monthly comics, a vanishing art and one he's mastered more than any other current practitioner. The clever use of tradition is an asset in this art. So is knowing when not to tie yourself to tradition, the thing--okay, one of many things--that separates Morrison's work from the leaden re-enactments of a Kurt Busiek, bound in their own antecedents like Jacob Marley on Christmas Eve. But it's been a few years since Morrison has written a standalone work like The Invisibles or The Filth or We3 and I'm beginning to miss the broader ambitions that have come with such projects. The Club of Heroes story is easily his best Batman, but it isn't his best Grant Morrison.