My new book, Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics, comes out this week. I'll be running a short excerpt over the next couple of days, but to kick things off I thought I'd preview the table of contents and the section headings.
Introduction: A Union of Opposites
Magic words, magic pictures
Worlds within worlds
Chapter 1: Ground Level
Zenith: Reign of the superbrats
Dare: The contradictions of protest
The New Adventures of Hitler and St. Swithin’s Day: Angry young men
Zenith Phase IV: The Horus paradox
Chapter 2: The World’s Strangest Heroes
Animal Man: Beyond metafiction
Arkham Asylum: Why so serious?
Doom Patrol: Missing faces and replacement heads
Embodied authorities, imaginary terrors
The hilarity of influence
Chapter 3: The Invisible Kingdom
Sebastian O and The Mystery Play: Dandies, messiahs, assassins
The Invisibles: Permanent revolution
The decentered text
The language of the angels
Resistance is useless
Chapter 4: Widescreen
Flex Mentallo: When worlds collide
JLA: Fanfare for the common man
Marvel Boy and Fantastic Four 1234: Marvel nights
New X-Men: Survival of the fittest
Mutation and difference
The terror of the ideal
Chapter 5: Free Agents
The Filth: Status: Q
Enjoy your micro-sepsis
In the world of Greg Feely
Seaguy: Beyond the end of the world
Vimanarama: Bollywood Kirby
We3: The vocabularies of control
Chapter 6: A Time of Harvest
Civilizations in decline
Chapter 7: Work for Hire
All Star Superman: History under glass
Ending the never-ending battle
Batman: The many lives of the Batman
Final Crisis: Contaminating self-consciousness
Afterword: Morrison, Incorporated
Tomorrow: New world order, same old heroes.
Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics will be published this December by the University Press of Mississippi.
From the catalog:
One of the most eclectic and distinctive writers currently working in comics, Grant Morrison (b. 1960) brings the auteurist sensibility of alternative comics and graphic novels to the popular genres--superhero, science fiction, and fantasy--that dominate the American and British comics industries. His comics range from bestsellers featuring the most universally recognized superhero franchises (All-Star Superman, New X-Men, Batman) to more independent, creator-owned work (The Invisibles, The Filth, We3) that defies any generic classification.
In Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics, author Marc Singer examines how Morrison uses this fusion of styles to intervene in the major political, aesthetic, and intellectual challenges of our time. His comics blur the boundaries between fantasy and realism, mixing autobiographical representation and cultural critique with heroic adventure. They offer self-reflexive appraisals of their own genres while they experiment with the formal elements of comics. Perhaps most ambitiously, they challenge contemporary theories of language and meaning, seeking to develop new modes of expression grounded in comics' capacity for visual narrative and the fantasy genres' ability to make figurative meanings literal.
More to come in the months ahead...
Or, "The Life Trap."
Spoilers for Final Crisis #7, by Grant Morrison and Doug Mahnke
Grant Morrison loves endings. He's so careful to give each hero his or her bit of business--to make everybody part of the grand finale--that his more sprawling stories pile climax upon climax until they threaten to collapse under their own weight. "World War III," the conclusion of his run on JLA and a precursor to Final Crisis, just barely manages to keep its endings in balance, juggling last-second arrivals and heroic sacrifices and superhuman cavalries, dancing on the edge of complete incoherence so every reader's favorite character can get their due.
In one comic book with a finite set of characters, Morrison managed to pull it off. Against the canvas of a multiverse of worlds that contain effectively infinite reflections of every single DC character, Morrison has too many options, too many stars, and far, far too many endings.
Plenty of the criticisms leveled at Final Crisis have little to nothing to do with the comic itself: snarled schedules, bungled lead-ins, missed opportunities, the ravages of event fatigue. All legitimate concerns (particularly for retailers), but all more or less irrelevant to the quality of the work itself. The problems of Countdown and Death of the New Gods and Batman RIP may be important to understanding Final Crisis the marketing event but they have nothing to do with Final Crisis the story, and thank goodness, because the story has enough problems on its own. Just look at the endings jammed into the final issue:
The Flashes destroy Darkseid with his own Omega beams (an ending that, as Jog says, gets interrupted by a panel of Aquaman wrapping up a plot that hasn't previously appeared anywhere in Final Crisis). This is Darkseid's first defeat this issue (second overall, counting Batman's bullet last issue). Black Canary has rescued Green Arrow from the Justifiers--off-panel between issues--while the Ray forms the protective Metron sigil over the entire planet. Neat idea, one with no apparent effect on the rest of the plot. Nor does Morrison indicate how or even if Canary and Ollie and the other evacuees survive the satellite that's burning up on reentry--the satellite turns up as good as new later in the issue, but the evacuees are nowhere to be seen. Checkmate's Black Gambit fails and shunts a bunch of people off to Kamandi's future (now one of DC's multiple Earths). This apparently splits up the Super Young Team, who, after getting a nice build-up in the early issues, never do much of anything. But at least they appear on-panel! Mister Miracle, after getting a huge build-up in the early issues that built on his huge build-up in Seven Soldiers, once again manages to accomplish absolutely nothing that matters to the main plot. He doesn't even show up in this issue, with the Question merely mentioning him once. Well, technically, mentioning his Motherboxxx once. Hawkman and Hawkgirl destroy the malfunctioning Lord Eye, sacrificing themselves and bringing to a noble end a subplot that began in two panels last issue. Overman is reunited with his apparently dead cousin, concluding a subplot from one of the tie-ins that received little attention in the main series. Luthor completes his face turn by siding with Superman--except the actual moment of his turn is once again occluded by a cutaway, this time to Frankenstein. That "meeting" with Wonder Woman is a cute joke, but it blots out the culmination of a subplot that had been simmering since the first issue. Wonder Woman breaks her possession by Bernadeth--no indication how, we just see her crushing that tusked mask--and chains the disembodied Darkseid, presumably, but not explicitly, purging him from all the possessed humans. This is Darkseid's second defeat this issue, third overall. Darkseid continues to expand anyway, possessing/becoming everyone and everything in the universe (multiverse?) except for one final watchtower. Doesn't look like Wonder Woman chained him all that well. William Moulton Marston would be disappointed! The disembodied/universal Darkseid penetrates the Watchtower and Superman destroys him in two panels through the power of super-singing. This is Darkseid's third defeat this issue, fourth overall. Then Mandrakk appears for the first time in Final Crisis proper to wrap up a plotline that should have already been wrapped up in Superman Beyond 3D. Superman activates the Miracle Machine and uses it to summon Captain Marvel, who was already on his way anyway with an army of alternate-universe Supermen. The Supermen destroy Mandrakk's servant Ultraman while singing a line from Hair. Monitor Nix Uotan shows up and turns a couple of animals into Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew, and the Pax Dei show up, and Uotan summons the new Forever People, who are probably the Super Young Team, which I guess makes Uotan the new Infinite Man, except it doesn't really matter because they all just stand around and watch while the Supermen of Many Worlds burn Mandrakk and the Green Lanterns drive a spike through him. Nix Uotan tells Ultraman's burning corpse that "No one %$%$ with the judge of all evil," which would be scary as shit if the judge of all evil had actually done anything. The superheroes unfreeze the entire human race, which they just froze a couple of pages earlier, because Earth is all better now and apparently balloon sales are way up. The superheroes and Green Lanterns tow the multiple Earths back into position. This requires all the risk and effort of cleaning up after a disastrous party, and conveys about as much excitement. Apokolips is reborn as New Genesis and the dead New Gods of New Genesis reappear looking exactly as they did before they died, meaning that not a damn thing has changed. The Monitors are all absorbed into the Overvoid (or supercontext? Morrison's list of self-quotations grows to include the finale of The Invisibles) and Nix Uotan wakes up in the same mortal body he woke up in back in issue #1. See item 12. We see what happened to Anthro, and what happened to the rocket the Watchtower launched, and what happened to Batman. This one is rather elegant and, even at a mere two pages, not at all rushed, unlike most of the endings above, which are checked off like so many items on a shopping list.
The Flashes destroy Darkseid with his own Omega beams (an ending that, as Jog says, gets interrupted by a panel of Aquaman wrapping up a plot that hasn't previously appeared anywhere in Final Crisis). This is Darkseid's first defeat this issue (second overall, counting Batman's bullet last issue).
Black Canary has rescued Green Arrow from the Justifiers--off-panel between issues--while the Ray forms the protective Metron sigil over the entire planet. Neat idea, one with no apparent effect on the rest of the plot. Nor does Morrison indicate how or even if Canary and Ollie and the other evacuees survive the satellite that's burning up on reentry--the satellite turns up as good as new later in the issue, but the evacuees are nowhere to be seen.
Checkmate's Black Gambit fails and shunts a bunch of people off to Kamandi's future (now one of DC's multiple Earths). This apparently splits up the Super Young Team, who, after getting a nice build-up in the early issues, never do much of anything. But at least they appear on-panel! Mister Miracle, after getting a huge build-up in the early issues that built on his huge build-up in Seven Soldiers, once again manages to accomplish absolutely nothing that matters to the main plot. He doesn't even show up in this issue, with the Question merely mentioning him once. Well, technically, mentioning his Motherboxxx once.
Hawkman and Hawkgirl destroy the malfunctioning Lord Eye, sacrificing themselves and bringing to a noble end a subplot that began in two panels last issue.
Overman is reunited with his apparently dead cousin, concluding a subplot from one of the tie-ins that received little attention in the main series.
Luthor completes his face turn by siding with Superman--except the actual moment of his turn is once again occluded by a cutaway, this time to Frankenstein. That "meeting" with Wonder Woman is a cute joke, but it blots out the culmination of a subplot that had been simmering since the first issue.
Wonder Woman breaks her possession by Bernadeth--no indication how, we just see her crushing that tusked mask--and chains the disembodied Darkseid, presumably, but not explicitly, purging him from all the possessed humans. This is Darkseid's second defeat this issue, third overall.
Darkseid continues to expand anyway, possessing/becoming everyone and everything in the universe (multiverse?) except for one final watchtower. Doesn't look like Wonder Woman chained him all that well. William Moulton Marston would be disappointed! The disembodied/universal Darkseid penetrates the Watchtower and Superman destroys him in two panels through the power of super-singing. This is Darkseid's third defeat this issue, fourth overall.
Then Mandrakk appears for the first time in Final Crisis proper to wrap up a plotline that should have already been wrapped up in Superman Beyond 3D. Superman activates the Miracle Machine and uses it to summon Captain Marvel, who was already on his way anyway with an army of alternate-universe Supermen. The Supermen destroy Mandrakk's servant Ultraman while singing a line from Hair.
Monitor Nix Uotan shows up and turns a couple of animals into Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew, and the Pax Dei show up, and Uotan summons the new Forever People, who are probably the Super Young Team, which I guess makes Uotan the new Infinite Man, except it doesn't really matter because they all just stand around and watch while the Supermen of Many Worlds burn Mandrakk and the Green Lanterns drive a spike through him. Nix Uotan tells Ultraman's burning corpse that "No one %$%$ with the judge of all evil," which would be scary as shit if the judge of all evil had actually done anything.
The superheroes unfreeze the entire human race, which they just froze a couple of pages earlier, because Earth is all better now and apparently balloon sales are way up. The superheroes and Green Lanterns tow the multiple Earths back into position. This requires all the risk and effort of cleaning up after a disastrous party, and conveys about as much excitement.
Apokolips is reborn as New Genesis and the dead New Gods of New Genesis reappear looking exactly as they did before they died, meaning that not a damn thing has changed.
The Monitors are all absorbed into the Overvoid (or supercontext? Morrison's list of self-quotations grows to include the finale of The Invisibles) and Nix Uotan wakes up in the same mortal body he woke up in back in issue #1. See item 12.
We see what happened to Anthro, and what happened to the rocket the Watchtower launched, and what happened to Batman. This one is rather elegant and, even at a mere two pages, not at all rushed, unlike most of the endings above, which are checked off like so many items on a shopping list.
Those final two pages excepted, every one of the endings is unsatisfying on some level, whether it's Barry Allen's unnecessary return (what does he do that Wally West couldn't do on his own?) or Morrison's decision to build the final issue around a set of characters who have been mostly if not entirely absent from the series thus far. Every element is either incomplete or superfluous; a few manage to be both.
A tabulation of everything that goes wrong in this issue would be as disjoint and frustrating as Final Crisis itself, but one example might crystallize many of its problems. Wedged into three panels, the arrival of the angels of the Pax Dei at the final battle--their first and only appearance in the whole crossover--seems, like so many of the series' narrative convolutions, curiously unmotivated. Doing nothing more than floating around and watching other heroes triumph, the angels of God manage to be slightly less significant than the Zoo Crew. Those wacky animals are also nothing more than witnesses, but I suppose they make some sort of metatextual point about a kinder, gentler DC accepting the odder corners of its rich, weird history--a point that superhero comics have only been making for the past twelve or thirteen years, Morrison's superhero comics for the last twenty.
On second thought, maybe this is a point in the Pax Dei's favor. They have the good grace to symbolize nothing, I hope, being a repeat of only a single story Morrison told back in 2000--"World War III" in fact, where their climactic appearance actually had causes and consequences. Final Crisis is too busy to supply either one.
One of the more common defenses or praises of Morrison's style--one I've made myself many times in reference to other comics--is that he provides readers with just enough information that we can fill in the blanks ourselves, implying more stories than he could ever fit on the page. That implication is in evidence here, too. Final Crisis #7 opens with a genius move, cutting away from last issue's cliffhangers to a brief interlude in an alternate universe where most if not all of DC's prominent heroes are black and Superman just happens to be the President of the United States. It's a great scene, one that captures the current mood of optimism and renewed hope in the face of great adversity. It also implies a longstanding (if previously nonexistent) publication history for these characters, through the simple detail of a reversed color scheme.
President Superman's chest emblem is the same yellow-on-red pattern that Morrison gave to Sunshine Superman, the Afro-sporting hero of a retro-sixties parallel Earth whose first and only prior appearance was back in Animal Man #23. For most of the issue I thought this was supposed to be Sunshine Superman, until the original pops up in the cavalry of Supermen. But that doesn't matter, because in those couple of pages Morrison gives us everything we need to imagine President Superman's fictional history (a quick reference to Vathlo Island, Bronze Age home of all the black Kryptonians) and his publication history. This really could be the Sunshine Superman, shorn of his theatrical Boomer politics of personal affect, given a Hart Schaffner Marx suit and a pragmatic competence that could propel him into the White House.
You see what I'm doing here, right?--and let's drop any pretense that I'm not the one doing it--turning the purely hypothetical transformation of Sunshine Superman into President Superman into a repudiation of the Baby Boomer politics of cultural confrontation and the Boomer politicians who played them to such personal gain and national or international ruin. The generational shift maps perfectly onto the two versions of Sunshine Superman but its presence in this comic is my invention, folks. It's not in Final Crisis at all. Yet every detail that enables this invention, sparks this act of fan fiction, is right there on the page, right down to President Superman's polite, confident assurance that he actually does know what gravitons are and his interest in diplomacy. The contrast with his political predecessor couldn't be clearer; the contrast with his previous self is equally telling. The scene shows Morrison at his best, scattering a handful of perfectly-chosen details that can imply a whole world, a whole history, a whole politics, a whole story.
And as soon as President Superman is dragged into the morass of Final Crisis, it disappears. The overabundant endings that trip on each other's lines and jostle each other out of frame, the abandonment of old characters and sudden introduction of new villains and new premises in the final issue of a seven-part series--this isn't implying stories, it's summarizing them.
When it comes to writing these longstanding, corporate-owned, functionally immortal characters, what happens at the end isn't nearly as important as how we get there. The endings are more or less predetermined: Superman wins. Batman wins. The good guys always win. All that matters is how we reach that predetermined end, how we are surprised and scared and delighted along the way, and that's exactly what Morrison's summative supercompressions have begun to exclude. That beautiful first page is a starting point, one that can imply two twinned histories but can also set up a whole world of characters and launch them out into new stories. The cascading anticlimaxes of the rest of the issue are nothing more than a series of brutally abbreviated endpoints, bypassing the pleasure of arrival, cutting out the last places for invention and emotional investment.
And for reader participation, too--for meaningful participation that asks us to think about theme and ethics and setting and future stories instead of asking us to imagine Black Canary and Green Arrow off that burning space station, imagine roles for Barry Allen and the Super Young Team and the Pax Dei and Captain Carrot and His Fucking Zoo Crew that actually amount to something, imagine a pair of stories in which Darkseid's corruption and Mandrakk's hunger were separated and allowed to grow to their own natural lengths and endings. Instead of being asked to clear the desk and clean the gutters, fill in the many loose ends and prune off all the superfluous ones. Instead of being asked to edit Morrison's story for him.
I know many Morrison fans will say--already are saying--this elliptical style is part of Morrison's technique, part of his charm. And they're right, to a point, although mounting any such defense of Final Crisis overlooks the difference between asking readers to ponder an idea or imagine a world or forge an emotional connection, and asking them to clean up a mess.
At the end of Final Crisis #6, Darkseid zaps Batman with the Omega Sanction--"the death that is life!"--apparently destroying him. But we know this will come undone: all that matters is how. The end of Final Crisis #7 reveals how with a beautiful economy, and even if it is a quote of Jack Kirby's Forever People it's still a relief. Because the suspicion, for me as I'm sure for many Morrison fans, was that Morrison was going to quote his own Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle instead and consign Batman to the Life Trap, dooming him to live an endless cycle of miserable reincarnations, a dharmic version of Hell.
Which he'd just escaped from, in a sense, in "Last Rites," a Batman tie-in that linked Final Crisis up to the inconclusive ending of Batman RIP. (After the narrative pile-up of Final Crisis, a little inconclusivity is looking a lot more appealing now.) Having just seen Batman snap out of not one but two versions of his life story in the last couple of months, I didn't think I could stand watching him bounce in and out of yet another set of repetitions. His torment would have too closely matched my own.
The last two pages of Final Crisis sidestep that trap rather neatly, but the damage had already been done. Final Crisis cribs liberally from Morrison's "Rock of Ages," "World War III," The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo, Seven Soldiers, Animal Man, and a couple others I'm probably forgetting. Morrison's use of Kirby's characters promised some element of interpretation and reinvigoration, even if those new designs never quite materialized and the Fifth World seems no different from the Fourth, but he simply repeats his own prior work. It's a cut-and-paste job that doesn't culminate his favorite themes so much as exhaust them.
It's no secret to anyone who's been reading this blog for a while that Grant Morrison is one of the last writers keeping me interested in monthly comics--and absolutely the last one keeping me interested in writing a comics blog. Three years ago (good lord), Jog offered a persuasive evaluation of why Morrison holds such broad appeal for comics bloggers (although I suspect that appeal is notably less broad at this particular moment). Blogging thrives on the periodic, the recurring, the ongoing, and Morrison has supplied a steady stream of material for as long as there has been a comics blogosphere. But more than that, Jog observed that Morrison straddled the cultures of the comic book and the graphic novel. I would go farther, a lot farther; sometimes it seems like Morrison is the last master of the monthly comic book in an age when all of his peers are padding it out for the trade paperback. Certainly it's not an overstatement to say that Morrison has mastered the pacing and structure of the monthly serial comic and the narrative bounties of the shared continuity. Now, after Final Crisis, I have to acknowledge my nagging fears that he's also become trapped by them.
At his best, Morrison writes comics that exploit the serial format while still reading as well or better in collected editions--less trade paperbacks than sprawling, multivolume graphic novels. This isn't some distant golden age I'm describing; Morrison hit the jackpot just last fall. Lately, though, with Batman and especially with Final Crisis he seems to have become more interested in the monthly superhero comic as a final narrative format, a neverending story whose installments are not even vaguely self-sufficient, individually or collectively, and the continuity-bound superhero crossover as something still less self-sufficient than that. Final Crisis is so determined to read as a network of interconnecting series that it not only resists collection, it resists any expectations of a whole and relatively self-contained narrative. It cannot tell a complete story in 225 pages without fracturing across a half-dozen tie-ins; it cannot even be so kind as to have Superman re-enter the story from the same spin-off he exited it for.
All this could be forgiven if the series added up to something more than a sheaf of character designs and continuity notes for a story that gets outlined rather than told. My favorite tie-in was probably the Final Crisis Sketchbook, a behind-the-scenes guide filled with Morrison's lightly comedic reinventions of the New Gods and pointlessly detailed, utterly perfect histories of Japanese superheroes. Most of these characters would barely appear in the crossover. Some never would. Only now is it clear: that sketchbook was Final Crisis in its purest form.
It's been over three months since I posted anything here. I meant to, honest, especially after the election. Christy and I worked hard for that one, canvassing in Virginia almost every weekend from Labor Day to Election Day. At the time it seemed like each trip supplied a new reason for confidence--like the first Saturday after the Republicans' smug, spiteful convention, when the line of Obama volunteers spilled out of the office and down the block--but I never got around to writing them up. I wish I had now, not for the blog but for my own personal record.
I realized a while ago that there was no point to blogging about politics on my schedule. If blogging is ideally a daily activity then political blogging is an hourly one, and I could never devote that kind of time to it--especially not last fall, when my time was better spent knocking on doors in Fairfax County. By the time I was done knocking the polls were closed, and anything I could have said about the election was said more powerfully by the crowds crying in Grant Park and dancing in front of the White House.
So politics was out; well, we'll always have comics. One of the nicer things about comics blogging is that you don't really have to do it every day; as long as Tom or Dirk links to your post, it doesn't matter how badly you've let your readership atrophy. But that can be a trap, too. Comics blogs offer a guaranteed (if tiny) audience and absolutely no standards other than the ones you and your chosen peers set for yourselves. Not exactly a recipe for great writing, which makes the great writing it has produced that much more remarkable. But once you fall out of the habit for a while it begins to look a bit too cozy, a bit too comfortable.
The problem is not the subject matter, even when a subject disappoints as deeply as Final Crisis does, severing that last tether to the weekly conversation. The problem is the medium itself. If blogging is daily it is also ephemeral, yet the ephemera cling to life with embarrassing persistence; even the best-kept archives reek with the overripe tang of long-forgotten controversies that never mattered in the first place. (Paul O'Brien thinks comics are boring! Micah Ian Wright lied to me! How could CrossGen fail?) Not long after I started this blog I made an effort, haltingly at first, to purge it of such ephemera, to write only pieces I thought I could be proud of later. I'm still proud of many of them, but the consequence was a blog that rarely updated and still took more effort than a blog should take.
Some folks are able to turn their blogs into part of their professional development or, better yet, make blogging a profession unto itself. More power to them. Writing this blog has been incredibly valuable, as a laboratory for developing ideas and as a motivation to push my style in directions it otherwise wouldn't have taken. But after a while it's time to apply all that work to formats and venues that aren't measured chiefly by their frequency. No matter how much time and energy I sank into it, blogging has always been a hobby for me. Time spent blogging is time not spent writing for some other format that demands better work and offers something more durable in return.
I doubt this will be the end of this site--there will always be some work of exceptional quality or exceptional frustration to tempt me back--but it will be the end of it as a blog. (This only makes official an ending that really started last spring, with the conclusion of the other serial narrative that kept me posting.) There will be updates as other projects come into print, some possibly as early as the end of the year. Some will take a lot longer; I've decided to bite the bullet and write that Morrison book that's been pushing itself into blog form for the last five years.
I'm looking forward to Seaguy 2; I'm looking forward even more to Grant's temporary break from comics and the newer, more self-contained, more original works that I hope will follow.
In the meantime? We'll always have the President.
All Star Superman vol. 2, by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Jamie Grant
"As a matter of fact, I had the whole thing paced out to end pretty much exactly like this, Lex."
For someone who used to complain about his inability to end a story, Grant Morrison is awfully proud of this one. And rightly so; All Star Superman is unusually well-structured for Morrison's works, and exceptionally well-structured by any standard, so much so that having Superman brag about it doesn't seem too unseemly. Everything has been planned down to the last detail, even the previously unsuspected clue Superman mentions in the next word balloon, set up all the way back in issue #2. This is one of Morrison's most meticulously plotted works and one of his best endings (especially if Cole Odell is right). While the finale pulls all the pieces together, though, the entire series has been structured with equal care. Now that the whole design is apparent it's clear that the second half is especially important, a coherent work of its own expressing ideas that extend well beyond the modest concerns of most supehero comics.
The first half of All Star Superman is mostly a tour of Superman's cast of characters, showcasing Morrison's takes on Lois and Jimmy and Luthor and the Smallville crowd. If the series had stayed at this pitch it would have been nothing more than an unusually well-crafted example of the "commercial strip-mining" approach, which Morrison once described as "creators playing it safe by cherry-picking and re-packaging all the best and most popular elements of an already successful feature."
Instead, the second half brings the focus back to the title character, assembles the stories into a unified narrative, and builds to a climax as thematically fraught as it is tightly plotted. Issue #7 marks the new beginning with several references to the first half of the series (opening with another dangerous Leo Quintum expedition, showing the missing technician from #4, releasing the baby sun-eater, and so on). A series that has already synthesized the best elements of every period in Superman's history is now including itself in the synthesis--as if the first half of the series were a separate work already fit for quotation and memorialization.
And a series that has already confronted Superman with several alternate versions of himself (the scoundrels Samson and Atlas, the Black-K induced evil Superman, the Supermen from the future) kicks into high gear. It's difficult to remember this in retrospect, but Morrison didn't really hammer home the alternate Supermen in his first couple of issues, and Luthor represents a different kind of reflection in the prison story. With the second half of All Star, however, every single issue features a copy--and sometimes, in the case of poor Zibarro, a copy of a copy as well. This is more than just Prismatic Age brand proliferation, though (or rather, it's one of the best "Prismatic" works because it achieves more than mere brand proliferation). Each of these distorted funhouse images, from the comedic-horrific inversions of Bizarro to the Kryptonian chauvinism of Bar-El to the nightmare scenario of a man with Superman's powers and Luthor's character, serves to burnish the original by comparison--even the best of them, Superman's Kandorian cousin Van-Zee, is too physically unimposing and ineffective to match the template. But a couple of them go much farther, speaking directly to the series' core themes of the power of ideas and hope for the future.
I wasn't a big fan of issue #9, the Kryptonian astronauts, when it was first released, seeing it as little more than a reworking of the Mon-El story. But reading it against the rest of the series, especially its immediate successor, reveals it as an important turning point. Bar-El and Lila accuse Superman of dragging his feet when it comes to freeing the citizens of Kandor, telling him he lacks drive and ambition. By issue's end Superman concedes the point, saying "Perhaps I could have done more"; the next issue he's rushing to settle his affairs, including the Kandorians. Similarly, Lila's comment that Superman "could have laid the foundation stones of tomorrow" leads into his gift to Leo Quintum and Lois Lane--the DNA sequences and superpower serums that will most likely generate his successors, as hinted on the series' final page. His bequest of the future answers Lila's challenge without duplicating her haughty Kryptonian cultural imperialism. The tenth issue is justly regarded as one of the series' highest points, but the ninth sets it into motion.
The grand finale in issues #11 and 12 opens with yet another set of call-backs, this time marking the end of the series and beginning the summation of its ideas. The first five pages of #11 contain visual or textual reminders of every prior issue; the next scene takes us inside one of Luthor's lairs, littered with costumes and weapons that indicate his own history is every bit as palimpsestic as Superman's. (Which, of course, it is. You can imagine these pages being outtakes from another comic--call it All Star Luthor--that just happened to intersect with this one.) These nods to comics tradition, and to All Star Superman's own prior nods to that tradition, aren't the important part, just structural markers that the end is here and the important stuff is about to begin.
The second half of the series highlights Superman's capacity to inspire people, even (especially) as a purely fictional character. It's the only power he has in our benighted world, and Morrison believes it's the most important one he's got. In fact, he says that if Superman did not exist, we would have to invent him (simply returning a favor, since Superman thoughtfully created us back in issue #10, March 2008; mark your calendars). That's why the finale pits him against an antagonist who disputes the very idea that fictions and abstractions can hold real power, as seen in this exchange from issue #12:
WHITE: The truth sent you to the chair, Luthor!
LUTHOR: Is that right, Mister White? Funny, I don't see the truth anywhere around, do you? I mean, what color is it? Can I touch it?
Luthor mocks White's dedication to abstract principle, confronting him with the truth's immateriality, because he's a materialist to the extreme. He says the priest at his execution "stinks of the irrational" and his niece proclaims "This is Science Year Zero!"--next I suppose they'll be rewriting the calendar. This scorn for idealism confirms Luthor's stature as the series archvillain, especially since a hallucinatory Jor-El (himself part of "the field of living, fluid consciousness") has just told his son he has given us humans "an ideal to aspire to, embodied [our] highest aspirations."
After viewing the world through Superman's eyes, though, Luthor gets with the All Star program. He realizes "The fundamental forces are yoked by a single thought"--apparently the entire universe is "thought-controlled!" His enlightenment and defeat aren't just the typical final-act reversals; they enact the triumph of the ideal over the material. Or, as Superman tells Luthor (while laying him out with a decidedly material, decidedly anticlimactic, decidedly satisfying punch) "Brain beats brawn every time!" In grand superhero tradition, Morrison stages a conflict of ideas and resolves it through the physical embodiments of his characters... which itself happens to be a perfect illustration of their ability to embody our ideals.
But tragically, perfectly, the story doesn't end there. Superman converts to pure "solar radio-consciousness," pure information, pure idea, yet he still manages to save us all one last time. He ends the series presiding serenely over Metropolis and Earth, maintaining the sun that keeps them alive, duplicating his earlier custodianship of Kandor on a much larger scale. And he ends it as a purely ideal being inspiring others to do better, duplicating his relationship to us poor souls down here on Earth-Q, where he's never been anything else. Trust Morrison to end All Star Superman with one more radical variation of scale, one more blurring of fiction and reality--but trust him also to apply these familiar games to a new theme, one perfectly matched to his character, about the power of ideas; the power of inspiration; the power of hope.
All Star Superman #12, by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Jamie Grant
A beautiful symmetry is at work in All Star Superman. The sixth issue showed a young Clark Kent learning the limitations of his powers when he failed to save his adoptive father. The twelfth and final one opens with Kal-El learning about the other side of mortality from his birth father as Jor-El guides him through a postmortem fantasy and confronts him with an important choice. Both halves of this series are punctuated with lessons from the fathers that Superman, for all his powers, can never rescue, and reassurances that he still lived up to their expectations anyway.
That's not the only elegant pattern on display in this issue as Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely pull out all the storytelling techniques at their command, investing meaning in processes as mechanical and automatic as the turning of a page. Jor-El's injunction that Superman can linger in his fantasy world or "Turn and face down evil one last time" is followed by both a page turn and the face of evil, Lex Luthor, ordering the Daily Planet staffers to make their own life-or-death decision.
And if you've been reading these reviews for any length of time, you've probably already guessed that another heavily freighted page transition sets up one of my favorite bits in the issue--hell, the series. Immediately after Jor-El tells his son that Superman has inspired humanity's highest aspirations and embodied our best qualities, what should we see but Steve Lombard frantically performing CPR on Clark Kent, calling him "buddy" and apologizing for all those pranks. Lombard has usually been the butt of the joke in this series, just as God and Cary Bates intended, a preening he-man whose overcompensating hypermasculinity always falls short next to Superman's real deal. But this time Morrison grants some genuine heroism to the blowhard ex-jock as we see him working fearlessly to save the nerd he's tormented. Superman's in all of us--even Steve Lombard.
In the world of Superman, the better All Star world Superman's inspired, everybody does the right thing in the end (except Luthor, of course). This issue all of the little guys get their chance to make a stand, from Perry White's defense of the truth to Jimmy Olsen's timely turn as costumer. Does Jimmy know he's covering for Superman when he trots out the line about the disguise? And does Luthor figure out the big secret, the one that eluded him in issue five, on the next page, only to lose it when his super-enhanced intellect runs out? The issue moves so quickly that Morrison can only hint at these developments, planting just enough information for us to make the leap and then moving on to the next surprise. Even Superman gets to play the role of the plucky underdog, concocting a delightful quasi-scientific trick to beat his artificially empowered archenemy at his own game.
Because it's a Morrison comic there are also the references, fleeting and supple, to Supermen past: the scarlet fevers and fire falls of Silver Age Krypton, the crystal canyons of the Salkind movies, the fantasy life of "For the Man Who Has Everything," various deaths of Superman from the sixties to the nineties, Morrison's own DC One Million, and a flight of balloons that recalls the end of Miracleman's "Golden Age." They're all executed without rancor, just a patient sense of obligation that suits the book and its subject. Morrison's not trying to banish or one-up anybody, only to sum up all of his predecessors in a single compelling vision of the character.
Jamie Grant contributes an unusually vivid palette of bright primary and secondary colors, and Quitely is up to his usual high standard whether he's giving us a gorgeous x-ray panel or a stop-motion view of a truck in collision (both of which call back to his finest work in We3). The series' final image--I won't spoil it--is a beautiful piece of graphic design, as much a question as an answer and one that leaves me clamoring for a sequel we may never see.
Morrison and Quitely have accomplished something that many comics creators and fans thought impossible: they've found a way to tell stories about Superman that feel fresh and energetic after seventy years of the neverending battle. Yes, they amplify the menaces, but that's just the window-dressing--and they avoid the woefully common misstep of writing Superman down, casting the world's greatest superhero as an incompetent or a fascist to make their own jobs easier. The physical challenges are never a problem for the man of tomorrow, even at Quitely's cinemascoped best. The emotional challenges--to atone with his fathers, to be with the woman he loves, to confront his own mortality, to inspire our compassion and courage and hope--those are the tough battles, those are what really matter, and Morrison knows it. His real coup is not just making Superman interesting again, but showing us why it matters that we still come up with new stories about him. Because even if he were perfect, we can always be better.
It's a fitting end to All Star Superman. Even if the comic got a little flabby in the middle with the Bizarros and the astronauts (a story that actually reads much better after you've read the next one, but that's a post I'll probably never write)... well, all it had to do was stand up straight, unslump its shoulders, take off its glasses and show us the taut story that was always waiting within.
This issue is a masterpiece.
...Aren't they all?
All-Star Superman #10, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Gorgeous cover, isn't it? And given Grant Morrison's customary interest in radical variations of scale (if this were a Wire post, I would've titled it with a certain Van-Zee quote), it comes very close to being a literal representation of this issue, where Superman plays God (in a good way!) with not one but two pocket worlds.
The interior is even better. The image of Superman's face smiling beneficently over Kandor (you can see a sample here) is one of Quitely's finest, especially the way he breaks it over two panels--as if we have to pan up to see it all, as if it's too big to take it all in at once. The kind, patient expression sums up Morrison and Quitely's take on Superman at least as well as the cloud cover that opened the series.
That's only one reason why All-Star Superman was much-anticipated and sorely missed after a long drought. I'm with Jog, more or less--I loved the Zibarro issue (pretty much the best Fourth of July comic ever), but the follow-up with the Kryptonian astronauts didn't seem to bring anything new to its well-worn story. And I say this as someone who deeply appreciated that Morrison finally gave us the Steve Lombard stumblebum routine I'd been begging for. It's been nearly nine months since this series was firing on all cylinders, and even longer since it devoted significant attention to the story of Superman's mortality, but this latest issue returns to the plotline that gave the early ones so much of their melancholy appeal.
Among the other features that make this issue so rewarding are the patterns of allusion--and the multiple levels of allusion--that run throughout it. There's this series' standard palimpsest of Superman history, condensing and combining the most interesting elements from seventy years of comics. We get Superman writing his last will and testament on a slab of metal, Leo Quintum in a Flamebird costume, Luthor biding his time in prison, even a reworking of that story where Superman shoots a little Superman out of his hand that so captivated Morrison (note that Van-Zee, leader of the Superman Emergency Squad, is by tradition an exact double for his cousin Kal-El). We get Superman rushing, with a little help from his friends, to complete his unfinished business and expose a secret to the world (prematurely?), both of which come straight from "The Last Days of Superman." But it's not all Silver Age nostalgia; properly speaking, it's not nostalgia at all.
That's most visible in the Kandorian council, which makes a nice visual metaphor for this series' signature move. Their clothing ranges from classic Silver Age headbands and emblems to an ornate Byrne-like headdress to Quitely's own hypermodernist designs. The council is tasked with preserving the last remnants of Kryptonian culture, and their appearance encapsulates just about all of it, much as All-Star Superman tries to preserve all the different eras of Superman--but not under glass, where it can only grow old and die. This is a living history.
Then you have all the references to Morrison's own work. You've got the infant universe of Qwewq, where our own planet dwells--only this time it's created by Superman, as one of his twelve super-labors. (I would love that gimmick a lot more if Morrison gave us a scorecard--it's impossible to tell what the labors are!) You've got the radical variations in scale from The Filth. You've got several other callbacks to Morrison's run on JLA, from ominous rumblings about Solaris to a Superman who tells Lex Luthor "I know there's good in you" to maybe, just maybe, a reference to that JSA crossover where Green Lantern artificially accelerated time on that microscopic civilization that was built on top of the Spectre.
I'm not so sure about that last one--I think Morrison is really just playing around with that old idea that if the history of planet Earth were fit into a single day, all of human civilization would unfold in its final second. A tad more cerebral than the JLA plot, but they both stem from his interest in narrative compressions of time and space. And boy, do I love Morrison's endpoint for his pocket history of the human race--something that speaks to why he thinks this comic is important in the first place, why All-Star Superman and superheroes in general are, for Morrison, a lot more than just a paycheck.
Finally, because Morrison is Morrison--or because I am me?--I see we have a surprising number of references to Alan Moore. Watchmen references abound, with a godlike hero who creates life at the culmination of his ascension and plants a city of delicate spires in the soil of Mars, in the shadow of Olympus Mons. I'll charitably assume the Nietzsche quote originates with Nietzsche, but it does happen to be the same line that opened Miracleman. An obvious place to go if you're looking to give the superhero a (spurious) historical pedigree, sure, but Moore got there first.
There's no overlooking the parallels with "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" though--not when we meet a messenger from an idyllic future, who shows up in a transparent bubble, no less, and who isn't supposed to share information with Superman but manages to provide a hint about an upcoming menace. It's the Legion of Super-Heroes cameo updated for the age of text messaging. And it calls attention to all the ways the larger plot structure of All-Star Superman as a whole--a grand tour of all the elements of the Superman myth, in the face of his impending death--owes a little something to Moore's big, serious, heartfelt, slobbery kiss of a Superman story from twenty-three years ago.
But it's gentle references this time, knowing winks to the reader. No commentary or anxiety, as befits this most serene of series. Just another nod to the past as this comic walks, square jaw held bravely up, into the future.
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.
Spoiler warning and idle speculation for Batman #667-668.
One of the pleasures of the current Batman storyline is that it invites heavy reader involvement. Grant Morrison and J.H. Williams III don't just ask us to identify all the art homages, they practically demand that we develop theories and search for clues to the identity of the Black Glove--even though they haven't really written a mystery at all.
So, who is the Black Glove? Is he part of a Club of Villains, or is he just impersonating the Club of Heroes' foes? Is he one of the Club of Heroes? Or is he posing as one of the heroes after killing and replacing them? That was certainly Wingman's theory, but then Wingman himself made a great red herring because he was such a jerk. You were probably hoping he turned out to be the killer right up until he turned up as a victim... assuming that really was the Wingman hanging there, his face burned beyond recognition. Perhaps he just created his own alibi? But then who did the body belong to? The great thing about this theory is that it makes Williams' flashback images part of the misdirection--they would be showing us the wrong character! But why should we assume these extradiegetic images are honest and accurate clues?
The Knight has been behaving oddly--when did he disappear, and why was he waiting around inside the locked library instead of getting help? But he's being set up too obviously (although, in a better set-up, the red herring wouldn't have that bomb in his belly). Batman has already discounted the possibility and, stepping outside the text for a minute, it seems unlikely that Morrison would corrupt a character after investing so much work and affection in him. And where would that leave Beryl?
Suspicious coincidences are settling around the Dark Ranger. He keeps running off on his own, Red Raven disappears (apparently getting captured) after vowing to follow him, and that full-face mask means anybody could be wearing the suit at any point after he wanders off at the end of his initial appearance. The Ranger could have been the first hero to die; his combat boots do look a lot like the pair we see standing over the fallen Legionary.
Maybe we shouldn't read too much into such incidental details. Nothing can motivate Morrison to produce a meticulous, detail-oriented script like a top-notch artistic collaborator--Williams is at least the equal of Phil Jimenez and Frank Quitely in this regard--but the parts don't always line up. At the beginning of #668 the Knight has disappeared and become a prime suspect in the killings, yet at the end of #667 he ran outside with the others and was standing by their side just before the Legionary was killed. Not visible in that scene: the Dark Ranger, Wingman, and Man-of-Bats. But does that mean anything?
The Dark Ranger has some curious absences and reappearances in this issue. But does that mean anything? Wingman's body turns up in a room that's already been locked and broken into and re-sealed once before; the house must be so riddled with secret passages that no character movements can be sufficient evidence in and of themselves. And we know so little about most of these characters that nearly any of them could turn out to be the killer--Morrison has insured we won't learn about the breakup of the Batmen of Many Nations (and hence the likely motive for whatever revenge transpires here) until the final chapter.
From the brief flashback we get this issue, we know that John Mayhew has something to hide, some "grave news" that prompted the Club of Heroes to disband. But he was killed in the first issue, wasn't he?
Maybe. We see something that looks like his face, and the Black Glove says he killed Mayhew, but how much should we trust him? Or does "John's dead" signal the death of an old identity, a discarded personality? A movie director could easily work up (or pay someone to work up) a false face that looks real enough for a short video. And that body dangling on page 1 of #667--sure, that looks like Mayhew, but is that a moustache or a shadow thrown by the weird lighting? Other odd details from that issue: a picture of Mayhew posing in front of a race car, with almost exactly the same uniform and posture as the Dark Ranger on the previous page; and that "Black Glove" poster, of course. Even if Mayhew is dead it seems likely he had something to do with the Black Glove's creation, making him a victim of his own ennui.
If this were a fair-play locked-room mystery, I'd guess that Mayhew either is the Black Glove himself (possibly posing as the Dark Ranger), or he inadvertently created the Black Glove when he approached someone else to help him set up a murder mystery for the Club of Heroes reunion--possibly either the Dark Ranger or the Wingman, who killed the Ranger and switched costumes with him at some point while the other heroes were preoccupied with the Knight. (Plus, making the Dark Ranger and/or Wingman the Black Glove's guises/accomplices would be a none-too-subtle way of repudiating the grim and gritty Batman both men have imitated, and Morrison's been all about that lately.)
But the story may not be a fair-play mystery, and the walls of the Mayhew mansion are so porous that "locked-room" is a misnomer. This is a suspense story, set in a private little paradise turned hell where evil becomes so palpable it distorts panel borders, or becomes them, drawing the heroes into its tightening grasp.
We may not be able to figure out the Black Glove's machinations until they're over, but that's all right. Watching them unfold is half the fun. Watching Morrison and Williams deliver them, and trying to guess where they're going next, is the rest.
Batman #667-668, by Grant Morrison and J.H. Williams III
It's easy to recoil at the story this could have been--and perhaps, by all logic and prevailing comics industry patterns, should have been. A comic in which a writer unearths a bunch of forgotten DC Comics characters only to kill them off in a carnival of blood? In which those forgotten heroes have aged along with the trends of comics history, the better to contrast their dark modern personas with their innocent origins? In which "darkness" itself is hardened from a stylistic preference to an almost ontological presence, the font of all evil? In which fat men eat chicken?
Maybe we don't get enough of that last one, but all the rest have been trotted out so many times over the past decade that they're practically the DC house style. The return of the Club of Heroes (a.k.a. the Batmen of Many Nations) should be a disaster, but it helps when the writer is Grant Morrison and the artist is J.H. Williams III. Their playfulness, their knack for note-perfect impersonations, and their willingness to embrace all those eras that apparently embarrass everybody else at DC dispel any fears that the story has a chip on its shoulder, even though it's about a bunch of has-beens and never-weres who have chips on their shoulders.
The comic is so eager to recreate different moments in comics history while also advancing them into the present that it never falls into simple nostalgia, ridicule, or self-loathing. In the story's most delicious touch, the evil menace is just as gloriously retro as the Batmen of Many Nations. The murder plot harkens back not so much to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None as it does to the old Avengers episode inspired by the same, and Steve Flanagan has already suggested that Williams' visuals of the Black Glove (the villain so ominous that most of his appearances are as panel borders!) recall the movie titles of the great Saul Bass. Even the dangling feet of one unfortunate hero suggest Bass' angular, late-modernist compositions:
Death by hanging has never looked so stylish!
Morrison does occasionally succumb to the shortcuts of industry critique. He sets up the Wingman as the obnoxious one, the Batman who's fallen the farthest into grim and gritty excess (drawn as a Gibbons character, no less!) and who has the temerity to doubt his fellow heroes, including the big guy with his name on the cover. He's the one we're supposed to hate and so he's the best red herring candidate for the Black Glove, at least until he makes his ignominious exit. (Although we never saw his face under that helmet, and we don't see much of one after it comes off, so who's to say if he's really gone...?) The best current suspect, the Dark Ranger, has also succumbed to modern trends towards violence and cynicism, while the hero who's gone through an Arkham Asylum-like ordeal of trial and purification seems to be one of the noblest of the good guys.
But the story is surprisingly, and welcomely, non-judgmental about all these failed Batmen, recognizing that every one of them reflects a part of his history. Our trip to The Island of Mister Mayhew is an excursion into the downside of all Batman's many personas--not just the grim avenger (Dark Ranger, Wingman) and the stifling mentor (Man-of-Bats) and the guilt-ridden son (Knight) and the megafranchise sellout (Legionary), but also the jet-set playboy that Morrison's earlier issues tried, however intermittently, to resuscitate. As Jog wrote (and when was the last time one of my Morrison posts did not include some variation on "as Jog wrote"?) a few weeks ago,
If Morrison's run on this book seems to be about Batman trying to wipe away the past and move forward, only to be constantly haunted by stuff from years ago that he can't quite get rid of, these last few issues come off a lot like a dark version of what Morrison's doing with DC's other big icon on All Star Superman: pitting him against visions of himself.
If Jonathan Mayhew has some dirty secret to hide--and judging by that movie poster in #667, it may be the biggest secret in this storyline, hiding right out there in plain sight--then Morrison is also pitting Batman against visions of what Bruce Wayne could have been, a bored billionaire gone to seed without any life-defining mission.
The failed Batmen of Many Nations, on the other hand, are not there to battle Batman, or even to magnify him. Morrison writes them to humanize him. They remind us of a period when Batman was the grinning patriarch of a family of franchise knock-offs that spanned the globe, and they give Morrison a handy set of excuses to show us a modern-day Batman who's capable of working with other heroes, training sidekicks on the job, even handing out compliments and gently chiding his partner for a crack about the "League of Losers." Batman is always respectful of his colleagues, never disdainful (an impulse that gets shunted off onto Wingman, of course), and he welcomes the Club of Heroes back into his story through cooperation rather than conflict. The multiple reflections help to expand the character's valences back out beyond the reductive, sociopathic interpretation of recent years. Morrison is well on his way to dislodging the stick that Frank Miller shoved up Batman's ass twenty years ago--and that his own JLA did its part to wedge in there.
Much of the success is due to J.H. Williams III, whose playful spirit keeps the story from stumbling into all the smirking pitfalls it opens up. He's absolutely the perfect artist for this story, blending different periods in comics history (and inventing new additions to that history) as seamlessly as Seven Soldiers #1 did the styles of his fellow artists. Most impressive of all, the pastiche never feels forced--while certain characters might jump off the page with Howard Chaykin's manic lines or Dave Gibbons' more measured ones, the pages as a whole never look like collages. (Whether this is because Williams designs such unified pages or because he knows exactly when to stop the homage and assimilate the characters into his own style, it's difficult to say.) Between this and the sense of tangible, apocalyptic evil exuded by the Black Glove, the Club of Heroes storyline feels like a nice little Seven Soldiers reunion project, even if the scope is necessarily smaller.
The only false step so far is the Benday-dotted flashback that opens the second issue. It's a trick that we've seen too many times over the past decade's worth of self-referential comics, and Williams is far, far too adept an artist to need it. His character designs and his ingenious variations in line weight and shading can already connote any artist or period he sets his mind to. I don't know who decided to use the Benday dots, but they're like placing a chainsaw in the hands of a surgeon.
Otherwise, this is a highly entertaining storyline that overcomes all odds, except the ones that say a comic by Grant Morrison and J.H. Williams III is probably going to be pretty damn good. Finally, Morrison's Batman run has come into its own.