Batman #657, by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert
With its third installment, Grant Morrison's Batman has finally grown on me. Morrison builds on the best feature of the previous two, otherwise disappointing issues, their embrace of all the strange, occasionally repressed corners of Batman's sixty-odd years. All the old stories are here, from Son of the Demon to Batman's gallery of rainbow-colored costumes, even the Spook from those 70s David V. Reed issues--although he won't be around for long, I'm sorry to report. Best of all, Morrison doesn't fiddle around with some tedious in-story explanation for why these pieces of forgotten lore have returned, the way a Mark Waid or a Geoff Johns would. He doesn't feel the need to ontologically justify them, he just puts them in his comic and uses them to whatever extent they serve his story, caring not a whit whether they were in-continuity or not--they are now.
But the third issue pulls away from its predecessors, finally offering more than the shallow pleasure of recognition for the longtime fans. After two issues of meaningless fight scenes and tongue-in-cheek set pieces Morrison has finally put something at stake for Batman, confronting him with the daunting task of raising a son he never knew he had. Damian (too obvious by half, Grant) comes across as a younger version of the old Batman--sullen, spoiled, nasty, and violent. Sure, the kid has been raised by terrorist assassins (the reference to living in caves draws a timely parallel between Ra's al Ghul and Osama bin Laden) but Alfred's line about "memory lane" tells us that the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. Nor is he just referring to the younger Bruce Wayne: Damian's arrogance, aloofness, viciousness, and self-imposed isolation reflect the "sour-faced, sexually-repressed, humorless, uptight, angry, and all-round grim 'n' gritty" traits that Morrison is trying to purge from the adult Batman. If he can raise this kid right, Batman has an opportunity to correct his own--that is, his writers'--past excesses.
In an equally nice touch, though, he has to resort to the humorless, angry martinet because that's the only treatment the boy respects. Morrison has given Batman a complex challenge, to train Damian to be a healthier human being without backsliding in the opposite direction. It's a rich premise and I hope Morrison does it justice by keeping Damian around longer than the one remaining issue of this arc.
While Morrison's writing has finally picked up, Kubert's art still hasn't risen to match it. At best it's mere illustration, and not always effective illustration. Either he or the letterer forgets which of the Spook's spooks is the goon and which is the undercover cop, although Morrison's script probably wasn't much help in this regard. I do like the little mouths Kubert puts on their ghost costumes, though--an important detail that makes them overgrown trick-or-treaters rather than Klansmen.
He does a better job with the climactic fight scene, staging it against the Batcave's most iconic exhibits. I suspect that's by Morrison's design, as the composition of that final splash page is just too perfect. The page not only juxtaposes the fallen Tim Drake with the costumes of Thomas Wayne and Jason Todd (a juxtaposition that loses a little of its force, unfortunately, now that Jason isn't dead anymore--thanks for nothing, Superboy!), it drapes Tim with the most risible part of the old Robin costume, the green chain mail hot pants. Is that meant to be a further humiliation? A chilling replay of past failures?
Or is it a reminder that no matter how much these characters grimace, no matter how many depradations their writers inflict on them and no matter how much black their artists add or how much green they subtract, the somber heroes of "New Earth" will always be in continuity with the smiling four-color champions who apparently embarrass everybody at DC?
Everybody, it seems, but Grant Morrison.