Monday, December 1, 2008

5 Reasons I Am In Love With Batman #681

I don't spend much time on this blog commenting on whatever the topic of the day across the comics blogosphere is because A) I don't usually have anything positive to contribute to the regular discussion/debate/kindergarten insult fest and B) I don't think anyone would read what I have to say anyway. However, after reading this round up of responses to the final chapter of Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel's "Batman R.I.P." arc on the soon to be far less essential Blog@Newsarama and discussing said issue with the rest of the kids at the table over e-mail, I had to post my two cents.

In a very brief sense, I loved the comic and the story that preceded it both as a Morrison fan and a longtime Batman reader (especially after being cold to his first year on the title). In fact, I loved Batman #681 so much, I can't even begin to grasp how another human being who reads this stuff on a regular basis could be anything but highly entertained by the issue. So complaining that it sucked because its ambiguous ending didn't line up with some vague pre-arc, publicity-driven hype quote pretty much leaves me totally fucking baffled. But rather than rail on in a fashion that's just going to get me called a fanboy asshole Morrison apologist, I'm going to run down five reasons why I'd elope with this comic if it had legal citizenship, starting with...

1. It was just a damn exciting, engaging superhero comic book.

I don't claim to have a collegiate grasp of all the myriad metaphors and higher order concerns that run through a lot of Morrison's work, yet at the same time, I am a person who is totally fucking baffled by people who claim to not understand his comics on a basic story level. If you're a comics reader who walks into their local shop on Wednesday and says, "I just don't get what's happening in Final Crisis" then you and I's relationship involves your giving me stress headaches and not much else. That said, I understand that a lot of the writer's recent work has on a basic plot level been much more dense, circular and erratic. I think those kinds of in story devices usually make his comics more challenging reads and ultimately more rewarding, but they can also skimp out on the meat and potatoes thrills that for a lot of us define superheroics. But not this issue, boy. This issue was a whiz-bang, high five, ass kicker top to bottom.

After reading Morrison's Final Crisis: Submit one-shot, I was left feeling like I'd just read a Grant Morrison superhero comic from around 1998. It introduced a cast of characters with believable personalities, threw them into a crazy ass situation and then followed them through it all from beat to beat. 681 felt like that too. It was tight, linear and hit all the action moments like you were watching a mid-major school break into the Sweet 16 with a half-court buzzer beater on every third page. Every big action beat got me more pumped -- the switcheroo with the poison, the trick on the villains with the radio device, the Club of Heroes save, Nightwing's revival, Damien's "defeat" of the Joker and God...the fucking scene where Batman tells Jet that he's stolen the letter from her mother!!! I was excited all the way through. This is what superhero comics are supposed to feel like - reveling in their ludicrous high stakes and never stopping to let the heroes puff up and pout with false emotion just so the creators can claim to be producing serious, adult literature.

2. For once, we got a Batman story about Batman.

It can not be repeated enough how nice it is to read a Batman comic where the focus of the story is Batman/Bruce as a character rather than members of his supporting cast like Gordon or villains like Two Face. From the Nada Parbat flashbacks to his philosophical back and forth with Hurt, this issue (and arc and entire run) was been about testing what Batman is all about, and what we got from 681 was the idea that Batman was just as amazing a bad ass as he's been hyped up to be. No one can break him of his abilities...not the Joker's total insanity, not a villain he can't understand in Hurt holding total character assassination of his parents over his head and not falling in love with a kindred spirit. Batman's constant bouncing back in this issue and explaining to his enemies how they never had him beat is a great payoff because all of the weirdness, misdirection and general Morrisonian plotting throughout the rest of the run did such a great job of putting the central conceit of Batman in doubt.

Since day 1, Morrison's whole take on Batman has been "the man that should have been driven insane by his weird adolescent quest to revenge his parent's murder but was instead driven super sane," and everything in this issue reinforces that part of the character. The main thing to point to is obviously the Zur En Arrh Batman who's default personality status looks insane but sees grids over the whole city and can build super computers out of trash radios. That final page reveal of the "Zorro In Arkham" bit is so genius because it ties the whole of Batman's personality in Morrison's run to the death of his parents. It's like when Bruce saw his parents get shot, Batman wasn't just born as an actual plan that he hatches to get vengeance...he's subconsciously born in Bruce's mind using a boy's understanding of heroism which grows and mutates over all these years of crazy adventures and somehow implausibly functions to perfection.

3. Morrison's Batman is the killer B Side to All-Star Superman.

Simply put, if Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman is "Hey Jude" – the soft, wholesome crowd pleaser that plays through the expected notes of the genre to perfection – then Morrison's Batman run is "Revolution" – the wild, jagged face melter that mixes the genre's raw essentials up to remind you that the artists started on the fringe of things and will always live there to some extent. Beyond the obvious "reinforce the core of the character by making them repeatedly fight twisted versions of themselves" motif that runs through both, Morrison delivers in each series an epic story that conforms to the core of what is appealing and essential in each property that still entertains after 70 years by embracing the style of each character within his scripts. All-Star spun the science fiction slice of altruistic Americana take on Superman to perfection by bolstering the insanity of the Silver Age with scripting style that focused on the big, boy scoutish, heart-wrenching images. "R.I.P." and its predecessors similarly shined up the improbably unkillable gothic detective myth that is Batman through a careful balance of horrific villainy, baffling detective story plotting and oddly endearing childhood trauma. As fucked up as these issues of Batmanhave been, when all the trades are in hand, I'm positive you'll be able to hand them to a person and say, "THIS is what Batman's all about" in the same way people have been doing with All-Star.

4. Tony Daniel is killing it on this book.

When Tony Daniel started on this book, I have to admit I thought the same thing as everyone else did – that Morrison could never steal 1970s Neal Adams by way of a time machine and make him draw this book, so DC just hired the fastest dude they could to draw a mock-up versions of the legendary Bat-artist. And you know what? We were all so, so wrong.

While I'm sure there are a few legitimate criticisms one could make of Daniel's figure work or his occasional storytelling hiccups, any negative is far outweighed by the depth of perverse strangeness he packed into every issue of this series, and 681 is the proof and the pudding. I love his little details like that billboard on page 6 with the wires in the woman's head. I'm not sure if it contributes anything directly to the story, but it makes Gotham so much more unreal and scummier than any past version, and it fits Morrison's vision perfectly. I'm not even sure whether it's Morrison who adds those bits in or Daniel, and I really don't care to know. The end result is that the artist has pulled off every necessary detail in high style, particularly in the off kilter character acting of the Club of Villains and the nightmare-worthy Joker reimagining. And Daniel's splash pages are bold, iconic and memorable in ways that pinup guru Jim Lee hasn't been hitting with the Dark Knight over in his Batbook in forever. At a recent convention in Toronto, someone tried to tell me that Daniel's art didn't serve Morrison's story well and as a specific example cited the way Robin was eating all the time when reading the Black Casebook in one of the earlier issues. But I could honestly give a fuck. I mean, it's a total rip off of Brad Pitt in "Ocean's 11" but I liked it as a character quirk there, and I like it for Tim Drake too.

People online are spending so much time bitching about Tony Daniel not being Frank Quitely that they're not seeing it. In Batman's "death scene" this issue, we get that great final moment where Hurt proclaims "The Black Glove always wins" then we cut to the Batman's glove breaking the window, then right bang into the burning wreckage of the chopper. Isn't that just the same kind of bare bones transitioning as Quitely's All-Star panels where we cut from Superman over the pyramids to Superman punching a robot in Metropolis or whatever? I really think Daniel nails it in that he's giving us that base level of visual info but in a much more jagged and messy way. Honestly, if this book were drawn by Quitely, it wouldn't be nearly as much fun or as twisted.

5. This is as close to an actual mystery novel as you're ever going to get from a Batman comic.

A few months back, I got to interview Denny O'Neil on his greatest Batman stories for a freelance gig over at Wizard, and the longtime Bat-editor made a really telling comment about how his story "A Vow From The Grave" [] and how it was one of the only Batman tales he could think of where he actually had time to fit in a full slate of clues that would allow the reader to solve the mystery at hand before Batman. And when you think about it, for all our fanboy talk of Batman being "the world's greatest detective" there really are never any stories that function like actual detective novels where a logical set of clues are given for us to parse out things as we go along. Mostly, we just get crazy finale featuring Batman delivering a particularly cocky "As you know, Bob..." monologue. In "Batman R.I.P." we surprisingly got both kinds of stories.

The mystery at the heart of Morrison's whole run and this arc in particular has been the misleading question of "Who is the Black Glove?" Debate popped up all across the internet as to what the real answer was, and when push came to shove, there was no grand revelation as the Glove was an organization of rich jerkoffs who foolishly tied their fates to Dr. Hurt and the Joker respectively. But those revelations weren't as underwhelming as they may sound as Morrison's plotting helped build the buzz around the idea of the mystery as well as a few actual mysteries that had real answers given now or held back for later. In the end, the mysteries that needed answers were "Who is betraying Batman from the inside out?" (Answer: Jet) and "Who is Dr. Hurt?" While the second one wasn't answered as much as the big possibilities were shot down, the confrontation between the true mastermind of this whole affair and Batman was a really dramatic sendoff whose implications I trust will be fully explored when Morrison eventually returns to the character. In the meantime, I'm sure I have no small amount of clues as to who Hurt is awaiting me in the previous issues of the run, whose re-read value has already proven to be about 30 times more potent than even the most entertaining superhero stories.

I also dug how the Joker's Red and Black motif was just another piece of the Joker's insanity (or shall I say, Red and Blak herring?). When the cut up killer met his end at the bumper of Damien behind the wheel of the red and black Batmobile, the joke finally gets turned on the villain in the form of another one of those great, get pumped moments. Plus, it makes that Batmobile splash page in part two that everyone bitched about take on a whole new element of foreshadowing, huh?

So I guess that's it for now. I'm sure there will be plenty more to say about this story as we all read it and read it again, so if you haven't done it yet, go out and pick up Batman #681 and join the debate. That shits is good!!