Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Comics Snobbery II- Grant Morrison's Batman

Comics Snobbery II- 
Grant Morrison's Batman
Cover by Frank Quietly
 Comics Snobbery I- Judge Dredd

Despite the (hopefully) tongue in cheek title of this blogging miniseries, in hindsight my love for Judge Dredd comics isn't really that objectional in terms of snobbery. After all, classic Judge Dredd strips aren't nearly as widely read as most mainstream comics and sit nicely in the fantastically niche genre of classic British science fiction. Put another way, logging on to a comics forum and unabashedly proclaiming your love for classic Dredd isn't going to seem annoying to anyone, even in an environment where usually anyone will argue about anything for any reason. The subject of today's meandering ramblings, however, could start a mass fanboy fight in an empty room, in a vacuum in space. And I love it to death.

For those of you who don't keep up with comics, you still might have heard of Grant Morrison. The Glaswegian native began his career as a comics writer in the 1980's, making his name with various strips in UK comics including 2000AD and Marvel Comics' then fairly separate UK publishing house. Following the success of several UK authors across the pond (most notably Alan Moore), DC Comics reached out to Morrison, and so began a long-term association that led to Morrison's ascension to superstar status, thanks to DC universe comics like Animal Man, Arkham Asylum, his long run on JLA, All Star Superman, and the unique The Invisibles for DC's Vertigo imprint (more of which may be written about at a later date on this old blog). By 2006, the man could simply do whatever he wanted, such was his selling power and reputation. What he wanted was Batman, and lo, Batman issue #655 heralded the start of a near seven-year run with the character that, to me, stands as the definitive version.

Morrison's take on Batman is actually fairly simple to sum up, but is absolutely laden with intricate details that are going to make it annoyingly hard to sum up. For a start, the full run on the series takes in about six differently-titled comics across the seven year period; the long-running Batman comics from the aforementioned issue #655 to #702, Batman & Robin #01-16, Final Crisis #01-07, The Return of Bruce Wayne #01-07, Batman Incorporated v1 #01-08 and Batman Incorporated v2 (don't ask...) #01-13, with a few other single issue specials that vary in importance. Thankfully this madness is much easier to follow in the collected formats, which is what I've been doing for a while now, all in very nice looking and well-constructed deluxe hardback editions that, thanks to Amazon, were well-priced. 

With that out of the way, the essential motif of Morrison's exploration of the character of Batman was to progressively develop, change, and explore him through reinventing both classic and obscure Batman concepts and stories from past years (a lot from the apparently acid-infested 1950's) to create a fresh, progressive take on the Bat. The first, and most important feature is the introduction of Damian Wayne; the eight-year-old, league of assasains-trained son of Bruce and Talia al Ghul,, thrust into an unsuspecting Bruce Wayne's life to throw his whole world upside down. The second is the introduction of the mysterious criminal organisation known as the Black Glove, led by Dr. Simon Hurt; a cold, incredibly black and unnerving association of newly created villains determined to break the Bat. The majority of the Batman comic run is comprised of the escalating war on Batman, in which The Joker plays an integral part too. The art for the Batman books is mostly by Tony Daniel, who does a stereotypical 'serious' dark comic style that DC loves, which is fine but uninspiring.

Cover by Andy Kubert

After that came Final Crisis. Truth be told, Final Crisis isn't essential for someone only interested in Batman, since he only plays a small, but very important part. It's a big DC Universe wide crossover starring Superman et al battling an invasion of alien gods in the very essence of humanity. I'm not going to attempt to go into any more detail because it's massively complicated. A lot of people don't like it as a comic, and I can kind of see why because it's simply not possible to fully grasp the intricacies through a single reading. Or five of them. If you're me, anyway. Anyway, the wide-screen super-heroics of Final Crisis lead to the Batman and Robin series, and the Return of Bruce Wayne series.

The Batman and Robin collections are my absolute favourites. The key premise is that, due to the events of Final Crisis, Bruce Wayne is missing presumed dead. Taking his place in a more seemless and natural transition than I could ever have hoped for is Dick Grayson; aka Nightwing, aka the first Robin. On a fanboy note, Dick Grayson has always been one of my favourite characters as a guy who's as important to the foundations of DC Comics as Batman and Superman. Since jettisoning the Robin suit for his own identity he's naturally struggled to remain popular in the comics mainstream, but Morrison writes him perfectly. The key to the set-up, though, is Damian Wayne as Grayons's Robin, forming a new dynamic duo that are a joy to read. Fighting against the forces of Dr. Hurt and the Black Glove still, this is like a window into an alternative world where comics characters do age and progress, all the while furthering the long-term arc of just who exactly Simon Hurt is. The artist for this comic rotates with each story arc, and altogether comprises of Frank Quietly (who is absolutely amazing), Philip Tan, Cameron Stewart. Andy Clarke and Frazer Irving. From artist to artist, this book constantly looks fantastic. 

The Return of Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is the six issue miniseries that tells the reader what Bruce Wayne has been up to since the events of Final Crisis, and his apparent death at the hands of Darkseid, the alien god of evil. Of course Bruce isn't dead, he's merely been thrown backwards in time and given a nasty case of amnesia. Like much of Morrison's run, the real theme of this book is showing just how capable Bruce Wayne is of defeating evil and the extraordinary resourcefulness propping up his superheroism. The first issue shows caveman Bruce Wayne, but each one propels him further through time, brilliantly giving us pirate Batman and cowboy Batman, amongst others. The overall plot becomes clearer towards the end of the series as it starts to explain the true danger caused by Darkseid, and the relation of all of this to Simon Hurt. I'm not giving anything away here, but there's a very circular, compact nature to the story that amazed me more and more further into it. The end of this series links up with Morrison's latter issues of Batman and Robin, finishing off certain key elements and clearing things up for Morrison's final part of his Batman odyssey.

Art by JG Jones
That comes in the form of Batman Incorporated, which is basically exactly as it sounds; the now-returned Bruce Wayne, now sharing the Batman mantle with Dick Grayson, begins to put together an international Batman-themed crime fighting force comprising of local vigilantes inspired by his work. The purpose; to fight the mysterious crime group known as Leviathon, who have been quietly attempting to lower a noose over the Bat's head without him noticing. Without giving too much away, this story comes full circle in relation to the origins of Damian Wayne, as Morrison closes up his arc and prepares to leave Batman for good. Unfortunately, the final run of Batman Incorporated (which, due to reasons I do not want to discuss, comes in two individual 'volumes', where the latter suffers from awkward DC editorial interference that ruins it as a continuity piece) is the weakest part of Morrison's whole run. After Simon Hurt's fate was resolved and explained in Batman and Robin, things loose a little oomph as the Leviathon group just don't offer the same intrigue as the Black Glove. Also I'd grown incredibly attached to Dick Grayson as Batman, and found it disappointing that the Dick & Damian partnership ended before its time. I could happily have read those two as Batman and Robin forever.

Okay, that was a much longer summation of Grant Morrison's run with Batman than I intended, but somehow I feel I barely scratched the surface. The bottom line is that it was the most progressive, interesting and traditional use of the franchise that I've ever seen, and everything else in comparison just seems bland and uninspired- including Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for comics to really make you think, that stand out as legitimate literature rather than just overblown genre fiction. Unfortunately the reoccurring nature of the comics industry actively seeks to stamp out progression with its long-standing classic character, so inevitably most of the cool ideas, themes and plots that Morrison came up with were never going to fully stick, but on the other hand I have to give props to DC comics for allowing him to run for so long, so powerfully with such an important money spinner of theirs. I had a whale of a time; my mind was truly blown away by the imagination of the author and the talented artists portraying his directions, where somehow they managed to create a Batman that was both perfectly definitive and derivative at the same time.