Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Walking the Pop-Crime Beat

Batman #700
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Tony Daniel, Frank Quitely, Scott Kolins, Andy Kubert, and David Finch

Normally, such a long list of artists as the one above would indicate that the book in question was a visual clusterfuck. But because the issue's been broken up into four distinct chapters (or, actually, three chapters and a post-script), it's not as bad as it might seem. The only place it's jarring is when Scott Kolins steps in to finish up Frank Quitely's chapter. And while that's VERY jarring, I do like the style Kolins is using on his pages for the most part, and the substitution was apparently unavoidable due to Quitely having some back surgery, so I'll only bitch about it a little.

Anyway, the story. This is the big anniversary issue, understand, and Morrison has rather wisely served up a stand-alone story for it. A time-tripping mystery story starring all three of the Batmen he’s written in his run: Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, and Damian. So we have more alternate Batmen, the major bat-theme of the Morrison era, in service to a story that just about anyone could pick up and read with little prior knowledge of current storylines. That’s a good move for one of these big anniversary things, I think. Too often, they’re the final chapters of a big long-running story arc, and anyone who picks the comic up just for the milestone issue would probably wind up feeling pretty lost.

Some have reported feeling lost in Morrison’s murder mystery anyway, of course, and in this case I can understand it. The mystery is fairly simple, and is in fact solved by Dick Grayson in the second chapter. Which only sets the reader up to expect a twist. A twist that doesn’t come. And matters are only made worse in the final chapter, when a grievous art error by Andy Kubert confuses the details of the murder even more. So the mystery aspect of the story is pretty much a failure.

But fortunately, the overall success of the issue doesn’t depend on that. The mystery is really just an excuse, a framework upon which to hang a celebration of the longevity of Batman. And, by extension, the longevity of the Joker, too. The Joker’s Joke Book is just as much a linking concept here as the mystery, and a more successful one. It gains legendary status as a sort of grimoire of crime, but it’s actually blank. Or perhaps, as Bruce Wayne eventually decided, the words in it are only visible to the insane. Which is a great nonsense idea, and hardly the only way in which the Joker is important to this story.

Though the first chapter is ostensibly a Bruce Wayne Batman story, the Joker is really its central figure. Set at the end of the “sci-fi” era of Batman stories, and the end of Dick Grayson’s childhood, the first chapter pivots on the Joker making the transition from criminal clown to psychotic madman. That change doesn’t happen here, but it’s starting. We see him really struggle with his own insanity, following an uncomfortably manic moment with uncharacteristic introspection. Then, apparently operating on his “you had a bad day once” theory from Killing Joke, he wants to use Professor Nichol’s “time travel hypnosis” Maybe Machine (a recurring plot device in the Golden and Silver ages) to send Batman back to his own point of origin, giving him “one last heartbreaking chance to abort the demons that drove him to be.”

My favorite moment in this first chapter, though, is Joker taking a hit of the Scarecrow’s fear gas. It’s a great batshit-crazy moment for him, and it struck me as perhaps the last gasp of his gentler, whackier brand of villainy. Morrison has suggested that the young Dick Grayson‘s good humor and enthusiasm is what kept Joker from going off the deep end much earlier, and that‘s what this scene put me in mind of. When he later blows the gas in Robin's face, he’s really only giving the Boy Wonder a contact buzz, after all. Which is a kindness I wouldn’t expect from him in the modern era. Granted, he follows that up with a particularly brutal threat, the sadism of which is only magnified by exposing Robin to the gas at all. But he’s high on fear gas there, and I’ve got to wonder if that escalated brutality wasn’t “whacky” Joker’s greatest fear.

From there we move on to the second chapter, which stars the current Batman and Robin, Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne. This chapter really belongs to Dick; it’s an encapsulation of what kind of Batman he is, and as it turns out he’s a very likeable Batman indeed. He carries himself with a charming charisma and confidence, and interacts with the people he protects on the streets of Gotham as a friend. There are tons of nice moments here, from Dick asking a beat cop how his injured partner’s doing, to his easy tone when dealing with the pimps and hos of Crime Alley. My favorite moment here, though, is a single panel of Batman and Robin pausing between crises long enough to have some pizza. The guy in the kitchen’s looking over at them and smiling, while Dick smiles back and tips his coffee cup to the guy. Awesome. That’s a sharp contrast to Bruce Wayne’s more distant, and somewhat elitist, approach to the role.

Bruce isn’t far from Dick’s thoughts in this chapter, though. This story takes place on the anniversary of the Wayne family murders, and Dick takes it upon himself to continue Bruce’s annual tradition of making sure that, for one night out of the year, there will be no crime in Crime Alley. That’s a callback to a classic Batman story (one of many on display in this anniversary issue), and it means all the more because it’s Dick honoring his missing mentor.

Another nice callback in this chapter: the Mutants, the street gang from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, make an appearance here, too. For a story that celebrates Batman across time, in the middle of a run whose central conceit has been that every Batman story ever written actually happened… That’s good stuff.

The third chapter stars Damian as Batman, and is a flash-forward sequel to Batman 666. As established in that issue, Damian is sort of a fallen Batman. He’s learned his detective work over time (something Dick chides him about in the second chapter), but as Batman he’s brutal and paranoid. Perhaps that’s just in reaction to the world around him, but at this point, with the development we’ve gotten on the character since issue 666, I don’t think so. That’s just who he is. His upbringing by the League of Assassins has left its mark on him just as much as Dick’s happy-go-lucky circus upbringing did to him.

But that’s not really the point of this chapter, I don’t think. It seems to be more about the whole world of Batman, and the legacies left behind by all of Damian’s predecessors and their enemies. So we have a villain named January, who’s reconfigured Joker Gas and let it loose as a Joker Rain over Gotham City, a toxic shower that turns those exposed into violent, crazed, Joker-faced zombies. We have Joker-faced thugs injected with Monster Serum. We have the “legacy villain” 2-Face-2, a handsome man with a hideous tumor-face growing around his left eye (whenever he falls asleep, the evil face takes over and does horrible things). We have the Joker's Joke Book as the inspiration for the crimes against Gotham. We have Barbara Gordon as police commissioner. And we have the resolution of the time-travel murder mystery upon which all this meditation on Bat-history is hung.

In the end, we’re left with Damian rescuing a Joker-baby from January‘s scheme, a kid who grows up to be Terry McGinnis, the star of Batman Beyond. Which launches us into the post-script, a quick tour of the Batmen of the future. We start with McGinnis, here seemingly mentored by an aged Damian instead of Bruce Wayne (though it‘s hard to tell) and fighting the Joker Gang. Then we move on to some sort of post-apocalyptic Batman, who’s summoned by a Bat-Signal spray-painted on a wall. Then it’s on to Batman One Million, who fights yet another Joker-inspired threat in a wordless two-page sequence that’s meant to reference the Bat-Manga, I think (though artist David Finch doesn’t convey that very well at all). And finally, we cut back to Gordon, Bullock, and (I think, I hope) O’Hara lighting the Bat-Signal. The message? No matter when, no matter where, there will always be Batman and Robin.

Which is pretty corny, sure. But entirely appropriate for one of these big anniversary issues. I mean, if you can’t be mawkish and sentimental on an anniversary, when can you? The rest of the issue is padded out with the typical collection of pin-up drawings of varying degrees of quality, and a cut-away map and guide to the Batcave. Which is also hokey as fuck, but which (I must admit) would have made me piss my pants with happiness as a kid. So I can forgive them that.

Is the book worth its five-dollar (!) price tag? Hmm. The story’s only about 30 pages long, I think, and the padding ain’t great. The mystery plot fails, the art transition from Quitely to Kolins is jarring and disappointing, the David Finch art is only good if you like Finch (which I don‘t), and I’d have liked to have seen an artist with more of a Silver Age style on the first chapter. So from that perspective… no. But. Tony Daniel’s work on that first chapter is actually (and I’m as surprised as anyone to hear myself say this) pretty good. The various nods to classic Batman stories (of which I’ve only named a couple) are well-handled. The character writing is just top-fucking-notch. And as an encapsulation of Morrison’s Batman themes (which are pretty much the major themes of the series as a whole), it’s really rather good. So… That’s a strong maybe?

I liked it, at any rate. Flaws and all.

Grade: B+

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