Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Again With the Batman!

So I’m gonna do it to you again: here’s a slight divergence from the Halloween festivities because… dude, new Batman comic! But there’s a nice Halloweenie touch to it, as you’ll see below…
Batman and Robin #15
by Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving

With all the heavy extra-textual stuff going on in Morrison’s Batman run, it was refreshing this issue to get more of a straightforward adventure story. Don’t get me wrong; there are still mysteries within mysteries, and super-condensed writing, and yet more pieces to the Dr. Hurt puzzle. But it’s hard for me not to focus on the pure fun aspects of a comic that starts with this image:

(click to embiggen)
See? Halloweenie Goodness!
…and ends with this one:

(Which you can see in all its SPOILERY GLORY… after the jump.)

(click to see in all its fisty embiggened glory!)

That’s right. With this issue, Dr. Simon Hurt, the Devil himself, is reduced to just another punk to be taken down by the patented Batman and Robin double-punch. It’s a pretty sweet moment that’s been a long time coming, and a nice sign that things in Gotham are going to be a little bit different now that Dick’s wearing the cowl.

That’s different in the perfect hothouse world of Grant Morrison’s DC Universe, of course. I’m sure the Dick Grayson comics that follow this run will be just as gloom-ridden and bleak as the ones currently being done around Morrison’s DCU bubble. But for me, Dick’s Gotham is about to blossom into a stylish day-glo nightmare of twisted Lynchian carnival villains whose schemes are as colorful as they are evil to the core. The Joker leads the way in such things, after all, and we’ve already seen him abandon his dour “Clown at Midnight” persona in favor of this queenie undertaker look he’s been sporting here.

And is it just me, or does his top hat carry with it a whiff of the ringmaster as much as of the grave-digger?

Maybe it’s just me…

…Nah! It’s him, too.

But anyway… Down to brass tacks on the issue. Even if you were willing to have that spectacular ass-kicking ruined for you, be warned: we now enter the realm of pure [SPOILER] We learn more about Hurt’s plans for Gotham this time out, and for the Wayne family. Thomas and Martha took him in, Hurt says, and showed him kindness.

Which was a bit of a surprise to me, and takes my mind back to the words of Martha’s mother, who claimed that Thomas Wayne’s father and uncle had to lock him away and cover the family scandal caused by their son who was a respected doctor by day, and “Bad Tommy” by night. Could it be that Morrison’s been using Thomas Wayne Jr as a red herring? Did Hurt (aka Colonial Thomas Wayne) show up on the doorstep of Wayne Manor as a long-lost relative and cause all the trouble before being locked up and sent away to Willowood? And once there, did he work his way into control of the place as Dr. Hurt? Hmm. Wouldn’t be the first time something like that’s happened to a Gotham City asylum. And it would certainly explain how Hurt knew about the Secret Batcave…

Whatever happened back then, Hurt’s plan is still the same: ruin Thomas’ good name, and thus corrupt the legacy of the Batman:

(click to... Oh, hell. You know the drill.)

Note also in the top panel there that two of Hurt’s 99 Fiends are hanging a new painting where the portrait of Thomas and Martha has hung for so long. It’s Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death (all glory to the ever-brilliant Rikdad for recognizing it. I thought it was Bosch, myself; must have slept through art class that day). We can only assume that this is Hurt’s vision for Gotham. So where Bruce Wayne’s Gotham was ruled by his memory of his beloved humanitarian parents, Hurt’s will be a playhouse for death. There won’t be any knights around to protect it, either, since Hurt shatters the symbolic chess piece statue that’s been standing under the portrait (and above the entrance to the Secret Batcave) for the entire run.

Another nice detail: just before this, Hurt kicks a hole in the Wayne portrait where Thomas’ face was. So, having stolen Thomas’ face, Hurt has once again become the hole in things. But getting back to character motivations…

It’s evil for evil’s sake with Hurt. He’s doing this because that’s what the Devil does, and because he enjoys it. And, based on some of his previous statements, for the kind of immortality something like “the legacy of Batman” might afford him. Too bad for him Dick’s already taken up the mantle of the Bat, and so all Hurt’s left with now is the Joker’s fate. And really, not even that: the Joker’s beating Hurt at his own villainous game even as Dick and Damian punch the poor sucker out. Sure, Hurt’s infected half of Gotham with a contagious addiction. But so what? The Joker’s got a fucking NUKE! AND he’s looking more stylish as he holds it over Gotham City’s head!

I suspect, actually, that the Joker’s nuke, like the banana “gun” he holds at Damian’s back this issue, isn’t real. It’s probably a giant thing of silly string, or maybe a really big snake in a can. But, still. He’s insured that his threat will live on after Batman and Robin have dealt with this presumptuous upstart Hurt. And I also suspect that Joker may have had a hand in the inevitable failure of Hurt’s drug. Pyg’s men DID get paid off for a sample of it with a briefcase full of dominos back in the first issue, after all. And there WAS another domino next to the vial of “clearly labeled antidote” that set the city up for the addiction in the first place. And the Joker IS a master chemist. And he DOES remind us that he’s been playing dominos while Hurt’s been playing chess. So…

I think the Joker foiled Hurt’s plan before it even began. He screwed with Pyg’s formula somehow, and gave people an out. Commissioner Gordon already fought off the effects of the drug this issue, and I bet he‘s just the first of many (Hmm. Wonder if that “nuke” actually contains a trigger that’ll turn all of it into Joker Gas?). Which leaves Hurt as the loser against both the Joker AND Batman.

And speaking of his loss to Batman… In the space of a few pages, Hurt really gets taken apart as a villain. It starts with Damian, who brings into question whether or not Hurt’s really even the Devil. “We know who you are,” he tells Hurt. “You’re a man who lived too long.” (How does he know that? Couldn’t tell you. But there’s one more issue to go.)

And speaking of Damian… This issue, we got the refutation of Batman 666! In that flash-forward story, Damian tells us that he sold his soul to the Devil the night Batman died. But here, Damian’s interrupted before he can make that deal, and Batman… doesn’t die. So while I suppose it’s possible that Hurt will come back to haunt Gotham again, and that Batman will die, and Damian will sell his soul to the guy… It seems kind of unlikely now. I know the original ending of this story was supposed to be Dick Grayson dying, but Morrison thankfully abandoned that plan ages ago, and so the future of Batman 666 becomes less likely by the minute.

But Damian’s disbelief in Hurt as the Devil ultimately makes his whole plan seem kind of harebrained. He planned to open the Bat-Casket during the eclipse that happens this issue, offering up the soul of a (junior) Bat-Man on the night of the black sun (or black son, with Damian in the mix) to summon up the bat-god Barbatos and finally gain the means to shape Gotham City’s soul to his own ends. But if you remove the possibility that Hurt might be the Devil… That plan just makes him sound like a lunatic.

And then… Someone off-camera delivers the whistling tone that opens the Bat-Casket, revealing not the fearsome thing that inspired a sense of foreboding in those who’ve opened it in the past, but simply… a Bat-Tracer, and a hand-written note saying “Gotcha.” Which is, of course, Bruce Wayne’s final word to Darkseid, and the final degradation of status that renders Hurt into just another chump. Fist-fodder for the Dynamic Duo‘s never-ending carnival of justice.

The issue ends (because okay, yes, I lied; there’s still a couple of pages to go after the iconic double-punch ((ooo! More doubling!))) with another Batman (and yet still MORE doubling!) entering the scene. Dick introduces him as the “bat-god,” which would imply that it’s Bruce. But there’s something about the weird icicles hanging off this enigmatic figure’s word balloons that tells me it’s not. That implies a level of theatrics that Bruce moved past a long time ago. So my money’s on Alfred. He’s all about some theatrics, and it’s a ruse that he’s used before. Plus… Oh my holy god in heaven I SO want to see Morrison bring back that piece of classic Bat-Cheese!

And, oh man, I know I’m forgetting some stuff. I mean, there must have been another dozen instances of doubling alone that I haven‘t mentioned…

Rikdad points out (quite rightly, and quite outside my own notice til he said it) that this arc mirrors the structure of “RIP” pretty exactly. Morrison has called the story “RIP as farce,” and that fits the bill rather nicely.

There’s some good stuff with Pyg, especially a scene where he becomes transfixed by a snail, who (because of its horns) he identifies as the Devil.

Frazer Irving turns in his usual stellar performance this issue, particularly in Damian’s assault on the 99 Fiends. Irving breaks the action down with large central panels surrounded by bunches of tiny inset panels showing details of the fight. It’s a technique used by Frank Quitely on We3 that I’ve always wanted to see put to use elsewhere, but it also conjures up Batman’s fight with the Mutants from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight.

Deshawn the pimp (or is that Lone-Eye Lincoln?) makes a brief appearance in the Gotham Drug Riot sequence, refusing to buy two young girls their mother’s trying to sell for drug money. It’s a small moment, but oddly heartwarming for me. We’ve seen this guy before in Morrison‘s run, and watched him develop a rudimentary conscience through his contacts with Batman, and this felt a little bit like the pay-off to that.

There’s a nice / scary moment with Alfred early in the story. He’s sitting calmly in Wayne Manor (which Dick asked him to “prepare” a couple of issues back), watching the news whle drinking some tea, when he see Hurt approaching the gates as Thomas Wayne returning to his ancestral abode, followed by a pack of reporters. Alfred goes out to meet him, still calm, and with the haunted eyes of the addicted, seems to identify Hurt as Thomas Wayne for the press. I didn’t buy that Alfred was addicted for a second, mind you, but it’s still a harrowing moment.

And… And… I’m sure there’s more, but I’m tired. So I’ll shut up now. [/SPOILER]

Another fine chapter of the Morrison Batman run. While the various threads and themes are tying up as we reach the end, I’m really appreciating the extra effort Morrison’s putting in not to spoon-feed me the answers. It’s nice to have a mainstream funnybook writer who doesn’t treat me like a retard. It’s also nice to have a mainstream funnybook artist who doesn’t draw from a cookie-cutter style template. Hell, it’s just nice to see a mainstream funnybook with dynamic artwork at all. These guys are raising the bar on the kind of storytelling I find acceptable in my comics, and I appreciate the hell out of it.

Grade: A


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