Monday, November 22, 2010

Batman's Back And There's Gonna Be Trouble

Batman: The Return
Batman Inc. #1
by Grant Morrison, David Finch, and Yanick Paquette

Attention all crime-fighting bad-asses! Batman franchise opportunities are now available!

No, seriously. I mean… Batman just foiled the master plan of the God of Evil and his thematic reflections throughout the history of time itself. What’s he gonna do now that he’s back to his drab work-a-day existence? Go back to protecting Gotham City? Pssh! Hell, no! Gotham’s small potatoes to the Bat now! He thinkin’ bigger! He’s thinkin’ better! He’s gonna found an international brotherhood of crime-hatin’ motherfuckers! A real “Batmen of Many Nations” to protect his new turf: Earth! Or, as Bats himself likes to think of it: PLANET GOTHAM!

That’s the title of the story in the “Batman: The Return” one-shot, and it would have been a far better title for the comic itself. In fact, I think I’ll call it that from here on out. Planet Gotham. It’s a title that sums up Batman’s new crime-fighting philosophy in a succinct and stupid-awesome manner. He’s going global, and he’s not doing it alone. This comes as a direct result of his Thogal-inspired epiphany, his enlightenment to the Truth of the Batman: much as he once liked to think otherwise, he’s never waged his war on crime alone. He’s always had help. So why not reach out? Why not train and fund others to protect their hometowns the way Batman’s always protected his own? Sounds like a natural extension to me. And a great excuse to do a Batman team-up comic, too…

But getting down to thematic brass tacks with Planet Gotham, we do get one minor point clarified from the Return of Bruce Wayne finale: the bat that visited Wayne in his study on the night he became Batman really was just a normal bat. It may (or may not) have been pushed in some way by the forces that were shaping the Life Trap around him, but it was just a bat after all. This is one of the things I like best about Morrison’s injection of mythology into Bat-History: all the machinations of Darkseid ultimately manifest in very mundane ways. It’s possible, even preferable, to view all the sci-fi magic as just… stuff that happened, important on a thematic level, but ultimately with explanations that fit well-within the reality of the Bat-Universe. In this reading, all the stuff about Dr. Hurt being the Devil, a distant reflection of Darkseid, is primarily important on a symbolic level, a manifestation of the road blocks in the way on Bruce Wayne’s personal journey to enlightenment. The literal truth of him is that he’s just a man who extended his life unnaturally through blood sacrifice, a sort of gothic-horror origin that slots neatly into Bat-World.

And it’s right back into that more funnybook-realistic world that Planet Gotham takes us. After lining up some new high-tech toys via Wayne Enterprises’ new public Batman Fund, Bats takes Damian out on a scouting mission to Yemen, to investigate an illegal genetic engineering facility they’ve gotten a line on. What they find there is a sort of DNA horrorshow, and this, I should add, is Bruce Wayne’s idea of a father-son outing, a little trip on which he can get to know Damian better.

Yeah, I know, right?

Worst. Father. Ever.

But Bruce has never been a father to this kid, and won’t be one now. He and Damian just don‘t work well together. And Damian, for his part, still has a giant chip on his shoulder after his encounter with the clone Batman. Which, you know, is understandable. Being told by a confused doppelganger of your father that you were his biggest mistake would probably have that effect. But that may just be okay, after all. Because Damian doesn’t need a father right now. He needs a big brother, and that’s what Dick Grayson is to him. Any fathering he needs can come from Alfred.

Which is good, because it’s going to have to: Bruce sets off on a global recruiting drive at the end of Planet Gotham, and that leads us straight on into the first issue of Morrison’s new on-going Batman series, Batman Incorporated. This first issue involves a trip to Japan with Catwoman to steal a mysterious jewel from a hidden lab of Dr. Sivana. Bats won’t say what the thing is, but he feels that it’s much safer having the thing in his hands than in those of Captain Marvel’s arch-enemy. That set-up’s good for an entertaining pop-fiction caper sequence that ends with Catwoman getting the jewel, but being confronted by a giant robot mouse. It’s blatant silliness, but Morrison wisely cuts away and disposes of the rodent threat off-camera.

And then we get our first real taste of the post-enlightenment Batman: after the heist we get a classic James Bond moment of Bruce and Selina back at their Tokyo penthouse suite. Bruce pumps iron while Selina pumps him for information. He stone-walls her, and the whole musk-ripe scene ends with them about to have what will no doubt be spectacular, athletic sex. This is a Batman who’s in touch with his inner millionaire playboy, driven but playful, and actually having fun being Batman for a change. Some of that’s Catwoman’s influence, I’m sure. But, still. It’s nice to have a Batman that’s integrated Bruce Wayne back into his personality. He’s a hell of a lot more fun to read about, at the very least.

And speaking of fun… Batman’s not just in Japan to steal from super-villains. He’s also there to offer a Batman franchise to Tokyo’s number one crime-buster, Mr. Unknown! Which is a great super hero name, have no doubt. But even Mr. Unknown is over-shadowed by the villain Morrison’s chosen to pit our intrepid heroes against: Lord Death-Man!

Originally appearing in a 1966 American Batman comic as just plain ol’ Death-Man, the character popped up again not long after as LORD Death-Man in the manga version of Batman. That story, while apparently a mostly faithful retelling of the American story, was just a little more insane (as you can see above), and recently rose to some fame with the publication of the book Bat-Manga. Aside from having a great look with that skeleton costume, Lord Death-Man also had a great hook: he was a master criminal who could come back from the dead! Brilliant! Here, he seems to be a master of the deathtrap, which is also pretty awesome. But really, I think I’m just jazzed that Morrison pulled this guy out of mothballs. Because, you know… LORD DEATH-MAN!

(One day, I’m really gonna have to retire that joke. But not this day, my friends. No. Not this day…)

At any rate. Getting a Morrison Batman double-shot last week was pretty sweet. Planet Gotham was a nice transition, and then Batman Incorporated got Morrison season three off to a roaring good start. It’s fun, it’s poppy, and I’m sure that in a year’s time I’ll be looking back at it and marveling over all the thematic resonance hidden in amongst all the super hero goofiness and clever quips. We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg right now, though, so I won’t get into my suspicions just yet. For now, it’s enough to enjoy some state-of-the-art corporate spandex funnybooks, and look forward to the next issue.

Grade: A

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