Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Something New, Something Different: BATREVIEWSAREGO!!

So I think it’s high time we got back to what’s really important here on the Dork Forty. Our core values. The things we hold most dear, and which really define us as we make our way through this complicated funnybook world. By which of course I mean… Batman.

Batman Inc. #3&4
by Grant Morrison, Yanick Paquette, and Chris Burnham

I must admit, I was a trifle worried after the first two issues of this new series. They seemed so… straightforward, after all. I mean, they pretty much made sense on first reading, and barely rewarded a second with new insights at all. They were fun, certainly, and packed to bursting with cool concepts and rapid-fire action, ala the Mark Millar formula. That would be enough for me on most books. But honestly? For a Morrison comic? Written in his new hyper-condensed super hero style? I felt a little let down.

But as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Because issues three and four renewed that just-slightly-queasy “Wait, what?!” feeling I’ve come to love so much. This has been a story packed with mythological references, excavated and reclaimed Bat-History, and the opening feint of the first major threat to the Bat-Buddha: Dr. Dedalus, Oroboro, and Leviathan.

Bat-Buddha? Well, yeah. The spiritual journey Bruce Wayne went on through the first two acts of Morrison’s Batman run (the Thogal ritual) mirrors the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment. It mirrors it pretty closely, in fact, and he’s come out the other side with a similar synthesis of identity and purpose. At least I think so. There are also indications that the Thogal may still be going on (“Thogal never ends,” as the monk told him). Issue three’s “Tango of Death” certainly has echoes of it, though I haven’t taken the time yet to go back and see if it corresponds to anything in the actual Thogal ritual. But Bruce is certainly taking actions similar to the ones the Buddha did upon his enlightenment: expounding his personal belief system, gathering supporters, and spreading the good word about the Bat. So until I figure out otherwise, I’m thinking of Bruce as the Bat-Buddha for now. Which amuses me to no end.

SPOILERiffic SPOILERS that SPOIL things... after the jump!

Anyway… Alongside a vastly amusing team-up with El Gaucho (about which more in a minute), these issues start filling us in on our master villain, Dr. Dedalus. That’s Dedalus as in Daedalus, the mythological Greek master craftsman who built the Labyrinth. An appropriate nom de guerre for a Nazi master spy renowned for laying intricate traps (though I think his real name, Otto Netz, is way funnier). The misspelling is the first of many in Dedalus’ backstory, the second of which is the organization that’s seemingly serving him now: Oroboro.

That’s Oroboro as in Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail. The Ouroboros has shown up in many cultures around the world, and is generally seen as a symbol of immortality and the cycle of life. It’s also closely linked to the entwined snakes of the caduceus, which in the modern world is often thought of as a representation of DNA. Which ties Oroboro to Leviathan, the evil genetic engineers who’ve previously been set up as the primary villains of this new chapter of Bat-History, and who also serve Doctor Dedalus in some as-yet-undefined manner. And speaking of Doctor Dedalus…

He’s “always there,” we’re told in the very first panel of issue three, just before we’re whisked off to the Falkland Islands during the war there, when an ill-fated group of British super heroes is called in to deal with him. “The world’s most dangerous super-spy [is] a double agent,” we’re told, and the heroes enter Doctor Dedalus’ lighthouse stronghold, never to return. Except, significantly, for the Knight, who emerges confused and nearly dead himself. This is the father of the modern-day Knight, who told us that something changed his dad at some point, leading to his eventual downfall as a costumed adventurer. And now it seems we may know what happened. The rest of his team dead, he comes to muttering “Who am I now?” to himself. Significant? Maybe, maybe not. His ramblings seem to indicate that he’d been trapped in some sort of time-loop, a never-ending ring, so it may just be general confusion. Or it may be that the Knight who came out of Dedalus’ lighthouse isn’t the same man who went in.

Whatever’s going on with him, he assures the military that his team succeeded in trapping Dedalus: “We locked him in and he’ll never get out!” Which seems to be true, because at the opening of issue four, we’re introduced to “A terrible old man” (Lovecraft reference! Ching!) with a cape made of smoke. This old man is trapped on an island, it seems, though he assures the doctors who come to see him that his plans are coming to fruition, and that soon he’ll be set free.

None of which has anything to do, it would seem, with Batman’s super-cool team-up with El Gaucho, the Batman of Argentina. And, man, El Gaucho really is Argentina’s answer to Batman. In his secret identity as Don Santiago Vargas, El Gaucho is an irresponsible millionaire playboy who trades in “miraculous” race horses and plays host to the beautiful people of the Southern Hemisphere. He has a secret base of operations under his magnificent villa, from which he fights crime in the corrupt city of Buenos Aires. He’s really the perfect representation of everything Batman’s trying to do in his recruitment of Batmen around the world, which makes it doubly entertaining that he turns the offer down, flat. “El Gaucho is his own man!” he declares, after which Batman shows him up at every turn.

Which of course he does. Because, you know… BATMAN! But the alpha male competition is entertaining anyway. I get the sense that, though El Gaucho fully acknowledges his… thematic debt to Our Hero, it still stings a little bit to be so easily out-classed.

Anyway. They’re on the trail of some bad guys who’ve kidnapped three blind children, and the trail leads them through a literary hoax to a death trap set for them by the Blue Scorpion and El Sombrero (one of my favorite Morrison additions to the Bat-canon). It’s all faintly ridiculous and incredibly entertaining super hero action, until Sombrero reveals that it was El Gaucho’s fault that Kathy Kane died. And then things get really interesting.

Because at least half of issue four is devoted to a retelling of the story of Kathy Kane, the original Batwoman, and it’s in that story that Morrison really turns this into a minor Bat-Masterpiece. I’ve read a lot of Kathy Kane stories over the last couple of years. All the important ones, I think, and Morrison performs a sort of fictional alchemy with her in this issue that I’m a little bit in awe of, and an awful lot jealous of (so I feel El Gaucho‘s pain). Kathy, of course, comes from a period of Bat-History that most people prefer to forget, and that Morrison’s spent his entire run plumbing for great ideas. And unlike Bat-Mite, who Morrison repositioned as Batman’s own personal machine elf, he takes Batwoman as-is (as-was?) and just… makes her work.

He does this in a way that we’ve seen before in funnybooks: he reveals secrets of her past that turn her into a different character than the one we thought we were reading about all those years ago. But he does it in a way that’s completely in keeping with the tone of those original stories, and that doesn’t violate her character one iota. So his Kathy is indeed a gadfly socialite, party girl, and former carny who falls in love with Batman from afar and emulates him to get his attention. But she’s also a woman of adventure in her own right, and (yes) a former spy. Batman was her last case, in fact, taken on primarily to help her forget her recently-deceased husband. But of course, she really did fall in love with him, and things went awry. Morrison chronicles their relationship brilliantly, capturing the child-like glamour of it all, especially the young Dick Grayson’s jealousy. There’s one scene where he catches them making out in the Batmobile that just slays me; Batman’s happily embarrassed pronouncement that they’re “going to be a Bat-Family” might be the funniest thing that character’s ever said.

So it’s doubly painful when Kathy breaks Our Hero’s mighty Bat-Heart. She reports to her employer, “Agent Zero,” leader of spy organization Spyral, that she’s failed to discover Batman’s secret identity and that she’s quitting the case because they’re getting married. But he turns the tables on her when he reveals himself to be (wait for it!) unrepentant Nazi master criminal Otto Netz, aka Doctor Dedalus! And also… Kathy Kane’s father!

Duhn-duhn-duuuuuhhnn!

It’s an utterly ridiculous bit of high melodrama, as is Kathy’s reaction: she breaks up with Batman rather than risk his hurt at finding out about her lineage. Which… Doesn’t make any damn sense at all, to me. But which… is completely in keeping with the kind of bizarre, unnecessarily guilt-ridden decisions characters made all the damn time in stories of the Batwoman era. So I’m cool with it.

Now, Kathy was evidently killed, years later, by the League of Assassins. So how was El Gaucho responsible for her death? Well, as Agent 33 of Spyral, he recruited her back into the spy game in the first place, and held a sort of fanboyish (and unrequited?) love for her! TWIST!

All in all, Morrison’s recreation of Kathy Kane makes her ten times more interesting than the modern-day Batwoman, a difference only accentuated by that character’s appearance in the story. This is not to knock the Kate Kane Batwoman; I dig her the most, in fact. But, given the choice, I’d rather read about a free-wheeling, hard-loving, motorcycle-stunt-driving super-spy than an obsessively-driven lesbian with authority issues. The contrast between those two characters really underlines the difference between Morrison’s Bat-Universe and the Bat-Universe that everybody else at DC seems to be writing about: fun. Morrison’s Bat-Universe is bursting at the seams with it, while it seems completely absent everywhere else. Which is just another reason that this is the only Batman comic I’m reading these days…

And adding to that sense of fun in issue four is the artwork of Chris Burnham. I wasn’t incredibly impressed with his work on Morrison’s Batman and Robin finale, but either that was rushed (which wouldn’t surprise me) or he’s come a long way since then. Because here, he’s turned in a stellar job, simultaneously conjuring up comparisons to Cameron Stewart, Geoff Darrow, and (most impressively to my way of thinking) Frank Quitely. It’s really pretty stuff, and a welcome change from the very nice, but perhaps a tad too realistic, work of regular series artist Yanick Paquette.

So it’s been a fine two issues of Morrison Batman. Fun, entertaining, and narratively complex. Just the way I like it.

Grade: A

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