Monday, May 23, 2011

At Last! A Long, Rambling Discussion of Batman!

So the nerd wranglers have been givin’ me funny, kinda worried, looks lately. Askin’ me if I was feelin’ okay. They were obviously hintin‘ at somethin‘, but I couldn‘t figure out what. But then, just last night, I found an autographed photo of Adam West on the door to the bunkhouse, and it all fell into place. Nerd wranglers are a superstitious lot, afraid of angerin’ the Funnybook Gods. None of ’em wanna work for a man who forgets what’s really important. And well… I guess it HAS been awhile since our last serious discussion of Batman.

There’s lots of reasons for that, and you could probably track them if you went back and ferreted out all the reviews I’ve done on the run of Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc. to date. But even I can’t see taking the time to do that, and lord knows I love the sound of my own voice. So just let me boil it down for you now: the book’s seemed a little too… obvious thus far for me to really feel the need to dig in and write about whatever deeper meanings and complexities are folded into it. Now, I’ve been trusting that this obviousness is surface only, and that eventually some keystone issue will drop, shedding new light on all these preliminaries and making them much more than the sum of their parts. And, hey presto, it seems that issue dropped just recently, with…

Batman Inc #6
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Chris Burnham

(And it’s all SPOILER, all the time, from here on out, so… you know… You have been warned.)

Entitled “Niktomorph,” this story really is the capstone for the series’ first arc, the issue that defines the whole Batman Incorporated concept, and what it’s supposed to accomplish. Niktomorph translates roughly as “nightshape,” which is ultimately what Bruce Wayne is building here: an ever-shifting and difficult-to-trace global bat-presence, multiple agents acting as one to fight evil wherever it rears its head. In becoming ubiquitous, he’s also becoming more legendary, spreading the new world-wide Bat-Myth amongst the underworld, using his various agents to generate even more confusion as to who and what the Batman is.

Or, as Bruce himself puts it in the story: “Wayne arrived in Paris, Batmen sprung up … Batman’s in Hong Kong. Batman’s a girl. Batman‘s in Australia … Batman is everything you fear.” He even goes so far as to fabricate (I think?) extreme actions, spreading a story that he tattooed ‘child molester’ onto the forehead of a slave-purchasing celebrity pedophile in Australia. The terror campaign against crime has gone global. Welcome to Planet Gotham.

(An aside: he weaves this Bat-Myth in disguise, and tells it to my new favorite lame-ass super-villain team: Joe Average and the Average Joes. These guys are a construction-company-themed outfit, sort of like Morrison’s answer to Marvel’s Wrecking Crew. Hysterical and completely throw-away, they are the very definition of C-level bad guys, and their presence makes a very fine point. If Bruce is going after these guys personally, even going so far as to create an all-new undercover persona to do it, he’s really leaving no stone unturned in the fight against crime.)

Alongside all this, the issue also features Bruce really taking the final truth of the Batman to heart: he can’t do it alone. So he organizes his closest associates, filling them in on his master plan. He briefs Dick and Damian on what he’s been able to learn about Leviathan in his world tour thus far. He brings Tim Drake back into the Bat-fold, giving him leadership of a re-formed Outsiders. He even includes Looker in the line-up, proving to anyone still in doubt that Bruce really does see the potential in everyone. Former Batgirl Cassandra Cain is now stalking Hong Kong as the Black Bat (as perfect a Bat-Identity for her as I can imagine, and far more appropriate than Batgirl ever was). He swears in a new Ranger, keeping the legacy of the Club of Heroes alive.

And, in by far my favorite of these moments, he gives Commissioner Gordon a secret Bat-Badge that he wears under the collar of his always-present trench coat. “Does this make me Batman, too?” Gordon asks. “Pretty much,” Bruce replies. Then he pulls his disappearing act. In the middle of a huge garbage dump. With Dick and Damian in tow. Hysterical.

Then there’s the Mystery Bat-Agent. Bruce recruits a new Wingman (the disgraced member of the Club of Heroes that was seduced by the Black Glove). We don’t see the new guy’s face, and Bruce stresses how important it is that he keep his identity a secret. This indicates that he’s a well-known character, whose association with Batman Inc can‘t become public knowledge. He also calls Batman “Bruce,” something very few people outside the circle of the immediate Bat-Family do. Which indicates that he‘s a really big gun. The idea that he was Superman flitted briefly through my head, but I rejected it almost immediately. Until, of course, I read Teatime Brutality’s thoughts on that very idea. So now, yeah, I’ve been won over. Of course, I’m notoriously bad at guessing Morrison plot elements (as opposed to thematic ones), so take that with a grain of salt.

One thing is clear: while the various Batmen don’t have to be identical in appearance or even name, they do have to adhere to the corporate identity enough to create confusion. This, I would presume, is why Wingman’s true identity has to remain secret, and why the Outsiders are being assigned as a stealth unit (because, you know, if any team just screams “Look at me!” it‘s that one). I wonder if there’s another reason, though. I wonder if, in recruiting a worldwide network of detectives, acrobats, and martial artists, he’s not trying to make his opponents underestimate him. Night Runner’s sobriquet of “The Dark Athlete” just slays me, for instance, and… Let’s face it… Some of his operatives are seen as jokes by everybody but Batman himself. Even Tim Drake (of all people!) thought that El Gaucho was lame before he worked with him. Goes counter to that whole “striking fear into the heart of the underworld” thing, but there are more than enough scary Batman-a-likes out there to cover that action. Just a thought.

Anyway. As you can no doubt tell, this is the exposition issue of Batman Inc, but Morrison keeps it interesting and entertaining enough in its own right that, really, it doesn’t feel like exposition so much. Plus, he leaves a lot of the actual explaining off-camera. Which both prevents him from having to repeat stuff that the readers already know, and leaves a bit of mystery to it all, a tantalizing possibility that he’s letting his friends know things about his larger plans that we don’t. In fact, since he tells Dick and Damian that he has half-remembered information on the coming conflict from his dream-like trip through time, that’s almost a guarantee.

This everything-you-need-to-know-but-nothing-you-don’t approach, plus the possibility of further mystery, is the reason this concept-defining issue comes at the end of the opening arc, rather than the beginning as you might expect. We got five issues of the Batman Inc machine in action, and we didn‘t need the details to understand the very basic concept of Batman recruiting his own “Batmen of Many Nations.” We learned a lot about Doctor Dedalus and Leviathan while he was out there, too: their super-power creation tech, their ties to international spy rings, and their infrastructure devoted to training and indoctrinating the underprivileged children of the Third World. I’d argue that we needed to understand the threat first-hand before we saw how Bruce was deploying his forces to fight it, and that‘s what this “reverse“ structure gave us.

It also allowed us to see post-Bat-Enlightenment Bruce in action before we got the public reaction to his revelation that he‘s been funding the Batman all these years. One of the big clues that something’s up with Bruce is the repeated mention that his unconscious behaviours have changed. First, we were told that his heart rate was higher than normal, and that he was taking faster, more shallow breaths. This is usually an indication of excitement or stress, which, hey. If I’d just come back from a life-defining psychedelic journey through time and space with a new mission and vague knowledge of a massive looming threat I had to prepare for… I might be kind of excited, too. But for someone as advanced in yogic techniques as Batman, it may also be a conscious attempt to raise his energy levels for the task ahead. Deep, slow breaths are healthier, of course, but as we’ve seen Bruce Wayne is a man who’s more than willing to put his body on the line for the greater good.

Issue six gives us an observation that Bruce’s body language is different, as well. Granted, that comes from an online conspiracy theorist, but still. Chris Burnham’s art kind of bears that out. Much has been made of his Bruce Wayne. The Mindless Ones said that he looks like he’s had a facelift (which is particularly funny to me). Others have made the… less-kind observation that he looks like a child molester. But, really, I think he just looks like someone who’s excited about his life.
(Okay, so maybe MANIC is a better word...)

In part, I have to think that’s because he’s finally able to drop some of the Bruce Wayne façade, better-incorporating Bruce and Batman into one consistent persona, as per the whole point of his (still-on-going?) Thogal experience. But, again: new mission, new sense of purpose, new Batman. Of course he’s all excited.

He may also be pumped because his plans are finally coming together. This is a different Bruce than the one we saw in Batman: the Return, and not just because he’s being drawn by a different artist. In that book, the newly-returned Bat-Bruce (Bruce-Man?) was edgy and secretive, testing out his relationship with his son as well as his knowledge of Leviathan. It took the information-gathering and plan-laying of the world tour to get him to the more confident point we see in this most recent issue.

Huh. That little romp with Selina Kyle back in the first two issues may have served as something of a stress-reliever as well. That whole Lord Death-Man adventure was a freaking vacation for him, wasn’t it? Nothing like a little James Bond espionage action and fucking Catwoman on a weight bench to get your rocks off, right? No wonder he reeks of alpha male hormones when he wheels into Argentina an issue or two later…

That whole corporate power alpha-male aspect of the current Bat-status-quo also brings an uncomfortable (though I think entirely intentional) subtext to the story. Leviathan’s recruitment of the underprivileged kind of makes it feel like a rich white (Bat) man beating up on poor people. Now, sure. The new Ranger (the Batman of Australia) is black, Night Runner is Muslim, and the so-called African Batman certainly isn’t a creature of any sort of powerful ruling class. Doesn’t change the fact that Batman’s following a fairly typical Western corporate approach (exporting his culture) to the problem in comparison to Leviathan’s more practical one (providing food, clothing and education).

Now, in the end, I suspect the way this will play out is that Bat-Bruce represents a positive corporate approach, providing poor cultures with a tool (the Batman) that will allow them to help themselves. While Leviathan’s hand-outs come with one hell of a string attached: murderous devotion to the cause. Still. It’s fun to look at this side of things and wonder exactly how subversive Morrison’s going to get with it. It’s also fun to watch him expand upon the idea he introduced in Final Crisis with Most Excellent Superbat: money as a super power.

And that’s about it, except to talk about the art. On issue six, as I mentioned above, it was provided by Chris Burnham, whose work I like quite a lot. He’s very detail-oriented, and under his pen I get the sense that all the little details Morrison crams into a script actually make it onto the page. I don’t get that sense on the issues illustrated by the series’ other artist, Yanick Paquette. Don’t get me wrong; Paquette is quite good, a solid realistic draftsman who handles action scenes with flair. He’d absolutely KILL on an Ed Brubaker comic. With Morrison, though, I often feel that he’s drained a little bit of the fun out of the proceedings, like he somehow missed the tone.

Not so with Burnham, who’s not as technically proficient as Paquette, but makes up for it with enthusiasm. As the Mindless Ones pointed out (see the link above), he’s not just channeling Quitely but also Cameron Stewart. The result is a kind of enthusiastically meaty cartooniness. That Bruce Wayne picture above is maybe the worst in the issue. But at his best, Burnham’s turning in fun, dynamic work that suits the story perfectly.

Grade: A

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