In this four part series Todd Gray takes on the daunting task of giving us a full rundown of writer Grant Morrison's run on Batman. Here is part 1,
part 3, and part 4.
When I heard that Morrison was taking over writing the monthly Batman comic, I was cautiously optimistic. He made Batman into the most dangerous man alive in the pages of his legendary run on JLA., simple yet radical interpretation that made me literally stand up and cheer when I read it.
He deconstructed the character while at the same time accepting everything ever written throughout the character's history as fact. This meant that every bizarre sci-fi or supernatural story that affected Batman during the Silver Age of the 1950s to the 1970s, which had been retroactively removed from the character's history by DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths and other reboots, were now established facts.
So those crazy stories where Batman traveled to other worlds or routinely met up with ghosts: all those happened.
From the first issue, Batman 655, I should have known I was in for trouble. To be fair, at first I had a problem with editorial, not anything Morrison did that bothered me. The first four issues of Morrison's tenure started with page after page, panel after panel, of self-referential winks and nods to the readers. As if Morrison were telling us his entire game plan for the book in these four issues. Batman himself says in issue 656 "If there is one thing I hate, it's s art with no content."
The introduction of Bruce Wayne and Talia Al Ghul's son Damian was a reference to Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham's 1987 Son of the Demon. There laid my problem.
You can find nowhere, in any DC Comic, references to past issues. The burden of research is placed purely on the shoulders of the readers. This isn't much of a problem for an older reader like me. I'm willing to look up the information and it usually isn't necessary to look up. I usually already know what is being referenced, not to toot my nerd horn.
Your average new reader straight off the streets and unfamiliar with comic book history shouldn't be expected to dig for their own back story. If the writer doesn't provide it, the editor should lay in a footnote about where the information can be found. It was a common practice when I was a kid. But somewhere along the way, in an effort to make comics seem like less of a bastard stepchild of the written word and make them seem more adult, the practice of using caption boxes and thought balloons went the way of the dodo.
In Grant Morrison's Batman, annotations are necessary. Seriously. Morrison expects readers to remember one detail from Batman's 75 year history and to connect the dots, but that is not fair to readers new or old. Readers should not have to look for history lessons on the Internet just to enjoy a comic book. I appreciate Morrison's effort. But if a longtime reader can't put the puzzle together, a new reader with only half a puzzle isn't going to be enticed to return for the long haul.
Morrison's interpretation of Bruce Wayne/ Batman is entirely different from in JLA. In the JLA, Morrison's Batman comes across like the most dangerous and intelligent man in the world, with a plan for every contingency. Readers didn't need annotations to explain that. It was apparent from the writing. Batman was clearly one scary mother shut your mouth.
In Batman 655 to 658, Bruce Wayne is more akin to James Bond than Wolverine. He declares himself "cooler than James Bond" in issue 664. Morrison stated at the 2006 WonderCon that his Batman would be more of a fun and healthy guy akin to Neal Adam's "hairy-chested love-god" version from the 1970s. It was enough of a radical reinterpretation and the right writer to handle such an interpretation that I thought it would work.
We didn't see a hint of the scary genius in a cape and cowl from JLA until the final issue of the Batman: R.I.P. arc in issue 681.
Morrison returned to the book with #663 and, with artist John Van Fleet, produced an almost entirely text/ prose issue of the book, a bold experiment in mainstream comics. But there arose my second problem.
Joker says to Batman,"Why be an orphaned boy when you can be a superhero?"
When the hell has Joker ever heard the origin of Batman?
The editor was obviously not doing his job. Joker cannot and should not ever know the origin of his greatest enemy. He will exploit that information. Only a villain as noble as Ra's Al Ghul can have that info and sit on it, confident that he knows, but doesn't need to know to combat his rival.
My friends complained that Wayne's son Damian was ruining their enjoyment of the title, and I couldn't argue with that. Damian was and still is a horrible Cousin Oliver-type addition.
There is nothing redeeming about Damian in those first eleven issues. But he serves a purpose. He is meant to be annoying. He has to be unlikeable to grow and change. In issue 666 a glimpse into the future shows Damian as a different, confident, almost likable Batman protecting Gotham from new, bizarre villains. Morrison was saying that is where Damian will be.
Statistically, we know Morrison won't be on the title for the remainder of his career. In baseball terms, this is Morrison calling his shot.