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Cape, Cowl, & Character: How Grant Morrison Restored the Concept of Batman

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[The following is spoiler-light. No key surprises are explicitly revealed. That said, the post does discuss broad plot points and themes concerning Morrison’s work on Batman. So if you don’t want to know anything before reading the comics, please bookmark this for later!]

This past summer, Grant Morrison wrapped up an incredible seven year run writing Batman comics. This was the biggest project of Morrison’s career, and one of the lengthiest continuous ventures in Bat history. After painstakingly re-reading the entire thing recently, I’ve concluded that it’s greatest long-form take on the character ever written.

Over the course of an intricate, maddeningly complex epic, The Caped Crusader wades through a distinctly Morrisonian mix of occult-based horror and psychedelic science fiction. He confronts fatherhood, loses his mind, dies multiple deaths, travels through time, leads a global paramilitary crime-fighting movement, stands up to his vindictive ex-girlfriend, and saves the multiverse from a malevolent cosmic god. At certain points, his thought processes devolve into apophenia, becoming lost in obscure symbology, Qabalist numerology, and obtuse deductive disciplines.

In one of my favorite moments, his girlfriend, Jezebel Jet, asks sadly, “Oh Bruce, poor Bruce…what if you’re not well?”

Morrison’s vision was as engrossing as it was confusing, featuring temporal distortions that span eons, creepy Nazi conspiracies, ancient demonological cults, ugly secrets of the storied Wayne patriarchy, and plenty of endearing familial drama. But like most of Morrison’s work, the story’s at-times bewildering obtuseness is made up for by expansive intellectual satisfaction.

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Grant Morrison has produced a truly definitive statement on the character through a sustained effort to flesh out and unify the multiplicity of Batman’s cultural manifestations. Batman will be turning 75 next year, and over the decades the Dark Knight has seen countless aesthetic and philosophical iterations. These successive versions make up a rich, fragmented, and psychologically contradictory character history that provided Morrison with a brilliant conceptual basis for his storytelling.

As Morrison describes it:

“I became fascinated by the idea that every Batman story was in some way true and biographical –from the savage, young, pulp-flavored ‘weird figure of the dark’ of his early years, through the smiling, paternal figure of the 1940s and the proto-psychedelic crusader of the ‘50s, the superhero detective of the ’60, the hairy-chested globetrotting adventurer of the ‘70s, to the brutally physical vigilante of the ‘80s and snarling paranoid soldier of the ‘90s.”

In other words, he didn’t want to show readers “Grant Morrison’s Batman.” He wanted to show us THE Batman, the one that has been with us all along. It’s a simple, brilliant premise: if Adam West’s Batman and Frank Miller’s Batman were both the same person, how do we reconcile that incongruity?

For a character so expansive and high profile, it wasn’t a simple task. But Morrison’s driving thesis all along has been to embrace the contradictions in Batman’s character rather than simply ignoring them. It’s about framing the early, more innocent days of shark repellent and fairy boots, such that traumatic images like scattered pearls and bloody crowbars are all the more meaningful. After all, contradictions are what make characters into Characters.

A succinct representation of what Morrison was shooting for is “Last Rights,” the hallucinatory two-issue epilogue to Batman: RIP. With Bruce incapacitated by Darkseid’s minions during Final Crisis, we watch as his subconscious wrestles with the choices he’s made and the bizarre life that he’s built. The reader drills deep into Bruce’s psyche by cycling through a loose, mostly structureless collection of moments. A narrative emerges that deftly expresses what it may have been like to experience such incredible highs and abysmal lows, and still have no regrets about putting on the cowl. Morrison is a writer that excels at storytelling through graphic montage, and these beautifully written issues are a great example of how he can distill decades of complex character history into 48 pages of pictures.

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But Morrison’s inquiry into Batman’s fragmented identity permeates the entire story. Thematically, Morrison introduced the concept immediately. The early issues find Bruce haunted by an unholy trinity of perverted alternate versions of himself. First in his dreams and then in his waking life, he encounters a Batman who kills, a Bane-like Batman juiced on steroids, and a Satanic Batman who sold his soul to the Devil to save Gotham.

Multiple personalities are also brought in with respect to Morrison’s characterization of the Joker. In the aggressively verbose prose issue “The Clown at Midnight,” Batman talks with Harley Quinn about the Joker’s fundamental lack of self. “He’s changed again. You know he changes every few years. You wrote the book, Doctor Quinzel. He has no real personality, remember, only a series of ‘superpersonas.’ That’s what you called them, right?” The idea that the Joker represents a broken mirror image to Batman is hardly new, but this was the first time I’ve seen the characters’ shared pathology framed as battling a parade of successive identities.

While Bruce ponders the symbolic significance of his perverted avatars, he becomes obsessed with the idea that it’s related to a deep-seated, terribly complex paranoid conspiracy involving isolation chamber experiments, an episode of temporary insanity, the hermetic billionaire sponsor of a failed super-team called the International Club of Heroes, and a demonic paternal figure named Dr. Hurt. Without spoiling the details, suffice it to say that Bruce was onto something. The instantly classic Batman: RIP ends with a harrowing confrontation between Bruce and Dr. Hurt.

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The psychological nightmare involving Dr. Hurt digs deeply into Bruce’s psyche, and leaves him feeling cursed and tainted as he proceeds portentously into the meta-apocalyptic events of Final Crisis (a DC universe crossover event also penned by Morrison). Following Bruce’s “death” at the hands of Darkseid at the crisis climax, Dick Grayson steps up to assume the cape and cowl.

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In Batman and Robin, Dick Grayson (the first Robin and later Nightwing) and Damian Wayne (Bruce and Talia al-Ghul’s biological son) were the new Dynamic Duo. Morrison described this phase of his epic as “an acid-tinged modernization of the sixties TV show as if directed by David Lynch,” introducing new fetish-inspired villains like the lewd, revolting Professor Pyg and the flamboyant, human face-eating Eduardo Flamingo.

Here, readers were met with an incredible spin on what we’ve come to expect from the two characters. The modern conception posits Batman to be a morose and obsessive introvert, complimented by a playful and kindhearted Robin. Here, the relationship was charmingly inverted. As Batman, Dick was nothing like Bruce. While both were inspired to crime fighting through the tragic loss of their parents, Dick never uses it as an excuse to be an asshole. It was truly refreshing to watch that kind of Batman play the positive-thinking older brother tasked with mentoring a troubled kid like Damian, a petulant, violent little bastard that had a lot of growing up to do. The brotherly love (and hate) going on here was tremendous. I honestly liked this character permutation so much that I almost didn’t want Bruce back.

Almost.

 

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Of course, Bruce wasn’t actually dead at the end of Final Crisis. Instead, he was experiencing a strange form of metaphysical torture by Darkseid called “The Omega Effect.” Chillingly described by Darkseid as “THE DEATH THAT IS LIFE,” the Omega Effect sentences its victim to die an infinite succession of lives, with the suffering of each pathetic existence snowballing for all eternity.

In keeping with the Multiple Batmen motif, The Return of Bruce Waynedepicts Bruce as a Batman reincarnated over and over again throughout time and into the distant future. The result is exceedingly awesome: we get Caveman Batman, Salem Witch-Hunt Batman, Pirate Batman, Cowboy Batman, Film Noir Batman, and Bush Robot Batman. Morrison said, “it was also to show what he grew out of, those antecedents in the heroes of the past, the pulp fiction heroes. Cavemen and cowboys and pirates – it was a lit bit of a literary joke as well in the sense that he was kind of reeling in the entire history of pulp.”

Exploring Batman as a confluence of pulp archetypes may sound gimmicky and a bit repetitive at first, but The Return of Bruce Waynewas actually very challenging in its narrative structure. The truly fascinating aspect about Bruce’s time travel adventure was that it seeded “the Batman” as an ancient mythological concept in Bruce’s continuity. By traveling back in time, Bruce inspired a culture of cave-dwelling Bat-god worshipers called the Miagani. This obscure culture mixes in with classical demonology over the centuries, eventually attracting an unsavory occult following.

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Images of anthropomorphized Bats end up haunting generations of the Wayne bloodline, and Bats are woven into the spiritual fabric of the land that’d become Gotham. The myriad threads tie together brilliantly, and this time-warp phenomenon ends up forming the basis of almost everything that happens to Batman during Morrison’s work. Most ambitiously, it purports to explain where the Bat in Batman came from in the first place.

(If you’re looking to get a solid nerd headache for a few hours, ponder this: the final moments of Bruce’s time travel adventure loop back into the beginning, so that the narrative snake truly swallows its own tail. With this in mind, it’s surely no accident that the Ouroboros repeatedly appears throughout Morrison’s subsequent third act.)

Following this cosmic ordeal, Bruce has an epiphany about recognizing “The First Truth of Batman.” It gives away nothing to tell you that (you guessed it!), the answer involves embracing the idea of multiple Batmen. Bruce resurrects the International Club of Heroes, (AKA “The Batmen of Many Nations”) to form a global network of WayneTech-sponsored masked vigilantes called Batman, Incorporated. As one writer at Comics Alliance pointed out,  “Batman Incorporated [is] a kind of double entendre — yes, its Batman as a corporation, but it was also a kind of mission statement for Morrison’s run, incorporating together the many different styles, interpretations and periods of Batman’s history into the Unified Theory of the Batman.”

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Morrison’s third act follows Bruce as he recruits new initiates and becomes wrapped up in a dark Nazi conspiracy involving the original Batwoman, Kathy Kane, and her mysterious connection to geopolitical espionage. After suffering a crushing personal loss, Bruce leads this worldwide legion of multicultural Batmen in the final showdown with Bruce’s most powerful and unforgiving enemy yet.

The story ends with a characterization of Bruce as an ultimate survivor, capable of replicating himself ad infinitum in a Sisyphean crime-fighting purgatory. The cover to Morrison’s final issue is a fractal image of Batman emerging from the Bat symbol on his own chest, a visualization of Commissioner Gordon’s closing monologue: “Batman never dies. It never ends. It probably never will.”

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When Morrison started on Batman, he felt that

“The prevailing trend was the Frank Miller-style Batman, ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ Batman, which was great. I grew up with that stuff and loved it…I was kind of used to the savage vigilante, but when I really began to think of it, someone who had gone through this life process to be Batman would have much more psychological depth.”

As a result, Morrison said he “had to throw out a few of the accepted ideas about Batman as a semi-unhinged, essentially humorless loner struggling with rage and guilt. The totality of his history and accomplishments made that portrayal seem limited and unconvincing.”

It’s not about bringing back the shark repellant or musing on the merits of rubber nipples. But Morrison’s thesis, with which I’ve come to agree, is that Batman’s dark psychology is only one aspect of his character. In addition to being a dude with issues, “this was a master of martial arts, meditation, deduction, yoga and big business.” Morrison’s contribution to Batman is its recognition that Batman has breadth and complexity beyond that of a mere sociopath in leather.

In the context of Morrison’s career at large, his work on Batman is a major point heading in his ongoing theoretical battle with purveyors of amoral superherosim like Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Although he has plenty of appreciation for the technical expertise and historical significance of Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, Morrison is ultimately opposed to propagating or celebrating the spandex-clad nihilism found in these stories.

For Morrison, writing superheroes is about investigating the pinnacle of human potential, not its nadir. He sees this as essential not only to his personal success as a writer, but to our collective success as a species. He has fascinating, trippy theories regarding the fifth dimensional metaphysics of fiction and its relation to sympathetic magic that you can read about, but he can also state his view on writing quite simply: “We have a tendency to reenact the stories we tell ourselves.”

Even without impugning the undisputed brilliance of the canon works of the so-called “Dark Age” of superheroes, I do agree that there’s something problematic and simplistic about the perception that superheroes need to be dark and disturbed to be interesting.

Morrison’s work on Batman proved that this just isn’t true.

 

 

 

 

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