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King of the Meta-Comic:
An Appreciation of Grant Morrison's Batman #655

A. David Lewis, writer of Mortal Coils, The Lone and Level Sands and the upcoming Empty Chamber, has long been a champion of comics as a true art form, and currently teaches English at Northeastern University, where he does indeed sneak comics into the curriculum wherever he can. He first posted this article on his blog, Loose Pages.

Is he ...looking at us?!?
Grant Morrison is most definitely King of the Meta-Comic.

By this, I don't mean metahuman, that catch-all term for superpowered folks spandexing all about the DC, Marvel, Image, and other publishers' universes. No, though Mr. Morrison has unmistakeably put his fingerprint on such do-gooders as The Doom Patrol, Animal Man, the X-Men, his recent Seven Soldiers of Victory, and the iconic "big guns" of the JLA, this isn't about his slant on superheroes. Rather, this is about his approach to readers: He talks to them.

Not surprising for the man who wrote Flex Mentallo, a story of real heroes trapped inside of fiction. Morrison's enjoyed speaking through his work for some time -- Having readers mistrust their eyes even as Batman questions his sanity in Arkham Asylum (thanks in no small part to the able Dave McKean, of course), allowing Buddy Baker to have a glimpse of us through the two-dimensional page, giving readers the okay to accept Scott Summers and Emma Frost with Jean Grey's posthumous blessing, or enlisting us "normal" folks to fortify Earth and become superheroes ourselves as the JLA "summon the armies of Man!"

In fact, at the conclusion of his run on that series, Morrison has Superman wrap up the JLA by looking at the reader, with a glint in his eye, and saying: "We're the Justice League. You know you love it."

I do love it, it's true. And I'm absolutely giddy about his return to the Dark Knight in Batman #655.

In the 15th anniversary edition of Arkham Asylum, he comments that the story leaves the '80s Batman "purified and purged of negative elements. [He] is returned to Gotham City to become the super-confident zen warrior of my subsequent JLA stories" (from the Notes to p. 66 of the script). With issue #655, however, Morrison aims to make Batman "more of a 'fun guy, more healthy', more like the 'Neal Adams, hairy-chested, love-god' version of Batman," reports Newsarama.

But, even if Morrison didn't tell Newsarama this tidbit at Wondercon, he told us a lot on each page if read as meta-narrative, just as soon as we open the front cover:

Panel 1 - Commisioner Gordon's glasses have come off and are falling from a great height. This says to me something along the lines of "It's time to look at things differently" or even "Time to blur things slightly." Maniacaly laughter, such as we'd associate with the Joker, can be hear in the panel, but...

Panel 2 - ...it's Gordon who is laughing, even as he falls upside down to his death. So, what we associated with the Joker is suddenly relegated to the sober, stoic Gordon. And his falling head-first? Literally, things are being turned upside down.

Panel 4 - The explanation is given -- "The Commisioner's been poisoned by the Joker!" -- and the earlier thought is further confirmed: The Joker's jolly chaos has infected Gordon's orderly world.

Hey...we're not kids...are we?
PAGES 2 & 3
Splash page - Talk about reversals. The Joker yells, "I finally killed Batman," getting to live out his disturbed fantasy...with vulnerable, disabled kids watching on. This is not the Batman book we expected, and Morrison's making that clear right from the opening. It won't be another cat-and-mouse between the two archenemies. We're witnessing something different here. And is there an implied insult, equating us, the readers, with the "vulnerable, disabled kids"??

Panels 2 & 3 - As if this situation weren't already bizarre, disturbing, and upsetting to our Bat-mythos sensibilities already, Batman pulls a gun. And Morrison quietly chuckles: "Ha!"

Panel 4 - In fact, he outright says to us, through the Joker, "I love messing with your head."

Panel 5 - In a sudden reversal, instead of Morrison's speaking through the Joker, the reader takes on the Joker's viewpoint with a shocked, wide eye. (Note how little of the Joker's tell-tale characteristics are shown here, almost to universalize him.)

Panel 6 - To the Joker, to us, to our expectations of the Bat-mythos, and, in some way, to himself, Batman points a gun and says, "Die." Our world of Batman is being assassinated.

Splash page - As the old, blue-coweled, beaten Batman pulls the trigger, a darker, healthier Batman springs up behind him. The old, haggard model is being replaced; Morrison's new Batman has arrived.


Splash page - The Joker goes down in flames, literally and figuratively, and a strong, confident Batman carries off his disabled foe, almost displaying him to us. (Who's the disabled kid now, eh?) The title is given to us here, echoed later: "Building a Better Batmobile," as in Batman-system, not just the car.

(NOTE: The "Zur En Arrh" graphitti is placed in our eyeline for the first -- but not the last -- time here. Foreshadowing? If so, of what? "ZRNR?" "Rest and relaxation" combined with "Zzzs?" Naw.)

Panel 3 - Neither Gordon nor the Joker have been killed. Neither order nor chaos has been elminated. "He's still alive!"

Panels 2 & 3 - Is there something to not seeing the beheaded man's picture here, instead getting a headline of "Death Toll Rises to 350 in French Airline Disaster"? It's certainly what we're expecting to see.

Panel 4 - Morrison speaks to us, yet again: "Everybody needs to lighten up." That includes Gordon but especially Batman himself and his readers.

In a missing scene, Batman then gives Gordon another beating.
Nobody laughs at the Bat. Nobody.
Panel 2 - "Has anyone ever told you how ridiculous you look in that getup?" asks Gordon. "They don't usually get the chance," says Batman. This includes the writers of Batman, having little chance to explore the more ironic and amusing aspects of the character.

Panel 4 - "Everything's funny when you think about it...snicker...So funny it hurts." My guess is that this will be the theme to the "Batman & Son" plotline.

Panel 6 - With almost all of his enemies (or is that 'rivals?') eliminated, Gordon asks Batman the question that all of his writers must face: "What do you do now, Batman?" And his answer...?

Panel 7 - ...Batman snickers. He makes a joke. In fact, it's a bit of black humor. Morbid humor. This is Batman's response.

Panel 8 - Looking like a Joker/Gordon hybrid -- or, rather, resembling the still-at-large Two-Face -- the Commissioner asks, in response to Batman's atypical shift to humor, "...Does this mean I'm getting better or worse?" Is a bemused Batman better or worse than a stoic one? And what do we and Morrison mean by "better?"

PAGES 11 & 12
Panel 1 - When Wayne says that Gordon calls Gotham his "comfort zone," the irony is rich: Gotham, while Wayne's home, has brought him nothing but woe. It's been his love and his tragedy. And, yet, perhaps what the Commissioner said is still true -- Along with the spacious Batcave we're given here, Wayne might be most comfortable with places of darkness and isolation.

Panel 3 - An interesting, subtle twist to the Bat-mythos here: It's not that Wayne minds the idea of others thinking Batman used a gun. He just doesn't want to use one personally, as it was the tool that took his parents (and, according to Frank Miller's recreation of the character, is "too easy").

Panel 4 - Following on the conceit suggested by the issue's title, Robin asks, "This the new Batmobile?" The answer is obviously yes, whether we're speaking metaphorically or literally. Likewise, Wayne's response applies to both as well: "Don't peek. She's not done yet." The new Bat-mythos (characterized, interestingly, as a woman) is still unfolding, page by page.

Panel 2 - Another tweak to the Bat-mythos: For all his detective skills and dedication to his Chiroptera role, Wayne has been surprisingly oblivious to the bats in his caves themselves. This holds with the notion that he has been neglecting the details in his own, immediate life (and his past...and his seed?).

Panels 6 & 7 - "Gordon said I should get out of the city more often. And Alfred's telling me I have to relearn how to be Bruce Wayne." "Combine the two." And thus the rough outline for the storyarc is born.

Panel 4 - Robin rolls out on his own, driving home the point that he is, for the moment, out of the picture. Batman's fatherly nature won't be directed towards his ward and partner. It's poised at his own son.

Panel 5 - "The past has finally caught up to you, my darling detective." Batman is indeed Morrison's darling detective. Add this to the combined 'extra-Gotham Wayne relearning' and you almost have a blueprint to Morrison's goals.

(NOTE: All due credit to Adam Kubert for his terrific art on the issue. In particular, he definitely evokes the Man-Bat figure for Dr. Langstrom with panels 1 & 5 on page 18.)

I really hope this isn't some weird code...
Panel 2 - "When was the last time you threw caution to the wind and actually relished your status [...]?" I've omitted Alfred's qualifier -- "as a famous international playboy" -- because the overall answer for Wayne or Batman's life is the same: In the arms of Talia al Ghul. Morrison is telegraphing his punch to Bruce. He could see this all coming, if, instead of being more cautious, he had been more careful. More aware.

Panel 3 - Ah, the writer's complaint with continuity: "Even I can barely remember all the names." If anyone embodies Morrison's voice most, it's Alfred...

Panel 5 - ...particularly as he puts words in Bruce's mouth, a la Cyrano de Bergerac or any author writing a character's part. "So let's try one more time, shall we, sir? Repeat after me..."

(NOTE: Quite the Lichtenstein-esque pop art all about for Action for Africa, harkening to comics and the Adam West Batman in tandem on page 22. Question is: What's with the 'frozen' upside-down mega-lizard in the center? Alfred in panel 5 seems to be taking notice of it all. Once again, Bruce is missing the more immediate details, somehow.)

Panel 1 - "How am I doing?" Wayne asks Alfred as much as he's asking us -- or as Morrison's asking us. It's so atypical not only to see Bruce Wayne in social action but also to see Batman actively enjoying himself without some crime-fighting agenda. We're being asked: Can we swallow it?

Well? Can we? Have we?

A. David Lewis

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