of the Meta-Comic:
An Appreciation of Grant Morrison's Batman
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 most definitely King of the Meta-Comic.
...looking at us?!?
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.
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
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."
love it, it's true. And I'm absolutely giddy about his return
to the Dark Knight in Batman #655.
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
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
PAGES 2 &
not kids...are we?
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:
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
(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
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
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 &
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
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
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
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
(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.)
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..."
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
Well? Can we?