Monday, July 28, 2008

"This one sees me and smiles"

I love Batman. Everybody loves Batman, right? According to the box office grosses for Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight", anyway. He and Spider-Man are way out in front of Superman these days when it comes to being the world's favourite, most culturally iconic Super-heroes. Its understandable. Batman is a truly great character. Visually arresting, with psychological depth and complexity and a real, universal cultural resonance. And gadgets. You can't go wrong with gadgets.

One of the greatest strengths of Batman as a character is his versatility. There is really no "definitive" version of Batman, only personal preference. I love many different portrayals of the character, from the uber-realist bruiser played by Christian Bale, to the 70s International-Playboy-crimefighter of the Englehart-Rogers and O'Neill-Adams eras, to Year One's gritty and vulnerable beginner, to the sleek stingray of the night drawn by Alan Davis in Detective Comics and Batman & the Outsiders. But then there is "The Animated Series" from the 90s and perhaps the closest thing to a fully-balanced and beautifully rendered "definitive" portrayal of Batman and his world. I love that too. And the way Batman evolved in the final series of that show and into his role in the Justice League show that followed. And the way DC translated that Batman back into comics, especially as drawn by Mike Parobeck or Rick Burchett. And I love any Batman as drawn by Jim Aparo, who is one of the pencillers I most associate with the character due to years of reading reprints of classic the Brave & the Bold storys. And the Batman of Giffen-DeMattiess-Maguire's comedic Justice League, given to one-line putdowns and knockout punches. Or Matt Wagner's version of the character, especially from his Grendel crossovers. Or Adam West, calling Robin "chum" and figuring out preposterous riddles, all the while carrying what you just know is a little martini-belly. Somehow I could reconcile that with the character I read about as drawn by Michael Golden and Bernie Wrightson as a kid, another tribute to his versatility. Or Miller's Dark Knight, in his original outing, at least, a stirring reminder to my 13 year old self of how much I loved both comics and Batman. Or the Batman who cast a long shadow over Gotham Central and appeared occasionally to terrify both cops and criminals. Or Tim Burton's rubber-clad neurotic, lost in a nightmarish, dollhouse version of Gotham. But the incarnation I want to discuss here is more recent. Its the Batman written by Grant Morrison and primarily drawn by Howard Porter in their JLA in the late 1990s.

As an artist, Howard Porter was quite often purely awful. Bad panel composition, poor storytelling, dodgy perspective, plain wrong anatomical details all add up to bad comics art. But these comics were written by Grant Morrison. Who, at that point, was seemingly rediscovering the joy to be found in pure superhero stories, was realising how much scope such stories gave him to work in as many extreme ideas as he could come up with, was obviously working out how to write team books so that his run on X-Men a few years later would be far tighter and more controlled. But his JLA run hums with invention and excitement. Morrison can barely keep up with himself, so many ideas is he trying to work in. And not just the signature little science tidbits hes read about and felt a yen to translate to the DC universe, no. There are also ideas about characters (nobody had gotten Kyle Rayner so well or made the interplay between Aquaman and Wonder Woman - two otherworldly royals among humans - so fascinating), about the glue of the DC universe itself, about superhero narrative and how it can be twisted and manipulated. And there is Batman.

Morrison was something of a surprise choice for the new JLA. He had never done anything quite like it at that point. He was a Vertigo guy. His most famous superhero work had been on Zenith, Animal Man and Doom Patrol - each of them a left-field revisionist view of the genre, each of them great. But pure superheroics? This was new for him. I remember reading an interview with him before the first issue appeared where he described Batman as his favourite member of the JLA, and wondering just how this would translate. Well, it translated as an awesome portrayal of Batman as the most formidable member of a team made up of walking Gods. Which is how it should be.

One of the greatest aspects of Batman as a character is that he has willed himself to be what he is. He has striven to become the ultimate human, in a way. He is at his peak, both mentally and physically. Most portrayals capture the physical side well - its inescapable, really, dealing with a character who swings through a city and beats criminals with his fists and feet nightly. But the mental side is more often neglected. Batman is referred to as "detective" by Ra's Al Ghul, with reason. He has a magnificent mind. He is a genius, really - not only detective, but scientist, inventor, mogul, strategist. Morrison gets this. His Batman always has a plan, his mind is always working on multiple levels. Everything is a game of chess and he is always several moves ahead. He is not intimidated by the Kryptonion God he orders about, because he knows he is smarter than him, knows that if it comes down to just the two of them, then he will win. Morrison writes him as possessing a sort of curt disdain for Wonder Woman, suggestive of the contempt that the aristocracy often reserve for royalty, which gives their relationship a pleasing spark. The others - Green Lantern, Flash - fear Batman, are in awe of him, despite their powers far outstripping his. He has a presence and authority lacking in the rest of the League. He is really the only one Superman defers to. In a group of the most powerful heroes in the DC universe, the single powerless character is the closest thing they have to a leader. Part of this seems to be his arrogance, his certainty that he is right. As Morrison writes him, he usually is. This is part of why I love Batman so much in Justice League storys - they really give a context in which to consider just what a fabulous character he is.

Wonder Woman: "Why should anyone know how long they can hold their breath?"
Batman: "Three minutes, fifteen seconds. You'd be surprised why."

In his JLA run, Morrison really sold the big moments. Every issue has a couple of purely cool scenes, where a hero does something to make the fans cheer. Many such moments involve Batman. For example, the first story arc focuses on the arrival of a race of new Super-powered aliens, the Hyperclan, on Earth. They set about ending the planets problems by first transforming the Sahara into a garden and second murdering a series of super-villains. They are greeted with worldwide adoration. The JLA, sensing mind control, decide to investigate, leading to a series of confrontations from which the JLA do not emerge well. The Hyperclan take most of them prisoner in an Arctic installation, leaving only Batman at liberty. They're not worried about Batman, because he's only human. However, as a bound Superman tells the Hyperclan's leader : "He's the most dangerous man on earth." Batman breaks into their installation, and when A-Mortal comes to investigate, Batman reveals that he has reasoned their secret - they are Martians, like the Martian Manhunter. And, like him, they have one weakness - fire.
When three more of the Hyperclan come after their comrade, they find him hanging from the ceiling with a note affixed to his chest : "I know your secret!" Batman, faced with three super-powered aliens, lights a match. End of fight.

Batman: "Luthor still has no idea he's dealing with someone who's as familiar with corporate takeover techniques as he is. Someone who plays the game much better than he does...Bruce Wayne. Let's take him out."

Another example - the villain Prometheus has trained and prepared his entire life to defeat the JLA's pantheon. He wears some sort of technologically advanced armour and the way he defeats Batman is by downloading the moves of the world's leading martial artists into his own brain and then beating him in hand-to-hand combat. Batman is humbled - a rarity - but you know he is already planning a retort. When they meet again, Batman is ready for him. This time he uploads a virus into Prometheus' armour - the nervous system of Stephen Hawking. End of fight.

Perhaps the peak of Morrison's run on JLA was "Rock of Ages", an epic and insanely inventive multi-stranded six part story which found space for the Philosophers stone, Darkseid and New Apokolips and the Revenge Squad, amongst many other things. In one strand, several of the heroes ended up cast years into a future in which Darkseid has conquered earth, killing most of the planet's heroes. The present JLA find themselves in the bodies of their future selves. So Flash is fat and powerless, Aquaman and Wonder Woman guerillas living underground. Superman and Martian Manhunter have been killed. The heroes discover that Batman is a rare survivor - he had been captured and imprisoned by Darkseid's torturer, Desaad. When they attempt to rescue him, they discover that a white-haired Batman, his body criss-crossed with torture scars, has in fact escaped and replaced Desaad. He explains it like this : "Eight years...four of them in Desaad's Psycho-fuge, experiencing all the physical and emotional pain of his ended two months ago. Battle of wits. I won. Hh."
Nobody writes Batman like this, really, with an awareness of the force of will he should have, the insane drive of the man. This strand of the story ends with Batman planning and leading an attack on the all-but-unbeatable Darkseid in his warship, narrated by the Black Racer, Kirby's avatar of Death. One by one the Black Racer describes his visits to the heroes as they fall, having played their parts in Batman's plan ("Wonder Woman calls me by an old name and speaks it quietly, calmly as she dies"). Meanwhile Batman is convincing Metron to become human, only to punch him out and drug him so that the trapped heroes can return to their own time and prevent this reality from ever existing. Leaving Batman face to face with Darkseid, the most powerful villain in the DC Universe, an immensely evil god. The Black Racer describes Batman's response to his presence with the line I use in the title to this post: "This one sees me and smiles." Batman can't resist rubbing Darkseid's nose in his impending defeat, and even lecturing him, a little:

Darkseid: You overcame Desaad? Do I know you?
Batman: We've...shared a few laughs. Everything you know, everything you own: I'm taking it all. Look up.
(the Moon, and Darkseid's "Zombie Factory" explodes)
Darkseid: No. My zombie Factory.
Batman: You're all alone, Darkseid. Your allies have fallen, your troops have no guidance.
Darkseid: How small you are, have hurt me. I respect that.
(He sends the beams of his Omega effect at Batman)
Batman: You want to know why you're surrounded by all these "maggots", Darkseid? Because you did what you said you'd do; you recreated the world in your image. And what you see in them is your own ugly faaaaaaa-
(Batman dematerialises)
The Black Racer: Then he is gone, out of time, out of space. Beyond what even Gods know.

All of this, sad to say, drawn by Howard Porter. His art wasn't all bad. He could deliver a suitable sense of grandeur when called to, and some of his action sequences flow along. But generally there he is, getting between the reader and the tale with his bad choices, his lack of detail, his sheer ineptitude. Only the quality of Morrison's writing makes him worth it.
Morrison followed "Rock of Ages" with an even bigger storyline, "One Million" which crossed over through every DC Universe title, with Morrison writing them all. Then he left JLA, but he returned only a few years later with the opening storyline in JLA: Classified, a sequel of sorts to "One Million." This features Batman opening what he calls his "Sci-Fi closet", pictured below and featuring some Thangarian wings, a Boom tube Gauntlet and a Dalek:

He returned to Batman last year, when he took over as regular writer on the ongoing series. So far he has portrayed a different Batman from the one he featured in JLA, but its plain that he is striving to pull all of the different Batmans contained in DC continuity together into one coherent character. So his Batman has to deal with the result of sleeping with Talia in "Son of the Demon" - a child. He endures flashbacks to pot-roasts cooked by Aunt Agatha. He keeps a Black Notebook of all the supernatural, unexplained things he has encountered in his life. He is bowed beneath the weight of his own past, almost traumatised by such a busy, schizophrenic collection of experiences, and Morrison is pushing this and its relevance for the character into the next storyline - "Batman RIP". This Batman suggests the Batman of the 1970s, or as Morrison calls him; "hairy-chested love god Batman". He is something of a globetrotter, his action scenes and gadgets are to the forefront, and Morrison fills every scene with references to Batman's history. He's a great version of a great character, but he's not the JLA Batman.



Blogger Will Shyne said...

Once again humbled by your thoroughness. A nice piece and you managed to mention Howard Porter's dreadful art but not Tony Daniel's, which is an achievement. In a world where Rick Leonardi gets Supergirl fill-ins we getTony Daniel on Batman. I love that JLA Classified story, one of the few occasions DC have paired DCU Morrison with someone not just better than average but good. Also love the ammount of hope seeing Quietly's Batman gives me for decent Batman art again at some point.

10:09 am  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

But do you love 'the goddamn Batman'? That's what I want to know.

8:13 pm  
Blogger David N said...

When I was searching for art online to use here - theres not much Howard Porter stuff to be found, unsurprisingly - that panel, the now-legendary "I'm the Goddamn Batman" panel from AllStar Batman, was everywhere. Its got a little cult, imagine.

I hate the goddamn Batman. But Frank Miller more.

Still want to read Batman: Holy Terror, if he ever finishes it.

10:58 pm  
Blogger Will Shyne said...

"I hate the goddamn Batman. But Frank Miller more.
Still want to read Batman: Holy Terror, if he ever finishes it."
What is it that provokes the above reaction? I'm the same. Still can't bring myself to write Miller off...Funny eh? Weird to be reading Batman by Miller and Jim Lee and enjoying the art so much more than the writing. No-one's even really commented on the Joker in the book. Deeply unpleasant.

On a sidenote, just rereading Brubaker and McDaniel's Batman run.Good stuff.Nothing compares to the great Morrison Batman moments (I'm opening the Sci-Fi closet. Don't tell the GCPD) etc but I could handle McDaniel as Morrison's artist. Add Batman to the list of comics (along with JLA, Porter's FFs) that I would have redrawn if my Lotto millions came in.

12:42 pm  
Blogger David N said...

I don't think Holy Terror will be any good, not in the traditional sense, anyway. But AllStar is grimly fascinating, and I'm sure it would be too.

The funniest thing about AllStar is the way Miller introduces a new character - and with them, a new plot strand - every single issue. As if he wants us to know how bored he is by the whole thing. We get it Frank, you hate Superheroes. Why not go off and direct a derivative adaptation of a classic comic instead? Oh you did that already? Can't wait...

I quite like McDaniel. Really liked his Daredevil run - though the writing was poor - and on Nightwing his style got looser and looser. He almost seems to be developing in a JRJR direction.

11:48 pm  
Blogger Beezer B said...

You guys...
So I liked the film a whole bunch. Lots of fun. Gary Oldman is excellent even though he looks EXACTLY like Ned Flanders.
Yeah. Liked it. Apparently its doing rather well at the box office? It's not THAT good. It's about one millionth as good as Wall-E. I should go outside in the sun.

2:56 pm  
Blogger David N said...

What does THAT good mean? As summer blockbusters go, its great. Because most summer blockbusters are awful, empty, evil pieces of shit. More on this in December, probably.

You can't compare it to Wall-E. Pixar is beyond comparison. Ghibli? Don't make me laugh.

11:38 pm  

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