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Batman #655-57

Posted: Friday, October 6, 2006
By: Thom Young

Grant Morrison
Andy Kubert
DC Comics
The first three issues of Grant Morrison's Batman run reviewed all together!

Issue #655:

Issue #656:

Issue #657:

One of the complaints I’ve been seeing on the SBC message boards is that Morrison doesn’t have a plot for his “Batman and Son” story—or at least not one that makes sense to the readers making that complaint. Thus, rather than review only the most recent issue of Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert’s tenure on Batman, I decided it was worth reviewing their first three issues.

Of course, Morrison is no stranger to the criticism that his plots don’t make sense. His work on Doom Patrol often involved surrealist and Dadaist approaches that left readers accustomed to conventional superhero plots either confused or upset.

I must confess that despite the number of bullets I’ve given his issues, I’m also a bit disappointed with Morrison’s work on Batman. However, my own disappointment is due to the lack of experimental, Postmodern storytelling that I’ve come to expect from Morrison, which is also why my favorite of his first three issues is Batman #656.

I will admit that the plot of the “Batman and Son” story seems to be random in its construction. The first issue has Batman disarm an imposter a fraction too late to prevent the imposter’s .45 automatic from shooting The Joker in the head. When he discovers that the Joker is still alive, Batman tosses the Clown Prince of Crime into a dumpster.

I was among the readers who wondered what the heck that scene was all about. Well, it looks like we might get our answer in issue #659, which is Morrison’s single-issue Joker story (and his last before we get four fill-in issues from #660 to #663). In other words, it’s difficult to criticize a plot until the story is finished. Such “local elements” as dialogue or the use of factual information (i.e., knowing the difference between a star system and a galaxy) can be criticized in each issue, but such “global elements” as themes and the overall plot are more difficult to critique until the completed story has been read.

Anyway, back to Morrison’s first issue. After the confusing scene with The Joker, we are informed through a conversation between Batman and Commissioner Gordon that Batman has now rounded up all the super crooks in Gotham. In other words, there’s nothing for Batman to do, so he goes back to the Cave to work on his new Batmobile.

In the Cave, Alfred convinces Batman that he should take a vacation, so off he and Bruce go to London while Tim takes off for a camping trip (to underscore the fact that there really is nothing to do in Gotham, I guess, so it’s okay for Bruce to take a vacation). It’s all an overly contrived way of getting Batman to London. It could have been handled more “realistically” by coming up with a more authentic reason to have Batman travel to London. However, it didn’t bother me all that much (though the first issue was
the one that I award the least amount of bullets).

We then have a jolly good time in Morrison’s second issue (my favorite) as Batman dispenses with 30, count them 30, Ninja Man-Bats before he falls while shielding the escape of the wife of the British Prime Minister. Readers have complained that the Ninja Man-Bat attack seemed to serve no purpose other than as a means for Talia to handover Damian (Batman’s supposed son). Yes, it would have been far simpler for Talia and Damian to waltz into the Cave (as Ra’s Al Ghul has so often done in the past), but then we wouldn’t have had an excuse for the fight with the Ninja Man-Bats in the exhibition hall amid giant paintings. (It was also implied that Talia wanted to test the abilities of her Ninja Man-Bats so that she could improve on the next batch of zealots she transforms.) Yes, the fight was overly contrived (the way that comic book superhero fights usually are if we are willing to be completely honest), but that might be part of Morrison’s point in this issue. You see, the thing I particularly liked about issue #656 was Morrison’s use of the old Bill Finger and Dick Sprang concept of having Batman fight the villains in an exhibition hall filled with giant props.

However, instead of such things as giant pennies, giant typewriters, and giant books, Morrison had Kubert draw giant Lichtenstein-esque and Warhol-esque pop art paintings that metatextually intersected with the action. Many readers seemed to feel that this metatextuality was a “stylistic trick” that wore thin after the first few instances, but I disagree. I found that the metatextual commentary provided by the paintings worked on many levels, such as a reminder of how the comic book conventions of the 40s, 50s, and 60s may have seemed simplistic (and even primitive) but had a joy about them that is often missing in contemporary comics. Morrison is also exploring this notion of the “joy of old school comics” in his All-Star Superman title, and I was glad to see it explored from a different angle here.

The metatextual interplay between the paintings and the story also underscores Morrison’s subtext regarding the notion of “meaning in art,” as when Bruce Wayne comments, “There’s a message here somewhere. I know if I just stare hard enough . . .” (perhaps anticipating the response from some readers to the entire “Batman and Son” story arc itself). Similarly, Batman later thinks, “If there’s one thing I hate . . . it’s art with no content” (again, perhaps, anticipating those readers who will conclude that Morrison’s Batman arc is just “form without content”). Of course, this criticism of form without content has also been levied against the works of Lichtenstein and Warhol that Morrison and Kubert are parodying in their story.

The real problem with the second issue was that there was absolutely no reason for it to have been set in London. Everything that occurred in the issue could have taken place in an exhibition hall in Gotham City. However, despite this “imperfection,” I found the issue to be an outstanding use of the comic book medium, which is why I gave it five bullets.

The third issue continues the apparent “formlessness” of the plot and the supposed “content-lessness” of the story. Here we have Damian as a hellish brat who believes he is entitled to everything and responsible for nothing. To some extent, he may thus be seen as the embodiment of the worst traits of American youth, a generation that has been marketed the message that they are entitled to everything that a capitalist society has to offer. (I’ve actually been waiting, and hoping, for Morrison to explore the capitalist foundation and sense of entitlement on which Batman’s entire MO is built).

Anyway, with only one more issue remaining, it does indeed seem that the entire point of the “Batman and Son” story arc can be summed up as: watch Batman fight Ninja Man-Bats and interact with a bratty kid who attempts to kill Tim Drake. It would seem to be mindless action and violence for the sake of mindless action and violence, which is often what comic book stories really are. The thing is though that most comic books layer that “mindless action and violence” on a conventional Aristotelian plot structure that is definitely missing here. Morrison’s story is a stringing together of related sequences, and that’s the point. In effect, what Morrison is writing is a “free form” or “freestyle” superhero comic book. It closely parallels the improvisational structure of be-bop jazz (or the freestyle structure of Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz”).

Improvisational free jazz is composed around the irregular rhythmic recurrence of phrases that are explored through variations—as jazz critic Ted Gioia explains:
Jazz improvisation [. . .] tends towards apparent formlessness towards a breakdown of structural coherence, towards excess. The confusion of the layman on first encountering modern jazz [. . .] is not just a sign of the outsider’s characteristic “unhipness” but rather a telling recognition of the very essence of jazz. Under the pressure of spontaneous creation, the jazz artist has little opportunity to impose on his music the architectonic sense of order and balance that distinguishes the more leisurely constructed arts. (The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture 92)
Thus, rather than an architectonic plot structure that follows the Aristotelian model, Morrison and Kubert’s work is composed around the irregular rhythmic recurrence of images and syntactical patterns (such as comic book conventions). As with jazz, this approach to storytelling results in the conveying of “meaning through juxtaposition” (as with the paintings in the exhibition hall and their metatextual juxtaposition with the fight between Batman and the Ninja Man-Bats).

There is a tradition of such literary structures (actually going back as far as Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and its structural imitation of improvisational baroque music). More recent examples include the improvisational jazz novels of Jack Kerouac, such as The Subterraneans and Doctor Sax (which, by the way, is a childhood fantasy story inspired by The Shadow pulp novels).

These “improvisational novels” involve the tangling of threads, abrupt changes of subject, obscure cross references (borrowed phrases from other musical pieces), et cetera, that are common in both baroque and jazz musical improvisations. We can see such elements in Morrison’s story, such as in the sequence involving The Joker in issue #655, the reasonless setting of London in issue #656, and the sudden change in characterization in the scene in issue #657 where Batman is able to get Damian to suddenly become submissive by telling him that he dishonors his sensei.

Conventional narratives rely on an architectonic sense of order provided by consecutive linear elements, and it is this “structural coherence” that is desired by the readers who are having a negative reaction to Morrison’s story. However, this sense of order should not be expected in either jazz musical improvisation or free-form jazz narratives:
A succession of improvised choruses cannot be expected to have as perfect a degree of continuity as a composition that has been long labored over and constructed in a spirit that we have seen to be foreign to jazz. (André Hodeir, Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, 168)
Of course, I don’t expect those who want an architectonic plot structure to suddenly embrace Morrison’s decidedly Postmodern structure. Such readers are a bit like the layperson who asked Louis Armstrong what jazz is. Armstrong supposedly replied, "If you have to ask the question, you ain’t never gonna understand the answer."



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