Who says that Marvel is the only publisher that puts out What Ifs? Morrie treats his devoted readers to the answer to his question, “What if the Dark Knight were ever dead in his own book?” The only thing missing was an Elseworlds logo.
I can’t say the story was that satisfying, mainly because the answer to this book should be that nobody will ever be able to fill Batman’s shoes.
Sure, we have successful tales of someone else donning the cape and cowl; this story may even register as such with some of my fellow internet hacks. I will say I loved the futuristic tale of Terry McGinnis swiping a bat suit and dishing out a different brand of justice in Batman Beyond. The cartoon even featured Barbara Gordon as police commissioner (minus the wheelchair). The main difference though was that Bruce was still alive and crotchety as ever.
We are given that bleak future without the Gotham socialite in this issue, where his recently written-in son Damian “retires” his father and takes the costume for his own using. This issue is paced well and drawn better than most of Kubert’s recent issues since the superstar team took over. Andy’s use of panel layout, frames and white space (black actually in this issue, but you get the idea) are what make him a sought after artist. His pencils are pretty, but being a great comic artist is about more than being able to draw a set of boobs or biceps. In that regard, I will miss seeing him on this book when Tony Daniel takes over.
The main turnoff to the story aside, Morrison did seem to take the story to a bit of an extreme. Then again, that’s the writer’s appeal, isn’t it? Damian putting his father in the ground, then making a deal with the devil to protect Gotham is certainly one way to move this story along. Maybe the years hardened the son of Bruce into thinking that was the only way Gotham could be safe. The boy certainly seemed to hold a great amount of respect for his father when he was last seen in a Batman comic.
There are many extreme subtleties (there’s an oxymoron for you) that I could nitpick to death. No son of Wayne would run through Gotham in a haphazard way as is depicted here. Sure, you can put him in front of the computer screen all you want to solve the riddle, but there was seemingly no method to this monster’s madness. Damian certainly didn’t see any need for stealth either, rushing headlong into a swarm of bad guys. It’s easy to see his M.O. as scary, but not Bruce’s kind of scary. Think about Nicholson’s face in The Shining, and you will see the same demons floating around his brain as young Mr. Wayne.
In the end, however, the killing is what most turned me off to this book. You can leave all the soul-selling, psychotic behavior and I would still read a book with this guy in it for a little while. Not killing is just as much a part of Batman as Bruce’s face underneath is.
Joe Quesada said in a panel last week at SDCC that his favorite DC character is Batman, and Bruce Wayne is way more important to the character than the rival publisher realizes. For once, I agree with the blowhard. Batman is not a legacy character for DC. You may have all the Robins you please, but there is only one Batman for my money.
Sure, Batman is a symbol that strikes fear into the hearts of criminals of Gotham. It could be conceivable then that if Wayne ever kicked the bat-bucket there would still be a Batman. To quote Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend.” I can’t say this book was a bad read, because it’s got only one real downside.
Of course, it’s a pretty big downside.
While reading Grant Morrison’s current run on Batman, especially this issue, I can’t help but remember one of my favorite moments from Batman Begins. That moment is when Ducard reveals to Bruce Wayne that he is not the person who Bruce thinks he is. The line of dialogue that Ducard/Ra’s Al Ghul speaks resonates to me as one of the most defining descriptions of Ra’s Al Ghul in history: “But is Ra’s Al Ghul immortal? Are his methods supernatural?” While Ra’s has yet to make any appearance in Morrison’s run and is still considered to be dead, the influence of both him and his daughter Talia is present when considering Batman’s son, Damien. That quote may not have much relevance when considering this issue, but for some reason while reading it, that moment lurked in the back of my mind.
Grant Morrison’s run on Batman has had its ups and downs and, of course, its delays. Morrison has managed to keep my attention with the son of the bat and the grandson of the demon, Damien. In this issue, Morrison gives readers a vision of the future, a future that could very well occur if Grant Morrison continued writing Batman forever, a future where Damien has become Batman and will face the Anti-Christ. I usually don’t like it when Batman gets involved with religion and the supernatural without the Justice League, but this wild and strange creative run has been enough for me to put my personal preferences aside.
This issue takes place in the future. Bruce Wayne is dead, Barbara Gordon is commissioner, and Damien is the Batman. But Damien isn’t the same type of psychopath he represents as a young boy vying for his father’s attention. Reading Damien’s rants (as well as the entire issue) I couldn’t help but feel I was reading what All-Star Batman should have been. This is not your typical PG-13 Batman issue. This issue is intensely violent, there’s a brief shot of nudity and Damien has become a type of Angel of Death mixed with John Constantine dressed as Batman. Two of the biggest questions that come to mind as I read through this issue are: “What drugs were Grant Morrison on when he wrote this and where can I get them?”
I mean really, this issue is different than any type of Batman story seen before and Damien has definitely secured himself a place if not on one of the 52 Earths, then in the Vertigo Universe. There’s really no explanation of what has transpired in this wild look into the future. All that is known is that it involves Damien, the three Batmen haunting Bruce Wayne and the Devil. Damien may be Batman in this future, but he is an amalgamation of a man who is trying to live up to his father’s name while throwing those values out the window for a more League of Assassins approach. He kills without thinking twice, and when he kills he does so in an extremely gruesome and violent manner. Seriously, I think only Grant Morrison would go this far.
The issue is amazing, I can’t lie. The story is a bit strange, but it is compelling and adds not only to Damien ’s character but gives a look into the future of Batman and Gotham City that has previously been unseen. Many fans like to hold Batman Beyond as being the true future of Batman, but Grant Morrison provides another look. Damien’s battle with the Anti-Christ is intense, violent and very well-crafted. As revealed at Comic-Con ‘07, this future can be avoided, but it will be interesting to see the deal that Damien made with Lucifer.
I can’t really comment on the delays because there’s no telling whose fault it is. Morrison’s, Kubert’s or the editorial team. Either way this issue comes together as a whole with Andy Kubert’s artwork. I am a fan of Andy Kubert, and he does a great job capturing the chaos and madness that is Damien’s future. Andy’s style is a bit more clear and crisp than his brother Adam’s, and even in the clean artwork he manages to captures Morrison’s chaos.
This is two issues in a row of Morrison’s arc that I have enjoyed. Last issue was a great and traditional (if anything Morrison writes can be considered as such) Batman story that I loved. In this issue Morrison provides a glimpse into a future that is as frightening as it is insane. While this issue isn’t exactly for the kids, it is what Grant Morrison is all about.
Picking up some of the elements left dangling at the end of Grant Morrison’s first Batman arc, this 666th issue of the title sees the writer return to the character of Damien, the apparent offspring of Bruce Wayne and Talia, recasting him as the Batman of a grim future in which Bruce Wayne is dead and Barbara Gordon is police commissioner. Couching established Batman conventions in different storytelling terms, the issue encourages readers to use the new context as an opportunity to examine the key elements of a Batman story from a new point of view - and although some might feel that this is little more than a traditional Batman yarn in new clothing, it actually succeeds in telling a far more satisfying story than most of Morrison’s run on the book so far, on several levels.
Many people will probably compare this issue to the Batman Beyond series, and although the premise is superficially similar (the son of Bruce Wayne takes on the mantle of the Bat in a grim, dystopian future), I was reminded far more strongly of Morrison’s own closing arc of his long stint on Marvel’s New X-Men. As with that title’s “Here Comes Tomorrow” arc, this issue sees Morrison utilise elements of Batman continuity in novel and unusual ways, shuffling characters and concepts in such a way as to make us examine them from a different perspective, but keeping things recognisable enough that we can draw parallels between this possible future and the present-day events of Morrison’s current Batman run. Unlike the flash-forward of New X-Men, however, this story is taking place mid-way through Morrison’s tenure on the book rather than as a final bookend, and as such, the writer is able to drop tantalising hints about the possible future direction of his overarching Batman story and the plans he may have for the characters. Major potential plot points are foreshadowed (references to the Bruce Wayne of the past being plagued by “insane replacement Batmen” cast the stories of Morrison’s earlier issues in a new light, and the mention of Dick Grayson in the same breath as Damien’s father hints at the idea that he could don the cape and cowl once Bruce’s legacy is passed on), but we’ll have to wait and see how Morrison’s run plays out before we know just how much of this information is significant and how much is mere whimsy.
But what of Batman #666 as a story in its own right? Although the issue is relatively self-contained (including a slick, concise two-page sequence which recaps Damien’s origin as Batman), it plays out like the climax of longer story concerning Damien’s quest to find Bruce Wayne’s killer, effectively creating the sense that we’re reading the final issue of a storyline that has in reality never seen print. Morrison’s knack for introducing imaginative and provocative ideas as though they’re simple, unimportant details means that the issue never seems too pleased with itself for the many novel additions and modifications it makes to the Bat-mythos, preferring to plough ahead with a straightforward story which is dressed with subtler references to more engaging concepts. Yes, there’s the occasional funny one-liner (such as an amusing reference to John Lennon’s Imagine) or “cool” moment (Damien’s long-term plan to tip the odds of battle in his favour by rigging several buildings in Gotham city with explosives), but in truth, it’s the minor details which prove more compelling than the (intentionally?) fairly derivative core plot. The repeated motif that the end of one story is often only the beginning of another acts as a possible comment on the never-ending nature of serial storytelling, and the recurring religious imagery - both satanic and Christian - contrasts Damien’s apparent status as the “Son of the Demon” with a possible opposing role as redeemer and saviour, playing him off against a similarly conflicted villain (who believes himself to be “saving” Gotham, despite his own demonic aspirations). Anyone wishing to understand Morrison’s thoughts here should certainly acquaint himself with W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming (which is referenced in the issue), as it reveals much about the writer’s take on Damien and his possible function in future stories, and sheds light on some of this issue’s most significant themes.
Andy Kubert’s art is fairly strong, seemingly taking a few more visual cues than usual from the likes of Frank Miller and Jim Lee in its depiction of Batman, but being no less effective for it. Kubert’s detailed, moody style seems like a good fit for the gothic, apocalyptic tone of the issue, and from the hellish cover to the standout image of the understated opening splash page, all the way through to the bloody and desperate final battle between hero and villain, Kubert tells the story well. His incorporation of the repeated religious imagery either shows that he has a strong understanding of the themes of Morrison’s story or that he’s received very specific instructions from his writer, but either way, the effect works. Important story beats such as the villain (a self-proclaimed “anti-Christ”) rising into a crucified pose and walking on water during the issue’s climax are conveyed very clearly, ensuring that the conflict of ideas is carried across visually as well as through the text. Even the issue’s colourist seems keen to reinforce the murky conflict of good and evil through the visuals, with subtle effects such as the change in colour of Batman’s cowl from blue to near-black after the moment at which Damien breaks his vow to not kill his enemy showing a real consideration for the deeper meaning of Morrison’s story.
Ultimately, despite the appearance of being a simple stand-alone “What If?” story in celebration of the satanic anniversary of Batman's publication, this is a more complex issue than it appears, and one which may well reveal deeper secrets as Morrison’s run on the book progresses. Whilst it’s not a perfect comic, failing to feel quite as accomplished a superhero story on a surface level as it is on a more complex level of meaning (the devil is in the detail, so to speak), it nonetheless makes for an enjoyable and very thought-provoking read once you start to examine its hidden layers more closely. Thankfully, it also hints at developments which could tie this current run of Batman together more cohesively - even if readers are still going to have to put quite a lot of faith in Morrison’s proven track record as a writer, and trust for a while longer that the whole will turn out to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Four and a half bullets
If this slugfest follows form, my review will be the last on the page. Such is the fate of having a last name that begins with “Y.” As the final reviewer (who hasn’t discussed Batman #666 with anyone), I’m going to try to use my psychic abilities and predict that at least a few of the other reviews expressed frustration at the seeming inconclusiveness of what several readers believe is a single-story, stand-alone issue.
If that’s indeed what some of my fellow reviewers have expressed, then I’m here to say that the problem with such a view is that #666 is not at all a stand-alone issue. Despite it being “out of contiguity” and set in the “not too distant future” where it tells the story of one or two of Batman’s heirs, this issue is actually a continuation of what Grant Morrison has been doing on this title since his first issue (#655)—and the end of this issue factors into his scheme.
First, I found this issue to be well written—which means I thought the dialog was well handled, the point of view of the story was consistent and logical, the characterizations didn’t go against my expectations, et cetera. I enjoyed Adam Kubert’s illustrations, too.
Additionally, I wasn’t bothered by the intentional confusion regarding which of the two Batmen was Damian and which was either Jason Todd or Tim Drake (I’m guessing one of the two Batmen was either the second or third Robin). As I mentioned earlier, I also didn’t mind the inconclusive ending in which one of the Batmen defeated the other in front of a wheelchair-bound Commissioner Barbara Gordon.
In preparation for this review, I decided to re-read the entirety of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman—with the exception of #663 (which was also an out of contiguity story). I learned that Morrison’s run is a well-written puzzle that is starting to come together piece by piece.
This latest issue reveals a few more pieces of that puzzle, but before I get to them, here are a few of the pieces that I’ve noticed (in chronological order of their appearance in Morrison’s run):
- The phrase “Zur En Arrh” appears as graffiti in issue #655 (and again in #664, and perhaps in other issues). For those who don’t know, Zur-En-Arrh is the name of the planet on which lives an extraterrestrial Batman who appeared in Batman #113 in 1958.
- A rogue Gotham City police officer shot The Joker in the face in #655 (the ramifications of which were explored in the poorly written issue—#663).
- When Bruce Wayne arrives in London near the end of #655, he asks Alfred, “I don’t suppose the Earl of Wordenshire returned my call?” The Earl of Wordenshire is the identity of the superhero known as The Knight (also known as “The Batman of England”) who first appeared in Batman #62 in 1950.
The Knight was a member of a group known as the “Batmen of All Nations” who were also known as the “Club of Heroes” (Detective #215 in 1954). Batman will meet up with this Club of Heroes next issue in #667—where we might learn why the Earl of Wordenshire wouldn’t return Bruce Wayne’s call in #655.
- Damian Wayne is revealed to be the son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul (#655-58)—making his grandfather Ra’s al Ghul (whose surname roughly translates from an Arabic language form as “Ghoul of God”—or “Demon’s Head,” as Denny O’Neil claimed when he created the character almost 35 years ago).
- In what I originally considered a poorly handled part of his run, Morrison bases the motivations for Talia’s actions in her desire to be coupled with Batman as a world-dominating family (#655-58). However, after re-reading the earlier issues, I no longer believe #658 deserves the two bullets I gave it in an earlier slugfest. I would now give three bullets to #658.
Yes, Talia’s motivations are straight out of pulp serials from the 1930s to the 1950s—but I now understand that the pulp serial allusion is part of what Morrison is doing with the series in general, and with Talia’s overly melodramatic motivations in particular. (Keep in mind that Ra’s al Ghul is essentially an analogue of Sax Rohmer’s Doctor Fu Manchu).
- In issues #664-65, a second Gotham City police officer is shown in a Batman costume. This second rogue cop has taken Prof. Hugo Strange’s monster formula as well as Bane’s venom formula, so he is more formidable than the first rogue cop in the Batman costume who shot The Joker in the face.
- Also in issues #664-65, Batman mentions “The Black Casebook,” which Alfred has “recently began transferring . . . to memory stick.” Bruce notes that The Black Casebook contains transcriptions of his encounters with “Vampires, flying saucers, time travel. All the things we’d seen that didn’t fit and couldn’t be explained. . . .”
In other words, the contents of The Black Casebook would be comprised almost exclusively of stories that DC published in the 1950s in Batman and Detective Comics—including Batman’s journey to Zur-En-Arrh in Batman #113, and his trip to 3054 CE where he met the Batman of the 31st century, Brane Taylor.
- In #665, Bruce Wayne has a dream while sleeping during his recovery after barely surviving his fight with the second rogue cop. In the dream, Damian says, “Father. The third ghost is the worst of them all.”
Behind Damian stand three figures dressed in Batman costumes—the rogue cop who shot The Joker, the rogue cop who used the formulas of Hugo Strange and Bane, and a shadowy third figure who is dressed in a costume that resembles either the original Batman costume designed by Bob Kane in 1939 or the Halloween costume that Bruce’s father wore in Detective #235 in 1956.
In relating this dream to Alfred, Bruce explains that the dream is reminiscent of a case contained in The Black Casebook:
“There was one night I met three versions of myself. A killer Batman with a gun, a bestial Batman on strength-enhancing drugs, and. . . . The third sold his soul to the devil and destroyed Gotham. I was sure they were hallucinations. Cautionary tales, visions of what I might have become in other lives.”I don’t know if this is a reference to an actual Batman story from the 1950s like the other odd elements in Morrison’s run have been (it actually sounds more like something that either Morrison invented or that he found in an issue from the 1940s), but it seems to tie in with the story in issue #666—despite Batman telling Commissioner Gordon near the end of #665 that he can sense that there’s a third rogue cop who dresses in a Batman costume.
- Finally, the pieces of the puzzle from #666:
- A young Damian is shown crouched angrily over the lifeless body of Batman in an alley in a scene reminiscent of a young Bruce Wayne swearing to fight crime over the bodies of his parents in Finger Alley.
We are told by the narrative for this panel that Damian became “driven by guilt and haunted by his legacy” and that he now “walks a lonely life between good and evil . . . as Batman!”—implying that the Batman who dresses in a trench coat is Damian (pages three/four spread, panels six and seven).
- However, we are never actually told that the shaved-headed man who wears the Batman costume with the trench coat is Damian.*
- The shaved-headed Batman in the trench coat calls the Bruce Wayne-Batman his “father”—but so does the other character who dresses in a Batman costume in this issue. However, the other Batman not only calls Bruce-Batman his father, he also says that he has “another father. Our father in hell.”
- Additionally, the second Batman commits five murders, the placement of which on a map of Gotham City forms the five points of a pentagram—also known as a demonic goat’s head.
- Finally, the second Batman also says that Bruce-Batman “failed to kill me when he had his chance” (which may be a reference to Morrison’s first arc in #655-58), and that “the old man, the Dragon . . . anointed me as his messiah” (which sounds like it might be a reference to Ra’s al Ghul, who is returning to life in a Morrison-scripted arc that begins in Batman #670).
It’s my guess that the “third ghost” that Bruce dreamt of Damian warning him about in issue #665 is actually Damian rather than a third rogue cop. However, even if the third ghost does turn out to be a third rogue cop, I’m betting that he has a connection to the al-Ghul family in some way.
Due to this series being in current DC continuity, Morrison can’t incorporate the Golden Age and Silver Age elements as openly as he can in his All-Star Superman series, but I’m convinced that we are seeing the slow weaving of those Golden and Silver elements into this series in a way that will become more evident as his run progresses.
Even the apparent problems of Talia’s melodramatic pulp fiction motivations and the lapse in logic of Kirk Langstrom seeming to need to advise the British Navy to use torpedoes on Talia’s submarine begin to make sense when we realize that Morrison is paying homage to the weird Batman stories of the 1950s (and to the character’s pulp fiction roots in general).
I’m anxiously looking forward to next month's “Batmen of All Nations” story.
*Oddly, the shaved-headed Batman in the trench coat looks a bit like Grant Morrison and he has a cat named Alfred. In other words, it looks like Morrison (who is known to love cats) made himself Batman in this story. Of course, in Animal Man, Morrison appeared as himself as the teller of tales of Animal Man’s life; in Seven Soldiers, the tailors who tell the tales of the universe looked like Morrison; and now he seems to be the Batman of the not-too-distant future.
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