“The Island of Mister Mayhew”
Writer: Grant Morrison
Illustrator: J.H. Williams III
Publisher: DC Comics
Over a year ago, just as his run on Batman was beginning, Morrison said in an interview that he planned on bringing back “The Batmen of All Nations.” With this issue, he delivers on that promise by bringing together various International characters from the 1950s who were modeled after Batman.
In addition to Batman and Robin, the story involves these Golden Age counterparts:
- The Knight (the so-called “Batman of England” is actually the second Knight after this former “Squire” took over the role from his father)
- The Squire (the second Knight’s “Robin” who is also his young girlfriend, apparently)
- The Gaucho (the “Batman of Argentina”)
- The Musketeer (the “Batman of France”)
- The Legionary (the “Batman of Italy”)
- The Ranger (the “Batman of Australia” who now wants to be called “Dark Ranger”)
- Chief Man-of-Bats (the “Native American Batman”)
- Little Raven (the Native American “Robin” who now wants to be called “Red Raven”)
- Wingman (a “Northern European” man whom Batman trained during a time when Robin, Dick Grayson, was sidelined with a broken leg).
The latter club was brought together by John Mayhew, a “well-known philanthropist” who sought to set up a team of superheroes in that time between the Justice Society of the 1940s and the Justice League of the 1960s.
In the latest story, Morrison patterned Mayhew’s life after the early life of Howard Hughes, which helps to maintain Morrison’s run on Batman as an homage to the Golden Age of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s—which I alluded to in my review of Batman #666.
The appearance of these characters probably has some readers bemoaning Morrison’s use of 1950s concepts in a 21st-century “in continuity” Batman story. (Though the second Knight and his Squire appeared in JLA #26, which was also written by Morrison).
Readers who grew up with the constipated Batman of the 1990s might be willing to allow Morrison to get away with using concepts from the 1950s in All-Star Superman since it has its own separate continuity. However, they won’t be lenient here because the in-continuity Batman of the 21st century is too ultra-serious to lower himself to hanging out with a “Club of Heroes.”
Of course, the “Batmen of All Nations” is not the first 1950s concept to show up in Morrison’s run. There have been allusions to others—such as the “Zur En Arrh” graffiti in issues #655 and #664 (an allusion to the planet Batman visited in 1958 in Batman #113). Yet, Morrison seems intent in this series on dealing with “weird” 1950s concepts in a way that differs from how he handles them in All-Star Superman.
In the latter series, the 1950s concepts become merely a part of the science fiction trappings of the Superman mythos. However, as a figure of the night who can often be found near grimy rooftops and back alleys, Batman’s “science fiction” elements have generally not gone beyond the use of actual state-of-the-art technology—from his autogyro in the 1940s to his suborbital spaceplane that appeared less than a year ago in issue #658.
Of course, there have been some exceptions. Here are the three main groups of outlandish science fiction elements that have appeared in Batman’s history:
- The use of formulas by mad scientists—such as Hugo Strange, Professor Milo, Kirk Langstrom, et cetera—that often transform people into savage creatures with whom Batman has to fight.
- The stories of the 1950s and early 1960s in which Batman often traveled in time with the aid of Professor Carter Nichols or visited alien worlds through various means of interstellar transportation.
- The time-hopping and extraterrestrial adventures of the Justice League on which Batman has tagged along.
In fact, I imagine most of the readers who might object to the use of 1950s concepts in Morrison’s in-continuity Batman don’t have a problem with the current story running in Mark Waid’s Brave and the Bold—a story in which Batman is caught up in an extraterrestrial plot that involves the “Book of Destiny,” and which has taken him to 31st-century Metropolis.
In that story, the time traveling and planet hopping is accepted as Batman tries to help recover a mystical book that contains the complete life story of every creature in the universe and throughout all of time. However, some readers who accept that premise are likely to have a problem with Batman going to an island to meet with International colleagues who were supposedly inspired by his heroic example.
This reaction strikes me as a good example of George Orwell’s notion of “doublethink”: “to simultaneously hold two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.”
Readers who object to his use of concepts from the 1950s should stop to consider how Morrison is using them in the current continuity. He’s actually playing with those “weird” concepts in a manner that is much more “dark and serious” (as befits the essence of Batman) than the way similar concepts are being handled in the current Brave and the Bold arc (which I have nothing against; I’m enjoying it as well).
For instance, in issues #664-65, Morrison has Batman note that his “Black Casebook” contains transcriptions of the encounters he and Robin (Dick Grayson) had with “Vampires, flying saucers, time travel. All the things we’d seen that didn’t fit and couldn’t be explained.” Alfred then states his opinion that those cases probably involved Batman having hallucinations brought on by Dr. Jonathan Crane’s fear gas.
In other words, Batman can not easily accept the outlandish stories from his history, so he places them into his own “X-Files.” He may not agree with Alfred’s explanation, but neither is he accepting those cases as “normal”—which, actually seems odd since this is apparently the same Batman who doesn’t seem to have a problem accepting:
- An extraterrestrial infant who was raised by farmers in Kansas,
- An extraterrestrial policeman who wears leather straps and large wings,
- A Corps of galactic policemen who patrol interstellar space with rings that emit green energy,
- An Amazonian princess whose tribe is straight from Greek mythology,
- The existence of ghosts who roam the world of the living in search of justice (both Deadman and The Spectre),
- The physical resurrection of people who were dead (Ra’s al Ghul, Oliver Queen, Hal Jordan, and probably others I can’t recall at the moment),
- The appearance of people from the 31st century,
- Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
At the time, Deadshot had not appeared in a Batman story since 1950, and Hugo Strange had not appeared since 1940. As I hinted earlier, Hugo Strange was a “mad scientist” who created 15-foot “monsters” by injecting men with a serum that “speeds up the growth glands.” How weird is that? And he continues to do it from time to time!
I remember reading those stories as a kid in the late 70s, and I loved the idea of Englehart bringing Golden Age characters back into Batman’s current continuity. A few years earlier (when I was an even younger kid), I enjoyed reading Len Wein’s “Moon of the Wolf” in Batman #255—a story in which Professor Milo turned a world-renowned athlete into a werewolf as a way of curing his chronic migraine headaches.
What I didn’t know at the time is that Prof. Milo originally appeared in Detective Comics #247 in 1957—making him yet another wacky 1950s character who had been brought back into Batman’s contemporary continuity in a story that has since become regarded as a classic (illustrated by Neal Adams).
Now, of course, Deadshot and Hugo Strange (and even Prof. Milo) have become staples in current DC continuity. Despite their Golden Age origins, most contemporary readers don’t seem to object to these characters.
So why does Morrison experience a backlash of negative criticism when he writes a story that does nothing more than what Englehart and Wein did before him in what are now considered classic Batman stories that are readily accepted into the contemporary canon?
Batman #667 is a well-written issue—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. The story is a wonderful homage to the Batman stories of the 1950s as well as to the mystery stories of the 1930s.
With its setting and situation, Morrison’s tale is a tribute to Agatha Christie’s detective fiction. The basic premise is taken from Christie’s And Then There Were None (which is the American title for that novel; the two titles that have been used in England are considered too politically incorrect to mention, particularly the original 1939 title).
In Christie’s novel, ten people who each have a dark secret are trapped on an island where they become murder targets by an unknown person. They are killed in accordance with an old nursery rhyme called “Ten Little Indians” (“Ten little Indians going out to dine/One went and choked himself, then there were nine”).
In Morrison’s story, eleven people who each have a secret identity are trapped on an island where they become murder targets by an unknown man. However, rather than dying in accordance to a nursery rhyme, it looks like the members of the Club of Heroes are to be killed in a manner that is somehow related to their identity.
For instance, in the first murder, the Legionary is brutally killed in the manner that Julius Caesar was assassinated—stabbed seventeen times. As he dies, the Legionary doesn’t say, “Et tu, Brute?” (as Caesar says to Brutus in William Shakespeare’s play). Instead, a note with the words “Et tu, Morte?” falls to the ground. Et tu, Morte? is Latin for “Even you, Death?”
I should also mention that a gruesome scene a few pages earlier in the story clearly indicated that John Mayhew, the Howard Hughes analog who owns the island, can’t possibly be the murderer. We learn in that scene that Mayhew was the first to die at the killer’s hand (at the beginning of the story), before the heroes ever arrived on the island.
Additionally, a painting hangs in the background in the room where the Legionary is killed (and it appears behind the killer in the gruesome scene that proves Mayhew is dead). The moment I saw it, I knew the painting was in the style of the painters from the Low Countries during the 15th and 16th centuries—Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, Pieter Huys, et cetera—but I couldn’t place it.
Fortunately, Timothy Callahan, the author of Grant Morrison: The Early Years was able to identify it for me. It’s The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder—a painting that shows people of various social classes, from peasants and soldiers to aristocrats and clergy, all dying indiscriminately.
Obviously, the theme of the painting factors into the theme of Morrison’s story—that Death comes for everyone, from wealthy philanthropist John Mayhew to dark night superheroes from around the world. Additionally, I think it’s significant that Bruegel is from the Low Countries, the Netherlands.
Literally, “Netherlands” simply means “Low Lands” or the “Low Countries,” but it could also be considered an allusion to Hell, the nether region that is also a “low land.” Furthermore, the Netherlands are in Northern Europe, which indicates to me who the murderer probably is—and it also suggests another possibility for the “Demonic Batman” who died at the end of issue #666. I guess we’ll find out in the next few issues whether I’m right.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed this issue and see it as providing more pieces to Morrison’s grand scheme for this series. I only have two complaints with this issue, and they’re both fairly minor.
First, Morrison didn’t devote enough of the story to identifying the Batmen of All Nations for new readers. I was fortunate enough to have read some of the original stories in which these characters appeared when they were reprinted as backup features in the 1970s. However, I imagine most readers may have felt somewhat lost because they didn’t know anything about these “International Batmen.”
Second, I’m disappointed that we didn’t learn why the Knight didn’t return Batman’s phone call back in issue #655. After arriving in London, Bruce Wayne said to Alfred, “I don’t suppose the Earl of Wordenshire returned my call?”
The Earl of Wordenshire is the secret identity of the Knight, and I still want to know why he wouldn’t return Wayne’s call. Oh well, maybe we’ll find out next issue.
What did you think of this book?
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