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Sunday Slugfest: Batman #678

Posted: Sunday, July 6, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Grant Morrison
Tony Daniel (p), Sandu Florea (i), Guy Major (colours)
DC Comics
"Batman R.I.P.: Zur En Arrh"

Erik Norris: 5 Bullets
Kevin Powers: 3 Bullets
Dave Wallace: 4 Bullets
Thom Young: 4 Bullets




Erik Norris: 5 Bullets

The Bat-Radia is turned on. The electronic molecules are streaming forth and have blown my freakin' mind. It seems to happen a lot with Grant Morrison comics, but here in Batman he is doing some mind-bending work on a character that doesn't usually cater to his zany writing habits, and I'm loving every second of it. It takes a special talent to make me finish an issue and rush to a computer, hit up Google, and research as much as I can to enhance my experience with the comic. Batman #678 does just that. This also isn't a fault at all, as it makes reading this book all the more engrossing for readers as they frantically try to piece everything together before Morrison shows his hand. Morrison has never been a writer who spoon feeds his readers, instead opting for them to join him on his magical mystery tour to the bitter end as he laughs his ass off maniacally at the absurdities of our outlandish hypotheses.

This is what I love best about Morrison's work on Batman. He doesn't treat continuity as a nuisance, instead harnessing it and spinning it to make every story fit into one single pretty package. This is both rewarding for long time readers, as well as new readers, because Morrison never makes the old stories essential to the understanding of his work. They just make a lot of moments through this story seem like easter eggs for the "in crowd." However, if you haven't read these older tales, the current story will still make sense on its own two feet. It's this delicate balancing act that makes issues such as this so much fun to read which brings me back around to my opening paragraph about rushing to a computer to do a little research.

Morrison draws heavily from Batman #113, "Superman of Planet X" where Batman meets another Batman from planet Zur-En-Arrh, and because of the alien planet's atmosphere our Batman is blessed with powers comparable to Superman. The two Batmen thwart their adversaries, and the Batman of planet Zur-En-Arrh gives our Batman a device, the Bat-Radia, as a souvenir to remember him by. Now is this story vital to your understanding of the current issue of Batman, issue #678? Absolutely not. This is because Morrison isn't referring back to this story, he is simply paying homage to it. His whole run on Batman is an attempt to take the character's sixty plus year history and condense it into a fifteen year time period. So with this specific example, he has taken Batman #113, "Superman of Planet X," and spun it to be the mind playing tricks on a doped up, delusional Bruce Wayne as he wanders the streets of Gotham homeless. I love Grant Morrison for these sort of things; honoring past continuity instead of rewriting it to fit his story. DC should also write him a love letter because I'm sure his "R.I.P." arc will help sell a boat load of the Batman: Greatest Stories Ever Told trades which contain a bunch of the stories Morrison has been alluding to.

Now following Grant Morrison every step of the way is his artist, Tony Daniel. When Daniel first started on Batman it showed that he was still feeling around for his comfort zone on the title. Panels were hard to decipher due to poor angle placement, and some art just looked sloppy. However, for "R.I.P.," Daniel's art has stepped up considerably and complements Morrison's scripts perfectly. Even with Morrison's sporadic storytelling techniques, Tony Daniel makes it easy for readers to follow the action from one scene to the next and makes it damn pretty to boot. He even nails the emotional sequences in this particular issue between a broken Bruce and Honor "Kind Face" Jackson which would have had me choked up if I wasn't such a man.

Overall, I think part three of "R.I.P" is the best issue of the story yet. The Club of Villains has made their move and swiftly crushed the Bat family. All that remains is a resourceless Tim, who I'm genuinely worried for. And even though Bruce has no home or money, is hopped up on multiple drugs, and experiences the delusion that he is the Batman of planet Zur-En-Arrh, I still want to see him slip even more. Grant Morrison has said this story will be the furthest the character has ever fallen, but I'm curious to see just how much further Morrison can take him. Next month can't come fast enough.




Kevin Powers: 3 Bullets

I'm not exactly sure where to begin with this review. To me, this isn't the most well-written or ground-breaking issue or storyline I've ever read. Morrison has a few interesting ideas at work here, but for the most part I think the story ultimately falls short. It's most certainly a puzzle, and a fairly complicated one at that, true to Morrison's often eccentric style of writing. However, this is also a mystery that I feel is hampered by a few details.

For the most part, I think the mystery surrounding the true leader of the Black Glove is the real highlight of this storyline. For me, the "Club of Villains," apparently led by Dr. Hurt, doesn't seem like a real viable threat. I don't feel a sense of urgency behind these characters or Dr. Hurt. In fact, the last great Batman mystery was the Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee "Hush" storyline that became predictable and was met with mixed critical review. However, "Hush" was indeed a fantastic mystery as readers were kept guessing the entire way through. Was Hush really Tommy Elliot or was he Jason Todd? Sure, when the big reveal of Harold being the mastermind was a bit of a stretch, the storyline ended a little flat, but the guessing game was the most fun. In terms of "R.I.P.," it's not clear whether or not Dr. Hurt is the true ringleader or if he is even the Black Glove. However, I don't feel the same sense of wonder while reading this story that I did for "Hush." Sure, I can't wait to see the Joker's role in this storyline and how it may all play out, but it doesn't feel totally epic to me.

If you haven't read Batman #113 from February 1958, you may not have as clear an understanding of the whole "Zur En Arrh" idea. I’m sure Thom Young has a novel explaining it all at the end of the slugfest, but for some readers this can make the story extraordinarily inaccessible. Yes, on the surface the premise is fairly simple, a group of villains has driven Bruce Wayne insane and left him out on the street to systematically destroy everything he's built. But all the small details and Silver Age references are what may leave some readers out in the cold. In Batman #113, Batman was transported from Earth to assist the Batman of Zur En Arrh, who was essentially Superman in a Batman outfit. So when this issue concludes, there are two questions that remain: has the Batman of Zur En Arrh returned with the multiverse and Morrison can cop out by saying the real Batman was transported away? Or does Bruce Wayne make himself a rainbow colored costume and is so drugged up that he's going to think he's Superman? I know Bruce did these isolation experiments, and that is the root of the story, but do we really need another story telling us that Batman needs to have Robin and his supporting cast to be totally effective? Sure, I can see Tim becoming Batman to fake out the Black Glove, elevating the Batman to become an ideal rather than one person, but I don't know if that is absolutely necessary given the "Knightfall" and "Prodigal" storylines.

And please, do not get me started on the Bat-Mite. Mxyzptlk I can deal with, but Bat-Mite, whether or not he is real, drives me insane. I feel like I need weapons grade Crystal Meth when the Bat-Mite appears.

And I also have a problem with two small plot points of this issue. Believe it or not, I don't mind the whole Honor Jackson idea. I thought it was very well done, and the idea that Bruce may have been talking to a ghost is very interesting. Perhaps Honor Jackson is really the Bat-Mite or even the Batman of Zur En Arrh. However, if Honor Jackson is dead and only Bruce sees him, how is it that other people are interacting with him?

Anyways, the problems I have are first, does no one really recognize Bruce Wayne or realize he is missing? I think that DC has strayed too far from the ideas that Bruce Wayne has a life outside of Batman. There is a façade that hasn't been highlighted in recent years, and I think that it ultimately takes away from the Bat-mythos a little bit. My second problem with this issue is that after Robin reaches "Checkpoint 5" and Nightwing doesn't show up, with Batman missing, that's when Tim should have called Superman, Wonder Woman or Hal Jordan. I understand that Morrison would like to keep this story centered on the Bat-family, but both Marvel and DC have conditioned readers over the past twenty years to perceive all major events crossing over with other characters in some fashion. Even today, the "Sinestro Corps" story arc crossed over into the DC Universe while staying focused on the Green Lanterns. Captain America stays focused on Cap but Iron Man plays a prominent role in the title. With the unending "big events" and the crossover nature of comics these days, I think the JLA would be aware that Bruce Wayne was missing. Robin is smart enough to call in Superman or Green Lantern and should have done so immediately when Bruce went missing. On one hand, I understand a suspension of disbelief may be necessary, but I can stretch it only so far given the dynamics and make-up of the DCU.

From a marketing standpoint, I'm really surprised that DC would be hyping up this series at the same time the film is being released. I know that statement will probably open up some more arguments, but The Dark Knight is a crime drama. It places Batman in his true realm. If someone is inspired to read Batman comics after seeing the film, they'll be getting something completely different. I've always been inclined to having Batman avoid the supernatural whenever possible, and the inclusion of the Bat-Mite, whether real or drug-induced, makes me want to shoot myself. I do not think for a second that DC's Power That Be are killing Batman, nor do I think Bruce Wayne will stop being Batman, but this type of storyline isn't going to reel in new readers who want to try the Batman comic books after seeing The Dark Knight, especially since it's nearly impossible to jump into this storyline without reading all of Morrison's run.

Tony Daniel's artwork is phenomenal. Whether you love or hate what Morrison is doing, Daniel's artwork is stunning. He draws everything with such intricate detail and in such a way that he more or less highlights the most important parts of each panel. There's a higher level of consistency in Daniel's work, and I love the way he draws the action scenes. Everything feels bigger during the fight scenes, especially when Bruce takes down a group of thugs. That "bigger" feel leaves me wondering if those are truly the important moments to this issue.

Overall, I think this story is okay. I think there are too many flaws to be overlooked, and I think the "shock value" of Morrison’s eccentric story may cause some people to miss them. I think as a whole this story may have much more of a lasting impression; however, I do not feel that it is epic nor has the real clout to change the Batman mythos forever. I am definitely excited for the Joker's involvement in this storyline to see how he plays into the Club of Villains or the Black Glove. However, I don't feel a great sense of mystery or threat from the Club or even the Black Glove, and I think that this is where the story falls flat for me.




Dave Wallace: 4 Bullets

The third issue of "Batman R.I.P." takes yet another unexpected turn as, following the events of last issue's cliffhanger, Bruce Wayne finds himself wandering the streets of Gotham with amnesia, having been drugged and beaten by the members of the Black Glove society. The issue proceeds to reduce our hero to his lowest ebb, before building him back up again to face his demons, in the finest superhero tradition. However, with Grant Morrison at the helm, it's a far from traditional or predictable story.

Although the overall plot of "Batman R.I.P." doesn't take a huge leap forwards this issue, I still found it to be a fairly satisfying read, as it displays Bruce Wayne's sheer strength of character in the face of considerable challenges (including the mental breakdown that has been apparent for some issues now). Although some scenes are quite harrowing and disturbing, Morrison's message seems to be essentially positive, as he suggests that no matter how bad things get, Bruce's inherent goodness and fortitude will eventually be his redemption. That message is represented here in the form of Honor Jackson, a homeless man that Batman saved from being killed by a joyrider in issue #676, whose encouragement in this issue brings Bruce back from the brink of destruction.

When I first read the issue, I wasn't sure whether the scenes involving Honor Jackson were a hallucination on Bruce's part, or whether they were really happening. By the end of the issue, however, it seems likely that almost everything that happens to Batman in this chapter is a figment of his imagination, and so should be read as symbolic rather than literal. Rereading Honor Jackson's dialogue as Bruce's own inner monologue helps to make sense of things, as from his very first lines his dialogue can be interpreted as Bruce trying to talk himself out of his own insanity ("Maybe that's how it is on the planet of the little bat fairies... but we got rules on earth") and back into action as Batman ("Put these on and get yourself into character"). At the end of Bruce's journey, we see him reject the easy escape of drug use - in a location that Bruce believes to be Crime Alley - in favour of a rediscovery of his Batman persona (albeit with a bizarre twist).

However, Morrison tempers this general positivity with a couple of wrinkles in the story that reflect Batman's own flaws and weaknesses. There's an acknowledgement of the idea that there will always be elements that are out of Batman's control - represented by the eventual suggestion that Honor Jackson is in reality dead, despite Batman's earlier successful attempt to save his life. There's also a continuation of the idea that Batman has become increasingly unstable over the years due to his attempts to understand the mindset of his crazy opponents: a neat reflection of the popular idea that the introduction of Batman acted as a catalyst for the appearance of many of Gotham City's super-villains. Morrison does touch on this idea of unintended consequences too, hinting that Batman may be plagued by doubts that his well-intentioned actions could still inadvertently be creating as many problems as they solve: Bruce's hallucination suggests that Honor Jackson may have spent the money that Batman gave him in issue #676 on the drugs that eventually killed him - but since this is probably all in his head, it's impossible to know for sure.

Some readers may not feel that this is the right time for an issue that explores Bruce Wayne's character rather than focusing on the core plot involving the Black Glove, and it admittedly has the effect of sapping the momentum of the Club of Villains' attack on Batman. That said, Morrison does keep certain elements of this plot moving, showing how Nightwing and Robin become involved in the attack on Batman, and how the Black Glove society plans to deal with them. There are also further hints that Dr. Hurt of the Black Glove society could be Thomas Wayne (he dons the costume of "The First Batman" at the end of the issue, and remarks on how Bruce has grown), but there's still not enough evidence to draw any really solid conclusions at this point. Finally, Jezebel Jet is conspicuous by her absence here, which will add fuel to the fires of those who have speculated that she may be part of the Black Glove’s organisation.

The issue also features the heaviest allusions yet to Batman #113, "Batman - Superman of Planet X," a 1950s Batman story in which Batman visited his counterpart on the planet "Zur En Arrh." The "Zur En Arrh" motif is one that has been employed by Morrison ever since the start of his run on the book (as background graffiti in several issues, and last issue as a trigger phrase to incapacitate Bruce). However, this issue takes things further, making several references to specific elements of Batman #113 (such as the "Bat-Radia" – which appears to be a transistor radio as seen through the lens of Batman’s madness), and culminating with a final image that shows Bruce adopting the persona of the Zur En Arrh Batman as the Bat-Mite (presumably a figment of his imagination) floats above him. Although some people might find it to be a strange and unsettling image, I got the impression that Morrison is trying to show that the essence of Batman's character will always shine through, even when gripped by insanity. It's an original and compelling way to incorporate the wackier stories of the past into the current Batman continuity, and I continue to be entertained by these allusions to previous stories.



Observant readers will spot other references to plot points from Morrison's own run, too, such as the red-and-black chequered handkerchief that the Bat-Radia is wrapped in. It's still not clear how this relates to the Joker story from issue #663, which also featured the red-and-black motif (could there be a link between the Red Hood – the Joker's previous identity – and the Black Glove?), but the art team ensures that our attention is drawn to it by colouring it more vividly than the rest of the page on which it first appears. Tony Daniel's artwork serves the story very well throughout the issue, with clear action sequences and expressive characters that help to sell the events of the chapter. There are occasional weaknesses - Daniel's take on Dick Grayson is a little too close to Bruce Wayne (so much so that I had to read the page which features Nightwing in Arkham Asylum more than once to be sure that it wasn't Bruce) - but the art job is generally very solid.

It's not always easy to make "imaginary" stories feel meaningful or resonant, but Morrison has managed to make Bruce's journey in this issue feel integral to the story of "Batman R.I.P.", whilst at the same time continuing to explore his unique take on Batman continuity, much of which seems to be being reincorporated into the Bat-mythos via the device of Bruce's fragile sanity. The final page is both thrilling and slightly worrying, and I can happily say that I have no idea where the story is going to take us next - but I'm certainly enjoying the ride. I don't doubt that anyone reading this issue "cold" will be bemused by many of the developments, and may be confused as to what all the fuss over "Batman R.I.P." is about. However, for those of us who have followed Morrison's Batman since the start, it's shaping up to be an exciting and unpredictable culmination of his run up to this point.




Thom Young: 4 Bullets

Aside from a few lines of somewhat questionable dialog (which I'll get to later), I really only have one problem with Batman #678--the way that Tony Daniel laid out the second page. The five panels show Tim Drake reading one of Batman's Black Casebooks, and the final panel shows Tim's eyes look up from the page and to his right (our left).

We quickly realize that Tim heard something--something that we didn't "hear" since there was no sound effect to clue us in as to why Tim suddenly looked up from the book and to our left. I don't have a problem with the lack of a sound effect. In fact, I kind of like the idea that Tim's hearing is so acute even when he's reading a book that he can hear things that we can't while we're reading a book.

No, my problem is with the layout. Tim looks off to our left on a left-side page (page two) while the two characters who made the noise that Tim heard are to our right on page three. A better layout would have been for Daniel to flip page two so that Tim is facing left and then moves his eyes to the right--toward page three.

Granted, that's a very minor quibble, but it's the type of storytelling detail that illustrators such as Will Eisner, Neal Adams, Marshall Rogers, and Rags Morales have clearly thought about when they laid out their best work. Aside from that layout error (and the dialog I'll discuss in a bit), there is actually a great deal to like about this issue.

For one thing, it stars the ghost of Honor Jackson, a defensive back who played three seasons in the NFL in the early 1970s--one and a half for the New England Patriots and one and a half for the New York Giants.

After leaving pro football, Honor Jackson must have hit some hard times. He eventually wound up living on the streets of Gotham City where his death was indirectly caused by Batman having Robin give him $200 in Batman #676 after Honor told Batman that he had a kind face. We found out in this issue that he used some of that money to buy $100 of heroin that he then overdosed on--which is why he's now a ghost.

Honor makes his entrance here on page six--pushing a grocery cart down an alley as he appears to be talking to himself. However, his dialog seems to reveal that he's actually talking to Bat-Mite: ". . . maybe that's how it is on the planet of little bat fairies . . . but we got rules here on Earth. . . ."

Based on that bit of dialog (and on the Fifth Dimensional imp's appearance on the final page of this issue), I'm guessing Bat-Mite gave Honor Jackson one more day on Earth (as a ghost) to atone for his life by becoming Bruce Wayne's guardian angel--which sort of makes Honor Jackson akin to Clarence Odbody in the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life.

Of course, that theory presupposes that Bat-Mite is an actual imp from the Fifth Dimensional world of Zrfff and not merely a figment of Bruce Wayne's imagination.

Okay, I seriously doubt that Morrison based the Honor Jackson appearing as a character in Batman on the former professional football player. I doubt Morrison even knows about the "real Honor Jackson," and I have no idea whatever became of the man (who would be 59-years-old now if he's still alive).

Nevertheless, as a longtime pro football fan, I enjoyed imagining that this coincidence was a planned bit of verisimilitude by Morrison. However, in relation to the Honor Jackson in the story, my imagined connection of the character to the former pro football player is where the verisimilitude stopped.

The dialog between Honor and the other members of the heroin subculture of Gotham City's slums comes across as the typically hokey type "hip pusher talk" that often appears in comic books--such as these lines from Lone-Eyed Lincoln after Bruce Wayne realizes that he's in the alley in which his parents were murdered by Joe Chill:
Crime Alley. Hell's main drag. But don't sweat--I got the keys to heaven right here. You know a better way to take away the pain?"
Of course, Lone-Eyed Lincoln is offering Wayne a bag of heroin--and we're supposed to believe that Bruce became addicted after being given two shots by Dr. Hurt --one of "Weapons grade crystal meth" and one of "Street heroin." (I didn't realize crystal meth came in a "weapons grade" form.)

After watching five seasons of HBO's outstanding series The Wire, it's difficult to take the street-level drug culture dialog in this issue seriously. Morrison's passages seem to have more in common with Reefer Madness than they do with Andre Royo's scenes as Bubbles in The Wire.

However, it's important to keep in mind that there's a layer of unreality to "Batman: R.I.P."--and so Morrison can easily get away with the hokey dialog because there is a great deal of ambiguity regarding how we are supposed to take nearly every scene in the current storyline.

As Batman wrote in the Black Casebook that Tim Drake took from the Batcave (page one): "It would be far easier to consider this a dream, but how can I? After last year, the boundaries between what's real and what's illusion have come to seem as threadbare as a moldering shroud."

Readers who know the 50-year-old story in which Bruce Wayne visited the planet Zur-En-Arrh ("Batman--The Superman of Planet X") may recognize that part of what Batman wrote in the casebook comes from the last panel of that story from Batman #113.



In that 1958 story (which actually went on sale in December 1957), Batman "knows" that he wasn't dreaming about his trip to Zur-En-Arrh because he returns to his own Batcave still holding the Bat-Radia that "Tlano, the Scientist" (the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh”) gave him as a souvenir for his trophy case.



Tlano gave Bruce Wayne his Bat-Radia as a keepsake, and he then returned Batman to Earth. This situation is paralleled in the current issue in which Honor Jackson gives Bruce Wayne his broken transistor radio (which Bruce sees as a Bat-Radia).

Like Tlano, Honor then helps Bruce "return to Earth"--or at least on the path back to his normal life. In this way, Honor initially plays the role of Tlano--a role that Wayne then takes up at the end of the issue as he repeats the passage from the Black Casebook and the 1958 story.



It's the appearance of the Bat-Radia that interested me the most in this issue. In Batman #113, Tlano explained that the Bat-Radia "issues electronic molecules that cause controlled disturbances in the atmosphere." With his Bat-Radia, Tlano was able to "jam atmospheric molecules--even render useless the motors of jet-cars used by fleeing enemies."

When I first read "Batman--The Superman of Planet X" about a year ago, I didn't consider how much the Bat-Radia is similar to another device that is prevalent in the DC universe. However, with Morrison's statements that "Batman: R.I.P." is connected to his Final Crisis series (note the red skies of the crisis behind Batman as he stands revealed in Tlano's costume), I've suddenly wondered if Morrison isn't setting up the "Bat-Radia" as a sort of Motherbox.



Both devices are able to manipulate either molecules or atoms, and both have also been described as being able to take control of the engines of other machines. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that the two devices have similar functions. Maybe Morrison isn't playing with the notion at all.

Of course, the device that the ghost of Honor Jackson gave Bruce Wayne is not a Motherbox; it's a broken transistor radio that is wrapped up in a red and black checkerboard handkerchief. That image of the handkerchief is itself significant since it recalls the red and black checkerboard motif in issue #663 that clued Batman into the fact that The Joker was targeting Harley Quinn for murder.

And the motif is also repeated in the deadman's poker hand that The Joker deals during his conversation with Batman in DC Universe #0. In other words, these are all pieces to Morrison's overall puzzle, and it's fun to move them around in the mind to see how they might fit together.

That's the joy of this series (as well as Final Crisis): the fun of researching the possible allusions, attempting to make connections, and speculating on what it all means. As the story moves forward, I will know if my theories are right!




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