Current Reviews

subheader

Sunday Slugfest: Batman #680

Posted: Sunday, October 5, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Grant Morrison
Tony Daniel (p), Sandu Florea (i), Guy Major (colors)
DC Comics
"Batman R.I.P.: The Thin White Duke of Death"

Shawn Hill:
Paul Brian McCoy:
Jason Newcomb:
Erik David Norris:
Dave Wallace:
Thom Young:




Shawn Hill

Plot: The Batman of Zur-en-arrh knows he's just a construct built to handle excessive stress, but is he up to the ultimate challenge of Batman's personal darkest shadow, the Joker?

Comments: The somewhat scattershot approach to storytelling continues in this issue, as the Black Glove has arranged for Batman's seminal conflict with his deadliest adversary to be an entertainment event for a rarified audience of wealthy weirdoes. All the pieces are falling into place, as we begin to see that the gaggle of Joker knock-offs making up this most recent rogues gallery all quite literally worship the Joker's awesome insanity. Dr. Hurt seems peculiarly over-confident in dealing with his guest of honor, but many of the other gang members don't fare as well, as nobody hates cheap imitators as much as old smiley himself.

Daniel and Florea haven't impressed me at all points in this story thus far (still largely failing to capture the goofy absurdity of Zur-en-arrh as he battles his way through the Glove's numerous henchmen – save for Guy Major's colors, he might be the same Batman as always), but I quite approve of Daniel's Joker. Unlike the ridiculous wrestler Adonis recently depicted in All-Star Batman by Jim Lee, Daniel's forked-tongue mummy lives up to this installment's bleak and sexy title. He's horrific and alien, very like a David Bowie gone mad and very, very bad.

Getting shot will do that to you sometimes, and that initiatory event is somewhat explained by Batman in this issue, as several other danglers are possibly tied up. We're at least given explanations for some of the mysteries of this run that we can take or leave. Not least of which is the true nature of Jezebel Jet. Because of my insistence on viewing her in a certain way, this revelation worked as a powerful surprise for me. It makes a kind of inevitable sense, another perfect puzzle piece found and locked into place. Daniel also does some good detail work regarding Batman's attempted rescue of Bruce's latest girlfriend, drawing out the surprise reveal in stages.

Some details still don't quite make sense for me, but I'm sure they will if I decide to re-read the whole run someday. In the meantime this issue more than does its job of preparing us for a major showdown soon, one that doesn't leave Bruce completely on his own: Gordon, Talia, Damian and Robin all remain at large. I'm sure they too are smoking guns left on the mantelpiece for just the right moments to come.




Paul Brian McCoy:

One more issue and I'm out. Then, no more cliche-ridden nostalgia-fests for the overgrown child with the paranoid revenge fantasies and the bat ears. I don't like Batman, but I love the work of Grant Morrison. Otherwise, I would have dropped this comic months (years?) ago.

Sure, then I wouldn't have had the fun of last month's review and acting as though Bat-Mite was the bad guy behind everything, but ultimately it was an empty exercise. Much like this comic. It's empty.

It's empty of interesting characterizations where there was actual groundwork laid to create interesting characterizations. It's empty of actual surprises as everything that a careful reader could assume was coming--but hoped wasn't--happens. Ironically, to be so empty a reading experience, it is a bloated pastiche of the history of Batman. This makes for an entertaining game of "spot the reference" if you're one who enjoys that sort of thing. And sometimes I am, but my lack of interest in Batman as a character undermines that appeal, and the absolute lack of resonance of any of the references makes all that just an Easter egg hunt that adds nothing to the story on the page.

Really, the final straw for me was the whole "Imagination is the 5th Dimension" bit, along with Bat-Mite being Bruce's reason. Really? The character that embodies chaotic creative energy, zany, impossible happenings, and irrational, almost dadaist narrative explosions, is ultimately just Bruce's rational mind? That takes the one interesting thing about this entire drawn-out affair and makes it a cliche plot twist. I really expected more. Especially since the point of this whole sorry affair was to incorporate all of Batman's history into one character's actual experience to explain and explore how all of that craziness would affect (and has affected) him.

Well, the craziness was all a hallucination, it seems.

Lame.

Plus, we get the absolutely pointless resolution to Commissioner Gordon's scenario that essentially says there was no reason for it even occur. All it did was allow for a cheap murder of a police officer and then allows Damian and Talia to be inserted mechanically into the grand finale.

Joker is back this issue and guess what? He's a wild card, bitches (if you watch It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia that will make some sense - maybe)! You never know who he's going to kill! And while I like the idea of this, the execution is again, trite, cliche, and just not very well written.

And while there are interesting visual touches here and there by Daniel, particularly with the layout of pages, the overall effect is so glossy and cluttered that every page also seemed bloated.

In fact, I'd say that this issue is written so stiffly, and so visually cluttered, because Morrison realized that he needed to wrap this thing up, but his plot threads were still dangling far too loosely. For a gifted semi-improvisational writer it is an amateurish mistake.

So we get a series of scenes that read like they're only included here because they have to be in order to have anything sensible come of the entire storyline. Every interesting, innovative, and unique square peg of this story is being pounded into the round holes so clumsily that it is joyless for me to read. It is a chore to read this.

And I assume that the rich people who've gathered are the league of Batman wannabes in disguise? I hope I'm wrong, as that would be ridiculously predictable. But then again, so would having Jezebel be the Black Glove. And Bat-Mite be just an imaginary friend.

So in the end, I have kept reading in the hopes that Morrison would eventually tie it all together and blow my mind. But with one more issue to go in this story, I just don't see any way that it can be worth all the time (two years!) and effort (and it has been an effort) and money (approximately 66 dollars so far) that I've invested in this thing. It's possible, I will admit. But at this point it is so improbable that I dread next month's installment.

So one more issue and I'm out.




Jason Newcomb:

I guess I'm gonna have to eat my words. Well, some of them at least.

I'm one of those who feels mainly indifferent to this event. Things started off rough, and I don't go for the "In Grant We Trust" philosophy. My opinion is that if a writer is going to do something outlandish and unconventional, it is doubly important to give the reader a very clear and solid center to which he/she can anchor. Otherwise you risk confusing or worse still, boring the reader. My review of this issue is that it's great, but my review of the "R.I.P." event is that its greatness comes too late.

The greatness of the issue is displayed in several ways. In a brilliant scene featuring an engrossing monologue by M. Le Bossu we learn the motivation of the antagonist's henchmen. Also, fascinating was Batman's awareness of and reaction to the events happening to him. For instance, when Batman asks Bat-Mite, "Are you really an alien (...) or just a figment of my imagination?" he echoes the readers sentiment. It's reassuring. Another strong point of the issue is its pacing. This reads swiftly and rhythmically, lending the more surreal elements some much needed grounding. The book has several of these clever devices which also can be found in Batman #679.

But... It's not quite enough to save "R.I.P" for me. It's all too late.

My problem with "R.I.P." is that Grant had not, up until the last issue, made me "feel" anything. To me this story was not an event happening to a person but a retooling happening to a brand. I know many of you will argue that this is Morrison, and it's all coming together as faithfully predicted. Not for me it isn't. Though this issue was strong and does an excellent job of bringing the larger story down to earth and making it an actual story, I get the sense that at this point no amount of "coming together" can mend my bored little heart.

But hey, I'm buying it. That counts for something.




Erik David Norris:

I need to take a minute and catch my breath after reading this. Batman #680 is the penultimate chapter of "R.I.P.," and it was the intense, emotional roller coaster ride I was looking for to reestablish my interest in the title after what seems like months of waiting. Seriously, the pacing and tension is was so pitch-perfect in this issue that as I kept reading, I felt my head becoming a steam whistle, ready to blow.

A lot of questions are answered in this particular issue of Batman, given it's the second to last chapter in Morrison's Batman novel it only makes sense. I loved the explanation of Bat-mite's existence from previous to contemporary continuity because it makes so much damn sense, and is so simple, that I literally hit myself upside my head due to that explanation never crossing my mind. Some might see it as Morrison taking the easy way out, which he's never known for, but I ask you, why not explain Bat-Mite this way? We've come to know Morrison as the type of writer who constantly is known for explaining every shred of his storytelling with "pulling the rug from under you" moments. But Grant Morrison doesn't always have to be on the cutting edge of mind-f*&%ing you into submission. Sometimes a simple explanation will work just fine if the story allows for it.

Batman #680 is almost Morrison's way of poking fun at all the internet message boards lit ablaze with speculation as to the identity of the Black Glove, the symbolism of red and black, and Bat-Mite and Jezebel Jet's involvement in all of this. Joker's speech about how no amount of therapy, isolation, or psychotic testing will ever fully prepare Batman for him seems like Morrison's way of breaking the fourth wall on his readers and saying that sometimes you just have to take his stories at face value. Maybe, just maybe, Morrison isn't always writing his stories with clues, hints and red herrings on his mind. He's instead focusing on telling a good, intriguing narrative which is in the eye of the beholder. It's just the eye of this beholder to love this stuff.

I also want to give a lot of props to Tony Daniel who has continued to grow as an artist on this book. The sequence of Batman lighting a motorcade of limos ablaze then proceeding to beat his way into the asylum was awe-inspiring. The finale was also an artist playground for Daniel as very little dialogue takes place over the last two pages, allowing Daniel to toy around with panel layouts and narrate the issue's emotional core sequence through facial expressions which he absolutely nails. Finally, I'm also a big fan of his David Bowie-inspired Joker which makes the character even creepier than he already was.

I'm trying to keep this short and sweet because whether I write 1,000 words or 50 explaining why this issue rocks, it's still better if you just go read it yourself. A lot of major developments happen here in Batman #680 and instead of me rambling off a list of all the cool moments, I can just tell you this gets a big thumbs up from me and then let you find out why on your own. Much like The Killing Joke, this single issue of "R.I.P." also gives some great insight into the twisted relationship between the Bat and Joker.




Dave Wallace:

You know that a comics storyline has you interested when you find yourself eagerly anticipating your trip to the shop at the end of the day to pick up the next issue. But you know that you're really hooked when that anticipation starts to build from the start of the week. Such is the case with "Batman R.I.P.," a storyline that has built upon all of the elements that Morrison has introduced to Batman since the start of his run to create a climatic, high-stakes battle between good and evil (represented by the sinister "Black Glove") that has kept readers guessing with its many mysteries.

This issue, titled "The Thin White Duke Of Death" (a reference to David Bowie's Thin White Duke persona, but also to the description of the Joker that was given in Morrison's prose issue, #663) poses the same question as Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Killing Joke: what would it take to turn a sane man into the Joker? However, rather than having the Joker ask this question of Batman (perhaps by forcing him through a series of gruelling and disturbing challenges), Morrison implies that it's Batman's own desire to understand the Joker's mindset that has been his undoing. Throughout his run on the title, the writer has made frequent references to Bruce's belief that he has to truly comprehend the mentality of his villains in order to "match wits" with them, and it was this desire to understand the Joker that led to the isolation experiment from "Robin Dies at Dawn" - which was itself the springboard for Dr. Hurt's involvement in the "replacement Batmen" program, as well as the cause of many of Bruce's deranged hallucinatory episodes. It's an explanation that ties almost all of Morrison's run together fairly comprehensively - and also leads me to believe that the most likely architect of the Black Glove's scheme is Bruce himself.

In contrasting Batman's mindset with that of the Joker, Morrison cuts to the heart of the conflict between cold, reasoned logic and unbridled chaos that is at the heart of the pair's relationship. The implication is that the two characters are polar opposites that can only function together, creating a balance that would be upset by the absence of either character (as the Joker explains, "You and I, we had a special arrangement... a yin/yang thing"). It's hardly an original concept, but it's explored well here, with Morrison convincingly depicting the Joker's madness as so poisonous that it has destroyed Batman merely for attempting to understand it. It's about as in-depth an exploration of the Joker's character as I'd like to see, painting him as almost sympathetically unhinged (he still seems to think that it was Bruce who shot him in the face in Morrison's first issue) but stopping short of revealing so much about him that it detracts from his enigmatic appeal.

The significance of the larger battle between good and evil is also constantly reinforced here, most notably through the visual symbolism of the red-and-black motif that runs throughout the issue (and which has also been prominent in previous issues). Examples include the red tablecloth and black napkins at the Black Glove's table, Le Bossu's tie, Batman's red "Zur En Arrh" costume - as opposed to his usual black - and the Joker's deadly flowers. Even Bruce's eyes, in one panel, appear to be black and red, perhaps reprising the Bowie connection of the issue's title. There are also less obvious references to the two colours, such as the identities of the arc's two major villains (in addition to the Black Glove, we have the Joker – who was formerly known as the Red Hood) or Jezebel Jet's name, which has connotations of both Scarlet and Black (the Joker even tips us off to this connection with his reference to "Jet-Black irony", a couple of pages before the issue's end). In retrospect, it seems obvious that she would be more involved in the Black Glove's plot, but it's testament to Morrison's ability as a writer that her involvement wasn't particularly predictable before this issue – and still isn’t absolutely clear by the end of this one. I'm still not convinced that she’s going to be a character from Kirby’s Fourth World stories (so as to tie this story into Final Crisis), but I couldn’t say for certain what role she’s going to play in the final issue.

Unfortunately for those readers who are waiting for a definitive answer to Morrison's larger mystery, the Black Glove himself doesn't get a huge amount of attention here. He's shown to be organising an event at which wealthy gamblers can bet on the outcome of Batman's struggle against his enemies (just as he did in the Club of Heroes arc), subtly equating evil with chaos as the Black Glove yet again spins his roulette wheel (which is red and black, naturally). In all honesty, I didn't expect any answers about the Black Glove in this penultimate issue of "RIP", but as with all of the previous issues of the story, there are plenty of plot points that could be seen as evidence to incriminate certain characters. There are also numerous references back to Morrison's previous Batman stories (such as the short story from DC Universe #0 - which has proven to be more essential to the story of "RIP" than I expected - and #663's "The Clown At Midnight") to tantalise those readers who are still trying to piece the whole thing together. Some passages of Morrison's dialogue even appear to take a few sly shots at those readers who have spent so much time analysing his possible clues and red herrings in the hope that "somehow, somewhere, all of this makes sense", but I'll be surprised and disappointed if the story hasn't been as carefully planned as he's made it appear.

As far as the art is concerned, I've heard quite a lot of negative criticisms of Tony Daniel for his work on this book, but I don't share the views of his detractors. Daniel's art is polished and consistent, and manages to sets the perfect tone for the story, never shying away from the more colourful and strange elements of the story, but never sacrificing the constant sense of impending doom and despair either. The artist somehow manages to incorporate elements as diverse and bizarre as El Sombrero, the Bat-Mite and the Zur-En-Arrh costume without making any of them seem ridiculous or out-of-place, and he brings a real sense of dynamism to the issue's action sequences. Daniel’s facial work is strong (with notable examples being the panel in which the Joker shows his disgust at being treated as a subordinate, or the intense look on Jezebel’s face on the final page) and his Joker is a particularly distinctive take that works quite well for the character - and which seems to be modelled on David Bowie's White Duke, at least in part. The issue contains several standout scenes that will likely become defining moments for Batman, whether it's the face-to-face showdown between Batman and the Joker, the grisly image of the Joker slicing his tongue in half, or the final, exciting montage that closes the issue.

There are also some very inventive lettering effects applied by ComicsBulletin's very own Randy Gentile, whose work plays an important role in establishing Bruce's madness (or lack thereof) and in reinforcing the detached madness of the Joker's dialogue. Finally, Guy Major’s bold colours play a significant part in the storytelling, ensuring that the reds and blacks really pop off the page and adding some more subtle yet interesting touches to even the more innocuous panels (such as his use of an inverted version of Superman’s colour scheme for Batman’s “Zur En Arrh” outfit as Bruce leaps to Jezebel’s aid at the end of the issue).

There are a few flaws with the issue that stop it from being perfect: the sudden appearance of Damian and Talia feels clunky and forced, and there are a few too many plot strands running at once for Morrison to be able to give all of them the time that they need to resonate with readers. I'm also surprised by how casually the apparent revelation of Batman's identity has been handled (is there anyone in Wayne Mansion and Arkham Asylum who doesn't now know that Bruce is Batman?), and there are one or two ill-fitting details - such as the clumsy reference to wikipedia by the Joker, that doesn't sit well with the rest of his dialogue - that could serve to pull readers out of the story. However, for each of these flaws, there's a clever touch of detail that makes up for it - such as the inclusion of the red "hotline" phone from the old Batman TV show, Batman's adoption of a Miller-esque Dark Knight persona as he launches his attack on Arkham Asylum with his "soldier", or the clever explanation of Bat-Mite's 5th-dimension origins (encouraging readers to make up their own minds about him instead of spelling everything out too clearly, as with the previous issue).

However, Morrison's greatest triumph is in including all of these pleasing details in a story that also functions very well as a straightforward thriller. If you don't want to stop and consider all of these ideas in detail, you'll likely still be entertained by this issue as a thrilling showdown between Batman and his arch-enemy, as the Black Glove's plans finally come to fruition. Morrison still doesn't tip his hand as to the identity of the story's mysterious villain: at this point, it could be simply Dr. Hurt, or perhaps Alfred or Jezebel - or even outside possibilities like Thomas Wayne, Harley Quinn, Joe Chill's son, or even the Devil himself - and you could produce evidence from past issues that could support all of these characters as potential suspects. Personally, my money is still on Bruce Wayne himself, constructing the Black Glove persona in an attempt to get inside the Joker's head. However, this issue manages to remain ambiguous to the very end, encouraging you to question just how much of what has gone before should be taken at face value, but never giving you any definitive answers one way or the other.

As someone who has been reading comics for years, it makes a pleasant change to be genuinely interested and invested in an "event" storyline that promises “major changes”, as it would be all too easy to dismiss this arc simply for the amount of hype that it's received ever since it was announced. Batman's descent into madness has been a more complete and effective way to break Batman down than simply killing him, offering a unique exploration of Bruce as a character - and, unusually, creating a real feeling of jeopardy for the book's hero. His struggle against insanity and chaos has been genuinely thrilling, and this issue has been the most exciting of all, climaxing with a perfectly-paced sequence that makes me very eager to see how the final part of the storyline ties everything up. Like Morrison's Final Crisis, "Batman RIP" is one of those rare "event" comics that exceeds expectations, developing its concept far beyond the obvious route that might have been taken by lesser writers, and playing with ideas that are complex and interesting enough that readers will likely be pondering them long after they've closed the final page of each issue.




Thom Young:

Very little happens in this issue that meaningfully advances the “Batman R.I.P.” storyline. Oh, there’s plenty of action, to be sure. Readers who like action shouldn’t be disappointed, but there is very little in actual plot development. There’s a lot of fighting and maiming and stuff of that sort--and it’s well scripted by Morrison, and mostly well illustrated by Tony Daniel.

However, Daniel’s double-page layout for pages six and seven is not well handled. Unfortunately, not even Randy Gentile’s placement of the first word balloon at the bottom of page six is enough to fix the problem with Daniel’s layout.

The first image on page six spills over into page seven, with Batman’s flowing cape leading the reader’s eye directly into the first panel on page seven where it connects with the flowing cape shown in that panel.

Thus, by following the direction that Daniel led my eyes, I first attempted to read the two pages together as a double-page piece rather than as two separate pages--which is what they actually are. This isn’t the first time that Daniel’s layout choices have caused problems in the story. Dave Wallace briefly discusses this problem in his review of the current Batman: The Black Glove hardback, and I mentioned a similar problem in my review of Batman #678:
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.
In the current issue, Gentile’s placement of Bat-Mite’s word balloon at the bottom of page six is not enough to overcome the cape that Daniel has flowing over to page seven. Gentile would have needed to place Bat-Mite’s word balloon near the spine of the double-page layout and then have a long tail on the balloon that would draw the reader’s eye to the left and down the page to the second panel on page six.

These types of layout problems have peppered much of Daniel’s work throughout his run on this title. Individually, they are all fairly minor gaffs. However, collectively, they are really beginning to annoy me. Nevertheless, the current issue is a mostly will-illustrated chapter to Morrison’s well-scripted novel. I just wanted more to happen in this issue. I wanted to get a better sense of what’s actually happening rather than to continue to be led around by the nose and shown red herrings by Morrison mixed in among legitimate clues (and the possibility of incorrectly illustrated, colored, and/or lettered scenes that end up complicating what might otherwise be legitimate clues).

As I mentioned in my review of issue #679, I’m ready for the “Batman R.I.P.” storyline to wrap up. I should be eagerly anticipating each new chapter, but this latest issue has left me frustrated that we’re no closer to figuring out what’s going on.

What’s that? You say we are closer to figuring out what’s going on?

Oh yeah, right . . . the last three or four pages of this issue.

In the last panel on page 21 and the first panel on page 22, The Joker says to Batman (in all lowercase letters): “you really want to know how it feels to be the clown at midnight? where there’s only ever one joke and it’s always on you? well, here you are now do you get it?”

Unfortunately, I didn’t get it, and Dr. Hurt told The Joker to “Stop there.” I guess The Joker was about to give too much away, though I have no idea what he might have been about to divulge.

On the next page, though, Batman does seem to actually be putting the pieces together as he must have gotten more out of The Joker’s statement than I did--he says in the first panel, “Red and black . . . floor tiles.”

To which The Joker asks in the second panel (all in lowercase letters), “now do you get it?”

Batman is getting it, apparently, because he says in the third and fourth panels (now all in lowercase letters like The Joker’s): “. . . and black . . . and red.”

Yeah, red and black and red and black (all in lowercase letters)! Do you get it?

I don’t.

Then Jezebel Jet, who has red hair and brown (or black, I guess) skin says on the issue’s final page: “Look. Look at his eyes. Now he knows. Batman’s finally giving in. Now do you get it?”

I know those last five words were spoken by Jezebel rather than The Joker or Batman because they are not in lowercase letters. Gentile has been using a different font for the word balloons by Bat-Mite and The Joker--and all in lowercase letters, as well. This same font in all lowercase letters is then used for Batman’s final word balloons in this issue.

Thus, unless Gentile made a mistake in lettering that final word balloon, it’s Jezebel Jet who asks at the end, “Now do you get it?” as she casts a very villainous look towards Batman as he sits amid red and black rose petals strewn across the floor of red and black tiles.

Now do you get it?

I sure don’t.

Are Bat-Mite and The Joker both figments of Batman’s imagination (as Bat-Mite seemed to imply earlier when he indicated that the Fifth Dimension is imagination)?

I don’t know. Maybe.

If so, then what do we make of Jezebel Jet’s sudden villainous turn as she seems to be revealed as The Black Glove on the final page of this issue?

I don’t know.

However, I am glad to see there was more to this character than that she is simply a woman with whom Bruce Wayne fell in love too quickly, and who figured out that Bruce Wayne is Batman even more too quickly (pardon my grammar).

I have not enjoyed these two most recent issues of Batman as much as I had hoped to--other than that I acknowledge the dialog and situations are all well scripted. Overall, though, I really want this story to end with the next issue. It’s dragged on far too long with two most recent two issues containing mostly superfluous scenes that seem designed to pad the story rather than provide substance to the plot.

If a lot of this review sounds like I repeated parts of my review of the previous issue, but with some specific (and largely insignificant) details switched out, . . . well, that’s sort of my point.



What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!