Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Batman Inc, #13

Batman and his allies square off against one of his oldest and deadliest nemeses, and this time, the battle almost destroys Batman. That's the story, as it was framed from early on, and that's how it ends. There is no swirling cosmic complexity added at the end, as we'd seen in Return of Bruce Wayne. The things we knew must happen happen, give or take a couple, and the artistry of the finale is largely in the soft touches, the feelings and how this battle staggered our hero and how he rises from it.

From the time Talia walks into the cave until Bruce walks out, needing stitches for the cuts on his face, probably minutes, only, elapse. Batman's allies are busiest as they go to work around the world neutralizing the threat of mass destruction, and Batman's allies come to his aid in the scenes that follow the end of his sword fight with Talia, one that she perhaps wins by cheating. Then two of Batman's allies enter the cave and cheat to save him. And then, intercut with all the action, Batman's fondest ally, Jim Gordon, helps to patch him up with words. And an extra surprise or two follows.

When Inc began, Batman and Selina Kyle stole a substance that Sivana had created, a meta-material that allowed him to turn invisible during his final battle with the Heretic. It also proved to have critical utility as an agent to neutralize Talia's ring of meta-bombs around the world, and in actions we see only in montage, the threat to the world at large is eliminated as Inc. agents make sure those seven bombs will never detonate. An old Morrison Batman principle at work: "The victory lies in the preparation."

But Batman loses the sword fight, succumbing to one or two poisons Talia snuck into the mix, and will die unless he begs for mercy. Just in time, Robin arrives. In this case, Jason Todd, who tricks Talia into giving Batman the antidote in return for the trigger to set off the metabombs. Talia accepts, but in vain, because with the metabombs neutralized, the trigger is worth nothing. And then, as she vows continuing revenge, Talia is abruptly taken down by a shot from the Headmistress, as expected, Kathy Kane, who briefly outlines her scope of operations in Spyral, and she departs leaving Talia dead and Bruce in a vacuum, the Leviathan threat at an end. But Batman is deeply shaken by the loss all around him. His child and the child's mother are laid to rest side by side, and he's unsure of continuing on.

This is the low point of Bruce Wayne in all of Morrison's run, the exact moment we saw in flashforward in Inc v2, #1, when Jim Gordon arrives to arrest Bruce Wayne, but in his interrogation of Bruce, Gordon plays the part of a sympathetic figure, a counselor, a priest. As Bruce talks through it, Gordon tries to understand the motives and how the madness was too large for him to control, and all throughout, Gordon knows that he might be speaking directly with Batman. And when it's over, he makes it clear that Batman is needed, and gives him the encouragement to suit up again, and return to his mission.

The events of #13 are full of mirrors to earlier stories. Bruce's lover enters the Batcave and belittles him, attacks him -- this is a key moment in RIP, with Talia serving a role now like Jezebel Jet did then. Morrison said that the image of a woman betraying Batman was the first thought he had for his run that began in 2006. Here, the same moment plays out, although the surprise of Talia's animosity has long been apparent. The sword fight itself is a mirror of one Bruce fought with Ra's in the desert in Batman #244.

Each of Morrison's long Batman arcs ends with a Robin coming to his aid. In RIP, Dick Grayson protects his blindside. In Return of Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake awakens the man inside the possessed Bruce-Hyper Adapter combination that returned from the future. And here, Jason Todd is the Robin who saves Batman, neatly giving each of the three Robins his turn. In fact, the coda of Inc's midpoint, in the Leviathan Strikes #1 special, gave Damian his turn to be the Robin who saves Batman, in a scene quite similar to this one, with Batman staggered and defeated at the feet of his enemy.

And so, in counterpoint to the grand message of RIP that the towering figure of Batman can defeat any enemy, rise above any menace, we have the grand message of Return of Bruce Wayne: Batman always had his allies; he was never alone. Inc #13 shores that up by showing Jim Gordon as the cop who comforted young Bruce Wayne on the night of his parents' deaths, a fact in Nolan's Batman films, but not -- previously -- in post-Infinite Crisis continuity. The appearance of a bat-themed woman ally who shoots the bad guy is also a key moment in Nolan's films, when Catwoman shoots Bane, remarking as Kathy Kane does here, that Batman's rule not to kill does not apply to her. And so the battle ends.

Bruce standing over two graves is a counterpoint to his childhood tragedy, he the only one left standing from a family of three. Jim Gordon's interview with Bruce Wayne is the counterpoint to whatever he gave young Bruce on the night of the Waynes' deaths (we may imagine it to be the same comfort we saw in the Nolan films). And we know from Gordon quoting it that Bruce saw all of this destruction as the "hole in things", Doctor Hurt's self-aggrandizing description, a void that nearly overwhelmed him until Gordon affirmed that Gotham needed Batman once more. So we see in montage that Batman does return, just as determined as before, and things really are much the same as before Morrison's run. Batman is Gotham's protector. Everything has come full circle. For Batman to rise again after having been taken down is how all of Morrison's runs have ended: Bruce returning from defeat while a narrator provides solemn acclamation is a fivefold Morrison ending/non-ending, something we saw in Batman #681, #683, #702, and Return of Bruce Wayne #6.

Kathy Kane, from the shadows, arranges for all charges against Bruce Wayne to be dropped. And then there is a surprise. As Ra's al-Ghul hinted in mocking comments he made to Talia in #10, he is the larger figure who will rise when she falls. Was he pulling the strings behind the Leviathan plot all along? No, but he saw opportunity lay on the other side of it. Ra's readies a continuation of his war against Batman and has the bodies of Talia and Damian as well as the lab and embryos to build an army of Damian clones he will control in the future. This opens the door for Talia to return, and in principle, Damian.

Inc was in its larger strokes more conventional than Morrison's other long Batman stories. The ambiguities and unreliable narration reached their peak in the middle, when Batman got lost in the traps and mind games of Otto Netz. The key distinction of Batman, Incorporated's war with Leviathan is in its scope. This story was 25 issues long, grander even than Morrison's long run up to RIP. It turned around the world and pivoted from literary references to Borges, to deep dives into Batman lore from the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, and it ended by renewing Batman in terms of his origin in the Thirties.

The power of this finale, unlucky #13, is in the extent that the reader shares the feeling that the sprawling epic which twice poisoned Bruce and left him waiting for a mortal blow at the feet of his enemy, succeeded in taking him to a dark place. Perhaps we're too certain by now of his ability to rebound to feel that it ever got so dark. Damian's death five issues ago and the mourning that followed were the psychological low point of the story, and for Bruce to rise from that surely indicated he could rise from this. After having seen Bruce face off against the Devil and Darkseid, to stand up after nearly dying in the past and in the future, we can't be surprised to see him rise again now. Perhaps what lingers longest from this finale is the clipped tone of his interview with Gordon, the caring Jim Gordon showed him, and the obvious sense that the two men were both shaken by all of the destruction this brought to Gotham. When Morrison was just seven issues into a run he didn't know would be anywhere near this long, he put Batman and Jim Gordon on a rooftop and let them share this kind of a moment when all the evils that awaited Batman in Morrison's run were just beginning to unfold. And with the same shared devotion, reverence, and mutual respect, they discussed the Replacement Batmen with Gordon asking, "Look at you, all beat up to Hell. Why did you have to choose an enemy that's as old as time and bigger than all of us, Batman?" And Batman answering, "Same reason you did, Jim. I figured I could take him. This isn't over." But now, for Morrison's glorious portion of the Batman legend, it is.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Grant Morrison's Bat Mysteries

Just as most of Grant Morrison’s Superman stories follow conventions of science fiction, most of Morrison’s Batman stories follow conventions of mystery fiction. Now, with only one issue left, perhaps the biggest mystery is: Is Batman, Inc. a mystery at all? What sort of payoff does the final issue provide if not a mystery? By and large, Morrison’s Batman epic has told four long stories, in four separate titles. With three of those complete, are there patterns we can identify to elucidate the fourth?

Morrison’s runs in Batman, as well as Batman and Robin, told long single stories with a hierarchical structure, the whole run broken into a few parts, each part a few issues long.

The first substory told as a mystery was his Club of Heroes story set on John Mayhew’s island, which followed achingly familiar patterns of Murder Mister Dinner Theatre, some of which are also enshrined in the game Clue (Cluedo) and some of the works of Agatha Christie, among others. Several characters were isolated, one murder took place which began a series of attacks, and the remaining characters were left to solve the crimes before their time ran out. The answer proved to be more complex than one might have expected: There were truly three culprits, all three of whom had a misleading or masked identity: John Mayhew, who falsely assumed the identity of El Sombrero before unmasking in the final pages; Wingman, who had a few subtle clues pointing to him throughout, but who switched identities with Dark Ranger after he killed him; and the Black Glove, Doctor Hurt, who was not actually given a name for another five issues. One may also observe that the only tangible clue, the absence of rain on Wingman’s plane, was no more salient than an error in the writing, the number of stab wounds used to kill the Legionary. All told, the mystery insofar as Wingman and Mayhew went was probably not solvable in the conventional sense, and as far as the Black Glove went, certainly not solvable, as it led into future storylines. So, while the story was overwhelmingly a mystery in form, it deviated from a mystery in resolution.

This was also true of the extended “replacement Batmen” mini-mystery. Batman’s subduing of the Bane Batman culminated with a question: “Who is the third man?”, which was unsolvable in the sense that it was a character who had no specific name or identity at the time the question was raised. And this, too, ended by conveying the unmistakable impression that a bigger question was more important. Not “Who is the third man?” but “Who is the king of crime?” and by a subtle visual clue, “Who is the Black Glove?”

The way that the earlier mysteries were not true, fair mysteries made sense in the structure Morrison was building. They provided like appetizers before a main course, whetting our appetite for resolution, then building that hunger more when no definitive answer came. And by the time Batman, RIP began, the mantralike question defining Morrison’s run was “Who is the Black Glove?” And fans set to work posing and analyzing guesses up and down the DC roster, with such names as Hugo Strange, Lex Luthor, Jim Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth, the Crimson Avenger, Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne, and many others being suggested and discussed.

Here, too, the conventional mystery many anticipated was not in the offing. No previously-defined DC character was in any sense the answer RIP provided. The tone established along the way was, in retrospect, preparing that conclusion: The intertwined mysteries of Honor Jackson (ghost or hallucination?) and Bat-Might (magical imp or fantasy?) were both ended on notes of perfect ambiguity. We can’t be sure if the street junkie who appeared and disappeared was a spirit resurrected by Bat-Might or if there never was a Bat-Might to begin with. In the story, Morrison makes a joke of it by having Bat-Might say that imagination is the fifth dimension. The ambiguity was there in the renaming Morrison gave the sprite when he changed Bat-Mite to Bat-Might. Might means power, befitting the character’s magic, but it means something else: The modal verb “might”: as in, he might exist. Or he might not.

Likewise, the red-and-black mystery ended up being no mystery at all. So the mysteries of RIP was always shrouded in ambiguity in its conclusions as well as mid-story. And when the Devil was name-checked repeatedly, and Batman himself says “the Devil”, it’s in a question. And when, later, he says it again, he says “may or may not have been the Devil” and references Hurt’s claim to have been Bruce’s father.

Batman and Robin and the intertwined Return of Bruce Wayne had at least as many mysteries of identity than a person can count on one hand. The Domino Killer, Oberon Sexton, the Red Hood, the “Batman” corpse, El Penitente, and Barbatos were all names and faces without a known match. The reappearance of Bruce Wayne in the final panel of #15 was subject to doubt, and there were mysteries, too, of the missing Wayne portrait, the tunnels under Wayne Manor, the casket, and more. Ultimately, there were more mysteries of identity than there were characters matching up to them (the Joker was both the Domino Killer and the detective trying to find the Domino Killer; Doctor Hurt was both Old Thomas Wayne and El Penitente). Most of these had definitive answers, whereas the contents of the casket ended up being an anticlimax.

Batman, Inc. has also had a few mysteries of identity. Most central, Talia was revealed as Leviathan, but this revelation came early, in fact, a year and a half ago. Heretic, the new Wingman, Nero Nykto, also mysteries of identity dangled for a while, also resolved long before the story neared the end.

So there may be striking significance in the reveal or reveals that remain. The Headmistress is the most prominent, nearly certain to be Kathy Kane, this mystery has not had its ceremonial unmasking yet. Nor has the identity of the occupant of the second grave, who could easily be the now-dead Heretic, or someone yet to die such as Kathy Kane. We also have the possibility that there’s a mystery where we didn’t know there was a mystery, if Talia is not the true controlling force and Ra’s or Doctor Hurt were to emerge. Finally, we may have outstanding the identity of the Batman of the future, who seemed clearly to be Damian; this future may be completely null and void, or someone else may take that role.

Morrison has told us that this finale will be bleak. That could mean Kathy Kane dies and Bruce is left to mourn the loss of another family (with Kathy and Damian as his wife and son, at least symbolically). It could mean we see the far future apocalypse is destined to play out. Morrison has kept his options open, and Inc is perhaps less clearly on a set of rails guided towards a specific finish than any of his Batman maxi-stories to date. The events in the story may be of less importance than the question: After a run on the character so long and so memorable, in what state does Morrison leave Batman? Is he the omni-capable Batman who defeats super beings and the Devil? Or is he a tragic figure lashing out in madness, as Morrison first wrote him, in Arkham Asylum?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Batman, Inc #12

Perhaps the greatest surprise of Batman, Inc #12 is how many threads are left hanging for the series finale. This is an issue of action, with one battle fought and another set to begin, while the major themes are touched upon lightly, but perhaps with importance.

The events of the issue are straightforward: Batman, armed as a man-bat, with the Suit of Sorrows, and the power of invisibility, neutralizes Talia's man-bats with the antidote, then thoroughly bashes his genetically-engineered son, the Heretic, in battle. We see that the Heretic has a child's head on his herculean body. When the Heretic is defeated, he reports back to his mother who slays him for his failure, and goes to Wayne Manor to fight Bruce in battle.

An interlude shows Dick Grayson and Tim Drake arriving at the location where Jason Todd was a captive of Spyral, and the three former Robins find themselves not in a fight, but being told that Spyral is on Batman's side, but in perhaps the issue's biggest teaser, we are told by the Hood and the Headmistress (more clearly than ever, Kathy Kane) that the fight between Batman, Inc. and Leviathan is a minor facet of a much bigger picture, and describe Bruce Wayne's efforts in patronizing fashion.

This issue is filled with references to earlier stories, both by Morrison and his predecessors. Defeating and shaming the Heretic (now referred to, by both Talia and Bruce, directly as "Leviathan") in front of his troops is a mirror of Batman beating the Mutant leader in The Dark Knight Returns. Dick Grayson and the new Knight give the Heretic a double punch, a motif of Dick and Damian's in Batman and Robin. The Headmistress says "How you've grown" to Dick Grayson, a further clue that she is Kathy Kane, and moreover an exact quote of Doctor Hurt from Batman #678. Talia says that there are dozens more Damian clones in tanks waiting to be born, which was Darkseid's plan in cloning Bruce in Final Crisis. Talia identifies herself as Kali, Tiamet, Medusa, the wire mommy, an intriguingly direct reference to the upbringing of Professor Pyg. And finally, when Talia takes up arms to fight Bruce mano-a-mano in the Batcave, she says "To the death, my dear detective," a near quote of her father's challenge to Bruce before their desert duel back in Batman #244.

The perplexing matter is how much is left unresolved with only one issue left in Morrison's epic run. We know that plotwise, Bruce must fight this battle with Talia, then after a funeral marking a major death, will decide to end Batman, Inc, and will be charged with a crime, charges that will presumably be dealt with before Morrison's run ends.

It remains possible that the Heretic will fill the second foreshadowed grave. Even so, we need to see the aforementioned plot points play out, as well as the newly-raised tension regarding a bigger picture that will put Bruce and Talia's war in context.

In several ways, this story has subtly linked the forces of the Black Glove with those of the al-Ghuls. Talia had an agent inside the Black Glove. Her plot threatens to create the apocalypse we've seen in the future, with Doctor Hurt playing a role in that. Now, with Talia describing herself in the terms of Professor Pyg's upbringing, this raises the prospect that Talia and the Black Glove were somehow operating in parallel. Morrison has promised a coda for Doctor Hurt, and now we know that a plot involving Spyral overarches Leviathan. It seems that the events of #13 will be thematically and literally very expansive.