Tuesday, August 6, 2013


The central motif of Batman, Incorporated is the Ouroboros, the self-swallowing snake, a symbol that goes back to Egyptian antiquity. Beyond the visual imagery of a ring, the theme it represents is a cycle in time, things that occur in repetition, endlessly. A cycle is suggested at the moment the Batman, Inc story begins in the epilogue of Batman and Robin #16, when Bruce tells Damian, "Batman and Robin can never die" and it appears visually in the lower right corner of Inc #13's final panel, as shown here.

Cycles as a theme are a common motif in Morrison's stories. His Superman stories All Star Superman and Superman Beyond end with references to, respectively, a Superman 2 and "To be continued..."
The first panel of Batman, RIP shows Dick Grayson saying "Batman and Robin will never die" in a flash-forward which answers a comment made by Le Bossu in RIP's epilogue. Final Crisis has a platonic time-traveling bullet that goes back through time, then ends up in Darkseid's possession so he can fire it again. In like fashion, Bruce Wayne becomes part of his own inspiration when Darkseid fires him back in time.

Ouroboros as the "never-ending ring" is first mentioned explicitly in Inc vol 1 #3, when the Knight survives battle with Dedalus. This Knight is the second of three, with Morrison promoting one sidekick to replace the main hero in his earlier works, then promoting the sidekick's sidekick in this one. Things advance, but remain the same. A Knight followed by a Knight followed by a Knight.

We first see the Ouroboros later, a ring on Scorpiana's finger that Bruce Wayne steals while dancing with her. In this scene, Bruce Wayne performs super heroics, but he's not giving up his identity: Gaucho believes that it's Batman posing as Bruce Wayne, whereas unbeknownst to him it's actually Bruce Wayne posing as Batman posing as Bruce Wayne. This cycle of purpose and identity is immediately repeated in the Buenos Aires adventure that Batman and Gaucho undergo. They are given clues which lead them to a house. The situation seems to give away the criminal's location, to lead the heroes there. In reality, it's intended to lead them there, as a trap. But knowing it's a trap, they go anyway, confident they can prevail: A cycle of what the villain's plan seems to be, and what the heroes think of it, and what the heroes think of what the villain thinks of it.

It is here that Morrison's Argentina portion of Inc. becomes truly ingenious, if the complexity of a ring turning within a ring is not too dizzying for the reader. Batman and Gaucho realize that they are led to the house by a mystery resembling one in fiction, and Batman recounts a literary detective Espartaco Estraño who is led to his death by a similar trap. Espartaco, Batman recalls, was a fiction created by Jorge Luis Borges and other writers: A fictitious author created as a hoax by a real author, resulting in a real book, with a plot that resembled the one Batman and Gaucho were experiencing.

But there's another twist off the (comic book) page: The Espartaco hoax did not exist. Morrison has taken the plot of an actual Borges story, "La muerte y la brújula" (Death and the Compass), which is similar to the one that Morrison describes, and in that story, too, a fictional detective is led to a trap while working on the case of a serial murderer. Another twist? In that story, the fictional detective, Lönnrot, believes he finds a pattern in the murders committed by his nemesis, Red Scarlach. Actually, the pattern was coincidence, but Scarlach realizes that Lönnrot believes there is a pattern, so Scarlach sets a trap in the location he thinks Lönnrot will expect the next murder to occur.

It is almost painstaking to unwind the cycles that Morrison has built on top of Borges' original story. Borges' story itself is patterned on the dynamic: "he thought that I thought that he thought..." Morrison creates a fictional story, about Espartaco Estraño, that is almost the same as the original story, but is a hoax that exists only as a story. And this resembles the Batman-Gaucho adventure in Inc. The nested stories, in summary:

Story 1 - Writer: The actual Jorge Luis Borges. Detective: Lönnrot. Villain: Scarlach.
Story 2 - Writer: A fictional Jorge Luis Borges. Writer/Detective: Espartaco Extraño. Villain: Doctor Dedalus.
Story 3 - Writer: Grant Morrison. Detectives: Batman/Gaucho. Villain: Otto Netz using the alias Doctor Dedalus.

In each of these stories, the hero is led into a trap by the villain. But only in Story 3, does the detective, Batman, realize that it is a trap.

More twists: Daedalus, in Greek mythology, created the labyrinth the Minotaur occupied. Borges, in real life, wrote a story about a labyrinth called "El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan" (The Garden of Forking Paths).

At this point, it is useful to note that Borges wrote a story called "El inmortal" (The Immortal) about a man who, as an immortal, finds that owing to his vast quantity of life experience, his memory is confused into a mixture of true and false recollections that he can no longer sort out. Back in Return of Bruce Wayne, Morrison has Vandal Savage, an immortal, say that this is also his experience, so that immortality becomes a kind of non-pathological senility.

This, too, surfaces in Inc. Otto Netz (very old, but not immortal) suffers from severe memory loss and, though brilliant, is confused and experiences things in sequence that may not be occurring. Later, in Leviathan Strikes, Netz uses a mind-control gas to defeat Batman by inducing the same condition in him, and a temporarily confused and addled Batman has his apparent victory over Netz turn to defeat and a humiliating realization that he has repeatedly, in a short space of time, believed that he's defeated Netz, then forgets both the victory and the defeat.

Once Batman and Gaucho arrive in the trap, they are required by Sombrero to fight to the death. Of course, Batman is no killer, and no loser, so he and Gaucho pretend to fight to the death while Batman works to rescue Sombrero's hostages. Yet, the false fight has some real punches thrown to hurt, because Batman is enraged when he learns of a past association between Gaucho and Batman's former lover, Kathy Kane. So, the Batman-Gaucho animosity is again: Reality within a fiction posing as the real thing.

Morrison's use of the works of Jorge Luis Borges as a story-within-a-story is perhaps his finest accomplishment in comics. Its almost horrifically complexity, and the paper trail through other fictional works (I almost cringe to note that Batman also references, in Inc vol 1 #3, another literary hoax by Thomas Chatterton) may leave few to appreciate it. In fact, I would suggest that virtually anyone who tries to decode this may find a bit of the same confusion creeping in that Otto Netz lives with and Batman suffers in Leviathan Strikes.

The Argentine subplot of Inc. thus introduces and brilliantly utilizes the Ouroboros idea which goes on to surface in other subplots.

In Inc. vol 1 #6, Batman helps cover his identity as Bruce Wayne by assuming an online identity of an amateur detective who argues that Bruce Wayne is Batman -- precisely the sort of inference that someone would make, incorrectly, if it were false. So that attempts to solve his secret identity is "lost in a blizzard of rumor, denial, and misinformation." The message board where this false chatter takes place resembles, probably not coincidentally, the forums where Morrison's stories are discussed online, and so yet another pattern encloses itself.

The Spyral plot with The Hood and Kathy Kane at its center is also full of reality within appearances seeming to be another reality. The Hood seems to join Inc, but has actually infiltrated it as a double agent, but must actually defeat his Spyral boss in order to serve Inc. As an ongoing bit of deception, Inc. stages the deaths of several agents, and we suspect that some of these deaths are real, but they actually hide the full strength of Inc's assets from Leviathan so to gain an advantage later. So early in volume 2, we see Damian's death faked. It turns out he is alive. But then later actually dies. Reality hidden in deception.

In Leviathan Strikes, Bruce and Lucius Fox discuss metamaterials, the substances which appear in the story as Talia's metabomb and the photonic crystal that Batman stole from Sivana. When shown the Ouroboros symbol, Fox notes that an exotic molecule with an interlocking ring structure might have remarkable properties. Here, Morrison references some impressively recent actual chemical research, working this, also into his pattern.

The Ouroboros pattern is visually apparent in the manner in which both Leviathan and Batman, Incorporated operate around the world, with the Earth's sphere creating a ring wherever Leviathan/Inc assets happen to approximate a great circle route around the globe. Netz refers to this as a "necklace of deadly meta-bombs places around the world like precious pearls." The location of these bombs becomes focal for the Leviathan/Inc war, and so a ring becomes a visual element in a literal circle. Of course, Netz' metaphor also recalls a circle of circles: a pearl necklace, only pages after we'd seen Batman hallucinate a broken pearl necklace on Professor Pyg's "mommy made of nails", two of many references Morrison has made to Martha Wayne's pearl necklace, a visual motif of profound importance for Batman's origin.

And it is in this respect that Ouroboros has its greatest relevance for Morrison's story, the payoff towards which this sprawling two-and-a-half-year, 25-issue, epic has endeavored. Morrison brings, eventually, his entire Batman plot back around to its beginning, and more importantly, brings the entire Batman plot back around to its beginning.

As we get closer to the end of Inc, Morrison brings back elements from early in his own run. The minor character Ellie has surfaced once before each season of Morrison's Batman epic has reached its climax. She was there when Batman was about to fight the Bane Batman, when he emerged from the Gotham River between RIP and Final Crisis, and appears late in Inc vol 2 before Damian meets his fate. Repeated patterns become ominous as Dick Grayson and Damian fight one last battle together, going into it cheerfully and with great mutual admiration, throwing their signature double-punch before the battle turns grim and deadly.

But the most important return to a previously-seen theme is the overarching one of Batman's whole legend. Inc began with a seemingly-unrelated story, a prologue to Batman: The Return that tells the story of the bat that flew into Wayne Manor's study one night to inspire Batman. Morrison almost whimsically makes drama of the bat's life, but why does he choose that occasion, in that issue, to tell that story? Batman, Inc., aside from its particular plot points of bombs and international spies, Inc is the story of Batman. Morrison includes such key details as the pearl necklace and the bat in the study because, just as RIP was Morrison's bid to tell the ultimate Batman story, Inc is Morrison's bid to create a recapitulation of Batman's entire story. The Return, tellingly, was published with a page of the script that provides a detail not in the illustrated story: That this was the same bat that frightened young Bruce decades earlier when he fell into the future Batcave. This seemingly random time to recall this event comes at the beginning of Inc because the entire series is a return to the making of Batman.

Jim Gordon has a central role in Batman, Inc #13 in order to close the circle of Morrison's run. Gordon is the first familiar character to appear in Morrison's run back in Batman #655. Like Ellie, he appears to recall a seven-year run by Morrison and bring it back to its beginning. But the issue as a whole serves to recall a seventy-year run by everyone from Finger and Kane to Christopher Nolan and Scott Snyder, and the details in #13 do so very deliberately.

The final five issues of Inc bring Batman back where he started. Bruce Wayne stands looking at two headstones, and he is overcome with grief, a sense of defeat. A family of three has lost two, and now Bruce stands alone, in sorrow. The connection between this graveside scene and the death of Bruce's parents is not obscure: It has been duly noted by most who have commented on the story. But it is also essential context for the grimness, or bleakness that some found off-putting. The seemingly invincible hero who arose triumphant from battles with the Devil and Darkseid was sunk into despair and defeat in #13... why? We may look at the character and psychoanalyze his grief and ask if it seems true to the character. We can ask what relationship Talia and Damian bore to him, certainly not a traditional wife or traditional son. We can weigh the steely, almost supernatural resolve that Batman has shown in earlier work, including Morrison's. But the bleakness and sense of defeat that Bruce feels in #13 is absolutely essential because that's what young Bruce Wayne felt when his parents died, and this story about the Ouroboros has to bring him back to that. Once again, Jim Gordon is there as he was at the beginning (in a detail borrowed from the Nolan films). Once again, Bruce is grieving, and for some limited time, he is not Batman. He is not ready to go on. And then, feeling once again what Morrison once called "a miracle in Crime Alley", he becomes Batman again. The Finger/Kane era is quickly brought up to the immediate reality of the summer of 2013 with a reference to the ongoing Zero Year story, much more a link to the immediate present than a dose of marketing schlock. And the Batman story is rebooted, reinvigorated with power. We see a villain whose very identity is, like that of Borges' character, immortal, and he's the perfect villain for this moment, more appropriate than, say, the Joker, because this is the moment that celebrates Batman's immortality.

Morrison's two aforementioned Superman stories ended, emphatically, on the note of continuation, that Superman is eternal, and inherently serial, and has a message of hope that will never end. He devoted only a panel or two each time to convey this message, boldly, and suddenly surprising the reader with it. His Batman run approaches a similar message through exquisitely more elaborate means, a story that comprises a not-negligible fraction of Batman's whole history. We see it all again. The bat from the cave, the moment in the study, the pearl necklace, the gun, all the past eras diced and sliced and respliced. Doctor Death, Axis Chemicals, Professor Milo, Batwoman, the International Club of Heroes, the Seventies and Ra's al-Ghul, the Eighties and the Killing Joke, the Wayne deaths, Joe Chill, Hugo Strange, Jason Todd, and everything. For it all to come back around, there had to be a moment of grief, a dark night of the soul in order to create a Dark Knight of the soul. It breaks Batman down and then rapidly, in a few panels, builds him back up. As the ring turns full circle it is, in some sense 2006 again, with Morrison's successors able to pick up where Morrison's predecessors left off, but with a character and fictional world greatly enriched by these past seven years.