Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Page 4: Blue flower in snowy mountains, probably a nod to Batman Begins, a favorite of Morrison's
Page 5: Jabari and Diallo stay on as Jezebel's body guards until their walloping at the hands of Batman in 681
Page 9: "My own father was assassinated," the details of this assassination to be exposed in Batman 681.
Page 11: The fatter, freckled cop is Officer Farelli, who we'll see a lot more of as the run goes on. Also, more "Zur En Arrh" graffiti
Page 15: De Shawn believes Batman beheaded The Spook and shot the Joker. These suspicions, so long as the cops don't share them, typically service Batman's cause, as cowardly and superstitious criminals like DeShawn cooperate better with the threat of death looming.
Page 17: "Regular patrol. My nightly workout..." parrots the bullet point monologues that have become common in current age Batman comics
Page 19: I like Bat-Bane's look a lot better than regular Bane's. The little cape endows him with sort of a vampiric quality
Page 20: We hear first mention of the Black Casebook on this page, but it's just a tease. We get some insight into what exactly it contains next issue.
Page 22: Although foot-stomp-on-the-floor differs radically from knee-drive-in-the-air, I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that this page commemorates Bane's breaking of the bat in Knightfall.
Monday, December 29, 2008
What will we say about The Clown at Midnight, the texty behemoth that set the entire internet afire? A lot. In this issue, Morrison basically pisses his drug crazed mind onto the page, and Jesus did it have to go. The soupy prose swamps about triple the page count this plot calls for, but if you can navigate the peano curve of the first paragraph, you'll probably find most of its lurid pulp charmingly ironic. How can you not love and admire a sentence like
He wants to tell the other clowns how cruddy and broken and uncomfortable he feels inside, but their garish faces are stretching, leering, and opening up like colorful envelopes all around him, in a way that's so awful and funny to look at that he decides to face the dirt and deal with that instead.He's expressing the least with the most, obviously, but would you really trade that fevered, bombastic energy for "He felt sick," or even "A sick feeling overcame him"?
These are superhero comics! Comics of which sensationalism abides at the very core! Picture that iconic image of Batman swooping down on an enemy, his tattered cape, four or five times his person, thrashing in the wind. What a bag of bullshit that image is. A cape like that would prove impossibly cumbersome, perpetually snagging and tripping Batman up to the point where he'd just burn the fucking thing and become The Cowled Crusader.
But the image still kicks ass.
In The Clown at Midnight, Morrison translates that picture into words, booming words that resound the operatic melodrama an artist would normally impress upon the image when drawing it.
If that's true, why did so many people dislike this comic so much? Well, some people disliked it because it's not a comic, a stance much ridiculed by interweb savants. The savants argument is basically that no one is entitled to be disappointed or dismayed by the substitution of panels for prose, ostensibly, although they don't say this, because prose is higher art. I disagree, but even if it is higher art, the savants are still wrong.
Suppose you develop a craving for cheeseburgers. You've been dieting for five months, eating mostly grotesk vegetables, and in that whole time, abstainining from red meat. Because of this you no longer stock ketchup in your cabinets. No problem. You drive to the local store and grab a bottle. Upon returning, you're ready to chow down. You throw the chop meat in a bowl, mix in the secret blend of herbs and spices only you know from your fat days, roll up your patties, fry them, and top them off with those budget brand American cheese singles that taste like family barbeques from when you were a kid. You pop the rolls out of the toaster, and just for a second, you hover, ketchup bottle in hand, over your sumptuous feast, thinking about how fucking great it's gonna be when you sink your teeth into that juicy, tender slab of dead cow. The meal is so very nearly complete now, just a squeeze of the ketchup bottle and, and - wait, what the fuck? You squeeze the ketchup bottle and out comes... caviar, FUCKING CAVIAR. And no surprise, you're pissed. You're pissed because the store misled you and sold you something you never intended to buy. Now maybe you like caviar, maybe it's your favorite food, but you were lusting after this burger for so long and now your whole experience is fucked. So yeah, even though you think caviar is great, sometimes you just don't want caviar. Sometimes you just want ketchup.
If you're still awake after that intensely subtle, Aesopic parable, we should talk some more about why people didn't like this comic. The assiduous Thom Young can't get over the many rhetorical duds in the text, and there are a lot. Unlike Thom, I can cope with them, as many of the lines in Clown that don't impress me do amuse me. Also unlike Thom, I have the luxury of reviewing this issue after the great propounding of the "Alfred = Black Glove" theory, which was largely rooted in the notion that Alfred narrates this comic, weakly aping the style of his favorite novelists. In the sense that the saturated prose of The Clown at Midnight would eventually spark half the internet swearing that "The Butler Did It" when, in fact, he did not, Batman 663 is a raging success (though I don't really buy Alfred as a red herring).
In one of the funniest reviews I've read, Jog completely dismembers the work, paying special emphasis to Morrison's recycling of hoary themes, ideas so craggily and battle worn that it hurts to look at them. And in case you can't already tell, Jog's point resonates pretty strongly with me. How many times do we need to be told about the bond between Batman and the Joker? It's not a rhetorical question, the answer is zero. Zero times, it can be inferred from the text. Hell, a single panel might be enough to communicate that this shadowy gargoyle and the dapper clown he's beating on share a special relationship. And yet, for the last 20 years, everyone who writes the Joker spins "The Unbearable Inevitably of Batman and the Joker" in his own words. Is the "You can't kill me and I can't kill you" speech a rite of passage? Seriously, compare the rendition of that speech in this issue with the one in The Dark Knight. Fucking identical. In a run so dense and so heady, it's hard to believe that we're still hit with this type of pandering.
In conjunction with this, Jog goes on to ream Morrison for using characters as mouthpieces to announce events that transpired rather than having those characters actually experiencing said events, to the effect that some parts read like extended recap pages rather than organic continuations of story. It's the classic case of telling and not showing that I highlight in the talks about 681. As it pertains to this issue, the Joker (and Morrison) professes to a profound conversion of his character, but does his change really have substance? Certainly not in this comic, in which the Joker's cell is replenished just four pages after his "transformation." Even in RIP, the Joker operates in much the same way as before, except now he whispers and wears more boring clothes. I don't think Morrison ever really intended to change the Joker in any meaningful way, but rather, he needed a forum in which to expound the changes the Joker has already undergone. It's also possible that Morrison is just marking his territory, distinguishing his run so that the next writer to try something like this will pay homage to the "Morrison era" stories.
One criticism that even the unremitting Jog can't tack onto this issue is irrelevance. Most of the important toys Morrison is playing with get wheeled out in this issue. Red and black pokes its head up for the first time in these pages. We also have hypercontinuity and rebirth commingling, as well as religious allegory and, duh, some metatext.
Do I like this issue? Yes, but only because I'm a stickler for the kind of convoluted bombast Morrison gushes here. Could've been much better though.
Page 2: "Rain goes clickety-clack-tack..." The issue begins and ends in rain, like Alan Moore's seminal The Killing Joke
Page 3: Morrison is boiling all the famous Joker stories together in The Clown at Midnight. The whole knocking-off the henchmen bit salutes The Joker's Five Way Revenge in Batman 251 where the Joker's murderous, "original persona resurfaces." A snippet from this issue appears on the splash page of Batman 683.
Page 4: The astute David Uzumeri snags this one, "Deep in the dense architectural reefs of midtown, primary reds and yellows and the hot purples of gigantic moving advertising hoardings..." Red, yellow, and purple are the colors worn by Tlano, Batman of Zur En Arrh. Well done, David.
Page 4: Jim Aparo was a popular Batman penciler and Bill Finger scripted the very first Batman stories. Did someone named "Crescent" work on Batman?
Page 5: "They called themselves the Boys of St. Genesius." Why? From Batman 251: "You'll recall that Saint Genesius is the patron saint of actors and comedians... jokers!"
Page 9: The Rose Bruford School is a school for the performing arts, a strange place for a speech therapist to receive accreditation. Also, "Rose" likely alludes to the flower with which Harley Quinn poisons her old cronies.
Page 10: "Ringmaster-from-Hell phase," nods to The Killing Joke
Page 10: Solomon and The Queen of Sheba are figures from the Old Testament
Page 11: Lots of red and black on this page; the lethal flowers return in Batman 680. Morrison links the colors to rebirth, a theme we'll visit briefly in the annotations for 670. Also of note,in Morrison's Batman Gothic, the undying Mr. Whisper, in service of the Devil, attempts to unleash the bubonic plague on Gotham City via infected rose petals (red roses, black death). Even moreso than other issues, The Clown at Midnight suggests that Morrison's Batman run is a spiritual successor to his other work with the character. Master of all matters Morrison, Timothy Callahan gives a good talk about this in his review of the issue. YES! Now I've officially referenced every single person ever to utter the words "Morrison" or "Batman" in this post.
Page 11: "If it's him, there has to be more. He always leaves a clue. A pattern." Morrison's characters, like Morrison himself, love to drop hints and clues. In Batman 667, the Legionary, in his death throes, smears his fingerprints on a security monitor to guide Batman to his killer. In 674, the Third Man intentionally ditches his glove, leaving Batman to wonder "Is he telling me his name?" The reader must act the part of the detective, trying to solve two mysteries at once, Batman's mystery "Who is the Black Glove?" and the thematic mystery "Where do the ideas of these seemingly unrelated threads meet?"
Page 12: Nothing really, I just love "fish being gutted" and "Eager to be born, he counts backwards to midnight." Actually, there might be something to "fish being gutted." I found in his annotations for Arkham Asylum that Morrison associates fish with Christ. "Think of the classic Christian Fish symbol," he incites the reader, "also known as the Vesica Piscis." In this light, "fish being gutted" easily transforms to "Christ being gutted," and the sentence falls perfectly in line with the Devil/Anti-Christ innuendo that abounds in this serialized Batman novel. However, I think its unfair to expect the reader to produce this very tenuous connection on his own.
Page 13: Harley Quinn as "the Joker's quiet Bostonian speech therapist" has got to be a joke at the expense of both Harley Quinn and Boston, neither of which are known for articulate or refined speech ("Hiya puddin!" and "Get the ceat [cat] outta tha cah [car].") Also, while a speech therapist probably shouldn't be quiet when treating a patient, Harley's silence as "Miss Wisakedjak" does not alert the suspicion of Arkham's dunderheaded staff. So perhaps Morrison is sniping at the Arkham employees as well. This summer, Batman and the Joker star in Morrison's Five Way Revenge! (on Boston and fictional characters).
Page 13: Gotham Noir, first mentioned in Batman 655
Page 15: The name of this chapter likely derives from the play Prometheus Unbound about the god-man Prometheus' release from captivity. The writer of that play was Percy Shelley, whom Morrison depicted in the Invisibles as an agent in the eponymous super team.
Page 16: Artist Joker's personality pallet: "Satire Years before Camp, and New Homicidal, and all the other Jokers he's been." Morrison exhumes this notion of the Joker's "super sanity," which originated in the now 20 year old Arkham Asylum GN.
Page 16: For the Joker's psychotic fit, Morrison copies a couple of lines directly from other comics:
They can't keep me here I know a way out. - last page of first Joker story in Batman #1
You see I hold the winning card. - page 8 of that same Joker story
You're in my power Batman Ho Ho! I could pull off your mask now - and end your reign! I could even kill you but I won't! HAHAHAHA Let him live!" - page 10 of the Joker story in Batman 67
He's so amusing when he tries to match wits with me... hehehehehe - page 8 of the Joker story in Batman 11
Take a look! We resemble each other! - page 16 of the ubiquitous Batman 251
And I'm loony, like a light-bulb battered bug. - page 24 of The Killing Joke
Aren't I just good enough to EAT! - page 20 of Arkham Asylum
Stop... stop... stop me... if you've heard this one... - the opening sequence of Batman 614
I admit defeat at locating the Batman 11 and Batman 67 references, which, to be fair, are obscure (nobody remembers the camp stuff). However, with the power of Google and poster rikdad's excellent work on the DC Comics message board, I can achieve!
Page 21: "Red and Black. Like a bat. In a dream. In a window." this image repeats (in actual panels) in Batman 672 and Batman 682. Someone, I can't remember who, suggested that Batman fabricated the story of the bat crashing through his window to inflate the drama of his transformation, to cement it as a matter of destiny. I like this view, as the whole thing does seem a little ridiculous.
Page 22: Harley Quinn closes the book with the best line of the issue. When Morrison shuts off that "super cool" shit, he can really write some moving dialogue.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
If that doesn't sell it, just look at the way the Damian revelation was handled. Morrison plays it casually and for laughs, with Alfred and Damian jeering at one another and even Batman getting a joke in "It's actually pretty good when you don't mix it with the wall paper." No other modern superhero writer would cast Damian's reappearance in this light. They would have Batman brood, "How could this be?" and spend maybe an issue investigating or warming to his boy with some father son activities, blah blah blah, it would just be a shit serious affair. Not so in the Golden Age, where previously unheard-of relatives would emerge from out of the woodwork all the time to shake things up and rope in readers on the fence. And then, once those characters grew tiresome, they'd ebb back into the woodwork again. Aunt Agatha is a good example of this. Selina Kyle's brother (!) fucking exemplifies it.
Page 4: I explained Alfred's complaint in the 657 annotations
Page 5: The Great Kubertini will now transform this red, Robin-style shirt into...
Page 6: a plain white sweater! Tadah!
Page 18: "Kirk Langstrom is consulting with the British army on anti-Man-Bat tactics as we speak," a Silver Age gem if I ever read one.
Page 20: "For people like us, the world is the game board, and nations are pawns," an example of the exploitative thinking characteristic of the Black Glove organization.
Page 23: For those rereading the run, does this image remind you of anything? Another, better-remembered image from later on in the run inverts this one, with the son overlooking the father's apparent fiery death. What? You want me to spell it out for you?
Page 4: Perhaps a gaff by Dave Stewart, I think the Batmobile's fender should be black, its color upon completion in 676. David Uzumeri, in his annotations for the issue, proposes that the Batmobile is symbolic, which he's probably right about, and he even ties it to a theme of nature vs. nurture, which I hadn't considered.
I think actually the whole Batman/Batmobile connection is something Morrison, in his boundless ambition, really wanted to illuminate upon, but with all the ideas he juggles in this run, his reach simply exceeded his grasp on that point. Notice that Morrison titles the first chapter of his serialized novel "Building a Better Batmobile," which isn't a far cry from "Building a Better Batman," something Alfred set out to do in 655 after Batman's rogues were all jailed in the Missing Year and OYL. Here the Batmobile is incomplete, like the run which aspires to change Bruce Wayne's life. Next time we see it, it's red and black, the colors of Bruce's obsession. As it stands, the parallel doesn't stand out enough to be particularly noteworthy, but we'll forgive Morrison not developing it, because he really does have 10 trillion other things on his plate.
Page 11: I just love "You dishonor your sensei with the loss of composure!" It's the perfect way to coerce obedience from a martial artist.
Page 12: Morrison disinters another relic from Batman's past here with the Spook. The Spook once smuggled convicts out of Blackgate through a series of underground tunnels, as explained in Detective Comics 435. Like I said in the annotations for Batman 655, Morrison was lying when he said he would resurrect the O'Neil/Adams hairy-chested love god Batman. What he did instead, which was a better move anyway, was return Bruce Wayne to the Batman: Paranormal Investigator type comics from the Englehart/Rogers Len Wein era which showcased these sort of surreal stories where everything was always smothered in smoke and fog and rain and people were never really who they appeared to be. This story, Batman 657, only pays a superficial homage to that era with the Spook's brief appearance. On the whole, Batman & Son is a Golden Age story. But Morrison really does dig his hands into those Engleheart/Rogers stories with his creepy Third Man arc in 672-674 and much of RIP.
Page 13: "Suction cup and smoke bombs and electronic gimmicks..." The Spook really uses all these gimmicks in his crimes
Page 14: The second instance of beheading, the first was in the newspaper Gordon was reading in 655. Maybe Morrison is implying that Batman will "lose his head," as in going insane? Pretty thin though.
Page 16: The whole bloody key bit is unnecessarily opaque. Combining this scene with another in the next issue, I gather that Damian did not, in fact, read Alfred's fingerprints off the keypad, but instead, keeping with his prickish M.O., just jacked the key from him.
Page 20: Wow. Pointless really, but wow.
Grant: Hey Dan, I've got a great idea for a character in Batman. Now, imagine if Batman had a son, right?
Dan: Yeah, I mean, I suppose. So who is this kid?
Grant: Well Damian, he's a ruddy little bastard, a rotten lad just spoiled to the core. Skelps the piss out of poor Robin in his second book.
Dan: Um, I don't know if the fans are gonna go for...
Grant: No no, of course not, they'll fuckin 'ate 'im. Now after the first story, we're gonna give him an issue on his own.
Dan: Alright, so what does he, he redeems -
Grant: So he takes a lot of pills yeah? And then he dresses up as Batman but also a trench coat. Just a completely mental badass, he is. Then he snaps the Devil's neck, the bloody Devil, Dan!
Dan: But -
Grant: And after that, he runs an ambulance clear off Gotham Bridge with the Batmobile! And after RIP...
Page 2: I love Bruce Wayne's dialogue here:
All this comic book stuff is way too highbrow for me. I collect tribal art, schizophrenic painters, 'outsider work' I believe they call it. There's a message here. I know if I just stare hard enough...
Bruce is goading the reader when he says "There's a message here," but he's not lying. "Outsider work" points us to Detective Comics 356.
That boil-covered albino is actually Alfred who, after being crushed by a boulder in Detective 328 - boulders were much more abundant in those days, posing the greatest threat to secondary characters -, was secretly revived by a quack scientist following what might be the longest editor's note in 70 years of Batman comics.
For whatever reason, the Silver Age contraption that jolted Alfred back to life also disfigured him and twisted his desire to help the Dynamic Duo into a desire to kill them.
Behind the scenes as the Outsider, Alfred conscripts Z-list supervillains like Blockbuster and the Grasshopper to perpetrate schemes against Batman and Robin. This begins in Detective 334 and continues until 356 where Batman and Robin finally uncover the Outsider's true identity. During their battle, Batman knocks the Outsider into a "regeneration machine," restoring him to his natural form. The rejuvenated Alfred does not remember his crimes, and Batman and Robin vow never to discuss them because "the news of his treachery might kill him." This promise is at the center of Batman 682's plot. Obviously, since the Outsider was a behind-the-scenes evil mastermind, this line of dialogue strongly suggests Alfred as the identity of the Black Glove, although outsider art is a real thing, which makes this line easy to dismiss even if you did read and remember those stories from 45 years ago.
There's a lot on the Outsider and other stuff in Thom Young and David Wallace's review of 677, which isn't so much of a review as it is a frantic unloading of theories.
Page 3: See the diorama in the first panel? "Population explosion," might portend the death of the Joker's henchmen in 663. We do see it destroyed later in the issue.
Page 8: "If there's one thing I hate...it's art with no content." If he hadn't read the later issues to see the connection, one might describe the beginning of Morrison's run in this way.
Pages 14-15: "More noise. Lots of it." Bruce motions for the fire alarm. "Sounds great on paper." The noise of the alarm and the screeching Man-Bats does sound good on paper because paper is mute. Very subtle and very cool, Mr. Morrison.
Page 18: The many plans Batman's prepared, even ones for fighting Ninja Man-Bats. From 674: "I've worked out ways to defeat villains with M.O.'s and pathologies that haven't even been thought of yet."
Pages 20-21: I don't actually have the comic from which the events in this discussion originate, but Wikipedia synopsizes it well. Also, in the Richard Donner film The Omen, a boy named Damian is revealed to be the offspring of Satan, making him a literal "Son of the Demon."
Saturday, December 27, 2008
If you're rereading the Batman & Son arc after poring over RIP and Last Rites, you'll be immediately startled by the disparity in styles and pacing. This first issue strolls casually along the straight line of its plot, pausing occasionally in its course for some character moments that don't bear at all on the bigger picture. Compare with the last Morrison issue (683), an ultra relevant double tie-in that tears through 20 years of Batman history in 15 pages, somersaulting from memory, to dream, to reality at random intervals, with spacetime left over for Batman to dismantle a clone army with his mind and for Alfred the Butler to sound a touching, if premature, final note for his oldest charge. Yeah.
Page 2-3: The Joker copter, a zany Silver Age concept that Morrison consigns into the belligerent world of modern comics. "In front of a bunch of vulnerable, disabled kids!!!!" He's likely satirizing the propensity toward "darkness" in contemporary comic book writing, the idea that sadism is an essential component of drama, expressed most notably by scribes like J.M. Stracynski and Brad Meltzer, who oversaw, respectively, the rapes of Gwen Stacy and Sue Dibney a year prior.
Page 5: That Morrison guy sure knows how to kick things off with a bang! You see what I did there? You see, he fired the gun and... wait, it's "Blam" you say? Stop killing my moment man! Alright, with that out of my system, The Joker's shooter is the first of Three Ghosts of Batman who gain importance later in the run.
Page 6: The first scrawling of "Zur En Arrh", a phrase that drove both Batman and the interwebs to the brink of insanity
Page 8: The second panel here struck me. The nurse's silhouette outlines the shape of a headsman on the wall while she and Gordon banter about a live beheading! I can't imagine how this connects with anything though, as Gordon escapes Morrison's run relatively unscathed. At the bottom of the page, a glib Commissioner dismisses his nurse, "Everybody needs to lighten up," he says, echoing Grant Morrison's promise to deliver a more a squeezably soft Dark Knight and co - a promise he ultimately won't keep.
Page 16: Talia Al Ghul is threatening to lobotomize Francine Langstrom, unless her husband, Dr. Kirk Langstrom hands over the drug that induces his Man-Bat transformations.
Page 17: "The Earl of Wordenshire," alter ego "The Knight," is a Morrison creation whom we encounter in the Club of Heroes arc down the line in Batman 667.
Page 18: First of many mentions of Gotham Noir
Page 23: "There's a chapter in the latest Artemis Fowl I'm keen to catch up on." The Artemis Fowl series of youth novels follow the fantastic adventures of a cutthroat, twelve year old crime boss. The book seems tame for Alfred though, whose library Bruce calls "a shrine to blood spattered prose" in Batman 675, but perhaps Morrison is only citing the work as an inspiration for the Damian character.
Friday, December 26, 2008
52 Week 30:
Page 2: "The Joker gave up being a murderer," a reference to the Joker's changing personality, of which there will be many
Page 4: Batman sets up Dick and Tim as replacements, which may or may not happen in issues of Batman following 683
Page 12: If you're gonna have surgery, ten eyes beats two any day. Another ten eyed man is featured in 675.
52 Week 47:
Bruce endures the Thogal ritual (which gains importance later in the run) over the course of this issue.
Second to Last Page: The Goose represents Batman, and the bottle represents the form to which previous writers have fit him, in particular, the morose Dark Knight we've seen for the last 20 years. As Robin says, "There's only a goose (Batman) in a bottle because you (the writers and readers) said so." Robin's (Morrison's) realization frees Bruce from the grim mode he's been locked in for years and...
Last Page: Bruce emerges with an "uncharacteristic" smile on his face.