Monday, December 29, 2008

Batman 663

In an effort to extinguish any hope I ever had of completing this project, Morrison pens Batman 663 almost entirely in prose. Be warned, a 1500 word tome (and no pictures!) awaits beneath the gap. Most of it is just garbage. I even fly off on a wild tangent about cheeseburgers for 250 words. Seriously.

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.


  1. The Clown at Midnight was what kicked off a TON of the expository stuff that came back later, but at the time I just liked it for its pulpiness.

    Things of note in a big way ...

    First off, this issue feels like another example of Morrison's feelings towards Alan Moore (which came full circle in Superman Beyond). All of Morrison's stuff recently seems like it has an underlying acknowledgment and challenge about how Moore's Watchmen and Killing Joke inadvertently kicked off the "grim & gritty" era of comic book storytelling. This particular example does it purely because Joker was the proud recipient of the "grim & gritty" gold prize during the 90's. And of course it also follows plenty on themes from all the greatest Joker stories.

    You can almost look at Commissioner Gordon as the mouthpiece for people who just can't get over the whole "grim & gritty" phase, as he states something to the point of "never being able to get over what the midget henchmen, and Joker during his "ringmaster from Hell" phase, did to him.

    When the Black Glove's identity became a point of mystery, I looked to this issue and believed that Jeremiah Arkham was the Glove. I mean, everything was pointing to a showdown in Arkham, there was plenty of talk about how Arkham cares more about studying this criminal madmen than the fact that Arkham has a revolving door ... etc ...

    My other point, and it's something I got a little bit from Batman & Son and Batman in Bethlehem as well, but nowhere more than here ...

    Something about the Zur En Arrh colored lights of Gotham City and the huge advertisements screamed "Blade Runner" to me. I haven't been able to narrow down many similar themes other than I think Morrison is probably just a fan, and that's an influence ...

    Other than that, it was really just a wildly nostalgic Joker story that kind of aimed to verify Morrison's previous postulation about Joker's "hyper-sanity" back in Arkham Asylum.

  2. Thanks for the insights Jonsey (rikdad?). I'm leaving for Atlantic City in half an hour, and I don't want to give you an unsatisfyingly terse response, because your comments are illuminating and deserve a fair shake. When I get back though, I'll write up some good replies. Cheers.