Saturday, January 24, 2009

Batman 681: Op Ed

Well, on the one hand, Batman 681 floats to the surface most of the major themes from Morrison's run. So that's good. It also treats the reader to a couple of "Fuck yeah!" fistpump scenes, and those are good too. On the other hand, from a plot standpoint, Batman 681 might be the biggest blue balls moment in 70 years of Batman comics. I can't help wondering if before RIP, Grant Morrison intended to employ Alfred in some capacity as a villain, and then for whatever reason changed his mind.

In a mystery, the protagonist typically suspects each red herring at some point in the story. Bruce Wayne never once suspected his butler, even though clues did point to him. Furthermore, mystery authors don't exculpate major red herrings during a crisis stage a few chapters before the climax. Yet the Black Glove lays the smack down on Alfred just three issues before the big reveal, seemingly exonerating him. I believe that this beating caused Timothy Callahan, for one, to ease his suspicion off Alfred, as reflected in his third-place ranking here.
Easing their suspicions cannot be something Morrison wants readers to do if Alfred actually is a mislead, and so, from a mystery structure POV, this "exoneration" actually inculpates Alfred.

But, since it's not Alfred, what honestly does Batman 681 disclose in its 70-year galaxy-destorying reveal? That Dr. Hurt was the Devil and not the red horns and the tail Devil, but the subtle, "Is he really?" Devil? If so, we already knew this back in 666 and 674; the Third Man told us as much: "Doctor Hurt was the Devil. Sometimes he visits this world to destroy the good and make slaves of men like me." Granted, we didn't know he was speaking of the literal Devil, but we still don't know that for sure.

Let me just say that I have no problem with Satan filling the role of Batman's mastermind enemy. On the contrary, the Devil naturally fits the bill of such a mastermind, and more importantly, the idea of Batman fighting this Enemy harmonizes beautifully with themes sounding throughout not only this Batman run, but all of Morrison's writing on the Dark Knight. What I do have a problem with, however, is the reveal being hyped as an ultra twist, when it's not even a twist at all. It's an insinuation. A mystery twist, a "shocker", cannot be ambiguous; the defintions of these words run contrary to one another.

And no, it's not just DC ad copy and solicitations that generated expectation for an epic twist. And no, it's not just that Morrison himself attested in several different interviews that this would be the most astounding reveal in 70 years of Batman comics. All of these things can be argued away as irrelevant because they are apart from the text (though I personally don't take this view). What can't be dismissed, however, is that 672-680 read like a mystery in that they fuel anticipation for the big money shot at the conclusion. Peel open 680, for example. In it we have:

  1. Who is the Black Glove?" reminding the reader what he's looking out for
  2. "You gave it all away, but that's not it, is it? That's not it at all!" hinting that the whole story has yet to unfold, but the protagonist is closing in on the truth
  3. "Now do you get it?" teasing the reader, since he obviously does not
  4. A false reveal of Jezebel Jet

All the drapings of a standard mystery, right? This story practically demands a shock unveiling at its climax.

Part of the problem is Morrison's subtle portrayal of the Devil. His "Devil" doesn't exhibit supernatural abilities, not even low key ones like Mr. Whisper's missing shadow. Hurt directs all his evil against Batman and his family, so it's easy to mistake him for someone with a grudge or an infatuation. His actions on their own are not really convincing, and as a result, Morrison is forced to explain a number of times through exposition that the good doctor is really Our Father in Hell just to get the point across. Morrison wants to pit the Dark Kngiht against a subtle, symbolic Devil, an intensely cruel and influential nonpowered human being. This is a perfectly sensible thing, as I argued before. However, he also wants to showcase this revelation as a twist. In other words, he wants the reader to be shocked that "an intensely cruel and influential nonpowered human being" is scheming Batman's downfall. Well that's not very surprising now, is it?

Though I suspected earlier in this editorial that Morrison originally planned to uncover a different hand beneath the Glove, whether he did or he didn't, there were better ways to handle the conclusion, even without sacrificing anything. For example, he could have easily played Alfred in a villainous role, which would have provided the shock value craved by the mystery's final chapter. And it would not have been gratuitous either, because that ending would cohere with clues given throughout the run (Alfred's love of "blood spattered prose", Bruce Wayne's mention of "outsider work" in Batman 656), as well as resuscitate a long dead Silver Age story, which of course, fits nicely with Morrison's superhero modus operandi. Moreover, Alfred's lapse into his Outsider persona would mirror Batman's fallback on his Zur En Arrh persona. The transformation into the Outsider could be explained, subtly of course, by Satanic possession. This version of the finale consolidates three main currents from the run: (1) Batman vs. The Devil (2) Self-Reinvention (3) Silver Age with a Dark Twist. As well as maintaining (enhancing even) the thematic unity of the currrent ending, this alternate ending resolves the plot in a much more viscerally satisfying way that would even appeal to casual readers or newcomers.


  1. Here, here! Morrison totally welched on his promise of a shocking reveal in 681. Never have I been so disapointed in a comic I anticpated so much.


  2. Dr. Hurt turned out to be an ancestor of Bruce's, also named Thomas Wayne, who became a willing puppet of the demonic cult god Barbatos, the Earth proxy to Darkseid. It's as sloppy as it sounds.