Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Batman 678

Morrison certainly has a lot of fun this issue. Fortunately this time - and it's not always the case - fun for him equates to fun for us. First, Bruce Wayne raises the bar on high fashion, shaming Ashton Kutcher and his trucker cap by becoming the world's first billionaire bum (Be honest, you thought I was shooting for the red and purple with that "fashion" comment). Second, a pithy magical negro opens Batman's eyes to new facets of life during their tour through the seedier side of the big city. In this sense, Honor Jackson seems directly inspired by Seven Soldiers' subway pirate No-Beard who accompanies the unmagical negro Guardian (here comes my racist ban from blogspot) as a spirit guide to the literal underworld of New York. Morrison even tags the bums of this issue with little pirate monikers like "Lone Eye Lincoln," which, unintentionally I think, mashes together pirate culture and urban poor culture, both of them violently preoccupied with turf - "Hey! This is my personal stuff! Fucking junkie!" - and concentrated in small clumps of kindred spirits.

Some of this issue also riffs on the Dickens Christmas Carol beat, first tapped on by the three ghosts of Batman way back in 665. But this time we have old Ebenezer Wayne slumming how the other half lives and then warming into a kinder, gentler Batman. Well, okay maybe not those things, but he certainly slips into a kinder, gentler color scheme. Morrison must've smirked through the entire script writing process for this issue, bubbling into full-blown giggle for the last couple of pages where he spoofs all the self-serious "I am Batman!" sequences and even slates a thunderbolt to strike at just the correct narrative moment. Bat-Might admonishes from overhead - "uh-oh" - to plant our feet back on the ground after the warp jump to Schizo Central on Zur En Arrh. Might reminds us that Bruce is a guy who dresses up as a bat. This shit was almost as silly back when he wore black.

Now Batman 678 calls for a rather protracted history lesson, which I interleave with my customary speculations on the material. First, that opera costume Dr. Hurt is cavorting around the Bat-Cave in belongs to Thomas Wayne. Choosing that costume out of all the others does seem to bolster his claim about secretly being dear old Dad in 679. Interestingly, and probably not coincidentally, the origin story of that costume draws extensively from The Origin of the Batman in which Joe Chill is killed (this was discussed heavily in the annotations for Joe Chill in Hell).

In Tec 235, which occurs chronologically after Origin of the Batman, Thomas Wayne, in flashback, attends a masquerade costumed as a "Bat-Man."

Some low-level enforcers kidnap Doc Wayne from the party and demand he remove a slug from their boss Lew Moxon's stomach, which seems to cast Moxon in a similar mold as the later Carmine Falcone. Wayne Sr. manages to escape the mobsters and testify in court against their boss, putting him away for 10 years.

A resentful Moxon hires Chill from prison to whack the Waynes, and the rest... well, you know. Back in the present, Bruce, donning his father's costume for story reasons (amnesia's involved, I'm not gonna get into it), pursues the paroled Moxon who, in fearful recognition of his attacker, flees out into the street where he and a speeding big rig have an intimate conversation. For the second time, Batman marks the murder of his parents as a case closed.

The story of Tec 235 is driven by a familiar formula: "You thought you had closure when Mr. Y died but oh ho! Really Mr. X masterminded the scheme!!" It's a fairly common retcon, which you've undoubtedly seen before if you read superheroes with any regularity. Perhaps Morrison is lampooning that tradition of retcon by carrying it absurdly far:

Well it's not just Joe Chill who killed your parents, he was only acting under orders from Lew Moxon! But Lew Moxon belonged to a crime syndicate which operated under the banner of the Red Hood! But the Red Hood only turned to crime because of the evil in his heart, and we all know who made up evil -- the Devil!
I cooked up the Red Hood part myself, but still, the idea fits with the Black Glove's claim to be "operators at the highest level!" I think Morrison is playing up the proto-Villain aspect of Dr. Hurt / Devil, the Mastermind behind all masterminds.

Finally, I shouldn't have to point out that this story supplies yet another instance of father-to-son occupational inheritance in Grant Morrison's Batman. More fodder for my Tim = New Batman theory which I put forward two issues ago.

The second story, Batman - The Superman of Planet X from Batman 113, links into 678 in much more obvious ways, not the least of which being some direct dialogue swipes from the 1950s issue.

The story begins with Batman possessed by some unknown entity who compels him to pilot his Bat-Plane into outerspace where he's teleported to the mysterious world of Zur En Arrh (presumably, "Planet X" is only the "Earthian" name for that world).

I'm not entirely sure why he needed to fly into outer space to be teleported, but the date on the first page reads "1958" so we'll let it go. On this new planet, Bruce meets Tlano, a Batman-inspired crusader (what a novel concept!) who brought the original to his planet to help ward off the green, generic bug-like invaders from the cover.

Tlano has also constructed an elaborate Bat-Cave, complete with Batmobile and Bat-Plane. A psychedelic version of the latter adorns the cover to 678.

Then, the garish double breaks out a new toy for Batman, the Bat-Radia, which "issues electronic molecules that cause controlled disturbances in the atmosphere!" Sweet. Suddenly, Tlano pulls out a gun and starts blasting at Batman who, caught by surprise (this is a pre-Morrison Batman, remember, so it was possible to catch him by surprise), collides with its "ray-bullets." Fortunately, the bullets bounce off his chest causing a smug Tlano to explain how, due to the immense gravity difference between their planets, Batman now possesses god-like abilities on Zur En Arrh, and in fact, Batman fills an entire page demonstrating these Superman skills, including the now-classic coiling-of-long-metal-bar.

I'm very surprised Morrison didn't attempt to adapt "I can twist it like taffy candy!" into his run. Batman wiles away the next couple of pages testing his new powers on the invaders when Tlano finally broadcasts the full power of the Bat-Radia on them, which robs the aliens of their biggest edge against Batman.

The actual plot of the comic isn't terribly important. The dialogue and the Silver Age accoutrements are really what's pertinent to Morrison's run. After successfully warding off the invaders and their robots, Tlano returns Batman to his home, but not without a keepsake to commemorate their victory -- the Bat-Radia!

That parting line pretty well sloganizes Morrison's run on Batman, and he steals it perhaps in recognition of this. "It would be far easier to consider this a dream." Tacitly, this is what DC has asked us to do for the past 30 years, but how can we?!

Page 1: "The Bat-Radia is turned on. The electronic molecules are streaming forth. It would be far easier to consider this a dream, but how can I??" quoted from Batman 113.

The second panel riffs on the cover of Batman 134.

That cover has a kind of metatextual irony, don't you think? Batman and Robin are already two-dimensional people! What's more, the Dynamic Duo actually defeat the monster by stripping him of his color and then ramming him with what looks like a giant pencil.

I wonder if Bill Finger was intentionally layering his story with metatext or if he's just streaming it subconsciously onto the page.

The third panel pays the reader a kindness and tells its place of origin, Batman 156: Robin Dies at Dawn. The details of that issue, I've recapitulated here.

The fourth panel cobbles together several different panels from Batman 153 with the closest resemblance reprinted below.

Though he's not in this panel, an alien really does pilot a red jet ski elsewhere in the comic.

Page 2: "I don't want to know what goes on in the Joker's head. I have to know." Bruce agreed to participate in the isolation experiment to better understand the Joker.

"But when I imagine how it must feel to be him, I think of a snake with a broken back, flipping and tracing intricate, agonized arabesques in the dust." Recall from Joe Chill in Hell that for his black casebooks, Bruce practices that “self-conscious, hard-boiled style that Alfred loves to read.”

Pages 3-5: Notice that Robin's entire battle with the mime Pierrot Lunaire is silent.

Page 7: "I do know you from somewhere. Alright! Honor Jackson never forgets a good turn!" Honor Jackson knows Bruce from Batman 676, where Batman, in one "good turn," threw a couple hundred dollars his way. "Honor" honors his obligation to furnish "another" even after his death, perhaps an invocation of ghosts with "unfinished business," as Honor does vanish once he's set Bruce on course to become Batman again.

Page 10: These gladiators belong to Charlie Caligula.

Page 12: God, I just can't get bums these days to shut up about "horticulture!" Actually, Morrison could've pulled the line off if he had Honor repeat the word later in the issue, as it's been my experience that the under-educated will often exhaust the novelty of their ten-dollar words. Anyway, we can pin it on Bruce's imagination, devising that unconvincing bum dialogue, so Morrison slips away on this one.

Oh also, somebody drops some change into Honor's beggar cup on this page, which is kind of odd considering that he's dead and not really there. Maybe this person is just in the habit of throwing change. Oh be a dear won't you Two-Face and jot down for me that lovely shade of nail-polish you're wearing.

Page 13: We see Batman resurfacing, not only in the severe ass beating Bruce administers to the "Psycho Riderz" but also in his trademark scoff "Hh.

Page 14: "You have a kind face," Honor thought this even when Bruce was wearing the cowl in 676.

Bruce retains his detective prowess despite his amnesia.

Note the red and purple rolls of cloth at the bottom of the shopping cart.

Page 15: Honor Jackson hands down to Bruce the sacred Bat-Radia, which Thom Young compares to Kirby's Mother Box. Like Kirby's device, the Bat-Radia also comes equipped with a "Resolve Plot" button, which we see Batman press in the concluding chapter of RIP (where else?).

"You can fall... or you can rise." Falling was the motif around which the last issue revolved. Now Batman rises. Last time, I noted with some disaproval that Morrison was using the same visual hook in two contiguous issues: 677 and 680, but now that I think about it the repetition makes good storytelling sense. In 677, Batman falls. In 678, Batman of Zur En Arrh rises. In 680, Batman of Zur En Arrh falls. In 681, the circle joins on itself and Batman rises again. Cool huh?

Page 17: Thomas and Martha Wayne met their fates at Park Row / Crime Alley, which is like the Brooklyn Bridge of Batman comics. The building in the fourth panel could be the theater the Waynes were departing just before their run-in with Joe Chill.

Page 18: Le Bossu, posing as a doctor in Arkham, has convinced the Arkham staff (man these guys are dumb) that Nightwing, who's spewing foam from his mouth after getting stung by Scorpiana, is actually Pierrot Lunaire, the mad mime who ambushed Tim at the beginning of the issue. I guess Le Bossu assumed the other doctor wouldn't recognize that mask as belonging to Nightwing, a fair assumption, since greater than 70% of the Bat-fan/Internet overlap found the frothing patient's identity to be terribly unclear (many thought he was Tim).

Page 19: The Club of Villains drink a toast to the Black Glove, including King Kraken, who I imagine will just pour the champagne onto his face plate and wait for it to dry.

Page 20: Batman pricks his finger in... well, I'll let Jog explain it:
Oddly, Batman also pricks his finger while sewing his new duds, a possible reference to the 'snapping out of a trance' bloodletting bit from Arkham Asylum. Well, more accurately, something that was supposed to happen in Arkham Asylum, before Dave McKean transformed it into a multi-page cataclysm of self-mutilation, "which would surely have rendered Batman's hand entirely useless for the rest of the book, and possibly the remainder of his useless life," as Morrison remarked in his annotations to the 15th Anniversary Edition. There is a ritual element to it all, but what the ritual does remains to be seen.
Page 22: Apparently, Bruce ingested a lot of roids along with that weapons grade crystal meth, as his body appears grossly disproportionate. Actually, the clunky Batman enhances the silliness of the scene, so it's not really so bad of fuck-up on Daniel's part.

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