Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Batman 679

While perusing Miracle on Crime Alley, which debuts the new BAT-man, I caught a drift of something, something hard to place, but something I could feel, something, some theme like symbolic selves. Maybe I imagined this theme (hallucinated it even) because I was looking for it after the first couple of nods, but the instances just seem to pile up in this issue. Visual cues, of course, arise naturally in the panels medium, but there's something a little extra in this one. I know I usually concretize my theories better than this, or I hope I do, but for 679 you'll have to make due with a more pointillistic approach which hopefully reading Grant Morrison comics has habituated you to.

First page, for example, Batman decked out in his garish new duds smashes through a door with a baseball bat. Now the bat, in addition to being a dusty old pun that should've died with the 50s, also embodies the brutality of the new Batman, who no longer functions as a human being but entirely as a weapon. "I'm what you get when you take Bruce out of the equation," Bat-Bum gravely intones. But the tacky hobo's-uniform undercuts this latest incarnation of the Batman, trivializing his newfound bloodlust.

Now the next pages really set the cogs off spinning in my head. Because honestly, without some thematic significance, this scene means absolutely nothing: the tailor never returns to these pages and his revelation about Le Bossu neither advances the plot nor connects the reader to any info he didn't already possess. Notice though that Morrison, like a fashion model with an abusive boyfriend, comes back again and again to the tailor motif, and there I think indwells the significance of these two pages. Clothes, especially in comic books, externalize the self of the wearer, often as if the character's very identity was sewn into the fabric of his or her outfit. Historically, it had to be this way, as comic book faces were (and often still are) sufficiently nondescript that distinguishing one person from the next necessitated characteristic fashion senses (e.g. Gordon's moustache and glasses).

Perfect example: think about the flurry of confusion storming the internet last issue over the identity of Arkham's latest captive. Even though Bossu was clearly fingering Nightwing's domino mask, since Nightwing wasn't actually wearing it in the final panel, examining that panel in isolation, the only things the reader had to work with were short dark hair, medium build, somewhere between adolescent and geriatric. That caricature doubles for Bruce. Hell, it doubles for Tim too. And though I hate to found two unrelated theories on the same ideas, consider 680's famous line, "Batman is cool! Batman wears black!" Right, so even with the same musculature, the same jaw line, the same costume even, only a different color scheme, but still operating in much the same way as always, the general can't believe that the real Batman could attire himself in these fruity fatigues.

And with Morrison spinning the threads, the clothes often don't make the man, and we've seen a lot of Batman knock-offs screw up just to prove that point. The clothes sometimes lie, broadcasting only desired associations rather than real ones. For example, to punish the depowered god-wizard Zachary Zor in Seven Soldiers, the Time Tailors knit him into a patchwork jacket that causes a lynch mob to confuse Zor with suspected killer/pedophile Cyrus Gold. "Not much of a disguise, you'd think. But watch it fool the locals," one of the tailors remarks, the implication being that comic book characters, like the audiences reading about them, have difficulty differentiating one another and frequently rely on characteristic adornments, in this case, a patchwork jacket, but other examples include Gwen Stacy's bow and Mr. Fantastic's gray streak, to tell one person from another.

Even earlier than that, Morrison's Orlando was fooling dumb kids with some of the most unconvincing skin grafts ever witnessed!

But let's not get off track. In this issue alone, we have numerous instances of characters pulling the wool over our eyes with the wool over their skins. First, Batman drapes himself in the flashy threads of a 1950's costumed do-gooder (Tlano Batman), yet doesn't follow his model in the least. In fact, the Batman of Zur En Arrh is far more brutal than even the hard-bitten original, provoking Jog's comparison to the awful Jean Paul Valley.

Moreover, this issue sees Dr. Hurt fruiting around the Batcave, defiling the costume of the first Bat-Man, trying desperately to sell the idea that he's Thomas Wayne still alive. Charlie Caligula likewise advertises a fake self in this issue, belting out his best karaoke of the Joker, eliciting Batman's comments on "the make-up, the vanity, the desperation." In a somewhat weaker way than Jezebel Jet, Wingman, and even Le Bossu / Dr. Dax in this issue, these characters anchor the theme of misrepresentation that has been floating around this run.

So yeah, I think the tailor bit matters.

Moving on, threads are but one of several ways Morrison projects personality onto physical form. For example, this issue offers a couple of insights into Bat-Might's true identity, which 680 reveals to be the personified subconscious of Bruce Wayne. Might accesses in this issue certain memories he could not possibly possess without tapping Bruce's mind or actually working out of a higher dimension as he claims he can (this is actually the stance I take, in spite of Bat-Might's apparent status as a hallucination). And not to dredge up a hoary old Frank Miller cliche, but Batman's roots do extend pretty deeply into his city, enough so to justify his naming of certain streets as "a machine designed to make Batman."

Page 9, in particular, gets much of its point across through symbolism. The second panel on that page reprises the Wayne murders but with the Waynes off-panel. That's okay though because those pearls provide a perfect pictorial summary of Thomas and Martha Wayne: rich, pure, loved, so that it would have been superfluous to depict them on-panel. Two panels later (after a suitup panel that we already got into), Zorro - or is that El Gaucho - declares "This will remind you that I have been here once and can return," presumably after signing the "Z" of his name. This obviously riffs on the whole Crime Alley rebirth current of the issue, but it also reminds us of something more relevant to this essay, namely, leaving one's mark. When you see a bandito wearing that "Z" on his hide, you know exactly what's happened to him. A writer can truck a whole mess of meaning to the reader (sometimes with the intention of misleading him) with a very simple picture, a cornerstone concept of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, which I sampled in an earlier link.

It feels kind of weird to discuss iconography as a theme, as opposed to discussing what the icons actually point to, but I hope the above illustrated (Heh) the prevalence of symbolism, especially symbolism of identity, in this particular issue. God, it'd be nice if I had to picture to say all that.

Page 4: "The hunchback. Hmmm." "Heh! You said it!" Everyone in that panel is hunching over.

Page 5: The grids are almost certainly miscolored on this page. Checkerboard grids - nothing could more perfectly facilitate the use of red and black.

"A machine designed to make Batman." Batmen are born, not made.

Page 7: Batman has tied his tooth to the pigeon's leg, presumably the same pigeon that was perched atop the gargoyle's head on page 4.

Page 8: Explicitly informing the reader that the Caped Crusader hallucinated Zur En Arrh seems to swim against the current of Morrison's run, wherein we have consistently bobbed around Batman's zany past with innuendo and insinuation. What happened to "It would be far easier to consider this a dream"? Lame.

Morrison sure likes to flex that Dr. Milo muscle. He's used him in both Arkham Asylum, where he was a sane inmate in the house of crazies, and in 52, where Ralph Dibny flings Milo from his wheelchair in order to get at the black magic artifact concealed in one of its tires. Morrison divulged a while back plans for one to two issue arcs following BftC. It looks like DC's booting him off the title, but I wonder if Dr. Milo played any part in those plans.

"Paging Doctor Freud!" Bat-Might jokes, channeling my mother's awful sense of humor.

Also, I believe Morrison is the first writer to entomb the Waynes under crucifixes. Even Bruce's angry stance evokes Christ on the cross, a favorite image of Morrison's. If Grant Morrison wrote a comic book about Donald Duck, he would petrify his wingspan in a Christ pose and probably confront the suffering duck with the frozen corpse of Walt Disney, and barring that, some other incarnation of the man.

Page 9: After some fairly mundane exposition, we discover that Bruce created the Zur En Arrh identity as insurance against a psychic attack. Solidifying a main theme of the run, Bat-Might confirms that "Batman thinks of everything," an idea Batman 681 will come to beat us over the head with.

Page 10: As I explained in the annotations for 676, the Swagman gets his name from the Australian anthem Waltzing Matilda.

Page 12: "Senator Fishy" According to legend, Emperor Caligula tried to inaugurate his favorite horse into the Roman Senate. Charlie's line here obviously plays off that legend, substituting a fish for the horse in order to link himself more closely to the Joker (don't tell me you haven't read Laughing Fish), whose manner he seems to be aping.

Page 15: Morrison waxes sympathetic for Officer Nobody before shish kebobing his frontal lobe on arrow stems. Jog seems to think that Morrison is satirizing the shit writing practices inherent to this kind of event comic, but I'm not so sure, since he pulls the same pity-me fishing in Final Crisis 3 and Batman: Gothic. So I mean, how many times can you satirize the same thing before you start to satirize yourself, you know?

Pages 16-17: Dr. Hurt vastly oversells his case. Everyone knows he's not blowing the load this early in RIP, and so, Alfred dismisses his claim with a prim, butler's version of "stfu."

Page 18: "We know who you are Bruce Wayne! Everything about you!" Charlie Caligula raises a very good point. Dr. Hurt seems intent on fairplay with the Batman, always affording him an out to the Glove's death traps, but what of the other Club members? What's to keep them from blabbing Batman's alter ego around Gotham City or auctioning it off as Professor Hugo Strange once did? Six free agent nobodies in Gotham City after RIP, all coveting a ten million dollar tidbit - maybe that's what drives Bruce into retirement. We'll see tomorrow (as of posting this).

Just as the Ranger apended "Dark" to his name in order to keep pace with his increasingly sinister foes, Charlie now commits gimmick crimes in a Halloween costume to compete with the growing legions of psychopaths in a post-Joker DCU. It's the prevailing notion of The Long Halloween and, more famously, The Dark Knight of "freaks" commandeering the criminal scene, and old "Little Boots" didn't want to be left behind.

Page 19: "What's that thing behind you! Where am I?" As seen on the previous page, Bat-Might is skulking somewhere behind Bruce. Charlie's awareness of the imp's presence seemingly contradicts Bat-Might's claim to be a figment of Bruce's imagination.

Page 22: On Batman's belt dangles the leafy coronet of Charlie Caligula, who Batman... killed??? I don't think so but we never see him again, so I wonder. Remember, Batman's not himself here, so anything's possible.

1 comment:

  1. Thought it absolutely worth mentioning, that Swagman's helmet and trench-coat are nearly identical to those of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. Portrayed by Heath Ledger in a movie two years ago ... and ridiculously appropriate for a "Joker Fan-Club" member to be wearing.