[The following is spoiler-light. No key surprises are explicitly revealed. That said, the post does discuss broad plot points and themes concerning Morrison’s work on Batman. So if you don’t want to know anything before reading the comics, please bookmark this for later!]
This past summer, Grant Morrison wrapped up an incredible seven year run writing Batman comics. This was the biggest project of Morrison’s career, and one of the lengthiest continuous ventures in Bat history. After painstakingly re-reading the entire thing recently, I’ve concluded that it’s greatest long-form take on the character ever written.
Over the course of an intricate, maddeningly complex epic, The Caped Crusader wades through a distinctly Morrisonian mix of occult-based horror and psychedelic science fiction. He confronts fatherhood, loses his mind, dies multiple deaths, travels through time, leads a global paramilitary crime-fighting movement, stands up to his vindictive ex-girlfriend, and saves the multiverse from a malevolent cosmic god. At certain points, his thought processes devolve into apophenia, becoming lost in obscure symbology, Qabalist numerology, and obtuse deductive disciplines.
In one of my favorite moments, his girlfriend, Jezebel Jet, asks sadly, “Oh Bruce, poor Bruce…what if you’re not well?”
Morrison’s vision was as engrossing as it was confusing, featuring temporal distortions that span eons, creepy Nazi conspiracies, ancient demonological cults, ugly secrets of the storied Wayne patriarchy, and plenty of endearing familial drama. But like most of Morrison’s work, the story’s at-times bewildering obtuseness is made up for by expansive intellectual satisfaction.
Grant Morrison has produced a truly definitive statement on the character through a sustained effort to flesh out and unify the multiplicity of Batman’s cultural manifestations. Batman will be turning 75 next year, and over the decades the Dark Knight has seen countless aesthetic and philosophical iterations. These successive versions make up a rich, fragmented, and psychologically contradictory character history that provided Morrison with a brilliant conceptual basis for his storytelling.
As Morrison describes it:
“I became fascinated by the idea that every Batman story was in some way true and biographical –from the savage, young, pulp-flavored ‘weird figure of the dark’ of his early years, through the smiling, paternal figure of the 1940s and the proto-psychedelic crusader of the ‘50s, the superhero detective of the ’60, the hairy-chested globetrotting adventurer of the ‘70s, to the brutally physical vigilante of the ‘80s and snarling paranoid soldier of the ‘90s.”
In other words, he didn’t want to show readers “Grant Morrison’s Batman.” He wanted to show us THE Batman, the one that has been with us all along. It’s a simple, brilliant premise: if Adam West’s Batman and Frank Miller’s Batman were both the same person, how do we reconcile that incongruity?
For a character so expansive and high profile, it wasn’t a simple task. But Morrison’s driving thesis all along has been to embrace the contradictions in Batman’s character rather than simply ignoring them. It’s about framing the early, more innocent days of shark repellent and fairy boots, such that traumatic images like scattered pearls and bloody crowbars are all the more meaningful. After all, contradictions are what make characters into Characters.
A succinct representation of what Morrison was shooting for is “Last Rights,” the hallucinatory two-issue epilogue to Batman: RIP. With Bruce incapacitated by Darkseid’s minions during Final Crisis, we watch as his subconscious wrestles with the choices he’s made and the bizarre life that he’s built. The reader drills deep into Bruce’s psyche by cycling through a loose, mostly structureless collection of moments. A narrative emerges that deftly expresses what it may have been like to experience such incredible highs and abysmal lows, and still have no regrets about putting on the cowl. Morrison is a writer that excels at storytelling through graphic montage, and these beautifully written issues are a great example of how he can distill decades of complex character history into 48 pages of pictures.
But Morrison’s inquiry into Batman’s fragmented identity permeates the entire story. Thematically, Morrison introduced the concept immediately. The early issues find Bruce haunted by an unholy trinity of perverted alternate versions of himself. First in his dreams and then in his waking life, he encounters a Batman who kills, a Bane-like Batman juiced on steroids, and a Satanic Batman who sold his soul to the Devil to save Gotham.
Multiple personalities are also brought in with respect to Morrison’s characterization of the Joker. In the aggressively verbose prose issue “The Clown at Midnight,” Batman talks with Harley Quinn about the Joker’s fundamental lack of self. “He’s changed again. You know he changes every few years. You wrote the book, Doctor Quinzel. He has no real personality, remember, only a series of ‘superpersonas.’ That’s what you called them, right?” The idea that the Joker represents a broken mirror image to Batman is hardly new, but this was the first time I’ve seen the characters’ shared pathology framed as battling a parade of successive identities.
While Bruce ponders the symbolic significance of his perverted avatars, he becomes obsessed with the idea that it’s related to a deep-seated, terribly complex paranoid conspiracy involving isolation chamber experiments, an episode of temporary insanity, the hermetic billionaire sponsor of a failed super-team called the International Club of Heroes, and a demonic paternal figure named Dr. Hurt. Without spoiling the details, suffice it to say that Bruce was onto something. The instantly classic Batman: RIP ends with a harrowing confrontation between Bruce and Dr. Hurt.
The psychological nightmare involving Dr. Hurt digs deeply into Bruce’s psyche, and leaves him feeling cursed and tainted as he proceeds portentously into the meta-apocalyptic events of Final Crisis (a DC universe crossover event also penned by Morrison). Following Bruce’s “death” at the hands of Darkseid at the crisis climax, Dick Grayson steps up to assume the cape and cowl.
In Batman and Robin, Dick Grayson (the first Robin and later Nightwing) and Damian Wayne (Bruce and Talia al-Ghul’s biological son) were the new Dynamic Duo. Morrison described this phase of his epic as “an acid-tinged modernization of the sixties TV show as if directed by David Lynch,” introducing new fetish-inspired villains like the lewd, revolting Professor Pyg and the flamboyant, human face-eating Eduardo Flamingo.
Here, readers were met with an incredible spin on what we’ve come to expect from the two characters. The modern conception posits Batman to be a morose and obsessive introvert, complimented by a playful and kindhearted Robin. Here, the relationship was charmingly inverted. As Batman, Dick was nothing like Bruce. While both were inspired to crime fighting through the tragic loss of their parents, Dick never uses it as an excuse to be an asshole. It was truly refreshing to watch that kind of Batman play the positive-thinking older brother tasked with mentoring a troubled kid like Damian, a petulant, violent little bastard that had a lot of growing up to do. The brotherly love (and hate) going on here was tremendous. I honestly liked this character permutation so much that I almost didn’t want Bruce back.