Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Is Grant Morrison's Batman Worth Reading?

I have seen Grant Morrison described as many things from a God of Batman to the worst thing to ever happen to him, but have so far not read anything of his supposedly epic series. I have set up this blog to chart my progress as I make my way through the majority of Morrison's work, from it's beginning with Batman and Son to the ongoing Batman Incorporated, starting with it's inspiration; The Black Casebook. To create a reading order I used two blogs, Comics Astonish and This Is Not The Blog You Are Looking For, so they deserve a lot of credit. I will be updating this page weekly as I read new graphic novels; assessing how each trade fits into the series, as well as reviewing them in their own right. From the outside Morrison's series seems quite polarising and I can't wait to get stuck in. I hope to answer at least one question; is Grant Morrison's Batman worth reading?
My Grant Morrison collection so far.
From what I have read of Grant Morrison so far his tone seems to be very bleak and, whilst I prefer more the serious and grounded in reality Batman books, I'm not sure that  I could get through a whole series like that. I borrowed Arkham Asylum off of a friend and we both agreed that every page is an appreciable work of art and it tells a story on a whole other level, but is not cohesive overall and is often hard to read let alone follow. I think that to truly understand all the subtle nuances present I would have had to read through it twice again; once just to reflect and once with Morrison's notes, which is too much to expect from most people. It is easy to see why it is controversial and is, for the most part, why I have waited so long to get into Morrison's main series; the length of his run being another reason.

You can check out my Batman credentials in the pane to the right. My favourite Batman novels are the ones transcend the super hero genre to become so much more; such as The Long Halloween and Year One, which could readily be considered crime epics. Year One especially sticks out in this regard as it doesn't contain any of Batman's rogues gallery, just mobsters and corrupt politicians. If you think there is something major missing from my Batman collection tell in the comments section below.

Note: This will be the order I read them in, which won't necessarily be the order I would advise. To see what order I advise people read them in see here.

Background Reading/Interlude One
It is strange to think about how old Batman is, and how few of his stories people generally read; before The Black Casebook the oldest Batman book I had read was 30 years old, and considering he's been around for over 70 years, that is a lot of his history that I am ignorant of. The Black Casebook helps alleviate that by providing thirteen comics from the fifties and sixties that inspired Batman: R.I.P. I think that without reading R.I.P first many of the insights that I was supposed to gain, into Morrison's thought process as he constructed this series, were lost on me.
These comics are so overly camp and often utterly nonsensical but awesome at the same time.
It is interesting to go back and read such old Batman comics as they have a distinctly different style, but I am glad that they have evolved since the fifties and sixties. The narrative style treats the reader like a bit of an idiot and is overly repetitive, what is happening is narrated and then reiterated by the characters. Sometimes as the goons are getting punched they will say exactly what is happening in detail before being knocked out. I think that modern comics let the illustrations do a lot more of the storytelling and any dialogue or character thoughts tell the story in a much more subtle manner.

Approaching Morrison's series I only had a vague idea of what happens during it; I know the outcome, but not really the journey. I would definitely advise people read the Black Casebook, as it is a fascinating piece of Batman's history, but only after they have first read R.I.P. Many of the stories show a more vulnerable side to Batman, or at least he has greater willingness to show his weaknesses in front of others, and this is really interesting to see, as well as how the relationship between Batman and Robin is more of a partnership at this point.

I. Batman and Son
As the title might suggest Batman and Son introduces the offspring of Batman, Damian, who is a brilliant character and will definitely change the dynamic duo forever. Damian's mother is Talia al Ghul and it turns out that he has been trained from birth to kill and replace Batman, but will this be the case? Batman and Son feels like it is building foundations for a much larger series, by introducing Damian in the first half and then barely mentioning him in the second, and fails to really resolve anything. The second half of the book is about the 'Three Ghosts of Batman', three ex-cops who dress as variants of Batman and seek their own justice.

I really like Morrison's writing, except for in one particular comic discussed later, and he clearly has a lot of ideas about what to do with Batman. The idea of Batman being at a loose end when crime is at an all time low is quite amusing and shows that Morrison really gets Batman. I find Grant Morrison's Alfred to be exceedingly well written as he gets the dry English wit and stiff upper lip down to a tee,  though I'm sure Alfred's taste in literature is far too high brow for the likes of Artemis Fowl. I especially like how Alfred remarks that the growl in Batman's voice is leaking over into Bruce's normal voice; as they are becoming less distinct personalities and Batman is no longer the mask, Bruce is.
I think that a lot of people who dislike Morrison's work accuse him of not knowing Batman at all, where as the opposite is true, he knows Batman so well that sometimes it is a struggle to keep up with him. My main criticism of Morrison's take on Batman in general is that it is so steeped in old Batman lore, which most people won't have read, that the full significance of the story is not accessible to everyone. Does this make Batman and Son a bad story? No, not by a long shot, as there is still a lot to like here and it sets the ground work nicely for Damian becoming Robin in the future, but it does feel unresolved.

Batman and Son contains a one-shot, The Clown at Midnight, which can barely be defined as a comic book; it's more a work of literature with illustrations, though not a good one. For the most part the illustrations look like cheap CGI and it would have been better if they had used normal comic book illustrations instead. Grant Morrison has a penchant for flowery prose and redundant similes that don't make for a well written story. At times The Clown at Midnight almost works with it's film noir tone and some alright animations but, whilst it manages to portray what is going on in Joker's head well, Grant Morrison's writing fails to capture Batman properly. The Clown at Midnight feels like a failed experiment and isn't vital to the story at all.

II. The Black Glove
I never thought I would ever have to write the word gush, but here I am about to do it twice, there is no other way to say it than The Black Glove made me gush; I am now officially a Grant Morrison fanboy. I have seen The Black Casebook described as background material for the whole series and inspiration for Batman: RIP, but I think it is more than that and pretty vital to fully appreciate The Black Glove. I think that my enjoyment of The Black Glove would have been far more limited without reading the background information first.

The first arc is a murder mystery case on an isolated island featuring the 'batmen of many nations' who, along with the Club of Heroes they belong to, were introduced in The Black Casebook. It's great to see what has become of these batmen since they were younger crime fighters; one of them accidentally killed a man but then got rich off of a book deal, one of them is a recovering drug addict, and one of them is an alcoholic. It is great to see Batman as an incorruptible absolute compared to these other batmen who are way past their prime. Batman has his problems, but gets over them.
I especially like J.H. Williams III's work in the first half of TBG and his recurring use of a glove outline as a border.
The second arc brings back the third batman from Batman and Son and fleshes out their back story. This whole section is littered with references to The Black Casebook; whether it be redrawn panels appearing, visions of past events superimposed on reality, just the name of the comic, or even Batman's subconscious taking the form of Bat-Mite. I really want to see how Batman: RIP further develops the references shown here as they are quite brief and, if you haven't read The Black Casebook, will probably go right over your head.

Something that does annoy me about Grant Morrison's Batman is that he never seems to finish a story arc within a trade, which gives them a lack of closure and means that you have to read them all to understand what is going on. I would have liked to have seen more Damian, who has barely been featured since the first half of Batman and Son. My only other complaint is that some pages layouts make it hard to follow what is happening all the time. Both Tony S. Daniel and J.H. Williams III contribute beautiful art here, but both can make it hard to follow the action.

III. Batman R.I.P. and Last Rites
R.I.P. brings The Black Glove to the forefront and is generally a cohesive novel, more so than the others, as it tells just one story; I found Batman and Son and The Black Glove quite disjointed as they are both split in two arcs, so it is nice to have R.I.P. focus fully on just one arc. Like The Black Glove I think that reading The Black Casebook beforehand will give readers a greater understanding of the story overall as many of the ideas used have a basis in the stories collected there. I think it is easier to accept the crazy ideas coming from The Black Casebook than if you are just reading this series, though Grant Morrison has changed some stuff around and watered the weirdness down slightly.

Here we truly see Batman pushed beyond all human endurances and gone insane as the Black Glove, introduced in the last novel, make their move. The concept of The Black Glove is a formidable one; the idea of a person or persons dedicated to killing Batman by exploiting his greatest weaknesses is awesome, but I think it was poorly executed here. The last novel and the first half of this one build up the Black Glove Society as a fearsome force to be reckoned with, but their actual execution is pretty lame; the members come off as far from competent, the leader is overly arrogant and the master plan falls apart in many places. Off the top of my head I can think of four places where the plan didn't go as expected and there didn't seem to be contingencies in place to prevent the whole plan from failing because of any of these individual failures.
Batman goes fully insane in RIP; if you thought he was in The Black Glove just wait for this.
In my opinion The Black Glove Society fails as a group of villains; they are supposed to know Batman inside out and anticipate his every action, but they don't, and on top of that they don't properly account for Robin, Damian or Joker either. I'm not saying that R.I.P. is a bad book, I just don't think that the Black Glove Society fulfils their promise of being a group who can manipulate Batman, and all of Gotham, to such an extent that he loses control. However, this may say more about Batman and his commitment to fighting for  justice and planning for every contingency as he is someone who's will can not be dominated no matter how far he is pushed. I still think that R.I.P. is a good book, but I don't think it is a great one.

The copy of R.I.P. I have contains Last Rites which bridges the gap between the events or R.I.P. and Final Crisis. Last Rites consists of two comics which were designed as a further explanation to what has happened, rather than as additional story, but I really enjoyed them. Without wanting to spoil it Batman recounts the major events leading up to the present, but also mixes in some amusing what-if like scenarios too; with-in two comics I saw A Death in the Family, KnightsEnd, The Killing Joke, Hush and Venom referenced. With these references and references to The Black Casebook throughout it shows that Grant Morrison pays great attention to detail and loves writing Batman.

IV. Time and the Batman
So this is where things gets tricky. After the events of Final Crisis, which I am not suggesting you read as it is not necessary for understanding Grant Morrison's run, the story splits in two; in Time and the Batman we see why. Time and the Batman is actually an extra long one-shot that Grant Morrison wrote, which is not connected with the rest of his series, and also the name of a trade that collects together Batman #700-#703. The Trade of Time and the Batman contains Time and the Batman, the two parts of R.I.P. - The Missing Chapters and another one-shot called The Great escape; it's tricky because Batman #701-702 (The Missing Chapters) are chronologically relevant here, whilst the others aren't. I suggest people read Batman #700-#702 here and leave Batman #703 until it becomes relevant later.
Time and the Batman isn't a vital read, but it is interesting non the less.
Time and the Batman is the story of one crime that spans the lives of three different Batmans; whilst the crime is solved by the second Batman the whole story isn't finished until the third. From Batman and Son we know that Damian Wayne becomes Batman in the future, but I don't want to ruin who the second Batman is for readers who do not already know. This extra long one-shot was meant to celebrate the seven hundredth issue of Batman and only it's characters and writer tie it into the rest of the series, it can easily be skipped or left until later. Something that does make this an interesting book is that, even though it was published as a one-shot, it contains art by five different artists.

R.I.P. - The Missing Chapters explains how Batman got into the predicament that he is in in Last Rites, from the ending of R.I.P., and briefly explains all you need to know of Batman's involvement in Final Crisis. I think that reading through The Missing Chapters means that you can avoid reading Final Crisis, unless of course you want to, and go onto the next step of Morrison's run. The first part of The Missing Chapters is pretty good but the second part, for those that have not read Final Crisis like myself, is a bit of a struggle; I think the second chapter is meant to refresh your memory rather than for those that missed Final Crisis completely. These, too, are probably skip-able for people with a limited budget, but it might make the leap to Batman and Robin unfathomable.

Interlude Two:  Battle for the Cowl
Battle for the Cowl asks the question, what happens to Gotham when Batman is gone? Who can fill the void left by his absence? And who will try to? Whilst Battle for the Cowl is quite central to the story; establishing the new Batman and Robin team, re-introducing Red Hood as a villain and featuring members of the Club of Heroes, I don't include it as a fully fledged member of this list as it was not written by Grant Morrison. Battle  for the Cowl was written by Tony S. Daniel, who contributed a lot of the artwork for Grant Morrison's run, so is very familiar with all the characters. My only problem with Tony S. Daniels writing was his depiction of Damian in the first comic, though it does get better. Daniels doesn't get Damians arrogance quite right; Damian thinks he can take anyone and doesn't doubt his abilities for one second.
Battle for the Cowl brings together a myriad of heroes to save a crumbling Gotham.
The trade of Battle for the Cowl also includes the two issues of Gotham Gazette, which is the beginning of a story involving Vicki Vale as she works out the true identities of Batman and his extended family of former and current Robins. Of the twelve individual comics that make up this arc Grant Morrison only wrote two, so is not vital to the story, but provides some background reading for The Return of Bruce Wayne. I suggest that if you read Battle for the Cowl you leave the two issues of Gotham Gazette until later and read them with Batman #703, in Time and the Batman, and Batman: The Road Home as Interlude 3. Overall I really enjoyed Battle for the Cowl as it offers a good insight into the formation of the new Batman and Robin pair and thoroughly recommend it for anybody interested in extending Grant Morrison's run.

V. Batman and Robin: Batman Reborn
Quite frankly Grant Morrison's Batman run has been a mess, with issues all over the place, but from here on it gets a lot more obvious where to go next. Batman is gone and Dick Grayson, after initially resisting in Battle for the Cowl, has finally taken up the mantel of Batman, with Damian as Robin at his side. Grant Morrison wrote the first sixteen issues of Batman and Robin and these are split into three trades, the first of which is Batman Reborn. Dick and Damian have a great dynamic, they have to save Gotham but they barely have time to work out where they are as a team. Batman Reborn is exactly that, the beginning of a new chapter of Batman, this time, for the first time, without Bruce Wayne. This trade is split into two arcs, made up of three issues each.

The first three issues introduce Professor Pyg as a villain and paves the way for the rest of the series ahead. Professor Pyg was a throwaway villain shown briefly in Batman and Son as an enemy of a future Batman, Damian, and is fleshed out into a full blown psycho here. It is amazing how well Morrison manages to incorporate throwaway characters later into his stories, there are a whole bunch in this trade, and shows how well he think's out even the most minor characters. Pyg's plan is to ransom Gotham for the antidote to an addictive drug that can be caught like the flu, Pyg also uses mind control to create a group of hideously disfigured people called Dollotrons to do his bidding. Pyg is certainly a creepy villain, but I think he is scariest when sane and still doing all this terrible stuff; rather than when he on drugs and talking meaningless gibberish, which he is most of the time. Whilst Pyg's plans aren't fully realised here, this arc lays the groundwork for much of what occur in the later issues.  
Batman and Robin has a much lighter art style than anything we have seen so far, but still contains quite dark content.
The second arc features the return of Red Hood with a new sidekick, Scarlet, who was introduced in the first three issues as someone who Pyg failed to completely turn into a Dollotron and who Damian failed to save. Red Hood wants tries to usurp Dick once more with a harder line on crime; his motto is let the punishment fit the crime, and he isn't afraid to murder and intimidate to do so. This harder take on crime fighting backfires as the Russian Cartel unleash their assassin, Flamingo, on Gotham city, to go after Red Hood and Scarlet. Morrison sure knows how to create creepy villains. By the time Flamingo, who is based on the artist currently know as Prince, has landed in Gotham he has already skinned and eaten the faces of four girls, and this is just his introduction. At the end of arc issue Red Hood asks a very important question of Dick that he has no answer to; I won't ruin it here, but it is very formative on the events of the next arc in Batman vs. Robin.

A great addition to all the trades of Batman and Robin is a section at the end called Batman Redrawn where Grant Morrison and the artists, this time Frank Quietly and Philip Tan, give a guided tour through the creation  of the issues. Grant Morrison talks extensively here about the issues, covers and characters and the influences behind each; it's a fascinating insight into his mind and show just how invested into this series he is and how diverse his inspirations are, from 1960s Batman to Prince album covers. Batman Reborn is a great start to a series that only gets better, if you have not read these before you are in for a treat.

VI. Batman and Robin: Batman vs. Robin
When I approached Batman and Robin I thought it was going to be a camp affair, with Dick Grayson as Batman, a ten year old as Robin and it's deceptively bright covers; this is not at all what you get. Batman and Robin explores some pretty dark themes, has a mature tone, and great characterisation. The Batman vs. Robin trade is made up of six issues, split up into two arcs; Blackest Knight and Batman vs. Robin. Blackest Knight is only loosely tied into the Blackest Night Green Lantern series, as they share a similar theme and were published at about the same time, but don't contain any cross over characters.

Blackest Knight follows on from Red Hood asking Dick why he hasn't done everything in his power to bring back Bruce; they know about the existance of Lazarus pits, why haven't they used one? Dick travels to England to attempt to ressurect Bruce, Knight and Squire feature heavily in this arc as Damian is out of action after the events in Batman Reborn. Blackest Knight is probably the darkest Batman and Robin gets and also my favourite arc of the series. In the behind the scenes section of this trade Morrison says that he has an imaginary Knight and Squire series growing in his head and it shows.
Batman vs. Robin is a bit of a misleading title.
I love Morrison's depiction of the United Kingdom with it's villains steeped in tradition, its North/ South crime divide and the way everyone speaks with a thick, almost incomprehensible, accent. However, if you aren't British you might not appreciate all of the references and probably won't know how to read a Jordie accent. Morrison, being Scottish, clearly had a lot of fun writing this as, although the tone is quite dark, there is a lot of humour here; Britain probably would have the silliest villains, like the Morris Men, and clearly the equivalent to Arkham Asylum would be the Queen's jail.

Batman vs Robin is important in a number of ways; it sets up the finale of Morrison's Batman and Robin and further develops Damian as a character. In my opinion the relationship between Dick and Damian is great as it turns the usual Batman and Robin partnership on its head, with a light hearted Batman and a scowling Robin, whilst maintaining Batman as the patriarchal figure; it's clear Dick doesn't always know how to behave with Damian, like a brother or father? Batman vs. Robin is quite slow paced to begin with but picks up speed in the second issue and ends on a big reveal; this arc answers no questions, but certainly raises a lot of new ones.

VII. Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne
As the name might suggest The Return of Bruce Wayne sees Bruce making his way back to his own time. Superman says that Batman is a survivor and that is exactly what Bruce does here as he is thrust through time; over six issues he travels to six distinct, if a bit clich├ęd time periods. Amongst other things Bruce experience life as a native American, cowboy and gangster. Travelling through time is tough and  for most of it Bruce isn't Batman he is just a survivor. We also see members of the Justice League, including Superman and Booster Gold, attempting to follow Bruce through time and stop him as if he does come back to his own time it will mean the end of the world.

You can be excused for mistaking the Return of Bruce Wayne for an episode of Doctor who, as it is feels as though it was heavily influenced by the British classic and has a plot steeped in science fiction. If you replaced Batman with the Doctor you would have an equally good story. I understood what happened at the end of The Return of Bruce Wayne, but I still had to read through it a second time to confirm that I had understood it and to pick up on a few of the references that I had missed in my first read-through. The Return of Bruce Wayne relates back a lot to the last arc of Batman and Robin and sets up the next one perfectly.
Witch hunter, Dark Knight, pirate and Indian Bruce.
I think that my main problem with The Return of Bruce Wayne is the same problem that I had with The Dark Knight Rises, there is not enough of Batman being awesome in this trade; for the most part the character you follow doesn't even feel like Batman at all, like I said before, this story could easily feature in an episode of Doctor Who. Bruce evolves over the course of the trade becoming more and more like his previous self, but he never felt like Batman to me, and I was disappointed that it doesn't add much to the whole series; it sort of feels like an excuse to get Batman out of the way so that Dick and Damian can be Batman and Robin for a while.

The Return of Bruce Wayne reveals a lot about the past of the Wayne family and reveals the true identity of Dr. Hurt, who has been probably the most prevalent antagonist throughout Morrison's run on Batman. Helping to punctuate Bruce's travel through different times is the artwork of six different artists, most of whom have worked around the series in previous issues. The Return of Bruce Wayne makes an interesting trade, but as it comes nestled between two amazing chapters of Batman and Robin I don't think it shines as bright as it could. Next up is the conclusion to Morrison's run on Batman and Robin, which heavily ties into the ending of this.

VIII. Batman and Robin: Batman Must Die

For me Batman and Robin has been the pinnacle of Grant Morrison's run on Batman so far, and Batman Must Die was my favourite arc. The trade of Batman Must Die includes Morrison's last four issues on Batman and Robin and the one shot Batman: The Return, as well as some bonus material at the end. This story shows why Damian is a bad-ass, even in red and green tights, and why he is a worthy, albeit different, Robin. This trade ties in to the end of The Return of Bruce Wayne and, whilst there is a bit of an overlap in the time-line, it is a necessary overlap to see what happens in Gotham leading up to Bruce's return.

Batman Must Die starts with a bang and doesn't let up; in media res at the beginning of the first issue shows what is to come in a few issues time and the path there is nothing like you would expect. This story expertly weaves together the plots of three super villains, not all working together, as well as two batmen and a Robin; without making it feel at all overcrowded. Somehow Morrison managed to bring together stuff that happened in The Black Glove, Batman and Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne in a cohesive story, that definitely benefits from being four issues long.
Robin is a total badass in this trade.
Professor Pyg makes a return here in the service of 'Thomas Wayne' as they conspire to hold Gotham City to ransom with his viral addiction; an unlikely partnership between Batman, Robin and Joker forms to combat this. If you were to split up Grant Morrison's take on Batman this book would undoubtedly be the end of act two, and quite an end it is too; pretty much every mystery is answered here. Just as you think that the Batman franchise will return to normal with Bruce as Batman, Damian as Robin and Dick as Nightwing, The Return throws everything on it's head. At first I wasn't sure about the Dick and Damian dynamic, but over the course of Batman and Robin it has really grown, to the point where having Bruce as Batman will seem strange.

Whilst Batman Must Die brings a large storyline to an end The Return introduces a new idea; Batman as a global sign of justice. The Return references early Batman as seen in Year One, but is more about setting up the next chapter of Batman. It's great to see Bruce and Damian interact, as they haven't been together since Batman and Son, and a lot has changed since then; Damian has donned the cape, been cut off by his mother and had Dick as a paternal figure. The Return feels more like a prologue to the next chapter in Morrison's Batman, rather than an epilogue to all that has come before, and suffers slightly for it, but makes me interested to see what Morrison does with Batman Incorporated.

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