Saturday, October 3, 2009

Lynch, Peaks, Morrison, Batman

If you went to the movies in 1986, you might have chosen to see a romantic comedy, a historical drama, an action-adventure movie, horror, sex comedy – just about any sort of thing. Or you could have seen Blue Velvet, which blew conventional genre definitions away. It opened and closed like a G-rated film. The story had a familiar structure: damsel in distress, hero, villain. But all three of the principal characters showed deep perversions along the way. The hero eventually triumphed over the villain, but not before he found in himself a perversion which spread like an infectious disease from the villain to his victim, and from her to the hero. If there was a thematic progression, it was to show that beneath the mundane and beautiful world we enjoy exist all of the troubles of the world – sickness and violence and guilty pleasures – but even when you know that, that beautiful surface is still there, waiting for you to return to it. A movie like that doesn’t sit well with every viewer. It’s not a date movie unless you plan on a real wild finish to the date. Blue Velvet was admired by critics, but was the quintessential cult movie – loved by a relatively small group of fans. And in that respect, it typifies the film career of David Lynch.

Some three years later, the ABC network made the hard-to-believe announcement that it would begin airing a television series pitched by Lynch. The discrepancy between the conventional nature of broadcast network television and the eccentric films of Lynch created a tension that doomed the show to a limited lifespan. When 
Twin Peaks began airing in April 1990, it was just as "strange and wonderful", to use one of its own phrases, as one might have expected. Yet, powered by some of the sensibilities of primetime soap operas and a central murder mystery, it gained enough momentum to carry it through a second season. The show's defining whodunit -- Who killed Laura Palmer? -- became one of television's most famous mysteries. Eventually the appeal wore off for most of America (not to mention the network executives) and the show lapsed into history. 

Grant Morrison's style of writing superhero comics has at times incorporated some of the elements that make Lynch distinctive as a director. While Morrison has been tremendously successful in writing mainstream hits like the Justice League, he has also done avant garde work like Flex Mentallo, which commented on the superhero genre from within a story that broke fourth-wall boundaries. In bringing such sensibilities to features like Seven Soldiers and DC Comics' flagship story of 2008, Final Crisis, Morrison has written some classics that have won acclaim while turning off some of the larger audience by violating some of the rigid structural constraints of the genre.

In broad ways, then, it is easy to say that Morrison's work has played a role within comics somewhat like that of Lynch's work within film. However, in Morrison's work on Batman, the connection has been more specific than that. In Morrison's sixth issue of Batman, he began making explicit reference to Lynch's work, staring with the appearance of a blue rose. In Fire Walk With Me, the film prequel to Twin Peaks, a blue rose was used as part of a code to communicate that an FBI case pertained to the paranormal. When that blue rose appeared early in Morrison's extended Batman storyline, which ran for twenty-five issues, it foretold a paranormal element that had only begun to show itself.

One issue later, when Batman has encountered the second of two imposter Batmen, who wear a version of his costume but operate against him, he recollects that he had previously encountered those two, and one other, one night in his past, a night he had trouble remembering and had believed to be a dream. This left him eager to locate the third one and he refers to him as "The Third Man". This is most obviously a reference to the 1949 film of the same name, but it is more directly a link to Twin Peaks. Lynch and the 1949 Orson Wells film both use the phrase to refer to a person whose identity was the respective works' central mystery, having been seen (or heard) in the same context as two men whose identities were known. The third man becomes central to one part of Morrison's extended story line, although his identity is only a stepping stone to the larger mystery that was still unsolved when Batman had met and defeated the third replacement Batman.

That mystery came to fruition in the signature story of Morrison's Batman run, the six-issue story called Batman, R.I.P. This story began with the first on-camera appearance of a character named Doctor Hurt. (Actually, based on a nameless character seen in a single Batman story way back in 1963!) Doctor Hurt, it became clear, had brainwashed three policemen into adopting alternate Batman identities and making life difficult for the caped crusader. Now, Doctor Hurt was bringing together the elements of an incredibly long-running plan that would strike at Batman and remove him from his crimefighting role forever. When the first issue of RIP moved to a close, we saw Bruce Wayne and his girlfriend Jezebel Jet (the one who had received the blue rose over a year earlier) at the grave of his parents. The scene shifts to Arkham Asylum with artwork that initially focuses on some flowers, which had very sinister-looking millipedes crawling on them, signifying the horror that was welling up waiting to come. The scene to follow showed the Joker, Batman's deadly enemy, fantasizing about mass murder just before he is contacted by the Black Glove, the criminal organization headed by Doctor Hurt. This shot of the flowers and millipedes structurally resembles an early shot in Blue Velvet, which showed the green grass of a lawn, then zoomed in to reveal a dark subsurface with beetles underneath crawling in a disturbing battle between themselves. The image above shows three screenshots of Blue Velvet alongside the two panels of RIP that capture the same impression with a similar pair of images.

The action in the story soon thereafter shows us that just as Doctor Hurt had subjected the three policemen to brainwashing, he had reserved similar control over Batman thanks to having had access to Batman over a span of ten days when Batman had volunteered for an experiment in human endurance for the US Army (the 1963 story). As a result, Batman's crimefighting personality (as well as his personality as Bruce Wayne) was "switched off" suddenly when Batman heard a trigger phrase that had been programmed into him. This resembles the plot of another movie that Twin Peaks had referenced: The Manchurian Candidate. In that film, captured US Army soldiers had been brainwashed by the Chinese and Korean Communists during the Korean War. The equivalent of Doctor Hurt's trigger phrase was a playing card that a soldier was to see before carrying out a programmed task in the service of his former captors. In essence, the trigger awakens a persona that is not the victim's proper self. This came to play in Twin Peaks in two ways: One, when the Audrey Horne character (in a plot that is unrelated to mind control) wears a Queen of Diamonds costume, matching the playing card that served as the trigger in Manchurian Candidate. Many of us who were trying to solve the TV show's mystery at the time used the appearance of the Queen of Diamonds as an indication that someone might be under someone else's control, a hypothesis that turned out to be correct: It was ultimately revealed that Laura Palmer's killer was a man (her father) who was not acting under his own free will, but under the control of an "inhabiting spirit" named BOB.

As RIP moved to its final stages, the connections to Twin Peaks became thematically and visually overwhelming. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the penultimate issue of RIP, numbered Batman #680, is a kind of remake of the Twin Peaks series finale. It will be useful to summarize that episode, which was directed by David Lynch himself.

After Agent Cooper, the hero of the series, had identified the killer of Laura Palmer, he (and the show) lost purpose until a new villain surfaced. This was Windom Earle, a former FBI agent who had a bloody history with Cooper, a brilliant though evil man who had recently escaped from an insane asylum. Earle, it turns out, was aware of the same paranormal forces centered in the vicinity of Twin Peaks, and believed that he could tap their power for his own use. In his words, to "reorder the Earth itself to his liking". In order to defeat Cooper, Earle abducted Cooper's lover (played by a then-unknown Heather Graham) and took her through an interdimensional portal into a place called the Black Lodge. Cooper follows Earle into the Lodge and has to endure a number of strange interactions before facing three enemies: both Earle and also Cooper's own doppleganger, an evil version of himself who resembles Cooper exactly, except for having glassy eyes. Finally, the true power of the Lodge was the inexplicable and otherworldly BOB, who defeats Window Earle almost trivially before setting Cooper's doppleganger on a chase to bring down the hero. When the doppleganger catches Cooper, it results in Cooper's unconscious body appearing in the woods where he had entered the Lodge. When Cooper regains consciousness, it is soon revealed that while he presents a facade of normality, he has become the new host of BOB, therefore releasing that evil into the world again. And that moment ended the series.

Contrast this with the events of Batman #680, which was the fifh of RIP's six issues: Batman's abducted girlfriend, Jezebel Jet, was held as bait in Arkham Asylum, which the Black Glove had seized and turned into a trap for Batman. When the hero stormed into Arkham, he had to face a number of ordinary (and easily beatable) henchmen before coming face to face with the Joker, who is in every rendition of the Batman story, the hero's nemesis and methodological double (the Joker himself saying to Batman in this issue that they have "a yin/yang thing"). When Batman gets past the Joker, he sees Jezebel in a deathtrap, and in rescuing her, necessarily exposes himself to a toxin (earlier seen in Batman #663, but based on one that has been part of the Joker's repertoire since his very first story). As the issue ends, Batman (now unmasked) collapses, grinning and laughing like the Joker under the effects of the toxin which has killed every previous victim. Doctor Hurt stands triumphant over the scene, which also reveals that Jezebel is delighted by Batman's defeat -- she had been working against him from the beginning.

The similarities are numerous. Even before the fateful events of the finale, Cooper receives a warning from an otherworldly giant who has helped him before. Before heading to his confrontation in Arkham, Batman receives a warning from an otherworldly sprite (Bat-Mite, taken from decades-older comics) who has been helping him. Both heroes head into a tableau of danger and madness to face their evil double and an even more dangerous enemy (Doctor Hurt, the story slowly reveals, is actually The Devil). Both heroes are trying to rescue their girlfriends, who are being used by the villains as bait. Both heroes end up defeated, turned to the enemy's worldview (Cooper by being possessed by BOB; Batman through the Joker's toxin).

Even the set design matches -- closely. Compare Cooper facing off against his Evil Double in the Black Lodge with the shot of Batman finally coming face to face with the Joker. (Clicking on the images in this post will enlarge them.) Morrison (and his artist Tony Daniel) borrow the red, pleated curtains of the Black Lodge (which Lynch, apparently inspired by theatres, has used in other films) and a floor with a gaudy two-tone angular pattern (zigzags in the Black Lodge; a red-and-black checkerboard in Arkham Asylum, which the Black Glove has redecorated extensively). 

And the final blow is eerily similar. Batman, unmasked, has to break through glass to rescue Jezebel. In so doing, he apparently cuts his forehead. The last shot we see of him, he is grinning, out of his mind, seeing things for the moment through the Joker's eyes. Once outside the Black Lodge, Cooper smashes his own forehead into a bathroom mirror, then laughs evilly (BOB can be seen in the mirror as his reflection). The two scenes match even to the double trickle of blood over the eyebrow!

Of course, there is a key distinction. This is the absolute last moment in the story of Twin Peaks. (An ending crafted in response to the creators' knowledge that the network was cancelling the show.) But this was the second-to-last issue of RIP. And by no means the last issue of Batman. Cooper is never seen again. But Batman follows these events by inflicting a string of reversals on the Black Glove. It turns out that he was prepared for this event in many ways; he had an antidote to the Joker toxin already in his bloodstream, so it only stunned him. Even as he fell, he was sending a radio signal that would soon thereafter lock his enemies in. When he awoke in a buried coffin minutes later, he was able to free himself and win a striking victory over Doctor Hurt and the Black Glove. Agent Cooper, you were good, but you were no Batman.

When I first encountered the blue rose and "third man", I found interviews with Grant Morrison online, ones that preceded Morrison's work on Batman and wherein he praised David Lynch. (See here and here.) Since then, carrying on his work in the series Batman and Robin, Morrison has openly cited Lynch as an inspiration for the yearlong story, a follow-on to RIP, which is now in progress. And in terms of mood, the Lynchian feel has definitely shown up as Batman has faced such oddities as The Circus of the Strange.

To have had Twin Peaks reflected in Morrison's run has been for me greatly enjoyed. I took the mystery of Twin Peaks as a personal challenge to solve back in 1990, and I did so also with the mystery of the Black Glove's identity early in 2008. I enjoyed both stories thoroughly on multiple grounds, for their own mysteries and senses of mood. It was all the sweeter to have had one of the stories so deeply reflect the other.


  1. Rikdad,

    Always an enjoyable, and thought provoking, read. I hope at some point to see the scripts for the Morrison Batman run. I'm itching to find out how much of the artwork was directed and how much came straight from Tony.

    - MPG

  2. Rikdad, you always do great work, but this entry is particularly amazing. I too am a Twin Peaks fan (though I never watched the series until a few years ago) and as such I noted with glee the parallels with Twin Peaks that Morrison has been making in his Batman work. To see how closely Batman 680 follows the Twin Peaks finale, however, is astonishing. Of course, I knew that the atmosphere resembled the Lynchian "room" in Another Place, but I never noticed the extent of the parallel in terms of narrative. Reading what you wrote was like reading one of Sigmund Freud's case studies of a patient's dream, in which he shines the light of knowledge, reveals the hidden and makes the unconscious conscious. This is fantastic, high literary-theory level stuff. Thanks so much for this entry, particularly the 680 information.

  3. By the way, as far as narrative parallels go, when you get some time you might want to examine how closely Batman #676 structurally informs and resembles Batman & Robin #1. There's probably more to it than this, but I'm pressed for time, so I'll just note the following, which occur in both issues:

    2-page spread of new Batmobile
    Comment on the design of Batmobile (Bruce says it didn't turn out the way he planned; Damian says he adapted Bruce's (original?) plans)
    Introduction of a "green", easily-disposable villain (Green Vulture, Mr. Toad)
    Return to headquarters (Wayne Manor, Penthouse) to visit with Alfred after brief crime-fighting scene
    Scene at Waynes' grave

    ...Err, I know there are more parallels, particularly involving the villains, but I can't think of them off the top of my head, and I never really laid out these parallels before now. There are at least a few other parallels between RIP and the first B&R arc as a while that I've noticed as well: a Robin running off on his own (Tim, then Damian), a villain wanting to get punched (Green Vulture, than Pyg).

  4. Thanks, MPG. I share the desire to see scripts, although the script to Final Crisis #1 seemed to reveal less than I would expect, and some key things on the page are not hinted at in the script. So maybe we need a full transcript of the writer-artist phone calls!

  5. DAL -- Thanks, and interesting comments. I have been reading a large volume of very old comics and new ones alike. The structural regularities of the older stories is so obvious that it makes me consider what structures -- much more varied, no doubt -- occur now. The TP/Batman comparison is one look at that. I like your breakdown of the two Morrison issues. I was recently thinking of the new Batmobile as compared to the one mentioned in #655, which I think was an allegory for Morrison's run as a whole, and the mention in #676 was Morrison commenting on his own work. (He intended to build a new Batmobile, and did, but it didn't turn out exactly as he thought it would.)

    The Green Vulture scene was also a flash-forward to Batman's fall in #680. On drugs, in a bad Halloween suit, on his knees.

  6. I never watched Twin Peaks, but I'd heard talk of striking parallels. Thanks for the summary.

  7. Hi there Rikdad

    Fantastic work as usual but I'm itching to read your latest column.

    When can we expect to see it?

  8. Thanks, Richard -- Very soon! The uncertainties surrounding the Domino Killer are pretty vast, so I have been tinkering on a column which is pretty long already, but needs some touch-up. I hope to post it tonight.

  9. This is the absolute last moment in the story of Twin Peaks

    Nah, that was in Fire Walk With Me.

    Nice blog, Rikdad. Keep up the good work.

  10. Zom, Fire Walk With Me was filmed after Twin Peaks, but it was set before. All of its action happened before the TP television finale. (The famous dream sequence was set 25 years in the future, but only in the European ending was it affirmed to have definitely happened.)

  11. Yes, it's the ending that I'm talking about, and as I'm European I'll happily live with it. Were I American I suspect I'd live with it too (did Americans get a different ending, or is this an even weirder bit of canonical logic than that?).

    I'm intrigued by the whole idea that it's "set 25 years in the future". That seems like a very wacky and extremely arbitrary feature of the landscape. Is it revealed to be 25 years in the future within the text? I haven't seen the film in a few years and can't remember any evidence for this, but that doesn't mean it isn't there. Assuming it isn't, however, who gave us this information? Lynch? Should we care? I suspect that were I to rewatch the film I'd find a text that complicates that assertion to the point of absurdity. Things are seldom ever straightforward with Lynch, even the Straight Story *isn't*. The Black Lodge is after all an extremely strange place*, and (the fanboy in me would be keen to point out) not one which I would imagine follows the same chronal logic as our own.

    I'm going to have a chat with my sister about this stuff, she's absolutely beserk for Twin Peaks.

    *The way in which the Black Lodge, with it's dream logic, blurs the distinction between text and subtext makes all talk of what's really real and really happening there somewhat awkward, albeit not impossible.

  12. I've really been enjoying reading your thoughts on the unfolding tapestry of Batman and Robin! Being relatively unfamiliar with the details of Twin Peaks, this post was particularly illuminating.

    It might be a bit of a stretch, but the obscure reference to "Tober Omi" in issue #3 caught my eye.

    Tober Omi might be Circus slang for "road man." Apparently a "roadman" (or road chief) is a Native American term for the leader of a peyote ceremony.

    As I understand it, there were some Native American references in Twin Peaks, with specific significance to the mythology of the Black Lodge and the method of crossing into it (via oil?).

    I wondered if the threat of "Tober Omi" might be a knowing reference to the ritualistic actions of another character, possibly the Domino Killer, whose motives are indeed as significant and planned as the numbered dominoes might suggest.

    Of all the books to go on hiatus!
    Gah! Keep up the great work!

  13. Zorn; I think you may be talking about something else.

    "The European Ending" of Twin Peaks was a half-hour ending that was aired along with the pilot of the TV show. This completely wrapped up the mystery in the pilot, turning the entire story into a single 2-hour broadcast with no further follow-up. None of the rest of the series nor Fire Walk With Me is compatible with that ending. It is essentially a different "world" than the rest of the TV series + movie, although they begin with the same pilot of about 80 minutes. The Red Room scene in the European Ending had a subtitle marking it as taking place 25 years in the future. (This is very bizarre / unexplained, because there is no explanation offered for why Laura is seemingly alive.) The same footage was presented as "The Dream Sequence" in the TV show, but its reality is nebulous. While it seems to take place in the future, it is also a dream and therefore not necessarily real.

    But nothing in the television series or FWWM takes place after the scene with Cooper at the mirror. At least, not obviously so. The scenes in the Red Room and "Above the Convenience Store" are possibly outside of normal time, but they don't indicate that clearly.

    Also, the FWWM script includes a few follow-ups to the mirror scene that take place immediately afterwards, but they were not part of the film.

    So I stand by the assertion that nothing in the series+film takes place after the scene with Cooper at the mirror. The European Ending is part of a different continuity, and nothing else in the series+film takes place after that scene.