Friday, December 25, 2009

Best of the Decade #6

As I've mentioned in previous posts, a common problem in superhero comics is that the predetermined outcome often hinders the possibility of real drama. While some of my other favorite scenes of the decade beat that problem by allowing things to end badly, my selection at #6 did so by pounding the expectation that the story would end badly, and then let the hero defy that expectation by winning -- again.

The backstory of Grant Morrison's Batman, R.I.P. is that for about ten of the fifteen years of Batman's career, he's been the subject of a single plan to bring him down -- a noose that had been placed around him almost without his noticing, then allowed to tighten slowly before being set into its final phase in the year following "52". Interviews, solicits, several consecutive ominous events in Batman, and finally the title of the story itself indicated that for once, the Caped Crusader would not prevail. When issue #680 ended, Batman was unmasked at the feet of the Joker, grinning maniacally from a dose of fatal Joker toxin, at the mercy of Doctor Hurt and the Black Glove organization, left for dead and isolated from any allies in a deep basement of Arkham Asylum. By this time, we had seen how deep Doctor Hurt's plan had run, a concoction of Morrison that integrated the plots of stories as far back as the Fifties.

It was the culmination of a fear Batman had expressed to us in issue #674 -- "an ultimate villain out there, unseen... an absolute mastermind, closing in for the kill... an invisible, implacable foe who'd calculated my every weakness... who had access to allies, weapons and tactics I couldn't imagine. An adversary whose plots and grand designs were so vast, so elaborate, that they went unnoticed until it was too late." That's a real nightmare of a possibility. And by the time of DC Universe #0, we had Batman losing his cool for the first of several times, clenching his fists and asking "Who is the Black Glove?" while the Joker taunts him, "Scary, isn't it? When you can't see what's coming." By the end of #680, we'd seen it come -- a plan that split Batman from the inside, psychologically, stomping him into the ground when he was down. This plan was so complex, it was hard for the casual reader to grasp it in full. To freshen up on it, consult my 11-point summary of the Black Glove's plan. Even when the first pages of #681 were released as a preview a few days before the full issue, things were still grimmer, with Batman straightjacketed in a coffin.

There were the slimmest of hints that Batman would turn it around. The fact that he had tried to grapple with the concerns he raised in #674; the comment (perhaps the figment of madness) that he made to the Joker in #680 that maybe he had worked it all out and was playing with his enemies; the fact that he had obviously escaped the episode with the monk who tried to poison him, and the likelihood that that story within a story was a microcosm of the larger plot.

This set up the moment of greatness. (Remember, this is a list of my favorite scenes of the decade, not necessarily my favorite stories.) And then, in about ten pages, Batman sprung surprise after surprise on the Black Glove, and on us. It turned out that he not only had the physical means to dig himself out of the hole he was literally in, he also had been planning this for a very long time. The signs of his derangement -- the broken radio and his tattered Zur En Arrh costume -- were among his instruments of victory. He not only suspected Jezebel Jet of having betrayed him -- he never trusted her at all, and had taken out a symbolic revenge on her long beforehand -- something we learned with a line that pointed all the way back to a scene in Batman #664. He had built a defense mechanism into his mind that beat Hurt's efforts to brainwash him, and immunized himself to the Joker's toxins. Just as he had switched cups with the monk, Batman had beaten the Black Glove, and soon had Hurt running, futilely, from him.

Put aside the utility belt and the pointy ears, even the myth of avenging his parents -- the legend of Batman is more than anything else that of a man who can rise to any challenge without having godlike powers, just absolute self-actualization. Out-thinking the Devil himself, and summoning the willpower to beat the ultimate challenge, Batman had his finest hour in issue #681. A victory summarized in Morrison's elegant prose:

"In my attempts to see clearly in the deepest dark, in my efforts to go to the still eye in the storm of madness, did I open up myself to some pure source of evil? Did I finally reach the limits of reason? And find the Devil waiting? And was that fear in his eyes?"


My countdown of the best scenes of the decade is half done, with the best half yet to come. At #5, we'll see a mighty hero brought down low by a situation he cannot change. And then perform a miracle that makes something good of it.

1 comment:

  1. I fully agree with your assessment about knowing the hero will win. Especially because of the solicits, this one story broke that rule. You knew he was not going to die, but everything else was up in the air. I think the solicits overplayed what actually happened, but they did make the story intriguing. I know you are picking your favorite scenes, but most good stories will have good scenes and in the case of RIP, more than one good scene.