Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Zur En Arrh

Fifty years before Grant Morrison's epic-length run on Batman was beginning to peak in interest, a story that was key to his appeared in Batman #113. "Batman -- The Superman of Planet X" played with the boundaries of reality, opening with a framing scene that suggested that it was all a dream, but with no definite resolution by the story's end if it was a dream or strange but real. Set on a planet called Zur En Arrh, the adventure teams Batman up with a distant admirer of his named Tlano. The concept of the story was to invert the Superman-Batman team by making Batman the one with the super-powers and his partner the one with the scientific gadgets. This sort of role reversal or role reassignment was standard fare for Silver Age stories. What if Batman was Robin? What if Robin was Batman? What if Batman was fat?

If you imagine, however, that Batman had the experience as a dream, and apply the Freudian notion that dreams reveal hidden preoccupations, you can take it as evidence that Batman has, in comparison with Superman, an inferiority complex and that his subconscious created the fantasy to let him experience the superior role for a change. Grant Morrison fills in this explanation (along with the idea that exposure to a villain's hallucinogenic gas, not a mere dream, triggered the vision) in explicitly psychological terms in Batman #679, with Bat-Mite providing the analysis. Bruce, still reeling from Doctor Hurt's attack, provides Morrison's comparison of Batman and Superman, when he comments that his mind is "Like a streamlined engine. A silver bullet." This echoes Superman's catchphrase "Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive." (A streamlined engine is a type of locomotive.) And that's an encapsulation of Batman that no one can deny -- his superpower is his mind.

Given the notion that Batman had something to compensate for, a vulnerability, what was it? In pre-Crisis (and pre-Dark Knight Returns) history, Batman had a measured sense of humility, and lacking powers, in comparison with Superman, might be cause enough (in the 1958 story, he comments, "It has been fun playing Superman"). But modern Batman asks and gives no quarter. Inasmuchas he lacks the powers of his JLA allies, he more than makes up for that with near-total self actualization, making him one of the hardest superheroes to beat. The limits he perceives for himself are few and far between and largely concern his past. First and foremost, there is his defining origin moment -- his helplessness on the night his parents were killed.

When Bruce speaks with the evil monk in Batman #681, he speaks of a hole in his mind, waiting to open up and swallow him whole. As he turns to discuss his plans for a defensive measure, a backup personality to save him in the event of an attack on his mind that may have already taken place, it is clear that he is describing, without being fully aware then of the details, the attack that Doctor Hurt began through some unrevealed brainwashing that took place during the ten days of the isolation experiment (the basis of another old story from Batman #156). This is a second weakness that Bruce has, because of the vulnerability that Doctor Hurt took advantage of. A single panel, easy to miss, reveals the connection between the two: the words "Zur En Arrh", in mirror image, is placed into the middle of this discussion. By the end of the issue, we know that this phrase was not a string of random syllables, but from a mishearing of one of the last things Thomas Wayne ever said -- a line that Bruce did not hear clearly enough to understand -- a comment that if Zorro actually existed, he would be branded mad -- Zorro in Arkham.

This itself points to a quality of Batman often considered a flaw of his (if an essential one): That his obsession with crime and dressing up like a bat is fundamentally insane. That perspective can be seen in the 1989 Batman movie, as well as Morrison's Arkham Asylum which presented Batman's jarring confession: "I'm afraid. I'm afraid that the Joker may be right about me. Sometimes I... question the rationality of my actions. And I'm afraid that when I walk through those Arkham gates... when I walk into Arkham and the doors close behind me... it'll be just like coming home." While Batman teeters on the edge of losing his composure in that story, he loses it utterly in Batman, R.I.P.

Morrison structures all of these vulnerabilities together: A line that alludes to the madness of the hero that Bruce will one day become is spoken by his father. Then the act that brutally sets him on his life's path takes his parents from him. The sounds of that phrase surface in a hallucination that exposes Batman's weakness in comparison to his friend and ally, Superman. When he thinks of weakness, that phrase, the thing ringing in his mind before the gunshots, brings it all together -- his helplessness, powerlessness, loss, and madness.

Therefore, it is not surprising that someone empowered to manipulate Bruce, with access to all of his memories, would choose a phrase that Bruce associates with weakness, instead of a random one, to trigger in him a weakened state. The phrase already has those associations -- it does part of Doctor Hurt's work for him already. Doctor Hurt sums it up in Batman #677: "The extreme lengths to which our boy has gone to make himself strong are powerful indicators of the weakness he feels he must overcome. That weakness is still there, inside. The fracture that will break the man." Doctor Hurt thereby asserts firmly that it is not just a psychological trigger phrase that was programmed into Bruce that will bring him down -- it is the very weakness that Bruce has been trying to overcome since the beginning. The loss of his parents. The tragedy that came with the sounds "Zur En Arrh" in Bruce's ears.

A plot point that led to some confusion was that the phrase that Doctor Hurt used to put Bruce into a helpless state was the same one that Bruce used to activate his savage backup personality, the Batman of Zur En Arrh. Given that Bruce had no conscious memory of the details of Doctor Hurt's plan until some of them began to resurface in #674, we cannot conclude that Bruce chose the trigger knowing that it was specifically the trigger that would be used to attack him. But it's not so strange that he would use the personality that was super-strong as his salvation, or the phrase associated with it. Coming from whatever subconscious sense that he had, Bruce put his weakness front and center to trigger his strength. That is the essence of his life: Everything strong that he is was caused by the defining moment of helplessness. Psychologically, he doesn't run from it -- when he needs to be strong, he remembers it. That's what he chooses to trigger the Batman of Zur En Arrh. (Note: The purple costume was the costume worn by Tlano, not by our Batman; that is a confound from the older story to Bruce's defense.) Somehow, Bruce was training himself to be the Batman of Zur En Arrh when he heard the phrase. His training was incomplete. If it had worked, he would have beaten the Club of Villains physically when they invaded the Batcave. Instead, he knew that he was not ready, fell to the ground, and endured their predations on his prostrate body. He needed to mutter the key phrase to himself more over the next day, all the more revived in his purpose by having been led again to Crime Alley.

The Zur En Arrh hallucination had a number of interesting follow-ups. In Batman #682, we see the Bat-Radia, the artifact Tlano gives Batman in the original story, in Batman's palm while he arranges items in the Batcave. This is presumably a small joke on Morrison's part, since the Bat-Radia should not exist if the adventure was a hallucination. Issue #678 opens with a panel showing a slightly different version of the Bat-Radia, evidentally part of the vision Bruce had, as Tim reads from the Black Casebook. Most recently, we see that Zur En Arrh is the acoustical password that Dick uses to access the vault where Bruce's body was placed after Blackest Night. It is a small mystery as to how a vault in Dick's use utilizes that phrase, but that mystery has more than one possible resolution.

This account of Bruce's vulnerabilities, all tied up into a tidy package, leaves one thing out. In Batman #673, Bruce recollects that when he was about five years old, he first senses "the presence of a toppling void in the center of existence. For the first time in my life, I suddenly grasp something. Mom and Dad are going to die." Is this an epiphany that anyone might have had -- the universality of death? Or did something -- besides the discovery of the cave under Wayne Manor depicted in the artwork of that scene -- make Bruce sense such a void? In the Detective #235 account of the costume party to which Thomas Wayne first wore the batsuit that inspired Bruce's, young Bruce sees his father in the costume before the party. Ten years later, the Waynes are killed. In Morrison's telling, the timeline must be somewhat different, but could the party have been the basis of young Bruce's sense of a toppling void? Did Black Glove iniquities take place and mark the Waynes for their eventual destruction, the way that criminal activities of a less grand kind did in Detective #235? When Doctor Hurt comments in #678 "How you've grown" does that indicate a meeting between Hurt and young Bruce? Given Morrison's notion that Bruce is 35 and the newspaper headline in #678 reading "GOTHAM'S HURT MISSING" marked 31 years in the past, the timeline works out very well for that toppling void to have coincided with the Waynes' first meeting with The Black Glove.

Update: While I have long associated the "toppling void" comment with a possible association between the Wayne family and the Black Glove when Bruce was about five, there is an existing explanation that is more prosaic. The scene depicted in the artwork at that point in #673 is a well-established scene, occuring in stories such as Batman #0 and "The Man Who Falls". #673 shows Bruce discovering the cave and its bats from above, but the earlier renditions show him falling ("toppling") into it and identify his age as four. This doesn't mean that there isn't something more to the scene -- it's not quite apparent why finding a scary cave would lead one to believe that one's parents would die. Whereas the party from Detective #235 is an event from roughly the same time frame (in #235's version, Bruce must have been about four at the party and fourteen when his parents died) and did confront Bruce with an event that led to his parents' deaths -- though without any obvious clues to that effect at the time.


  1. Part of what makes GM's run so great is the fact that he is exploring the psychological side of Bruce's choice to be Batman.

    And I don't mean merely that it traumatised him (Everybody recounts that story), but the fact that Bruce has fought his entire life to work around his weakness, which is what gave him the most formidable mind in the DCU.

    IMHO, I think that the original concept for the "Waynes party" will be used to a certain degree when it comes to play. I think that the Waynes were the target of Black Glove because Thomas was the uncorruptible good doctor. I don't think that Black Glove directly attacked the Waynes at first, but like Batman, worked a long time to "get inside" their circle. The whole thing probably culminated with the Wayne's costume party, where The Devil (In Hurt's skin?) faced off against Thomas Wayne and lost. This accounts for Hurt wanting to corrupt the son (that he met that night) and the memory that became ingrained in Bruce's psyche that a Batman (Thomas in the Bat costume) beat the bad guy....sewing the seeds of The Batman himself.

    I'm rambling....:)

  2. Rikdad-
    *Fantastic* post. I originally found this blog (and your posts on the DC boards) while I was trying to understand the ZEA double-use, and I think its fairly safe to say Bruce chose the code-word knowing it would be used - you were actually instrumental to me arriving at this conclusion. Its helpful to frame it this way, roughly chronological:

    *Death of Parents - ZEA lodged in brain as expression of helplessness
    *ZEA Hallucination post-gas attack - an expression of that ZEA lodged in brain. important, because this is where the ZEA costume idea comes from
    *The isolation experiment (I may be mixing the timing of these two up, but I dont think its relevant) - having access to Bruce Wayne's head, Hurt finds ZEA and recognizes it (as you so excellently point out above) as a symbol of weakness that he'll use to topple Wayne. He imprints the command then.
    *Thogal - Wayne finds "the spot where his memories run out" - he's found Hurt's imprint, and the comic as much as tells you he's even found what it is (the ZEA panel). He begins preparations for the backup personality. He knows thats the hypno-command, so he makies that the trigger for the personality switch. but, as you've said from here - he didn't finish preparing in time.

    otherwise, great post. I really love that one year later we're still talking about this. I'm very intrigued by the Dick-ZEA connection, and can't wait to see how it plays out.

  3. With Seven Soldiers laying down some type of precedent for the Omega Effect, with RIP leading directly into FC, do you see the Bat Radia as Bruce's Motherboxx?

    I hope we're treated to some inventive Bat Radia from different time periods in the Return of Bruce Wayne.

    On the topic of Dr. Hurt possibly being immortal Bruce from the past, driven mad & evil (maybe not likely, but an entertaining possibility), do you have any formative speculation about the corpse that'll be put into the Lazarus Pit?

  4. also, the Honor Jackson angle is still a mystery - whats the connection between the (real?) Honor Jackson at the beginning of RIP and the (imaginary?) one that guides him to Crime Alley, thus - as you point out - enabling him to take that final leap to ZEA?

  5. Matt, the Bat Radia might loosely stand for the same kind of thing as the Motherboxx (the same way that "Zur En Arrh" fills a similar role to "Shazam!"). The gadget in RIP was just a radio transmitter. The one in Bruce's hallucination made invisible enemies turn visible through some nonsensical pseudoscience.

    I think the body that will be put into the Lazarus Pit will be Bruce's body. Because his spirit is in the past, it will turn out zombified, and the result will be like that in the short story "The Monkey's Paw". Ie, something with Bruce's skills but evil and uncontrolled. Bad news, hard to stop.

  6. I hadn't peaced together the timing on the newspaper, which was stupid on my part - I looked at it, but failed to connect it with the 4 years old part. Surely this must have some relevance for the "is Hurt Thomas Wayne?" discussion?

  7. Lance, thanks for the comments. The usefulness of a post on this topic has simmered for a while, and finally boiled over. The phrase itself, which must have sounded light-heartedly science fiction-y when it was coined, sounds ominous and terminal now, and it was the title of Batman #678.

    I think the Honor Jackson is intentionally meant to be ambiguous. We do know that the radio was "real". We also know that Honor referred to Bat-Mite, who is both imaginary and real; I think that ambiguity is intended to be maintained. Note that the broken eyeglasses seen in a reflection in #676 are broken on the opposite side from what we see in #678. That may be an oversight.

  8. 錢,給你帶來歡愉的日子,但不給你帶來和平與幸福........................................

  9. Well said, Bobo.

    Money might buy the Waynes a lot of things, but it didn't buy them a happy ending.

  10. I think this is the first time I've seen a discussion of the "great toppling darkness" or "hole where my soul should be" outside of 4chan. It's a recurring theme throughout Morrison's run on Batman, Final Crisis (Darkseid literally replaces his heart with a black hole) and Blackest Night (the source of the black rings is described as a "black hole of emotion").

    Interesting stuff.

  11. Morrison certainly does repeat themes, and even phrases, from one work to another, and a "black heart" is one of them. In fact, if you look at the artwork in #679, when Bruce looks into the dirty bathroom mirror, a break in the glass appears to give him a black heart. And hearts were mentioned in other ways -- Martha Wayne supposed to have died due to a weak heart and not just blood loss.

    But those are stylistic motifs compared to the "toppling void" (an unusual phrase: How can a void topple? Is that verb transitive or intransitive?) which could, in the least original sense, be the same thing that we see in DKR and The Man Who Falls: young Bruce falls into the future batcave. But Morrison shows him up at the rim tossing a stone in. And why would that make him think his parents would die?

    The completion of the Detective #235 plot is begging to be told and it's hard to imagine that Morrison doesn't plan to do so.

  12. Oh wow, I never even considered that Zur En Arrh could be a misheard "Zorro in Arkham!" That's some fine thinkin', sir.

    Just found this blog recently, by the way. Your analysis of Morrison's Batman is excellent - it's a good sign to find a blogger who comes up with ideas I never would have thought of at all but that seem completely obvious and integral in hindsight. :P Keep up the good work!