Wednesday, November 17, 2010
As the second Doctor Hurt plot has now ended, and a new run on Batman, Inc. is ready to begin, one can see that the original Morrison run is all the more remarkable for having produced the seeds for the still upcoming run even while it seemed to keep the primary focus on the mystery of RIP. A few important non-Black Glove themes that go back to 2006 sat dormant during Bruce Wayne's absence but will come to the forefront in the next year:
(1) Bruce Wayne is a important, heroic identity even when he is not Batman.
(2) Batman is such a great example of human actualization that he should be emulated; both evil and good forces have sought to duplicate Batman, creating one more or even an army of him.
(3) Batman will allow more equality in his partnerships, having seen the failures that result from dominating in all his relationships.
(4) The magic and science fiction that were part of the epic so far will be largely or totally absent from the next part of the story.
If there is a place to look for important symbolism in a story, it is at the beginning. Theme #1, Bruce over Batman, began in Morrison's run with the first words that any of Batman's allies said to him. Commissioner Gordon opened (excepting one line by an unnamed policeman) the dialogue in Batman #655 by asking the masked vigilante, "Is that really you?" On the surface, Gordon is asking if this is the real Batman, not another imposter like the one in the first scene. Morrison is far too careful a writer to open with a line that he didn't mean to have particular significance. What is being asked by Morrison is if the costumed identity, the suit, is really the hero. This question will be underscored in the very next line, when Gordon asks, "Has anyone ever told you how ridiculous you look in that getup?" Gordon later mentions -- again with a meaning besides the surface one -- "the nut in the Batman suit." If we wonder if Morrison is taking the question seriously or not, we can skip to the first issue post-RIP which shows a younger Bruce being asked by Alfred, "Have you noticed how you no longer refer to Batman as your disguise?"
The message continues to come from Batman's consiglieri, his older and sometimes wiser allies. After Commissioner Gordon tells Bruce to get out of town, the present-day Alfred, later in issue #655, tells Bruce that he has to relearn to be himself. And Tim tells Bruce to "combine the two," on the surface meaning to combine the two pieces of advice in one trip, but on a deeper level telling him to combine his two identities. We can already see all of this playing out in Batman, Inc., with Bruce Wayne stepping forward as the public face of the Batman corporation and many trips abroad as part of a recruitment effort.
Bruce Wayne has rarely been depicted as the all-around loser that Clark Kent has sometimes been, but his persona as the dissolute fop goes back to Detective #27, when Commissioner Gordon lights a cigar and muses to himself, "Bruce Wayne is a nice chap, but he must lead a boring life. Seems disinterested in everything." But Morrison shows Bruce Wayne performing stunts that are fully worthy of Batman at his best. In #664, Bruce skydives onto skis saying, "I've always wanted to do that." He goes on to bring a helicopter down with a ski pole after telling Jezebel that he is much cooler than James Bond. Morrison's Bruce Wayne also skydives from a hot air balloon into the city, making a smooth change into Batman in the air. Later, in #675, he fights off Jezebel's attackers without changing into Batman -- we see Bruce Wayne take down two thugs and the Nine-Eyed Man; there is even a panel of Bruce Wayne triumphant in battle with the bat-signal behind him.
In the persona of the Batman of Zur En Arrh, an occasionally dull but effective brute, we see the shortcomings of what Batman is like when Bruce Wayne is taken out of the equation. The implied critique in that rendition (looking quite a bit like his contemporary, the All Star Batman of Frank Miller) lets us know that the pendulum will swing the other way; we will see a Batman who has more Bruce Wayne in his equation. Indeed, we did in the just-concluded Return of Bruce Wayne. The hero operates without a mask in most of the issues, and gets to the end of Darkseid's trap by physically ripping a dark bat-persona out of himself, something that Superman's heat vision cannot do for him. Indeed, the pattern of story arcs resolving with Bruce Wayne unmasked repeats over and over. It happens in Morrison's second arc, when Bruce and Jezebel are watched by two black-gloved hands. It happens again at the end of RIP, seemingly because of Hurt's command that Bruce stop being Batman. Without the cowl, he does so, but is no less a hero. It is not Batman who brings down Hurt; it is Bruce Wayne, who is also unmasked at the end of story arc conclusions in 52 #30 and #47, Batman #702, Batman and Robin #16, and Return of Bruce Wayne #6. The title of that series itself has a meaning beneath the surface, for it is not only the journey of a man returning home, it is the return of a newly important man. Morrison's bat saga promises us in every way the return of a character named Bruce Wayne. And so we should expect to see more Bruce and less Batman. The revelation that Bruce has been bankrolling Batman launches this era formally, but the signs and signals have been with us the whole time.
And what will Bruce Wayne / Batman do in this new era? Theme #2, Duplicating Batman, has made the answer obvious to our hero; anybody with the means to do so has tried to duplicate whatever version of Batman they can. Talia used her genes and Bruce's to breed the ultimate child in Damian. Talia later makes an army of Man-Bats. The Gotham City Police Department had hired Doctor Hurt to turn three policemen into Replacement Batmen. John Mayhew tried to assemble a squadron of surrogate Batmen from around the world. Finally, Darkseid's cronies Mokkari and Simyan tried to make an army of cloned Batmen, using the hero's genetic material and memories -- a plan that might have had fearsome results had the original not stopped them.
Most of the arcs in Batman and Robin continued this theme, first with Dick Grayson a fellow orphan and crimefighter taking on (permanently now, for all he knew) the Batman role better than anyone other than Bruce could hope to. Jason Todd, though, thought that he could improve the brand with his deadly Red Hood identity. Next up, one of the clones went on a brief rampage thanks to the Lazarus Pit. Finally, the Joker wore black and worked as a crimefighting detective.
And so, following the methods of John Mayhew more than the others, Bruce Wayne will now try to duplicate himself, or rather his concept: Batman himself will franchise the Batman symbol, traveling the world to mold other non-powered superheroes in his image, elevating the methods and goals of their crimefighting to his standards. Most likely, Bruce will succeed in what others have attempted; he will make a larger force of surrogate Batmen.
When he does so, he will know how not to approach the matter. Theme #3, Trust in Allies, is introduced when the Knight tells us in #667 that Mayhew's heroes hardly knew one another and that "everybody was in awe of Batman. No wonder it lasted all of half an hour." The awe that the Club of Heroes members have for Batman is obvious throughout that story. With Batman filling the leadership role, attending meetings capriciously, delivering orders, and effortlessly commanding the glory, he becomes the target of envy. Wingman plays Iago to Batman's Othello, joining a plot to kill Batman and the other heroes in return for the Devil's promise of fame. This is quite the downfall from Wingman's debut back in Batman #65, when Batman was shown training him because his "northern European" home country told Batman of an "urgent request for a counterpart of Batman." In the shiny, happy world of 1951, all goes well except for the envy that an injured Robin has regarding Batman's temporary new partner.
But the Club of Heroes story inherits the Batman that Morrison got, the "bat-jerk" we had seen hanging up on Oracle and defiant in his rectitude after R'as al-Ghul used his plans to bring down the Justice League in Mark Waid's "Tower of Babel" story. This Batman, according to #669, somehow gave Wingman the idea that he believed him to be "a bit of a loser", and that he didn't take Wingman seriously. This perception drove the capable Wingman to an unanticipated breaking point, where he would turn to evil in order to be seen as a greatest good. He was tempted by fame thanks to his own moral weakness but also because Batman had, in the words of Iago, "a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly."
It is not only the morally flawed Wingman and the fragile Club of Heroes that breaks on contact with the haughty, superior Batman. He on two occasions even drives Tim Drake away, in #657 and #676.
That Batman will reach out more to allies is also primed as Return of Bruce Wayne ends, with Batman turning to the Justice League, calling them not "my colleagues" but "my friends." ROBW #6 makes a bold point that Batman is a man with the weakness of having been left alone but the strength, since the beginning, of having help. First from Alfred, then from Dick Grayson, who saved Bruce's life not only with his action but with also his levity. As ROBW ends, Bruce turns to his friends for a particular reason: He has been fighting gods and such a fight is inherently not his because he is a man. Theme #4, No Science Fiction, begins in #701 when Batman tells us, with uncharacteristic humility, "I've worked so much to gain [the super-powered heroes'] respect, they sometimes forget I'm flesh and blood." By the end of ROBW, Bruce knows that the science fiction monster has to be beaten by science fiction heroes. He tells us as much and hands the baton to Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern. This ends the part of the story that revolves around Darkseid, time travel, demons, and space medicine. RIP ended with Bruce telling us that he was writing the last Black Casebook entry. Inc. will be what comes after that.
And so begins Batman, Inc. A new season, but Morrison was welcoming it in since his first issue back in 2006. He's been telling us since the beginning that we needed to say goodbye to the bat-jerk and see a man who is more Bruce Wayne, more human, more open -- a part of things rather than the loner above them. We could call it a new approach to the character. Morrison, through Metron, calls it the first truth of Batman. This is a very different take than Morrison's Arkham Asylum presented when it told us, "Mommy's dead. Daddy's dead. Brucie's dead. I shall become a bat." The older Waynes cannot be revived. But Brucie's not dead anymore. A bat shall become him.