Friday, November 19, 2010
Comic book superheroes, even the ones who cannot overfly a continent whilst shooting heat from their eyes, live in a world where the greatest feats of our real world are matched and exceeded by well-prepared mortals on a moment's notice. For some fifty years, Batman has lived in a world that inherits all of the wild premises of the magical and science fiction allies on his various super teams. His own wonders of deduction and acrobatics inhabit a world in which humanlike robots have arisen from the hands of lone inventors. Antigravity, size manipulation, teleportation -- these are part of Batman's world, but have not been a part of his methods. To preserve the formula that has propelled the character through seventy years of success, we never see him ask Superman to provide him with a Legion flight ring. We don't see him teleport into battle even though he routinely does so in JLA titles. There is a rule here which considers the title on the cover to determine what Batman can and cannot do. In Batman: The Return, Grant Morrison starts changing the rules, but not as much as he could have. Batman begins adding to his arsenal, with things that the real world of 2010 does not have, but not -- the rules are being bent, not abandoned -- Red Tornado -level robots and Thanagarian tech. Batman is skipping a few years ahead of where he's been, but not centuries. As RetroWarbird mentioned in the comments to my last post, we are seeing the sci fi of technology, but not the cosmic sci fi of Bruce's last two or three adventures.
"Planet Gotham", the one-shot issue's story title, takes the Batman concept planetwide while bringing some of the DC Universe's wilder technology into his arsenal. The idea of Batman works, so the man who is obsessed with fighting crime has finally taken upon himself to mass produce it, to bring Batman to ten thousand cities instead of one, to protect six billion people instead of ten million. If only it were feasible, it's what a man obsessed with a mission to stop crime would do. And yet until now he has not. But now he is.
This issue begins with an origin, one that happens to revisit a moment from last week's ROBW #6 as well as Last Rites and The Dark Knight Returns. As we know, it is the moment that Batman became Batman and his first act upon doing so was to ask for help. As has been abundantly foreshadowed of late, he is going to ask for more help than he has ever done so far, and it begins with those who have stood beside him in Gotham. It continues in Batman, Inc. all around the world.
Kane and Finger's Bat-Man began by fighting realistic crooks and killers, but that only lasted twelve pages. Soon he was fighting mad scientists and monsters. It took far fewer pages than the length of Batman: The Return for Batman's creators to decide that his victory over ordinary crooks was such little challenge that it was time to put him against something bigger. Return introduces the something-bigger that will occupy Batman's resources as he hopes to fight all crime but may have to content himself with neutralizing this new enemy.
Morrison's first two seasons of Batman have involved a single shadowy force that lurks behind the scenes while sending forth a series of medium-sized villains to challenge Batman before the climactic showdown. In both of the first two seasons, this turned out to be Doctor Hurt. This time, it is the organization that the script pages in Return call Kultek but that the pages in the story call Leviathan. What are these entities? Morrison tells us in the script that Kultek is a sinister organization. The name Kultek is itself mysterious (it means "refugees" in Hungarian, quite likely by coincidence). The name Leviathan is a pointer towards some dark anti-Judeo-Christian religion, familiar territory after the demonic names and backstory of Doctor Hurt. Exactly how these things relate or do not relate remains to be seen. Is Leviathan precisely the same thing as Kultek? Is it a subdivision? Does it relate to Thomas Hobbes' portrayal of tyrannical government? To the Old Testament's sea monster? To the DC Universe's similar characters such as Kobra and R'as al-Ghul? The detailed answers are not here. What we do see in Bruce's two outings against Leviathan, and a third under his surveillance, is a sampling of what is sure to be a longer list of bad guys.
The action starts off with an incredible number of references to knowing and not knowing. The verb "to know" and its negation appear thirteen times, sometimes repeated twice in the same speech balloon. The idea of knowing is communicated even more times using different words. One of the men is named Farouk. In Arabic, that means "he who knows truth from falsity." Batman is, in comparison to his super-powered allies, a man who knows things. He is a detective -- as his enemy calls him, a master detective -- and he usually has made victory inevitable at the moment that he discovers what his enemy is up to.
And so this conflict between Batman and the new enemy is about knowing. Batman says that a thing which is known can beat Farouk. Farouk downplays his failures by saying that Batman will learn nothing from him. Batman seems to know quite a bit about the enemy, possibly from his brush with omniscience at the end of time. The enemy, of course, knows everything about themselves. We, however, know quite little. Who, besides Bruce Wayne, is "Fatherless"?
We know this: Leviathan (which appears in a narration box as though it is the location for the final scene) has some dark master. But the boy hails it. It is an entity, whether singular or plural. They use genetic manipulation to create superpowered beings, as bodyguards for the wealthy, but perhaps for some other purpose. They allow the entities to practice against one other. For those who were keeping score, Traktir held his own against Batman for a while and the Heretic is the one who beat Traktir and a whole team at once. The Heretic, who may just be one big eye under that cowl, is obviously a tough opponent. He also talks about what will happen in ways that imply either prophecy or delusion.
And as much as this seems like a time for a new story to begin, things are compatible with being another dive into the same pool. Leviathan, among its other senses (including a use in Morrison's Clarion The Witch Boy), is like Barbatos is a name from demonology. "Heretic" is inherently a comment about religion. The Heretic looks a bit like the Satanic Replacement Batman, Lane. A dark master controls a powerful web of subordinates. Can anyone stop him? The final panel, showing Batman, is posed very much like he was at the end of Morrison's JLA #11, when Bruce began to wage corporate takeover against Luthor's forces in Rock of Ages. Both even sport the same "To be continued" in the same corner of the page. And we know how Rock of Ages ended up. Game on.