Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Grant Morrison's Bat Mysteries

Just as most of Grant Morrison’s Superman stories follow conventions of science fiction, most of Morrison’s Batman stories follow conventions of mystery fiction. Now, with only one issue left, perhaps the biggest mystery is: Is Batman, Inc. a mystery at all? What sort of payoff does the final issue provide if not a mystery? By and large, Morrison’s Batman epic has told four long stories, in four separate titles. With three of those complete, are there patterns we can identify to elucidate the fourth?

Morrison’s runs in Batman, as well as Batman and Robin, told long single stories with a hierarchical structure, the whole run broken into a few parts, each part a few issues long.

The first substory told as a mystery was his Club of Heroes story set on John Mayhew’s island, which followed achingly familiar patterns of Murder Mister Dinner Theatre, some of which are also enshrined in the game Clue (Cluedo) and some of the works of Agatha Christie, among others. Several characters were isolated, one murder took place which began a series of attacks, and the remaining characters were left to solve the crimes before their time ran out. The answer proved to be more complex than one might have expected: There were truly three culprits, all three of whom had a misleading or masked identity: John Mayhew, who falsely assumed the identity of El Sombrero before unmasking in the final pages; Wingman, who had a few subtle clues pointing to him throughout, but who switched identities with Dark Ranger after he killed him; and the Black Glove, Doctor Hurt, who was not actually given a name for another five issues. One may also observe that the only tangible clue, the absence of rain on Wingman’s plane, was no more salient than an error in the writing, the number of stab wounds used to kill the Legionary. All told, the mystery insofar as Wingman and Mayhew went was probably not solvable in the conventional sense, and as far as the Black Glove went, certainly not solvable, as it led into future storylines. So, while the story was overwhelmingly a mystery in form, it deviated from a mystery in resolution.

This was also true of the extended “replacement Batmen” mini-mystery. Batman’s subduing of the Bane Batman culminated with a question: “Who is the third man?”, which was unsolvable in the sense that it was a character who had no specific name or identity at the time the question was raised. And this, too, ended by conveying the unmistakable impression that a bigger question was more important. Not “Who is the third man?” but “Who is the king of crime?” and by a subtle visual clue, “Who is the Black Glove?”

The way that the earlier mysteries were not true, fair mysteries made sense in the structure Morrison was building. They provided like appetizers before a main course, whetting our appetite for resolution, then building that hunger more when no definitive answer came. And by the time Batman, RIP began, the mantralike question defining Morrison’s run was “Who is the Black Glove?” And fans set to work posing and analyzing guesses up and down the DC roster, with such names as Hugo Strange, Lex Luthor, Jim Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth, the Crimson Avenger, Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne, and many others being suggested and discussed.

Here, too, the conventional mystery many anticipated was not in the offing. No previously-defined DC character was in any sense the answer RIP provided. The tone established along the way was, in retrospect, preparing that conclusion: The intertwined mysteries of Honor Jackson (ghost or hallucination?) and Bat-Might (magical imp or fantasy?) were both ended on notes of perfect ambiguity. We can’t be sure if the street junkie who appeared and disappeared was a spirit resurrected by Bat-Might or if there never was a Bat-Might to begin with. In the story, Morrison makes a joke of it by having Bat-Might say that imagination is the fifth dimension. The ambiguity was there in the renaming Morrison gave the sprite when he changed Bat-Mite to Bat-Might. Might means power, befitting the character’s magic, but it means something else: The modal verb “might”: as in, he might exist. Or he might not.

Likewise, the red-and-black mystery ended up being no mystery at all. So the mysteries of RIP was always shrouded in ambiguity in its conclusions as well as mid-story. And when the Devil was name-checked repeatedly, and Batman himself says “the Devil”, it’s in a question. And when, later, he says it again, he says “may or may not have been the Devil” and references Hurt’s claim to have been Bruce’s father.

Batman and Robin and the intertwined Return of Bruce Wayne had at least as many mysteries of identity than a person can count on one hand. The Domino Killer, Oberon Sexton, the Red Hood, the “Batman” corpse, El Penitente, and Barbatos were all names and faces without a known match. The reappearance of Bruce Wayne in the final panel of #15 was subject to doubt, and there were mysteries, too, of the missing Wayne portrait, the tunnels under Wayne Manor, the casket, and more. Ultimately, there were more mysteries of identity than there were characters matching up to them (the Joker was both the Domino Killer and the detective trying to find the Domino Killer; Doctor Hurt was both Old Thomas Wayne and El Penitente). Most of these had definitive answers, whereas the contents of the casket ended up being an anticlimax.

Batman, Inc. has also had a few mysteries of identity. Most central, Talia was revealed as Leviathan, but this revelation came early, in fact, a year and a half ago. Heretic, the new Wingman, Nero Nykto, also mysteries of identity dangled for a while, also resolved long before the story neared the end.

So there may be striking significance in the reveal or reveals that remain. The Headmistress is the most prominent, nearly certain to be Kathy Kane, this mystery has not had its ceremonial unmasking yet. Nor has the identity of the occupant of the second grave, who could easily be the now-dead Heretic, or someone yet to die such as Kathy Kane. We also have the possibility that there’s a mystery where we didn’t know there was a mystery, if Talia is not the true controlling force and Ra’s or Doctor Hurt were to emerge. Finally, we may have outstanding the identity of the Batman of the future, who seemed clearly to be Damian; this future may be completely null and void, or someone else may take that role.

Morrison has told us that this finale will be bleak. That could mean Kathy Kane dies and Bruce is left to mourn the loss of another family (with Kathy and Damian as his wife and son, at least symbolically). It could mean we see the far future apocalypse is destined to play out. Morrison has kept his options open, and Inc is perhaps less clearly on a set of rails guided towards a specific finish than any of his Batman maxi-stories to date. The events in the story may be of less importance than the question: After a run on the character so long and so memorable, in what state does Morrison leave Batman? Is he the omni-capable Batman who defeats super beings and the Devil? Or is he a tragic figure lashing out in madness, as Morrison first wrote him, in Arkham Asylum?


  1. Obviously all great questions in the final paragraph. I expect most of them to go unanswered (at least explicitly), as have most of the "mysteries" or questions in Morrison's run. At the very least, the answers won't be explicit.

    I think at this point he's been pretty clear in his series of interviews on the subject over the past 7 years that Batman is sort of an amalgam, with various manifestations arising throughout the run (I'm trying to quote or summarize Morrison's descriptions): "hairy-chested-love-god," "victory in the preparation," "detective," "adventurer through space and time" (including the mysteries of the mind), "psychologically compromised" (schizophrenic vis a vis Zur-En-Arrh or drug-induced delirium by heroin or deprivation chamber), "son," and "father" (to his biological and adopted children). I'm sure there are others I'm missing in here, but you get the point.

    Additionally, I think it's pretty clear we're not going to get a lot of denouement in this final issue, which might be why he thinks people will "hate it." (Leave it to Morrison to tease the issue that way.)

    Finally, I still think there's possibility the grave ends up being Talia. I could see any three of her, Kathy Kane, or The Heretic.

    Can't wait to see how it ends, even if I "hate it."

  2. We've seen, now, nine of the issue's pages in preview, and this only intensifies the sense of postponement in terms of big surprises in plot. The tone of Bruce's sit-down with Jim Gordon looks to be an interesting juggling act of Bruce speaking, honestly, without explicitly giving away the secret identity that is less hidden than ever.

    However nice that dynamic is, and that between Talia and Bruce, these nine pages bring us closer to the end with no grand revelations, except perhaps that the splash pages shows the Ouroboros snake in a spiral (Spyral??) instead of a self-swallowing circle.

    This is the second Morrison bat-season-finale (after RIP) that begins with Bruce being poisoned.

    RIP left a lot of threads hanging. Many of those were addressed much after the fact with Hurt returning onscreen to be the main villain of Batman & Robin and appearing in ROBW and Batman #701-702. Even so, it was more than new issues were raised than all the old ones addressed. I think if there's anything I'm apt to hate about this finale it will be in what more could have been said and didn't fit.

  3. I just read it if anyone wants to know anything, though I'm sure you'd rather be surprised. Just thought I'd offer. Can't wait to get everyone's opinions tomorrow.

  4. http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2013/07/28/grant-morrison-sunday-conversation-batman-wonder-woman/2586739/