Grant Morrison & Batman Comics: The Tail's STILL Wagging the Dog Author: John Bierly
October 20, 2010
When I had the honor of interviewing the great Paul Dini last year about writing the BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM video game, I asked him what one element was necessary to every Batman story. His answer came as easily as breathing: “Bruce Wayne.”
I couldn’t agree more. Batman is Batman because Bruce Wayne is Batman. It was THAT event that happened to THAT little boy that caused him to grow into THAT man with THAT mission -- to create a world where what happened to him would never have to happen to any other child.
There's an awesome one-shot comic that came out in 2003 called BATMAN/PLANETARY: NIGHT ON EARTH (by writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday), in which the Planetary team -- the Archaeologists of the Impossible! -- tracks a young man named John, who gained the ability to shift between realities as the result of terrible experiments conducted on his father, to the Gotham City of their own reality. Berserk with grief and fear, John has lost his tenuous grasp on his abilities and keeps shifting between alternate Gothams. The problem is that every time he does, people die because of the catastrophic effects his shifts have on space and time.
The Planetary team chases him through Gothams that play host to several incarnations of Batman, including the original gun-toting version from 1939, Frank Miller’s old, grizzled Dark Knight, and even the Adam West version.
Finally, they encounter what I can only describe as the Ellis/Cassaday vision of the ideal Batman, who doesn’t punch or threaten John but rather sits with him and takes his hands in his and tries to help him understand what's happening to him.
"Do you remember your parents?"
"Do you remember their smiles?"
"Do you remember the times they made you feel safe?"
"That's what you hold on to. That's what you can do for other people. You can give them safety. You can show them they're not alone. That's how you make the world make sense. And if you can do that, you can stop the world from making more people like us. And no one will have to be scared anymore."
That is AWESOME. I got the same thing from BATMAN BEGINS, in which Bruce Wayne sees his parents’ killer gunned down by the mob but chooses to go on and be a hero anyway, because it’s not about avenging what happened to HIM. It’s about becoming a symbol to let people know that they don’t have to be afraid of the darkness or the monsters, human or otherwise, that live inside it.
A year later, Andersen Gabrych hit the nail on the head in another way in issue #800 of DETECTIVE. Batman and Catwoman stand on a rooftop, and she's trying to get him to open up. She slaps him. "Don't you feel anything?"
He looks her in the eye and says, "Selina … I feel everything."
BAM! That’s it. He does feel everything. Why else would he do what he does? He’s not a man who’s running from the pain of his parents’ murder. He does what he does because he truly wants to make a difference. And that, to me, is everything that Batman is.
He can be serious without being grim. He can be dark, without being cruel. He can be a hero because he is who he is. Bruce Wayne. A little boy who lost his whole world and decided to build a new one where it’s the monsters who have to be afraid.
He's a hero who, when shot with an Omega Sanction, can be sent backwards in time and space to become a caveman and a Puritan and a pirate and a cowboy and...wait...what?
Four years into Scottish madman Grant Morrison’s run, it still absolutely cannot be argued that the man doesn’t truly love Batman. He obviously loves the character, and he obviously loves his job. These things have never been in question, and as much as I don’t like the current state of Batman in comics, and as much as I’m dreading what’s next, I can’t deny that Morrison’s tales of Dick Grayson as Batman in the pages of BATMAN AND ROBIN aren’t fun and and engaging and emotional and entertaining. No one writes Dick Grayson as Batman better than Morrison does, but as Jett has often argued in his reviews and on the boards, Morrison has become the tail that wags the dog at DC, and his wacky ideas are ruling (and, for me, at least, RUNINING) the bigger picture for all the other creators.
And please don't get me wrong. This is not some kind of "blame Grant Morrison for everything" tirade; the man is more talented and creative than I could ever remotely hope to be. I just wish this craziness wasn't happening in the core Batman books. When I look at Morrison's brilliant ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, for example, I see a work of great magic, imagination, and majesty. I see a creator whose brilliance shines beyond the confines of continuity to simply tell a big, beautiful story.
And I find myself wishing that this huge Batman epic was being told as "ALL-STAR BATMAN," where the story could go on as long and as oddly and as strangely and as cosmically as Morrison wanted it to go, all without taking Bruce Wayne out of his own comics at a time when his most recent movie made over a billion dollars.
I'd have bought both. Again, I don't mind the story at all. I just wish it wasn't my only option for Batman in comics right now.
Prior to all the FINAL CRISIS mumbo jumbo that resulted in Bruce’s banishment to the Omega whatever, Morrison’s admittedly inspired insanity was confined to the BATMAN title. If you wanted a more traditional Batman tale that still pushed the boundaries of the character in exciting new directions, you could pick up an issue of DETECTIVE COMICS written by Paul Dini and drawn by Dustin Nguyen. Their HEART OF HUSH storyline remains a modern Batman classic.
But once Bruce “died,” everything changed. Batman, who’d been there since 1939, was gone from DETECTIVE along with Dini and Nguyen. Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III took over with their awesome, award-winning Batwoman tale, but even that got cut short under circumstances that resulted -- either directly or indirectly -- in Rucka leaving DC entirely. Right now, DETECTIVE is nothing more than another BATMAN CONFIDENTIAL. And that’s not good.
Dini and Nguyen were shuffled away to a new title, STREETS OF GOTHAM, while Dini also began another new title, GOTHAM CITY SIRENS, starring Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy. Even though these books were peripheral, satellite titles, they were written spectacularly -- as long as it was Dini doing the writing.
Fill-in issues by other artists fell terribly short, and now Dini is completely gone from SIRENS (though March still provides covers). DC has all but abandoned the title, as the writers who’ve followed Dini have struggled to keep the book at anything even closely resembling the quality Dini brought to it. It has been left to wither die, while it could have ended gracefully.
As for STREETS OF GOTHAM, it’s also falling apart. The Dini/Nguyen HEART OF HUSH sequel, HOUSE OF HUSH, is winding down (and also somewhat elusive, as DC’s solicitations about what will happen in each issue have yet to be accurate), and it doesn’t look like Dini or Nguyen will still be on the book when that story is finished. What will happen to the title then?
Nguyen is being sent over to BATGIRL, which is a waste of his talents on a waste of a character. Dini’s name is nowhere to be found in the post-RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE landscape.
And all of this so that Grant Morrison can have Bruce Wayne running around the streets of Argentina with El Guacho. Pffffffffffft.
One thing I loved about STREETS OF GOTHAM and SIRENS is how Dini never stopped engaging in world-building. He kept building on threads and characters he’d previously introduced to create a Gotham City that felt like home to me, even while Grant Morrison’s bigger picture stories were getting weirder and weirder.
Meanwhile, artist Tony Daniel was writing BATMAN and struggling to characterize Dick Grayson as Batman as well as Morrison was so effortlessly doing in BATMAN AND ROBIN. And with writing chores piled on top of his art duties, I felt both his scripts and his pencils were suffering.
But it’s all okay, right? Because Bruce Wayne is coming back in November, right?
Eh, not so much.
After FINAL CRISIS, the “new era of Batman” was never a new era of Batman to me, because it was missing ... BATMAN! I always knew it wouldn’t last forever, but I also worried what would happen when Bruce returned. Because now we’ve got three Robins running around (with one of them being a Batman and another being something that may or may not actually be Bruce Wayne’s son, since we still don’t know the results of the DNA test), a Batwoman, and yet another Batgirl.
So even though Bruce would be back, it would never be business as usual with so many other players on the table. Will we ever get back to a status quo that focuses on Bruce Wayne just being Batman?
The answer is that we’re still literally YEARS away from that happening, as Morrison is planning at least two years’ worth of stories for one of the new titles debuting in November -- BATMAN, INC., which, in Morrison’s own words to Newsarama.com, is built upon “the notion of Batman taking the symbol and saying, let's form an international army or team, or police force, which is endorsed by Batman and wears Batman's symbol.”
And to think I was worried about too many Bat-inspired characters running around Gotham City! Ha! Morrison’s taking it international! Let’s stamp the Batman brand on every corner of the world, while Dick Grayson continues to be Batman in BATMAN and DETECTIVE!
Morrison continues, “Bruce's voice is louder in the Batman concept than it may have been in the past.”
Huh? When has Bruce’s voice not been not only loud, but the loudest voice in the Batman concept?
“He's come to understand who he is. He's not just a shell of a man.”
Are you kidding me?! When he has EVER been a shell of a man? The entire point of Batman is that Bruce Wayne could have surrendered to grief but he never did because he never gave up.
“He's not just a mask or a face. He's realized that Bruce Wayne and Batman are the same. So now he's allowing Bruce Wayne's business expertise to influence Batman's crime-fighting work.”
Morrison presents this as if he’s the first person ever to see it this way. Batman has ALWAYS been one and the same with the man inside Bruce Wayne! Hell, even sitcoms realize this! I was watching an episode of MODERN FAMILY on ABC, and Gloria and Jay were discussing how Manny got picked on when he wore a poncho to school. Gloria says, “Batman doesn't get picked on, and he wears a cape. A poncho is just a cape that goes all the way around.” Jay’s response? “Batman doesn’t get picked on because he’s a muscular genius.”
Amen. Batman has always been what Morrison is now trying to describe as some kind of revelation handed down from the heavens. Morrison knows this as well as (and maybe even better than) anyone, because that's how Morrison has always written him anyway!
Does Morrison not remember his own story where Darkseid tried to make an army of Batman clones and they tore themselves apart because they didn't have the soul of Bruce Wayne to channel and deal with all his memories? Once again, proof that you can't just make a Batman. It's got to be Bruce.
Morrison continues, “He takes a much bigger role. You'll see Bruce Wayne as almost a Tony Stark figure, using his money in a very different way.”
Again, why are we suddenly turning Bruce Wayne into Tony Stark? I was always under the impression that Bruce Wayne was just fine being Bruce Wayne, but what do I know? I’m just a 35-year-old man who grew up with Batman as his hero, and who’d just like to be able to pick up a Batman comic and read a great Batman story without worrying about which Batman it is.
Was Dick Grayson a worthy fill-in for Bruce while Bruce was trapped in time? Absolutely he was. But I think it sends a mixed signal when Dick is Batman in THREE post-RETURN books -- BATMAN, DETECTIVE, and BATMAN AND ROBIN -- while Bruce is only Batman in two books, including one that sends him around the world and away from everything we’d been waiting for him to return to.
The story continues after the jump!
The only other Bruce book, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT, to be written and drawn by David Finch, will feature Bruce Wayne solving cases of the supernatural. I'm actually pretty excited about it, even though it sounds more like it's its own thing than a part of the larger story Morrison's crafting. Which is just fine with me, actually. On the other hand, now we've got one book that sends Bruce around the world, and another that sends him into the spooky bowels of Gotham's supernatural underworld, leaving Dick Grayson front and center as the DCU's primary Batman and the new star of the two main Batman books that have been around for 70 years.
"But John, you know it won't be permanent."
Fair enough. But this Morrison stuff has already gone on for four years, and it's going to go on for at least two more. It'll still be going on when the new Batman movie is in theaters, and right now that seems like infinity to me.
We’re also getting a new costume for Bruce, and I have no problem with the design of it. But why does the design look 98% like the costume we’ll be getting in BATMAN: EARTH ONE? [BATMAN: EARTH ONE creates a new continuity similar to Marvel’s ULTIMATES line and will be written Geoff Johns with art by Gary Frank. - Jett]
Doesn’t that make things even more confusing, when you’ve got two Batmen in this continuity, and the “new” Batman is in the classic suit, while the “classic” Batman is in the new suit, and the new suit is almost exactly the same as the suit the “new” version of the “classic” Batman will be wearing in the “new” continuity?
The sad thing is that in July 2012, when Christopher Nolan’s next Batman movie is in theaters, some little boy or little girl is going to ask their mom to take them to the comic shop and buy them a Batman comic book, and when they get it home to read it, they’ll have no idea what they’re looking at, or why Batman is a different person, etc.
Don't get me wrong -- I love the fact that we've got options ranging from the BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD cartoon for kids to the movies Nolan's making and everything in between. Variety is good. But a lack of organization isn't, and DC's decisions just get more and more confusing, all while further diluting the characters of Bruce Wayne and Batman.
The problems aren't confined just to Batman, either. Superman left all of his own tittles to spend a year on another planet before returning to take a spectacularly lame walking tour of this one; he's now appearing in only one of his two core books, while Lex Luthor has taken over ACTION COMICS. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, has been "re-imagined" as a streetwise urban brawler clad in a leather jacket and a choker.
Both SUPERMAN and WONDER WOMAN are being written by J. Michael Straczynski, who's also writing SUPERMAN: EARTH ONE. Can you imagine this conversation between two people at a comic shop?
"Man, this story about Superman walking across the United States is lame."
"Who wrote it?"
"J. Michael Straczynski."
"Oh, well. At least we'll have SUPERMAN: EARTH ONE, which will re-imagine the character's origins for the modern age. Who's writing that, by the way?"
"J. Michael Straczynski."
Maybe he can take over Batman from Morrison in 2013 and write a story where Bruce Wayne decides he loves Argentina's culture so much that he decides to give up being Batman again to become El Guacho of Gotham City!
And finally, DC Comics has found yet another way to give us less Bruce Wayne -- by making us pay the same price for two fewer pages. The company announced on October 7 that books originally solicited at $3.99 for 10 pages ads/22 pages story would drop to $2.99 in January, but also lose two story pages in the process. They’ll now be 12 pages of ads and 20 pages of story; this affects BATMAN, INC. and BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT.
Books with backup stories that are currently $3.99 (10 pages ads, 30 pages story) will also drop to $2.99 and also drop to the same 12 pages ads/20 pages story model as the other books, and in doing so they’ll lose their backup stories.
Which means, of course, that new DETECTIVE writer Scott Snyder will lose not only two pages of his main story every month, but he’ll also lose his Commissioner Gordon Commissioner Gordon backup story that he's been so excitedly publicizing -- a backup story that, according to Snyder himself, is relevant to, necessary for, and intertwined with the primary Batman story! Sorry, Scott! Your story isn't as important as the bottom line, apparently. Once again, DC's "big picture" decisions are undercutting and undermining stories and creators before they're even given a chance to get started.
And mathematically speaking, the comics aren't dropping in price at all. They're increasing in price! If I'm paying $2.99 for 22 pages today, and I have to pay $2.99 for 20 pages tomorrow, then I'm not saving money. I'm paying more money per page.
That's like what happened when my favorite rib joint cut the portions in its combo platter. Instead of five chicken wings you now only get three, the half rack of ribs shrunk to a 1/3 rack, and the portions of brisket and pulled pork are also dramatically smaller. The rib joint answered customers' complaints by declaring that the price didn't go up, but it did! If I'm paying the same price for a lot less food, then I'm really paying more money per smaller portion!
From a creative standpoint, this is also frustrating and unfortunate. Creators who get paid per page are now going to be working for less money, and they’ll have to find new ways to shorten their stories by cramming the same amount of story into two less pages. Will that mean fewer two-page art spreads, because those pages will now be needed for the compressed storytelling? This decision will constrict both writers and artists, all while giving the fans more ads and fewer pages under the guise of a lower price, which isn’t lower at all when it’s costing us more per page. It’s a classic case of “Please don’t pee in my ear and tell me it’s raining.”
Bruce in just two books that are about to be two fewer pages is some kind homecoming, isn't it?
In Morrison's most recent interview with COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, he does admit, "I feel like I've taken it to the limit with Batman. If I push it any further, he might just become ridiculous." Um, Grant? He says the Kirby-esque Batman we'll see in THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE #6 is the most far-out Batman yet, but that he's bringing a close to the supernatural and sci-fi stuff to settle on a different tone for BATMAN, INC. And I appreciate that, but he's still running around the world making an army of Bat-People.
Batman did lots of globe-trotting in the 1970s when Dennis O'Neil was writing him, but he was always from and of Gotham City, and when he was fighting Ra's Al Ghul on snowy mountains, he was there being Batman, not looking for recruits. He didn't need them.
Could I do a better job telling these stories? No. But I don't get paid to tell stories. I do have to pay to read them, and DC's big-picture decisions are making it easier for me to hold on to the dollars I'd love to be giving them if my favorite characters weren't slipping away into an oblivion of baffling creative and financial decisions that are taking away all the reasons I loved them so much in the first place.
John Bierly still can't believe he gets to write for BOF.
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