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Zur-en-Arrh! (Part One)

While 2008 saw Marvel and DC both attempt to push “bigger than ever before!” summer crossover event stories in the shape of the largely underwhelming Secret Invasion and Final Crisis, it’s clear that the big story of mainstream superhero comics last year was the culmination of Grant Morrison’s two-and-a-bit year run on flagship DC title Batman. The writer’s stint, which in its entirety built towards the headline-making “Batman RIP” storyline, enthralled and baffled readers in turn – just as Morrison’s work is usually wont to do. There are those that declared it something of a definitive take on the character, while others were disappointed with the lack of a coherent, driving narrative. Many felt that “Batman RIP” itself was a desperately anticlimactic storyline, while others applauded its deeply thematic and explorative nature. The run suffered from an inconsistent set of artists (after Andy Kubert, who arrived on the title with Morrison in a blaze of publicity, departed after issue #666), and an at times erratic publishing schedule – leading to an unexplained break for the first four months of 2007 – not to mention having a couple of issues held hostage to a line-wide crossover that did little to engage or advance the franchise.

Nevertheless, Grant Morrison remains one of the foremost writers of superhero comics working in the industry today – and any undertaking of his, particularly one that lasts for as long as his Bat-run (a run that may not be over yet – but we’ll discuss those uncertainties later), is sure to contain much that inspires debate, allows for multiple interpretations, and rewards repeated reading. The twenty-five issues he’s written so far contain events and changes significant to the overall canon, as well as providing a compelling exploration of the meaning of the character. In the wake of the media hype surrounding “Batman RIP”’s conclusion, then – not to mention the particularly significant event that took place at the close of Final Crisis issue #6 – I thought it a good time to sit down and re-read the entire run, writing what I’d call a “play by play” if I were American and a “running commentary” if I weren’t, as I do so.

The aim of these articles is partly to provide analysis and criticism from – and for – the point-of-view of someone who has read the run – but at the same time I’m hoping that NTS readers not familiar with the run itself but who are interested in learning what all the fuss was about will be able to follow what’s going on from the brief plot descriptions I provide. I should stress that these aren’t detailed annotations – others have done that better than I could, and I particularly recommend Timothy Callahan – and nor will I be covering every point or detail. These are just the observations that occur to me as a reader – whether it’s something that strikes me as relevant to later on in the run, or simply worthy of comment in and of itself. So, without any further babbling, we’ll begin with…

Batman and Son

Batman and Son (issues 655-658)

Things start off in fairly explosive fashion with issue #655, which opens with the Joker standing, crowbar in hand (an obvious piece of symbolism drawn from Bat-lore) over a bruised and bloodied Batman, memorably declaring “I did it! I finally killed Batman! In front of a bunch of vulnerable, disabled KIDS!!!” – before then being shot in the face by his captive. Aside from being an obvious but effective piece of fake-out with which to kick off the run – the “Batman” that shot the Joker was in fact a psychopathic cop playing dress-up – this plants seeds for a few later developments (for example, it would appear that one of the reasons the Joker later throws his lot in with the Black Glove is due to being downright affronted that Batman would “break the rules” and shoot him), but can also be seen as Morrison casting off the shackles of the older portrayal of the character. Obviously a quite literal transformation takes place (the scarred, post-plastic-surgery Joker also, one would imagine, an influence on the then-in-development Heath Ledger version) but in presenting us with such an over-the-top, almost clichéd vision of the “classic” take – right down to the Joker-faced helicopter, a quaint relic of the Silver Age, as well as squirting acid from a lapel flower – it’s as if Morrison is trying to make clear the contrast between this version and his own. Indeed, the purple-suited clown looks positively archaic when held alongside the genuinely chilling psychopath-in-a-clinical-gown of later issues.

Another quick point about the first issue that’s worth alighting on is the not-so-subtle use of graffiti to plant the phrase “Zur-en-Arrh” into the reader’s head. I’m not sure it’s used all that effectively, though – it’s basically just a couple of pages, in which the graffiti appears far too frequently and far too prominently (some of it looking too superimposed, rather than just a simple part of the scenery) to create a subtle flash – particularly when you consider that it’s supposed to have a similarly subliminal effect on Bruce himself, but it’s just too obvious for him not to notice. It is used to better effect in Kubert’s second (and final) arc, making it more of a “Bad Wolf”-esque device; but here, it’s a bit too glaring. (Incidentally, readers who haven’t read “Batman RIP” who are now wondering what the hell “Zur-en-Arrh” means – don’t worry. You’re not supposed to know just yet.)

Damian introduces himself.
Art from "Batman and Son" by Andy Kubert

The remainder of the four-part arc is largely concerned with the arrival into Bruce’s life of… well, as the title suggests, Batman’s son, conceived with one-time love Talia (daughter of the villain Ra’s al Ghul). The presence of Damian is perhaps one of the more contentious aspects of Morrison’s run, and it’s worth remembering that at the time, there were those (myself included) who suspected foul play – that Damian wouldn’t turn out to be his real son, or some other kind of fake-out, so potentially huge a plot development it seemed to be. But unlike a similar storyline that ran in Action Comics around the same time (in which Clark and Lois adopted the Kryptonian son of General Zod), or indeed the movie Superman Returns, it’s not like having a son has never been a part of the Batman mythos. When you consider that he’s adopted two out of the three Robins (Jason Todd and Tim Drake, the latter a relatively recent development after the death of his own father), and that Dick Grayson was his ward for many years, it’s clear that Batman is not a character unsuited to serving as a father figure. So bringing a character like Damian into his life, as strange as it may seem, is hardly desperately problematic.

The problems arise more with what the little brat is like as a character. Okay, he’s supposed to be irritating, but the odd good moment aside (such as Bruce earning his respect for the first time by suddenly turning on him), that doesn’t lessen the annoyance of reading about him – and I also don’t think the issue of him having brutally decapitated a minor villain is ever adequately resolved. This would all be fine, of course, if his disappearance at the end of “Batman and Son” were the end of a neat, self-contained story about him – but as he later becomes a recurring feature (and a somewhat significant part of one particular issue, which we’ll come to later), it’s disappointing that these problems are never really addressed, and that he doesn’t serve all that much of a purpose.

Grant Morrison in "meta" shock!
Art from "Batman and Son" by Andy Kubert

Reading it through again, though, “Batman and Son” is largely an unsatisfying arc – some lovely moments and strong art from Kubert can’t mask the fact that, beyond the addition of Damian to the mythos, there really isn’t a huge amount of plot (to sum up, it’s basically : Talia descends upon London with an army of ninja Man-Bats, drops Damian off with Batman for a bit, tries to carry out a slightly lame bit of terrorism and persuade Batman to form a big happy family with her and their son, and disappears again). But one other thing I wanted to bring up was a fun bit of narrative play in issue #656, the second chapter of the arc. Notable largely for the introduction of love interest Jezebel Jet – later to play an integral part in the overall story – the bulk of the issue takes place in an art gallery featuring an exhibition of Roy Lichtenstein-esque comic book pop art. At times, Morrison cleverly uses the paintings in the background to feature as captions and sound effects for the action, in a manner akin to the hokey old “ZAP!” and “KAPOW!” device employed in the ‘60s Adam West TV series. It’s not a hugely original concept – and it’s also one that a recent issue of Amazing Spider-Man nicked wholesale – but it’s a fun one, and provides one of the only examples through his Batman run of Morrison playing with his trademark metatextuality (as more obviously seen running like a thread through his career, from Animal Man to All-Star Superman). It’s indicative of the fact that even when he’s not firing on all cylinders, Morrison is still constantly looking for ways to be inventive.

Grotesk (issues 659-662)

This isn’t part of the Morrison run, but I thought it worth mentioning for the sake of completeness. For reasons never actually given publicly (at least not to my knowledge), the “next issue” solicited at the end of “Batman and Son”, which was to feature the Joker, didn’t show up straight away. Instead, without warning we were given a four-part fill-in arc by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake. I’m guessing this was done in order to keep the book being published while Morrison (or the artist) finished working on the aforementioned Joker issue – but while in some ways you can see that as preferable to the usual Marvel policy of simply delaying things until they’re finished, I think it badly harmed the momentum of a run that was already struggling to establish itself after an inconsistent opening. It doesn’t help, either, that “Grotesk” is a rather predictable and straightforward storyline, complete with some fairly trite dialogue, that you suspect would never otherwise have earned four valuable issues’ worth of space in such a headline title. If you’re trying to follow the Morrison run in its entirety, then know that you can safely ignore these four issues entirely, and skip straight on to…

The Clown at Midnight

The Clown at Midnight (issue 663)

… an issue that couldn’t be more different from the by-the-numbers work of Ostrander if it tried. Easily the most controversial chapter of Morrison’s run, “The Clown at Midnight” is an issue about which it would be quite easily to devote an entire article, and then some. So please forgive me if I fail to adequately cover everything or indeed anything it brings up.

So. It’s a prose story. Illustrated with computer-generated images by John van Fleet. It’s written in a very deliberately overwrought, almost parodic style – one that will come as no surprise to people more familiar with Morrison’s work – and fittingly, given its subject matter, it’s pretty hard to tell just where the writer’s being serious, and where he’s taking the piss. It opens quite, quite brilliantly, though – from the first line, “There’s something about clowns and a funeral and it’s hard to say if it’s sad or if it’s funny”, the opening vignette of the Joker’s former henchmen being murdered at a funeral by “a joke so funny it makes you laugh your own intestines out” is terrific. And it also, of course, lays a particularly important seed for later on (er, no pun intended) by establishing the idea of a cocktail of red and black flowers, lethal only when combined. The introduction of Batman, meanwhile, sees the tone descend more obviously into parody – specifically Frank Miller parody – with lines like “The Batman smells fear above all. Fear is rising from the streets the way carnival balloons rise on the hot thermals” or “[Gotham] is the kind of town that whispers ‘baby’ while it’s picking your pockets, that promises the world and delivers the gutter, or vice versa, and puts out your lights with a kiss, or a bullet, then forgets your name before dawn”. And that’s not to mention the later use of the infamous phrase “the goddamn Batman” (originally uttered to widespread snorts of derision in Miller’s appalling All-Star Batman and Robin). That said, there’s another neat touch – one I hadn’t spotted before this re-read – in the use of street and place names referring to classic Bat-creators Jim Aparo and Bill Finger.

Having already used the opening of “Batman and Son” to refer back to one past incarnation of the Joker, then, Morrison uses “The Clown at Midnight” to rattle through other versions. There’s more than one direct reference to The Killing Joke, while it also refers to “outlandish Joker-Mobiles which gently mocked the young Batman’s pretensions in the Satire Years before Camp, and New Homicidal, and all the other Jokers he’s been”, those three “phases” mentioned referring, roughly, to the ‘50s, ‘60s and late ‘70s respectively. The whole thing, of course, is a thematic cousin to Morrison’s own Arkham Asylum, making practical use of that book’s idea of the Joker shedding personalities like a snake’s skin – and that’s what the core of the story is. Having been shot in the face and disfigured (well… moreso), the Joker regresses into a shell of bandages, his brain silently rewriting itself before a new personality emerges as from a cocoon. This Joker, decked out in white, bloodstained clinical garb, immediately seems more calculating and malevolent – but at the same time, even more unpredictable than before, were such a thing possible. He casually discards longtime “sidekick” Harley Quinn (a character introduced as “the Joker’s girlfriend” in the classic ‘90s animated series, but since integrated into the DC Universe quite successfully as a character in her own right), along with his original intention (if indeed it was truly that) of killing the Batman at midnight – because, after all, “where would the act be without my straight man?” And at the issue’s close, as he’s dragged away – bloodied and punctured by yet another gunshot wound, this one fired by Harley – we know that Morrison is far from finished with him. This was the setup, not the punchline.

"Do you want to know how I got these scars?"
Art from "The Clown at Midnight" by John van Fleet

It’s far from the easiest read, to be honest. The brilliant moments and the knowledge that Morrison is quite deliberately playing with us don’t change the fact that it’s a bit of a slog to get through – and I don’t just mean in the sense that some knuckleheaded commenters online simply hated the idea of having to read prose for once, but more that lengthy chunks of this particular style of writing really do mess with your head a bit. And it’s not helped by the artwork. You can applaud the experiment, and if there was ever going to be a place to do it, it would be here – and furthermore, the general look and layout of the book is excellent, with more than a hint of Dave McKean. But the images themselves are weak – characters look like waxy mannequins, and there’s no fluidity of movement; indeed, the whole thing feels very static. You might argue that illustrations of a prose story serve a different purpose to usual comic art, and you’d be right; but when you pick up a comic book, even one composed of prose, one of the first things you expect – demand, even – is motion. Furthermore, with the arguable exception of the “money shot” reveal panel, van Fleet never really nails the look of the new, creepy, surgical-themed Joker – a look rendered far more effectively, and far more scarily, by Tony Daniel later in the run.

“The Clown at Midnight” is baffling, bizarre, unexpected, frustrating; tinged with genius moments but equally at times almost obstinately impenetrable; almost entirely useless as a standalone Batman story and yet shining a light perfectly on the timeless themes of the character and his universe. In other words, despite the idiosyncrasy of its form, it’s about as inherently “Morrison Batman” as you can get. Hh.

Next time : Andy Kubert returns (briefly) for the tale of the “Three Ghosts of Batman”, and the Morrison run reaches its arguable high-point with the “Club of Heroes” three-parter.

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