Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pseudo-Live-Blogging: Grant Morrison's Batman Run - Batman R.I.P.

Now, gentle reader, we come to the climax of Grant Morrison’s run on the main Batman title. He’s been seeding elements of this story since the first issue of this run. Does it read any better after having re-read the entirety of his run? Let’s find out.

    Batman R.I.P. – Midnight In The House Of Hurt

  • And the opening line says volumes. “You’re WRONG! Batman And Robin will NEVER DIE!” The line has no context though, so I’m not really sure when it is, or who it’s responding to.

    A nice introduction to Doctor Hurt, and the Club of Villains. Doctor Hurt is the doctor responsible for the three ‘replacement’ Batmen who recently troubled Gotham. The third of which claimed that he’s the devil.

    A typical night in Gotham? Batman and Robin chasing down a wannabe psycho calling himself “The Green Vulture”.

    Now here’s something I missed before – Honor Jackson, the homeless person who finds Bruce Wayne, and gives him the ‘Bat Radia’ is there to witness the end of this pursuit. The face is reflected in the Batmobile’s window. Is he really there, or is that in Bruce’s head?

    In an interview, I think Morrison said he wanted more of a return to the 70’s/80's ‘love god’ Batman. Check.

    The exposition between Robin and Alfred lays out most of the salient points of the last couple of story arcs. A real nod for folks reading this in trade.
    An explanation that the Thogal ritual that Bruce underwent is a rehearsal, while living, of the experience of death. Thus allowing Batman to plan for death, and beyond it.

    This invitation to the Danse Macabre is what really starts the plot moving forward.
    Arkham, with all the doors open and a lot of blood. I’m not sure if that really dawned on me the first time I read this issue.

  • Reading this closer on the heels of the rest of the run has really helped me in noticing things. The first read through, I really had no idea who the Club of Villains was, and I’m not sure if I remembered who Doctor Hurt was. But now, I remember having caught reference to Caligula during the Club of Heroes arc, and I think someone mentioned Pierrot Lunaire as well. I can pick out most of the nemeses of the various members of the Club of Heroes now, I think.

  • Batman R.I.P. - Batman In The Underworld

    I guess the lull in crime has left Bruce with plenty of time to ponder the mystery of The Black Glove. It probably doesn’t hurt that he’s starting to run into the henchmen of the Club of Villains.

    John Mayhew is clearly connected to the Black Glove through the movie he made. I’m not sure how Bruce knows that Doctor Hurt figures in though.

    Another deduction on Bruce’s part that I can’t quite follow. He suspects that the Black Glove may go back and involve people his parents knew. Mayhew’s movie was about a group of ultra-rich gamblers who corrupted and split up two lovers. Is that supposed to be about Thomas & Martha Wayne?

    The opening panel of this page shows a roulette wheel, alternating black and red. I’m not sure if there’s further meaning besides Jezebel Jet (a black woman with red hair) of the colors, but they were also mentioned in “The Clown at Midnight” where the black ad red petals of flowers would combine to form a deadly toxin. Red and black was also an important theme in DC Universe #0, which replaced the final issue of Countdown.

    Doctor Hurt reveals that he implanted a trigger phrase into Batman at some point while he was in his care. The whole point of the fight with Le Bossu’s henchman earlier was to expose Bruce to a drug that will make him more vulnerable to the trigger.

    The big confrontation between the tabloid publisher and Gordon helps establish the possibility that Doctor Hurt might be Thomas Wayne, and that Bruce’s childhood might have screwed him up more than his parents’ death. It even alleges that Martha’s family suspect Thomas Wayne faked his death to kill Martha.

    I can’t help but wonder if Bruce suspects that Jezebel is involved with The Black Glove. He even specifically says that he thinks this is the way this currently-hypothetical nemesis would work, undermining his belief in his mission and his faith in his cause.And Batman’s computer finally picks up what I noticed immediately when I started re-reading this run, all the ‘Zur-En-Arrh’ graffiti throughout Gotham. That’s the phrase that triggers his breakdown, moving us on to the next issue.

Batman R.I.P. - Zur-En-Arrh

  • In the last issue, Batman commented that one of the black casebooks was missing.
    Right off, we find out where it’s gone. Tim is paging through it, reading of
    Bruce’s quest to understand the madness that he faces.

    Bruce Wayne awakens in a pile of garbage belonging on the homeless Honor Jackson. But
    Jackson claims he knows Bruce from somewhere, probably meaning his brief
    appearance in the first issue of R.I.P.

    As he comes to, Bruce begins to remember some of his encounter with Doctor Hurt. Of course, Hurt knowing the cave’s location and Bruce’s secret identity could just as easily be the result
    of the experiment he as part of, or it could be that Hurt really is Thomas Wayne.

    With Batman neutralized for the moment, the Club of Villains is targeting his associates. Caligula’s goons ran into Nightwing, while Pierrot Lunaire and Swagman tried to take out Robin. And then there’s the chick, but I don’t know if I ever saw a name for her.

    Bruce joins Honor Jackson on an ‘odyssey’ across town, little knowing that the goal is to beg for money to buy liquor. Before leaving him, Jackson imparts him a gift, and some instruction.
    Following Honor’s words, Bruce (still amnesiac) finds his way to Crime Alley, and a smack-dealer named Lone-Eye Lincoln.

    Nightwing is apprehended by Le Bossu, and incarcerated at Arkham as Pierrot Lunaire.

    Triumphant in the ruin of the Batcave, Doctor Hurt dons the Bat-man costume Thomas Wayne once wore to a costume party, furthering the notion that the two are the same.

    Muttering to himself, Bruce sews a new Batman costume from brightly colored scraps of cloth. He declares himself to be the Batman of Zur-En Arrh, and the busted radio given to him by Honor Jackson (who could be a ghost or a hallucination) to be the Bat-Radia.

    This was a crazy one, but it starts to make sense as the story progresses.

  • Batman RIP - Miracle On Crime Alley

    Batman’s been transformed. Now wearing a motley of brightly colored rags, Batman’s searching out the members of the Club of Villains.

    This new incarnation of Batman is either brilliant, insane, or both. He hears Gotham City itself speaking to him through its gargoyles. He sees how Gotham, and Crime Alley in particular are in reality a machine designed to create the Batman.

    Now we get some exposition to let us know exactly where the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh came from. It’s an emergency backup personality Bruce created in case he fell victim to psychic attack.

    Good to know that Robin’s still loose, and able to call in the cavalry.

    I think we’re supposed to know that Bill-the-Cop is doomed as soon as he mentions having a little boy at home, and loving it. We need a red-shirt to illustrate how El Sombrero has booby-trapped Wayne Manor.

    There are a lot of interpretations of this interplay between Doctor Hurt and Alfred. Is Hurt really Thomas Wayne? Is he just tormenting Alfred? Is he actually the Devil? If so, then the third Batman was his agent.

    I love Batman’s speech to Caligula. He sees clear through him to the washed-up-never-was that he is.

    I also think it’s brilliant that the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh is “what you get when you take Bruce out of the equation”.

    Poor Jeremiah Arkham. He just can’t catch a break, can he? Or more to the point he catches too many… broken ribs, broken legs, etc.

    The red and black roses return Just don’t let them mingle.And who else would be the one to deliver the coup de grace to Batman but the Joker?

    Batman R.I.P. – The Thin White Duke of Death

    Doctor Hurt sets the scene, not just for the arriving members of the Black Glove, but also recapping for the reader. The Black Glove is a society of the ultra-rich who gather once a year to wager on games of life or death.

    Arkham Asylum is resplendent in shades of black and red.

    Le Bossu provides his own backstory, as he begins the process of costuming that transforms him from Guy Dax into his hunchbacked alter-ego.

    Batman chose the crazy colors for the Zur-En-Arrh costume with a purpose. The bright colors demonstrate confidence, presumably yielding a mental advantage. But Bat-Mite reveals that the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh was a short-term solution to the problem of psychological attack. Running at this intensity means that Bruce has limited time to overcome the Black Glove before he passes out from exhaustion.

    I like Batman’s last moments with Bat-Mite. He asks if the Mite is a figment of his imagination, or a super-imp from the fifth dimension. Bat-Mite’s answer is that imagination IS the fifth dimension.

    I love how the Joker scars Le Bossu. He’s had to listen to Dax drone on about how his ugliness was on the inside, so he gave it an outlet. And Le Bossu seems puzzled by it.

    What’s meant to be a final confrontation between Batman and the Joker plays out pretty well. The titular ‘thin white duke of death’ is only going along with this to prove to Batman the depth of his madness. Bruce thought that a controlled experiment would give him the key to understanding the Joker’s mind. But there’s no reason behind his actions, and no experiment will make his actions make sense.

    At this point, there’s still one thing that I don’t really grasp, and that’s the meaning behind the constant reference to black and red. The one explanation I’ve heard that makes any sense is that they point to Jezebel Jet, a black woman with red hair, as an indication that she’s part of the Black Glove. But that’s not satisfying to me, for some reason.

  • Batman R.I.P. – Hearts In Darkness

    Coming to after his fight with the Joker, Batman finds himself back in his traditional costume, strapped into a straightjacket and buried alive in a coffin.

    This flashback sequence helps to show you just how great Batman is. While undergoing the Thogal ritual, he found Dr. Hurt’s work on his consciousness and began preparing for the attack. This issue even says it first thing. “That’s the thing about Batman. Batman thinks of everything.”

    I love how the narrative points out that there are, ultimately, a finite number of eventualities that a body can be threatened by and that Bruce has planned and practiced for all of them over the years. It lends plausibility to the notion that Batman has actually planned for this eventuality.

    The Joker’s big speech to the Black Glove basically amounts to “I told you so”. When
    money’s on he table, even the Joker knows better than to bet against Batman.

    Talia and the League of Assassins are going to avenge Batman? That’s an interesting twist.

    Here, at the end of things, we get the counterpoint to the story’s opening page. With a policeman his captive, Le Bossu prepares to go about his bloody work, declaring that even Batman and Robin are dead, and unable to help him.

    This issue really is the pinnacle of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman. The remaining issues are more of a Final Crisis tie-in than anything else. But it brings in almost everything else he used in his run… Damian, Man-Bat Ninjas, and the Club of Heroes all play their parts in this final issue.

    There’s one mystery left to ponder… the identity of Simon Hurt. The book itself puts forward a few ideas. Was he really Thomas Wayne? He certainly acted the part with Alfred. Was he Mangrove Pierce, the actor who starred in John Mayhew’s film “The Black Glove”? Or was he the devil, as others have said. I like the possibility that he’s Thomas Wayne, simply because it flies in the face of assumptions we make, that Bruce’s parents were good people.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cheapo Comics - A Shout-Out

Recently, I stumbled across a comic service that I've found to be surprisingly enjoyable. Wayne Cordova's Cheapo Comics is like an online 50-cent bin grab-bag service that Wayne started to help thin his collection of issues he has no desire to keep. For $5.00 (which includes shipping) you receive 8-10 comics from his collection.

I've made two purchases from him to date, resulting in most of "Wolverine - The End", a few Supergirl and the Legion of Superheroes, and a handful of other stuff, some of which I'd never even heard of before.

If the concept of a grab-bag, not quite knowing what you're going to get, is appealing, give Wayne's site a look. It's very basic. You click on a Paypal link, and ultimately receive comics. Even better, he's now implented a Spidey grab-bag, yielding a handful of Spidey-themed comics for the same price. Give it a look!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Who Watches The Watchmen?

I do.

Now, I know I'm hardly the only one on the internet making that joke, but really... how often am I going to get the chance?

So I screwed with my sleep patterns yesterday to go see Watchmen during it's opening weekend. While I was very impressed by Zack Snyder's faithful adaptation to the source material, I felt it ultimately proved the superiority of the comic format for this particular story. What do I mean? Allow me to explain.

When I first heard that Watchmen was going to be adapted into a movie, I was dismayed. Arguably one of the best comic book stories written was going to be mangled beyond recognition for the silver screen. Hearing that Snyder was heading the movie didn't improve my mood, despite his success with Frank Miller's 300. After all, the original work for 300 was splash page after splash page, largely storyboarding the movie out. In fact, material had to be added to make up for a short run-time... and the additions to the story were all pretty bad. I like 300, but all the scenes taking place in Sparta after Leonidas has lead the 300 out were pretty bad. So I had little confidence in the director, and hadn't ever heard of anyone cast in the principal roles. I felt like my disappointment was imminent.

I was very wrong in that regard.

The movie is faithful to the source material... to a fault. What do I mean by that? My understanding is that Zack Snyder fought to keep much of the characterization from the comic in the movie, resulting in an epic running time of two hours 43 minutes. As a fan of the story, I applaud this decision because I care about these characters and I want to see justice done by them. I want them to be sufficiently deep and realized. But this becomes a problem at the point that characterization interferes with the story. This is where the question of format becomes crucial.

Like much of Alan Moore's work, Watchmen is an extremely dense story. I believe that a large part of that density is due to the serial nature of the story. A lot of people refer to Watchmen as a graphic novel because that's the way that we were introduced to it. Just Bill, an acquaintance of mine online, recently mentioned in his podcast that many of us fail to consider what it must have been like to receive Watchmen as a monthly comic book, issue by issue. I think that's a vital point to remember. When you only receive one issue a month over the course of a year, that issue has to be dense. It ideally should bring to mind the events of the last issue, while trying to tell it's own story and still building on a greater story. Reading individual issues presented the reader with places where the story ended... for awhile. Those breaks were important to let the reader digest the material, re-read it if they chose, and perhaps even discuss it while waiting eagerly for the next issue.

The movie, however, places the whole of the story in front of you in one sitting. And while it's remarkably faithful to the source material, I think that it's nature as a movie is a detriment to the story. It expects you to absorb the whole of the experience in one sitting. All the characterization that makes the comic brilliant drags down the movie. The story is lumbering and slow because of the way it's presented. And a story about imminent nuclear annihilation, where the doomsday clock is poised at four minutes until midnight, should never feel slow.

Alan Moore, the writer of Watchmen, V For Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell, among other stories, has a policy of removing himself and his name from any film adaptations of his work. Until seeing Watchmen on the big screen, part of me assumed it was because filmmakers hadn't shown the proper respect to his stories. Now I think I understand why he's said his stories are written specifically as comics, and can't be successfully adapted as movies. If you sacrifice the enormous depth of his writing, you lose the spark that makes the stories special. But if you refuse to sacrifice the depth, the story doesn't work as something to absorb in one sitting.

When the movie was announced, I clearly remember sitting at a meeting of the Comic Club here in Columbia. Jim Shelley (of Flashback Universe fame) suggested that the story would be better served as an HBO mini-series, a sentiment I agreed with. But I agreed for the wrong reasons. I felt that too much would have to be removed from the story to make it into a movie. Instead, I see that the gaps between new installments are an important part of enjoying material of such depth.

I'm curious as to what others think about my comments. Shoot me an e-mail at jovial1@gmail.com and let me know.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Pseudo-Live-Blogging: Grant Morrison's Batman Run - Space Medicine

Well, folks, another DCBS box arrival and some slightly busier nights have put off my progress on re-reading Grant Morrison's Batman run. But I'm putting my foot down, and reading the issues leading up to Batman: RIP tonight. As stated, I'm skipping past the Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul issues, and getting back to the good stuff.

My recollection is that this story arc is where Batman became difficult to follow, but that this story arc made more sense as the arc drew to a close. Let's see if hindsight helps.

Batman #672 - Space Medicine

  • The third Batman from the black casebook has arrived. We saw him in issue #666, fighting Damian, but now it's time for Bruce's trial. We know these guys were cops, and he's asking for Commissioner Vane, I guess this was before Gordon's time?
  • One thing I recall Grant saying is that he wanted to bring Batman back from being so grim and obsessed. Jezebel Jet certainly seemed to have that affect. "We make one another laugh".
  • Here we go. The third man has shot Batman in the chest, and Bruce is hurt. If I recall correctly, the shot has triggered a heart attack. And as we near the end of the book and go into Bruce's head, we see Batman's glove tracing glowing letters against a black background. "ZUR EN ARRH". And this heralds the first appearance of 'Bat-Mite' in Morrison's run right at the end of the issue.

Of this story, the first issue was pretty straightforward since it's a setup for the chaos to follow.

Batman #673 - Joe Chill In Hell

This issue gets a bit chaotic. It cuts back and forth from Bruce's time in Nanda Parbat enduring the Thogal Ritual, and other memories as he suffers the cardiac arrest from his wound in the last issue.

  • The Thogal Ritual is important to RIP. "During a seven-week retreat known as Yangti, the practicioner undergoes an experience designed to simulate death and after-death." It's what helped him prepare to face his own death, and allowed him to plan beyond it.
  • Flashbacks to his beginnings as a masked crimefighter, hunting Joe Chill, the man who killed his parents. Is this the way it actually happened, or a hallucination? It's confusing but I think that as he's suffering cardiac arrest, Bruce is flashing back to the Thogal Ritual, and what he saw there.
  • I definitely didn't catch this before. A young Bruce Wayne (five years old according to the narrative) has a vision of a coffin carried by Dick Grayson, Ollie Queen, Clark Kent and someone I can't identify, followed by Alfred and Barbara Gordon in a wheelchair. It's clearly meant to be his funeral procession, as he's realized his own mortality. Foreshadowing the death of Batman.
  • Here's our first glimps of Doctor Hurt. He's the scientist who Batman aided by spending ten days in an isolation chamber. The premise was to advance an understanding of what humans would experience on space missions, isolated from contact. Batman confesses to Robin (presumably Dick) that he really did it to experience madness in an attempt to better-understand the Joker. At this point, Batman begins to lose track of where and when he is. He's not sure if he's in the isolation chamber, being studied by Dr. Hurt, or undergoing the Thogal Ritual. In reality, he's still suffering cardiac arrest from the previous issue.
  • At the end of the issue, the third Batman revives Bruce... once he's been restrained.

I think the thing that threw me on my original reading of this issue was the fact that even Bruce didn't know when he was. It made it hard to keep a point-of-view. But having some familiarity with the story, I caught a lot more on this reading than I did originally.

Batman #674 - Batman Dies At Dawn

  • First page, and Doctor Hurt claims he's a Batman Specialist. Foreshadowing his claim that he's Thomas Wayne?
  • This is big. The third man has a copy of Doctor Hurt's files. "And it's all here. Everything that happened here in this room. To you. To me. To Muller and Branca. The whole story. The post-hypnotic keywords he planted in all of us." Since it's one of those keywords that shut Batman down in RIP.
  • And as he chases down the third man, Batman begins to suspect the existence of the Black Glove, an enemy who's calculated his every weakness and who has prepared as dilligently as he himself has.

This issue had phenomenal velocity. I couldn't put it down, and I don't think that I could last time either. The third Batman lays out for Batman what he thought was a hallucination - that years ago, the Gotham police in conjunction with the military had tried to build a contingency plan for Batman's death. They sought to prepare three additional men as replacements, should Batman die. And Doctor Hurt was the one responsible. The three Batmen have all been 'reactivated'.

Batman #675 - The Fiend With Nine Eyes

This issue was pretty much devoid of any foreshadowing or hinting about Batman RIP. Dick and Tim suspected that Bruce is losing it again. Bruce believes that the Ten-Eyed Man's attack was orchestrated by the Black Glove, and Talia and Damian sense something suspicious behind the attack on Bruce and Jezebel.

The main thrust of this issue is to introduce Jezebel to the nocturnal side of Bruce's life. It succeeds on that level, but considering the past two story arcs, this issue is a bit weak and not just due to the guest artist.

Next up, Batman RIP.