Friday, 14 December 2012

Books: Batman: Batman: R.I.P.


Batman: R.I.P.
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Tony Daniel and Sandu Florea


Available now from Islington Libraries
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There's a reason Joel Schumacher called his film called "Batman Forever." Like everyone knows - you can ask any school kid - you can ask any grandparent: Batman will never ever die [1].

Folks always talk about Superman as representing the peak of everything that's great about humankind (I'm too lazy to check - but I'm pretty sure that somewhere on this blog I've probably said something very similar myself: you know - honour, decency, the best in people, all that stuff) while Batman is always more that scary guy who hangs out in the dark leaping out at criminal and dangling them off the edges of buildings. But come on people - think: although he's not real (which is nothing but a minor quibble) Batman is the peak of human achievement. Yeah - ok - the death of his parents is bad and the last thing anyone would ever want to happen to them - but put that aside for a second (because really all that is - is just the trigger [2]) and consider what Batman represents. This is a human being who has - through years of training and dedication - brought himself up to be the best of all the cool stuff that every kid dreams about: fighting, detecting, gadgeting, getting the girl [3], blowing things up, thinking of things and then putting "Bat" in front of them. As opposed to Superman who got all his powers by virtue of the fact that he's an alien (boo!) Batman is the ultimate example of the benefits of hard graft and determination. If you wanted to create the ultimate human being and you had the unlimited resources to do so - then the end result (apart from the Bat-fetish maybe) - would look and act an awful lot like the Caped Crusader.

And I mean put it in this (admittedly very childish) way: for anyone you can think of - put them in a fight with Batman: and Batman's going to win. Superman versus Batman? Batman. Rorschach versus Batman? Batman. Godzilla versus Batman? Please - it's gonna be Batman [4]. He's the unstoppable force and the immovable object all wrapped up in the same package: and then someone's taken that package and dressed up like a giant bat. I mean: this is a man who hangs out with super-powered demi-gods and they're all scared of him. He's on the top of every game going: if you played him at chess he'd have checkmate in one move, Monopoly? He'd have multiple hotels before you even had a chance to go one time round the board: and don't even get me started what would happen to you if you challenged him to a game of Twister. What more can I say: he's (and this is to be read in the voice of Cillian Murphy playing Scarecrow [5]): the Bat. Man.

Point being: he's the best. He thinks of everything. And he's super cool (come on: all dressed in black like that - how could he not be?).

So - where do you take it from there? Who do you pit against the man who can't be defeated by anyone?

One of the best bits of Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (a comic Grant Morrison created with Dave McKean all the way back in 1989) was the description of the Joker as processing a kind of "super-sanity." Quote: "A brilliant new modification of human perception, more suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century...He creates himself each day. He sees himself as the lord of misrule and the world as a theatre of the absurd.” This is something that gets developed and extended throughout his Batman run - as he throws a few more personas to the mix: The Thin White Duke of Death and all that. But then - I mean - (not that I'm any kind of medical professional) - it sounds like a form of schizophrenia.

But then - that's not really that much of a tough sell. I mean - just looking at the movie incarnations: it's not as if Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger portrayed him as a model of mental fitness (yeah ok - that's an understatement). But then people never really have any problem with dismissing their villains as being mentally ill (in fact - if you explored this further I'm pretty sure you could discover that most of the time people think that the bad guys are the bad guys because they're mentally ill: but this is neither the time or the place: we're supposed to be talking about a Batman comic here! Come on!).

So if it works with the Joker. Well - what if you tried the same kinda thing with Bruce Wayne?

Because - for me at least - that's the big chewy idea that Batman R.I.P. gets all it's juices from: what if Batman was schizophrenic? And how exactly would you be able to tell? I mean - come on - this is a man who (and I can't say this enough times) dresses up as a giant bat for kicks and then goes out at night-time fighting crime: it's pretty obvious (obviously) that all the definitions of "normal" have been left far behind...

And circling back on this idea that Batman is the peak human (is that like peak oil? No - no it's not) capable and efficient and able in all the ways that us mere mortals aren't (and leaving aside all the physical stuff and concentrating on just the mental side) well - what if the conclusion of being able to spot the subtle clues and hidden riddles buried by his countless puzzle-obsessed rogues throughout the years and left him unable to differentiate between what's signal and what's noise? At one point in the book Morrison has the Joker toss in the word "Apophenia" - ok fine - I had to look it up - but this is what I got: "Apophenia /æpɵˈfiːniə/ has been defined as the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The term is a misnomer incorrectly attributed to Klaus Conrad by Peter Brugger, who defined it as the "unmotivated seeing of connections" accompanied by a "specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness", but it has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random information in general (such as with gambling), paranormal phenomena, and religion."

Yeah - ok - Batman is always on top of things because every time he goes up against his bad guys he's always able to sort out the wheat from the chaff - but how likely is that? Isn't it much more plausible that in noticing the one small clue that cracks the whole case - he also has to notice everything else? One of my friends (and for once I'm not talking about my literary flatmate) when asked what his superpower would be likes to respond that he's want to be able to see and hear everything that - currently - our brains and various senses (for reasons of convenience I guess - altho - yeah: not that I'm any kind of brain surgeon) block out [6]. But what if - in being able to perceive everything around us - we'd end up not being able to process it? What if the price of - well - being the ultimate human and attaining - well  godhood (you can think of a better word?) necessarily meant cracking up? And what if the only thing that saves us from spiralling into a vortex of never-ending connections is being average and normal and mundane?

Apart from the fact that this is a Grant Morrison comic (and really - according to the internet at least (see the links below) it's not really possible to read too much into a Grant Morrison comic) - but maybe (just maybe?) I'm reading too much into this? (Oh the irony). Still - whatever. That still puts Batman R.I.P. a cut above your typical Bat-comic and provides (for this reader anyhow) a fascinating and thrilling Bat-time: because - hey - theorizing aside: none of that stuff really matters all that much unless the comic can deliver all the basic satisfactions and although it does veer dangerously close to spinning all the way off the rails at several points - it's always on hand to deliver the action movie one-liners ("If I was scared I wouldn't be Batman." / "But far from impossible." [7]) and all the shocking "Oh My God" moments that any Bat-fan could ask for. Seriously: although it's slow-build (that really started off all the way back in Batman and Son [8]) - about half-way through the dominoes start to topple - well - I don't think I've read many other comics which are as heart-racingly exciting and loads and loads of fantastic little cool bits that will have the tips of your hair quivering with joy (ok - so Grant Morrison sucks at endings (pretty much) - but he's really good at the build-ups: no question).

Just to say - you will have to read Final Crisis in order for the last part ("What The Butler Saw") to make any sense (how I pity those who try and read it without having done their homework first...): but that just comes with the territory - right? Right.

On the back cover it says: "Batman R.I.P. is a shocking, must-read saga that will change Batman - and the Joker - forever." But - obviously everyone knows that Batman and the Joker are never going to change and that Batman will never die. But that doesn't mean it's not a total blast (Bat-blast?) to read.

[1] In fact there's a bit in Mark Millar's Wanted that manages to show just how horrific the idea of Batman dying would be. (No? Just me? I mean - it's not like I think Wanted is a masterpiece or anything: but that bit is pretty cool: if only for it's sense of something very very wrong happening - like watching jam climbing up walls or something...).

[2] Although I'm having trouble thinking of anything really good that could replace it. But you know: maybe he was just late for a meeting or something because of some traffic pile-up and so resolves - from this day forward - to fight crime in all it's forms? I dunno... I'm reaching I know.

[3] I mean - the whole Bat-romancing thing isn't something that gets all that much coverage in the comics - but in the films at least Bruce Wayne has managed to woo Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer ("Meow!"), Nicole Kidman, Uma Thurman, Elle Macpherson, Anne Hathaway, Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal (ok - so maybe the last two don't count seeing how they were both playing the same (boring) character - but what the hey right?): so - you know - dude has skills. (I guess in the comics the batfans mostly don't want their action and adventure being ruined by anything as messy as sexual relationships - so what the hey).

[4] The only possible exception to this - as pointed out by Tim O'Neil over at The Hurting - is Batman vs. Doctor Who: "There is simply no plan in the history of the universe that the Doctor couldn't figure out some way to foil, even if Batman had his whole lifetime to prepare. The Master has had many lifetimes." But then - it is the Doctor: so what you gonna do?

[5] You know: like in Batman Begins.

[6] It would be great if I could explain this in better detail - but I'm going to take the easy route and just direct you to this ("In the grand scheme of things, we're all pretty much blind and deaf.").

[7] Ok - so that first one makes sense wherever - but the second one is all about the context. Still - there's a good reason why it's been featured (at number 7 no less) in this Comics Alliance article of The 18 Best Batman Panels Ever. (The reason is: because it's really good).

[8] And yeah - just to underline the point once more (I think I've said this in every entry of Grant Morrison's Bat-saga): this isn't really a book that you can just pick up cold - read to the end - and then that's it. This is just a small part in an epic, sprawling monstrosity reaching out in several directions at once (check out the "Preceded by" and "Followed by" links below). I mean - I've done the best I can - but for a much more complete understanding of who, what and how to read where you'd might like to try have a look at this "story-map" (thank you Dr. Maxwell) to give you a sense of the terrain (yeah: no one has ever accused Grant Morrison of making things simple). Although (please note) it will only take you to Batman and Robin #16: after that you're on your own...


Preceded by: Batman: Batman and Son, Batman: The Black Glove.

Followed by: Batman: Batman and Robin, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, Batman: Time and the BatmanBatman: Batman Incorporated.

Further reading: Batman: The Return of Bruce WayneBatman: The Black CasebookBatman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious EarthBatman: Batman and RobinFinal CrisisBatman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?Batman: The Dark Knight ReturnsDC Universe: The Stories of Alan MooreBatwoman: ElegySuperman: All Star Superman.

Profiles: Grant Morrison.

All comments welcome.

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