Review: Batman, Inc. Vol. 2: Gotham's Most Wanted hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Thursday, January 02, 2014

Finales are hard, I think we can all agree. Spitballing a little bit, 52 comes to mind as a series with a good ending, and Infinite Crisis. James Robinson's Starman is another good ending; Bryan Q. Miller brought his Batgirl run to a pretty good close just before the New 52. At the same time I recall two superlative Flash runs, Mark Waid's and Geoff Johns's, each ending less strongly than they began, and most recently I thought Johns's end to his Green Lantern run hit some of the high notes, but not all of them.

Grant Morrison has been writing his Batman saga almost non-stop for seven years, since just after Infinite Crisis to almost three years into the New 52. I have loved many parts of this story, felt I came to understand Morrison as a writer through these books and in that way gained insight into his other works, and rarely have I not been entertained. If one read solely Morrison's issues in his Bat-saga, and not the glut of ancillary and tie-in books that have gone along with it, Morrison's conclusion, Batman Inc. Vol. 2: Gotham's Most Wanted might be mostly satisfactory (though in the end I think it still violates one of the basic tenets of Morrison's Batman stories).

Taken in the larger context of the universe that has sprung up around Morrison's Bat-saga in the past seven years, however, one has a greater sense that maybe this story ultimately got away from Morrison, or from DC Comics, and that a more restrained telling might have yielded a better outcome.

[Review contains spoilers]

Looked at solely in the context of Morrison's Batman books, the major event in Gotham's Most Wanted -- the death of Robin Damian Wayne -- could be considered, with a little squinting, "natural." Damian has been presented as the son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul, but we've always understood at the same time that Damian is a clone, just one of a volume of embryos (even still with Bruce and Talia's "stock") that Talia might raise to maturity. This is most apparent, though it comes belatedly, in the revelation that the Leviathan creature that Talia controls is indeed "just another" Damian.

While we no less mourn the death of Damian, it becomes clear that the concept of "Damian" is just a construct, a name applied to a whole line of "Damians"; matter-of-fact, the story leaves unclear whether the Damian the reader has followed in the future is in truth "our" Damian, Leviathan, or someone else. Though "our" Damian did exert his independence -- Damian's saving Bat-cow from a slaughter line, surely, is a metaphor for Damian himself -- the shock of his death is mitigated somewhat in that the reader understands that "Damian" was never there to begin with.

In addition, given that none of us actually expect Talia al Ghul to remain dead through the life of the New 52 or whatever lies beyond it, just so would it be simple for any writer to resurrect Damian just the same as he was, one day. We lose here but we don't really "lose."

The difficulty arises in DC Comics's sensationalist marketing of Damian's death, wholly spoiling the surprise before it happened and inviting the entire world to tune in just to witness the carnage. Similarly the "Requiem" mini-event that followed has felt tacked on, at least as far as Batgirl, Catwoman, and Red Hood are concerned; this is story in deference to event, not the other way around as it should be. All of this made of Damian's death more than I think Morrison intended, personally.

There's really nothing to applaud in DC killing another Robin, a ten-year-old at that, and in my opinion in a less classy manner than last time because this time blame can't be foisted on to the audience; why they wanted to take credit for it, instead of letting Morrison's actually subtler approach prevail, I'm not sure, unless the sales bump overshadows the long-term reputation hit, though maybe I overestimate how much the general public remembers and pays attention.

This is on top of Damian's presence in such books as the pre-New 52 Teen Titans, Batgirl, and World's Finest; as well as DC's continuance of the Batman and Robin series long after Morrison departed it. Some of these appearances by Damian were very good -- we can't deny that he's been an enjoyable contribution to the DC Universe -- but I think they gave an artificial sense of Damian's permanence that one doesn't get from reading the Morrison books themselves, and contributed to the sensationalism of Damian's death whereas, were Morrison in a vacuum, I think this would be moving but much more mundane -- "Damian dies ... or does he?" versus the thrashing and wailing of "Requiem."

In his conclusion, Morrison does not touch on every theme of his years-long Batman saga -- to do so we can agree would be nigh impossible -- but he does get to two that are key (similarly Johns did not wrap up every dangling Green Lantern plotline but he sure tied up Hal Jordan and Sinestro). The "hole in things" is back, which has variously been the bullet that killed Bruce Wayne's parents and also the deathtrap that Darkseid sent after Batman throughout time; Bruce Wayne tells Commissioner Gordon that he obsessed for many years about that hole until he realized there was really nothing there, except "a space big enough to hold everything"; this is juxtaposed with Bruce discovering Damian's missing body (and the possibility of Damian's resurrection). This "hole" could be possibility, or imagination, or, in the immortal words of Superman's tombstone in Final Crisis's Superman Beyond, "to be continued."

"To be continued" is related to the second of Morrison's key points in the saga, that "Batman and Robin will never die." This, as Morrison has said before and reveals in his afterword to this book, relates to Morrison's saga as an exploration of Batman in his many forms over his seventy-five years -- Batman might change, but he'll never go away. On one hand, Morrison has repeated "Batman and Robin will never die" so many times that, again, it's hard to take Damian's death here as really something permanent. On the other hand, there's a curious and maybe a little troubling catch at the end of this book; Gordon intones, "Batman never dies. It never ends. It probably never will." "Probably," Morrison says, not simply "never" -- do we take this, at the end of it all -- and after Morrison's long journey that ends with his stepping away from superhero comics -- that the author's surety has faded, just a little?

As a story -- the controversies of Damian's death aside -- Gotham's Most Wanted is certainly gripping. Chris Burnham, like Greg Capullo, has a slightly cartoony style that I'm not so used to with Batman, but it certainly works here, and Morrison and Burnham have choreographed some amazing action sequences. Damian's death is startling and moving, not in the least when he continues to fight even as he's pounded by arrows on all sides; Morrison offers some great fan service moments, too, as when Batman ingests Man-Bat serum and truly becomes "a creature of the night."

Neither does Morrison forget one of the main hanging plotlines of his Batman saga, the fate of Batwoman Kathy Kane. I was as pleased to see Kane here as I was somewhat disappointed that it was Kane who saves Batman from Talia in the end, and not that Batman saves himself. Morrison's Batman work, from JLA to Batman RIP and the Return of Bruce Wayne has all been built, perhaps ad nauseum, on the idea that Batman is always working one step ahead of his enemies, and that whenever Batman seems down and out, in fact it's just a ploy and that Batman always has a plan. This seemed to have faded already with the start of Batman Inc., where Batman seems to be sincerely pleading with Talia that they try to settle their differences amicably instead of going to war, but even then, I rather expected plans within plans. Morrison's Batman doesn't finish Batman, Inc. triumphant, and that's what nags at me most of all.

None of any of this, of course, take away from the monumental accomplishment that is Grant Morrison's seven years writing Batman, and the fact that it's mostly due to Morrison that Batman enjoys DC's top spot, now buffeted by the work of Scott Snyder, up from the pre-Infinite Crisis/War Games era where Batman's star had faded slightly. Surely, I've enjoyed the ride. There's a deft passing of the torch at the end of Batman, Inc. Vol. 2: Gotham's Most Wanted, in which Gordon references "Zero Year," subject of Snyder's upcoming new Batman origin. In this, as it should be, Morrison's final Batman volume (for now?) is both an ending and a beginning; "to be continued," indeed.

[Includes original and variant covers, Grant Morrison afterword, catalog of Morrison's Batman saga and related titles]

Upcoming, a review of Flash Vol. 2: Rogues Revenge.
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4 comments:

  1. I'm normally not the biggest fan of Morrison's meta-commentary, but he made some valid points during the final chapter about the nature of the franchise -- points that I commented on last year and which I still feel hold true now that the collected edition's out:

    http://jmemusings.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-end-of-grant-morrisons-batman.html

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  2. Much has been written about the cyclical nature of the ending and the family tragedy at the core of the story, but what really struck me about the final stretch of Morrison's run, and it seems to be something many people have a hard time accepting, is that Batman was finally met with a challenge that was too big for him.

    Coming from a writer who had Batman beat massive threats and even a god, that might seem hard to believe, but Leviathan turns out to be such an intricate, far-reaching terrorist organization that there was no way an initiative like Batman Incorporated could make a dent in it, no matter how many millions Bruce Wayne invested in it.

    Still, the infrastructure Batman had set up with his agents played a pivotal part in disarming Talia's ring of death around the world and saving his life, although they could only do it with the help of Spyral and their intel. And I see his survival against such enormous odds as a big win, in spite of how much he lost in the process.

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  3. James makes some good points. I think this last portion of Morrison's run is really quite sad for reasons that had nothing to do with Damian's death - I think Morrison realized that he had taken the character too far out of Batman's comfort zone and had to pull back when he saw that readers really preferred the insular terror of Snyder's run (not that the two are incompatible, for my money).

    I did like the way the whole series tied back in on itself (ouroboros, anyone?) with the Gordon stuff, the al Ghul family at the heart of it all, and the idea that Batman - and maybe, just maybe, Robin - will never die. Fun and wonderful ride; if nothing else, it's the title that got me back into comics in a big, big way.

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  4. Top review. I think the climax is meant to be a little disappointing. I can't help but feel that the way Inc. developed and finally ended was a protest of the New52 from a writer who has always fought for creative freedom and against editorial restriction of the imagination. Of threading the tapestry of the DCU from the bottom-up rather than. cutting it from the top-down as cones from editorial remits like Crisises and Flashpoints. This is seen with Batman struggling to keep up with the enemy (Leviathan, which steals children's innocence and uses than to promote their message, the Monitors of a new Final Crisis) rather than being ahead; with him being saved rather than doing the saving because things got too much for him, and his other failures throughout. Morrison's mood as writer may reflect that and I talk more about this in my blog's overview of Morrison's work, first written at the birth of the New52 and the end of Inc. vol 1. See especially the Addendum added after finishing the single issues of Batman Inc. vol 2 Thanks

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