Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Building a Better Batmobile: The Morrison Batman (Part 1)


Part 1: The Morrison (and Miller) Batman Before Morrison’s Batman Run Begins

Oh man, it’s been 4 years since my very first post here, and it’s my 100th post SIMULTANEOUSLY.  To celebrate, let’s talk about Batman.

(nu-na-nu-na-nu-na-nu-na-nu-na-nu-na-nu-na-nu-na-nu-na-nu-na-nu-na-nu-na-Bat-man!)

And by “talk about Batman” I actually mean “start a series of articles on Batman”.  Because I have a lot to say about Batman, you guys.

Spoilers for comics! (Some of them more than 20 years old, others that just came out a few months ago…)

Warner Brothers recently released Part 2 of their animated adaption of the Frank Miller-Klaus Janson classic The Dark Knight Returns.  If you aren’t familiar at least in some way with the comic, I have no idea what you’re doing here, but welcome!  Short version, TDKReturns sort of redefined Batman in a some ways (but probably not as many as it gets credit for).  TDKR and Miller’s follow up Bat-story, Batman: Year One (with David Mazzucchelli on the art side) were largely responsible for a resurgence in Bat-Mania, and both had a huge impact on the Batman films from Tim Burton and later from Christopher Nolan (multiple scenes from Batman Begins were lifted wholesale from Year One).  Basically, the “Miller Model” of Batman became the standard version of the character in the mid-80’s, replacing the late 60’s “O’Neil Model”.  

 (The “Miller Model” of Batman, submitted rather unfairly without context)

Now this is not a review of the cinematic version TDKRrturns, because I find it difficult to really review it.  They made some interesting style choices, but ultimately they stuck as close to the source comic as possible, almost to the point of fanaticism.  They didn’t want to make a Batman movie based on a comic; they wanted to turn a comic into a movie verbatim.  The one major aspect of the comic that they dropped was something that could never come off as anything other than cheesy in a movie: In the comic, nearly every single major character is given to literary narration of the events unfolding around them.  You really dive into the characters heads, understanding their motivations and personalities, because their thoughts inform your views of them.  In the comic, it’s genius.  My favorite bit is from one of these “narrative thought boxes”, after the Joker has murdered a few hundred talk show audience guests. “No, I don’t keep count {of the bodies]” Joker thinks.  “But you do…”

("…And I love you for it.")

And then he murders a bunch of cub scouts with poisoned cotton candy.  Super creepy, and super awesome.

A comic is all visual, though, and movies are both visual and audible.  In a film, the only way to know exactly what a character is thinking is for them to either say it out loud on screen, or to have them narrate the film as it goes along.  And multiple voice overs throughout the entire movie would get pretty boring and possibly confusing very quickly- so the filmmakers (fairly wisely) just cut them out.  It was probably the smartest way to go, but it also completely changes the dynamic of the story.  Now, instead of reading the thoughts and feelings of the characters, all I can see is their actions.  Removing the internal monologue of TDKReturns turns it into a fairly linear story that becomes VERY violent and weirdly political about the Reagan years, and then Batman just punches the living shit out of Superman.  That caught me off guard watching the film*, but perhaps it shouldn’t have.

I’m not saying that’s bad.  Actually, it’s quite revealing, and telling.  It’s telling because of what came after Miller’s run; the popularity of his interpretation meant that many writers tried to imitate his style.  Most of them have done it quite poorly.  As a general rule, they’ve missed the heart of the story, just like this film does, by not fully understanding the context, and thus they have rendered a Batman that is a morally questionable, bizarrely asexual, repressed, violent, crazy person.   And make no mistake, a lot of people like Batman like that, and of course, he is a character open to multiple interpretations.  There are plenty of Batman stories that take the character as deadly serious.  I just think they’re acting like 12 year olds, and so does (I think) Grant Morrison.

Morrison has, in one way or another, been writing Batman for 25 years.  Starting with Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, through Gothic: A Romance, his JLA run, and the Batman stories (over multiple titles) he’s been writing since 2006, Morrison has been working to redefine the character.  The “Morrison Model” has been called several things before: “Zen master”; “ultimate planner”; in his comics Morrison has had characters state that Batman is “the most dangerous man on the planet” and that “Batman thinks of everything”.  I have my own suggestion.  The “Morrison Model” of Batman is that Batman is constantly trying to make himself a more perfect man.  And almost every Batman story he’s been telling has been directly about that.

(This is the cover.  It’s the first indication that this is not a typical Batman story)

Rebuilding Batman and making him better was Morrison’s original goal in Arkham Asylum.  It’s April Fool’s Day, the Joker and crew have taken over the Asylum, and they’ll only surrender if Batman will descend into the darkest pits of the madhouse and confront it’s- and his- psychological demons.  By taking all the parts of the then-recently developed “Miller Model” of Batman, and forcing the character to be confronted by all of his intimate fears, by his entire psychosis, Morrison’s goal was to “fix” the character, so that we could have Batman books that weren’t so obsessed with how irrational Batman’s actions were.  Along the way we got a really trippy journey through the madhouse, the expanded history of the mad house’s founder, and lots of talk about magic and tarot and stuff.  In the end, Harvey Dent gets to be the subtle savior of Batman, earning his own moment of redemption.  It’s also a little too on the nose about all the maternal feelings and stuff, but maybe I’ve just read it a few too many times.

(The Joker, in Arkham Asylum.  This is definitely not a typical Batman story.)

Maybe it’s because it was a little too dark and brooding, maybe because it wasn’t done in the “DC house style”, or maybe just because fanboys don’t know what’s good for them, but Morrison’s attempt to fix things didn’t really take.  His follow up, Gothic is fine, but by no means essential.  Following a lot of the same theme’s as Arkham, Gothic takes place in Batman’s early years, and deals with a mystic enemy.  Mister Whisper is an evil monk, promised 300 years of life in exchange for his soul has almost run out of time on that barter.  The Sacred Architecture stuff that was mostly just implied in Arkham is brought to the forefront here.  And instead of focusing on Bruce’s mother, it’s his father that gets the spot light.  Rather than a Deus ex machine, it’s the Devil in the Machine that wraps up this story- which is mostly interesting because Morrison would return to that theme 15 years later.  There’s lot’s of Gotham as hell, evil cathedrals, and Don Giovanni is thrown into the mix.  Whisper is pursued by two devils, Batman (see the ears) and a young girl who is more than she appears.  There’s more to it than that, but again, not all that important for “Morrison’s Long Run”.

(Batman: He is King of Hell.)

What is essential is Morrison’s JLA run.  It’s awesome, and if you haven’t read it, you absolutely should.  I’m not going to go into too much detail on it, because there’s a lot to it and there are a whole bunch of story arcs.  What matters here, though, are Batman’s interactions with the team.  Morrison’s JLA pretty much lives and breathes on the idea that Batman always has everything figured out.  He’s always 6 steps ahead of everybody, good guys and bad guys included.

(Batman: He knows your secret.)

Since all the writers in the regular Bat-books were basically still ape-ing Miller’s take, Morrison decided to trail-blaze his take interpretation of the character in JLA.  And in many ways, Batman gets the best character arc of any of the “big seven”.  It’s not a huge emotional roller coaster or anything, but trust me, when Bats takes down Prometheus, the moment feels earned.

(Trust me, this feels earned.)

But if you had to sum up Morrison’s take on Batman (so far) in one page, it would be this one:

(Spoiler: Batman’s Flying Saucer had, in fact, arrived.  From his Flying Saucer Factory.  That he owns.)

“Don’t tell my friends in the G.C.P.D. about this.”  As if to say “Fine, fine, you ‘serious’ kids can have your dark, brooding Batman in his (many) solo books.  What with your evil clowns and clay monsters.  That are serious.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a city of possessed superheroes to save from an evil telepathic gorilla.”  Morrison’s Batman embraces how truly weird superhero stories are, and it revels in it.  The concept of Batman is “Dude in a Dracula costume punches bad dudes dressed in question mark costumes.”  It’s totally ridiculous!  Which is fine, because it’s totally awesome too!  Why does everybody take this so seriously?

And so, after a decade of, off and on, writing a Batman that was king of the awesomes, Morrison was handed the solo Batman book.  And what was the first thing he did with it?  He saddled Batman with a kid he never knew he had.  Trust me, this will all make sense eventually.

Next time: Batman and Son!  Plus some other stuff too!   


*=Not the shit-punching out of Superman, the graphic violence.  To be clear.

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