When Words Collide

Mon, November 22nd, 2010 at 1:58pm PST | Updated: November 22nd, 2010 at 8:20pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

REVISITING MORRISON'S BATMAN: A DEBATE

Matt Seneca hasn't been writing about comics online for all that long – his "Death to the Universe" blog is less than a year old, but it's a must-read for anyone interested in passionate, insightful comics criticism – and yet he's already one of the best writers, one of the tightest thinkers, working on this side of comics punditry. He has a shocking depth of knowledge for a young writer, and his eye for narrative and feel for aesthetics makes him someone worth talking to about everything from old "Heavy Metal" runs to art comics to the superhero mainstream.

So part of the idea of this week's column is just to have an in-depth discussion with Matt Seneca, because I hadn't yet done so, even though we've swapped a few emails and comments back and forth over the past year. The other part is that I wanted to take time to look back on Grant Morrison's Batman run, now that this part of his long-form tale has come to a close with the end of "Batman and Robin" (as far as his involvement is concerned) and the beginning of "Batman Incorporated."

And who better to debate Morrison's Batman with than Matt Seneca? I know he doesn't have the same take on the run that I do, and yet he's convincing enough in his arguments that I knew this discussion would give me a chance to think more clearly about what Morrison has been doing – and how effective or ineffective it has been. Ultimately, the question is: how does Morrison's Batman run stack up? How does it compare to his other work? How does it compare to all the other superhero comics? And how much does it all matter?

You know, the important questions. Let's get to them!

Tim Callahan: You've been keeping up with the Morrison Batman stuff from the beginning, right? But on your recent - debut! - podcast you mentioned that it has become kind of a slog over the past year or so. Too much plot machinery and not enough energy? Something like that? What's your stance on Morrison's Batman as it wraps up this phase and heads into "Batman Inc?"

Matt Seneca: Yep, I've been on the "Mexican train" for the past four and a half years, and I'm not sure how much I'm enjoying the ride anymore. I think the biggest problem I have with Morrison's Batman at this point isn't actually the lack of energy (though the past year of "Batman and Robin" and especially "Return of Bruce Wayne" have had way too many moments of outright deadness for my taste). It's the lack of novelty. Morrison's first two years on the book - up to and including RIP, basically, and then again in the Quitely arc on B&R - were so expansionist, so interested in either reintroducing ways of doing Batman comics we hadn't seen in decades or creating totally new ones. That was pretty much the stated mission: comb the history, pull out the forgotten bits and make it all shine again. And given that I hadn't read most of the Bronze and Silver Age stories Morrison was jacking from, it was all so fresh and interesting and not what the average hero comic was doing. But then it got so involved in self-reference, and you needed to have read those issues. It wasn't pop anymore, it wasn't fresh or new. It was continuity superhero comics. Pretty good ones, but still. That stuff never gets better as it goes along.

Also, Morrison's work, even the big happy mass market stuff like "All-Star Superman," has always been subversive, and when a comic opens with druggy double entendres and teasing jabs at Batman and Robin's sexuality before ending up as a big flat crossover, it ain't doing what I want it to do. I felt like those early issues, with their fine-art referencing, their farcical characterization, their James Bond homages, their totally dislocated sense of fun, were addressing a larger culture, an audience beyond the Diamond-distributed fans. Now the stuff is very much a part of the DC universe's larger story stream, and all the references are to previous Morrison-written issues that you have to have read to really dig what's going on (unlike the references to old stories that started the run off). I can get solid superhero stories anywhere, but I can't get comics by the guy who wrote "The Filth" unless he writes more like that one. And these Batman comics we're getting now are just Batman comics that don't break any rules.

I get bogged down in "continuity superhero comics" too, so I know what you mean. The high-wire act can turn to just a dude walking across a rope if it goes on for too long. But I do think there's a sweet spot when the continuity superhero comics do work. When they layers double back on themselves and the years of plotting and recursion add up to more than the individual issues would seem to indicate. That's when I can really dive into and enjoy the comics that rely on continuity, when they add to and expand the universe, and then revisit tropes and symbols from earlier in the run with a kind of playful glee.

I think Ed Brubaker's "Captain America" was just continuity superhero comics until the year after Steve Rogers "died," then it hit that sweet spot. Geoff Johns hit it as he was leading into the Sinestro Corps War. Morrison hit it in "Batman R.I.P." So, yeah, I agree that sometimes - most times - this stuff just ends up going on longer than it should to keep itself fresh and alive. (And say what you will about Tony Daniel's art, but nothing in "Batman and Robin," as phenomenal as Frazer Irving and Frank Quitely and Cameron Stewart can be, matches the image of the tattered red, yellow, and purple Batman talking to Bat-Mite above Gotham City.)

So it looks like I might be agreeing with you more than we both thought when we decided to have this discussion, but I will say that I still think Morrison's Batman run, post-R.I.P., is quite good, and the recent convergence of the end of his "Batman and Robin" super-arc and the conclusion of "Return of Bruce Wayne," has created that kind of cumulative effect that I enjoy in continuity superhero comics. It's a second sweet spot for the run, with everything coming together and reflecting back on what has happened while propelling the story forward into "Batman Inc," which I think will be a hell of a fun ride, especially with what we know about its structure (world-hopping team-ups), Paquette's art and some avowed intent on Morrison's part to make each issue as dense as possible. But, then again, I don't truck in authorial intent very often, so I probably shouldn't give much play to that last bit.

What you seem to be saying is that Morrison, the rebel, has turned rebellion into the new status quo. (That sounds like a lame way for me to put it, and I'm imagining Andre Agassi selling camera equipment all of a sudden, but I think you know what I mean, or not.) Is it just a matter of him sticking with the run too long already, then? Because, I'm of two minds on this. (1) I'd rather see Morrison doing lightweight superhero comics than almost anyone else doing superhero comics (though I'm sure you'll say, "Why does he have to do superhero comics at all?") and (2) What might he have done differently over the last 12-18 months to keep the character fresh? To keep it pop? I don't know.

The dominoes were lined up through "R.I.P." and "Final Crisis," but watching them fall down is part of the fun, no?

Yeah, and I mean, I'm a fan of superhero comics. I like when they do that thing they do. Seeing Morrison's two best new villains (Doctor Hurt and Professor Pyg) team up was rad, and watching Dick and Damian race to uncover the clues Bruce had left them - even to parse the fact that he was leaving them clues! - was pretty fun.

You're totally right, when the continuity links up it's fun and neat. But I don't know, I felt like there was way too much boring lag in proportion to the good bits. Maybe it had more to do with the books' lateness than anything else, but I found "Return of Bruce Wayne" to be the most incredibly exhausting series I've read in a really long time. The same thing happening in every issue, Morrison using genre-story tropes we've seen a billion times and not even pretending to take a new approach, switching art teams that started at excellent and ended up pretty blah. After the Frazer Irving issue, there wasn't a single moment in that entire comic that I actually enjoyed, which totally ruined the sync-up between the end of "Return of Bruce Wayne" and "Batman and Robin" for me. I just didn't care. I wish Bruce's return hadn't been explained at all, I wish he could've just shown up to save the day like he always does, and then if the fans really needed it spelled out for them, DC could put out some workmanlike miniseries by inferior creators in a year or two. All the information that went into that story just felt like weight.

I'm definitely not saying Morrison's turned rebellion into the new status quo. These comics are not rebellious in any way. To me it's either (at best) serialized superheroes with all the Chris Claremont continuity boxes ticked, or (at worst) another crossover with too many moving parts for the thing itself to actually move. What I'm saying is that Morrison's sold out, or at least he's writing sellout comics. Which isn't necessarily a problem - I like Chris Claremont a hell of a lot! But honestly, Morrison's having trouble keeping it interesting, and even if he weren't, I don't come to Grant Morrison comics for lo-calorie superhero action. Morrison's work is interesting when it's innovative, and honestly, creating new Batman villains or writing long meta-arcs isn't innovative at all. If he had really wanted to keep it fresh over the past while, he should've gone the exact opposite direction with this stuff and done a series where the whole thing was like the best issue of his run, "Batman" #666. All ideas and no continuity, all progression and no reaching back at all. That's what made "Final Crisis" so great. That's why the first arc of "Batman and Robin" was so promising. If we'd gotten the actual next generation of Batman, if Dick and Damian had been done in the same way Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson did Dick and Bruce - full stories every issue, new villains and tropes thrown out like crazy, pure creation without hesitation or reconsideration, and let the hacks who come onto the book afterward sort it out - that would've kept it fresh. I would've enjoyed comics of far poorer quality if they just hadn't looked back.

There's a really good string of "Detective Comics" issues by Peter Milligan and Jim Aparo that pretty much does what I'm talking about. Aparo draws the hell out of everything and makes it look "like a Batman comic should," but Milligan just goes no surrender and does, basically, the same absurdist/gritty superhero stuff he was doing in his creator-owned books at the time - stuff like "Paradax" with Brendan McCarthy - except he squeezes it into Batman drag. It's the one of most refreshingly original takes on the character since the "Batman" TV show, pop and fun and fast-paced, and you can really see the seams of what Batman comics are and what they do coming close to bursting as Milligan injects all this weird Frank Miller-meets-Ogden Whitney dark absurdity. Morrison should've just done that: he did the continuity opus in "RIP"/"Final Crisis," after that he should've just written whatever he wanted that wasn't Batman and then put a Batman suit on it. Joe the Barbarian would be a lot more interesting if that was Damian having those hallucinations, talking to a bat in the cave! Like I said, if I just want to read a Batman comic there are better ones than anything in this run, but there's only one guy who can do Grant Morrison comics.

But honestly, Morrison is only the writer, and in this medium it's hardly fair to put the burden of innovation on writers. The sole reason I've kept up with this stuff is that, just when I'm ready to dial out, they put a fantastic artist on the book. The patchiness of the art teams has been a definite strike against Morrison's last year or so, but it actually feels like comics worth reading when there's an Irving or Stewart drawing the stuff. Funny thing, though: for a long time, Grant Morrison was the one writer who I felt could write scripts that stood up through bad art. Now, though? Not so much.

I know he worked Marvel-style with Quitely on "All-Star Superman," and since then I've wondered whenever he writes a bad story for a bad artist: is he using a different method? Is he just not able to get as inspired by himself anymore, does he need good art on the page to drag the best out of him? Or is he just scripting differently than he used to, has he stepped into the breach between words and pictures a little more and started leaving more out of the balloons for the artist to say in the panels? I know he has been in his Quitely collaborations, and there seemed to be some of that in the Irving issues too. Visually motivated storytelling that you could read without the script's cues. (As opposed to like, "The Filth" or "Invisibles," which without the words would have just been crazy picture after crazy picture.) What do you think, is he writing differently these days than he used to write?

Sellout comics? I don't want to slip into Henry Rollins mode and debate that term, but I guess you're saying that "All ideas and no continuity, all progression and no reaching back at all" is the optimal mode for Morrison - for superhero comics to be fresh and engaging - but when Morrison doubles back on himself, he's just doing the same thing other comic book writers have been stuck doing ever since the Bronze Age.

I can see that, but I think what separates Morrison's Bat-comics, even the ones that have been bundled up in this new continuity and become recursive, is that he's ultimately using these comics as a mode of personal expression in the way that so many other writers don't. Or at least it's not visible in their work. Morrison is exploring ideas through the denizens of Gotham, past, present and future, and what maybe makes this recent year or 18 months of his Batman work seem a bit less impressive than, say, his "JLA" run, was that in "JLA," he was twisting and gnarling his Gnostic "Invisibles" obsessions into what was normally a very white bread, bland superhero series for most of its existence. His Batman run has some of that, but as I've mentioned in my more recent discussions of Morrison, here (probably), and definitely on the Splash Page podcast, Morrison's obsessions are now less Gnostic and esoteric (though a hint remains) but mainstream. He is channeling the spirit of the modern superhero comic, drawing upon its edges and dark reaches and playing around in that world as he unfolds this tale of a Batman lost in time and a new version mixing it up on the Gotham streets. He's filtering the DC cosmology through his own experiences (which, at this point in his life, seems to revolve around reading old DC comics) and then spinning it back with style. That might be just continuity boxes you hear getting checked off, but they're Morrison's continuity boxes - the ones that readers didn't even think existed until he was halfway through his run.

It's that notion of recoil, everything snaps back, and Morrison stretched the concept of the character to his limit - in time and space and narrative - and now the character must whip back into the more traditional mold, though it's a mold of tradition plus. It's Batman accepting his role as a franchise, a role that has always been implicit, or explicit but seemingly oblivious to.

For me, the recoil is always less interesting than the pushing of the boundaries, but I also appreciate a story that doesn't just keep pushing and pushing until it leads nowhere. I find comfort in narrative closure (as do most readers, which is why stories have followed the same basic structure forever - it's genetic), and I think that's something that you may not necessarily look for in the same way. I mean, if you subscribe to your model of treating all comics like quarter bin comics, then what you're looking for is that flash of brilliance and oddness and brilliantly off-kilter storytelling, but that's not what serialized comics do best. What they do best is a kind of story ring approach, where the story keeps going and going and each teller provides their own variation.

Yeah, I can see that. I think it means "franchise" comics that will never end are always a game of diminishing returns, but you're right - they do what they do out of necessity, not lack of imagination. And to be fair, there's been a hell of a lot of imagination in Morrison's run; it just sort of all got front-loaded onto the opening 25 issues or so. What the comics are doing now is progression of a different kind, with Morrison moving his ideas forward from the ground zero he basically left them all at for the first three years of his run.

It had to happen, and there's been some great moments to it. I guess my biggest problem is (oddly enough, since Morrison's pulled this off so well before) all the self-referencing going on, the repetition of scenes we've read before, the constant name-checking of past plotlines or ones going on in other books. When he did that kind of stuff in "Final Crisis" it worked really well, because none of the referencing actually mattered in terms of the larger story: it was just soundbites, characters' whole histories reduced to the level of those mad, dashed-off Grant Morrison Ideas we love so much. But here it's actually important that you've read the other comics, in order, and retained the minutiae of certain subplots that have kept boiling and boiling for months on end. Again, the books' lateness is a big part of what makes that so frustrating, but at the same time a lot of that reference never really goes anywhere. It's wasting valuable real estate. All that stuff with the Miagani, the little bat-coffin, the 99 Fiends, even to a large extent the Wayne family history? Either written out of the way or wrapped up with more fizzle than bang. And I really do think that this part of my quarter-bin method is rock solid: if a new reader can't understand the comic, it isn't that good.

(Before you reproach me for saying that about these particular comics, let me tell you: today as a test I gave "Batman and Robin" #16 to someone I think is pretty smart who hasn't read any Batman comics since she was a kid, and she couldn't make heads or tails of it. That's a company's flagship book simply not doing its job.)

With that said, though, I've enjoyed seeing the continuity bits that have gotten proper screen time fall into place. As I mentioned, I think the 666 issue was by far the strongest of the run script-wise, and it's been very fun to see how Morrison is really writing towards what at the time seemed like a beautiful, drug-induced Elseworlds throwaway one-shot. 666 was one of the craziest Batman books of all time, and the fact that Morrison is creating a massive suite of comics with that book as its endpoint is incredibly cool. Yeah, there's some tedium involved, but we've also gotten Professor Pyg and Damian Wayne, which is more than any writer in at least the past decade has contributed to the long term of the Batman saga. Reading this comic monthly, I think, just might not be the optimal way to do it - when you re-read a bunch of issues in a row, like I did in preparation for this article, the broader story goals get more apparent and the slower issues are less of a drag. On the one hand, I think writing for a format other than the one that most people are buying your stuff in (here that's single issues, while Morrison's definitely writing for the posterity of trade collections) is a pretty unforgivable sin. But on the other hand, this broader story, taken tabula rasa as a plain ol' superhero comic that may or may not be by the guy who also does Seaguy, it's undeniably a cut above in both conception and execution.

It's actually pretty incredible what DC is letting Morrison do with Batman (and to a lesser, in my opinion far less interesting extent, what they're letting Geoff Johns do with our best pal the Green Lantern). When writers take over one of these corporate-owned properties, world building - though company rhetoric will deny it to the last - is almost always strictly forbidden. The assumption is that the characters' worlds are already built, have been for decades, and that they have to remain that way for the next writer down the line to be able to successfully play the same tunes that have sold so well for so long. But Morrison is actually adding significant chunks of his own stuff onto the massive, unwieldy architecture of the Batman mythos. He may not be doing it in a style I always enjoy, but I'll be the first to praise the larger scope of his project. Seen from afar, he kind of is doing the Finger/Robinson thing: new ideas are being woven into the old tapestry, new possibilities are being planted to carry the Batman warhorse into the next few decades without it breaking down into complete nostalgia tripping. I get what you're saying: it may not be innovative in the way Morrison usually is, but it's definitely working with the new.

Which is really what all hero comics need to be doing in order not to stagnate. DC's got it down with this stuff and the Green Lantern franchise - their best selling comics, by the way - and that's what makes the editorial conservatism on all their other books so baffling. There's such a dedication right now at DC to either rehashing old stories or making sure the new ones are firmly based in what happened last issue, that nothing ever seems to happen there anymore. I think it might be that they've seen how successful Morrison and Johns are with their continuity-based approaches and they're enforcing that down the line without realizing that the addition of new, innovative, never-before-seen elements is what's making those two guys' stuff exciting for so many readers. Morrison might be able to balance the new and the old, but most writers have to pick one or the other to focus on, and DC seems to have come down solidly in favor of the vastly inferior option.

Just to get this out of the way: I flatly reject the idea that single issues need to be accessible to a reader when we're talking about the aesthetic or narrative quality of a comic book series. As a business decision, yes, it seems misguided. And, true, comics are a business. But I'm not interesting in evaluating the quality of a story based on how well it meets the business demands placed on it. I'd also say that Morrison's Bat-run benefits from its serialized nature, even with the out-of-context-incomprehensible-issue-here-and-there, because it allows us to live with his ideas a bit longer as we wait for the next installment. That technique was far more effective leading up to the "Batman R.I.P." finale, when the mysteries were deeper, but I don't think the Morrison Batman stuff would feel as substantial without the serialization. As a massive tome, all collected, it might be heavy, but it would be more hermetic than it actually was as a monthly (or not-quite-monthly).

But I do agree that there was a bit too much fizzle with some things Morrison set up. The Red Hood arc, even ignoring the massive art problems, amounted to nothing and was just a diversion until Dr. Hurt could make his big comeback. Even the mystery of the Black Glove was a thin MacGuffin in the end, and the ultimate truth of Thomas Wayne seems to have diverged from his original intent. (If you remember, Morrison was adamant that the Black Glove - the man behind the organization - was someone everyone around the world, in every culture, would know. So, every culture knows about the ancestor of Bruce Wayne who ate a bit of Apokalyptian technology and gained longevity and Darkseid indegestion? Is that one of those monomyths?)

Still, the delights of the Morrison run on Batman - and as I'm writing this, I just finished reading "Batman: The Return" and "Batman Inc." #1 - are pretty spectacular, and even when he's in straightforward action/adventure mode (as he seems to be sliding into here, though that's how the very first issues of his original run seemed to begin, too), he knows how to keep things swift-moving, razor-sharp, and interesting.

And you're right, so many other comics in the DC stable end up just getting bogged down in the old, instead of moving forward at all. "Green Lantern" at least has that massive sense of scale going for it, and Geoff Johns has done an impressive job building this expanding clockwork machinery of plot and character interaction that is complex but so based on simple iconography that anyone could understand it. Which, if you're unlike me and you actually care about single-issue accessibility, might excite you. For me, the "Green Lantern" comics work because they keep marching the larger story forward, even if you can see where it's headed. I mean, what do we have coming up? "War of the Lanterns?" I think we can predict what might happen there, but I'm sure it will still be an efficiently told story, with lots of compelling drama.

Other DC franchises? Superman? Wonder Woman? The Teen Titans? These are all dead in the water right now. I can't even read those comics. Paul Cornell's "Action Comics" run is good enough, but it seems slight, and I'm definitely not in tune with the art at all. I like the tone of Geoff Johns's "Flash," and he seems to be attempting the kind of world building that could make that series matter, but it's still too early to tell. Paul Levitz's "Legion" has some potential, but the "Adventure Comics" attempt at retelling older stories is just a complete disaster. "Green Arrow?" "The Outsiders?" These comics - and the attached creators - haven't been able to follow in the footsteps of Morrison or Johns and create anything new that feels new. For whatever reason. It may just be the safety of corporate comics, and it may just be that it's always been that way. The Superman and Wonder Woman stuff is really a killer, though, especially compared to the overall strength of the Batman line right now, with Scott Snyder looking to come in and do something that actually lines up with the kind of comics we're looking for.

Well - and I don't want to belabor this point, but I just gotta say it - format considerations are just as much a part of comic book aesthetics as anything else, and when you're playing against your format rather than to it that's just as bad to me as like, poor storytelling or something. The single issue is designed as a streamlined, accessible comics experience, and I think a lot of what makes the books tough for the uninitiated is what makes it unsatisfying for me on a pamphlet-by-pamphlet basis. If obfuscating the medium's most enduring, populist format is really the most subversive thing Morrison's doing in his run, that's a bit troublesome. I just wish they could all read like the Quitely issues or "Batman and Robin" #13 or "Batman" #666. Nobody can do an effective single-issue unit of superhero comics like Morrison, and using his format well should be a higher priority.

The aspects of the run that fizzled out or never really got going - to me they're a prime example of why single issues haven't been so great for what Morrison's writing. Reading it all at once you can feel some aspect of build across even the time-marking arcs like the Red Hood stuff, whereas in the monthlies those comics just seemed to drag on and on. I get what you mean about the serialized form's time gaps being ideal for digesting the ideas, but I think typically the less interesting issues have been the ones without as many ideas going for them. The Red Hood arc was definitely the lightest thing Morrison's written in years, and the Black Glove mystery didn't have nearly as much to it as, say, the more successful Oberon Sexton/Joker reveal.

Unfortunately, I think you may be right about the ingrained sameness of corporate comics. For all that we both prefer aesthetic quality over reliable product, the latter is what the system is geared toward producing, and as long as that stuff sells (which it does), the former will never be more than a vaguely desirable, randomly occurring byproduct for the people who hold the reins. At their best, Grant Morrison comics are world-changing idea-bombs that don't look back because they've created a narrative space that's entirely their own. And it's hard to do that with a Batman comic. The two I can think of that actually achieved that kind of whole-cloth creation are my two favorite ones: Frank Miller's "DK2" and Josh Simmons' bootleg Batman comic. And you know what? Both are out of continuity, light on editing, heavy on individuality - the opposite of the poorer books that bog down the DC line, which seem to have about as much artistic inspiration to them as factory-assembled washing machines - and if there were two comics-with-Batman-in-them DC could somehow disavow and strike from humanity's collective consciousness forever, those two would definitely be at least in the top five. The production-line process that holds sway at the superhero publishers is just bad for the material, and when you mention stuff like the time-filling Red Hood arc, I can't help but think how ridiculous it is that Grant Morrison is writing to some editor's timetable.

So Morrison's Batman isn't gonna change the world, or even comics. "Batman Inc." looks to be more of the same: stylish, effectively told action stories full of winks and nods thrown to the insiders. But continuity, mainline Batman comics have never changed the world, and it would be foolish to expect them to now just because the guy who invented the narrative hypersigil quite a few years ago has been hired on to steer them for a while. In the end, as Morrison comics I think these Batman books come up short, failing to deliver so much of what's interesting about the guy's more enduringly artistic work. But as Batman comics, as a string of issues in a saga that's seen multiple thousands of installments over the better part of a century, they stand tall. If Morrison hasn't gone full blast with the imagination and the new like he would have in a perfect world, well, he's at least found a good inoculation dosage of those things, one that can flourish in the harsh, restrictive environment that is DC at the moment. I think his Batman run is most successful as a primer on what can be gotten away with in a Big Two publisher's most commercial book: watching Morrison toe their line as he attempts, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, to pull off his own moves as well, has been at least as instructive as it's been entertaining.

The name of the game as a superhero comics fan isn't total bliss, it's endurance for reward, and the high points of this past half-decade with Damian and Dick and what's-his-name have been more than worth the patience they've required.

I can't top "endurance for reward." That says it all.

In addition to writing WHEN WORDS COLLIDE for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when words collide, batman, grant morrison, matt seneca

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