Ostensibly “Batman, Incorporated” issues #9 and #10, “Batman, Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes!” #1 ends the first ‘season’ of the title and sets the stage for next year’s return and conclusion to Grant Morrison’s tenure on the Batbooks. The wait for this comic may have been long, but with Cameron Stewart and Chris Burnham providing the art, it was well worth it. Morrison delivers both an entertaining ‘done in one’ style adventure spotlighting Stephanie Brown and an ambitious issue that pushes the story about as far as it can go before it breaks. It ends with the big reveal of who is behind Leviathan, the criminal organization that Batman has created Batman, Incorporated to fight. It’s the sort of issue that arrives just in time to remind critics that, maybe, they left “Batman, Incorporated” off their top ten of 2011 lists and that, obviously, was a mistake.
The opening story calls back to early issues of “Batman, Incorporated” with Stephanie Brown enrolled at a private school in England run by Leviathan, aimed at turning teenage girls in brainwashed ninja assassins. It’s actually a pretty good plan when you stop and think about it. Morrison is a writer that excels at writing teens, particularly those that are outsiders in a creepy environment. There are shades of his “New X-Men” run in this story, if only Xavier’s school was a terrorist training camp (and who says it wasn’t?).
Brown taking center stage provides a unique view of the school as she struggles to stay alive, fit in enough to learn useful information, and keep distant enough that she doesn’t fall prey to the teachings of the school. Morrison’s interpretation of the character is one where you can see why she was chosen to be Robin at one point and why she has many devoted fans. Even Batman making an appearance at the end to help out doesn’t detract from her being the driving force behind the school being taken down.
Without Cameron Stewart’s art, this story could have slid into creepy territory. After all, it is an issue focused on athletic teenage girls who attend a private school. In the hands of a less talented artist, the story could have collapsed into one long exhibition of not-quite-legal T&A that leaves any self-respecting reader feeling like they need a long shower to wash off the comic. Stewart, though, emphasizes the creepiness of the school and avoids being gratuitous. He gives the characters a strong sense of personality in their looks. The way that Stephanie goes from apprehensive to confident over the course of the issue as she becomes comfortable with her surroundings helps show her abilities; when she suits up as Batgirl, it feels very natural.
If that wasn’t enough to warrant a glowing review, Chris Burnham delivers the best work of his career in the 30-page second story. A crazy romp of mind-bending time alterations, double-crosses, and a cast involving almost the entirety of Batman, Incorporated, Burnham doesn’t just keep up with Morrison’s tricky script, he makes it easy to understand and follow along to. He pushes himself to deliver complex and thoughtful page compositions that mimic the reality that the characters speak of. This isn’t simply a case of Doctor Dedalus telling Batman that he’s inhaled mind-altering gas; we can see the affect through Burnham's art without it losing clarity of storytelling.
Both Morrison and Burnham do a remarkable job of increasingly making it seem like Batman is out of his depth in fighting Leviathan. The Labyrinth of Doctor Dedalus is so meandering and self-consuming, Leviathan’s reach so extended, that Batman may have finally met an enemy too big and too clever for him to defeat.
The storytelling is ambitious in the way that it presents what happens; however, it’s only the finer details that may be confusing. The larger thrust of the story is perfectly clear and never loses focuses. This story, more than anything Morrison’s done in quite some time, has the chance of throwing off readers that simply assume that ‘Morrison is on drugs, so it doesn’t make sense.’ That’s not true: at its core, the second half of this comic presents a very simple story told in a complicated way. And that simplicity hidden by complexity is part of what makes it such a joy to read.
The fate of “Batman, Incorporated” was one of the big questions when DC relaunched its complete line in September. “Leviathan Strikes!” begins with a disclaimer that it takes place before “Flashpoint” and the resulting relaunch . That gives Morrison license to push things further. It may not ‘count,’ but “Batman, Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes!” is the best comic DC has published in the latter half of 2011. The wait for “Batman: Leviathan” in 2012 is already too long.