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The Culture Hole, Issue 3: Men of Bats

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Issue 3: Men of Bats

 

01. I SHALL BECOME A BAT

Who is Batman?

Up until recently, the easy answer was always Bruce Wayne.  Wealthy orphan?  Irresponsible playboy?  I’m sure you’ve heard of him.  Well, it turns out he’s got a deep, dark secret: the only thing he hates more than a poorly mixed gimlet is crime.  And whereas you or I might be content to just stab a pickpocket or two, he’s not happy until every ne’er do well has a fist-shaped dent in the side of his head, which is to say he’s never happy.  Oh yeah; he’s Batman.

Well, Grant Morrison’s done gone and lit all that on fire.  After bringing Bruce back from his extended absence in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne – hardcover deluxe edition out this week, and yes, you should definitely read it and the rest of Morrison’s take on the character – Morrison immediately changed the rules of the game.  Whereas before there was just Bruce and his ersatz family in their war on crime, now Batman’s gone public in Batman Incorporated.  Before it was a family, now it’s a brand.  An international network of crimefighters, all wearing the batsymbol and denting crooks’ skulls in the name of what’s right.

Needless to say, people were pissed.

Grant Morrison’s run with the character has never been the easy route.  Frequently complex and always polarizing, these are the comics where Batman gets a son and then “dies” at the hands of a god of evil’s spacegun, which makes him fight his way back through time by sheer force of being awesome.  Cartoonist Sam Logan once described these comics to me as “4-5 issues of insanity followed by one of Batman going, ‘Of course, I knew it all along.’”  That’s not for everyone.  Some people like the Goddamn Batman instead.  Some people just want The Invisibles.  But what unites many of these people, I’ve found, is their belief that Batman Incorporated, the idea of many Batmen running around willy nilly, is wrong and a besmirching of a beloved character.  With a lull between Batman Incorporated issues and the hardcover collection of Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne hitting stores this week, it seemed as good a time as any to talk about my own lifelong love of the Caped Crusader and why there is room in my heart for an infinite number of Batmen.

02. GROWING UP BATMAN

When I was a kid, it was sort of accepted you liked a few things.  Ghostbusters.  Ninja Turtles.  Tiny Toon Adventures.  Spider-Man.  And, of course, Batman.  This was the early 90s; Batman Returns was just coming out and my friends and I were all bothering our parents with the pull back wind up Batmobiles and Penguinmobiles from Happy Meals that were constantly underfoot.  Batman: The Animated Series was running on TV after school and none of us had any idea that this was making the careers of talented men and women like Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Arleen Sorkin and Andrea Romano.  We just loved watching Batman on TV.  In Canada, YTV ran reruns of the old 1966 Batman TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward, which fostered in me a deep and abiding love of camp, egg puns (thank you, Vincent Price) and the twin ideas that radioactivity made things like cowls a dull pink and that if you were ever hooked up to a mind reading machine, all you had to do was think really hard that you weren’t secretly Batman to fool it.  Add to this books, comics, toys and our own imaginations, and we were positively awash in a sea of different Batmen.  Some of them were goofy, some of them were serious, and some of them would later be Val Kilmer and George Clooney.  It was a great time to love Batman and we were absolutely spoiled.

I don’t think it ever occurred to me that there might be a “right” Batman.  There was just Batman.  Sometimes he was Adam West and other times he was Kevin Conroy, and the suit never looked quite the same, but I never had to make up multiverses and juggle continuities.  There was Batman and he really didn’t like criminals.  I knew each version by looking at him and I never had to worry about which was “right.”  They’re all there in my head, peacefully mingling as parts of what made me the way I am.  As long as the story was good, I was happy, because none of these excluded the others.  Though come to think of it, I’d pay to see Val and George fight it out.  You’re welcome, ladies.

03. A BATMAN FOR ALL SEASONS

In retrospect, this made me the perfect candidate to look at Batman Incorporated and see story opportunities and not an ulcer.  I suppose that, if I really wanted to, I could read any of the half dozen current series – plus all the older ones – that feature Bruce Wayne as Batman and not have to worry about Dick Grayson, Mr. Unknown, Bilal Asselah or Cyril Sheldrake.  Sure, if you want to pick up an issue of Batman you’ll have to deal with Dick, but it’s not like Bruce is gone.  From a fiscal standpoint, he’s too lucrative to let go.  And from an artistic standpoint, he’s still there, being Batman.  This is a purely additive proposition.

I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t really a new one, either.  In fact, one of my favourite arcs of Morrison’s Batman, “Club of Heroes,” where we catch up with a group of Batman-inspired international heroes, was at its core a revisit of the old “Batmen of All Nations” from 1955, which is more than a little bit similar to Batman Incorporated, as is Batman FamilyMorrison’s run has been, if anything, about cultural archeology, of finding these old bits of Batman arcana and lovingly dusting them off.

And good thing, too.  One thing I share with Morrison is the belief that in the last two decades, the comics Batman has often been too fixed on one version of the character.  No more Bill Finger, Neal Adams or Carmine Infantino, just Frank Miller. As he explained to The LA Times’ Hero Complex:

You kind of go in with an idea of Batman, but I think that when I started the book… the prevailing trend was the Frank Miller-style Batman, “The Dark Knight Returns” Batman, which was great. I grew up with that stuff and loved it. But I felt like the character right now could handle maybe dealing with some of the more problematic aspects of his past, which were some of the weird villains and strange science fiction. The notion of putting that stuff back but treating it in a very modern, grounded, realistic way… gave us scope for a whole new kind of story. So for me, what I discovered was the depth of the character. I was kind of used to the savage vigilante, but when I really began to think of it, someone who had gone through this life process to be Batman would have much more psychological depth. A man who is that advanced in meditation and martial arts and yoga is not going to be a one-note vigilante crime fighter. There are a lot more spiritual aspects and weird aspects to Bruce Wayne’s personality that have not been explored a lot. That opened up a lot to me, and the character got a lot richer and a lot more depth… I mean, there was a lot of great Batman work being done – there always has been – but there was a tendency to push the character into a very dark place where I think he didn’t entirely belong. There’s a lot more to a man like that.

Like I said, it’s additive.  A new version doesn’t replace the old one, especially when it’s not entirely new itself.  Batman Incorporated is just a different kind of Batman story, and all the old ones are still there.  Batman has always been alternately goofy, haunted, thuggish, aristocratic or paternal depending on who was writing, drawing, directing or wearing the cowl at the time.  Incorporated is just a lateral move from this multiplicity; the metaphorical legions have become literal.  But it’s still Batman.

04. THE ONCE AND FUTURE BATMAN

But of course it is.  Where’s Batman going to go?  He’s been around since 1939 and he’s permeated our culture so thoroughly that excising him would be impossible.  He’s anything we need him to be, infinitely adaptive as the times require.  He’s an idea.  An archetype. At this point, he’s practically mythical.

Look at The Return of Bruce Wayne.  As he travels to the depths of time and back, Batman is anything the situation requires him to be.  A caveman.  A pilgrim.  A pirate.  A cowboy.  A gumshoe.  He slips into all of those roles, those pulp lovelies, with nothing more than a costume change and some amnesia.  And yet, through it all, he’s Batman.  He’s instantly recognizable no matter where he goes or what he looks like.  His methods might be different, his name might be different, but no matter what, he is still Batman and no amount of time or meddling can change that.  It’s Batman-as-cultural-force.  At its core, the series is Morrison‘s love letter to the character he loves, who has impacted his life and irrevocably shaped it.  It’s a love letter to the Batman that we’ve all held inside us since we were kids, whatever he might look like.

So bring on Batman Incorporated and new men to wear the cowl.  Batman’s bigger than one story – one man – anyway.  He’ll outlive us all and we can’t control how, no matter how hard we might try to propagate the versions we like best.  But he’s not going away.  Like Morrison says, “I tell people not to worry. Batman can take it. He’[s] done it before.”

2 Comments

  1. Morrison has said before that Batman’s trip through time wasn’t all that random – but that the times were chosen specifically because of the tropes they all had, leading up to Batman. To my knowledge, he didn’t go much further into detail after saying this – doing what he USUALLY does, in making the reader think and get to the conclusion themselves – but he’s right.

    The caveman (survival and fights and shit).

    The pilgrim (the black and white of criminals needing to be punished – what with their being a cowardly and superstitious lot).

    The pirate (swashbuckling adventurer)

    The cowboy (lone gunman)

    The gumshow (DETECTIVING!)

    It all equals BATMAN!

    And that’s AWESOME.

    • I had the same thoughts a while ago but forgot to actually write them, so I’m glad you brought it up! It’s definitely a conscious effort by Morrison. I referred to the time periods as “pulp lovelies” because they’re periods Morrison used due to their popularity in pulp stories and comics before superheroes took over – another love letter of his to old pop culture – as well as their roles as archetypes that add up to Batman. Facets of the Man of Bats/Bat God Myth, if you will. One thing I’ve loved about Morrison’s run with the character is all the intertextuality; once you start pulling on the threads he leaves exposed, art and culture start falling out.

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