23 October 2012

on zeroes, batman inc. & optimism

Leaving aside the Nolan trilogy of movies, the most influential voices in Batman lore over at least the past thirty years have been Frank Miller and Grant Morrison.  Apologies to Denny O'Neil, Greg Rucka, Chuck Dixon & others, but Miller & Morrison are the two kings of that proverbial hill.  Miller's work in the 80's had a huge impact on the tone of the comics, without question.  Morrison's run came along 20 years after Miller was done, and in the eyes of many served as a counterpoint to DKR and/or Year One.  Where Miller eschewed many of the more outrageous tropes in the Bat-mythos, Morrison embraced and expanded upon them.  There is a large extent to which Bat-fandom treats "Morrison vs. Miller" as its defining debate - pick one or pick the other, but pick a side and stick to it.

I love both takes, but it's only recently that I've come to see that they have much more in common than I'd thought, and that I've been able to pick out the thing that elevates them above other interpretations of the character.  I had not revisited Miller's seminal works (i.e. not All-Star Batman) in quite some time before recently watching the DKR animated movie.  The movie takes a few liberties with the comic but not all that many - it's a pretty faithful interpretation.  The first movie works through DKR #1-2 - so up to the point where Batman defeats the Mutant leader.

Into the same ideaspace pops the final zero issue I wanted to talk about, Batman Incorporated #0 (Morrison/ Frazier Irving).  Inc. #0 really isn't any better or worse than any other issue of the series; it just happens to be the one I read most recently.  The issue is on one hand an exercise in continuity pr0n, as we see Batman (presumably sometime in between the events of Batman: The Return and Batman Inc. (pre-New 52 series) #1), running around recruiting various agents to become part of the team.  It's not really a story that *needed* to be told, and if DC hadn't been doing a month of zero issues, I suspect it never would have been told.  It's interesting to me, though, because essentially the issue is broken up into little short segments (Morrison's hyper-compressed style) where we see person after person inspired by Batman.

Something about Batman seems to bring out the pop psychologist in all of us, and one of the big tropes of the last thirty years has been the notion that Batman creates his own adversaries - that the Joker, Two-Face et al are damaged individuals who are drawn to Batman likes moths to a light - that if he never existed, neither would they.  The Nolan movies even, at times, endorse this notion.  Heck, Miller himself built it into DKR with his comatose-until-Batman-shows-up Joker.  And to me there's always been something fundamentally ugly about that - I think the problem I have with it is that it casts Batman's entire mythos in an unheroic light.  He becomes the cause of all the evil nutbags running around Gotham, and his career becomes an exercise in trying to contain the very thing he inadvertently spawned.  It plays into the idea of Batman as a narcissist playing out a child's version of a revenge fantasy.  And while I can see how that's an interesting concept, it removes the heroism from the character almost entirely.  If you take the "hero" out of a superhero, you're left with something nihilistic, and in fact I think many Batman runs over the last few decades, even ones that I generally liked, have a heavily nihilistic quality to them.

What sets Morrison and Millar apart is the near-total absence of nihilism from their interpretations of the character.  They are, as near as I can tell, the only two creators who have embraced the idea of Batman as an inspirational figure.  (Again, I'm leaving out Nolan, though he pushes this idea to an extent as well.)  At some point, if we're going to call Batman a "hero", we have to ask who he is a hero *to*?  Few Batman stories ever try to answer that question, but as I read one supercharacter after another accept Batman's call to arms in Inc. #0 - well, there's your answer.  Morrison's Batman may or may not inspire the Jokers and bad guys of the world, but he also inspires people all over the world to do the RIGHT thing.

Miller's take on the same idea is darker, because Miller, but it's still there.  The Mutants --> Sons of the Batman.  They may be sociopaths, but they're sociopaths who are changed for the better by Batman's presence.  Miller's Batman rides in on a horse to save Gotham City and beats up a dude who has turned to lawlessness in the face of adversity and creates a myth that is, in the words of Ellen Yindel, "too big" to judge.  Miller's take is premised on the notion that Batman can show up and actually make things around him better, rather than simply preserving the status quo.  Hence his characterization of Batman as a soldier fighting a war rather than a policeman enforcing the law.

Though many later creators adopted the verbiage of Batman's "war on crime", few of them presented it in a way that made any sense, except in the vague way that we understand a "war on drugs" or a "war on terror".  Those are not wars that can really be WON, and so Batman then becomes a tragic figure, sacrificing his life and his happiness to fight an unwinnable battle.  Enter Morrison, who rehabilitates that concept by placing Batman in an actual war, not with crime but with Leviathan, a criminal organization.  Presumably Batman can win a war against Leviathan, with the assistance of Batman, Inc., and while there almost certainly will be more criminals, and more crime, after Leviathan is defeated, by using Leviathan as a stand-in for "crime" in the generic sense, Morrison re-casts Batman's mission as a hopeful, optimistic one rather than an exercise in futility.

I've nothing against nihilistic or downbeat superhero stories in an abstract sense, but it's always been my feeling that the old-school DC and Marvel characters - all of whom were created as children's characters - ought to have ultimately positive stories.  Not to say they can't be dark, but they should be life-affirming.  Even through Miller's darkening of the Bat-mythos, he manages to make Batman's story one of triumph - not just over the villain of the month, but of the soul.  Morrison has latched onto and revived that concept in a big way - "Batman & Robin will never die!"  In 52 he has the Ten-Eyed Men literally cut the darkness out of Bruce Wayne's soul - that darkness belongs in his environment, not in his soul.  Miller got that, too, and it's a big reason why they are the two definitive Batman scribes of the last few decades.  Because geez, I'd follow a tragic character and watch him wallow in misery - for awhile - but who'd want to do that indefinitely?  If Batman can't win, what's the frickin' point?

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