The British Invasion, Part 1 — Grant Morrison in 1986: Batman

As shown in previous installments, in the mid-1980s there were notable late works by two of the leading members of the founding generation of comic book professionals, Will Eisner and Jack Kirby. This period is a kind of crossroads, with the old generation of comics creators in the late phase of their careers, while a new generation is starting to emerge. Most notably, this is when the new wave of British comics creators is beginning to move into American comics. When British rock musicians became popular in the United States in the mid-1960s, the phenomenon was dubbed the “British Invasion,” and the term seems applicable to comics as well.

It really began in 1983, when DC comics editor Len Wein hired British writer Alan Moore to write the series featuring a character that Wein himself had co-created, Saga of the Swamp Thing. Moore had already won a major reputation in British comics through such work as his reimagining of the classic Marvelman series, which under the name Miracleman would first reach the United States in 1986.  Moore’s first issue of Saga of the Swamp Thing was #20 (Jan. 1984), but in the next one, #21 (Feb. 1984), in the story “The Anatomy Lesson,” Moore put his mark on the series by similarly radically revising the concept behind its title character. In their Swamp Thing origin story Wein and co-creator Bernie Wrightson had shown scientist Alec Holland being transformed into a swamp monster. Moore, collaborating with artists Stephen R. Bissette and John Totleben, instead established that the Swamp Thing was a distinctly different being than Holland: Holland was dead, but the Swamp Thing had come to life, possessing Holland’s memories, thinking himself to be Holland.

This story was written and published before DC Comics began rebooting its characters’ continuities, discarding their past histories, in 1986. Presumably Wein, as Swamp Thing editor, would not have wanted Moore to delete Wein’s own past Swamp Thing tales from the official DC Comics canon. But perhaps Moore would not have wanted to do so. With both Marvelman and Swamp Thing, Moore did not reject the character’s past history but instead reinterpreted it. The past Swamp Thing stories were still canonical; Moore was simply establishing that the readers’ (and past writers’) assumption that Swamp Thing was Alec Holland was incorrect. Moore’s approach seems considerably more respectful towards the classic stories of the past and their creators than the reboots that soon became standard policy at DC Comics. Ironically, some of the major British writers who came to DC Comics seemed to value comics history more than the American writers and editors, who consigned their predecessors’ work to oblivion (and as the decades have passed, have in various cases seen their own work similarly overturned by their successors). Significantly, in 1986, when the conventional wisdom at DC Comics was that the traditional Superman continuity was irredeemably dated and had to be overturned, Moore wrote his classic Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, a powerful homage to the Superman mythos developed by editors Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz.

Moore’s work on Swamp Thing startlingly stood out from the work of most American writers at that time in DC and Marvel Comics, who were generally still following the model set by Stan Lee in the 1960s.  Moore brought a more literary style to language and storytelling; a subtler, more penetrating approach to characterization; and an imagination capable of discovering previously unrealized aspects of the mythic characters and concepts in the DC Comics canon. In his early DC work Moore has not yet achieved full maturity as a comics writer, but he quickly progressed. It is astounding that only two years after his debut at DC Comics, Moore reached the summit of his achievement withWatchmen.

MarvelmanSaga of the Swamp ThingWhatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, and Watchmen will all receive their own chapters in this series. This installment, however, is about two British writers who by 1986 were following Moore into writing for characters in the DC and Marvel Universes and would go on to careers in comics that would rival his in importance and influence: Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman.

Grant Morrison had been writing for British comics since 1978, when he was still a teenager. By 1986 Morrison was writing prose stories for British comics featuring characters owned by DC and Marvel. Morrison’s stories weren’t in comics form, though each had several illustrations by comics artists. In publishing text stories about superheroes, British comics were following a tradition that American comics had originated but abandoned decades before. Indeed, Stan Lee’s first published story in a comic book was the text story “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” in Timely’s Captain America Comics #3 (May 1941).

In the United Kingdom’s 1986 Batman Annual Morrison wrote the text piece “The Stalking,” with illustrations by British artist Garry Leach, who had been the original artist on Moore’s Marvelman. For those readers who associate Morrison with his later radical reworkings of such DC series as Animal Man and Doom Patrol, “The Stalking” will seem not only surprisingly traditional but astonishingly retro.

In this story, the Catwoman, exploring underground, finds her way into the Batcave. She realizes that if she can find out where the Batcave is by getting to the surface, she can learn and expose Batman’s secret identity, thereby ending his crimefighting career. Batman finds Catwoman in the Batcave and they do battle in its Trophy Room. Leach pictures the Catwoman not in the catsuit that Julie Newmar made famous on the 1960s Batman television show, but in her traditional costume from the 1940s and 1950s. In the following year, 1987, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli would reconceive Catwoman as a prostitute turned criminal in Batman Year One, but Morrison is here writing the Golden and Silver Age Catwoman, complete with her proclivity for making cat puns. Threatening Batman with exposing his true identity, she notes, “A catastrophe for you.” She even pronounces something to be in “Purr-fect working order,” as if she were Ms. Newmar.

Like the 1940s-1960s version, Catwoman compulsively behaves like a cat. She finds the staircase that leads from the Batcave through the entrance hidden by a grandfather clock into Wayne Manor. (When he took over editing the Batman titles in 1964, editor Julius Schwartz had introduced an elevator as Bruce Wayne’s means of descending into the Batcave, but Morrison pointedly uses the grandfather clock entrance from earlier Batman stories, and which, indeed, had been borrowed from the 1920 film The Mark of Zorro, a major influence on Batman’s creation.) Emerging from behind the grandfather clock, Catwoman is surprised by Batman’s butler Alfred, who sprays gas in her face, rendering her unconscious. When she revives, she is Batman’s prisoner, and he is driving her in the Batmobile to police headquarters.

“’I knew you’d try the stairs,” he went on. ‘You just couldn’t resist it. I suppose it proves what they say.’

“She glared at him with eyes green as gemstones. ‘I know, I know,’ she spat. ‘ It’s not funny.’

“The Batman smiled, pulling into the Police parking lot. ‘Oh, I think it is,’ he said. ‘Just like in the old story: Curiosity Killed the Cat.’”

Batman smiling!? In the same year that Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was published!? But Miller did not create the “grim and gritty” version of the Batman, who had been introduced as a dark avenging figure in his earliest stories in 1939 by co-creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger. In the 1970s editor Julius Schwartz, writer Denny O’Neil, and artist Neal Adams, among others, had returned to the original characterization of Batman, partly in reaction against the “camp” Batman of the 1960s television series.

At this early point in Morrison’s career, it would be unlikely that editors would allow him to radically experiment with Batman or Superman. It is much more probable that they would insist that he follow the way that the then current writers of the American Batman comics were handling the character and the series. But Morrison is doing something different: he is harking back to the grinning, wisecracking Batman of the mid-1940s through the early 1960s, as drawn by artists such as Dick Sprang.

Indeed, “The Stalking” is really a comedy, complete with the punch line about curiosity killing the cat. Batman gets the last laugh, although he’s restrained enough to do no more than smile. If you regard this story as a comedy, then it makes sense that it is not Batman who defeats Catwoman, but Alfred, who, in Morrison’s word, “spritzed” her in the face with sleeping gas. Could it be that Morrison was surreptitiously evoking the humorous style of the 1960s Batman show?

Note too that this Batman is not a shadowy vigilante, but works openly with the police, actually driving the Batmobile into the Gotham City police department’s parking lot at the close of the story.

Earlier in the story Morrison includes some nifty shafts of wit. Looking around her at the giant props in the Batcave Trophy Room, the Catwoman declares it’s “Much more fun than Disneyland!” Had you noticed how much Batman’s Trophy Room resembles a theme park attraction before you read that line? At the beginning of the story Bruce Wayne is watching with disapproval as Johnny Carson interviews Superman on television and makes a hackneyed joke about Superman wearing his underwear on the outside. Since Morrison is British, he refers to Carson’s program as a “chat show,” rather than using the American term “talk show.” It turns out that Carson’s Tonight Show had a brief, unsuccessful run on British television in the early 1980s, so Morrison may be reflecting the dim view his countrymen had of the show. This is a witty and clever way for Morrison to draw a distinction between Superman, the hero who is beloved by the public in the DC Universe, and Batman, who works in the shadows. (Perhaps, too, Morrison was unaware that editor Julius Schwartz had introduced a Johnny Carson counterpart, Johnny Nevada, as a recurring character in theSuperman comics.)

Morrison is having fun with Batman in this story, but he is not mocking the character, as the 1960s television show seemed to do. Rather, this brief text story voices Morrison’s fondness for the Batman character and his mythos. Morrison lovingly lists and describes prominent items in Batman’s Trophy Room, including the robotic Tyrannosaurus from (as he mentions) the “Dinosaur Island” story (from Batman #35, June 1946). One can even sense Morrison’s pleasure in devising this alliterative cat-themed simile for Catwoman: “With the contented expression of a cat that has gorged itself on cream, she opened the door in the grandfather clock.”

This “retro” Batman story, “The Stalking,” demonstrates Morrison’s love of Batman comics stories that predate the O’Neil/Adams era, and even predate the Schwartz “New Look”Batman of the mid-1960s. Indeed, when Morrison becomes a lead writer on Batman comics in the 21st century, he drew upon characters and story elements from the period in the 1950s and early 1960s when Jack Schiff edited the Batman titles, a period that was generally considered to be Batman’s worst. Most notably, Morrison turned an unnamed character from “Batman Dies at Dawn” in Batman #156 (June 1963) into Doctor Pain, the principal villain of his “Batman R.I.P.” story arc. DC Comics even published a collection of the Schiff-era Batman stories that Morrison used as sources as Batman: The Black Casebook (2009), with an introduction by Morrison.

Like Moore had done with Superman in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Morrison, in his 21st century Batman stories, demonstrated that old, supposedly dated continuity can be used as springboards for cutting edge contemporary comics stories. Both Moore and Morrison thus implicitly question the wisdom of DC Comics’ editors and writers in obliterating so much of the company’s rich comics history from official continuity.

Copyright 2013 Peter Sanderson

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Peter Sanderson is a comics historian and critic who has written and co-written numerous books, as well as contributing essays to several Sequart anthologies. Sanderson has three degrees in English literature from Columbia University, and has taught "Comics as Literature" at New York University. He was Marvel Comics' first archivist and an assistant editor there. Sanderson has curated or co-curated three exhibitions on comics at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, worked on two documentaries about comics, and written reviews and journalistic pieces on comics for Publishers Weekly and other magazines. For further examples of his work, see his online column "Comics in Context."

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Also by Peter Sanderson:

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide


Gotham City 14 Miles: 14 Essays on Why the 1960s Batman TV Series Matters


Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


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