Grant Morrison’s Batman has been courting controversy since it began. Batman has a son? Man-Bats learned ninjitsu? Comics can be full of words instead of pictures? A future Batman who’s not Robin or Tim or even Jason? The Club of Heroes? A Bane-shaped Batman clone?
Befuddlement seems to be the norm. Befuddlement or apathy. But I’ve been enjoying every issue, and once Bat-Mite popped up at the end of the previous issue, I knew that issue #673 was going to be something special.
So, what’s going on with Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel’s Batman#673? Well, it’s heavily indebted to Batman #156.
A quick glance at the classic Silver Age cover will tell you why Morrison would find that issue from 1963 so appealing. Batman cradling a dead Robin? On an alien landscape? Sounds good to me.
Couple that with the interior story, in which not only does Ace the Bathound appear, but Batman dresses like a gorilla to infiltrate the aptly-described Gorilla Gang, and you can toss in an alien stone idol with four arms and an experiment in which Batman contributes to space medicine, and it’s a story begging for a postmodern retelling, is it not?
Well, that’s not exactly what Morrison gives us in Batman #673, but he does continue to pick moments out of Batman’s forgotten past and tie it into present continuity, and the parts he picks out of Batman #156 seem to offer a key to how he can combine these strange and wonderful old stories into a world in which Batman has been awfully grumpy and “realistic” for decades.
First, though, I want to discuss what makes Batman #156 a Morrison-esque story on its own, even before Morrison cherry-picks from it for his own purposes. Examine the page above. Check out those top two panels: “Eyes watching me…” “I know you’re out there! Why don’t you show yourselves? Why are you watching me?” That reads like it came straight out of Morrison’s Animal Man run, and the hovering, watchful “eye” of the sun recalls the Decreator from Morrison’s Doom Patrol. Then, the final panel, with a Batman-in-a-crucifiction-pose lying on the floor, hooked up to electrodes as scientists peer through the observation window? It’s pure Morrison. It’s like a parody of Morrison, more accurately. Except it was written when Morrison was still wearing diapers — written in all likelihood by Bill Finger (although credited to Bob Kane).
But clearly the story resonated with Morrison when he read it years later. He must have recognized the kinship.
Batman #156 moves from a bizarre space tragedy to a goofy costumed-crime story, using the reveal about the space medicine as a transition. The space medicine bit seems like a throwaway, a cheap way to explain the cover gimmick, but by the end of the story, writer Finger and artist Sheldon Moldoff tie the sensory deprivation after-effects into the story. The tale becomes about the way the sensory deprivation has deranged Batman’s mind — how his ability to differentiate between reality and fantasy has become compromised, and that aspect of the issue is what Morrison borrows most heavily in his own retelling 45 years later.
Even Tony Daniel’s cover to Batman #673 seems to recall the “Robin Dies at Dawn” cover.
The effect is different, with the contemporary cover’s darker hues and bloody context, but in both images the Batman figure occupies the same space and expresses a powerful grief. It’s important to note that a few isolated tears drip down from Batman’s cowl in the 1963 issue, while the hyper-tormented Batman of 2008 shrieks with pain (or perhaps it’s anger). The object of the suffering is different in both images too, though. 45 years ago, Robin caused his suffering, but now it’s his parents’ death which brings out his emotion. Essentially, every Batman story is about his origin. The death of his parents is his story, even if not a single panel or bit of dialogue refers to the event. His origin is inescapable, more so than any other comic-book character.
As the above page from Batman #673 shows, Morrison literally recasts the events of Batman #156 as part of a larger pattern of hallucinations caused by Batman’s heart attack at the end of the previous issue (and, perhaps, the sensory deprivation / cleansing which occurred off-panel in 52). Morrison pulls some of the exact dialogue from Batman #156 and places it on this page. It’s important to note that in Batman #156, one of the after-effects of the sensory deprivation is that Batman’s hallucinations begin to infect the “real world,” clouding his judgment as he attempts to patrol Gotham City. Morrison has constantly explored the relationship between illusion and reality in his comic book work, and he’s often expanded that discussion to include the relationship between the different layers of comic book reality and our reality. As I mentioned at the top of this post, I’m not interested in predicting where a story is headed, but there may be more than a hint of metafiction in Morrison’s Batman before all is said and done.
Ultimately, Batman #673, like all of Morrison’s run so far, has been about re-engaging Batman with his forsaken past. The silly stuff that hasn’t blended with the post-Neal Adams vision of the character has found its way into Morrison’s interpretation of Batman, and whether the Black Casebook ends up as a journal of Batman’s fever dreams or a true document of supernatural phenomena, it doesn’t really matter. Batman was affected by his voyages into the strange alien landscapes of the Silver Age, and in Morrison’s cosmology, dreams and reality are different sides of the same Moebius strip.