A Thousand Batmen Blooming:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 8

From 1997’s JLA Secret Files #1, by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Howard Porter et al

Continued from last week.

The superhero genre had become more and more susceptible to the myth of the definitive version. It was a fan-consuming fallacy which presumed that each character possessed an irreducible core of utterly vital qualities. To ignore any of them, or to pollute them with less crucial traits, was, it seemed, to inevitably impair a character’s Platonic essence. Without that, commercial and critical success would be, at best, seriously undermined. It was – and remains – an absurdly mulish way of thinking, and yet the conviction had been gathering momentum since the earliest years of the Sixties. With the success of the Marvel Revolution, and with Stan Lee’s protracted campaign of DC-baiting, came the sense that only one particular form of storytelling was appropriate for the superhero genre. That the costumed crimefighter comic might actually be a commercially viable and creatively vibrant option after all was surprising enough in itself. That its wellbeing might rely on a single narrative approach was an understandable if ultimately destructive assumption.

Where once the superhero book appealed to young, and largely casual readers, it now attracted a community of somewhat older fans who, as the years passed, drew more and more of a distinction between Marvel’s supposed realism and the super-books’ pre-1961 traditions. The concept of an internally consistent shared universe proved to be particularly appealing. With that came the conviction that certain representations of characters were canon, and therefore superior. Whether the reader preferred this or that version of a property had once been a matter of taste. Few beyond a tiny number of proto-fans had ever been concerned about the inconsistencies between adventures featuring the same casts. Now a serious-minded constancy began to be a question of conviction, in which the evidence of an ever-accumulating body of stories could be marshalled to damn heresy and celebrate orthodoxy. Preference hardened into taken-for-granted certainty; without this devotee-seducing cocktail of qualities, the superhero genre would be damned as absurd and dismissed as childishly trivial.

from the Daredevil Born Again TPB, by Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli et al

To some, the deconstructionists of the Eighties appeared to subscribe to this diversity-killing model of thinking. After all, the likes of Alan Moore and Frank Miller were themselves stripping away purportedly superfluous elements of their character’s backstories while excluding certain previously common stylistic choices. In Daredevil and Marvelman, Swamp Thing and a variety of Batman titles, Moore and Miller had indeed startlingly broken away from enervatingly over-familiar formulas. The result had been, as we’ve discussed, a series of remarkably enjoyable and innovative books. Yet for all of that, Moore and Miller’s superhero work had kept all of their character’s history intact. Reinterpreted, yes, but intact all the same. For minds convinced that fictional properties were rooted in eternally fixed and unchallengeable qualities, this deconstruction was a deceptive and dangerously beguiling process. It didn’t just appear to offer the roadmap for rediscovering a superhero’s essential characteristics, although the promise of “character X done right” was in itself a seemingly vital business. The success in the marketplace of Moore and Miller’s books also seemed to promise that deconstruction was in itself a guarantee of both quality and sales. That the likes of Swamp Thing and Daredevil: Born Again contained taboo-pushing degrees of violence and sexual content also helped to reinforce the belief that deconstruction was a relatively uniform and predictable process. Rather than being inspired by the idea that long-established properties could be reinvigorated in a wide variety of ways via the highest levels of craft and imagination, the chimera of the back-to-basics, angsty’n’bloody superhero became all the more convincing. In short, the creative lessons offered by the very best superhero deconstructions were grievously distorted by pre-existing beliefs.

From 1985’s Superman Annual #11, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

It was a misinterpretation which ignored much of the evidence of how Moore and Miller had approached their most famous and successful deconstructions. Miller’s two epochal versions of The Batman – in The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One - had portrayed the same character using quite different approaches. In Miller’s hands, deconstruction hadn’t revealed The Batman, but two rather different Batmen who operated in what was obviously quite separate genre hybrids. They could be reconciled one with the other, but it wasn’t a straight-forward or even necessary business. To deconstruct was to pick and choose from a variety of possible ingredients, and that matter of choice inevitably meant that the process could never be objective or its outcomes definitive. Though Moore would himself depict the Batman in several tales, most of them presented notably diverging – if not entirely disconnected – versions of the character. In 1985′s Superman Annual #11, for example, the depiction of the Dark Knight by Moore and Dave Gibbons was even rooted in the tales of the late Sixties and early Seventies. (At one point, the writer even had Batman refer to Robin as “chum”, which showed an apostate’s fondness for the Adam West TV show.) Elsewhere, Moore’s Swamp Thing featured an awkward Batman who lacked an eidetic memory before, in a later tale, representing him as an uber-competent, ultra-calm super-bloke. (*1)

Yet many superhero fans and professionals alike appeared convinced that the eternal and objective versions of characters and their worlds were waiting to be uncovered and codified. It was a grail-hunting creed that became intertwined with other commonly held beliefs, many of which presumed that immersive superhero universes could only succeed within the context of a pseudo-rational, rigorously constrained and predictable set-up. Not only did characters have, it appeared, unique, fixed, quantifiable and essentially unalterable properties. The very situations that they inhabited needed to have the same, or readers, with their allegedly literal-minded tastes, would be unable to buy into events. In 1985, DC, acting on a cocktail of these beliefs, reduced its multiverse of worlds and characters to a single Earth, from which eccentricity and variety were significantly excluded. Though many superhero fans applauded the move as bold and necessary, the consequences would appal – amongst an apparent minority of refuseniks – Grant Morrison. (Mark Millar’s response would always be, as we’ve seen and as we’ll return to, significantly less condemnatory.) As the likes of writer/artist John Byrne worthily rebooted Superman in 1986 without the assumed childishness of Kal-El’s beloved super-dog Krypto, or indeed even his days as Superboy, Morrison mourned the absence of oddness, wonder and possibility that he’d always associated with the best of DC’s output. (*2)

Batman by Murphy Anderson from the 60s, probably undertaken in connection with the Adam West TV show, as printed in 2003’s The Life And Art Of Murphy Anderson, by the artist and R. C. Harvey, Twomorrows Publishing

As such, Morrison’s ambitions with his JLA project went far beyond a disagreement with the state of affairs in the industry in 1996. His was actually a campaign against a decades-old process of exceedingly well-meant and catastrophically misjudged homogenisation and disenchantment. The scale of the task that he’d set himself shouldn’t in any way be under-estimated. Though there certainly were creators and editors who agreed substantially with him – such as the inspirational Mark Waid, of whom Morrison has always spoke highly of – the attempt to reverse the Dark Age was an incredibly ambitious, and perhaps even essentially Quixotic, task.

But what Morrison aspired to in the later 90s was something very different to the creative chaos of DC’s past. Though he would always remain in thrall to the flashbulb memories inspired by the company’s Silver Age titles, Morrison wasn’t advocating a back-to-basics project of his own. Prior to the 1980s, Superman and Batman’s various monthly adventures had been overseen by a variety of different editors and creators. Accordingly, the Man of Steel who appeared in Action Comics might be profoundly different from the one who starred in World’s Finest, while the Dark Knight of Detective Comics could be a very different beast from that of The Super-Friends. (*3) But although Morrison wanted to transform the DCU, he didn’t want it splintered into irreconcilable fiefdoms. Recognising the unprecedented possibilities offered by a vast continuity informed by a broad sweep of approaches, Morrison worked to develop mechanisms to allow canon to coexist with diversity. (*4) As such, his tussles with the Bat-office over Batman’s portrayal in JLA weren’t simply disagreements over how a single character might be represented. Nor were they an attempt by Morrison to dictate how anyone else might use the Batman. To impose his personal preferences upon any other creator in such a prescriptive fashion was anathema to his project. (*5) For what Morrison wanted wasn’t the power to decide what others could write so much as the freedom to enable, if you will, a thousand flowers, or at least a thousand Batmen, to bloom. Better yet, he was sure that the same could be achieved without undermining the audience’s belief in a single, compelling, and all-unifying ur-Batman, who was, Morrison believed, capable of being grim and joyous, spacebound and citylocked, realistic and absurd.

Neal Adams’ cover to 1973’s wonderful Batman #251, which was written by Denny O’Neil

Morrison’s attempts to use the JLA to rework the DCU amounted to a very different kind of comicbook revisionism. Up until then, it had been the reductionist project that had triumphed. When Denny O’Neil – with artist Neal Adams and editor Julius Schwartz – deconstructed the Batman in the late 60s, he’d restored many of the qualities to be found in Bruce Wayne’s very earliest adventures. Out went child-friendly camp and in came, as Morrison noted in Supergods, the threatening, pulpish roots of the Dark Age. It was a re-envisaging which produced half-a-decade of top-notch stories, and it ultimately came to define what was and wasn’t an authentic and acceptable Batman. Yet it came at the cost of excluding much that had defined the character during the previous twenty years and more. As O’Neil’s Batman became more and more influential, it wiped out the perceived legitimacy of even commercially successful alternatives, such as that in the continuity-occluded The Brave And The Bold under writer Bob Haney. What had initially been an imaginative and invigorating reset of the franchise would become an ever-homogenising expression of comicbook dogma.

By 1996, Morrison was faced with a great many DC titles which all starred the same Batman. Wherever the Dark Knight appeared in continuity, his depiction was bound to adhere to the doctrines of the Bat-Office. In taking on such a situation, Morrison was attempting to reverse the industry-defining preconceptions which had been gathering momentum and influence for close on four decades. The scale of the task that he set himself shouldn’t in any way be under-estimated. Little wonder that the effort would, in his own words, ultimately leave him “weary”. (*6) Where so many others had attempted to prescriptively define what a superhero could and couldn’t be, Morrison was, in the company of a few collaborators, striving to trigger exactly the opposite process.

To be continued.


*1:- In January 1986’s Swamp Thing #44, Batman can’t even remember who the superhero “Mento” is, let alone that he attended his wedding. It’s a distinctly unsure and uninspiring version of Batman, and yet, in September 86’s #53, Moore offers an entirely contrasting version of the Dark Knight. To write this isn’t a criticism. The different ways in which Moore depicts the Batman are to my mind rather fascinating.

*2:- Rarely mentioned as an exponent of deconstructionism these days, Byrne was for a period one of its most trenchant and commercially successful exponents. Forever declaring that he was returning characters to their roots, he was forever picking and choosing the aspects of their pasts that he regarded as canon. Without Miller or Moore’s capacity, or perhaps willingness, to convincingly rework continuity, he ended up with the reputation of something of a self-obsessed butcher. Few comics creators have seen their reputation decline as his has in the past decade or so, and the value of his best work has been regrettably obscured by the process.

*3:- Writer/editor E Nelson Bridwell worked hard to ensure that his Super-Friends tales were compatible with the DCU’s mainstream continuity of the time. The result were some delightful tales which hardnosed super-book fans often looked down upon. The Saturday Morning TV cartoon roots of the title, the old-school art by the ever-excellent Ramona Fradon, the playful tone of ENB’s stories: all of these things offended the bleak’n’cheerless purists.

*4:- A prime example of this would be Hyper-Time, which Mark Waid and Morrison developed. A smart-minded and exciting way to allow all continuities to co-exist, it was heartily disliked by a great many hardcore fans and eventually disavowed by DC Executive Editor Dan DiDio.

*5:- Chuck Dixon did complain that Morrison’s plots for the DC One Million crossover in 1999 left far too room for his own imput into the project. There is, however, a substantial difference between the constraints imposed by a specific story and those imposed upon the whole of a shared universe regardless of the tale being told. (Reference pending.)

*6:- pg 300, Grant Morrison, Supergods, Jonathan Cape, 2011

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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