“A Semi-Unhinged, Essentially Humourless Loner Struggling with Rage and Guilt”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 9

from 1997’s JLA #5, by Morrison, Howard Porter, John Dell et al

Continued from last week.

Grant Morrison’s ambition was, it appears, to free the DCU from the constraints of both wonder-killing editorial dictats and the conventions of the Dark Age. Yet unregulated creative anarchy doesn’t seem to have been his ambition. The trick was to ensure that each diverging interpretation always appeared to be a credible facet of the original character. In such a way, the complexity, potential and integrity of the shared universe could be maintained while the options for narrative diversity increased. Where the Batman was concerned, Morrison set about ensuring that his take complimented rather than undermined the Bat-office’s preferences. Accordingly, he honoured O’Neil’s convictions while smartly building upon them. Grafting on a series of qualities which allowed the Batman to flourish in the monumental and fantastical context of the Justice League, Morrison recast him as “a kind of hi-tech, James Bond Batman”. (*1) A singularly accomplished and yet distinctly typical human being, the Batman of the new JLA exploited his intimidating intelligence, fighting prowess and futuristic technology in order to face down gods and intimidate alien tyrants. But at the same time, Morrison ensured that he objected to being taken away from his beloved Gotham. Though circumstances would compel the Batman to operate away from his dystopic backyard, it was easy to imagine him storing away the amped-up hardware and global world-view of his JLA exploits when his home-city’s own crises beckoned.

from 1997’s JLA #9, by Morrison, Oscar Jimenez et al

So successful was Morrison’s strategy that it quickly became impossible to believe in a Batman who didn’t stride onto the greater stage when the need arose. A character that smart, that supremely capable, that unwaveringly principled, would of course alter his modus operandi and suppress his most personal preoccupations when Earth-threatening disasters emerged. In short, a Batman who restricted his activities solely to Gotham and its quasi-realistic set-ups could no longer be an entirely convincing character. If Morrison had most certainly honoured O’Neil’s interpretation, he’d also ensured that it could no longer stand as an entirely satisfactory state of affairs. There had, of course, been a host of critics and fans who’d thought that the relative isolation of Bruce Wayne from the wider DCU had been an unconvincing and unnecessary indulgence. But Morrison’s achievement lay in keeping all of the virtues of the minimalist take on the Batman in play while successfully adding tussles with off-world menaces in the company of brightly-coloured, ludicrously-powerful super-people. It was an interpretation that had a lot in common with the work of other trend-bucking creators since the mid-Eighties, but the quality of Morrison’s scripts combined with the downturn-denying strength of the JLA’s sales lent his work a particular lustre and influence. What had typically been portrayed as extraneous and incongruous now appeared to be utterly necessary components of the Batman’s appeal.

As the new League became more and more successful, Morrison’s Dark Knight functioned as the proof that DC’s superhero books could, if managed with creativity and skill and discipline, incorporate the broadest range of interpretations and narrative approaches. With time, and in the light of new JLA becoming and remaining DC’s biggest selling title, the approach led to “the guys in the Bat-office (deciding) that it’s okay…. so Batman will be in the book full-time”. (*2) It was something of a remarkable turnaround, as a statement in one of Morrison’s earliest interviews following the announcement of the JLA illustrates;

“Batman just can’t stand the rest of the team, and he might not be in it too regularly. He’ll be in there as a consultant, even if he’s not participating.” (*3)

Obviously, this wasn’t the take on the Justice League that Morrison hoped to establish. Yet it was exactly the status quo that was very deliberately expressed in his script for JLA #5, which carried an overpowering sense of stables being locked long after horses had bolted. After all, the four previous issues had seen the Batman taking down impossibly powerful White Martians while armed only with his brilliant powers of deduction, a fearsome SF Batplane and a single strip of matches. Perhaps the contents of the following tale – “Women Of Tomorrow” – were influenced by an understandable attempt by O’Neil’s regime to reassert its authority. That would certainly explain why Morrison so conspicuously showed the Dark Knight declaring that he’d only “function in an advisory capacity” for the JLA because “Gotham comes first”.

from 1997’s JLA #5, by Morrison, Howard Poter, John Dell et al

But cleverly, the same scene also juxtaposed the technological wonders of the Bat-Cave with the JLA’s even-more dazzling scientific resources. If the worlds of the JLA and the Bat-books were being shown to be somewhat distinct from each other, they most certainly weren’t being portrayed as entirely disconnected. In what appears to be a purposefully challenging and yet apparently throwaway line, Morrison had Robin offer to help Superman with the Bat-Cave’s teleporter. Even as the scene as a whole seemed to accentuate the fundamental differences between the Batman’s milieu and that of the JLA, Morrison was sneaking in a portrayal of Tim Drake as a master of distinctly SF machinery. This was very much not the set-up of O’Neil’s own studied, comics-noir approach, where the Bat-family’s methods of transport were distinctly mundane, if bleakly glamorous. (*4) (Even given that the Bat-Cave’s teleporter is apparently off-line and neglected, its very existence challenges the givens of the Bat-office’s titles: a Batman who can teleport is a Batman who can better respond to need, so why hasn’t he been using the technology?)

If the sequence had been in part a conciliatory gesture towards O’Neil and his editorial standpoint, it hardly marked a Morrison who was entirely resigned to an eternal compromise. Both conciliatory and challenging, his plan of attack would soon be seen to pay off. Within three issues, he’d have the Batman appearing in the JLA’s new and vast headquarters on the Moon, while the following month would even find him welcoming the new Green Arrow to the League with – gasp! – a kind and generous word. In retrospect, the process of inter-company wrangling helped create a convincing, month-by-month portrayal of a Batman who’d once more grown into his responsibilities to the world as whole.

cover to 1997’s Aztek #7 by Steve Lightle

Other disagreements with the Bat-office were less subtly engaged with. Though Morrison was considerably less waspish and damning in his public pronouncements than he’d previously often been, he was still capable of openly disagreeing with colleagues and line managers. In 1998’s Wizard Special Edition: JLA, for example, Morrison discussed another way in which he disagreed with O’Neil;

“The world’s not supposed to view (Batman) at all, which to me is pretty crazy …. Everybody is supposed to think that he’s an urban legend who just happens to have a Bat-signal. As far as I’m concerned, the world has an idea that Batman exists. They’ve seen him enough to know that he’s there … He’s kind of shadowy and devilish, but they certainly know he’s on the Justice League.” (*4)

But the reworking of the Batman in the JLA went even further than exploiting and resolving such obvious inconsistencies, and it’s here that Mark Millar made his most notable and significant contributions to his friend and mentor’s ambitions. For Morrison’s portrayal of the Batman as an utterly self-assured master tactician also challenged the worst excesses of the character’s post-1986 use. Whether in O’Neil’s books or elsewhere, in continuity or beyond, there’d been a tendency to suggest that Bruce Wayne was, in Morrison’s later words “a semi-unhinged, essentially humourless loner struggling with rage and guilt” (*5) (Ironically, that had been, of course, Mark Millar’s own take on the character in Favourite Things.) Such angst-sodden qualities, and the psycho-drama and hyper-violence they promised to inspire, were very much in keeping with the dingy, cod-tragic banalities of the Dark Age that Morrison so despised. Though he’d had never wanted to present a typically cheerful, back-slapping Batman, Morrison was determined to haul the character away from the slightest suggestion of psychological dysfunctionality. It’s an ambition we can note being played out in Morrison and Millar’s first joint stab at the character in 1997’s Aztek #6 and 7.

To be continued.


*1:-pg 8, interview with Andrew Kardon, Killer Instinct, Wizard JLA Special, 1998

*2:- pg 9, interview with Matthew Brady, Mine! All Mine!, Wizard JLA Special, 1997.

*3:- https://sites.google.com/site/deepspacetransmissions/interviews-1/1990-s/199700-overstreet-s-fan

*4:- pg 35, interview with Scott Beatty, Urban Legend, Wizard JLA Special, 1997.

*5:- interview with Kevin Mahadeo, Grant Morrison’s Wacky Batman Adventure, http://www.dccomics.com/blog/2013/08/28/grant-morrisons-wacky-batman-adventure

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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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