Continued from here.
DC’s post-crisis, Dark Age portrayal of the Batman had long been a source of aggravation for both Morrison and Millar. Years before Morrison landed the job of scripting the JLA, the two men had developed a shared and detailed understanding of how to rectify the situation. Even interviews intended to publicise their work for other companies had a tendency to return to their mutual bugbear; the supposed corruption of the superhero book, and, in particular, DC’s demeaning of the character of the Dark Knight. And so, a 1995 interview with Comic World designed primarily to publicise their collaboration on Marvel’s Skrull Kill Krew soon strayed into familiar territory, with Morrison bemoaning that;
“… the Joker’s making snuff movies and Batman’s an uptight, snarling loon with clenched buttocks … a miserable bastard (who enjoys) beating people up. That’s just pointless because it means nothing to what superhero comics should be about. A superhero comic represents all these fantastic, godlike human beings.” (*1)
No-one should be surprised that Morrison and Millar’s depictions of The Batman between 1996 and 1999 were so similar in tone and content, for they’d clearly spent their time on the periphery of the superhero industry plotting its fundamental transformation. Though the evidence insists their mutual analysis was rooted in Morrison’s longheld beliefs, the younger man was clearly devoted to the programme. So close were their mutual convictions that Millar’s statements could appear indistinguishable from those of Morrison’s, as the following response to a Steve Holland question shows;
“But that’s the way we’re looking at superheroes. Superheroes are a very basic representation of the peak of what people can aspire to and I think superheroes are the perfect expression of the comics form.” (*2)
All but that sentence’s final clause could be quite easily taken for a Morrison quote, and it’s not just that the words express the analysis that he’d been disseminating since the end of the Eighties. (*3) Even the very phrasing seems distinctly Morrisonesque. None of this is to say that Millar hadn’t made significant contributions to his partner’s thinking, but the basic context in which their discussions took place appears to have been Morrison’s.
Their 1996 collaboration on Aztek was designed to function as a metaphor for what they saw as the superhero’s plight during the period. An innocent, altruistic super-man trapped in the corrupting environment of Vanity City, Aztek himself represented the Silver Age ethical and storytelling values which Morrison and Millar so cherished. A shortlived and ultimately misfiring experiment, the comic’s most successful issues featured The Joker and The Batman. There, the writers got to play directly with the company’s line-leading icons rather than commenting at a distance upon the DCU’s state of health, and the sense of excitement and purpose as they did so was suddenly palpable. If Aztek still remained a more promising idea than it was a satisfying monthly comic, it did shift during that team-up from a downbeat critique to a heartening celebration. What’s more, as Richard Hopkins wrote of the title’s seventh issue in 1997’s Comics International #76, “…somebody here writes a great Batman”. (*4)
That somebody was, most probably, Grant Morrison, in that the credit boxes for both A Child’s Garden Of Sinister Capers and Hey Diddle Diddle The Japed And The Japer featured his name prior to Millar’s. This wasn’t an early expression of the corporate mean-spiritedness which would lead to DC relegating Millar’s name to supporting player status on the cover of 2008’s Aztek collection. (*5) As far as we can tell, Aztek’s individual issues were scripted by one or other of the team after they’d worked through the contents together, with whoever had produced a particular issue’s script earning the lead billing for that month. Yet this shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the genuinely collaborative nature of the project. To take but one example, Morrison’s name comes before Millar’s on the splash-page of the comic’s final issue, and yet Millar at the very least contributed the tale’s conclusion, in which his then-fascination for the rituals of Freemasonry took centre-stage. (*6)
For all of that, Morrison’s fingerprints are undoubtedly all over Aztek #6 and #7. The fascination he’d later show for reconciling the many different takes of The Joker can certainly be seen in the Batman’s comment that his nemesis is “currently assuming some kind of “cosmic trickster” persona”. Other typical markers of Morrison’s work appear to be woven not just through the plot, but throughout the script itself. Although Millar’s influences tended to come from the pop culture of relatively recent times, Morrison’s would typically be more wide-ranging, challenging and surprising. The Joker’s use of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden Of Verses would in itself suggest Morrison’s hand, although Stevenson’s work could hardly have been unknown to Millar, who had almost undoubtedly heard at the very least some of his poems when young. But the fact that A Child’s Garden Of Verses had previously featured in Morrison’s Doom Patrol #31, from 1990, where Willoughby Kipling traps the Cult Of The Unwritten Book into one of its’ Charles Robinson illustrations, would seem particularly pertinent. For all of that, the easy deductions about who did what are rarely entirely trustworthy. After all, Millar was a devotee of Morrison’s long and incandescent run on Doom Patrol, and he may have been inspired by The Word Made Flesh to delve into Stevenson’s collection and to put its contents to use. (*7)
But no matter how the two writers had or hadn’t colluded, the version of the Batman who appeared in Aztek seems, in retrospect, to have been a deliberate statement of intent, expressing as it did a predominantly pre-Dark Age understanding of how a heroic, bat-eared crimefighter should be represented. Despite being faced with both the disturbing dysfunctions of Vanity City and the apparently inexplicable actions of the Joker, Morrison and Millar’s Batman never once seemed likely to loose his self-control. Instead, he coached the neophyte Aztek on how to cope with a situation that threatened to promote anxiety and despair. The meaning couldn’t be more clear; no amount of madness could be begin to threaten the sanity of this Batman. As writer Steve Englehart had succinctly and pointedly had the Dark Knight declare during 1988’s Millennium crossover;
“My world goes a little crazy at times, but I don’t.” (*8)
That year had seen the superhero comic slipping further and further into pessimistic, grimy storytelling, and it’s hard not to believe that Englehart – whose classic Seventies run on the Dark Knight would surely have been known to both Morrison and Millar – wasn’t commenting on the process. Eight years later and the two Scotsmen were themselves making a focused, purposeful comment of their own. As Millar had bemoaned to Steve Holland in 1995;
“Children are growing up without the magic that we had … There’s no superheroes you’d want to look up to, that you’d want to play or be. They’re all just crazy bastards covered in blood.”
As he typically has, Millar was undoubtedly overstating the case. There still were superheroes who were both admirable and worthy of emulation, with the likes of Mark Waid’s Flash and Alan Davis’ ClanDestine leading the sadly thinned-out pack of contenders. They were, however, very much in the minority. By contrast to the mass of costumed crimefighting product, the Batman who appeared in Aztek was very much the controlled, calm, supremely able and supportive superhero. For all his apparent brusqueness and even given how successfully artist N. Steven Harris expressed the shadow-hugging conventions of the time, Morrison and Millar’s Batman even emerged as something of a father figure to the young Aztek;
Aztek: Thanks. I couldn’t have done this without your help. If you hadn’t …
Batman: Don’t underestimate yourself. You’d have figured something out. You’re well-trained and you’re intelligent. That’s a rarity in this business, believe me.
It was anything but a Dark Knight to be undermined or even broken by the Joker’s insanity. Not then, a “crazy” or a “miserable” bastard at all. If the “James Bond” aspect of the Batman that Morrison would put to such good use in the JLA was as yet absent, everything else was already in place,
To be continued.
*1:- Steve Holland, Comics Aren’t For Adults Anymore, Comic World #40 July 1995
*3:- Millar’s much-repeated belief that the superhero makes the best of the comics form isn’t one that Morrison shares, although both clearly love the genre. For an example of Millar making this argument, and being challenged on it, this 2002 interview at Waiting For Tommy with Rich Johnston is recommended;
*4:- from the reviews in Comics International #76, January 1997
*5:- Relations between Millar and DC would break down catastrophically and publically in the early years of the 21st century and, as yet, have never been repaired. Because of that, DC has often downplayed or even ignored his contributions to their titles even as his name has become a guarantee of high sales. As such, a whole host of his work for the company remains uncollected or out of print, with his Swamp Thing and Superman Adventures runs being unexplainably absent from the marketplace. DC obviously prefers to deny Millar a platform to the profit that collected editions would bring its corporate coffers.
*6:- From a Google Groups discussion in 1998;
“Are there any references to Freemasonry in comic books or superheroes’ adventures/dress/symbols etc?”
Millar: “I incorporated quite a bit into Aztek, particularly issue 10 …”
*7:- As we’ve discussed before, and as mentioned by Millar here in his 1989 interview with GM from FA #109:
*8:- from 1988’s Millennium #6 by Steve Englehart, Joe Staton, Ian Gibson et al. Sadly, the series wasn’t a patch on Englehart’s classic Seventies run on Batman, but it did still have its moments. (Several of the tie-ins were, however, rather splendid, including the JLI and Suicide Squad issues.)