From the first few pages of Batman #655, “Building a Better Batmobile,” Grant Morrison makes it abundantly clear to his readers that this is not your typical Batman story, nor should it be read like one. We are presented the image of a beaten Batman lying before a victorious Joker, then the image of Batman using a gun to shoot the Joker in the middle of the head, and to follow this up, it turns out that the Joker is still alive. To the non-comic book reading person we have just been presented with the ridiculous, to the Batman fan we have been presented with what many would consider blasphemous. People do not survive gun shot wounds to the middle of the head in the real world! Batman would never use a gun! The Joker would know if Batman was dead or not! All of these questions and concerns would be warranted if this was to be taken seriously, but Morrison is making it clear from the beginning that this Batman story is not meant be realistic. It is a work of fiction – plain and simple. If you cannot accept reading a comic where someone can survive such a thing, then your going to have an even harder time accepting what is to come later. From the very get go, it’s a question of “are you in or are you out?” Are you willing to accept this story for what it is or are you unable to see the Batman universe beyond the grim and gritty, beyond the dark and realistic?
This question of sight and seeing is enforced by Morrison’s use of Commissioner Gordon’s falling glasses. The way they are angled is almost facing the reading, and how they are coming out of the comic book panel, suggests that they can be put on by the reader, if they chose to do so. But they are glasses, which of course come with lenses, and Morrison has created his story with a certain set of lenses. Not what has become the traditional lenses set up and used by writers like by Frank Miller with The Dark Knight Returns and All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder as well as Jeph Loeb with The Long Halloween and Hush, but we a different set of lenses, a set that allows almost anything to happen, even the Joker defeating Batman and Batman using a gun. By the time we get to the splash page of the issue, so much of the typical Batman ‘rules’ have been ignored , and replaced with something out of the ordinary. Morrison confirms this with the title of the issue, “Building a Better Batmobile.” While we do catch glimpses of a new Batmobile in production, the titles suggests something far deeper and richer is going on within the issue. It is not just the Batmobile that is being taken apart, updated, and reinvented, but Batman himself.
Looking to the costume the Joker is wearing and the weapon his weapon of choice, the crowbar, it is extremely reminiscent of “A Death in the Family.” Another Death in the Family link is used on the splash page, with Batman carrying the wounded Joker in his arms in the same manner Batman carried the corpse of Jason Todd. To many, while Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was the beginning of the death of the Silver Age Batman, “A Death in the Family” was the final nail in the coffin. While the artwork was typical of the time, the extreme use of violence and the death of Jason Todd voted by the comic book reading public was a big turn for the Batman continuity. It dramatically added to the Batman mythos in a way that not had been so effecting and lasting since the death of his parents, Martha and Thomas Wayne. As well as feeling the guilt of his parent’s tragic ends, Bruce now felt the guilt of another death, Jason Todd. While people had died before because of Batman’s inability to do something quick enough or get somewhere faster enough, Jason Todd’s death became a common plot device in the following years of Batman comics. But not only did “A Death in the Family” profoundly shape and change Batman, it also changed the character of the Joker.
Of course, it was Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adam’s 1973 Batman #251 “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge” that truly begun the darker revision of the Joker character along with Alan Moore’s 1988 The Killing Joke, but it was “A Death in the Family” that was confirmed the deranged homicidal maniac interpretation, over the comical criminal who simply dressed like a clown. In a sense, what Morrison is doing is symbolically displaying the death of the Silver Age Joker. Morrison’s Joker like the Silver Age depiction of the Joker would apparently die, disappear, and be recreated and re-imagined into the extremely dark, twisted, and almost horrific Joker we would see in the issues to come. Steven Higgins describes this scene as “Morrison’s last hurrah for the Joker we currently know and love.”
The Batman lying before the Joker in the first pages of Batman #655 is later revealed as the ex-cop Josef Muller in Batman #663, one of three Ghosts of Batman. However, observing this panel, the way the Joker is position makes it seem that he is looking directly looking at the real Batman, Bruce Wayne. Bruce throws the Joker’s body into a dumpster in front the Gotham police, this will causes the rumors that it was the real Batman who shot the Joker. Not only will this become an important plot point, but it will deeply affect the rebirth and reinvention of the Joker in the issues to come. Looking at the use of the phrase “He’s still alive!” and the dumpster, perhaps what Morrison is doing is suggesting that while the very concept and character of the Joker is alive, the Silver Age presentation and deception of the Joker is now dead. So like all dead ideas from writers and artists, it ends up in the garbage.
In this issue, we also see the first appearance of the “Zur-En-Arrh” graffiti on the walls of Gotham City. The phrase will become very important later on in the series, and especially in “R.I.P.” yet when it first appears in “Batman and Son” it is unexplained and shown without context. Morrison uses the graffiti to foreshadow what will happen to Batman in “R.I.P.” when the Dr. Hurt using it as a trigger to invade the Bat Cave as well as the transformation Bruce will undertake in becoming, “The Batman of Zur-En-Arrh.” However, this is not for some time, and because the graffiti is never mentioned or referenced it does raise certain questions about it’s nature and purpose. Can it be seen by the naked eye? Does it appear and then disappear? Or does Bruce see it and simply pay no attention to it? Such questions plagued the forums of the internet and the discussion of comic book stories, a trait typical of many of Morrison’s stories and fan-base.
When we turn to the Hospital scene, in the dialogue between Gordon and Batman, it appears as if Gordon was breaking the fourth wall in this panel, telling everyone to “lighten up.” The suggestion to “lighten up” could be a response to how people read and understand Batman comics, taking it all too seriously and stressing the realism at the expense of a good story. This need to not take the Batman mythos too seriously is repeated again when Gordon asks Batman, “Has anyone ever told you how ridiculous you look in that getup?” It is a question that is usually avoided in comics in general, being a part of the necessary suspension of disbelief, but one only has to go to a comic book convention to see how silly people look in these “getups.” While we look at Batman in terms of the heroic and the extraordinary, so often we forget that if Batman really did exist, he would just be a crazy guy wearing a bat costume.
This idea reaches in climax at the epilogue of “R.I.P.” after little boy Bruce Wayne dares to imagine if Zorro came to Gotham City, wearing his mask and riding his horse, delighted at the idea, his father Thomas Wayne playfully laughs at the idea and informs Bruce that, “They’d probably throw someone like Zorro into Arkham.” Morrison points to where the over use of realism in comic books leads – that is Batman in a mental asylum. The point is that Batman does look ridiculous, but more than that, that very concept of the character is ridiculous. Frank Miller in the epilogue of the of the special edition Batman: Year One writes along the same line, that when the Batman character is taken too seriously and too realistically, that is when the character opens the gateway to comedy and camp. Batman’s comment that “usually don’t get the chance” is prepares reflective on the nature of Batman writing for the last two decades. Authors of Batman stories, restricted to three to four issue arcs haven’t had the chance explore the more surreal, psychedelic, and metaphysical aspects of the character. However, Grant Morrison has taken this “chance” as it were, and invites us to look at the ridiculousness of it all.
Yet the reference to “lighten up” is also echoed implicitly in the dialogue between Bruce and Alfred. Alfred, concerned about his current mental state, informs Bruce he is using his Batman “growl” “all the time” now. Even as Bruce Wayne, Alfred points out that he is always “on the defensive”. The line between Batman and Bruce Wayne is becoming thinner and thinner. On these remarks, Bruce says, “I have to learn to be myself? This is insane…” The irony of course is that to the ‘normal person’, dressing up like a bat, spending millions of dollars on gadgets and gear, devoting your life to training yourself in body, mind, and spirit, and spending your nights fighting crime is what is insane. The emphasis on the word “insane” could either be a reference to the insanity of the concept of a character like Batman or a note to how dominant the Batman personality has become within Bruce. “The Wednesday Reader” describes the dilemma as follows, “Bruce Wayne is Batman’s anchor into the real world, he needs to be Bruce Wayne just as much as Bruce Wayne needs to be Batman. Without Bruce Wayne, Batman becomes less human, more Bat than Man, if you will.”(2) Either way, both Alfred and Gordon are telling Bruce that he needs to weary of his sanity, or perhaps his insanity rather. Eventually, Bruce does admit this when his paranoia has become so great, that he mistakes Killer Croc for a man in a green ran coat. Alfred tries to humor him by saying that he recently mistook a nun for the Penguin. However, the reality finally settles in and Bruce admits that he needs to “let go a little”.
Without going on and on, well and truly within the first issues of Morrison’s Batman epic, we have been introduced into a rather different and unique take on the Batman mythos. Many of Morrison’s tropes and styles are written in all of the early pages of Batman and serve fairly well as his means to prepare the reader for what is it come later. However, it is understandable why many people struggled with Morrison’s Batman, particularly for those who were not used to his general works. If anything, the opening of “Batman and Son” prepares the trained Morrison reader what to expect. Yet, it clearly contains a treasure chest of clues and hints for those willing to look for them, or perhaps those like myself and Bruce Wayne who just know there is some kind of meaning.
1 Higgins, Steven. “Building a Better Batman: Grant Morrison’s First Year on Batman.” Graphicontent, 23 Oct 2007.
2 Wednesday Reader, The. “Grant Morrison’s Batman: Batman and Son Part 1.” 1 Apr 2010.