Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"No one can get in, right?"

And with that, Grant Morrison (via Joe Chill) ably describes the accessibility of Batman #673.
I mean, damn. If I hadn't been reading comics off and on for the past 30 years (not to mention faithfully perusing comics news on the web), I wouldn't have the slightest idea what's going on in this issue. As it is, I can sort of/kind of/barely follow what's happening here. Sure, I can always check out synopses of previous issues online, but for one of DC's flagship titles, you'd think they'd make it a little bit easier on a fella.

As it is, it appears that Bruce has suffered a heart attack. Consequently, the issue devotes itself to the tried and true trope of the near-death experience: a fragmented journey through the Bat-psyche that potentially sets our hero up for a change of "heart." While the origins of Bruce's psychological obsession have been well documented over the years, Morrison's treatment, as obsessive as Batman himself in its relentless circling around motifs of death and rebirth, both literal and figurative, serves as the first stage, at least, of a literary version of the ritual described by Morrison on the story's first page: "During a seven-week retreat known as Yangti, the practitioner undergoes an experience designed to simulate death and after-death." Tony Daniel's art depicts a monk (?) partially silhouetted in an arc of light, a curvilinear form that Daniel cleverly carries into the next panel, the S-curve continuing as light falling across Bruce's face in closeup. The accompanying text in this panel reads: "And rebirth, too."

POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD! (Ready for rumors, kids?)

If Rich Johnston's reports for Lying in the Gutters at Comic Book Resources are to be believed (and they most often are), Batman either was or is headed for the big sleep. This could, of course, be as temporary as any comic book death typically is, but with Morrison heading up 2008's ominously titled Final Crisis, it seems entirely possible that DC could be preparing for a change of somewhat greater magnitude. By going back to the beginning (the murder of the Waynes, Batman's revenge on Joe Chill, etc.), Morrison invokes that seldom seen sister of the "origin": the conclusion. After all, some would argue that every good story contains its ending in its beginning, and it certainly wouldn't be unlike Morrison to take such an interest in what we might call narrative deep structure.

The very structure of the tale here, the Batmen and Mites of Bruce's imagination existing on multiple levels of time and space, could even be seen as a precursor to what some are positing as the ultimate goal of Morrison's upcoming Crisis: the restoration of hypertime. And if, as Morrison has asserted, Final Crisis starts with the first boy (Anthro) and ends with the last boy (Kamandi), this issue of Batman certainly depicts some of the signature "middle boys": the young Bruce Wayne and the various Robins, their absence beautifully evoked by an image of the empty costumes in their trophy cases. (And yes, I'm well aware that Stephanie Brown was not a "boy." Her status as Robin, however, puts her in a strange liminal state not occupied by the "girls" of the DCU.)

Part of Morrison's concern here, then, seems to be an examination of the limits of mortality, not only for human beings such as Bruce, his parents, Jason Todd, or Stephanie Brown, but for more ephemeral concepts, such as the Batman himself (and, by extension, perhaps the DCU itself). The young Bruce Wayne "dies" with his parents only to be reborn as Batman, just as the death of Joe Chill seems to have birthed something else, a grander narrative that has led us to the image of the doppelganger, this figure holding Bruce captive, Hostel-style, at the issue's conclusion. (Based solely on my reading of this issue, there seems to be a strong case to be made that this is Joe Chill's own son, come to (re)enact some sort of parallel narrative to Batman's own origin, with Bruce taking on the role that Joe formerly filled.)

Anyway, enough of the heady stuff. How was the issue, you ask? Well, now that I've worked through all of the above, actually I'm a lot more inclined to say that it was really pretty darn good. Morrison entertains and challenges in the same breath, and Tony Daniel's art is usually effective and occasionally quite evocative.

Bruce's captor concludes the issue by asking "How lucky do you feel right now, Batman?" Well, Batman's probably feeling pretty unlucky right about now, but as a reader, I feel like I'm in pretty good hands. (Good thing I've been reading for 30 years, though.)

Grade: B+

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