Over here at Trash Talk! we’re going to take a look at pop-culture through an artistic lens. Movies, TV, Comics, and Video Games, what’s high art, and what’s trash? Sometimes the line may be thinner than you think.
Last month saw the close of one of the greatest Batman runs in the history of the character. Comics legend Grant Morrison started his Batman epic in 2006, and while last week’s Batman Incorporated Special #1 may not be written by him, it captures the spirit of his run and emphasizes one of his greatest contributions to the Dark Knight’s mythology. As Morrison pens in his afterword, “Taking [Batman] seriously meant I had to throw out a few of the accepted ideas about Batman as a semi-unhinged, essentially humorless loner struggling with rage and guilt. The totality of his history and accomplishments made that portrayal seem limited and unconvincing, so instead, my Batman was a true superhero at the height of his powers and the peak of his abilities, surrounded by a network of friends and associates, all of whom had been inspired by his lead.”
Morrison not only brushed off the entirety of Batman’s long and, honestly, weird, history and allowed it all to exist within one long storied career, but breathed new life and energy into it. That included the fun (if goofy) concept of the Club of Heroes (Batmen inspired vigilantes from around the world), which grew into the more organized Batman Incorporated, and is the focus of this one-off special. Characters from the new Knight of England, the Batman of Japan, and El Gaucho take the spotlight in this issue. They fight bombastic villainy, have a few emotional moments, but most importantly, have a ton of fun.
Batman as a fun character and franchise has been dropped over the last couple decades, but as Morrison states, anybody that honestly looks at the history of the character (which includes the psychedelic comics of the 60’s, and Adam West’s Batusi whether you like it or not) knows that fun and the Batman go together like peanut butter and jelly. In fact, Batman is one of the most versatile characters in comics. So durable is Bruce Wayne, his alter-ego, and cast of colorful cohorts and adversaries, that he has not only endured, but thrived, through multiple, sometimes even contradictory interpretations. That’s what has made Morrison’s run on the character so successful. Instead of denying certain aspects of the character, he was able to merge the disparate pieces into one complex, beautiful mosaic.
My favorite instance of this is right at the heart of Morrison’s run, in Batman RIP (warning, spoilers for this amazing arc lie ahead). In that story, Batman’s mind has been broken by the maniacal Dr. Hurt, an enemy that he never saw coming, but was prepared for nonetheless (he is Batman after all). Driven to the brink of insanity Bruce Wayne is gone. All that remains is the Batman of Zur-en-arrh, an absurd Silver Age concept Morrison reimagines as a backup personality Batman developed in case of just such a mental attack. He garbs himself in rags and hunts the streets for Hurt, decimating his thugs with a baseball bat along the way like some vagabond-avenger. Meanwhile he’s being coached by Bat-mite, a 5th-dimentional imp that worked as Batman’s answer to Superman’s Mr. Mxyzptlk (another strange Silver Age character, sensing a theme?). Right before his final showdown with Hurt, who has equally claimed to be Bruce’s father and the devil, he asks Bat-mite which is he, a figment of his imagination, or an imp from the 5th-dimension. Bat-mite deftly answers that the 5th dimension IS imagination, and then vanishes.
This illuminates the confrontation between Bruce and his ultimate enemy. Is Hurt Thomas Wayne returned to scold his son for dressing like a Bat? Is he in fact the Devil incarnate? When Bruce confronts him on this he says he’s “the hole in things”. That one thing Bruce could never anticipate or prepare for. Hurt is Bruce’s greatest fears made real, a father that would never understand Bruce’s decision to be Batman. The enemy he couldn’t beat. Of course Batman does defeat him, and Hurt eventually (in The Return of Bruce Wayne series also penned by Morrison) does get a more concrete (though no less strange) origin story, but if you ask me Hurt is another construct from the 5th-dimension, the darkest shadows of Bruce’s twisted imagination given shape; and I don’t think Morrison would find that interpretation offensive.
In this single arc, Morrison combined all aspects of Batman imaginable, from the dark and twisted to the fun and absurd, and created an emotionally resonate tale of a man dealing with the perceived expectations of his father, and his own inner determination to grow and persevere. Batman RIP (along with Brian Azzarello’s Joker graphic novel) is what got me back into comics, and it was the strangely beautiful mixture of big, bold story-telling, and nuanced narrative that got me hooked.
That idea of “the hole in things” continued through his Batman saga until the last issue. When confronted by Jim Gordon about the fall out of his battle with Talia al Ghul, Bruce gives him a telling bit of information. He tells one of his closest allies from the beginning of his career that the bullets that took his parents from him left a hole in him as well. “I looked into that hole in things over and over again until it hurt, Jim… and you know what I found in there? Nothing… and a space big enough to hold everything.” That not only sums up Morrison’s classic run on the character, but the story of Batman altogether. The legend of the Dark Knight begins in the darkest of places. A dank alleyway with a broken boy knelt in the blood of his murdered parents. That hole became the Batman, an idea that can contain any type of story, from gritty street-level crime sagas, to psychedelic space odysseys. As Morrison’s tale illustrates, Bruce Wayne will always be Batman. Almost tragically, he will never escape that hole in things. But as long as he is Batman people will be able to tell stories of every stripe and color with the character.
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