Friday, November 28, 2008

Comics Out November 26, 2008 (Morrison's Batman)

Spoilers on Batman, below.

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1. This was basically good -- the art work was fun and those time guys had a cool design. Gabriel Ba is why I get this book. The colors on the battle sequence were particularly nice, and I would like to see more comics embrace a really garish color scheme -- garish colors are such a staple of comics, and obviously a book like the JLA is going to have a mess of color, but I do like to see a book that takes it to a new level just to make it feel fresh. Umbrella Academy is not of the caliber of something like Dark Knight Strikes Again, but that is another book that really does a great job with color. Give me the color palate of Courage the Cowardly Dog or Chowder any day. But I am impatient to get to the meat of this post, so I am moving on quickly.

Batman 681. Tim Callahan is a good critic when you give him a good comic book, but in my mind, particularly with Morrison, he is far too forgiving of error. I do not mean for this post to be an attack on Callahan, but since he is one of the few critics I read on a regular basis he is going to have to stand in for some beliefs held by the comics community as a whole that I find frustrating. Here is what he writes about Batman 681 on his blog:

I do think Batman #681 is a three-and-a-half-star book, since it does plenty of things really well (basically all of the Joker stuff until his ambulance-fall-off-the bridge, the Club of Heroes arrival, the super-plans of the Batman, the flashback with the poison, the betting on Batman, the Zur En Arrh/Zorro in Arkham bit) and other things not so well (the rushed fragments of ending, the lack of a resolution or full explanation, some of the artwork). Still, as I mentioned in a comment on my annotations, I think Batman has been "by far" the best Marvel or DC ongoing series over the past six months. There's more to discuss in any single issue of this series than in a year's worth of other mainstream comics. And anything that provokes thought and discussion is better than something that doesn't as far as I'm concerned.

I disagree about the Joker stuff being on the good side: although there is something wonderfully ironic about his chilling speech to the Black Glove about how awesome Batman is and how they are totally unprepared, I was not crazy about his menacing "I'll get you later" fade out after killing a guy Morrison forgot to make me care about. The ambulance fall was, as I think Callahan implies, weak (though Damian's "What was an ambulance?" was a pretty awesome thing to say) -- coincidence is almost always lazy writing even when it is masquerading as a theme with all the gambling (the red and black did not add up to much more than a deck of cards and a color scheme Satan is associated with). I know this is supposed to be a crossover and I was only reading this book, but I hated the Club of Heroes arrival because they showed up heroically to fix a bunch of problems that I learned about the moment AFTER they arrived. The city is practically saved before I knew it was in trouble -- where is the drama there? The coffin flashback to Eastern training improved not at all on Kill Bill, and even the Princess Bride managed to think of a more interesting way to deal with poisoned cups. "ZurEnArrh" turns out to be derived from Thomas Wayne's claim that Gotham would probably put someone like Zorro in Arkham. Zorro in Arkham = Zur En Arrh. I don't hate that, I might even like it. It is an interesting bit of nonsense anyway. But it is such a mess because of the Dr. Hurt/Thomas Wayne connection -- the Batman of ZurEnArrh is derived from the REAL Thomas Wayne and that is what allowed Batman to beat Hurt? But Hurt knew the "trigger word" so maybe Hurt is Thomas Wayne? or I guess Satan just knows everything? What?

But even if I agreed with Callahan that all this was good, I cannot imagine giving a book three and a half stars for bad artwork -- the first thing that bothered me about page three, for example, was that it looks like Batman has a mustache and goatee; then I realized it was just shadow; then I realized that buried alive THERE IS NO LIGHT SOURCE -- maybe Daniel just wants US to be able to see in the dark, which makes sense for the scene (you cannot have three pages of black, because unlike the Tarantino comics have no access to sound), but then how are you determining where shadows fall? One the one hand this is just a quibble. On the other hand Daniels is just to lazy to care; Frank Quitely would never have let such a dumb thing on the page. "Rushed fragments of an ending" is a serious complaint alone worth more than half a star, especially since Morrison has been telling us for a year that his whole run was leading to Batman RIP. Morrison can stick a hell of an ending even on very messy books (New X-Men, Invisibles) but there was no saving this story. Dr. Hurt is who now? Satan maybe, Satan who lies about being Thomas Wayne? Alfred and Batman dismiss the idea, but I cannot tell if we are supposed to take their dismissals of the possibility at face value: if Hurt is OBVIOUSLY not Thomas Wayne why does he say he is? If it is some kind of mess with your enemy tactic it is really ineffective since neither Alfred or Batman seem phased by the issue. If the issue is in doubt why does it not bother Alfred or Batman more?

Tim Callahan writes -- and again I do not mean to go after him specifically, he is just a good example of what a lot of comics fans are saying right now -- "I think Batman has been 'by far' the best Marvel or DC ongoing series over the past six months." I do not know what "by far" is doing in quotes, but I am even less sure that this really the compliment Callahan implies it is.

And now we come to the kicker: "anything that provokes thought and discussion is better than something that doesn't as far as I'm concerned." Any major character written by an ambitious major writer that comes out this messy is going to generate a lot of discussion. A lot of that discussion is caused by a debate between people who see errors ("He implicitly promised us a big reveal on the identity of the Black Glove and Dr. Hurt, and he did not deliver") and justification of said "errors" as virtues ("Do you know how to read? He pretty clearly identified him as Satan. He just did not want to be OBVIOUS about it" or "ambivalence is a hallmark of literary fiction and even the best of recent genre fiction: look at the end of Heart of Darkness, the novel from which this issue gets its title, or even the ending of the Sopranos"). An comic book may spark a lot of debate, and the debate may be good, but that does not mean the comic book is good. If my friend gets shot in the face, it may make me think hard about my life, the brevity of it, and the people I care about, but the fact that it generated some good soul searching on my part does not mean it was a good thing that my friend got shot in the face, yeah?

A few points that I could not fit in the discussion above, just general details about the issue being a mess.

WAS Thomas Wayne and co drug addicts or is that just Hurt messing with Batman?

Batman stops being Batman (Nightwing with the cowl) but then someone else becomes Batman (the Bat-signal at the end: maybe Damian takes up the job? Is this what the next story will be about: Who is the new Batman and where is Bruce Wayne?)

I am pretty sure Bruce Wayne's black glove punching through the glass to get Hurt leader of the Black Glove -- and going down in a flaming helicopter is a lame ending by the way -- is ironic: "The Black Glove always wins" says Hurt, and indeed he is right, though not in the way he intended. There is something I really like about how Morrison wants to end this big epic with Batman punching someone, something of the pure superhero concept there. But the irony of Batman's black glove is marred because Morrison had him thinking for a moment he WAS the Black Glove, his own worst enemy, and this just muddies already muddy water.

Heart of Darkness is an overrated book, but that is a whole other post. Harold Bloom says Conrad ends with this non-sense about "The Horror! the Horror!" not because the character is in the dark, but because the author is in the dark. That seems to me to be going to far, as I think Conrad was genuinely interested in radical ambiguity and did his best with it. How this compares to what Morrison did here I do not know, but I think Morrison is just making mistakes.

I loved the end of the Sopranos, but that ambiguous ending is nothing like Morrison's, as it relied on the worship people had for the Sopranos, and the fact that this was it -- there was never going to be any more. As Brad pointed out to me, the end of the show was like a friend dying -- all you want is just five more minutes with the person, but you are always going to want five more minutes and the thing has to end. Many people thought Tony got killed at the end, and I can see the virtues of that argument, but in a larger way the show itself got killed. People expected a violent and shocking conclusion to a show that had always been about understatement, and Chase delivered tenfold on both levels: nothing was more violent and shocking, but also more understated, than that final, jarring, fade to black.


Simon Mac Donald said...

Spending some time re-reading Morrison's run always helped so I've been doing that over the past couple of days. In saying that it really seemed like he was laying the ground work for the Black Glove to be another one of Bruce's personalities.

Personally I think that would open up a myriad of story possibilities as who ever took up the cowl would have the built in arch-nemesis of the original Batman. Imagine the pathos as the new Batman has to rescue his mentor/father from himself.

I wonder if the rushed feeling at the end of the story was a re-write in order to satisfy Dan Dido or WB?

Timothy Callahan said...

Since you attacked me with your venomous poison, I am forced to reply!

Actually, I take no offense at anything you said, and I probably agree with you more than you realize. It's just that (a) you like WAY fewer mainstream comics than I do, (b) I'm not as willing to crucify the comic just because of the art (which I do not like, particularly), and I wouldn't ever call Tony Daniel "lazy."

But just a few points:

1) This comic was NOT part of any kind of crossover, contrary to what DC would have you believe. So, yeah, the Club of Heroes came to rescue Gotham from stuff that we didn't really know was such a big threat. Still, though, I'm happy to see the Club of Heroes anytime. They can show up for a couple of panels in any issue, and I am so easily amused by them, I will smile. (Though that splash with the cgi buildings in the background? I don't understand who thought that would look good.)

2. "by far" is in quotes because I was quoting what I said in a previous comment. And it is a compliment, though since you don't like any mainstream Marvel or DC books these days, it probably wouldn't seem like much of a compliment from your side of the street.

3. I don't really equate this comic with a friend getting shot in the face, but I see what you mean. I disagree, though, in the sense that "anything" refers to a work of art as opposed to an actual event. So, yeah, I believe that a provocative work of art (or narrative), even one that fails by your criteria, is more interesting than one that is simply good but inspires no thought or commentary.

4. Plus, Morrison's run isn't over!

5. Double plus, we should all know better than to judge a book based on comments made by the author in the promotion of the book.

6. The ending of the issue is a mess, though. But I still think it's a provocative mess.

7. I have no comment about "Heart of Darkness," other than to say that it's a book that I used to teach but I don't anymore because I really just don't think it's very good either beyond the simplistic symbolism of the voyage up the river. Maybe I should apply that to Morrison's "Batman," or maybe it's a completely different thing.

Mario said...

I think R.I.P. is an example of the inherent problem with mainstream superhero comics. "The never ending battle." There can never be a definitive ending to a superhero story arc. Sure the main antagonist can be defeated, even killed on rare occasion. However the natural authorial urge to complete the work is always going to be left unsatisfied because of the corporate nature of material. This happens again and again with mainstream superhero comics. In Bendis' Daredevil run, he had the character's identity revealed to the public, fall in love with a woman plotting to murder him, have a breakdown, and finally have a brutal confrontation with his arch enemy, The Kingpin, ending with Daredevil seemingly killing him and publicly declaring that he was taking his place. Bendis planned for The Kingpin to have actually been killed but was overruled by editorial. Spider-man's revealed his secret identity to the world during "Civil War" which led to his being a fugitive and his Aunt May being fatally shot. These events were undone by editorial edict. In his run on "Batman", Jeph Loeb planned to have The Joker finally be killed due to his, well, being The Joker but was told he could because of the popularity of the character. Mark Millar planed to kill Iron Man in his run on the Ultimates, but was told he couldn't because the Ultimates became the most recognizable version of the characters. And so on. Authorial intent is constantly undermined by the need Instead of even a hint of the potential grief a character like Nightwing would logically feel at the possibility of his mentor being killed, his only shown to stare ambiguously at Batman cowl,up the next part of the ongoing Batman saga. to keep the character in stasis. R.I.P. can't really deliver on the promise of its title anymore than Final Crisis can. Bruce Wayne as Batman is to valuable a commodity killed. Daredevil can't reveal his identity, kill his enemies, and take over the underworld in Hell's Kitchen that world resolve his character. Same thing for Spider-man secret identity. All the conflicts in that characters life would essentially be resolved. So instead of taking the characters to their logical conclusion, superhero writers constantly reinvent hero's antagonists and re staging their greatest battles again and again (i.e. Zek Stane, all comics written by Geoff Johns, Final Crisis, Secret Invasion, etc.) Any attempt to actual change the status quo is almost immediately undone, either by the author or the author directly following (New X-Men, The Hulk ever time a new author takes over, Thor, Civil War, Emerald Twilight, Born Again, Morrison's Doom Patrol and Animal Man, and so.)

I know I'm not saying anything new but I really enjoyed R.I.P. up until the last issue. I also know that the same author achieve great things with either creator owned projects or closed ended series like "All Star Superman" but,I guess I expected more from Morrison. More "Aren't you tired of these endless reruns of your grief and less "Batman and Robin will never die!"

neilshyminsky said...

So for someone who finds the art so incredibly putrid that I can't bring myself to read the damn thing - what's the status quo at the end of this story? In what regard did Batman "die", as implied by R.I.P.? And who the hell is the Black Glove? And what does Robin have to do with any/all of it?

James said...

A grand return to Comics Out activity, Geoff. Thanking you.

Kris Krause said...

Personally I really liked the ending of RIP. It isn't without its flaws, and it took a while to pinpoint my feelings about everything, but after thinking about it I decided I like the anticlimax of this ending as opposed to the giant climax we were all expecting. If viewed as an intentional anticlimax, solicitations and interviews be damned, the ending makes a lot more sense than trying to piece together a justification for how it somehow was climatic. That's just how I see it though. I can understand how people feel let down as well.

Umbrella Academy was a fun read that looks like it will pick up the pace in the next issue, and of course, Ba's artwork was great.

Kyle said...

The new Umbrella Academy #1 couldn't hope to reach the weird newness of the first, as implied by the "We're fighting another monument?" dialogue. Incidentally, the resolution to that conflict was already done in the "Super Best Friends" episode of South Park.

But, yeah, Ba's great, and he has a new fan in the MCR fan cousin I loaned my seven issues to.

Yes, Batman disappointed, but we all need to learn to ignore hype. At least the run has been fairly good and evocative of decades of adventures.

Anonymous said...

How can you not like Heart of Darkness? Or, more to the point, not see it as a brutally powerful work of art?

Bloom is worth reading, but he does say a lot of nonsense sometimes.

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

Not to dwell, but the Bloom comment is just wince-inducing.

There's very little unintended ambiguity in Conrad. He had his problems -- pacing, structure, dialogue -- and he lost a step in later life; almost everything he wrote after _Under Western Eyes_ is second-rate.

But he was an incredibly patient and methodical stylist. Conrad is one of the few authors who could seriously claim, like Blake, that "not one line is unintentional".

Author in the dark, my ass. Bloom should be spanked for that.

Doug M.

Andy said...

I've been reading a lot of blogs, web reviews and message boards concerning Batman 681 and several of its supporters are trying to pass it off as being so good that it's over the heads of our casual readers. Mr. Klock is well versed in all things Morrison and has provided me insight on a Morrison story or two so I think his disapproval carries weight. I too am a Morrison fan and found his entire run to be disjointed and obtuse. The major issue in RIP isn't the never ending battle. I've seen plenty of modern storytellers give amazing swan songs of mainstream books. Peter David (Hulk), Brian Michael Bendis (Daredevil), Geoff Johns (Flash) and Mark Millar (Ultimates) to name a few. People are reacting to failed expectations. Expectations that Morrison and DC put in our heads to begin with. Morrison and DC promised a reveal of the Black Glove that was someone from Batman's 70 year history and it would rock his foundation to the core. Instead we were given a cliche' battle and an ambiguous ending where the identity of the Black Glove was open to your own interpretation. Ambiguous is acceptable but don't build it up like a mystery reveal. Morrison promised us a healthier 1970's hairy chested Batman. Instead we again got an obsessed maladjusted man who'd put himself in isolation chambers for days and creates backup schitzo personalities tucked within the folds of his brain (By the way, what type of stable backup personality is the Batman of Zur En Arhh?). We were told Morrison and Kubert but instead were left with Tony Daniel who just doesn't have the chops for a Morrison script. Quitely would've helped, but I still believe Morrison's story is severely flawed. Im my mind, the group that delivers the knockout punch to Bruce Wayne is the classic rogues gallery we've built up over the years. Call is the Batman revenge squad and you can even have The Black Glove run them. Instead we're treated to this lame club of villains. Where are Two-face and the Riddler? We're told Batman's magically rounded up all the criminals at the start of Morrison's run. That's a cop out. At least in New X-Men Morrison new Magneto had to be the grand finale. He does use the Joker, but after seeing Ledger's haunting performance, we're left underwhelmed. An emaciated too tall and thin joker with slick hair and a bullet scar just isn't gonna cut it.
Gonna wrap it up with this: many of the positive reviews on RIP have said that this story is a testament to the awesome power of the legend of the Batman. If that's the case, then Batman should emerge from the Gotham river, dragging Dr. Hurt with him. He throws him to the ground and with the Commissioner, Robin, Talia and Damien watching he unmasks him and explains how he had already figured out who the Black Glove really was. Morrison seems to wanna prove to us with all his inside baseball talk that he's read a lot of Batman stories. If that's the case, then he should realize that's how most those silver age Batman stories ended.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if this is off-topic, but Mario stated that Bendis wanted to have Daredevil kill the Kingpin around the time he took the title of Kingpin for himself, but I don't think that's accurate.
I could be wrong, but I think I heard that the point that Bendis intended to kill the Kingpin was earlier in his run, when Kingpin was betrayed by his lieutenants who repeatedly stabbed him.
Also, Bendis stated later that he was glad he was overruled on that, because in retrospect he thought killing the Kingpin would've been a mistake.