Monday, October 25, 2010

Batman Inc.

[Lost like Bruce Wayne in the time-stream, Guest Blogger Scott returns with a look at the idea of Batman, Inc. -- including a very well observed connection between Morrison's Batman and Will Brooker's book Batman Unmasked. I make a comment below about Dark Knight Returns.]

Perhaps this old news to some of you, but it was only upon picking up the latest issue of Morrison’s ‘Batman and Robin’ that I learned of Morrison’s plans for the Batman franchise once Bruce Wayne returned. Like most, I assumed that Dick Grayson would, of course, immediately hand cape and cowl back to his mentor and go back to doing his own Nightwing-thing. But Morrison has something bigger in mind: we are now going to have two Batmen: Grayson will remain Gotham’s Guardian while Wayne will become ‘Batman International’ so to speak and travel the world setting up a network of ‘Batmen’ (expanding upon Morrison’s reintroduction of the ‘Club of Heroes’). It’s not a completely unheard of concept; when Oliver Queen returned from the grave Connor Hawk retained the Green Arrow title as well, a similar concept has worked with the Flash even before Barry Allen’s return with Wally and Jay both bearing the mantle and there’s been more than one Green Lantern of earth for close to 40 years now, so why not Batman?

The idea of the hero passing on the torch to another is nothing new and, in fact, has long been a part of pulp-heroic tradition. Perhaps the most direct ancestor of the modern superhero is Lee Falk’s Phantom and in that strip the original Phantom wasn’t even the ‘original’ Phantom within in the continuity of the story (I think he was something like the 4th or 5th to have taken up the mantle; a way of cementing the idea that ‘the ghost who walks’ is actually immortal). Also, within the pulps, many characters over the years would develop a complex network of allies and associates to the point that, eventually, the central character would take a back seat in the action.

The idea that Batman should take this step is nothing new, in the conclusion of his book, Batman Unmasked, Will Brooker was inspired by the then most recent successful interpretation of Batman in a popular medium, Batman Beyond, to observe, “if the Batman line of comics really is being brought more into line with the animated series and its younger audience, Warners have realized that to a kid of twelve, a man in his early thirties might as well be a sixty-year old in terms of appeal […] why not take this model to its logical end, push Wayne forward to his ‘real’ age and play to the strengths of this ‘Team Batman’ concept?” (326). It is worth noting that Brooker’s book was published in 2000, when the most recent Batman film, Batman and Robin had flopped and no one could foresee that Nolan would re-invigorate the film franchise and, outside of the comics—perhaps even more so than the comics—the animated series was the most successful representation of the Bat Franchise as a whole and, with Batman Beyond as its latest incarnation, perhaps it was about time to re-imagine Batman as a whole. Brooker imagines a ‘Batman Genre Story’, “some of the codes would always remain—a Bat-costume, gadgets, crime-fighting, Gotham […] ‘Batman’ as a genre could embrace variation and improvisation around its core template, adapting to survive as Batman has always adapted to survive, both in Gotham and the real world” (328). In fact, to the younger Batman audience, Bruce Wayne is pretty inconsequential, “He just needs the suit and the gadgets, the abilities, and most importantly the morality, the humanity” (329). The latest Batman animated series, Batman: The Brave and The Bold—a series aimed towards a slightly younger audience than previous animated series, is an excellent example of this concept; while there is an unspoken implication that it is Wayne under the costume, this is not what is emphasized in the show. His motivations are unimportant; he’s just the guy with all the neat gadgets who fights crime.

Of course, older Bat-fans have a problem with this; we prefer Bruce Wayne. While the utility belt and Batmobile hooked us as kids, what brought us back was Bruce Wayne, the man behind the mask, a character with, arguably, the most complex psychology of any superhero; he must constantly balance his own darker nature and need for vengeance with justice, he must walk the line between hero and villain, savior and tyrant; however, this could equally be true of anyone who donned the cape and cowl. What anyone else would lack is Wayne’s origin; he has a very understandable, primal motivation for doing what he does and he is understandably driven—even obsessive depending on which version of the narrative you subscribe to-- to continue in his crusade no matter what. Bruce Wayne DOES NOT give up; he does not retire. When Neil Gaiman wrote his ‘Whatever Happenned to the Caped Crusader’, he envisioned several different ‘deaths’ for Bruce, all of them in the line of duty, none of them from just growing old and dying of natural causes. It is this rich psychology of the character of Bruce Wayne that, perhaps, explains why, of all superheroes, Batman has inspired works that tend to transcend the genre in terms of quality (The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, The Killing Joke, The Long Halloween, many of the vignettes in ‘Batman: Black & White’, Arkham Asylum, to name a few).

What Morrison seems to be attempting to do with the ‘Batman Incorporated’ concept is to split the difference in this controversy: he allows Bruce Wayne to remain Batman, but in a very different role than the street level vigilante of Gotham (namely the Globe-trotting adventurer that Morrison is so fond of) while, at the same time, allowing characters like Dick Grayson to move more to the forefront of the Bat-Mythos and take on new roles. While it remains to be seen how well the concept is actually EXECUTED it does make for an interesting compromise in the ongoing debate of the future of Batman. I, for one, am open to the concept at least; after all, this doesn’t preclude any ‘old school’ batman tales from being told. Titles like ‘Batman: Confidential’ could still give us tales of Bruce Wayne, the troubled, obsessive loner, patrolling the streets of Gotham, not to mention mini-series, alternate realities, and so on and so forth. So, the question that I am posing to the blog is this: could this work? Does Bruce Wayne have to be Batman, or rather, the ONLY Batman?

[I stopped reading Morrison's Batman, but I have blogged about the tension between Miller's Batman and Morrison's. I wonder to what extent is Morrison's Batman Inc a response to Miller's Batman at the end of Dark Knight Returns -- become a teacher to a new generation of Bat-Soldiers.]

4 comments:

neilshyminsky said...

Among the people who are still reading Batman and Robin, what's the verdict? I stopped picking it up right after the Lazarus Pit storyline - not for any particular reason, just because I forgot about it - and was wondering what's happened and whether it's any good.

Christian O. said...

Batman & Robin remains excellent. Frazer Irving is a perfect fit for the current arc. "Batman & Robin Must Die" is a lot of fun and it is capping off Morrison's Dr. Hurt plot quite neatly.

Personally I subscribe to Morrison's setup of Bruce Wayne as being the only "true" Batman, but other still being able to wear the cowl. Grayson is an interesting character to follow, and I'm loving the stories with him, but for him being Batman is still very much a performance. I love the different Batmen, Damian and the Club of Heroes, but Bruce Wayne is uniquely suited to "be" Batman. Everyone else are variations on the form. He might be franchising, but the original does not go away.

With the "joining" of the old Adam West serial, the Bat-manga in Batman Inc. and the Silver Age stories to the larger continuity, I think Morrison has finally managed to relegate Miller's approach to an important, but ultimately smaller part of the grander Batman tapestry. A place it ultimately belongs. The mass-media, such as the Batman: Brave and the Bold cartoon, are certainly favoring this approach at the moment as well.

scottmcdarmont said...

Neil,

I really like Batman & Robin, I'm a bit bummed that Quitely never returned but the artists, Irving in particular, have all been really strong. It's nothing transcendent but it has been a lot of fun, the latest arc has brought bat the Black Glove and Dr. Hurt (speaking of which there's a guy in Virginia-- where I live-- running for Congress whose last name is Hurt, his oponent is getting a lot of Mileage out of that).

I think I might have just realized what Morrison is doing with the Black Glove as well and I think it is part of the pulp tradition already mentioned.

Something I forgot to mention when discussing why Batman seems to create the stories that most transcend the genre was the fact that, and I think everyone would agree with me on this one, he has the best villains--THE best Villain, in fact, in the Joker. The problem with this is that, like Bruce Wayne, all of his villains are mortal (well, except Ra's Al Ghul... who it is worth noting was introduced during the O'Neil/Adams era that Morrison is so fond of). So, if we allow Bruce to grow old and fade fromt he forefront, so must we allow his villains. However, if Morrison could create an enemy that was just as much of an undying concept as The Batman himself, then Batman and his successors would always have a common enemy, if not literally the exact same characters, then at least the same concept.

This is also part of the Pulp tradition and, in the fictional world of Michael Chabon's Cavalier and Clay, his charaters gave THEIR character, the Escapist (another character who was not even the first to bear the mantle at the time of his creation) an organization to fight against-- within that organization there are, of course, various arch nemeses, but they can all come and go under the umbrella of that organization.

Richard Melendez said...

"Does Bruce Wayne have to be Batman, or rather, the ONLY Batman?"

For storytelling purposes, no, not at all, and though I haven't kept up with the character for years, I welcome this shift. Even if it's temporary.

I say temporary, because for branding purposes, yes, Bruce Wayne needs to be Batman. The world identifies Wayne as Batman. Much the same way that Clark Kent is Superman and Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Green Lantern and Flash have a bit more flexibility, but not Batman. Wayne = Batman. Explaining Grayson as Batman, or for that fact, an Asian or Latino Batman, as part of a legacy of Batmen would, I believe, muddy the waters for the general public (i.e., the non-comics reading public who watch the movies and cartoons, but don't read the comics). And with Warner bringing DC closer into its fold, I think it's likely that Wayne will eventually be returned to being the sole Bat. Just a theory, but I do hope they run with this concept for as long as they can. I for one welcome change in comics, and not just the illusion of change.
-r-