Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Batman & Son (comics)

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Andy Kubert
Collects: Batman #655-658 and 663-666

My god, I love Grant Morrison comics. I love the imagination, the complete insanity and the layers of themes to his work. You can easily call me an International Smug Elitist and I'd agree with you a hundred percent. But as a reviewer, I have to be fair.

Thankfully, Grant makes it easy; Batman & Son quickly wormed it's way into my heart as a Batman volume.

The title story - Batman & Son - isn't so much an outlandish idea as it is an update on a classic one. An old story from the 80's called Son of the Demon first introduced Batman and Talia son. It's wavered in and out of continuity since that time, however; aside from the Elseworld Kingdom Come, few stories really even reference that particular story. But now, Batman's son - an insufferable little prick named Damian - has reemerged in continuity.

To my surprise, I love the little bastard.

Batman & Son feels like a mainstream Batman story in that it feels more like something you might expect out of mainstream Batman work than something from Grant Morrison. This isn't the first time the man has worked with the character, as you may know, and those earlier stories felt more like a Morrison story than this did. Arkham Asylum - very loosely adapted in a hit video game you might have heard of bearing the same name - was a trippy journey into the psyche of both Batman and his rogues gallery; an almost nightmarish story. Gothic dealt with supernatural elements as well. In contrast, Batman & Son feels a bit more straightforward.

But what I found the title arc to be is fun; and despite the lessening of Morrisons trademark craziness, there are elements that just smack of his influence. Ninja Man-bats, the Bat rocket, the battle between Batman and said man-bats in a pop art museum. In what I suspect is going to be a theme throughout his run, Morrison blends some of the old fashioned Silver Age zaniness in small doses to modern Batman. The remarkable thing is that it works.

The story is basically Batman finding out he has a son, whom is dropped on him by his one time fiance Talia Al Ghul. The boy was trained by the League of Assassins and has a serious sense of entitlement, not to mention a temper. He is also a spoiled little kid. But he's not completely insufferable. At certain points within the story you could see parts of this kid that are truly good. In many ways he's not so unlike a miniature version of Bruce Wayne. The brooding, the temper and darkness he exhibits isn't all that removed from his old man. He really is his fathers son in more ways than one; he carries a deep respect for the father he never knew and points in the story show that this little boy may also carry his fathers innate purity. It's going to be fun to see where he goes from here and I hope Damian sticks around.

Batman #663 - dubber here as an interlude - is a strange beast. This story, titled The Clown at Midnight, is not a typical comic. It's more of a prose story, with overwrought descriptions and metaphors piling on gobs of atmosphere. It's also so much more of a Joker story than one of Batman. Picking up on an element from the first moments of Grants first issue - where Joker was shot in the face by an imposter Batman - we watch as the Joker changes. Changes in a fascinating new element to the character that I hope stays forever more.

The gist is that every so often Joker reinvents himself completely, in something not all that dissimilar from the idea from Arkham Asylum that states Joker reinvents himself each day to cope with modern life. This singlehandedly explains not only the different versions of the Joker that have come and gone, but the different Jokers of different writers; this makes every interpretation valid, because The Joker changes rapidly, shedding his skin for a new one, as it were. It's a brilliant concept that also adds to Jokers insanity in a frightening way.

The story also gives us a new version of Joker unlike any one before. The Harlequin of Hell is a straight up, bust your skull in, freaky, insane Joker unlike anything we've ever seen. This Joker truly is chaos; in some ways, this is the sort of Joker "The Dark Knight" gave us, only far deadlier and before that film had even shown it's first still.

This story is more a product of writing than anything else. It's very overwrought, but I felt that really helped it. In an age where storylines are drug out across four to six issues of a comic, this bucks the trend. This issue is a compression of a story instead of a decompression. What would have taken around three or four issues if done in a standard comic style is done in one. It's not for everyone - I suspect as many love this daring mood as there are who hate it - but I thought it was a genius way to do this and it offered up a nice change of pace from the more typical comics.

The next two parter feels like something closer to what may have been expected of Morrison when he came on. Dubbed "The Three Ghosts of Batman", the two parter deals with the thread of imposter Batmen introduced in the opening moments of Batman & Son. The second is almost a reflection of Bane, which interestingly brings fear out of the stoic Dark Knight. If anything, it shows that even to this day, Knightfall left scars on The Dark Knight. You get the sense as this short story ends that it's only the beginning of the story; there's one more "Ghost" we've yet to meet when it closes and it's here that the sense that bigger things are on the way first comes to the forefront.

This arc adds another element I'm very fond of in introducing to us the concept of "The Black Casebook". Basically, anything Batman and Dick encountered in their early years that the rational, scientific mind of Batman could not explain, he wrote down in detail. In effect, this brings old stories from the fifties back in continuity; cases that effect the Dark Knight with their outlandishness. This is a fantastic way to bring elements of the old days back in continuity at will and it really feels like a Morrison idea. It also feels like one that needs to stay; like Damian, The Black Casebook just feels like something that has the potential to be truly special and potent.

The final story - Batman #666 - is easily my favorite of the bunch. We get a one issue glimpse at the future - one possible future - where Bruce Wayne is gone and Damian has long since assumed his fathers role as Batman. This issue takes it's issue number very, very seriously; the anti-christ allusions are thick all throughout the story as Damian actively works against the apocalypse. In one issue, we get a feel for this futures Damian as Batman; and he's definitely of a different variety. It's a dark future that can possibly come to pass; a glimpse into a future that must be avoided. But it's one where, no matter what, Batman lives on in some way to fight evil.

The art of everything in this volume save The Clown at Midnight - which was a prose story with only a few CGish illustrations by John Van Fleet - is done by Andy Kubert. While I absolutely adore the stories Grant Morrison is putting forward here, the art is something I'm a bit iffier on. Most of the time, it absolutely pops, with fantastic linework and great flow. But sometimes, we come across panels that feel rushed. With the detail that Andy puts into his work in this volume, one panel with less detail comes off as a striking contrast and is a real detachment from the story. The slow work of the Kubert brothers is particularly well known by now, but it's these panels that it really shows; one gets the sense that Andy may have been pressed for time and figured it was alright to spend less time on a panel where the characters are further in the background and such.

Still, I'm not sure I would trade Andy for anyone else in this volume. He really runs with some scenes; the fight in the pop art museum in particular is something he truly shines with. Despite having a few of the aforementioned panels in it, I wouldn't have traded Andy for #666 either. He really drives home the feeling of the apocalypse nigh on this future Gotham.

This is all to say nothing of the coloring. Something like that isn't normally what you'd see time devoted to, but I have to mention it. The coloring was fantastic. Batman has been awash in dark colors for far too long. While it suits him, it feels so grim sometimes. But the coloring throughout this volume washes this story in bright colors, neons and glows that simply pop off the goddamn page. It's gorgeous. This colorist needs to stay with the title forever. Seriously.

The Score: 8 out of 10

I truly get the feeling that this is the start of something special. It's probably not going to shatter internets or the Earths crust, but it's a lot more fun than most modern Batman stories. It feels like it's really going somewhere as well, even if you already know the path things take in future work. It comes with my recommendation; I personally loved this volume and it sticks on my bookshelf proudly alongside the classics of Batmans long history.