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BATMAN R.I.P.: A Post Mortem Review

January 18, 2010

Man it seems that all I write about on here is Batman. How’d the hell that happen? I’ve got lots to say about Avatar, In the Loop, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, lots of different experiences really. But it all comes back to Bats. Well here goes. Recently, I read Batman RIP. It was something. Weirdness! Wonderful! Morrisson set out to tell a definitive Batman story. But it doesn’t quite work, at least not in the story itself. The beauty of it is it is not all explained. It tells well. The pacing is good. But there are some strange problems with it, some that come early on, others that happen in its curious climax. In fact the story doesn’t quite come together until its coda, an epilogue that ties into Morrisson’s other megacrossover Final Crisis, and told through Alfred using the slightly-metafictional continuity-spanning method that only Morrisson seems able to pull off.

But first, the story. Batman suspects an unseen villain is closing in on him, someone working at the edges of all his recent casework, pulling the strings to set him up for a big fall. He doesn’t know what is going to happen, but knows the name of his enemy is the Black Glove. All well and good. After a bit of expository narrative, filling us in on who Batman is again, his recent decision to let a woman into his life, a beautiful millionaire counterpart named Jezebel Jet, the trap is sprung. See, The Black Glove has secretly implanted Bats with a ‘trigger phrase’ that erases his memory and allows his enemies to overpower him, and well, turn him into a meth addicted homeless person. What comes next is a bit of a jump. It begins with this weird ellipsis; you just get the next bit of story and you have to fill it in yourself. You go right to the Batcave to the streets, where Bat now roams with Gotham city’s equivalent of Bubbles. And from there things get considerably stranger…

There are limits I think in how we can relate to Batman. Besides the obvious, you know, he’s a tights and cape wearing comic character. But look beyond that. He’s us. In a candy coloured world of super-powered gods and monsters, he’s the only one who is just you know, a dude. But any regular reader knows he is much more than that. He’s like Sherlock Holmes; we can admire Holmes, but we can’t relate to him. We relate to Watson. He’s beyond human in a way; by pushing himself to the limits; He’s a wonder of eccentricity; several steps ahead of the game in any situation. This makes him a difficult character to write about as someone who is facing challenges; facing adversity; what makes a challenge to Batman? And how do we relate to it as readers? How do we get sucked into the man Behind the mask? I would think he’s best left as the enigma; the x factor in a story; the way he gets written in Morrison’s JLA stories. Never the point of view character; always coming in as a frightening other that puts all the pieces together.

But that’s not the point in Batman RIP. The point is, what would break him? And could he be ready for it? And the answer is yes. Then as a counterpoint to the absolute is the JOKER; who is forever spinning in new levels of insanity; and Batman has to be one point beyond it. Ready to box him in. I thought there were great insights into the character there. I guess the question to ask of that comic is, did you believe it? Did it work?

I believed the moments of Batman walking around with Bubbles. Thought there was a good bit of subtle wheel of karma at play; how Batman’s good deeds DO affect the life of the city; In the way that they pick him up when he needs them. It’s not necessarily a new theme, but I think a necessary one, in a story that attempts to go as dark as this. And there’s a delightful play in the Joker’s ‘Danse Macabre’ with Bats, as he KNOWS the answer to the puzzle, who is bats betrayer, and is just enjoying the irony of watching him go through the motions of a standard damsel in distress set up. But strangely, behind that, is the knowledge that Batman himself knows that this was a setup. And he walked into it anyway. And I think that’s where it lacked the emotional punch.

The question of how that affected Batman didn’t seem to be an emotional hook of the story. Ultimately it’s just Batman screaming, “Yeah, well fuck you bitch! I never liked you anyway! I was acting! Acting!” which is far less interesting then the ambiguity that is laid out by the thought captions, that even when he knew she was betraying her he “was attracted to the bad in her.” So where does that go? That is the weird ambiguity at the heart of this, because in point for point, Jet’s betrayal, the revelation, are symbolically and narratively set up to be the climax of the story.

And yet. And yet. They don’t have the emotional resonance they should. So, okay, skip that, let’s move onto the question of the archenemy, the Black Glove, aka Dr. Hurt, aka Thomas Wayne aka Walter Pettigrew. Who was that guy? Like, dude, what’s up? In the fight to the finish, his actual identity is tied up in ambiguity as well. How did he know so much about Bruce Wayne? What motivated him? Why was he doing this? None of this is answered clearly; but Batman pursues him relentlessly, doggedly, to the death it would seem. I mean the story hits are there, there’s a big hollywood style climax helicopter explosion. That’s the end yeah. But ultimately in a way that leaves no resolution. Cause you’re like, if this all happened, what the hell does it mean?

So, if that is not the climax, then what is? Well maybe it was the internal struggle suggested by the monologue. Batman at this moment is thinking about how he pushed himself, pushed himself to the point of death, took his struggle, literally as far as he could take it, and wondered if it opened up to something evil. He stared into the void. He braved the void, and saw “the devil flinch”. His resolve remains true. Restatement of his mission. The circle is closed. And ultimately, maybe this is the thing suggested here, that is the struggle that must be undertaken by anyone brave enough to confront evil, darkness, sin what have you; the struggle to overcome darkness is ultimately the expression of the nobility of spirit, of the human character in all its best attributes. Yeah? Almost. But not quite.

So enter the epilogue, “The Butler Did It”, as we span a greatest hits of Batman’s memories, the greatest hits if you will of his career, all told through Alfred’s perspective. Begin with the Year One attired Bruce Wayne in his Vietnam vet fatigues saying he needs a disguise, fast forward to the start of Robin, fast forward further, Joker is hilarious not lethal; fast-forward again; Bane breaks Batman’s back, Azrael takes his costume. Gotham City is hit by an earthquake. It goes on and on. And in all of this the character keeps fighting. Inspiring. Being the thing that scares evil. That’s the moment he goes for… what is that… that Batman has a resolve of character that can never be underestimated. He’s human yeah? He’s a human who faces down the gods, if you want to get mythic about it, and as this is a tie-in to Final Crisis, in which, well he’s facing a God of Evil as his opponent, well, that’s his role.

It’s an interesting part to play. I don’t think humans often if ever won their battle with the Gods in the Greek myths, at least not without terrible consequences. Batman is kind of a Prometheus in this part. Maybe an Odysseus. Someone who dares to fight the gods, and somehow wins, even if he’s punished for it. But if our heroes of myths, legends, and well comic books really can’t take up that battle, who can? Maybe that’s it; like in the immutable; intractable universe it’s the human spirit that dares to go where it can’t go and be brave against what it cannot win. Like Chuck Yeager having the Right Stuff as he got blown up by endless test rockets. Or like Houdini pushing through his chains, locks and submerged straight jackets to rail against death. Or Joe Simpson, going deeper into the ice crevice and Into the Void. Maybe if there’s any meaning at all to Batman RIP, Morrision’s definitive take on the ne plus ultra of humanity, it’s that– the way out is through. And just like his 19th century counterpart Sherlock Holmes, as all comic fans know, Batman’s death will be a temporary inconvenience at best.

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