Thursday, 13 October 2011

Coming Back to Comic Books | WTF, Batman RIP?

I came back to comic books - was it three, or four months ago? - for a number of reasons. Because I finally took the plunge and bought a tablet with a beautiful, backlit LCD screen that makes art on paper look bleached by comparison. Because with the much-ballyhooed about New 52 from DC in the middle distance, it seemed like as good a time as any. Because I'd never really meant to leave them behind in the first place, truth be told...

That said, there were things about the medium that I had been happy as Larry to be free of: foremost amongst them the publisher-wide tie-ins which only seem to have intensified in the time I took out... the desperate grasping attempts to get folks who want to read about Batman to buy Robin and Nightwing and Birds of Prey and The Outsiders to see a complete story told for instance. Disgusting practices, to my mind, which only serve to foreground the deficiencies - the disharmoniousness - of serial narrative in the comic book.

As such, Batman: R.I.P. has been a real test of my tolerance.

But I couldn't very well not read it, masterminded as it was by one of the most distinctive talents in the industry today: Grant Morrison, of The Invisibles and All-Star Superman renown, whose Arkham Asylum stands today as one of the definitive texts in the Batman canon. Never mind that I do dig me my The Dark Knight.

So. I started reading R.I.P. pretty much the moment I came back to comic books. It's taken me this long to get through it. Says a lot, doesn't it?

What happened was... I started reading the core storyline of R.I.P. - six issues of the monthly - and realised, not even a single in, that I hadn't the foggiest as to what was going on. So I went before Wikipedia, and Wikipedia said unto me, You fool! You must also read Batman and Son, The Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul, and The Black Glove... only then will you understand! Maybe!

Well, of course. Grant Morrison does nothing by half measures, after all, and I'd been an eejit to think I could appreciate Batman: R.I.P. without some grasp of The Dark Knight's new status quo, not to mention the groundwork Mr Morrison had been laying all the while. So I went back. And back and back.

I won't bore you with the details of that belaboured introduction to the characters and the conflicts at the acid-high heart of R.I.P., except to say, as of that story, The Caped Crusader has a kid - the brat Damien Wayne, born of Bruce's dalliances with Talia Al'Ghul, the demon's daughter - and a new arch enemy in the shape of The Black Glove, a secret organisation of super-rich individuals intent on bringing down The Dark Knight. These three stories were tolerable enough, but not at all remarkable in the sense I'd been expecting... all melodrama and false jeopardy. Business as usual, basically.

Still I figured they'd resolve into something more, if not as things themselves then as parts of the whole; when their place in the grand design Grant Morrison went on and on about while writing R.I.P. was revealed. I know now that this was rather charitable of me.

When I finally caught up to the events of R.I.P., I found, not entirely to my surprise, that I still hadn't the slightest what was happening... but this time, I pushed through. This time I understood that it wasn't meant to make a lick of sense, because R.I.P. isn't, in fact, about the death of Batman - although in a manner of speaking Batman dies both before and after the events related in this arc, for whatever that's worth.

Rather, R.I.P. is about Batman losing it. It's about the inherent madness of what Batman does finally getting the better of Bruce Wayne. And no-one does madness better than the madman Morrison.

As a narrative, R.I.P. is an absurd, fractured, fearsome thing. Don't go into it expecting a quick fix: a breaking of the Bat a la Bane's five minutes of fame circa Knightfall. This is an elaborate deconstruction of heroism's very premise, by way of one man in and out of tights; an hallucinatory interrogation of the cost of living as Bruce Wayne has endeavoured to live, which is to say in two: split down the middle his entire adult life, and coming apart now (with a little help from his friends) at the seams.

Sadly, or happily, depending on your perspective - Grant Morrison certainly has his detractors - R.I.P. is neither the beginning nor the end of Batman's torturous undoing. Never mind what all comes before it - a mixed bag of overwrought nonsense juxtaposed with moments of marvelous clarity make these establishing arcs something of a zero sum equation - what happens after is as much as part of R.I.P. as the core storyline: from Last Rites to Final Crisis to The Battle for the Cowl and beyond.

Now on the one hand I'm impressed that DC had the sheer gall to follow through on the events of R.I.P. so resolutely; only now that they've hit reset via the New 52 is the fallout properly behind us... and I'm not completely convinced that there isn't more of Morrison's mad Batman to come. However, on the other: I've been longing for this story to come to a close for months. God knows how it must have felt for those poor souls buying the monthlies as and when they came out.

The Dark Knight is dead.

Long live The Dark Knight?

Well, I guess. Plenty good has come of R.I.P., assuredly, and plenty bad. So I guess we're basically back where we started... beginning again, but with Bruce Wayne's midlife crisis behind us, at last. I wouldn't say Grant Morrison's run on Batman was a long road to nowhere, exactly, but nor did I find the journey contained or restrained enough to reap much meaning from.

On the bright side, I had some fun, and at least now it's done. But whatever the pull of the core story - and there is a power to it (now you see it, now you don't) - I don't think I'd recommend R.I.P. to any but the most devoted Batman fans, or Grant Morrison admirers.

And new readers be warned: this vast event may be the exact opposite of an ideal jumping-on point. You can't go wrong with Frank Miller's wonderful Year One, or the aforementioned Arkham Asylum. With Batman: R.I.P, you can.


  1. Whew, I can't believe you took the dip and read through all that Batman stuff. There was a time when I wanted to read some Batman, and asked someone at the comic shop which story from recent years to check out, and I soon discovered how massive a can of worms is all was...and stayed away, far away.

    In other Grant Morrison news, from the pages of The Invisibles, his Flex Mentallo stuff with Frank Quitely is getting re-released here soon, and looks pretty cool.

  2. Yeah. A can of worms is a fair way to put it, but maybe more like a crate. I mean, Christ... I had to read Superman Beyond in 3D - without the 3D glasses, even. Damn you, Grant Morrison! Why would you do this thing to me?

    But I'm all over Frank Quitely art. One of my greatest regrets in my comic book life is having met Frank years ago at a con in Glasgow, when he was signing copies of The Scottish Connection, but not ponying up for a signature on a new copy when I already had mine.

    If only I'd known! :/

  3. Huh. Seems I made the right decision in staying away from this; it's not that I don't like his work, it's that his standalone work feels so different from his broad arcs. A Serious House on Serious Earth is the only thing that ever really stands out personally for me in Morrison's work; I think he works better in more contained storylines- rather than crossing events- because he doesn't have the opportunity to get carried away into ridiculousness.

    Anyways, precise and convincingly explained, Niall. Are you going to try Arkham City? It might nurture your trust in the Bat.

  4. Well hell yes I'm going to try Arkham City!

    Particularly after R.I.P., I'll be honest, I have very little trust left in the Bat... but Batman was why I got into comics in the first place, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, so I have no shortage of leftover affection for the character, and the setting. Short Chris Nolan's majestic movies it's been an investment ill-rewarded of late, but I found Rocksteady's first turnabout with The Dark Knight pretty terrific - I got all the Riddler trophies and everything - so yes, I'm absolutely psyched for Arkham City. I've even been reading the prequel comics, though they're hardly worth talking about.

    In other news, apparently Grant Morrison has been reading ALL the feminist theory EVER in preparation for his take on Wonder Woman:

    And I could care less. That right there is about the only tangible impact reading R.I.P. has had on me: an almighty void where my enthusiasm for his work once was.