Batman #663 has already generated much commentary/consternation around the world with its prosaic depiction of the caped crusader. The posters at Barbelith seem to like it quite a bit, but at Newsarama, people on the message boards seem to find it perplexing because of the abundance of words and sentences instead of drawings, while Jog, from the famed "Jog--the Blog" sums up his critique in his opening line: "Oh shit. This wasn’t very good at all."
Because I'm going to be showing up at the NYCC as a Grant Morrison expert of some sort, what with my book and all, I feel like I should weigh in with my thoughts on the issue.
I think #663 is quite good, actually. It's quite different from what we've come to expect from the Batman title, and quite different from what Morrison has been doing lately. It's clearly a story which responds to Morrison's own Arkham Asylum, pays homage to a famous Batman story from the late 70's, and acknowledges Morrison's humble beginnings on the character from the days of the hardback DC annuals published in the UK. It does all that and rebuilds the Joker character for the 21st century in a swift and brutal manner. It's the ultimate in compressed storytelling--using prose as a violent strike against the slow-moving narratives of many current comic book stories (and having the issue appear after Ostrander and Mandrake's flaccid and laborious "Grotesk" serial, only accentuates the speed and power of Morrison's story.)
Now, let me go into some detail to prove all of this:
1) Batman #663, "The Clown at Midnight," is a response to Arkham Asylum. This is apparent in the issue's emphasis on the duality of Joker and the Batman, the setting (largely within the asylum itself), the use of the pattern motif (although it was fractals in Arkham and it's checkerboards in "The Clown at Midnight"), and the notion of the Joker's "super-sanity" which was established in Arkham as an explanation for his ever-shifting personality and used in "The Clown at Midnight" to establish the Joker's transformation into a force of terror. As Morrison writes in #663, "[The Joker's] remarkable coping mechanism, which saw him transform a personal nightmare of disfigurement into a baleful comedy and criminal infamy all those years ago -- happily chuckling to himself in the garage as he constructed outlandish Joker-Mobiles which gently mocked the young Batman's pretensions in the Satire Years before Camp, and New Homicidal, and all the other Jokers he's been--now struggles to process the raw, expressionistic art brutal of his latest surgical makeover." This Art Brutal stage, which is embodied by "The Clown at Midnight" (the title of the story is the very name of this new iteration of the Joker's persona), will provide a significantly more menacing nemesis for the Batman in the future. Morrison establishes this not only with the Joker's surgically altered appearance (with the sides of his hideous smile sewn shut by the butchers at Arkham), and not only with the Joker's crazed explanations, "'It's the oldest, bestest gag in the book,' the Joker spits and slurs, eager for the last laugh. 'Red and Black. Like a bat. In a dream. In a window," but with the symbolic sacrifice of Harley Quinn, a character who represents the more whimsical Joker that will be left behind on the stroke of midnight. Ritual and transformation are the centerpieces of this story, just as they are is in Arkham Asylum, only this time it's the other side of the mirror that's featured. It's about the Joker now. As the Joker helpfully points out, Batman is just in the story as a "straight man" for the Joker's absurdist comedy.
2) This issue is a departure from Morrison's recent work. With its collage narrative, ambitious themes, and heavy symbolism, it's much more in tune with the work Morrison produced in the late 80's / early 90's. Recently, as seen in his past few issues of Batman and his (quite wonderful) work on All-Star Superman, Morrison has shifted his narrative emphasis toward more traditional superheroics, revealing the mythic nature of these characters using Silver Age tropes. Even the high-wire act of Seven Soldiers was an attempt to explore different facets of superhumanity, providing an over-arching storyline as a structure for looking closely at different superhero traditions. "The Clown at Midnight" is definitely a return to the Arkham-era Morrison, at least for one issue, perhaps ritualistically, as a way of freeing himself from the past and providing a fresh start for his continued work on the title.
3) This issue pays homage to a famous Batman story from the late 70s. In DC Special Series #15, published in 1978, writer Denny O'Neil delivered a prose Batman story, entitled "Death Strikes at Midnight and Three," which featured illustrations by the young Marshall Rogers. The tale, reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, is a hard-boiled, street-level crime tale, complete with prose of the purple variety: "His knees buckled," O'Neil writes, "and he collapsed quickly and awkwardly, as though all his joints had been severed at once. His head bounced on the sidewalk before Wayne could catch him." It's a story filled with Pulpy-goodness, but it's not actually very good as a Batman story. But Morrison channels some O'Neil in "The Clown at Midnight," certainly. Both titles share the word "Midnight," which probably isn't a coincidence (since both stories are clearly the two most prominent Batman prose stories ever published, Morrison must have been aware of O'Neil's title). Both stories take a similar pause in the narrative to wax poetically on Gotham City. O'Neil writes, about Gotham, "It is a monster sprawled along 25 miles of eastern seaboard, stirring and seething and ever-restless." Morrison writes, "Welcome to Gotham City, a party ten miles long and 6 miles wide...a 21st-century American Babylon has shouldered its way up from the mudflats and sauntered into the spotlights, eager to dazzle and seduce the world." Other than the description of Gotham, which is strangely in present tense, O'Neil uses past tense thoughout his narrative. Morrison, though, maintains the present tense in every line of his story, adding a shocking immediacy to the horrific events of the tale. And other differences exist, obviously, since Morrison is paying homage to an earlier work, not providing a re-telling, but "The Clown at Midnight," doesn't seem likely without O'Neil's precursor, even though...
4) Morrison is also paying tribute to his own humble beginnings as a writer of prose stories for UK annuals. Two years before he published Animal Man and Arkham Asylum with DC Comics, he contributed a prose story entitled “The Stalking” to the 1986 Batman Annual published in England. The story, a three-page narrative with illustrations by Gary Leach, describes Catwoman’s excursion into the Batcave as she attempts to uncover Batman’s secret identity. It’s a fun story in which Catwoman discovers that the dinosaur in the Batcave is actually a giant robot, and she uses it to fight Batman before rushing upstairs to find out who lives above the underground base of operations for such a crimefighter. She gets knocked out before uncovering Batman’s secret, and that’s the end of the story. Unlike “The Clown at Midnight,” “The Stalking” is written in the past tense, and Morrison’s prose was much looser and less evocative in his early career. Compare a pedestrian sentence from “The Stalking”: “The hatch opened and Catwoman jumped down, landing on her feet,” with a more vigorous sentence from a similar point in “The Clown at Midnight”: “She runs to him across the tiles, suddenly uncoordinated and awkward, flushed with hormones and neurological seizures.” Both of those sentences are pretty typical of the type of sentences you’ll find in each story, and they illustrate how much Morrison’s prose has improved over the years. Perhaps “The Clown at Midnight” is an attempt to redeem himself. (Even though I’ve never talked to anyone who’s actually read Morrison’s early prose work from the UK annuals except for the Barbelith crowd.)
5) It’s the ultimate in compressed storytelling. Had Morrison chose to tell the story of the Joker’s transformation using sequential art instead of prose, he would have had to spend several issues at least. The elimination of his henchmen, Batman’s search for clues, the Joker’s “recovery” in Arkham, the confrontation with Harley Quinn, and the final showdown all would have taken pages and pages to tell. It’s a full four-issue story arc compressed into a single, powerful issue. That, alone, is enough to recommend it in the days after we spent half a year watching the painfully slow “Grotesk” storyline unfold. Had “Grotesk” been told as prose, it would have taken two sentences. “Her brother was horribly disfigured. Now he’s mad.”
We should all just be grateful that Morrison’s back on the title, but on it’s own merits, Batman #663 is an excellent story, well-told, with plenty of allusions to Morrison’s history with the character. It is an essential part of the Morrison canon, but I’m sure, like Arkham Asylum, it will be underappreciated for years to come.