Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Batman #156 vs. Batman #673

I didn't plan on weighing in on Grant Morrison's newest Batman issue, but Greg Burgas sent a bunch of readers to this site, and the least I can do is discuss sensory-deprivation Batman a bit (NOTE: I was planning on awaiting the conclusion of this current Batman arc before providing an analysis--I'm not as interested in guessing what will happen as I am figuring out how creators use patterns, symbols, and motifs to layer what did happen--also NOTE: I spent several formative years in the 1990s working at KB Toys, and I'm pretty sure "Sensory-Deprivation Batman" was one of those action figures you could find in the 3/$10.00 bin, along with "Lightning Vision Camouflage Batman" and "Laser Vision Coldsnap Batman.")

So, what's going on with Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel's Batman #673? Well, it's heavily indebted to Batman #156. A quick glance at the classic Silver Age cover will tell you WHY Morrison would find that issue from 1963 so appealing. Batman cradling a dead Robin? On an alien landscape? Sounds good to me.

Couple that with the interior story, in which not only does Ace the Bathound appear, but Batman dresses like a gorilla to infiltrate the aptly-described Gorilla Gang, and you can toss in an alien stone idol with four arms and an experiment in which Batman contributes to SPACE MEDICINE, and it's a story begging for a postmodern retelling, is it not?

Well, that's not exactly what Morrison gives us in Batman #673, but he does continue to pick moments out of Batman's forgotten past and tie it into present continuity, and the parts he picks out of Batman #156 seem to offer a key to how he can combine these strange and wonderful old stories into a world in which Batman has been awfully grumpy and "realistic" for decades.

First, though, I want to discuss what makes Batman #156 a Morrison-esque story on its own, even before Morrison cherry-picks from it for his own purposes. Click on that page on the left here. Check out those top two panels: "Eyes watching me..." "I know you're out there! Why don't you show yourselves? Why are you watching me?" That reads like it came straight out of Morrison's Animal Man run, and the hovering, watchful "eye" of the sun recalls the Decreator from Morrison's Doom Patrol. Then, the final panel, with a Batman-in-a-crucifiction-pose lying on the floor, hooked up to electrodes as scientists peer through the observation window? It's pure Morrison. It's like a parody of Morrison, more accurately. Except it was written when Morrison was still wearing diapers--written in all likelihood by Bill Finger (although credited to Bob Kane).

But clearly the story resonated with Morrison when he read it years later. He must have recognized the kinship.

Batman #156 moves from a bizarre space tragedy to a goofy costumed-crime story, using the reveal about the SPACE MEDICINE as a transition. The space medicine bit seems like a throwaway, a cheap way to explain the cover gimmick, but by the end of the story, writer Finger and artist Sheldon Moldoff tie the sensory deprivation after-effects into the story. The tale becomes ABOUT the way the sensory deprivation has deranged Batman's mind--how his ability to differentiate between reality and fantasy has become compromised, and THAT aspect of the issue is what Morrison borrows most heavily in his own retelling 45 years later.

Even Tony Daniel's cover to Batman #673 seems to recall the "Robin Dies at Dawn" cover. The effect is different, with the contemporary cover's darker hues and bloody context, but in both images the Batman figure occupies the same space and expresses a powerful grief. It's important to note that a few isolated tears drip down from Batman's cowl in the 1963 issue, while the hyper-tormented Batman of 2008 shrieks with pain (or perhaps its anger). The object of the suffering is different in both images too, though. 45 years ago, Robin caused his suffering, but now it's his parents death which brings out his emotion. I've commented about this in earlier essays about Batman, but essentially, EVERY Batman story is about his origin. The death of his parents is his story, even if not a single panel or bit of dialogue refers to the event. His origin is inescapable, more so than any other comic book character.

As this page from Batman #673 shows, Morrison literally recasts the events of Batman #156 as part of a larger pattern of hallucinations caused by Batman's heart attack at the end of the previous issues (and, perhaps, the sensory deprivation/cleansing which occurred off-panel in 52). Morrison pulls some of the exact dialogue from Batman #156 and places it on this page. It's important to note here that in Batman #156, one of the after-effects of the sensory deprivation is that Batman's hallucinations begin to infect the "real world," clouding his judgment as he attempts to patrol Gotham City. Morrison has constantly explored the relationship between illusion and reality in his comic book work, and he's often expanded that discussion to include the relationship between the different layers of comic book reality and our reality. As I mentioned at the top of this post, I'm not interested in predicting where a story is headed, but there may be more than a hint of metafiction in Morrison's Batman before all is said and done.

Ultimately, Batman #673, like all of Morrison's run so far, has been about re-engaging Batman with his forsaken past. The silly stuff that hasn't blended with the post-Neal Adams vision of the character has found its way into Morrison's interpretation of Batman, and whether the Black Casebook ends up as a journal of Batman's fever dreams or a true document of supernatural phenomenon, it doesn't really matter. Batman was affected by his voyages into the strange alien landscapes of the Silver Age, and in Morrison's cosmology, dreams and reality are different sides of the same Moebius strip.


Matt Jacobson said...

Morrison is using a lot of areas of continuity I'm not at all familiar with (particularly so in this case), so these articles have been hugely beneficial to me actually understanding the current storyline. Although, I have to wonder: if Morrison is making some kind of point about the weird juxtaposition of all the fantastic, goofy elements of silver age Batman versus the characters' grim origins and image, wouldn't it be a better made point if he had used a less obscure story? Or does silver age Batman not really have a "defining" moment?

Timothy Callahan said...

"Robin Dies at Dawn" is one of the defining moments of the Silver Age, and it's not as obscure as you might think. The entire story's reprinted in "The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told."

Then again, the very nature of Batman's recent (i.e. post-Adams, maybe, and definitely post-Miller) history is such that ANY reference to Silver Age weirdness will be seen as obscure.

Chad Nevett said...

Now I'm wondering how many references to past comics I missed in my look at Morrison's first year on the book. My knowledge of DC history before Crisis on Infinite Earths is practically non-existent.

Marc Caputo said...

All in all, this is one run I'm stockpiling until it's over. Up until now, the only Morrison I've ever read month to month is All-Star Superman; everything else has been in trades.

I can't help but wondering - who is he writing this run for? It can't be Batman fans and as we head into the release of "The Dark Knight", you know we're going to get some noobs in off the street (especially with FCBD right about the same time.) Is this for Morrison fans? I'm sure in part it is, although this really deviates from his usual rhythm on an extended run (which is fine.)

At this point, it's the scholars who are keeping this alive. Not being the biggest Batman fan, I wonder how the fan on the street (i.e., non-Morrison fan) is taking this. That opinion counts for a lot and I'm real curious since I don't know any who fit the profile.

Greg said...

I remember reading "Robin Dies at Dawn" in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told back in 1989, and it was one of the few Silver Age stories I liked. Of course, I didn't recall that Morrison used some of the same dialogue. That's quite cool. I continue to think that this will read far better all at once, because some of the individual issues are so weird.

I knew someone smarter than I am would be able to break this down better than I could! I'm sorry for forcing you into it!

Timothy Callahan said...

Between "Robin Dies at Dawn" and the Denny O'Neil prose story, two major keys to Morrison's Batman run come straight out of that Greatest Batman Stories collection. It's turned out to be a good reference book for these recent stories.

Thanks for sending people my way!

David Uzumeri said...

Awesome article, Tim. Don't forget the Bill Finger/Joe Chill story that also influenced Batman #673.

#674 this week cemented a lot of your ideas and introduced a bunch of cool new ones. However, as you say, it's difficult to analyze this until it's all over, which probably won't be until after this summer's Batman R.I.P.

I've been doing some articles at my site,, regarding Morrison's themes in all his works and how they're fitting into what he's doing now in Batman and the leadup to Final Crisis. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Either way, great stuff! Always good to see someone willing to dig deeper.

Anonymous said...

Grant Morrison pays tribute to one of the two major inspirations for Batman in this issue, when he has him give forth with a chilling laugh that terrifies Joe Chill and his thugs. Bob Kane said that one of the major influences for Batman was the Shadow with his mysterious dark persona and weird laugh.
The other influence was Zorro.