Finally, I didn't have to risk my life for comics.

Batman #663

Oh shit. This wasn’t very good at all.

It’s the illustrated prose issue of Batman, in case you didn‘t know. And it’s not like I’m completely predisposed against the idea of releasing a comic that’s so obviously not actually a comic; you’re looking at a reader of all 300 issues of Cerebus here. I’ve liked some of writer Grant Morrison’s prose in the past -- the text bits of Flex Mentallo were some of the funniest parts -- and he’s working in a sort of gregariously overbaked style here, with chapter titles like The Unbearable Inevitability of Batman and the Joker. At certain points I got the feeling that Morrison was attempting to capture the flavor of a particularly purple text backup, the sort of thing you’d skim over after having finished the actual comics content in an old issue, only to find yourself transfixed with the oddness of the thing.

Unfortunately, that effect only works when the backup is backup, not when it’s the whole issue, and this particular issue winds up landing about fourteen pages over my personal limit of overextended metaphors and raised-eyebrow faux-pulp. I guess there’s only so much “It’s the kind of town that whispers ‘baby’ while it’s picking your pockets, that promises the world and delivers the gutter, or vice versa, and puts out your lights with a kiss, or a bullet, then forgets your name before dawn,” that I can reasonably process at one time from a Batman comic book, particularly in the context of a rather typical Joker story.

Oh sure, it works overtime to allude to Morrison’s own Arkham Asylum and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, and it’s right in line with Morrison’s usual theme of transformation/evolution, but by the final page it’s pretty clear that it’s just more Batman, more Joker, more Harley Quinn (“Her eyes roll, fractured semi-precious stones set like charms in a frightened little Halloween-cake face. She’s cute like a Chihuahua pup with rabies, or a baby swinging an open razor.”), another slugfest, another imprisoning, another run around themes that have been worked out a dozen times before. Have you heard that Batman and the Joker are interdependent? That, indeed, they may be flip sides of the same card?

Morrison’s big innovation here is the notion that the Joker is acutely self-aware of his many different characterizations over the years, and that his lack of any ‘core’ personality has dropped him into a pattern of necessary reinvention. It might have been more interesting if Morrison’s ‘new’ Joker had been characterized on any level beyond ‘he is really scary and dangerous now!’ But Morrison instead opts to focus on how the Joker’s new personality carries with it a desire to replace everything in the past, and when you care as little for human life as the Joker does… well, you can figure out the plot, right?

I’m tempted to say the story’s more about how superhero character revisions threaten to erase all that’s endearing about what they’ve accumulated so far, and the callousness of the Joker’s personal reinvention is what makes him really scary, but that’s probably extending a bit more credit to this soggy shock show than it earns. Mostly it’s just a badly-written, ultra-typical Batman comic in prose form, and while I suppose it can be argued that Morrison is using the form of a standard Batman/Joker confrontation to expose deeper truths about the characters, I will counter that Morrison’s entire run on the series thus far has been marked by instances of interesting themes being delivered in such a clipped, haphazard format as to make the reader wonder if he isn’t just supplying his outlines for the artist(s) to draw anymore. Just try contrasting something like this to the Superman/Luthor issue of All Star Superman, which found an endlessly more intuitive and fun means of contrasting its two characters.

Actually, this issue is a little like Arkham Asylum in that way. It’s not nearly as bad, mind you, as Arkham Asylum is quite possibly the single shittiest comic Morrison has ever written on his own, a veritable catalog of his worst storytelling tendencies splashed with all the dourness and intellectual pouting the post-Watchmen superhero landscape could offer. This issue is a little too self-conscious for that. But it does share its popular predecessor’s tendency to substitute simple declaration for substantive insight - we’re told over and over what depth these characters have, yet we’re never allowed to see them demonstrate these hidden fathoms in a manner apart from the string-pulling of Grant Morrison. Interestingly, the thoroughly disappointing illustrations of John Van Fleet probably help it out a little, weighing the story down with computer-augmented chintz while the abler style of a Dave McKean may have pushed it even further out into the ether. As it is, the book mercifully launches itself into outright kitsch by the final battle, Batman and the Joker’s big clash looking like screencaps from the world’s nerdiest Tekken 2 hack while Morrison roars "The lunatic is still grinning, biting and snapping at Batman’s face. His red-rimmed eyes are juicing, his florid lips dribbling and spitting a spray of liquid sparks that makes Batman’s skin sizzle and raises tiny blisters."

Man, February was a rough month for bodily fluids in superhero comics, eh?

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