*I’d like to dedicate today’s post to the kind, hard-working fellow who arrived very quickly to liberate my keys from the vehicle I’d locked them into this afternoon. My patent inability to manage even the most basic of my daily mental requirements made me miss out on stuff this afternoon (sorry Chris!), but it wasn’t as painful as it could have been thanks to fast action on the part of more capable hands. Also, I’m suddenly glad every gas station in the country seems to have an ATM.

Batman #655


Easily the best bit in this debut issue for the anticipated creative team of writer Grant Morrison and artist Andy Kubert involves a spin on one of those old standbys, the Joker’s famous gas. Sure, enough of it’ll have you giggling yourself all the way off to your eternal award, but it seems even once you’ve gotten yourself pumped full of a cure, you’ve still got to come down. So Commissioner Gordon winds up sitting in a hospital bed after a nasty attack, finding himself cruelly moved to laugh at the most inappropriate things, like images in the newspaper of poor folks getting their heads cut off. It’s involuntarily, yet it also presses Gordon a little closer to his inner Joker than h’d probably like - the clown prince is a consummate showman, after all, spewing out ultra-mannered supervillain dialogue while playing his tricks at the top of this story, and don’t we all see just a bit of appeal in throwing all morals to the winds of madness? Batman doesn’t even need any gas to crack exactly the same joke, and I wonder if Morrison isn't nodding toward that infamous finale to Batman: The Killing Joke; Gordon is again pushed to the brink, but some of us don’t need as much to get near that special place.

That’s the closest thing to a ‘mad idea’ present in this issue, though. I have a feeling that those readers who tend to feel that Morrison makes himself a bit too much of the focus of his superhero books - sacrificing the funnybook fundamentals in favor of a distracting display of self-attentive flourish - will find this to be the start of a Morrison run to maybe curl up to. Put simply, it’s the most subdued, straightforward superhero book Morrison has scripted by himself in years, even beating out the early issues of Guardian in (relatively) unadorned antics-in-spandex. This isn’t to say that there’s none of Morrison’s voice, as such a thing is perhaps too resounding to ever dim totally from earshot, but the wild, idiosyncratic drive that marked even as tradition-steeped a capes ‘n tights epic as the debut edition of All Star Superman is absent. We get Batman, Bat-Action, a little logical character work, a setup for a new threat, and that’s a wrap.

But isn’t it always the ‘new’ with Morrison? His fingerprints are still all over the first seven pages, so steeped his career-spanning theme of transformation: the very worst joke of all is played on Batman, as a Gotham cop posing as the Dark Knight does what Our Hero could never do, just pulling out a gun and shooting the Joker in the goddamn head already. And that’s the last of the old baddies in town, the archfoe’s body literally tossed in the garbage to mark the occasion; oh sure, we’re assured the Joker’s still breathing, just so we’re not all stunned when Magneto rises once again, but at least the thought’s in place for the writer’s run (real change might have to be left to a selection of Soldiers, as we’ve learned).

It’s a good little sequence, though it could have been better with a more distinctive artist at the helm; Kubert is decent enough at whipping up dramatic panels of faces leaning out at the reader, and his character construction is suitably-if-unspectacularly muscular, but his staging is sometimes surprisingly clumsy - that full-page splash of the Joker getting shot needs to be the most punchy moment in an opening sequence full of punches, but it’s staged in such a way that it’s genuinely difficult to make out what’s even going on without a few seconds of study, which pretty much sabotages the all-important flow of the action into its exclamation point (on my first read, it seemed like the Joker was being blasted by some out-of-panel sniper, or maybe an Akira-type orbital laser, with Batman inexplicably floating upward before him entirely healed). There’s a little stiffness in poses (Robin descending the pole), and an absence of the subtle details that distinguish the good visuals from the great - it’s telling that later on in the issue Morrison seems to be trying to set up a Batman/Bruce differing physical postures deal, in the manner of Superman/Clark in All Star Superman, but it never really lands except through Morrison’s dialogue. Kubert’s character art just can’t convey the subtleties as well.

Yet that differentiation is what Morrison tethers much of the rest of the issue to. Alfred gently informs Batman that he’s neglecting his Bruce Wayne persona, and so Batman resolves to learn again to act like a playboy, as uncomfortable as he’s become with such affectations. Truly this man as of now sees his true face as the mask, and he’s blessed in that additional dangers are lurking around the fringes, all ready to force the donning of the cape and cowl once again. Meat-and-potatoes Bat-Themes, nothing that hasn’t been gone over plenty before, though it’s enlivened a little by Morrison’s way with Alfred’s character, the occasional funny line, and the easy snapping of it all into place with the bigger Morrison picture. But I readily admit that some might find said picture big enough to blot out the scenery, so let me say there’s also evil in London, and a forgotten (or never known?) face from the past. Batman is very intense!

Batman is very Batman, as evident as Morrison’s constant concerns are. I found the book largely to be interesting in what it suggests for later by sketching out its premise - will Our Hero find he can never really blast away those old shadows? Will transformation prove to be as illusory for major superhero icons in established continuity as Morrison himself has been inferring through projects ranging from Seaguy to Seven Soldiers (the real change always on the fringes)? We’ll see. Could have used some spice, but then it’s only the first issue anyway, and Morrison has a way of ramping up the interest later on.