"you think it all breaks down into symbolism and structures and hints and clues"

Batman #680

"no, batman, that's just wikipedia"

I like that little statement above; it's delivered by the Joker -- "extraordinarily... inevitable," in the words of another character -- as a takedown of the intent behind the mind games Batman went through to understand him, the procedures that have since, convolutedly, led to the Caped Crusader wearing garbage bags and talking in blue word balloons, and becoming a crazed badass unashamed to drop a Frank Miller line when the time's right. But even the seemingly crazed Batman of Zur-En-Arrh is still a plan, a failsafe crafted by the fully sane Bruce Wayne, and therefore unable to fully grasp the Joker's irrational state.

Oh sure, writer Grant Morrison gives his 'updated' Joker (a man totally capable of shrugging off past selves to live in the moment as a totally new person, which is kind of a red flag as to his mental stability right there) a real yen for duality. There's an obvious red-and-black motif going on, from the checkerboard pattern on the Arkham floor to the falling flower petals. Note that the Joker wears white gloves, perhaps in recognition of the storyline's key threat. Might as well toss in the red-and-black décor’s similarity to the white-and-black look of the Dark Side Club in issue #1 of Final Crisis, which Morrison (in his story annotations from the Director's Cut) found to be akin to the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks, although he didn't specify it to seem that way in his script. But can't you just hear the Joker laughing backwards?

Aw, but I wonder if the old clown isn't talking about bigger things too? There's a tendency to pick through these Grant Morrison comics -- especially these particular Batman comics -- to line up all the little references and allusions and such; symbols, structure, hints, clues, etc. Put it all together in some metafictional interface of some sort, and there it is, eh? I expect Morrison knows how his superhero works encourage this type of reading; after all, the ongoing plot of his entire tenure on this title has seen Batman trying to put away bits of his past, all while struggling against the absurd, incomprehensible totality of Bat-history. I mean, that's as perfect a forum for rampant trope-plucking and the-character-confronting-himself as All Star Superman, the light, optimistic, all-is-overcome opposite number to Morrison's Batman.

But Batman hasn't overcome much by the end of this issue, being next-to-last for the climactic R.I.P. storyline. Indeed, the Joker mocks Batman's attempts to understand his madness, and -- by implication -- his efforts to sort through the whole crazy world. In this way, Morrison has his classic villain laugh over the very underlying concept of his run as this series' writer: his attempt to accept all Bat-stories as happening to one man, in one history. And, just maybe, he's having a laugh at us outside the comic too, piecing together scraps of old comics and suggestive bits of language to uncover whatever it is we seek.

Sometimes odd things are simply odd things, and continuities just fail to align. For the Joker, it's better to work on the level of sheer literary flourish, unconcerned with the details; amusingly, Morrison has him still irate at being shot by a fake Batman, way back in issue #665 (the writer's first), and it's of no matter to him that the one and true Batman didn't pull the trigger. Just the notion of 'Batman' in any state shooting the Joker is too much for him, since it fucks up that fine-tuned dualty that's been going. It's like different aspects of Morrison as a writer are at war, the studious/schematic vs. the aesthetic/illogical. I don't think anyone's going to wind up as God in the end either.

All that said, this isn't quite as fun or smooth a read as earlier bits of R.I.P. There's still a few neat, I'm-glad-it's-silly images, like those men in suits and Roman garb swarming around limousines as seen up top. I liked the part with the evil military guy complaining about Batman's uncool new costume, and there's a gratifyingly blunt explanation for Bat-Mite's presence that fits right in with what Morrison's shooting for.

But it also seems that Morrison is aiming for a cacophonous sort of action-and-revelation peak with this chapter, and the art team doesn't seem quite there to handle it. Penciller Tony Daniel is prone to some confusing layouts here, including a double-page setup (story pp. 6-7) that guides the eye directly to the right when it's supposed to be moving down, or a Wayne Manor action bit (story pp. 12-13) that introduces a dangerous element (a red telephone), sets up some 'countdown' suspense via word balloons, but then doesn't return to the element as the countdown is foiled, leaving characters to converse while the threat is disposed of off-panel, leading to some awfully odd pacing.

And lord - I read it over and over, and I simply could not tell what even happened to poor Señor Sombrero, until I read that he seemed to get tangled up in a homage to Dario Argento's Suspiria - apparently he crashes through an overhead window into a room the other villains are sitting in, while the Joker is walking in from the next room, although since we haven't seen that next room, nor has an overhead window been set up, nor do we even see that Mr. Brimmed Hat has landed anywhere for another nine or so pages of story, everything seems to be taking place in entirely distinct locations, with no notion of spatial unity present whatsoever.

I'm only detailing this because visual clarity has been a consistent problem with this run -- even J.H. Williams III got a bit convoluted with the layouts by the end of his storyline -- enough so that some of the visceral impact that might compliment the mega-story's historical raid has probably been lost, which is a shame. Certainly a little more direct impact vibrating through this issue's big, new-old clash would have made the metaphorical stakes seem a little higher, although at least the final pages seem purposefully jangled, the comic leaving it all up in the air as to whether a little smile poison has really been activated in mid-air, or if even the last, mad contingency plan has fallen away so as to accommodate the big punchline:

It was all futile, for hero, writer, reader, everyone. Joke's on us.

"Now do you get it?"