Pulp Fictions: Grant Morrison's Batman
DC Comics Hardcover
"Come on, hit me," taunts the Joker as the Batcycle bears down on him during the brain-rattling climax to The Dark Knight. Can do—and can identify. Critical opinion on the movie has been divided between those who perceive this half-billion-dollar baby as A Good Thing and those who find it Too Much of a Good Thing. Heath Ledger's Joker is the incandescent star of the film in either case, the "agent of chaos" around whose amoral core Christian Bales's slatelike persona flaps its heavy black wings.
But another, even more brilliant, agent of chaos has been steadily reshaping the DC Universe since the early '90s, when Grant Morrison wrote weird and wonderful Animal Man and Doom Patrol stories for Vertigo. In short, The Dark Knight's kinetic excesses are but a dim shadow of the heady thrills rippling through arc after arc of Morrison's stint as Batman's prime mover since issue #655 in 2006. Perhaps in honor of Batman's upcoming 70th birthday in May 2009, Morrison is systematically destroying Bob Kane's creation. (Morrison's second Batman book, The Black Glove, hits the streets today.)
Morrison's Batman is darker, deadlier, and more troubling than director/co-writer Christopher Nolan's. The Dark Knight may "complete" the Joker onscreen, but Morrison's moral calculus is more complex than Nolan's interlocking duality. In Morrison's world, everything from Bruce Wayne's martyred father to his already corrupted son are up in the air and in play. Multiply this Oedipal geometry by two or three Robins, divide by Alfred the Butler, factor in Bruce/Batman's latest love interest (former supermodel Jezebel Jet), and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory suddenly feels like walk in the park.
Currently four issues into a six-part arc titled "Batman R.I.P.," Batman has seemingly been driven insane by ten days in an isolation chamber, a 49-day "peak meditative experience," and/or the four minutes he spent dead during a heart attack. Batman, in his derangement, may (or may not) have reconstituted himself as the Batman of planet Zur-En-Arrh, a character introduced in 1958 and subsequently forgotten until Morrison's resurrection. No aspect of the Batman mythology is off-limits to Morrison, and the appearance of the impish Bat-Mite suggests that what's being depicted is mere delusion, though it's still too early to say.
Morrison isn't interested in complexity for its own sake: The stakes are much higher than that. As his intoxicated performance at the 2000 Disinfocom indicates, Morrison believes that writing comics is magic that can literally alter consensual reality. In Watchmen, Alan Moore surpassed every prior comics writer at imagining the "real lives" of superheroes. Morrison upends the genre in another way. Batman, lacking super powers, achieves his dark mastery by adhering to the magus Aleister Crowley's Nietzschean maxim: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.
"I didn't expect costumed psychopaths, regular contact with hallucinogenic compounds or seemingly alien interventions," reads one of Bruce Wayne's journals, and damn if those aren't the basic elements of Morrison's style. Batman isn't merely a comic; it's an autobiography. By mapping himself ever more closely onto the DC Universe in Batman (and, to a lesser degree, in All Star Superman, Final Crisis, and all the other books he tosses off like so many toenail clippings) Grant Morrison is doing what Creationists can only imagine: He's creating a universe in his own image.