Closing the Loop and Filling the Hole: The End of Grant Morrison’s Batman [Spoilers]
This week, Batman Incorporated #13, by Grant Morrison, Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn, wraps up Morrison's seven-year tenure on the character. It brings everything to a definitive close that leads to both the character's new era in the New 52 and to the core of the Batman myth itself. It closes not just one loop, but a number of loops, between the present and various points in the past -- the beginning of this volume, the beginning of Morrison's run and, indeed, to the very beginning of the character, way back in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. It's a heartfully written, beautifully drawn true creative collaboration between three of the best talents in comics, and can probably be best described as a frustrated and slightly resigned labor of love. I've been following this run since it started, and there's a solid argument to be made that this particular run, this particular story, has been the bedrock of my entire comics journalism career. So let's look back on the past seven years of headshots, time travel, evil gods, lapdancing pigs, father-son bonding, heartbreak, good art, bad art and, above all, mystery. Let's look, for the first time, as a whole, at Grant Morrison's run on Batman, and talk about the Hole in Things.
"I am the hole in things, Bruce, the enemy, The piece that can never fit, there since the beginning."
- Doctor Hurt, Batman #681
It was July 26, 2006 -- seven years and a few days ago -- when Batman #655, "Building a Better Batmobile," the first part of the "Batman and Son" arc, began what would eventually become writer Grant Morrison's longest single tenure on a franchise, spread out across three successive ongoing series, a line-wide crossover, a universe-wide event, a miniseries and two one-shots. The run has gone on to feature artistic talent from artists as diverse as Andy Kubert (who kicked it off), J.H. Williams III (who provided the art for the whip-smart, airtight "Island of Mister Mayhew" three-parter), Tony S. Daniel, Frank Quitely and his onomatopoeia, Cameron Stewart, the sublime Frazer Irving, Yanick Paquette and, making his mainstream comics name while sticking the landing, newcomer Chris Burnham. The quality of the illustration ranges from exemplary (Quitely, Williams) to highly questionable (the hideous Ryan Benjamin fill-in issue, John Van Fleet illustrating the all-prose issue with Poser models through Instagram filters). It has introduced us to Professor Pyg, Doctor Hurt, Damian Wayne, the Flamingo, the Joker as super-MPD, and geriatric Nazi superscientist Doctor Dedalus. It has also RE-introduced us to Death Man, Carter Nichols, Bat-Mite, Kathy Kane and especially the fully-realized international Batmen, such as Knight Beryl Hutchinson and the Zorro-inspired Argentinian badass known as Gaucho. The sheer amount of ground covered by his megastory is staggering, from the dawn of civilization to the end of time, from Bruce's childhood to his death and past that to his rebirth, once as a god, again as a man -- taken as a whole, the seven-year epic is a frontrunner for the biggest Batman story of all time, not just in terms of length but in terms of scope and the sheer number of facets of the character exposed.
On a personal level, this run has meant a great, great deal to me. Not just because it's my favorite writer giving his absolute all on a definitive statement regarding my favorite character, not just because each issue was like a progressively revelatory addition to a big puzzle box that felt like the best toy I've ever gotten, and not just because it was, much of the time, badass as all hell. Grant Morrison's tenure on Batman, the character, is basically the entire reason I was able to start writing at ComicsAlliance in the first place. My annotations of the run are still the longest sustained piece of writing I've ever attempted, even though I tapped out near the end for reasons I'll get into later in this piece. In a very real way, this run made me a better writer and introduced me to like-minded souls who I'm lucky enough to now be able to call my friends. These 73 issues, plus the ten issues of Final Crisis, will probably always remain the cornerstone of my entire comic-reading career.
This week, it's all over. Batman Incorporated, volume two, number thirteen, written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Chris Burnham, colored by the excellent Nathan Fairbairn. It's the wrap-up to seven years of stories, the denouement to a multi-tiered, multi-layered definitive statement on one of pop culture's most enduring characters. That endurance is key not only to Batman's appeal but also to Morrison's take on the character -- all six issues of Return of Bruce Wayne posit that Batman is, above all else, the ultimate survivor, unable to die, unable to give up, a machine designed by society to process trauma and turn it into motivation. The transformation of pain and waste into safety and assurance. A neverending cycle re-purposing hate into love.
Morrison's run on the character is -- as evidenced by the Oroboro/Oroborous/snake-eating-its-own-tail/ring-structure symbolism that's permeated the last three years or so of the book -- cyclical in structure and in nature. The end of the run takes us not only back to the beginning of this particular volume (the first pages of this issue and #1 are both Gordon arresting Bruce), or to the very beginning of Morrison's run with Gordon falling victim to Joker Gas and talking to Batman, but also to the very beginning of the character himself -- Detective Comics #27, Batman's first appearance, starts with Bruce and Gordon shooting the breeze on panel one, and ends with the surprise that this Bruce Wayne socialite dude we've been reading about the entire issue actually is Batman, as he goes home and switches outfits. How does Morrison get back to the very basics of Batman's status quo after all of the changes he's made, though? How does he recycle the character after having him start his own international crimefighting organization and then mourning the death of his son? What terrifying agent of the Status Quo comes to reset Batman?
This is where things start to get really interesting, and the myriad possible interpretations come through.
First of all, let's consider the most pernicious, repeated motif in this entire run: holes. As Incorporated #13 out-and-out shows, Bruce's entire life is dedicated to filling a hole -- the Original Hole, the hole left in his heart with the death of his parents. That hole is a kind of Platonic form, made manifest in the existence of Doctor Simon Hurt, the pathological Satanic dark psychologist who was able to manipulate that Zur-En-Arrh/Zorro-In-Arkham-sized-hole to almost destroy both the Bat and the Man. Indeed, the only way Batman is able to overcome him is to become his backup personality, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh -- the Batman of the Hole, who lives in that gigantic, dark gap, rendering Hurt unable to manipulate it to psychologically attack him.
The hole in things reoccurs, again and again. It's the invisible gap in the middle of the Oroboro, the Joker's post-gunshot snarling third eye of sick wisdom, the gaps in Bruce's memory about the isolation experiment and Thögal. It's the gaping sword wound left in Damian's chest, the black hole at the center of the multiverse Darkseid fell into when he died. Batman is obsessed with filling that hole, and yes, the sexual connotations of that certainly aren't beyond me -- Morrison's previous work shows he's got a pretty dirty mind too, so I'm willing to go as far as to say that Bruce filling Talia's hole is what got him into this entire damned mess in the first place. I don't just mean that in a cups-and-wands way, either; Incorporated v2 #2 goes pretty far into showing that she, as well, has a Hole in Things, left by the absence of her mother and the frankly completely crazy childhood she had being the daddy's girl of some kind of ecoterrorist Fu Manchu stereotype. She looked to Batman to fill that hole in her life, and the result was Damian Wayne -- the byproduct of the union of two very damaged people, each looking to the other to fill the holes in their hearts, each too damaged in their own ways to perform that duty.
Damian was doomed from the start, because he didn't come from a place of love, he came from a place of longing. He had two parents who weren't even capable of truly loving each other, never mind him. Their breakup nearly destroyed the world. This sundering, in retrospect, is the true A-plot of Morrison's entire Batman run -- the Doctor Hurt/Black Glove plot, while initially seeming like the main story to Talia and Damian running in the background, has been relegated to being an inner doll in the narrative matryoshka that forms the run, with Morrison even going so far as to reveal in Inc v2 #2 that Talia had a mole inside the organization the whole time. (Which makes me wonder why she waited until the hotel kidnapping attempt to intervene on Bruce's behalf against the Glove in Batman #675, but hey.) In the end, Grant Morrison's run on Batman -- which started out so celebratory -- became oddly condemning, showing Batman as a boy who can't grow up, who can't compete in the adult world, who's confined to his sandbox and, in the end, defined by his limitations: Batman doesn't kill.
When Kathy Kane sashays into the Batcave to pop a cap in Talia (hey! Another hole in things!) so dramatically I kept expecting the Unreal Tournament announcer voice to celebrate the headshot, the message is clear: stick to your playground, Bruce. Gotham is yours. You know it, it knows you. Mad scientists, serial killers, drug traffickers, evil clowns: this is your world. You can't compete on a global stage, because you don't work there. With a gunshot, Bruce's ex-girlfriend -- a mature, accomplished, intelligent, driven, complete woman -- affixes him with the true Eye of the Gorgon and turns him to stone, exposing all of his limitations and chastising him for his hubris, leaving him alone in the dark in his parents' basement with his toys and pets.
After seven years about Batman's unrealized potential, it's an odd downer note to end things with a story about what he can't do, but it actually closes the loop right back to the first scene of Morrison's first issue: the first Ghost of Batman shooting Joker in the head, which he can do but Batman can't, because the limitation always has and always will be clear, unless you're an abstract cosmic entity of evil: Batman doesn't kill. This is a necessary symptom of the circular nature of Morrison's run and, indeed, the circular nature of the superheroic soap opera: Morrison has to take everything back to where he began.
"I looked into that hole in things over and over again until it hurt, Jim... and you know what I found in there? Nothing... and a space big enough to hold everything."
- Batman Incorporated v2 #13
So we end with a Batman finally willing to follow Doctor Hurt's subliminal suggestion: to put away his Batman costume and retire from crimefighting. All it takes to change his mind, of course, is another hole -- or duo of them: the fact that Talia and Damian's bodies have apparently been dug up and transported from the Wayne family plot, presumably to prepare for their resurrection in the reinvigorating, maddening witches' brew of the Lazarus Pit. In a way, the final scenes of this book are a torch-passing to Scott Snyder and the New 52: a reference to Zero Year, the new pre-gray hair Jim Gordon, and a Batman who works alone, fighting criminals in Gotham City and in an uneasy alliance with the Commissioner of Police.
The transition of Morrison's Batman from the old DC Universe to the new has been a slow and painful one, and one that likely greatly damaged Morrison's run as a whole. I have to wonder if this ending would have been as oddly defeatist if not for DC's decision to reset Batman's continuity, breaking the gigantic tapestry of history that had informed all of Morrison's run. I always thought of Batman Incorporated as a kind of double entendre -- yes, its Batman as a corporation, but it was also a kind of mission statement for Morrison's run, incorporating together the many different styles, interpretations and periods of Batman's history into the Unified Theory of the Batman. With the New 52, however, most of the logical premises on which the proof behind that Unified Theory was based disappeared, including, seemingly, the events of the entire first six-sevenths of the run! It's the main reason why my annotations disappeared, because I no longer had any idea of what history was referable, and what references existed dwindled in number with each issue as the New 52, so thinly defined at its inception, became clearer in focus. Bruce could no longer reference his trip through time, as Final Crisis never happened, so now he saw a vision of the future in a vague, unnamed "dark." Barbara Gordon and Cassandra Cain had to disappear, and the Outsiders had to stop being referred to by that name. I'm honestly shocked he was able to keep Kathy Kane in the story, although her survival -- and her new role as the DC Universe's Nick Fury -- was too integral to the overall plot, and too painstakingly foreshadowed and set up in the first volume of Batman Incorporated, to have her just never referenced again. In a way, this series doesn't read like the real ending to Grant Morrison's Batman run, but rather as a sort of distorted, New 52 echo of whatever he originally had in mind, like when they'd retell old Justice League stories in the late 1980s with Black Canary in place of Wonder Woman. I wonder how much richer this story would have been had Morrison and Burnham been able to truly incorporate Batman's history rather than handwave around it. I can't imagine that Barbara's sudden disappearance and Gordon suddenly losing like thirty years of age is going to read well in the eventual omnibus, but it's unavoidable at this point, and with this issue both of the ongoing plots allowed to continue through the New 52 switchover -- this and Geoff Johns's Green Lantern -- have concluded. Hence the Zero Year reference: this is truly the last gasp of the old DC Universe, and the complete handoff of Batman and his history into the new, out of the weird limbo-zone in which he's been residing for the past two years, in both continuities at once but not fully in either.
Of course, there's also the somewhat baffling epilogue, which is almost a dark mirror of the end of his All Star Superman run -- instead of the hopeful promise of that conclusion, where psychedelic utopian super-scientist Leo Quintum reveals that they're working on a Second Superman to replace the first, we see Ra's al Ghul -- one of many, many devil figures lurking within the mythology of this run -- opening the doors to his daughter's nursery, preparing to unleash an army of Heretics, of broken Damians, on both Bruce Wayne and the world. Morrison's done with the character; this is a story for Scott Snyder, or John Layman, or Peter J. Tomasi, or -- God forgive us all -- Gregg Hurwitz to handle. In a weird way, it's a break in the cycle of returning back to Batman's status quo -- or, perhaps, it takes us back to the very beginning of the run, with new children that Batman has yet to meet, just as he met Damian. It's the one sequence that doesn't really fit into any theories I have about the cyclical nature of the run -- and that's okay.
Because here we are, after seven full years of reading, analyzing, arguing, waiting, complaining, and communicating above all about this gigantic layered puzzle that we've been given. The puzzle can never be completed: there's a piece that doesn't fit, leaving a hole in things. It's the most complete it's ever going to get. And we, and Bruce, need to learn to live with that.