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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Grant Morrison's Batman vs Canon Batman

Editor's note: this is guest article by returning writer Alex Friedman. Although slightly more editorializing than our usual material, I liked Alex's piece because it brought to the surface difficult questions: when does a writer who is merely accepting a passed torch have the right to change a character? And even then, how much does a writer have the right to change? What makes this writer's work "canon"? I look forward to more of Alex's work, especially if he can answer the questions set in motion from his piece here.

Grant Morrison is a writer for DC comics who has become prominent in pop culture the last 5 or 6 years writing Batman. He is featured in a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine giving commentary on 'the death of comics'. I read it this morning and spat out my frosted flakes in rage. Then I poured myself another bowl of frosted flakes, because he's not ruining my cereal like he did the comic industry. This skinny, bald-headed punk single-handedly sent comics into a recession. Let's talk about Batman.

People who don't read comics like Batman, which is unusual for a superhero. You'll find non-comic readers who like Superman or Spiderman and occasionally ones who like the hero teams like the X-Men or the Avengers, but Green Arrow? Or Captain Marvel? Go ask your sister if she likes Captain Marvel.

But Batman. Now there's a character with fan appeal. There are die-hard Batman fans who have never picked up a comic. Bob Kane aside, this is mostly due to the work of Paul Dini and Chistopher Nolan, and to a lesser extent to Tim Burton, Adam West, and Rocksteady Games. These artists and actors have created an epic mythos and deep layers of atmosphere and tone that make Batman the complex, enjoyable character he is. But this is the Batman outside of the comics. The comic Batman and the media interpretations of Batman feed off of each other. Everyone has a favorite interpretation of the Dark Knight.

And Grant Morrison is wrong.

There is what I consider to be a 'canon' era of Batman, a golden age. Every recent critically applauded interpretation of Batman is based off of it, and the books and magazines it encompasses stand toe to toe in literary value with many of the great graphic novels, crime fictions, and science fictions out there. The 'canon' era starts with 1987's Batman: Year One and ends around 2008 with Paul Dini's departure from Detective Comics. Don't get me wrong — there are some awful Batman stories that came out during this time and I wouldn't suggest that the majority of what came out during this period was excellent. But during this period, Batman developed into a highly compelling character and central plot/setting device. The story lines grew more complex, the characters became well-motivated and rounded, and there came to be a timeline that told the greatest superhero epic of the century. (Below is the recommended reading list.)

And then Grant Morrison.

In 2008, Grant Morrison, who had previously had his name on books that better writers mostly wrote, was given a chance to do a run on the comic Batman. The Batman story lines had obviously been boiling to a turning point. Several had occurred over the past 20 years, and most of them had been inspired and fantastic. At this point, it was becoming obvious that Bruce Wayne was getting older, more focused, and dipping further off the deep end. A major plot line for the series as of War Games was that Batman was becoming too obsessed with control, pushing his will upon the law and his allies in an attempt to crush the increasingly violent gang-lords and supervillains of Gotham City. So maybe this would be a story about Batman coming to grips with his limits? Or his mortality? Or something?

No. First Batman hangs out with a new super-team of idiots who are 'throwbacks to Americana' themed. I can't remember their names. There's an Indian, I think. Then Ra's al Ghul comes back! And Batman finds some evil armor. So he puts it away. And then it turns out Batman has a twelve-year-old son.

Wait, what?

Yeah, Damien, who totally isn't evil, is the son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul. They had conceived in a comic that no one liked called Batman and Son. It was a throwback comic from the 80s that paid tribute to James Bond films. Batman kills people, sleeps with the bad chick, makes witty quips. No one remembered it because it was of questionable quality. This use of revamped discarded characters was to become a theme with Morrison.

After introducing Damien (who is an annoying child character whom the reader is led to believe might be evil), Grant Morrison introduced an evil society called "The Black Glove." They had the staying power of a kitten in a gale force blast. No one remembers any of them. One of them might have worn a kettle helmet. They made Batman go crazy but not in any interesting way. He started wearing purple and hanging out with Bat-Mite, the most annoying character who has ever existed, anywhere, ever.

Bat-Mite originated in the 60s. Bat-Mite was derivative of the Hanna-Barbera character Gazoo. Gazoo, introduced to The Flintstones a few years prior, was a tiny floating Martian who bothered people. No one really liked him. So in order to capitalize on the shit no one likes market, Batman writers added a tiny floating elf in a bat-suit. Bat-Mite was obnoxious. He had catchphrases. He was outdated upon inception and thankfully forgotten. In 2008, Grant Morrison brought him back. Grant Morrison reintroduced Bat-Mite (Gazoo!) into a book about a man trying to outwit and outfight the criminal element of a city bent on destroying itself.

Then Grant Morrison wrote a filler story about a psychic Jabba the Hutt draining Batman's memories. Then Grant Morrison had Batman get killed in the "Blackest Night" story arc in Green Lantern.

We are talking about the same Batman here.

At the height of Batman's popularity (due to Chris Nolan and Rocksteady Games and Paul Dini), Grant Morrison killed him off in a Green Lantern book after dragging the character through the mud for a year and a half.

So let's think hypothetically —

At the peak of Batman's popularity after The Dark Knight, let's say you go and decide to read a Batman comic book. You expect the tone and grim realism that you saw in the movie, that anger and that sense of loss. Instead, you open a book where Batman is wearing purple and listening to a tiny Bat-fairy who says stupid things. You put the book down. You never buy one again. I mean, why would you? I loved the comics and even I stopped reading.

So when Grant Morrison says comics are dying, understand that this is the writer who made the most popular comic book character in America unreadably stupid. So he should know.

The recommended reading for the canon I described is as follows.

-Batman: Year One
-Batman: The Killing Joke
-Batman: A Death in the Family
-Batman: Knightfall
-Batman: No Man's Land
-Gotham Central
-Batman: Death and the Maidens
-Batman: Hush
-Nightwing: Volumes 1-6ish
-Batman: War Games
-Batman: City of Crime
-Batman: Under the Hood
-Batman: Face the Face
-Batman: Detective
-Batman: Death and the City
-Arkham Asylum: Living Hell


  1. an excellent analysis! As an older comic ( graphic novel these days)reader who had the 1st editions of Spiderman, Iron man, etc. and would be well to do if still having them, I remembered and still get a facial tic at the mere thought of Bat Mite. if you take the time to read the titles Alex suggests you will see a quality and depth of character and story line that has now sadly been lost.

  2. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, 1989 by Grant Morrison... critically acclaimed and referenced by both Nolan and Rocksteady games.

  3. Batman didn't die in Blackest Night, he died in Final Crisis. Not being a fan of Morrison, you might have noticed that Blackest Night was actually written by Geoff Johns. And while I agree with you that some points of Morrison's Batman run have strayed into ridiculousness, we don't have to live in a world where all comic books are gritty, dark, and realistic. Besides, all the "Club of Heroes" stuff comes back in Batman, Inc. and everything Morrison has done previously begins to pay off when he starts to tie everything together.