Today, July 31st, 2013, was a big day for me.
As any of you who have even cursorily perused this blog have likely surmised, I am a massive fan of Batman. The character and iconography both hold very deep resonance for me, for reasons I’m not entirely sure I can begin to fully explain. It’s long been a part of my life, and one I have never regretted sinking time and money into. And today, the longest single Batman arc that I’ve experienced, the one that has contained my single favorite character and a large multiple of other favorites, came to its conclusion. As I held Batman, Incorporated #13 in my hands, preparing to read Grant Morrison’s final issue as the scribe of the Dark Knight, there was no sadness, no feel of the end of an era as there was when I read Geoff Johns’ final issue of Green Lantern. Instead, there was only the desire to see this story through to its end, to see Grant’s final impression on this 74-year-old character, and to see who next will leave their mark.
Having now read it, I can safely say that this entire seven-year story, beginning with Batman #655 in July 2006, is the best comic book story arc I’ve read. It’s filled with Grant Morrison’s trademarks: high concepts, heavy thematic ideas, obscure characters from the character’s long history being brought to the forefront, and at times incomprehensible plotting. It’s ambitious storytelling that is not possible in any other medium, and it’s a wonder to behold. But let’s stop with the blind praise and dig into why: Grant Morrison, more than any other Batman scribe – even the inimitable Scott Snyder and Frank Miller – understands not only the mind and nature of Batman, but the very nature of comic book storytelling. Grant Morrison understands superheroes, but also why we like superheroes, and his seven year run on Batman is an all out celebration of that.
I’m not going to spoil too much about the end to this arc, because that’s not really the point, but nevertheless there will be spoilers. We’ve come a long way from Batman and Son, and it’s quite clear. Here, at the eleventh hour, the game is no longer about something as trivial as Man-Bat serum or custody of a test-tube grown super son. Instead, we’re at the center of an all out war between Batman and Talia al Ghul – the Dark Knight versus the Devil’s Daughter. Every single piece of the seven year story that has been told has built up to this final conflict, with Talia’s significant resources coming to fully bear down on Gotham City and the world at large. She already rules the world, she boasts, but she wants to make it official. Indeed, her war is not with Gotham City, but with Batman’s very M.O. She ridicules the fact that Batman chooses to “match wits with grotesque mental patients”, comparing him to a child “play[ing] in the mud.” She blasts the “cartoonish” nature of their final duel to the death, but acknowledges that she has done all of it for him, knowing that he likes it this way. There’s a sort of dark twist to it all, because underneath her venomous (literally) tongue, there’s a large amount of affection for Bruce. Talia is madly ambitious in a way that Morrison himself is, but she willingly plays along with Bruce’s penchant for costumes (dressing herself in a costume similar to classic Batwoman, complete with Doctor Hurt’s mask and cape from Batman R.I.P., one of the early pieces of the seven-year arc) and cartoonish drama because she still loves him, if she is frustrated with his refusal to seize the world with her.
And all of this, the high drama of it all, works on two distinct levels. This is a clear end to the conflict between Batman and Talia that has been building, but this is also unmistakably Grant Morrison’s final loving stab at the superhero genre. Morrison has always been a man of high concept and ambition – look at his sprawling DC epic Final Crisis and his upcoming Multiversity – and yet he works in the superhero genre. He does all of this despite the fact that his characters dress in capes and fly around fighting brightly colored madmen with absurd schemes and ideas themselves. Morrison is Talia. He loves Batman, he loves Bruce, but he is frustrated with the very nature of superhero comics. But hey, love can be frustrating. Perhaps there is a bitter – if amusing – irony to the fact that Talia is killed, not by Batman, but by Kathy Kane, a character from Batman’s past that fell through the cracks of Morrison’s dense plotting and mythology early on in the first volume of Batman, Incorporated and showed up ostensibly out of nowhere. Morrison’s stand in being killed by a character representing what is often cited as his worst quality? Come on, that’s got to be intentional.
There’s certainly that knowing, self-aware quality to this book. For the final stages of his arc, Morrison has been dropping hints and teases referring to an Ouroboros device that Talia intended to use to destroy a large part of the world. The Ouroboros symbol has been recurring for quite a while in relation to that, and here, though the device is stopped by Wayne Industries, the reasoning for that becomes fully apparent. Morrison’s arc ends as it starts: an al Ghul, seeking vengeance for Batman’s slight, births a son of Batman that will be his undoing. The arc swallows its tail. But this, too, is also a part of superhero comics itself. Morrison has Gordon deliver the closing narration about Batman: “Batman always comes back, bigger and better, shiny and new. Batman never dies. It never ends. It probably never will.” But these words are not exclusive to Batman; these words apply to every superhero to ever don a mask or cape. Superheroes don’t die. They persist, in this state of curious inertia where they never grow as characters, but are simply explored with previously defined boundaries. They may die, they may retire for a while. But they always come back. We can always count on Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Nightwing, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Black Canary, Zatanna, The Question, Orion, Mister Miracle, and all of the other characters that Morrison has worked on – and even those he hasn’t – to be around. That’s why we grow so attached to them. Even when they die – as Damian Wayne, my favorite character did, earlier this year in Morrison’s story – they aren’t gone. They’ll be back – as Damian Wayne will, beginning with his own series this October – and we’ll be ready to welcome them when they do. Because with superheroes, it never ends. We can grow attached to them because they won’t leave us for good. We’ll hurt when they die or when they retire, but we know in our hearts that this is a superhero comic. They’ll be back.
They always will be. Grant Morrison understands that, and that has been one of the defining traits of his Batman run. Bruce Wayne died for Earth. He killed a god, and paid for it with his life. But he came back. He always does.