How Batman Got His Groove Back

by
Batman: Club of Heroes
By Grant Morrison & J.H. Williams III
DC Comics – Batman #667-669 @ $2.99

WHEN GRANT MORRISON WAS FIRST ANNOUNCED as the new writer of Batman, he said that his intention was to return to the “hairy-chested love god” version of the character from the 1970s. Speculation at the time was that Morrison intended to write his Batman as an antidote to his increasingly obsessive and paranoid portrayal during the Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis years.

To some extent, Morrison has returned to the flavor of that previous era of Batman, with more globe-trotting, more time with Bruce Wayne on dates, etc., but Batman is not noticeably more lighthearted. In fact, in the first issue, Alfred tells him, “That growl in your voice–– the one you used to have to practice before you went out as Batman. You’re doing it all the time, sir.” Morrison is too subtle to abruptly turn Batman into a cheerier character; beneath the surface he’s working on actually rebuilding Batman from the ground up.

Batman #655 page 5

The process begins in the first scene of Batman #655, Morrison’s first issue. In this scene, the Joker is apparently on the verge of killing Batman when Batman shoots him point blank in the face. Only, it turns out not to be the real Batman. In a splash page, the genuine Batman appears behind the impostor just as he fires. The fake, who turns out to be an ex-cop, is mostly obscured by the flash from his gun and the body of the Joker, with the leaping Batman much more prominent on the page. The whole thing is a metaphorical rebirth; the Joker will get similar treatment in Batman #663. A few months later, in an issue of 52 (meaning it actually takes place earlier, during the one-year gap) focusing on Batman, Morrison includes a scene in which the “Ten-Eyed Brothers” slice out Batman’s “demons.”

The second storyline introduces the Black Casebook, Morrison’s method of reintroducing Batman’s stranger Pre-Crisis adventures. Alfred dismisses its contents as proof that Batman and Robin “were often the victims of one too many exposures to Scarecrow gas and Joker toxin,” a clever way of keeping them canonical but questionable. One of the entries in the Black Casebook is a night in which Batman met three versions of himself, which come to be called the Three Ghosts.

Here, Morrison’s meta-arc starts to becomes clear, as the first two Ghosts are described as “a killer Batman with a gun,” mapping onto the cop dressed as Batman in the first storyline, and “a bestial Batman on strength-enhancing drugs,” the villain of this arc, another cop who looks like a cross between Batman and Bane. The first is reminiscent of the original Bob Kane/Bill Finger Batman, who was quickly ret-conned away, while the second calls to mind the self-destructive, verging on subhuman, Batman of Denny O’Neil’s 1991 story, “Venom.”

The third Ghost “sold his soul to the devil and destroyed Gotham,” a worst-case scenario of where Batman’s obsession could lead. It is also, in Batman #666––set in the future––an Anti-Christ Batman. He’s hunted by the new Batman, Damian Wayne, whom Morrison introduced as a child in his first arc. To complicate matters, Damian refers to having himself made a deal with the devil at the crossroads for Gotham’s safety. Perhaps he is somehow actually the Third Ghost. In typical Morrison fashion, he leaves all of these questions unanswered for later, returning to the present for the next storyline and allowing this knowledge of the future to hang over the proceedings.

WHICH BRINGS US, in round-about fashion, to “The Club of Heroes.”

The first thing you notice in these issues is the art by J.H. Williams III. The earlier issues featured uninspired and occasionally cringe-inducing illustration from Andy Kubert, with the exception of an interesting but failed digital art experiment in #663 by John Van Fleet, so it’s a welcome change. Williams is probably the most inventive artist currently working in commercial superhero comics. He puts incredible care into designing a page as a whole and creates a wonderful sense of flow not just from panel to panel, but also from page to page.

Batman #667 page 1

Williams’ skill is on display from the first page. Batman #667 begins with a small panel introducing the black glove of The Black Glove, the villain of the piece. This image will recur again and again as a compositional element throughout the three issues. Each panel on this first page is inset in the following panel, creating a feeling of zooming in and out simultaneously. We pull back from the scene to transition into the story, even as the panels actually close in on a figure hanging from the ceiling. Completing the scene transition, the black background behind the panels dissolves at the bottom of the page, becoming a swarm of bats, taking us into… a two-page spread, the panels arranged around the title, “The Island of Mister Mayhew.” The action of the page concerns Batman and Robin discussing Mayhew as they fly to the titular island.

As they land, on the next page, the free-floating panels start to lock into place and the bottom-right half of the page consists of three panels positioned as part of a six-grid. The six-grid continues for the next seven pages, as Batman and Robin approach Mayhew’s home and are greeted by the Knight and Squire, while inside, the rest of the Club of Heroes bicker. Upon Batman’s entry, they fall silent, and Williams illustrates the effect of his presence by giving him a splash page. At the same time, Williams brilliantly retains the six grid––each miniature panel featuring a close-up of a Club member reacting to Batman’s entrance––shrinking it and containing it within the negative space of Batman’s cape. This underlines the relative pettiness of the other members of the Club of Heroes, the inferiority of their motives and methods to Batman’s, and the reverence they hold for him as the inspiration for most of them.

667pg4_sm.jpg 667pg12_sm.jpg
Batman #667 page 4 Batman #667 page 12

The rest of the issue and the following two display the same level of artistry in their page designs. As if that weren’t enough artistic complexity, Williams also mimics the styles of different artists to illustrate the different characters, but blends them subtly, so that the device isn’t distracting (Dave Stewart’s colors are also integral to selling the effect).

Detective Comics #215

Coming up with a story to equal Williams’ art is a tough task, but Morrison puts in a great effort. He reaches back to 1955 to reintroduce the Batmen of All Nations, later known as the International Club of Heroes, who originally appeared in Detective Comics #215. By now the theme of alternate Batmen should be familiar, and Morrison continues to use it to define Batman as a character against what he could become, all the things that could go wrong with the Batman concept.

Through the conceit of a mystery killer who is taking down the Club of Heroes one by one, the flaws of each hero are revealed. One cares too much about fame, another has let himself go physically, a hero and sidekick team can barely talk to one another, and one resents Batman for overshadowing him. As the investigation goes on, the answer to the killer’s identity may have to do with what originally broke up the Club of Heroes years before, after Batman stopped attending. John Mayhew, the eccentric billionaire who gathered the Club of Heroes is another sort of dark reflection of Batman, or more specifically of Bruce Wayne. He’s used his wealth to try everything and, becoming bored, may have assembled a Club of Villains for his own amusement.

The story is the kind of fun mix of modern and retro that Morrison excels at. Each of the heroes has a unique voice and their interactions are entertaining. The plot has several interesting turns and, while I didn’t guess the identity of the killer, like a good mystery it all makes sense in retrospect. Some great details are thrown in, like the introduction of El Sombrero, “a lunatic who designs and creates fantastic, artistic death traps. For crooks who don’t have the imagination to make their own.” Batman’s progression toward the less uptight version Morrison described in interviews is also clearly on track. Though he later claims to have had another motive in coming, the fact that Batman has deigned to attend a gathering of the Club of Heroes, which originally broke up in part due to his dropping out, shows that he has lightened up a bit.

All in all, with the future story from Batman #666 and these three issues, Morrison finally seems to be truly hitting his stride on the series. The only real problems with the story come toward the end, which is a bit too chaotic. I had to look back a couple times to figure out exactly what was happening, especially as a bomb that starts counting down to the destruction of the island is not properly introduced. Also, while “Club of Heroes” works as a part of the book’s ongoing story arc, it is ultimately unsatisfying as a self-contained story, since the identity of the Black Glove remains a mystery at the end. Still, it’s compelling enough stuff that I’ll be sticking around for the Black Glove’s eventual return and the revelation off his or her identity. If it’s anything like his New X-Men run, Morrison’s Batman will get better and better the more the seemingly unrelated plot threads come together.

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