Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Patchwork by design (Batman Incorporated)

Recently I got around to reading the first compilation of Grant Morrison's Batman Incorporated, a comic series that started like three or four years ago. It's pretty fantastic, just overflowing with little treats for someone like me who's already deeply in the bag for Morrison's comics as it is. Morrison does great character work, and that's impressive considering how many layers those characters are buried under:

1 - The stories are sprawling pulp adventures with fisticuffs, chases and explosions aplenty underpinning mysteries, conspiracies and general weirdness

2 - Specifically they're set in one of if not THE densest superhero universe in comics, where doing anything remotely noteworthy entails transcending seventy-five years of escalating world-building insanity

3 - And the core idea of this particular title is that Bruce Wayne has decided to underwrite the crimefighting efforts of other vigilantes around the world who more or less follow the Batman-template (non-powered humans who use intellect, gadgets and martial arts to fight for justice). So all of the characterization has to be distinct and cut through the clamor of 1 and 2 above while at the same time reinforcing that these are all variations on a theme

So that's,as I say, impressive.

One of the things I've started to notice about Morrison, especially his mainstream superhero work, is the way that he achieves point 2 above, or at least one of the strategies he employs. He simultaneously cuts through and works with the huge amount of historical baggage that the fictional DC Universe is saddled with by following one simple principle: he never stops to explain anything.

It's an incredibly liberating way to approach superheroes. Comics have a well-deserved bad rap for being one of the main offenders of indulging in reams of ham-handed exposition for every story. It's because of the horns of the essential dilemma: they don't want to alienate new readers, but they don't want to fail to appeal to the old readers, so they build on prior history to continue to pander to the continuity-obsessed and pile on the explanatory footnotes-as-dialogue so the newbies can keep up. It's ramshackle story construction at best.

Morrison just plows ahead with nary a backwards glance. I consider myself a smart guy and my knowledge base on comics goes pretty deep, and yet there are moments reading any Morrison comic where I feel a little lost. And partly that's because Morrison's knowledge of old obscurities goes even deeper than mine, and he draws on everything from single stories published before my time (like the late 50's/early 60's) to alternate versions that aren't really canon to begin with (although they become so through the alchemy of Morrison's writing) to brand new creations which are presented as fully integrated in the tapestry with their own implied histories (which only truly exist in Morrison's mind). Every one of those elements is handled the same way, with the same air of nonchalant expectation of recognition. And it doesn't diminish the story at all. Because, let's be honest here, the basic outlines of superhero comics are always the same, it's good guys versus bad guys morality plays. A reader, new or old, may or may not recognize a new character as part of a long-standing legacy, may or may not intuit the complexities of the characters relationships within the cast, but either those things aren't really intrinsic to the story at hand and therefore don't ultimately matter, or they are intrinsic and ultimately will come to light organically. Bottom line, glossing over or omitting completely the detailed backstory doesn't hurt, as long as you can tell the good guys from the bad guys, which is rarely all that hard.

In fact, if anything, the grand elision approach makes the story better. Or possibly it makes it seem better, via some minor trickery. It avoids the pitfalls of over-explanation for sure, so that's a win. It also creates certain illusions of depth which makes the material look as though it's elevated. Because as you read you have to engage with the text, hunting for clues that are resolutely not being spoon-fed to you. Sometimes the clues aren't there at all, which is why I call it a bit of a trick; anyone can seem profound by speaking in vague platitudes. I'd say in this regard as well Morrison uses the all-available-options technique. Sometimes he starts out with unidentified pieces on the board which earn their names and significance within the narrative, other times they never get explained at all, which means either it was an inside joke for owners of extremely arcane trivia or there was no explanation at all, merely an embellished piece of set dressing. But it's hard to know, turning page after page, so everything feels smartly sourced and overstuffed, and you feel like your brain is running to keep up with a mad genius. Still, even if it's all a long con, it falls into the same family as the great magic tricks, and I don't feel cheated by those. All I ask is to be entertained, and Morrison tends to come through on that score. Batman, Inc. is no exception.

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