Friday, October 31, 2008

What’s going on in Batman?

Short answer: I have no freaking clue.

Long answer: DC, not content to completely blow their vaunted continuity out of the water with Death of the New Gods (and Countdown to Final Crisis), thereby angering their fans who drank the purple Flavorade and believed that DC was cleaning up their continuity and in fact making it relevant again (read all the books, kiddies—it matters), DC took a year-long teaser and has mangled continuity even further, then tied it to an incomprehensible mess of a story that confounds long-time readers and will drive away the new fans in droves, the new fans this gimmick was trying to pull in.

For a year, DC has promised "Batman R.I.P." a story that would forever change the way that readers looked at Batman. The title implies a death (or perhaps just a rest) for Bruce Wayne, and the consequences of his stepping away from the cowl were to last for at least a year, if not longer. Grant Morrison took over the reins of Batman about a year ago, working his magic to get the comic to the place where Batman could R.I.P. (included in the teaser interviews in the past year has been the possibility that "R.I.P." doesn't mean what it usually means for this storyline). Now I'll lay my cards out on the table right here—I accept that some people think Grant Morrison is brilliant. He did some amazing things with Doom Patrol, but they weren't the kinds of things that interested me, and struck me as being the result of too many psychedelic drugs. His time on Justice League was more interesting, but again, the stories were outré and dense. I don't mind working at reading books and comics, but the payoff for fighting through his writing was not very gratifying. I did not read Invisibles nor did I read We3 (but I have friends that swear by them, enough to make me at least interested in trying them out). I have seen him speak at Comic-Con, and he seems really well read, and he has some interesting ideas about the interconnectedness of people and cultures. I loved All-Star Superman where he seemed to keep his psychedelia in check, restraining it within a more mainstream plot. That said, I think I like my psychedelic writers more along the lines of Ellis and Moore (even though Moore's Promethea drove me nuts despite the gorgeous work by the artist), who do interesting things with the plot and story-telling without twisting the framework completely into an unviable state.

And sadly, that's where I find Batman now. I have a hard enough time figuring out what's going on in the actual pages of the book; there are passages I read three or four times and I can't figure out what is going on. Understand, the art is gorgeous, but it's being used in distracting and sometimes counter-useful ways. The passage where Joker is introduced in Arkham Asylum still makes no sense to me, and I have stood in my local comic book store and asked other people to help explain to me what is going on. No one could come up with a consistent practicable theory of the chain of events in that passage.

That's bad enough, but the plot for the storyline appears to depend on events that happen between issues but are not actually contained in a DC title or explained at the beginning of each new issue. At the beginning of one issue, suddenly Batman is wearing a purple, green and red costume and talking to Bat-mite who may or may not actually be there. And while the content of that issue minimally outlines the series of events that lead to the new appearance, that explanation has to compete with advancing a plot that is apparently denser than anything I have ever read before in comics (short of The Blue Lily). And in that competition, both sides are losing. So I can't connect what's happening now to my tenuous understanding of what has happened in previous issues.

Compounding the difficulty, Morrison appears to be relying on incredibly obscure continuity (or he could just be making it up) without telling the reader what that continuity is. Batman underwent psychological training under the US government? Really? I don't mind retcons, but usually retcons have a marker giving off signals of their changes to the continuity. In Morrison's writing, everything is assumed, meaning nothing is actually stated, removing the framework on which a plot is supposed to hang. The result of all this is that I cannot summarize what has been going on…which sort of defeats the purpose of comics. Even if I am reading a novel with a psychedelic stream of consciousness, I can look back and say "that was a psychedelic stream of consciousness). Even that kind of summary does not work for the last few issues of Batman.

And yet it gets worse (and I'm starting to have trouble coming up with transitions to describe the descent into badness). Batman's companion series, Detective, is one of DC's best titles going right now. Despite it being tied to the lead weight that is "R.I.P.", the story is tremendous, breaking new ground and filling out the history of an important character, without being inchoate and impenetrable. There is passion and drama and fully developed characterization. I firmly believe that Paul Dini's Detective is one of the top interpretations of the character ever. That it conflicts with the supposedly concurrent Batman story is unfortunate, but to be honest, I don't yet see its relationship to the "R.I.P" storyline. It's just ripping good stuff.

And then the final straw—the continuity of other titles related to Batman has already moved past "R.I.P." implying that its events are over. Robin is concerned about the missing Batman in his own title. Nightwing is too. And Batgirl has announced her determination to keep the Outsiders going despite Batman's disappearance. Those titles are being very careful not to let on the secret of what's happened. Or it could be that they've been reading Batman and have no freaking clue either. But the result is a mishmash of supposedly relatively tightly interconnected stories. And readers picking up the other titles for their "R.I.P." tie-ins are being completely misled, since there is only the idea that something has happened without any clarification of what it is.

I spoke to my local store owner about my concerns, and he claims to share them as well. He says he has talked to other store owners about the issues and has been rebuffed with claims that if he truly knew Batman, there would be no questions about what is going on. Considering how long I've been reading Batman and my hunt for old back issues, I think I know the character pretty well. But even if I am just stupid, doesn't it defeat the entire purpose of these colossal events? Aren't these designed to pull in new readers to see seminal events in the lives of the characters or within the universe? But if the event is impenetrable, don't you end up turning those readers away and then turn away regular readers as well?

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