I quite missed it on the first read through. In fact, I was in the middle of writing some notes in praise of the page where it's first shown happening when it dawned on me what it was that I was looking at. There I sat, working on how to applaud the elegance of Mr Quitely's design skills and the wickedly bleak humour of Mr Morrison's script, and then I realised what it was that I was laughing at.
How desensitised is that, that I didn't even notice what it was that I was laughing at?
For, as you can see in the scan directly above, the splash page of "Mommy Made Of Nails" is yet another example of the "superhero-as-torturer" motif, though it's such a masterful piece of work that that fact wasn't immediately obvious to this reader. Instead, I was caught up in how Mr Quitely had so effectively conveyed the sensation of a tremendous measure of juddering speed in this scene of the Bat-Monster-Quad-Bike charging into the rain. (Indeed the beast of a machine is travelling so fast that its front left wheel has already left the page.) It's such a skill of design, how the urgent velocity of this monstrous contraption is accelerated by its placement between the two lane-lines receding apparently back to infinity, and by each of its great wheels firing off water behind them, and by Batman's cloak cracking in the bike's own slipstream, and by the tires to the left of the panel leaving a trail of flame in their wake.
But then, at a second glance, it swiftly became obvious that those flames weren't the result of any effect other than that of the murderous super-villain Phosphorus Rex being dragged alongside the great quad-bike as it hurtled down a night-time freeway, a fact confirmed by the word balloon placed above the Batman, who's evidently bound Rex and who's definitely holding him up just above the ground, saying;
"Let's try that again. And pray my upper body strength holds out."
And since Batman's going to "try that again", this obviously isn't, for example, a one-off rescue of Mr P. Rex, and it's certainly doubtful that these two are out training for a motorised rodeo.
No, there's only one conclusion to be drawn about what's going on here. It's torture, again, isn't it?
"ARE YOU READY TO TALK YET!!!"
"Don't drop me. I'll talk."
I. And of course we've already been disingenuously shown what a disgusting human being Phosphorus Rex is in the pages of the previous chapter of "Batman And Robin: Reborn". Why, he kills police officers, and without warning or remorse too. So, I suppose the message reads, he doesn't deserve the protection of the law, does he? He's not even really human, and he's certainly not humane, so he's pretty much given up his claims on any human rights.
Whereas noble Dick Grayson is desperately searching for his lost boy sidekick Damien, who's been captured by the psychotic, and tellingly pig-masked, Mr Pyg.
Which of course justifies the business of torture, doesn't it? Phosphorus Rex is a monstrous cop-killer and Damien is a little boy and a superhero too.
Torture it is then.
II. Thank God for Dick Grayson. He'll save us all.
And surely it isn't really torture anyway? There are, after all, roller-coaster rides which are more truly dangerous than what the new Batman's putting Phosphorus Rex through, and we all know Dick Grayson wouldn't ever drop even cop-killer Rex. The burning bad guys not in any real danger.
It's just a game. And even if it wasn't, Phosphorus Rex deserves all he gets.
And it's only a comic book.
It's just a fun comic-book, and it's funny too.
But the problem here isn't that the torture has been presented in a humorous context, though it certainly complicates matters. No, the problem is that the torture has been presented in a humorous context while the torturer has been represented to us in an unambiguously heroic light. For as soon as a hero is identified as heroic by their very willingness to torture others, which the legitimate powers-that-be will not, then torture becomes more than just an acceptable method for the super-folk on the side of the angels. It actually becomes a signifier of heroism, of the burden accepted by the noble superhero to undertake those ugly tasks which the state and its servants don't have the backbone or initiative to undertake.
Torture becomes one of the ways in which the hero can be separated from the villain, though not in the way we might have once expected. Now the hero, such as Dick Grayson, tortures criminals in order to rescue poor little ten year olds, like Damian, and the villain, such as Mr Pyg, tortures people because, well, he's bad, isn't he?
I. It's hardly as if superhero comics have suddenly arrived at the point where the likes of Phosphorus Rex are shown to be deserving of a good torturing, because a good old fashioned bout of torture's obviously a virtuous thing to do so. (After all, Superman was carrying the unrighteous up the sides of skyscrapers in 1938.) But it's become such a ubiquitous and nasty business, such a mean-spirited one too, and now any trace of taboo has gone and we've jokes about an extreme act of torture being served up in "Batman & Robin" as if nothing could be more appropriate than laughing at the whole business of terrifying somebody out of their wits.
II. But regardless of how commonplace these scenes now are, their depictions of necessary and noble torture don't occur by accident; they're not beamed in from Earth-Prime and received as statements from an independent reality. Obviously not. Writers and artists decide to create these scenarios, they frame them in a deliberate fashion and they shape their stories to make such torture acceptable, if not absolutely necessary, to their readers.
These tortures don't happen by chance in a narrative. Phosphorus Rex gets set up as an irredeemable cop-killer, Damien is placed as a child superhero in peril, and the knight in shining armour who's to save one and torture the other is then presented as having to do the previously unthinkable in order to serve the just cause.
These are stories actively designed to make torture scenes entertaining, as if torture was simply another component of mass entertainment, as if it can be used without consideration for the truth of torture or the consequences it has for those involved in it.
As it wasn't even a fact, but just something to be sprinkled across the pages of a comic book without moral consideration just to give us all a good laugh, a little shiver of fear and anticipation, a swelling, if you like, at the thought of having such power and of being able to use it without restraint or license, and always for the best as well.
This is world away from the Punisher of Garth Ennis, where the reader was always aware of the ironic intent of the text, and of the fact that the Punisher was a deeply damaged human being, or of John Wagner's Judge Dredd, where the Judicial State of Mega-City One is so obviously immoral that most anything done in its name becomes a dubious enterprise, or Gail Simone's "Secret Six", where there's never any doubt that the mercenaries who populate its pages can no more grasp the concept of the rule of law than they can recall a happy and well-adjusted childhood.
But there's no irony in the torture scene in "Batman & Robin" at all, which means that the violence of that torture - and that is what it is - exists solely to titillate its audience. It's contextless, this "funny" torture, except for the context of popular entertainment.
Now, I'd call that the pornography of violence, although I know I'm probably on my own here.
I. What I find myself feeling most uneasy about in "Mommy Made Of Nails" is how Mr Morrison has weighted the narrative so that the police grant this Batman their complete authority to torture Phosphorus Rex. It's as if it isn't enough for Mr Morrison to have the new Batman holding his victim's face an inch above the road, and then an inch above the passing cars. He also has to make the business of torture utterly necessary and morally sanctioned, and the key to this process is the rendering of Commissioner Gordon as a moral as well as an intellectual idiot. Poor Gordon, who's allowed one single protest about the whole business with between Grayson and Rex before acquiescing in the vigilante's actions;
"I've allowed you access to a subject and you dragged him screaming through the streets. Who the hell are you?"
And given that the Commissioner doesn't know who this new Batman is at all, or even whether he has the slightest connection to the Batman he'd learnt to trust through long years of personal experience, it is a damn good question. Who the hell is that masked man? Yet, in a world crawling with despicable super-villains, Gordon faces these two new occupants of the Bat-costumes for a few
seconds and grants them "access" to his police station, and then to the cell of Phosphorus Rex? And when an even stupider policeman points out that the old Batman and Robin were "taller", Gordon agrees but still goes along with these unknown could-be-heroes. It's as if any two characters parachuting onto the Bat-signal's roof can qualify as Batman and Robin if they wear a half-recognisable uniform and talk the hero patter convincingly.
But then if Gordon and his men weren't so unaccountably and unforgivably trusting, Batman couldn't by chance be in the building to repel the attack of the circus freaks, and so he couldn't capture and then kidnap Phosphorus Rex out of his lawful imprisonment, and he couldn't save the day by doing so in such an amusingly flamboyant Batmanly way.
II. These aren't characters, these are shallow and unconvincing plot devices. And underneath the flash and entertaining surface of these tales, the likes of of the unaccountably stupid Gordon and unbelievably self-pitying Grayson are made to do whatever helps the plot jump from one improbable circumstance, from one grand showstopping moment, to another. Yet slow down the narrative and ask "Huh?" and the whole business quite falls apart.
All surface, no depth.
Which is of course fine, until that surface starts reflecting back an extremely dubious meaning.
III. Poor Dick Grayson. No longer Robin the Boy Hostage. Now Bat-Robin the idiot plot device. Either completely burdened with doubt and self pity - "I wish I could shake this feeling I'm wearing a shroud." - or possessed by a degree of machismo and tactical carelessness that strays way beyond the legally culpable, this strange collection of odd Dick Graysons all inhabiting the same body only makes sense because of the fan-boy fantasies which link up the appearances of his different one-dimension selves. Self-pitying Grayson is comforted by perfect-father Alfred. Violent torturing Grayson terrifies super-villains. Idiot proving-himself-through-brute-shock-and-awe Grayson attacks Pyg through the carefully-considered strategy of - fuck, yeah! - driving a quad bike straight through Pyg's compound. (Good job Pyg just happened to be standing right in front of the Bat-Quad-Monster-Bike when that happened, ah?)
All that connects these Graysons is our pre-existing belief that a character called Dick Grayson actually exists. It's in truth nothing but fan-glitter, but it looks great and it's a rush the first time through.
Of course, the real question isn't the "Who the hell are you?" that Gordon directs at Dick Grayson, but the same query directed back at Gordon himself. How is it possible that a character previously shown to be so competent should suddenly become so stupid, so sentimental and irresponsible? For one thing, surely Gordon doesn't have the legal right to allow anybody he meets in tights and a cape access to a suspects cell, and certainly not in the absence of a supervising police officer and a legal representative. And since there must have been a supervising police officer, for surely even this Gordon wouldn't let a complete stranger in a Bat-suit alone with a prisoner, then why didn't the policeman stop the kidnapping? Why wasn't Batman shot, or the alarm raised, or the order to arrest this costumed lawbreaker issued?
Did Batman simply walk out of the building with the burning Rex thrown over his Bat-asbestos shoulder?
And why, in the above panel, is Gordon so apparently relaxed about the whole affair, with even his face turned away from the reader's gaze, as if there were nothing of an informing intent displayed there-on?
I do believe that kidnapping, while not the equivalent of torture, is considered a very serious crime indeed in the Federal Courts of the USA.
As I would imagine would be the act of kidnapping a prisoner from a police cell.
And certainly the business of then torturing that prisoner, in the full view of the public, on a crowded highway, might be expected to have the police and the law-courts united in their determination to do their duty according to the law.
In fact, it's quite impossible to believe in any story where these facts aren't an absolute given.
I. Dick Grayson's reply to Gordon's question is the apparently all-answering "I'm Batman.", which for all that it's a quote from Tim Burton's first Bat-movie, hardly seems to me to be an statement that makes sense. Oh, it makes the fanboy-marrow in me shiver, but that's just evidence that a familiar quote is being used to side-step narrative coherence, and indeed, decency too.
But there we are. The qualification for being recognised as The Batman despite not looking like him is simply to dress like him. And the quite acceptable explanation for a Batman when challenged on grounds of kidnapping and torture is to say "You'll just have to trust me, Commissioner." while heading off into the Gotham wildlands to dish out some more violence.
After all, Damien must be saved, at any and all costs.
And heroes aren't judged by what they do, but how effectively they can quote other incarnations of themselves in a way that seems terribly dramatic, but is really just fan-pleasing gesture and piffle.
I. But the whole business of poor vulnerable Damian, whose fate forgives all transgressions of human rights and the rule of law, has been set up with some shockingly shoddy plotting. For Damian ends up captured by Dr Pyg after walking out of the Bat-Cave late at night after a row with his new mentor.
And yet that sequence of events makes no sense at all. Dick Grayson has been a career superhero for 15 years. He's been the leader of the Titans for a huge span of that time too, as well as member of the Justice League. He's an experienced and respected leader of women and men. And yet his response to the young Damian storming off in costume at that time of the day is to;
- hold him back?
- lock down the Bat-Cave?
- disable the engine of the Damian-cycle?
But. But. Why was Grayson ever hanging around feeling sorry for himself? Why wasn't he straight out searching for the lad? Why didn't he immediately follow Damian? Why did Dick Grayson, one of smartest and most practical superheroes in the DC Universe, just hang around?
II. Of course, Grayson was hanging around bowed under a Claremontian cloud of despair because his doing so gave Damian time to get into trouble, which would then require the new Batman to undertake some crowd-pleasing torture to save him, and also because Mr Morrison obviously felt there was a good place to stick a nice tender moment with Alfred.
Sense be damned. It's a nice scene with Alfred. Stick it there, why don't you?
Let the ten year old boy go get hurt. He's only a plot device, anyway.
Everything's just a plot device. Even the plot is.
I. Dick's torture of Rex has of course been quite forgotten by Gotham's police force by the next time he encounters Gordon and his men. (I can't recall a single female police officer in the whole sequence of chapters. Gotham's police force is apparently entirely composed of middle-aged white men.) Similarly, that "oh-please-don't-bother-yourself-worrying" business with the kidnapping from police custody is gone too. In fact, in the aftermath of the final punch-up with Dr Pyg, Gordon has rather become a total, and rather weepy, convert to the new Batman and Robin team, despite still not knowing who he's dealing with.
"My men asked me to thank you for the lives you saved back at HQ. Whatever happened these last few months -- and I don't want to know what happened -- you can count on my support. Now tell me this is over."
The possibility that this Batman may have done away with the old one and be using that identity to establish a privileged presence in Gotham never crosses Gordon's mind. Nor does the fact that people who say they're Batman might not always be Batman. (The name "Hugo Strange" might come to mind at this point. Or it may not. It hasn't to Gordon's)
This, therefore, is obviously the problem with policemen in the DCU. They've been trained to judge everything on face-value and prejudice and to never evaluate the available evidence.
II. I don't know why Gordon didn't just crumple onto his back when faced with the victorious Batman, raise a leg in submission and bang his tail on the ground in apology and supplication.
But there's worse, and stupider, to come.
Three chapters later in "Reborn" and the new Batman and Robin find themselves brawling with Jason Todd, now known as the Red Hood, and his psychologically unconvincing sidekick Scarlet. Things look bad for our costumed idiots, in what I assume is designed as a - sigh - post-modern homage to the worst grim'n'gritty punch-ups of the 1990s, when the super-assassin Flamingo crashes proceedings.
To cut a wearisome story short, Todd murders Flamingo in a sequence which is extremely hard to make sense of; I think Todd uses a mechanical digger to dump him into a pit before burying him under a few tons of rocks, but who knows? But, regardless, immediately after the killing, Gordon and his men turn up conveniently late for the action and productively just in time for the plot-closing business of arresting the Red Hood. The saintly Commissioner himself delivers the great moral keynote speech with all the style, but none of the content, we'd expect of him;
"We only let Batman do what he does because he keeps it on the right side of the law. This is simple. You're a murderer. And I'm taking you to jail."
Finally, through Gordon's hard-boiled declaration, we posses a clear statement of what counts as acceptable behaviour on the part of vigilantes in Gotham where its police force is, and presumably the writers and editors of DC's Batman office are, concerned. Anything is acceptable as long as it doesn't involve, what, indefensible homicide? And that lovely new Batman, Gordon assures us, "... keeps it on the right side of the law."
Kidnapping a suspect from a cell in a police station?
Kidnapping a suspect from a cell in a police station and torturing them?
Absolutely acceptable, apparently. Yes, torturing's not just morally acceptable and a signifier of heroism now. It's actually within the law too. Batman's kept it on the right side of the law.
"Huzzah!" for Batman.
"Booo!!!" for bad old Jason Todd, who's shown us by his fiendish actions that the DCU really does have strict moral standards and a police force aware of the laws they're sworn to uphold.
Don't stare too hard at "Batman And Robin " for too long. Underneath all that metatextuality and sub-text posing as text posing as sub-text, there's a comic book which doesn't make sense. It looks great when the likes of Mr Quitely and Mr Stewart are illustrating it, it's got terrific moments, and there's an awful lot to think about as long as it isn't the sense of the story which is being considered.
And that's fine, it really is. Whatever floats your boats. It's just a comic book. Let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand schools of comic book writing flourish. I may think that an extra day's work on these scripts might have resulted in stories which made sense as well as thrilled, because I don't think that spectacle and craftsmanship are polar opposites. It's not an either/or proposition, after all. Mr Morrison could easily construct his Batman and Robin epics to exclude the meaninglessness while still pursuing his wonderfully entertaining take on superheroes.
All it would take is just a few more hours work.
But that torture business?
Well, I despair. I really do.
It's as if it doesn't matter. And I really do think that it does.
Because if torture doesn't matter, then what does? Telling an exciting Batman story?
The last I saw of the new Batman and Commissioner Gordon, this is how the conversation went;
Gordon: "You need a ride back to the city?"
Batman: "I'm fine, Commissioner. Thanks."
Well, that's the important business dealt with then ....
In the May archive, there's an article entitled "They're not like us, are they?" which might explain something more of why I despair so as regards this whole business of the rule of law. I didn't want to repeat myself here, and make others endure me doing so, and so I didn't, but that's where anyone should go in the unlikely event that they'd like to see more of why I really do think this torture business matters so. (Just in case anybody thinks that I've only attended to the faintest slither of this business. Oh, no. There's another faintest slither elsewhere.) Thanks for persevering with the above and making it down to here. And I do hope that the day is being a splendid one for you.