Monday, 23 August 2010

Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely's "Batman & Robin: Reborn": What Becomes A Hero Most If It Isn't Torturing Phosporus Rex?

In which the blogger salutes Norfolk County Library Service for their assistance in helping the cash-strapped of this county to finally experience Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely's much-loved "Batman & Robin: Reborn" more than a year after everyone else of private means enjoyed it, discussed it, and then filed it away. And so, Late For The Performance Productions presents what happened when I at last got to read this work from one of my favourite writers and artists ever;

1.

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?



2.


"ARE YOU READY TO TALK YET!!!"


"Don't drop me. I'll talk."

3.

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.

4.

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.

5.

And it's only a comic book.

It's just a fun comic-book, and it's funny too.

6.

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?

7.

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.

8.

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.

9.

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.

10.

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?

11.

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.

12.

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.

13.

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;
  1. hold him back?
  2. lock down the Bat-Cave?
  3. disable the engine of the Damian-cycle?
Well, actually we're not shown what happened, or even really told, which is a clever trick by Mr Morrison, given that there's no narrative he could create which wouldn't leave Grayson looking emasculated and unfit to be even a surrogate superhero parent. Indeed, all we're shown is a moping Grayson hanging around waiting for Alfred to turn up and give him a pep-talk, with Damian having long roared off into the night.

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.

14.

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.

15.

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."

16.

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?

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.


17.

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?

18.
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.


.

37 comments:

  1. Well thank God you didn't pay for it, eh?

    I was willing to pay for the first three issues, but even a slow learner like me is starting to see through the ruse of buying the same old shit over and over again just because the big two keep waving their big cheques under the nose of Frank Quitely.

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  2. Hello Mark - and bless you for saying that I'm not entirely alone in seeing some significant flaws in Batman & Robin. I know that the book is very popular with a few folks who drop in here on occasion, and they're people with reasoned opinions that I respect. My feeling was this might be a "one man is a majority" kind of situation.

    Thank God for Norfolk Library service then, you're absolutely right.

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  3. Well, it gets better, which is more than you can say for JMS' Superman, for instance. :)

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  4. Hello Carl, and I really do hope Batman & Robin get better; I take no pleasure at m'fanboy grumpiness.

    But after doing my best to think as well of JMS on Superman as I could, I read 702 and ... well, shall I just say that I agree with you that the curve describing the quality of the book isn't one that can be marked "improving"?

    Oh, dear, oh dear, oh, dear.

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  5. Colin, I'm with you on the "pornography of violence" comment. It really is wearying to see this endless, gratuitous violence, especially torture scenes. Our post-Guantanamo-Batman is acting more like Jack "Get me a hacksaw!" Bauer than the caped crusader of old, and that just depresses me.

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  6. Hello Mr C - it's almost as tedious a business as it is worrying, isn't it, and of all the writers who I'd have expected to not indulge himself in this whole dodgy business, it would've been Grant Morrison.

    After all, it was Mr Morrison along with Mark Waid who led the charge against grim'n'gritty faux-Image books at DC in the '90s. I've always considered him far too smart for the hacksaw narrative, and to see one maintained over 6 issues, as in this collection .... well, it didn't cheer up my Sunday, I can assure you.

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  7. As I feel I'm one of those who've come out in favor of this series I think I need to put a few things out there.

    It's slightly disingenuous to pin the larger part of your argument on Batman's "kidnapping" of Rex as a deplorable move. What you've done in a sense is "frame the argument." You're removing the conceits that allow a character like Batman to even exist. (You acknowledge as much with your Superman comment)

    Singling out Gordon is also a bit of a dodge because it's strongly implied that Gordon does in fact know it's Grayson under the mask here. Does he take a lot on faith? Yes...but this faith is built on years and years and years of knowing this team and these players. Gordon watched Dick Grayson grow up so when he screams "Who the hell are you?" and Dick answers "I'm Batman" I read this as Gordon being utterly shocked and concerned. Was his trust misplaced? Was he wrong about the man under the cowl? Where did the good hearted kid in the pixie boots go?

    Dick answers back "I'm Batman" because this is how he believes Bruce got the job done. It's not necessarily right, of course, and shortly thereafter follows a wonderful piece of character work between Alfred and Dick regarding how he should attack the role of caped crusader with Alfred giving some sage advice.

    To pin Morrison on things like this is somewhat amusing because it goes back a lot further than the 90's grim and gritty. As early as the first 10 - 20 issues of Batman appearing in Detective Bruce Wayne is invited along on interrogations of suspects by Gordon for a lark.

    Robin is plunged into Mortal Danger on numerous occasions. One such scenario involved being asked to join and earn the trust of a company of Oliver Twist boy thieves working to join the big leagues of organized crime...

    I could go forward but we know with 70+ of history you're going to have some serious narrative back log in which the character is not "your version" the caped crusader of old has been MANY things, not just your thing or my thing or his thing.

    At any rate, the plot point element you bring up has some merit but I find the more you practice (as Morrison does) compression and story-telling economy the less time you have to transition from point A - B. You take shortcuts and liberties. You count on your reader to not lose the thread which can be a REAL high-wire act. A lot happens in Batman and Robin (a very great lot) and I actually prefer a comic where things happen and move forward.

    You don't need to show me Batman plotting his attack run on Pyg's compound. The man's a competent crime fighter who's been doing this for quite some time. It may have looked a bit of dumb luck for Dick to get the Bat-Quad right in there but was it tactically the best move in the repertoire for Erroll Flynn to swing down off the staircase on that rope? Did he know for sure the falling chandelier would simultaneously bind a group of foes without doing harm to his compatriots or innocent courtesans?

    Hell no.

    BUT the principal of "stewardship of character" suggests that Batman and those that wear the mantle with his blessing kinda have a grip on this sort of thing, man.

    I think you might be crowding out the larger narrative here by hanging too many arguments on that shot of Rex. The theme of escalation weighs heavily through this same arc of books.

    Batman is pretty BAD on the first page but his villains will get worse. That's the rule and Batman has AlWAYS toed that "Good Cop / Bad Cop" line. (continued char. limit)

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  8. (from previous)

    "I shall become a bat..."

    The question is really how does Batman triumph over the foes he doesn't frighten and intimidate. The series goes there. It addresses those things. I hate to say "You've missed the point," but I think you may be missing the point. After all, who came first? The Batman or the Jack Bauer? Is this so much worse than the Peter Milligan written Batman who threatened to beat a holocaust survivor if he didn't turn off his murderous golem?

    Sorry to attack with such a riff style series of comments (away from my normal computer and my bat / rob comics) Your view is one I always seek Colin and to see it clash so strikingly with mine is quite a shock but not in a terrible way. When you get right to the core of it - Batman is not a nice character. It will make me examine those first pages again but having the benefit of being ahead in the story I feel comfortable in my view.

    An excellent day to you sir!

    Smitty

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  9. Three brief sort-of related points:

    There's an issue of Showcase '94 (or '95) with a Jae Lee Penguin cover. In it, Comissioner Gordon spends a lot of time with the Batsignal on waiting for the then-new Azrael-Batman to show up. The Penguin taunts him as he waits, and Gordon frets. I liked it a lot when I read it. Certainly, his fears and anxieties about a new Batman were dealt with in a more believable way than in B&R. I liked the Quitely, Cameron, & Irving issues, but can't argue with their flaws.

    I thought the failure of torture in The Dark Knight was remarkable. Batman can't get anything out of the Joker when he beat the crap out of him, and he can't scare another criminal because he only breaks his leg. There was a lot of political discussion about the film upon its release, a lot of disagreement about whether it was leftist or rightist. Regardless of all that, I was pleased to see such a strong stand taken on the issue of torture.

    Super-heroes get tortured all the time, but do we ever see the ramifications? The only times I can think of were during the Proteus arc in Uncanny X-Men (Wolverine was deeply traumatised) and the Grell run on Green Arrow (both Black Canary & Green Arrow were badly tortured, and there were clear psychological effects). Not that I want to read PTSD Recovery Monthly, but I think the issue should rear its head on occasion.

    - Mike Loughlin

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  10. Hello Smitty – thank you ending your comments with such a positive note. I’d hate for us to fall out in any way over in a difference of opinion, which I must admit is a not-so-familiar or pleasant sensation for me too!

    I readily accept that Morrison can’t be expected to include all of the continuity of the past 70 years. His Dick and Gordon and Alfred will necessarily differ from others, and especially from the opinion of any one fan such as m’self. But I’m not concerned to argue so much from the vantage-point of fanboy history. I think my problem is not that Morrison’s characters aren’t consistent with the past, but rather that they’re not consistent with themselves. I certainly agree that we needn’t be shown the details of Dick planning his campaigns, of course, but when no evidence of such at all is shown and the contrary illustrated when he just blunders around and beats up whoever’s at hand, then we’re faced with two Dick Grayson; the one who’s portrayed as a competent superhero and the one who’s clearly shown in the narrative as an idiot. And Morrison’s story itself never reconciles these problems. In fact it adds other Graysons – whining Grayson, torturing Grayson – but never explains how these facets combine into a whole. And if you say that that’s our job, then the writer never has to provide a coherent narrative: - all he or she needs do is just add moments of spectacle and sentimentality and expect us to join the dots.

    Perhaps I might offer you the example of the very first scene in Batman and Robin 1. Why? Well, what was the Bat-Mobile doing following Toad into the tunnel? Criminals drive dangerously and kill people if they’ve weapons when they’re trapped or they feel they’re being run down. In fact, why were Gotham’s Finest chasing the Toad so closely that he could bomb them anyway? This isn’t the Thirties anymore, and with modern communications, the solution is easy: do what the LAPD did with OJ; shut the freeway and let the criminals trap themselves. Certainly, you don’t chase them into a tunnel where the traffic is coming in the opposite direction; that’s a recipe for disaster. And that’s what almost, almost happens. Toad races away, when the police could just have been quietly closing the lanes off, and the Bat-Mobile could have flown over to where Toad was going to emerge to help out.

    So far, so stupid. But it gets far worse. Grayson fires a missile in a public highway with cars coming in the opposite direction!!! He doesn’t use a grapple or an electro-magnetic pulse to disable the Toad’s car – he fires a MISSILE! And what happens? Toad’s jalopy only just misses one other car which seems to be out of control itself. This is INSANE, and just incredibly dangerous.

    To be continued:-

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  11. Smitty- part 2!

    Now, again you might say that this is evidence that Dick is full of bravado and doesn’t know when to play Batman and when not. Ignoring his 15 years of experience on the job, there’s the fact that the narrative gives no censure of his action at all. The narrative celebrates it! It’s fun, it’s wacky! There’s nothing at all to show us that this was anything but Wham! Pow!” Fantastic! He’s not learning on the job, he’s learnt, apparently!

    Oh, well, That’s just one scene among so many. But when torture is thrown into the mix and its not given a context either, then joyful spectacle becomes something quite else. (I won’t repeat the argument above about torture in detail.)

    I agree that Batman isn’t nice, and that criminals must fear him. But when torture becomes funny and slips free of its meaning, that’s not establishing Batman as a bad-ass; that’s establishing him as a beast. And we can think of a thousand ways for him to scare criminals that don’t do that.

    It’s not that I want whitebread superheroes. You know that, of course. But where violence is shown, I want it to be discussed. Where torture is used, torture must be the topic at hand and it must be treated very seriously indeed.

    My absolute best to you, Smitty. I didn’t want to write this last night when I was exhausted. You deserve better than a blearly eyed reply and I hope this is a little better than that. My best to you and may your day be splendid!

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  12. Hello Mike – I hope you’re keeping exceedingly well.

    Reading your comment and that of Smitty’s too has really helped me clarify where I stand on matters such as torture. I realise more clearly now that it usually isn’t the violence that I object to, but the fact that it’s used as nothing but entertainment. And the worse the violence, the more its form trespasses into serious real-world concerns, the more it demands to be discussed rather than thrown around as a cheap thrill. And though I certainly don’t want “PTSD Recovery Monthly”, you’re right that these things need dealing with. (Actually, if things ever did result in a market which could support PTSD Recovery Monthly, I’d buy it just as evidence that I really was THAT out of touch with the world.)

    The truth of torture which you discuss is worrying self-evident. There’s been a huge amount of research and torture of the film-thrill variety just doesn’t work very well, and often not at all. Oh course, there are forms of torture which are more efficient than others, but individual and situational variables so affect them that the validity of torture’s results is always doubtful. It’s just not, as so much of the media would have us believe, a question of hitting folks until they cave. But the media keeps saying it’s so and some of the public, if the political debate over torture in the past few years is to be trusted, clearly know nothing about the facts.

    Beyond the examples already discussed on this blog, in the comments and so on, I can’t think of any other examples to the ones you mention, though I’ll bet several come to mind the minute I post. (I bet they did for you too.) But, yes, the fact we’re trying to remember these examples shows that it’s a matter of exceptions and not rules. What a shame that is, for without launching PTSD Recovery Mag, there’s a great deal of interesting material in that land between normal functioning and stress disorder.

    Oh! An example comes to mind. The Peter Parker of the Ultimate Universe is clearly suffering from PTSD after “Ultimatum” in the new Spider-Man comic between at least issues 1 to 6. Does what Magneto did and what Peter faced during the attack on him count as torture? Mmmm ... maybe my example isn't as precise as I thought it was about 3 sentences ago ....

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  13. Mr. Colsmi,

    As a recent visitor to your site, I've enjoyed your posts. But this one gave me pause...

    In the 'real world' as one might say, I'm all with you. However, DC Comics is not the real world. I say this because we can agree on that certain principles are sacrosanct when it comes to fiction, the most important being here that "Batman does not kill. Ever." It's one of the most important things about the character (at least the modern version past his first year when he was more Punisher-esque).

    I think you need to deal with this because of the 'type' of torture being engaged in here: psychological fear based torture. That has always been Batman's stock in trade, is the main component of being 'Batman' - scaring the willies out of criminals. One might argue that this is fear for the sake of keeping the streets clean - so does that count as torture? Do you need to be seeking information or want to punish a particular individual for it be counted so? I don't know the answer there.

    But getting back to the "doesn't kill" aspect that you end up chiding Gordon on, it makes all the difference for me in not being so shocked as if it were another character doing it. It's the kind of adrenaline based interrogation that we've seen ever time Batman, Bruce or otherwise, dangle a crook over a ledge. Is that not torture in your estimation? If it is, then Gordon has multiple years of letting such actions go - all because he KNOWS Batman's code. If Dick says he is Batman, then this also triggers the code (just as he followed it as Robin).

    The code then allows the reader to see this scene with Rex knowing that Batman will never drop him, CAN NEVER drop him. Must the therefore only psychological terror inflicted on Rex still rise to the level of torture in our eyes? In the real world, no one can ever trust that same guarantee from a person or government that they do not kill. In fiction only, and even ultimately only with Superman and Batman (and not Spiderman or the other more 'mortal' superheros), can we trust someone when they say they will not kill someone, and the 'torture victim' is in no more danger than if they were in their cell.

    I bring this point up because I feel it is missing in your analysis - and as I am usually arguing from the other side, to people who consider Batman a fool and failed hero for not taking the 'necessary' and 'humane' step of actually killing mass-murdering criminals like the Joker. His code of "Don't Kill" is seen as an unbelievable weakness in the fiction, whereas I see it as a strength. It may be far more difficult to live with in the real world, but it is something to be aspired to and so merits inclusion and aspiration in our fiction.

    And I do want to thank you for continuing to write such comprehensive, cogent posts.

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  14. Hello SYN - thank you for posting, and you bring with you a series of really good points. To begin with, yes, torture of sorts has always been in the masked vigilante's arsenal, and it's something I do refer to in the piece. The point at which that becomes "unacceptable" to one reader or another is of course a personal judgement, inherently subjective no matter what moral principles are harnessed to support the argument. And in truth, a belief that torture is a subject which must only be represented in its moral and practical contexts should leave me saying that I disapprove of its use in ANY situation where they're ignored, where the torture by a heroic figure is played simply for laughs and/or thrills.

    And, you know, I'm struggling with that. I think I'm coming to believe it, just as your point that many many many superhero tales include psychological intimidation if not torture hits home. (Again, the line between "intimidation" and "torture" is a subjective one, isn't it, and you’re absolutely right to bring it up.) Certainly, the superhero is a figure who has often relied upon bullying to get their way, and there are grounds there for an argument that supports the view of the superhero as a "fascist" wish-fulfillment, something I've argued strongly against in other contexts in this blog elsewhere. And you're right that Batman, and Gordon, have done this from the very beginning.

    So, where does the line get drawn? Is the argument that no form of torture, from simple bullying through to dangling folks off roofs and beyond into physical violence should be taken off the agenda? No, of course not. I'd be an idiot to go with that and you're absolutely right to challenge me on this. But I am beginning to feel that there is a much wider issue that needs to be considered here.

    Firstly, torture is matter of pressing political importance and has been for a decade now in the West. (That doesn't mean that it wasn't an everyday concern too. But on the macro-scale of the explicit political debate, it's a fairly recent concern.) Elsewhere, in places, it never ceased to be one, either as a debate or even as an everyday fact of life where the state's action is concerned. And I think that comic books need to consider the social context in which they operate. Not to avoid upsetting folks, for often it's a damn good idea to do the opposite. But rather to accept that there IS a debate, that in the "real world" these matters are pressing and hotly debated. After all, there are plenty of subjects where comic books operate on that principle; sexual roles, matters of racial and ethnic diversity, crimes of sexual violence.

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  15. To Syn: - cont

    And if comic books already recognise certain areas as being by their nature, to a greater or lesser degree, either "taboo" or at least sacred in the sense that certain lines aren't crossed, then those subjects which comics don't treat as such are thrown into a different light, are rendered less sacred, less probelmatical. If sexual violence is rarely depicted and nearly always with respect & a sense of the absolute seriousness of the crime - with few but regrettable transgressions - and then torture remains a plaything, surely a moral line is being drawn by the very fact that torture doesn't fall into the "sacred" category? And that's where my concern actually falls; in popular culture, debates are defined as much by what isn't said as by what is. And debate is where it’s at. I’m not talking about prohibition of torture scenes, but rather what we’re having here; a debate that this is problematical and the degree to which it is.

    Now, the scale and depiction of torture in superhero books has been changing for a very long time. Where a few decades ago, superheroes might indeed dangle somebody off a roof, now the fare is far stronger. I think that this makes the whole situation far worse. Dick's torturing of Rex was so threatening, so terrifying, and so GLEEFUL that I think the whole debate gets thrown into a new light. This whole scene was fiercely explicit, incited us to howl with laughter and pleasure in an intense and - for a comic book - protracted sequence,and there was no debate about torture or its consequences at all. It wasn't something that was done regretably. It was done as a badge of Dick's right to be Batman, of the police not being able to do their job, of criminals deserving to be tortured.

    And so we have Torture not just existing outside of the taboo and sacred subjects, but actually existing within a range of events which can be shown to be humourous and - most worrying - markers of heroism. Torture wasn't something that Dick reluctantly did here, as far as we were shown on any level. Torture was his job, and a signifier of his strength and "superheroness".

    I think this is a different business in degree if not kind to the Batmans of earlier years. I think Dick is behaving as the Punisher would have and yet "he's" not being viewed as any kind of trangressor for doing so.

    And so though torture should never be shown without being placed into a context - because it's just too serious a moral and practical issue in my opinion - what we're seeing here is a different business. It's torture as a marker of a hero. The hero doesn't use torture on occasion and with some restraint and reluctance. This is torture as what heroes do.

    And that is a point where I certainly feel that far too many lines have been crossed.

    The question is, of course, did the torture scene need to be there? And of course it didn't. There were a thousand thousand things that Dick could have been shown doing to get that information. He could even have used his brain! The torture existed to establish Dick as a hero and a bad-ass and to pep up the narrative with fun.

    I can't see any of things in this context as good things.

    You ask a fine question; can superheroes never use any degree of fear in their business. Well, as far as I'm concerned they can use any method they like. They can trap Electro in a basement and apply red hot pokers, AS LONG AS THE ISSUE IS DEBATED, THE MORALITY MADE EXPLICIT, THE CONSEQUENCES REFLECTED AND HEROISM NOT SIGNIFIED BY THE ACT OF TORTURE.

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  16. SYN - cont

    I'm not trying to bring about a campaign to censor torture scenes here. I just long for a situation where violence isn't a harmless confection in comic books which more and more trumpet through story, art and publicity their "realism" and "adult" content. I'm up for Spidey holding a woman over the edge of a building, but it's a SACRED business to me and if that's happening, it isn't depicted as fun and funny without other dimensions being brought in too.

    After all, didn’t Bruce Wayne become a Bat because criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot? Wasn’t the point that he used criminals own fears against them, relied upon what they already carried within them to scare them by his very presence and by the act of the Bat itself?

    After all, you're right to say that in a superhero context, Dick won't drop Rex. Fair enough, but it's not Dick that I'm concerned about. Regardless of what we know about his villain-holding competency, Dick's weapon is terror, and it's rendered so lovingly, so pruriently, that we're being asked not just to respect the information Dick forces out of his victim, but to take glee in Rex's suffering and capitulation. I think that's a quite different thing, and where I'd start to try to draw a line between what can be shown and what needs to be considered. Not a hard and fast line, but rather the beginning of a debate about where it might lie.

    To me, the challenge of the superhero form isn't solely "How to thrill an audience", but rather "How to thrill an audience while positioning those thrills within a moral context". And those morals aren’t "right" or "left"; they're the bedrock principles which inform the very business of democracy itslef. That sounds all very cloud-thinking, of course, but all I can do is hold my hands up, say I know I must sound like a po-faced idiot & try not to flog that particular argument here anymore.

    Thank you for your thoroughly engaging comment. I wouldn't suggest I've closed any concerns here, and I'm not seeking to either, but I do hope you feel your arguments were treated with respect. I know I've not dealt directly with all that you raised, but I hope there's a reasonable response here.

    I hope your day is a splendid one!

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  17. (Scene Opens on Phosphorous Rex waking up in a Victor Zsaz style containment box. Dick Grayson Batman appears before him on a video screen. Surrounding Rex are various hoses and nozzles. All are pointed at his still on fire head)

    Batman: "So I've figured out how to snuff your reaction, Rex...for good."

    So...is this better or worse? It's certainly more considered. Less brutish. More in keeping with Batman's psychological aspects. I think it can go several ways - Maybe Rex wants to be normal? Maybe Batman is bluffing? But then is he better or worse for holding a false hope in front of a desperate and psychologically troubled man? Maybe he really can do it, does it, and then how is he any better than some mutant exterminating sentinel?

    Even in the funny books there are no easy answers. It would have been interesting to see the ramifications but I don't think that's what he's set out to do here. We3 had a great deal of thought and heartbreak in it along these "torture" themes and I think I know where Grant's heart is on that one as much as a reader can know a writer.

    The whole "Torture as a legitimate means?" goes back to the themes of escalation and intensity that Batman stories draw on heavily (Knightfall, Final Crisis, et al) wherein we see JUST HOW FAR Batman can be pushed before he comes to his limit...his line. Another question is whether or not this kind of Batman story has reached its pinnacle or shall I say nadir? With RIP I would have thought yes...

    As I mentioned, Dick is going through some serious adjustment here. Damian joining the team, Bruce dying, actually being Batman without the safety net of just filling in so he does have some rough "I'm Batman...no REALLY!" moments.

    Later in the series we see the moment when Dick realizes Bruce is still alive and to me he feels more comfortable afterwards - back in his element where the earth does circle the sun and the moon the earth.

    I guess the point, writ large, is that I felt that while Morrison took a short cut to "How do I get the information from character A to character B" he did it in a way that serves the visual medium that is comics. I'm not saying to take it lightly but as a previous poster mentioned Batman does not kill - except when he does but I'll get to that at the end. Phosphorous Rex was "safe as houses" in this seemingly perilous situation.

    I still encourage you to soldier on with the series. Pretty pictures, ripping adventure and all that. Later on a torturer sees the roles reversed rather drastically and then perhaps we see it from the point of view we should: Imagine if it weren't the bad awful man being tortured but rather your very best fictional friend falling under the crowbar?

    Lastly - I was surprised we didn't see more discussion on Batman using that God Gun in Final Crisis. He shot to kill there. For sure. Maybe they gave him an out since he's used guns against New Gods before...(Starlin's Cosmic Odyssey)

    What are you up to here, Colin? Making me think comics at all hours...

    Best!

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  18. Smitty, I think it is the very fact that your scene is itself a QUESTION rather than a SOLUTION that makes it so very interesting. What is Dick’s purpose? What are the demands upon him, what’s his own psychology, his decision-making process, what is willing to consider and what is he willing to do, as well as the key business of what he’s going to undergo afterwards as a consequence. And you’ve brought Rex into the picture too, and he’s missing from the original except as a “bad man” to do rightful bad towards.

    Where this goes is …. Well, it can go anywhere, can’t it, which is it’s strength, whereas the Morrison scene is locked into itself, and all it can do is say Dick’s a hero for being ghastly to that villain, who isn’t even a person. (Ironically, because that’s what torture seeks to achieve, the end of an individual so they’ll serve another’s purposes.) I think the very questioning we’re doing here is what was missing in the text, and in a sense it almost doesn’t matter what the effect is. What matters is that the questions remain OPEN and VALID.

    And Mr Morrison IS a comic book great. I say this without a trace of sarcasm, I mean it absolutely genuinely. He could create scenes that thrill as well as well as question. He’s self-evidently a decent bloke too: - his Invisibles is all about the rights of the individual to remain so no matter how free thinking and unconforming, or at least until that individuality impedes another’s.

    I’m absolutely committed to seeing this series by Morrison through, Smitty, I assure you. This may sound daft, but with folks such as yourself here going to bat for the book and doing so in such a reasoned and reasonable way, I feel I’d be a right idiot not to. The whole point of this blog, beyond getting my brain going & learning something of what a writer’s life must be, was to try to just open a little of a debate or two up. (It was never ever to close any debates, because I don’t believe that I’ve got the chops to do that, and I’m not sure, where popular entertainment is concerned, that anybody does or should.). I’ve no problem, for example, with the thesis that superheroes are a metaphor for fascism, as long as that thesis always appears in the company of the opposing one that superheroes are a profoundly democratic form, for example. All these arguments are pernicious unless they come with their opposites. So, the “torturing Rex is acceptable entertainment to a degree” argument is fine if it comes along with, rather than instead of, the “torture is never entertainment” thesis. The very presence of two arguments grounds both sides. Of course, I see it as the writer’s job to do that in their stories, and I don’t believe that Morrison has done that here, but we can do that too, in our own below-the-radar folks-just-talking way. Which in its way is my answer to your question “What are you up to here, Colin?”, though it took that question to make the lightbulb flash on above my head.

    And Batman’s use of violence elsewhere? You’re right. The “Batman doesn’t kill” mantra is a strong one and one I’d usually hold to, because it’s so often said. But of course you’re right, he does, and in fact heroes often fail to hang onto folks they’re promising not to let go, in one context or another. Peter and Gwen comes to mind, in that the heroes which are usually portrayed as perfect are also portrayed as fallible. Can we really trust Dick not to sneeze and let Rex fall just that half-an-inch that smashes his flaming head into an oncoming car?

    My best to you Smitty. I’m so glad I didn’t give the impression of just lashing out at a book I know is very dear to your heart.

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  19. Colin (if I may),

    Thanks for giving a full and reasoned response to my post. There's one point I'd like to touch on that you bring up:

    "that we're being asked not just to respect the information Dick forces out of his victim, but to take glee in Rex's suffering and capitulation"

    One thing I've seen over and over in reviews and critiques on Dick taking the mantle is that he is a "cheery/happy" Batman, enjoying what he is doing, much as he did when he was Robin, as opposed to Bruce's "grim and grittiness." So I ask you: if you swapped out Dick for Bruce in this comic, keeping the action, but changing the character, so there was no "glee" per se, but just Bruce's grim-set jaw and "this has to be done" - would you be more accepting? Would that approach take the signifying sting out of it for you?

    As I said, I've seen this comment a lot, about Dick's overall more positive attitude (even with his doubts), but not as much consideration of what it means when paired with the same methods of Batman. Is it more humane for the reader to see someone commit these acts when it is done with a "serious and grim" aspect, than someone who say "loves his job." It might make us feel better, that sense of "this was the only way to do it, and the torturer feels bad about it," but I would go back to one of my earlier points and say that, in the West at least, the notion is often put forward that "Of course we don't want to torture and take no pleasure in it, but IT MUST BE DONE."

    This would of course also ignore the likely aspect of Bruce enjoying what he does at times as well. Frank Miller may not be the best example here, but his line "This isn't a mud pit. It's an operating table, and I'm the surgeon." certainly shows a grin.

    Finally, in regards to Morrison, I don't think you can read this without considering what he is doing with Damian. As we've seen in Batman #666 and then #700, he is an even more extreme version of his father, while taking a Robin-like enjoyment in the, now homicidal, actions he takes. I know at least one reviewer commented on his flat-out space-murdering of the mutated police officers. Is Morrison just doing this for fun? Or is he showing where the Bat-family linage must ultimately end up, as true-vigilantes, abandoning the code which made Batman who he was?

    Quick comment to Smitty: I know what you're saying about FC, but I slightly disagree - when you shoot the God of Death, is it really murder?

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  20. Hello SYN – and thank you for engaging in all this in exactly the way that makes me value this blogging business so much. Every question helps me see where I haven’t worked my own thoughts out, and often where I can’t.

    Firstly, I don’t think that the response of the superhero who’s doing the torturing is the key issue, but it’s a frankly fantastically challenging question, if you don’t mind me saying so. (We Brits feel a little awkward at praising others, even when it’s heartfelt.) I think regardless of the manner of how a superhero undertakes the torture it’s an utterly dubious business, and unless the process is centred on the kind of context we’ve been discussing above, then the process is deeply disturbing. It’s not whether Bruce or Dick seem mournful that’s the key variable, but the degree to which their manner, expressions, words and so on, informs the debate. When torture is used, torture is always the issue. It’s never a story-tool, it’s always the story itself. (Of course, I say those things with “I think” before each statement.) And as you say in your comment, the “IT MUST BE DONE” argument holds no water with me at all. Torture is not a concept relative to the ends of the torturer, and whatever is gained from doing so is always outweighed – in my opinion – by the act itself. And I speak as a bloke who is no pacifist nor a believer in the niceness of humanity and the natural “familiness” of nations. Not-at-all.

    HOWEVER, the manner of the superhero you mention does modify the meaning of the torture. For example, Gail Simone had Scandal Savage torture a captive in her Secret Six, and I was initially concerned about the whole business. (I wrote a blog about it: it’s under Suicide Squad should you be curious, and Ms Simone was kind enough to comment upon it.) But she showed the torture being appalling and the effect upon Savage too, and the whole process was never for laughs at all. The whole process was disturbing and informed and though Deadshot’s action in shooting the victim had a bleak humour to it, it didn’t make him a hero. It made him a killer. In that example, for example, Scandal Savage’s manner informed a greater picture.

    cont:-

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  21. SYN - cont:-

    Where Dick is concerned, I do feel that the humorous glee actually makes it worse in some ways, but I’m only just thinking this through in the context you offer. In a sense, a grim Batman asks us to admire him and his “sacrifice”, but it places him as a figure separate from the actor and action too. But Dick’s actions and manner make us conspirators, remove us even further from the already-desensitised depiction of torture as a serious business. At least it’s a serious business with a consequence with a grim and clearly reluctant Bats, although that’s not saying much at all. But Dick’s whole construction in the scene we’re discussing so stresses his competence and the necessity of the action while sweetening the business with laughter that I believe it’s an even more pernicious business.

    I must say, I never thought Batman took the slightest pleasure in the hurt he dished out. I’ve always imagined his entire concern with the hurt he prevents than the hurt he causes. But that’s just my take. Mind you, I distrust Mr Miller’s take on anyone where violence is concerned, especially Bats, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy or admire much of his work. I just don’t trust it!

    On Morrison’s purpose, the comments on this blog have left me in a position where I’m JUST going to have to get up to date somehow. Meals may have to be missed. Your questions are too good not to try to engage with, and I wouldn’t want to speculate on my experience of just the 6 issues I’ve read. (Though I do want to.)

    If I may add my voice to your debate with Smitty: the God Of Death is still alive. All sentient life is sacred to Batman. It’s that mixture of absolute humaneness fused with his grim mission that separates him from all the other gritty vigilantes out there. Loose that and Batman sinks back into the generic pulp mix from which Kane and Robinson lifted him. (If I may be forgiven for slipping into a portentous tone there by accident.) I know they didn’t mean that to be Batman when they started, but chance and design drove him in that direction and that’s the Bats for me.

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  22. "I never thought Batman took the slightest pleasure in the hurt he dished out...I distrust Mr Miller’s take..."

    ** "This is an operating table.

    "I'm the surgeon."

    ** "ALL YOU NEED IS THE COMPASSION OF OUR PROFESSION."

    "What's that?"

    "A SHARP EDGE."

    (to both mix and mis- quotes by F. Miller and Sir T. Pratchett)

    //\Oo/\\

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  23. Hello Matthew - and there's a thought you've planted into my head; Batman on Discworld, drawn by McMahon or Mignolia, written by Sir TP

    "He's mad, isn't he?"
    "No, mad's when you froth at the mouth.He's insane. That's when you froth at the brain."

    I think Miller's Batman, or at least some of the Batmans that appeared in places in his tales, would fit in very well up there, so why not a Miller tale too? Any quote from Sin City will do ....

    "It's blood for blood, and by the gallons!"

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  24. Anonymous said...
    I think that you are missing the point here. Batman don't have to be the good guy. I feel that you are uncomfortable with the feeling that the "Hero" is doing questionable acts, with the tacite approbal of the police force. Sorry, but it is art, and it could be enjoyed and intepreted without markers. I personaly believe that Morrison thinks that Wayne is a fricking psycho, and Dick is a naive fella but a little amoral that feels that it should follow the Wayne's book. And Gordon is a little old man fighting forces beyond his grasp, that has resigned to be amoral, allowing Batman to do anything that is needed. If you feel unconfortable with this acts of pornographic violence, I think that maybe you should read another comic book, like Superman, that clearly follows a different code of superheroics.
    And everything in a story is a plot device, always. Because, simple everything is plot; there are nothing outside the plot. If you can't grant a suspection of disbelief, then it is because it should be a bad artwork or your are not the reader that the book is wanting for (both could be true, technically).
    Also, I don't suggest you to read books from authors like Joshep Conrad, Frank Kafka, Truman Capote or Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

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  25. "Anonymous" - I've hummed and hummed some more about posting your comment. I even removed it once, and my reply, which is why it's posted again as it is above, as if it's a post by me, which it certainly isn't. (I kept a copy of your words and then re-posted them.)

    In the end, I thought that your words summed up so much of what I was I arguing about that I really shouldleave them here. And so I have.

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  26. Point of fact: Batman wasn't (exactly) shooting to kill at the end of FINAL CRISIS, as is made explicit in last week's BATMAN 702. He shot only to wound Turpin, but knowing that the radion bullet would eventually be toxic to Darkseid's invading presence.

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  27. Thank you, Matt. Given that I'm nearly always a long way behind current continuity, my pieces always come with a big "Caveat lector" above them, and I rely upon folks such as yourself to point out the flaws in essay and comments. I appreciate the steer.

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  28. I won't get too deep into the obvious - that super-crime in the DCU has made these kinds of morally ambiguous, unlawful decisions that much more ... well, at least perceived to be that much more necessary.

    What I will say, is that Batman and Robin - Grant's chapters here, Dick & Damian - have been supposed to feel "haunted" as it were by Joker's presence. The fairground from The Killing Joke. Pyg and Flamingo as poor man's knock-offs of Joker. Dick and Damian as poor man's knock-offs of Batman and Robin. Hell, if the whole world makes as little sense as you suggest it does (I can't totally disagree) then we're getting poor man's knock-offs of Batman plots as well.

    Our final arc, still delayed and being awaited, Batman and Robin Must Die, is intended to be "Batman R.I.P. as FARCE". But I'd argue that the ENTIRE RUN of B&R thus far has been "Batman as FARCE".

    And that, more than anything, is what being haunted by the Joker's presence brings to the table. Nothing makes sense anymore. Life is a joke. It's not even so much a sub-text as it is an entire foundation of the existence of the new "Batman Reborn" Gotham's status quo.

    Sense and sensibility out the window in favor of the games Grayson played as a boy wonder. Boy's games. (There's a vast shortage of female characters in this run - Squire ... Batwoman ... that's it. And you'll notice that they're actually FAR MORE SENSIBLE than the "boys" that are running around. Particularly Squire.)

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  29. Hello RetroWarbird - I'm so glad you left your comment, and for several reasons too. Firstly, it allows me to acknowledge, following some further reading, that there is of course some fine choices being made by Morrison in the long-term construction of his tale in B & R. You're quite right, for example, to point to the theme of the effect of Bruce's absence, and the ever-present sense that the apparently-absent Joker is everywhere and close to striking.

    These are excellent examples of Mr Morrison working as he always does, and my criticism of the torture scene, and those aspects of B & R # 1-6 connected to it, isn't in any way meant to say that the series is without virtue. Quite the contrary. But just as I don't want to deny the presence of both craft and artistry on Mr Morrison's part, I also don't want to deny that his use of torture was an unpleasant thing.

    And it was a business made all the worse, to my mind, by that very factor of farce that you so rightly identify and discuss. Farce is a great leveller of pretension, taking beliefs and levelling them out in laughter until whatever solution presented by the text feels moral because it's been reached through laughter. And I feel that torture put to use in the context of farce is inevitably going to be poorly and destructively represented.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed your discussions of Morrison's work on your blog, & I hope I recall leaving a comment to express that. In fact, yours was a blog which made me feel quite intimidated to write this piece, because I knew how carefully and productively you and others have thought through what Mr M is doing. (You'll note I focused on one specific and limited issue in my piece!) In that context, I might respond to your thought-provoking sentences with one of my own; wouldn't the presence of such terrible and deadly super-villains in the DCU, as you discuss, make human rights more and not less important as an issue, both in the DCU itself and where its real-world chroniclers are concerned? After all, our rights never count for so much as when they're most challenged by circumstance.

    Thank you for the comment. I just read Batman 702 this very day. I'm going to need some guidance there!

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  30. Hi Colm. You make some solid points, and I fear my only response is something along the lines of "it's only entertainment." Which is a sure sign of a weak position if ever there was one. Like the commentators above, I see the sequence as an attempt to play off imagery classically associated with Batman.

    The whole "Batman tortures a suspect for information" is a trope forever associated with the character and any number of iconic pulp heroes. One of my defining images of Bruce is dangling a suspect over a ledge for information. off the top of my head, he does it in the new Arkham City trailer, Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (and The Dark Knight) and quite a few times in the DCAU. In short, if Batman ever asks to have a conversation with you on a roof (and you're not Gordon), it will likely end with him dangling you over the edge in a ridiculously unsafe manner. Morrison just added an element of speed to it - the notion of motion (ha! that rhymes!) being something Batman & Robin is quite fond of in a camp and cheerful way.

    It should be remarked that the only time we're ever intended to REALLY doubt this aspect of Bruce's behaviour is during the Dark Knight, when we see that his tactics are pushing him to a very dark place. And kudos to Nolan for that.

    And Gordon has been just as faithful to Bruce as he is to Dick here. I never recall Gordon turning down a tip because he worries where Batman got it. Even in Gotham Central (which paints Batman as more morally ambiguous than most and doesn't treat the decision as the default "right thing to do"), the cops act on the information - even if it is inadmissable - and are willing to let Batman rough up a suspect if it saves a life.

    I don't think Morrison intended to make a political point, consciously or subconsciously. I just think he was treating "invasive interrogation" (or whatever euphimism) as a very Batman trait - and he's not wrong. Perhaps he should have been more careful in what he chose, but I do associate that kind of tactic with Batman. Just as I associate offering "I'm Batman" as a justification in a way other heroes can't (or don't).

    If you were to ask me to draw up a list of stuff that Batman does that Superman or Wonder Woman or Green Lantern generally don't, threatening to drop a suspect, and treating your own name as justification for our actions would be high among them. There's also the "mere mortal" aspect of him, but Morrison saves that for Batman RIP: The Missing Chapter.

    I, for example, consider it a suspension of disbelief moment - an example of how fiction works different that reality. In the same way that movie cops discharge their firearms with freakish regularity in frightful situations (in circumstances - like crowded rooms - where no cop in their right mind would dream of doing it), the laws of narrative mean that they will never deal with the consequences of that recklessness. Much as Dick or Bruce never have to worry about an unexpected heart complaint, or a trouser leg that doesn't hold just right.

    But you are 100% correct on the Damian thing. I can't fault you on that.

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  31. Hello Darren:- thank you for your comment, and for the manner in which you engage in debate. I always feel that you're interested in clarifying your thinking without ever wanting to be the WINNER and I do appreciate that. The above is after all a matter which it's so easy to fall out over :)

    What's heartening is that I wouldn't think of challenging the points you make. Not because of some patronising act of Uriah Heepism towards you, but because I both recognise the worth of what you say and because my objection to the ubiquity of torture in the modern media is founded in a different concern.

    Having grown up in the liberal culture of the West during the Sixties and Seventies, I find myself holding to most of the time's values but none of its deliberate refusal to consider the implications of what personal freedom can involve. Now, I have to be careful in what I say, because I don't want to sound like I'm arguing for censorship or a monolithic moral tone. But I'm convinced that liberal democracy is being undermined by a lack of appropriate education, an absence of a reservoir of knowledge about what humanism in the context of government means, and the ubiquity of the media operating in the problematical social circumstances creating by the first two issues. It's one thing to allow without comment an entirely free market in entertainment if the culture has made sure that its citizens are educated in such a way as they can evaluate what they're experiencing. But of course our culture doesn't do any such thing. The previous faith in democracy and civil rights that the West had, which was founded far less in careful thought and far more in a simple-headed faith, is being worn away and the media is part of the process that's doing that.

    It's not that I'm saying the one Grant Morrison comic causes torture. What I'm saying is that a culture in which torture is ubiquitous in its media is in trouble. When torture on the part of superheroes was a relatively rare and relatively mild act, the challenge to a taboo it presented at least illuminated the taboo in the first place. Now, the taboo isn't there; the question isn't "should we torture?" but "how far should we go?" and "how funny can we make it?"

    This is to me a source of incredible concern. There is in the West an assumption that the default setting of human beings is liberal democracy. Of course, we can see how stupid that presumption is in events going on in the West's war zones, where the removal of tyranny didn't result in the flowering of some innate democratic, liberal sensibility. But there is no default setting, and whatever is the norm in the media helps to set the norm for the culture. And I find some evidence for that in the fact that few seem even able to recognise that that IS torture in that issue, and that IS an issue that has to be engaged with.

    cont;

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  32. Darren/cont

    I sound terribly self-important, I know. But all I mean to say is that I'm not concerned about the torture scene - although I am to a degree - as I am to the fact that it exists outside any context which involves debate. I don't believe that human beings are able simply through being human to decode their culture and plot a deliberate and informed path through it. Twenty years of teaching social science has made me deeply scared of how little our cultures KNOW and how much we've convinced ourselves that we do.

    I long to see a recognition that we do already have "civil sacred" standards in this society, that breaking them is grounds for debate, and that we can show anything at all as long as its thought-through. Give me the debate and I'll never quibble. Have Batman appear heroic by terrifying and torturing a man who's already been portrayed as sub-human, and who therefore doesn't count, and I'll just perceive another drip in the constant drip feed that wears away an already brittle social structure.

    Perhaps I might disagree with one point you make;; you write "the laws of narrative mean that they will never deal with the consequences of that recklessness". But why not? If we regard cheap effect as constituting a law, it's a get out of jail card for anything a creator chooses, or doesn't even consciously choose, to do. So much of what we know take for granted in the superhero narrative was once against the laws of the genre; secret identities are often a bust, post-Miller superheroes can be seen guzzling pain-killers, post-Brennert ones can be shown to have bodies laced with wounds.

    If thems the laws, I wanna a placard and a riot of my own :)

    Thanks for debating with me, Darren. I hope I seemed to be on-topic when I broadened the debate, but I wanted to try to say that I don't disagree with your points, beyond, in good humour, the one about the law; it's the broader context which I'm desperately scared about.

    I hope the day finds you well. Please do shoot me down. You would be doing me a favour ....

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  33. You are, of course, completely correct. And, as I said, my argument is a cheap one which really just serves to distract from the actual debate - you remark that you are "broadening" the topic, but I think I'm definitely (and perhaps unfairly) "narrowing" it.

    It's not a defense, really, to say that Morrison used the trope as a way of referencing the Caped Crusader's history, even though I see it that way. I can't refute your reading - in fact, it's hard for me to re-read the comic without seeing it.

    I do, however, find it possible to suspend my disbelief - in the same way that I do for any number of morally questionable actions by any number of characters in "entertainment." As you said, perhaps it's a sign of a larger, worrying trend. None of this suggests I condone torture in any way, shape or form - but perhaps it suggests I am passively accepting of it (though I would disagree, based on my own thoughts on various real-world incidents).

    Part of it is perhaps because movies like heist thrillers have taught us to leave morality at the door when dealing with entirely fictional constructs, because fictional universes have a way of casually "balancing the books" so that the actions aren't so evil or reprehensible.

    Of course, my point falls because the writer's intent is often completely divorced from their works' actual meanings - that's why we use phrases like "unfortunate implications." It's the great thing about writing - is that the very act of throwing something out there sparks debate and discussion that very few people can anticipate.

    If I ever publish a book, my plan is to trawl the internet looking for the most obscure and intellectual reading of it that I can find, and claim that this was clearly my intent from the beginning. "What do you mean it's about giant fighting robots? It's clearly really a deconstruction of late nienteenth century bourgoise culture!"

    You make the excellent observation that my remark about how "the laws of narrative mean that they will never deal with the consequences of that recklessness." You observe that it might do a work good to have heroes deal with crazy consequences of actions like this.

    I don't disagree - in fact, I'd love to see a hero held to account for something the books tarditionally treat in such a casual manner. Presonally, I think Marvel's Daredevil seems the perfect book for that, as the books defining quality seems to be subverting superhero tropes (like secret identity). Indeed, my dream Daredevil story (Marvel! Steal this pitch!) would be "Matt Murdock No More!" which would suggest that rather than making Matt's life easier by dumping Daredevil, Daredevil would be better dumping Matt. And, as is the norm for that particular title, hilarity would ensue, all while picking apart this notion of the superhero dual identity schtick.

    Unfortunately, this sort of reality check is so unlikely to happen that any work exploring it would immediately be dubbed a "deconstruction." Because, quite simply, once Batman lets one suspect slip from his grip because he miscalculated the guy's weight, the whole thing falls apart around it.

    I hope this is okay and my ramblings make sense. I don't think we're really disagreeing - I think you're simply being a bit sharper and a bit more thoughtful in approaching the material, while I am probably being quite a bit more shallow. Perhaps the best way to describe what I am doing is attempting to articulate my own thoughts, which don't contradict your thoughts, but explain perhaps how I react differently to the material.

    Which sounds, of course, like a gigantic cop-out. And it is, I concede.

    As I began my last comment, I undoubtedly have the weaker position, as any argument that suggests a reader shouldn't question or should passively accept what they read is not a good one.

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  34. Darren, having read a fair degree of your writing, I'd never believe that you were fan, secret or otherwise, of any form of bodily harm to others :) And I do of course recognise the integrity of your argument. In fact, given that I'd be a fool to insult you by repeating what I've already said, and since I've used all my ammo up, all I can do is offer you a virtual hand to shake, if you virtually will. It's been a pleasure debating with you :)

    What talking to you has done is make me think a great deal more about how the kind of debate I'm talking about could be done. You're quite right that one dropped possible-bad guy by Batman and the character becomes toxic, though it's strange that accidentally killing someone is so bad - which it is - but torture isn't. Aren't cultural standards wonderfully, and scarily, arbritary?

    I've been thinking of tracking down some examples to help me think this topic through further, instances of issues where heroes behave unheroically and the text owns up to the issue. This is a good moment for me to make a note to start collecting material

    Thanks for the generous words and your thought-provoking and honest ideas. I hope the evening really does find you well.

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  35. Cool. If I can prompt even one of your excellent articles, I feel like I've done some service. :)

    Incidentally, the only similar incident of superhero violence-related excess I can think of comes from Mark Millar's Marvel Knights: Spider-Man run, where Spider-Man gets a drop on a few of the Owl's goons and almost gives one a heart attack. He doesn't, of course, and helps the guy to a chair and to calm down, and Millar turns it into a wonderful "Spider-Man is nice, normal guy" moment as he explains that the poor over-the-hill goon is working a second job. It's more of a quirky moment than any sort of examination of the "superheroes accurately estimating how much a hired goon can take" schtick, but it popped into my head for some reason.

    And I virtually accept said virtual shake. I have to say, by the way, I always love the way that the debates around here manage to maintain such a polite, respectful tone.

    And a good morning to you too.

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  36. By the way, at the risk of flogging a dead horse, I feel I should probably share what led me to this "discussion necromancy" - what prompted me to respond to your piece. I was recently browsing Morrison's Time and the Batman, the middle section of which includes Dick (as Batman) cheerfully remarking to a pimp (he's literally smiling), "Spread the word. We're watching you." And it just struck me as strangely fascist. Not in the sense that I don't understand why him saying that struck me as fascist, but because there was just something surreal about it.

    Perhaps it was the strangely cheerful demeanor that Frank Quitely gave our erstwhile Caped Crusader in that panel, or perhaps just that Dick has always seemed relatively innocent as a superhero - even after college, he's perpetually young. And so I thought of this post (which I had read a while back and has informed my reading of Morrison's Batman since), and I thought about how Bruce Wayne saying/doing any of this stuff wouldn't seem half as jarring. And this sort of prompted my response to this.

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  37. Hello Darren; virtual handshake completed, I ought to respond to your kind point about GM's Batman work by declaring that I was walking our Splendid Dog yesterday evening thinking about your recent blog piece about the lack of critical snobbery where genre fiction is concerned these days. I thought it was a point extremely well made, and a point once saying. I can recall movies as fine as Wrath Of Khan coming out and being largely shunned, but that's certainly no longer true. Of all the mediums, film is the least snotty about genre. I ssupect part of that is the huge degree of respect and attention that's paid to genre in media and film studies at all levels; by the time you've worked through Ford and the Western and are preparing to study Sixties commercials, a great deal of snobbery has already been short-circuited.

    And then as I wondered, I thought of other reasons for the lack of snobbery; a different type of person attracted to film making and critcism to those drawn towards literature, perhaps? A great familiarity with William's vision of pop?

    And so on. I guess these blogs we put do act as conversation starters. In the way of tit for tat, I'm glad my idea strayed across your attention because, as you said on this blog a while ago, that's one of the reasons we write, just to contribute to the conversation.

    I should have added the above to your blog, but it did feel like a terribly indulgent thing to say. But this is my blog and I can be indulgent :)

    Your points on Millar's Spidey and GM's Batman are well-taken, I do assure you. I wonder whether it would be possible in this day and age to have a superhero who really did show an awareness for civil liberties and moral restraint without looking like an idiot, who acted as a vigilante but deeply regretted having to do so? And if it isn't possible, then what does say about us and where the moral lines are now unconsciously being drawn.

    Well, there's my new project. The vigilante hero who isn't a celebration of law-breaking and machismo? That'll sell .... :)

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