Thursday, 23 August 2012
On Batman Incorporated #3 (Part 1)
The discipline and ambition of it all isn't in any way distracting. The audacity and the creative expertise isn't either. The story's everything. But it's impossible not to look back and wonder how the trick was worked. Why does Batman Incorporated #3 feel so satisfying as well as so much fun?
Some of it's down to Morrison and Burnham's urgent determination to simply not waste space. In that, Batman Incorporated #3 isn't a characteristically modern era comic book at all. It's a dense and ultimately affable Silver Age-esque tale, packed with incident, innovation and novelty. It doesn't presume that the reader's already committed to passively persevering with the story before them. Instead, it seems deeply concerned that its audience might at any moment be sinfully distracted by a host of other entertainments, and it's absolutely determined that that's not going to happen.
The post-Millennium super-book has so often been a corrosively bland, flaccid experience. Page upon page of ill-focused waffling slapped over dull, repetitive visuals. Page after page of mostly textless spectacle, reliant upon all those strange hyper-muscled, manically-rendered obsessions which we've learned to associate with locked-in fanboy syndrome. But Morrison and Burnham, among all too few of their peers, are obviously saturated with the knowledge of how the comic book used to hook and snare its readers. And so, to name but one example, they pay forensic attention to the apparently not-so-obvious fact that panels have backgrounds as well as foregrounds, and they're enthusiastic in manipulating the relationship the two in order to fascinate the reader.
Where Morrison's speech bubbles are carrying things forward in a way that's not immediately compelling, Burnham's art is either imaginatively complimenting the text or offering a beguiling if not overly-distracting counter-narrative. When Alfred's called upon to deliver a mass of exposition about "Professor Pyg's pharmaceutical breakthroughs", he's also shown assiduously grooming the unlikely figure of the Bat-Cow. Where Wayne's reminding the longterm reader of how all Morrison's plot-seeding is finally coming to fruition, Burnham's delivering a marvellously complex and enticing diagram showing colourful aspects of the series' complex back-story. Each panel in turn is both an experience in its own right as well as an essential part of the story as a whole. That's as it should be, of course, and yet even in an enlightened age, Batman Incorporated #3 would be an exceptionally fine piece of work.
But then, The Hanged Man is very much not a product of the age. There's no machismo, no adoration of the hyper-masculine here. Body's aren't traumatically run through, which soapy angst and nihilism are conspicuous by their absence. There's certainly never any pretence in either Morrison's script or Burnham's art that the Batman's somehow real, or even a realistic proposition. This is unashamed fantasy, and it's all the more a pleasure because of being so. This Dark Knight has his moments of representing fearsome, other-worldly qualities, but he's far more often a wonderful, playful conspiracy acted out against the underworld by Bruce Wayne. He's undoubtedly immensely powerful, and yet anything but invulnerable and self-obsessed. Even when disguised as the petty criminal Matches Malone, Wayne's ridiculously huge, mouth-isolating chin dominates the scene, as if to encourage the reader to smile fondly at these over the-top morality tales and their wonderfully ridiculous, magical protagonists.
Burnham's take on Wayne himself seems to strangely suggest a small lad who's jumped from boyhood into uber-maliness without any of the inconvenience of the intervening years. What could be more appropriate for the Darknight Detective, who never did grow up in the aftermath of his parent's murder? In an interesting reversal of roles, it's actually Damian who emerges in The Hanged Man as the voice of suspicion and caution, his fundamental adoration of his father expressing itself as an almost-patriarchal concern. As such, the story's both a knowing celebration of pulpish blokeishness and a fond, wry smile at the silliness of the same. In the end, it's the clearly pre-pubescent, physically unimposing super-lad in the spray-painted scarlet-and-black helmet who has to take on both brutes and guard dogs alike, and neither Morrison or Burnham has the slightest interest in accentuating the real-world, street-fighting verisimilitude of the scene.
This is very much not testosterone-triggering comfort reading for the perpetually ladoholic. This is fun, and if the reader wants to take this material and turn its playfully seedy bars and faux-surreal conspiracies into a dark, fearsome and joyless world, then the material will just about bear the interpretation. Yet in between the super-computers of the perpetually crepuscular Bat-Cave, there's a cow who appears to be wearing a superhero mask and a loyal enabling ex-S.A.S. man caring to its every need.
to be concluded, with a look at the qualities which make the third issue of the comic more satisfying to a blogger who felt just a touch less enthusiastic - see here - about the first two issues of the book;