It's hard not to regard the first two issues of Batman Incorporated as being deliberately virtuosic performances. In the first, there's more than a suggestion that Grant Morrison was determined to re-establish himself in the modern-era's market-place, slamming through a sequence of action-saturated set-ups which never once lacked his characteristic wit and ingenuity. Demon Star was richly layered as well as kinetic, compassionate and good humoured in addition to being marked by a purposefully oh-no-they-haven't scene set in an abattoir. Common sense insists that a writer of Morrison's quality and achievements couldn't possibly have felt the need to reassert his preeminence. Yet it very much looked as if he was fiercely set on defining his work in contradiction to the dominant storytelling norms of the New 52. Whatever the culture of blokeish blood and shock could achieve, Morrison could too, and he could do so while spinning far richer and far more idiosyncratic tales than most - if hardly all - of his peers could ever aspire to.
Batman Incorporated #2 also seemed designed to vigorously establish that Morrison's work could do more than simply flourish in the here and now, and with all of its distinctive and contrary virtues intact as well. Elegantly weaving an entire issue from the long and complex back-story of Talia al Ghul, Morrison paraded his commitment to the heresy of judiciously bridled, richly-textured continuity. The opposing credo, which holds that the reader is inevitably alienated by the very presence of such, let alone by the sight of it being discussed in a detailed flashback, appeared to be thoroughly undermined by both the issue's sales and its many favourable reviews.
Given how distinct and discrepant both issues were in the light of the majority of today's super-books, it's impossible to believe that Morrison was unaware of at least how different a path he was taking. If not a statement of independence and opposition, then at least a purposeful refusal to follow anyone's else's sense of the age but his own.
Yet what was missing in both issues was a sense that the reader might be trusted to collaborate in the storytelling process for at least a few moments in each chapter. So fierce and focused were the opening two episodes of Leviathan that it was hard for the audience to catch its breath and find the space to make their own sense of events. To be that controlling, that superbly directing, is to inevitably appear to be - no matter how brilliantly - manipulative too. It's a business that can leave a comic feeling somewhat cold even as its patently brilliantly done. In Batman Incorporated #3, Morrison and his artistic collaborator Chris Burnham have slowed the pace of their story, eased back on the fisti-cuffs and backstory, and given us the opportunity to take a look around the world that Batman and his allies are fighting to preserve. As such, we're suddenly shown not just the book's protagonists and antagonists, but something of the community that they're both fighting so fiercely to influence. From Gotham Central Station to the toughest of the city's schools, from police headquarters to courthouses and night-clubs, we're adroitly introduced to a life beyond Bat-Caves and super-villain compounds. It's a world that we can't help but recognise after its own absurd fashion, and so the possibility of its loss starts to surreptitiously add to the jeopardy of the piece as a whole.
In the book's opening three pages, Morrison and Burnham sketch out with brilliant economy how the Leviathan conspiracy has subverted the key institutions of Gotham herself. Our understanding of that process is created through a succession of scenes in which schools, social services, the police and the judiciary are all shown to have been subtly corrupted. Without a heroic succession of flights and fights to haul us through this introduction, we're trusted to side with the likes of a kidnapped teacher and a father furious at the indoctrination of his child. It's an encouragement to empathise as well as spectate which helps make the book feel warmer and more emotionally involving. As we begin to grasp just how fundamental Leviathan's hold upon the city is, and as we become aware of the typical citizens who're being menaced by its clandestine accumulation of power, the level of unease and menace in the book exponentially increases. A narrative with nothing but the welfare of Batman at its heart is likely - though not entirely damned - to be a relatively thin and uber-masculine one. The caped crusader is, after all, inevitably going to survive, and his fate will tend to ultimately depend on his capacity to outpunch his opponents. So far, so ultimately predictable. But none of the various Gothamites which we're briefly shown here have any such a guarantee of survival, and their vulnerability even in passing adds a charge of uncertainty to what might otherwise be a fundamentally foreseeable, if undoubtedly brilliantly presented, tale.
More intriguing yet, this great helpless mass of citizens now contain a telling minority of Leviathan operatives. The very people who have always existed to play defenceless victim for Batman to save are now in part in the service of Talia. Not only does this emphasise the impossible scale of the Batman's duties, but it marks the impossibility of them too. Gotham herself is now almost as much the Batman's enemy as it is his cowering, embattled responsibility, and our sense of the Dark Knight's power is suddenly diminished by our awareness of how many folks now stand against him. Seen against that backdrop, the various street-level criminals which Morrison and Burnham introduce to us in the Three Eyed Jacks nightclub suddenly seem ever more threatening and unpredictable. Where once it was possible to see Gotham as little but the backdrop to the warring between Batman International and Leviathan, now the city itself has emerged as a player of sorts. Though Bruce Wayne, in his alter ego as the petty player Matches Malone, seems supremely competent in the way in which he manipulates the likes of Small Fry and the Brothers Grimm, the fact is that the game has changed, and what once seemed like a relatively straight-forward business is now impossibly more complicated. Where we were once encouraged to believe that only a very few opponents could fool and harm the Batman, now any petty crook and one term circuit judge might be playing for the opposite side.
Morrison cunningly and quietly adds layers of ambiguity and unease to The Hanged Man in these sequences. The school-teacher in the service of Leviathan, for example, doesn't express simple-minded cult-speak, but rather hammers home a Occupy-friendly manifesto. With the enemy assuming the rhetoric of the 99%, the state that Leviathan's undermining suddenly doesn't seem to be so unambiguously aligned with the more noble political causes. Though we're used to Gotham being corrupt, this is a corruption of a far more insidious and widespread kind. The schools are rundown, the students disaffected and disobedient, the neighbourhood's one where "many of the students (are) more or less neglected by their parents". The city-state has already proven itself to be unworthy of our affection, and now we're faced with its over-throw by a conspiracy mouthing some enticingly radical views. Knowing what's worth rooting in this conflict is still a relatively easy business, and yet, not quite as easy as it once was. For this isn't a Gotham whose largely-blameless citizens live as bargaining chips in the endless war between the Bat-Family and their deeply damaged opponents. Instead, it's a complex, riven culture of individuals and interests, which leaves The Batman's role seeming far less simple and secure. Morrison skillfully keeps the contradictions largely out of sight and bubbling away in the sub-text, but then, this is a superhero comic. It doesn't need smothering in a great weight of relevancy and smug, look-at-the-writer polemics. What it does benefit from is the suggestion that the situation's considerably more nuanced than 100% good versus100% bad, uncompromised right faced with easily identifiable and sin-saturated wrong. Here, there's a great many other players standing between the Dark Knight and the mother of his troubled, if formidable, son, which suggests a fascinatingly chaotic system rather than a straight-forward Manichean confrontation between our man and their woman.
Burnham's decision to eschew the straight-jacket of butch'n'bleak comics pseudo-realism means that his panels are filled with beguilingly characterful individuals. Again, Gotham appears to be filling up not just with a few extra layers of complexity, but with recognisable human beings too. Even the scene set in the Bat-Cave is composed of fundamentally distinct types, each of which has been given a quite distinct and precise identity which plays with but never conforms entirely to superheroic norms. Obviously, Burnham lacks any fear when it comes to the matter of whether his work will be taken seriously or not. His Nightwing is wonderfully lithe, confident, and good-natured, his Damian a perpetually bad-tempered pre-pubescent who's forever threatening to tear his own forehead off with the force of the world's most ferocious scowling. There's such a confidence and ambition on display throughout Batman Incorporated #3, as if both creators are going to push the world of Batman as far as they can in the direction of the fondly absurd while simultaneously loadingup the text with as much tension and conflict as possible. The mole in Gordon's police force, for example, is given an expression of entirely unconvincing innocence which may be the funniest single panel not containing Bat-Cow so far this year. Others might have been tempted to portray him with a villain's air of maliciousness and guile, but Burnham and Morrison opt to show him as an unremarkable, if obviously devious, mole. It's a choice that suggests that Gotham's being overrun by a mass of profoundly commonplace individuals, by an entirely different order of tough-to-spot challenges to Batman's control of the city. This process of making sure that every character is as fascinating as they're individual even extends to the villainous bit-player Smallfry, whose viciousness and then terror creates an alluring figure out of a generic knock-off.
It's telling that Batman Incorporated #3 feels at its most satisfying when its admittedly fine action scenes are being delayed by moments of character and exposition. Few creators can make their most prosaic scenes feel more entertaining and substantial than their well-worked, adrenalin-triggering set-pieces. Morrison and Burnham's impressive command of their craft, and their refusal to accept a narrow definition of how it ought to be used, even extends to what seems like a powerful echo of Will Eisner's Spirit tales in the scene of Lumina Lux's singing. Just as there's an impressive command of the deep history of craft here, there's also a mastery of today's conventions too. The Hanged Man's third page is constructed from nothing but the same ubiquitous horizontal panels which are so often poorly used in the work of his contemporaries. Yet in The Hanged Man, they've been constructed with such precision and flair, with such an attention to the rule of thirds, that they work as a rich, involving sequence. If the first few issues of Batman International established the book as one which can be both fearsomely action-packed and steeped in a complex mythos, then the most recent in the series declares something perhaps more radical yet. Comics, it seems to insist, can be fascinating when they're paying no attention to shock and blood at all.