21 September 2009

Uninventing the Wheel

Empty spaces - what are we living for
Abandoned places - I guess we know the score
On and on, does anybody know what we are looking for...

1. On the Wild Ride

Death is an interesting thing.
From the moment that we are born, we begin dying. It's an inevitability of choosing incarnation on this planet, everyone dies. Some people take that with grace and dignity. Other people rage against the "darkness". All throughout, many make some sort of elaborate mythology regarding what happens after death. As such, we get interesting pipe dreams about an eternal reward, a black nothingness, conjunction with godhead, dissolution into the infinite...or zombies. I like zombies.

What comes after death? Annihilation or Reincarnation. That's the smartass answer. A more truthful answer would be, "I don't know".

Death doesn't last long in comics. Maybe a year or two. It's kind of like, if you die, you're eventually going to get better. It probably helps when Death herself is a perky goth chick, but well...if you don't get resurrected, you're at least going to come back as a zombie to drain the pocketbooks of other zombies. (Okay, maybe I don't like all zombies. You can't win all the time. Sometimes you get Shakespeare, sometimes you get a monkey wearing a Green Lantern ring) So, Bruce Wayne's dead or adrift in time, living horrible existences one after another, starting from the dawn of time. In other words, when DC finally dusts off the character in a year, we're going to get to read reams upon reams of snuff...but with Batman. Doesn't that make you feel better?

Anyway, Batman's dead. Long live the Bat! ...or something like that.

I actually haven't read most of what occurred between Batman: RIP and now Batman: Reborn. I took a couple looks at the stuff during that whole Battle for the Cowl thing a couple of days ago in the interest of more informing this column and thought it just looked like a big jumbled mess; so for sanity's sake, I'm ignoring it. Grant Morrison's Batman & Robin, though, thing of beauty.

Now, I know most people probably think "Grant Morrison = Weird and wacky, complex ideas." I think people overcomplicate things. They look in to something, like say Final Crisis, to find some sort of deeper meaning. They think that since Grant's written labyrinthine layers into things like The Invisibles that it must be present in everything that he writes. That's just silly. Even The Invisibles is fairly simple depending on how you look at it. You may not get every reference, but first and foremost, you have to look at any of these things as a story. An entertainment, a lark, a fable, whatever. Look at it that way first, and then derive any sort of existential meaning. Of course, everyone being a unique aggregate of ideas, thoughts and experiences, meanings found will differ.

So what's the story? Bruce Wayne is "dead", necessitating someone new to take his place, likewise resulting in a new Robin to stand beside him. As these two new people try to gain their footing in the roles, they stop a drug-smuggling ring by a group of strange circus performers, stumbling upon a madman trying to remake the world in his image, refashioning people as "dolls". As I say, it's pretty simple.

Batman & Robin, like its conceptual predecessor All Star Superman, is fairly straight forward. Being set in modern continuity, it doesn't have the opportunity to play fast and loose with the structure of universe, however being basically the adventures of a "new" Batman & Robin, it does get to tread slightly different terrain. Despite being set in a world of darkness -- filled with loss, despair and sickness --, it has a surprisingly light-hearted, ephemeral undercurrent. It's strange exactly how that works. It's not the gallows humour that you see in a black comedy, but something that's part irony, part absurdity, and part innocence. "Crime is doomed." or "...so we're agreed. It's Robin and Batman from now on."

To a certain extent, it somewhat feels informed by Morrison's run on Doom Patrol. The core cast of characters -- Dick, Damian, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon -- are played straight, but around them is the insanity of the Circus of Strange and Professor Pyg. Cross reference that to the Brotherhood of Dada circling about an axis of Cliff Steele. Also, while Batman: RIP put the reader in a position of where we were never quite sure where we stand, partially because if we take a peek inside Bruce Wayne's head we're liable to see fractals and talking gummy bears, however, with Dick behind the cowl, there's a humanization that occurs. A grounding that allows for a sense of orientation to take place.

Another hero, another mindless crime
Behind the curtain, in the pantomime
Hold the line, does anybody want to take it anymore

2. On Everything and Nothing

There's a line in Trent Reznor's Wish that goes something like, "Put my faith in god and my trust in you, now there's nothing more fucked up I can do." Then there's a Prince lyric, "Trust...who do ya?" How can you trust a ten-year old boy raised by a cadre of assassins who has an insane, immortal misanthrope for a grandfather?

The answer is: perfectly.

You can trust him perfectly to act irrationally. You can trust him perfectly to go off half-cocked at any instance. You can trust him perfectly to knee-jerk against your authority. That's currently the quandary that we have in this new Batman and Robin. On the surface level, roles have been reversed. Batman is now the more light-hearted individual with Dick Grayson behind the cowl; he's a more rounded character, always seeing light in the darkness. Robin, however, a character traditionally designed to add a bit of levity and colour to the darkness of the world of Batman, is now that same ten-year old boy mentioned above; Damian Wayne.

Even though there's a degree of extreme seriousness to Damian, it doesn't make him any less reckless, and because of it, makes him all the more dangerous. Batman still has to deal with a Robin who is young, inexperienced, and liable to do anything that serves what he thinks is the right course of action regardless of warning or reprimand. This is illustrated by the level of incredulity that Damian has for Dick, as well as how Damian deals with the criminal element. He's shown going off on his own against Pyg when he doesn't like what Dick has to say, as well as beating criminals insensate.

Now, I haven't said anything up until this point about the artwork in the first three issues of Batman & Robin, largely because I'm a writer and I find it much easier to talk about the written word. Part of it, though, is that Frank Quitely's choices of imagery, pacing, and blocking are so perfect that they diffuse immediate across the consciousness.

Take a look at this image on the right, the opening page to Batman & Robin #2. Scarcity of background detail notwithstanding -- that's also partially the point leading the focus to the two characters and the stairs -- this is an amazing image. Concern on the face of Alfred. Sorrow, possibly defeat, on the face of Dick. A Robin emblem lying torn on the floor. The draping of the cape to suggest tears. ...and a descent, Alfred coming down the stairs to reach Dick. Simple, yet loaded with content. This is true of pretty much every page of the first three issues of the series.

It also enables the humanization of Batman. Under the cowl, Dick Grayson is a wirier figure that Bruce Wayne, and Quitely takes a more realistic style when it comes to depicting the main characters. His more outlandish designs are reserved for the villains of the piece. It complements the story being told perfectly.

Also, in the second issue, we get a shift in narrative structure. Although in collected form we'll be able to go back and re-evaluate how the storytelling works, the first issue is told seemingly in the present. The second issue, even though it eventually continues on from where the first issue broke, is told back to us through Dick Grayson telling us what happened after the conclusion of the first issue. The third issue then goes forward again. There's a pattern and a tell in that structure.

"...there was a girl... Did -- Did you just save my life?"

The show must go on,
The show must go on
Inside my heart is breaking
My make-up may be flaking
But my smile still stays on.

3. On the Sickness

I like putting tonic water in my Pepsi or Coke.

Can't really explain it, but I like the taste. Somehow it's different from just adding lemon or lime; there's the tart taste of the quinine mixed with the sweetness of the cola that appeals to me. Maybe I'm just strange. I also can't hit the high notes in the Queen songs any more [Just for notation's sake, the interstitial quotes are from Queen's "The Show Must Go On" in case anyone didn't already know that]. Freddie Mercury was unnaturally gifted in terms of his ability to sing such a range without having to utilise a falsetto, but once upon a time, I could easily shift between my natural range and falsetto and ape the notes. I can't do it easily any more. Times change, vocal chords loosen, all that. Things lost.

You could say that it's a winding down, a general shift toward entropy. This is true of just about anything. The key is not to become stagnant. Not to latch on to what came before, hold on to dear life, and try to squeeze every single inch out of it. Take what is old, what is past and done, put it in its place, and move on. Respect it, sure. Learn from it, definitely. But don't worship it. Just because it's the past doesn't mean it's better, it just means that it's past. Change or die.

The problem, however, comes in the idea of "...into what?" It's a process. A journey. Lust for result will almost always result in failure. The perversion that comes from Professor Pyg's manifestations. If you search for anything long enough, you're going to find it. There is, however, the caveat in that what you find might not be exactly what you wanted.

...and so we're left with a pig-faced man; a man masked in "ugliness", couched in ideas brought forth from an Orwellian nightmare, trying to remake the world in his image. It may seem like the incoherent ramblings of a madman, but it's interesting what Pyg is going on about when he's got Robin held captive. First, there's a mention of the despair pit experimentations, then a litany of manifestations of "mommies made of nails": Mormo - a Greek manifestation that cuckolded bad children, Tiamat - a Babylonian goddess that represented that "formless void" mentioned in the Mormo line (also a really good gothic metal band), and finally the "Gorgon Queen" or Medusa - I don't think I need to qualify that one. There's also the line that followed Bereshith ("In the Beginning...") in the Hebrew bible, transliterated as "Tohu va Bohu" and translated as "formless and empty". About a topsy-turvy world I could write reams. ...and the Flashdance sequence is absolutely hilarious. I've missed this Grant Morrison and I'm happy to see him rear his little piggy head. This is like candy to me.

Of course, although ultimately it is fairly simple referencing, to some it takes them out of the straight forward action of a Batman comic. It's a couple drops of tonic water into the sweetness of the cola.

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