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Batman by Grant Morrison: Writing Beyond Understanding
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Batman by Grant Morrison: Writing Beyond Understanding

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Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is considered by many to be the greatest graphic novel ever written. Grant Morrison – writer behind such ground-breaking work as their runs on Animal Man and Doom Patrol – begs to differ. Their reason for disliking Moore and Gibbons’ opus is simple, yet thought-provoking. According to Comic Book Resources, Morrison said, “The fact that none of the characters were allowed to be smarter than the author, that really drove me nuts.”

Of course, that quote begs the question, how in the world could someone write characters that are smarter than they are? How could a writer write things that they don’t fully understand? The simplest answer, it seems, is to dive into Morrison’s work and to see how they do it. Morrison’s runs on Batman, Batman & Robin, Batman Incorporated, and their series The Return of Bruce Wayne, collectively referred to as “Grant Morrison’s Batman,” shows off this approach brilliantly. Simply put, Grant Morrison’s Batman is smarter than they are.

Batman #655 page by Andy Kubert and Dave Stewart.
Batman #655 page by Andy Kubert and Dave Stewart.

Larger than Life Stakes

When you first crack into Morrison’s Batman, which begins with Batman #655, you’ll probably think you missed an issue or two. It begins with Commissioner Gordon hurtling off the roof of a building, infected by the Joker. The Joker crouches over an unconscious Batman, while his Joker-themed helicopter hovers nearby with a bunch of kids tied to it so they can watch him kill their hero. Morrison doesn’t ease us into this story, they throw us in the deep end of comic book madness.

This sets the tone for the whole series. Morrison’s Batman is larger than life. He’s more than you can quite put words to. He lives in a comic book world with comic book characters that have lived a long, winding, comic book life. This is their status quo, it’s not ours. It’s not even Morrison’s. Morrison has never dangled from a helicopter or been thrown from a building by a laughing clown – or at least I’d have to assume they haven’t – and so they must rely on their characters to understand what’s going on. Even when the characters explain what’s going on, Morrison often writes in a way that’s so metaphorical or strange that it sheds no further light on the situation, yet every other character in the room nods in genuine understanding. 

These characters understand things better than we do. While it’s just guess work, I’d be willing to wager they understand more than Morrison does. Despite throwing us in the deep end in many ways, Morrison does prime us for their specific style of writing, even poking a little fun at their way of communicating things.

Panels from Batman #656 by Andy Kubert and Dave Stewart.
Panels from Batman #656 by Andy Kubert and Dave Stewart.

If I Just Stare Hard Enough

The second issue of this run, Batman #656, sees Bruce Wayne attend an art show. He stands in front of a sculpture that looks like a paint can pouring its contents out on the ground, frozen in time. “… There’s a message here somewhere. I know if I just stare hard enough…” Bruce says to himself. (All uses of bold in quotes are as it appears in the original text.) The art that surrounds him is communicating on a level he can’t quite put words to. Is it purely emotional? Is it pointless? Is pointlessness the paradoxical point it’s making? The feeling of exasperation intermingled with inspiration, awe, and confusion mirrors how readers often feel looking at the words of Grant Morrison. “What’s the point here?” you want to ask yourself. And just like some of the best modern artists out there, maybe Morrison has no answers.

It’s funny too, because the issue is quickly followed by a great example of this kind of puzzling writing. As Batman lassoes a flying Man-Bat ninja, he thinks to himself “What does this remind me of?” The action sequence is then interrupted by a single panel of Bruce having thanksgiving dinner with his Aunt Agatha, who sets a big turkey down in front of him. The comparison stops there. There are no further references to Aunt Agatha or her overdone turkey. It’s simply a memory that means something to Bruce, even if it’s a mystery to us. However, it still evokes a feeling. You still giggle a little at the fact that Bruce is thinking about Thanksgiving while he’s beating up bad guys.

There’s plenty more where this came from. One of the villains in Batman & Robin, Professor Pyg, talks in nonsensical rhymes as he brandishes blades in the air, doing a sick dance as he gets closer to his victim. “On Tuesday it’s all Tiamat this and Tiamat that. Tohu va bohu and boo-hoo-hoo.” Tiamat is an ancient Mesopotamian goddess. “Tohu va bohu” is a Hebrew phrase used to call something “void and formless,” most notably used in Genesis to describe the earth before God ordered the universe into being. “Wednesdays, the Gorgon Queen comes in on tiptoes with a million forked tongues for hair.” The Gorgon Queen is a reference to the Greek monster, Medusa. What she has to do with Wednesday I will never know. But there’s a sense that though this is nonsense to us as readers, this means something to the crazed character who speaks it. 

Batman & Robin (2009 series) art by Frank Quitely.
Batman & Robin (2009 series) art by Frank Quitely.

There’s a strange rationale to it all when you take more than a cursory glance at the text. “Tohu va bohu” aren’t made up words, they’re just in another language. There’s meaning, it’s just fleeting and mysterious. Morrison hints at an underlying message but doesn’t unpack it any further. Does Morrison know what Pyg is getting at, or are they merely a conduit for Pyg’s poetic ramblings? It’s not always easy to tell, because as you can see, when you dive deeper into some of Morrison’s text, there are actual references and meanings that we would otherwise miss.

Other such moments abound. Later, in Batman & Robin #4, the masked gentleman Oberon Sexton is introduced to us. As he’s pulled away from a group of rich partygoers, he says, “The solution to the riddle of the Corn Dollie will have to wait.” Within the course of Morrison’s Batman, we never hear the riddle nor the solution. A quick Google search doesn’t help things, except to show that corn dollies had ancient mythological significance to the harvesters who settled along the Fertile Crescent. The Return of Bruce Wayne is chock-full of half poems and complex metaphors. Batman Incorporated occasionally abandons all sense of reality to help us dive into the twisted point of views of some of its most otherworldly characters. Throughout, Morrison has all kinds of suggestions of explanations to these seemingly incoherent words. However, they’re just suggestions, and Morrison gleefully lets the confusion become part of the experience of their work.

The Return of Bruce Wayne #6 cover by Andy Kubert.
The Return of Bruce Wayne #6 cover by Andy Kubert.

Morrison’s Encyclopedic DC Brain

Morrison makes so many deep cut references to Batman’s mythology, that DC Comics even published a collection of the old comics that are alluded to. The collection is called The Black Casebook. In it, Batman meets his counterpart from another world, he fights nightmarish visions of concrete monsters, he joins a clubhouse of heroes that’s funded by a rich mogul, and he travels to other dimensions as an energy form of consciousness while his body dies in the real world. Although, in Morrison’s run, these moments get referenced as though you know them, with only brief explanations tacked on to get you up to speed in case you haven’t read all of Batman’s wild 1960s adventures. 

So in the midst of Morrison’s unabashed embracing of things their characters know more than they do, there are also a ton of nods to things that Morrison knows better than anyone. Morrison knows who Batman is and uses symbolism to evoke our emotions in a way that signs or letters can’t. In The Return of Bruce Wayne #6, the myth of Batman gets cataloged at the end of time by robots that work in Vanishing Point. Most of this issue takes on that larger than life quality of Morrison’s writing. The characters describe looping time itself through black holes. “We’re heading through the eye of the needle of time!” one character yells. As humans that experience time in a linear fashion, rather than time-hopping superheroes, we have no context to make sense of what this means. Though, we have a vague idea.

It’s in the middle of all this timey-wimey talk that we get symbols that mean more than words to us. The robots that are going through Batman’s story pull out little things that we recognize as important parts of Bruce Wayne’s identity. We see a string of pearls, a gun, a bell. These simple objects evoke all kinds of feelings for those familiar with Batman’s origins. Morrison knows that symbols can get at so much more than words can sometimes.

Art by J.H Williams III.
Art by J.H Williams III.

You Need Morrison’s Batman in Your Life

Alan Moore, like a lot of writers, never wrote characters that were any smarter than he was – at least in Morrison’s opinion. The very idea of writing characters that know more than you do seems impossible. That is, until you read Morrison’s work and see the whole concept in action. Ultimately, Morrison’s run on Batman sometimes reads more like a dream than it does a typical comic book. It pulls you in and out of different points in space and time, all while subtly hinting at deeper meanings of the brilliantly strange events that go on. Often, you get the sense that Morrison doesn’t know what they’re writing, exactly. However, those are the most exciting moments, because it’s times like these when the story somehow feels bigger than any of us can quite grasp.

Grant Morrison’s Batman run can be found at all good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, Amazon/Kindle, and on the DC Universe Infinite reading service.

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