Fri
Mar 27 2009 10:49am

Batman R.I.P. - and good riddance!

So, I’ve been working on how to review Batman: R.I.P. the Deluxe Edition for a while now, and basically I’m trying to figure out how to say “underwhelming” and “a disjointed mess” in more than just two or three words. When DC collected The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul, they collected everything from Batman, Detective, and several other comics, stitching them together into one story. And while it wasn’t great in my estimation, it was at least a consistent narrative that had a beginning, a middle and an end. But with Batman: R.I.P., I noticed that while Morrison was writing in Batman, Paul Dini was writing a “Heart of Hush” storyline in Detective that also carried the R.I.P. tag on its cover, yet didn’t seem to have anything to do with Morrison’s storyline (and from reports I’ve heard, was better written). What’s more, DC ran “Last Rites” follow-up tales in both titles. But the hardcover DC has put out as Batman: R.I.P. contains only the Morrison Detective work, both Morrison’s R.I.P. run and his Last Rites follow-up. Since the Dini R.I.P. doesn’t seem to really fit in and is getting its own hardcover release, I don’t object to the omission in the interest of creating a coherent “graphic novel.” But what I object to is the idea that this is one story you can collect in a hardcover and pass off as a stand-alone narrative.

Anyone coming into a bookstore and picking Batman R.I.P. up off the front table (where I saw it) would be utterly lost. There is no way it stands alone at all. R.I.P. contains far to many references to everything for which Morrison has been laying groundwork for his entire run. It also contains way too many references to everything period.

Some necessary background: In his run on Batman, Morrison began by introducing an impostor Batman, a police officer who shows up in Batman’s costume and shoots the Joker in the face (scarring him in line with his The Dark Knight cinematic version). Then Talia al Ghul appears and dumps off Batman’s son (!) on the Detective, saying the two should get to know each other. This off-hand casual introduction of what should have been one of the biggest bits of new continuity in the history of the character never sat well with me. Even more unappealing, when Damien beheads classic seventies’ villain the Spook, Batman’s response isn’t utter horror that the product of his loins has committed murder. His reaction is more along the lines of “bad boy, guess I can’t leave you alone anymore.” And when this is too much responsibility, he dumps the kid back on his mother, figuring it’s better to let him grow up among a League of Assassins than try and get along with him. I call bullshit.

Incidentally, the cliched name of “Damien” for the troubled boy is cheap and melodramatic. R.I.P. itself is plagued by laughably cliched names. Jezebel for the deceitful woman. Hurt for the evil Doctor. Damien for the bad child. It crosses the border from telegraphing your characters to embarrassing them. Moving on...

The impostor Batman turns out to be a bad cop, one of three, two of which will appear before the R.I.P. storyline, but who are all utterly necessary to understand it, as it is revealed in infodump that years ago, Batman subjected himself to an experiment in an isolation chamber, ostensibly to help space science but actually so he could better understand the Joker’s insanity via induced hallucination. During this period, the aforementioned Doctor Hurt supervised a secret experiment to create a Batman replacement should one ever be needed (the Justice League’s phone number apparently unlisted?). Batman, believing he was hallucinating, was matched against the three potentials, but defeated them all, ending the project (and creating our three psychologically-distraught impostors). Meanwhile, at that time, Hurt placed a trigger in Bruce Wayne’s mind that would switch him off, against the day that he would return, in R.I.P., and drive him mad. This, apparently, being easier than doing anything to Batman at the current time, while he was vulnerable, isolated, in a tank, and hallucinating.  Instead, years later, Hurt reemerges with some documents that would seem to besmirch the late Thomas Wayne’s character, if anybody took them seriously, which nobody does. Add to this Hurt’s claim to be someone very special to Bruce Wayne, and a confused sequence where Batman retreats from Hurt’s psychological torment into a previously prepared just-in-case “backup identity” of a space alien. With me?

I think you can see where this review is headed. The real problem with R.I.P. as a story in its own right is that it isn’t. It relies on everything Morrison has done up to this point, and then it has a two-chapter (i.e. two issue Last Rights epilogue) that goes in a completely different direction. But let’s leave this aside for now and return to what is supposed to be the plot—Hurt's campaign to drive Batman mad. Even the payoff here—which is only a spoiler if you’ve been deliberately plugging your ears—that Hurt claims to be Thomas Wayne, is horribly inconsequential. I could see how, if someone wanted to ruin Batman, that a narrative wherein he received word that Thomas Wayne was still alive and wasn’t the saint he remembered could unhinge the Caped Crusader, but this card is really underplayed. When Hurt tells Alfred he’s Thomas Wayne, Alfred replies immediately, “I knew Thomas Wayne, sir. You are not Thomas Wayne.” Case closed. Likewise, when he tells Batman who he is, Batman’s basically replies, “no you’re not.” The moment doesn’t even get a single beat of shock (that Luke to Vader “you're not my father” moment entirely missing!) Batman casually dismisses it with an alternative explanation (“Mangrove Pierce, star of ‘The Black Glove.’ My father’s double, and mine.”) Cue one Dark Knight utterly unfazed. It makes Hurt look ridiculous, running around proclaiming something that nobody takes seriously, like someone who has wandered out of an old Monty Python routine.  One almost suspects that Morrison had planned to make him Wayne for real, then had a higher up at DC (or even at Warner, there is a precedent) step in at the last minute and say, “Uh-uh, no more of that” forcing a hasty write-out of this major plot point. Then finally, and quite arbitrarily, when Batman does “die,” it’s in a helicopter that explodes and crashes into Gotham harbor. Come on! Surely everyone there has read enough comics themselves to know this for the cliched, “we never found a body” old trope that it is. Is anybody besides Nightwing even fooled for a minute?

But this end isn’t the end. Because, in the epilogue, we learn that Batman briefly returned from his helicopter crash, was summoned by the Justice League (apparently before anyone but Alfred saw him alive, and he’s not telling) for something totally unrelated to this storyline, was then kidnapped by the melodramatically-named (and ape man-staffed) Dark Empire, and is being held in a drugged-induced coma.  Batman is hooked up to a “Lump” creature that is siphoning off his genetic material and memories to create an army of Batmen, I kid you not. But during a sequence of flashbacks (and, I suppose from our perspective, flash forwards, since they move beyond the end of R.I.P.), Batman manages to overload Lump with the pain he carries, and (maybe) turn the tables on his captors, though it’s ambiguous as to where the “novel” leaves him. Or, at this point, why anyone should care. So we have an R.I.P. with no real death, and an unrelated kidnapping narrative,  with a villain nobody takes seriously, and a plot that is mostly flashback and infodump, jammed full of the final ends of years long plot points, all bound together with the start of something equally incoherent and completely different, and presented as a single “novel.” Disjointed and vastly unsatisfying. I call bullshit again.

And if that weren’t enough, Morrison is determined to shove everything he’s ever wanted to use into one book, including the most embarrassing bits of decades old continuity. I knew the minute I heard that Morrison was on Batman that Bit-Mite would show up. And I was almost as certain that we’d see the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, so it was no surprise when Morrison managed to work them both in. What was a surprise was that I liked the way he used Bat-Mite, as a figment of the imagination that represented Batman’s faltering grasp on reason after he’d been subjected to psychological attack. And one of the best lines in the series is delivered when Batman asked the Mite “Are you really an alien hyper-imp from the 5th dimension...or just a figment of my imagination.” Bat-Mite replies, “Imagination is the 5th dimension.” Okay, that was clever. But the inclusion of the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh represents one of the key faults of this work. Aside from a single sentence explaining that Batman once hallucinated that he was on another planet, and chose to use this hallucination as an entire backup identity, Zur-En-Arrh is never really explained. You have to be a continuity-knowledgeable fan to get the reference.  But taking this at face value, let’s say you are Batman. You realize that mental attack may be something you have to deal with at some point in your career. You decide to have a back up identity. So you chose, as the most logical choice, what? Another millionaire playboy? A mob figure? An Olympic athlete? Matches Malone? No, the belief that you are a space alien! That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Morrison’s desire to shoe horn in the most outrageous and lamentable bits of the character’s history whether it makes sense in the context of his storytelling or not is more than regrettable. I’ve always loved his “everything and the kitchen sink” approach in comics like The Invisibles and Doom Patrol, but here, I think his appeal has finally worn off for me. It was around the 3/4 mark of R.I.P. that I realized what this is and why I’m done with it. Written only for obsessives with the same knowledge of the character as himself, impossible for a newcomer to penetrate, continuity heavy at the expense of character and story, let’s fit everything that we possibly can in and show how clever we are. I know it’s harsh, but folks, this is bad fan fic.

At a time when Batman’s cinematic expression is pulling in half a billion dollars, garnering an unprecedented level of new fans, this kind of disjointed, incoherent, and ultimately uninteresting story is not doing anyone any favors. I had some issues with Brian Azzarello’s Joker as being offered as part of current continuity when it clearly isn’t, but that was a strong, coherent, stand-alone graphic novel from a talented writer working in fine form, and one whose themes and issues made me think and stayed with me long after I put it aside. If someone had walked out of The Dark Knight into B&N or Borders and picked that up, they wouldn’t have been disappointed, and they might then have cast about for another Batman graphic novel to read next. God forbid they pick this up! If they do, they won’t be back. I don’t think I’ve read my last Morrison, but he’s certainly dropped down many notches in my estimation. And I sincerely hope he and the Batman have now gone their separate ways.

17 comments
Dave Thompson
1. DKT
Wow. You've just completely scared me away from this thing. Which I guess is a good thing.

OTOH, it's too bad because I really do think Morrison is a good writer and I love some of the other stuff he's done (New X-Men, Seven Soldiers). But everything I've heard about Batman R.I.P. = bummer. And there's too much other good stuff out there to read (or reread).

So thanks!
Brian2
2. Brian2
The son isn't a new piece of continuity, just an old and forgotten one. This comes from a graphic novel called "Batman: Son of the Demon," in which Batman actually marries Talia.

Haven't read any of RIP, since it looked like a dog's breakfast. By the way, "unstable" is not a verb ("could unstable the Caped Crusader"). "Destabilize," on the other hand, is.
Lou Anders
3. LouAnders
Son of the Demon is one of my all time favorite Batman stories. I am well aware of it. But its resolution, coupled with Batman's statement here about twisted eugenics experiments, means that it doesn't fit into Morrison's continuity, at least not as it was written.

Re: "unstable/destabilize" - thanks! I'll fix later when I'm in the office. I finished this piece at 5am so was obviously a little blurry.
James Goetsch
4. Jedikalos
Thanks for reading and reviewing it so I will never have to. Seems entirely worthless. What a drag.
Brian2
5. Brian2
Agreed about Son of the Demon. I brought it up because it's a terrific story, and shouldn't be missed.

As for Morrison, I'm not sure I entirely have a handle on what he's doing, but as long as I can remember, he's been pretty postmodern, writing about stories as much as telling stories. He seems to love the sheer absurdity of comics history taken together, without devaluing it. Take his Superman; he tells you what he loves about the character, and at the same time, without being patronizing, he shows you that he also loves the unfettered imagination of Silver Age craziness.

I find it hard to get excited about this kind of thing myself, but I respect what he's doing. He's clever, and he's putting his heart into it, not hiding behind irony or facile judgments.

And, if you come down to it, what are the possible attitudes towards comics, anyway? They're groaning under the weight of endless and obsessive serialization. They were written, for the most part, in an opportunistic spirit, cashing in on fads, patching up stories in ridiculous ways, mostly just assuming you'd forget the whole thing next month. On one hand, it's nice to have the impression that some overall story is being told, and what happens this month is actually going to matter in the big picture. On the other, all that's really happening is that stories about the same characters are being cranked out for decade after decade, not because anyone ever had anything in mind, but because the comics continue to sell. Under the circumstances, preserving "continuity" gets to be like carrying around a bag of dirty socks.

Morrison's approach to this, as far as I can tell, is that sure, if you laid out all the Batman stories in one place, with all their discontinuities, they'd be completely absurd. But isn't that kind of fun? And couldn't you bump up a level and write stories that took that into account? Can't you embrace the absurdity while acknowledging that there was something you truly responded to when you first read the material?

So when he does something like RIP, I assume that he's going to mix in a huge number of obscure references to old stories, and that while he might enjoy getting the details right, he's not going to worry a lot about continuity. In fact, what he's doing pretty much assumes continuity is naive anyway, or it takes it to its logical conclusion, which amounts to the same thing.

I think that's a valid response, at the same time I'm not all that interested in that kind of story. A bit too meta for me, and comics history isn't all that interesting.

To my taste, there are a couple of things that do really work. On one hand, there are stories that begin and end. You didn't have the endlessly continued adventures of Robin Hood, you had him dying. On the other, you have, say, Doctor Who, where everyone knows that it's been improvised on the spot for 45 years, and really doesn't hold together, but that's okay, since it's just a nice place to hang out; and sometimes you have some long-lasting threads where a story is meant to be understood in a larger context, and that's okay, too.

Short of a really self-contained story, though, continuity is just a facade. Even the story of Robin Hood is an open framework for improvisation; you could always interpolate new stories into it. That isn't to say that the appearance of continuity isn't important in story-telling, just that it's generally an illusion.
Lou Anders
6. LouAnders
Brian2 @ 4. I think we're actually in pretty clear agreement, and the Robin Hood example is why I'm so upset that Frank Miller went back into The Dark Knight Returns. Remember Alan Moore's introduction to the original trade paperback edition? And I do think that Morrison's shtick has it's place. It's more effective in his All Star Superman, because there he doesn't let his "everything and the kitchen sink" approach get in the way of storytelling. It's still there, but in service to narrative. Here, I felt narrative was in service to it. And there's nothing wrong with a postmodern approach or any new take on any character, but if a tale fails to entertain first and foremost, then it fails to do anything.
Brian2
7. Brian2
Lou, yes, that's it exactly. The one time that Morrison has ever made me feel anything was Animal Man, which was postmodern but in the service of a story. Otherwise his work strikes me as clever, formalistic, and empty. I'd be happy to be proven wrong.
Lou Anders
8. LouAnders
I have always been big on Moorcock, and was heavily influenced by Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! in the 90s, as well as PKD's Valis, so I really responded well to The Invisibles, which borrowed liberally from all three and worked them into a then-contemporary context. And I like his Doom Patrol very much, or did, but I think the shine has worn off for me, or that his strengths are perhaps becoming weaknesses. Aspects of R.I.P. read more like a parody of Morrison than Morrison.
seth johnson
9. seth
I know this is going to be an unpopular sentiment, but I'd like to see less emphasis on books filled with drawings and more coverage of books containing pages of words.

Seth
Blue Tyson
10. BlueTyson
Well, while that is a bit silly - comics certainly do have fewer words in general than they used to. Which does make them less interesting to me.
Lou Anders
11. LouAnders
Seth, not an unpopular one with me. It's just that my day job is editing an SF&F book line (www.pyrsf.com) and reading manuscripts for that leaves very little time to read books published by my fellow publishing imprints/houses. And even if I did manage to read more than one or two books a year outside the Pyr line, I think it would be bad form to critique the offerings of my fellow editors. I will *always* call out good material when I see it regardless of who publishes it, but I don't think it's my place to regularly review books. Reviewing comics helps me avoid the myopia that would set in if I never read beyond my own imprint, without taking too much time away from my submissions pile, and I feel that, being a different medium to novels, I can provide criticisms without overstepping. But if you are looking for more novel recommendations, always happy to oblige.
seth johnson
12. seth
Lou,

I certainly hope I haven't stepped on your toes with my comment. In fact, the more I think about your review here, I realize that you've helped ground this site from floating off into comic-book-fanboi-land.

I was just bemoaning the mega-momentum that the comic book genre has generated in recent years. I'm not trying to say the genre isn't valid. I just wish SF would get more traction in contemporary pop culture. With the box-office success of all the comic book movies, the studios are trying to twist every SF release into a PG-13 comic book actioner. Terminator: Salvation is a sad example of this trend.

But I digress. Lou, thank you for warning me away from this Batman release.

Appreciatively,

Seth
Brian2
13. Mark Chadbourn
I think Grant Morrison is an ideas man rather than a character man, as so many of the second generation British comics writers are - Warren Ellis is pretty much all ideas; his "characters" are cut from the same cloth of a cartoonish cynical cool hard man with a softish centre. "Cool" is corrosive for creators. You can't write character or emotions or morals and remain cool, and Morrison and his peers are so desperate to be seen as cool they remind me of teenagers. I think that's the issue I have with them. The ideas make them a fun read, but they can never be affecting if they can't find an emotional heart and make you care about characters. I mean, Morrison doesn't even appear to care about his own characters (cf Damien cutting off the Spook's head and Batman's response) so why should I?

The rumours of editorial (or above) interference you touch on in your review may be right. Everything seemed to be pointing towards Thomas Wayne (a beyond stupid idea which would tear the heart out of the character), and if it was misdirection then that should have been a major story point, only it wasn't. There was also talk that Alfred was supposed to be the villain
originally. Both of these things seem like a kid letting off firecrackers so everyone will look at him; blind attention seeking, and, again, an attempt to seem cool by appearing as an iconoclast.

He does seem to be losing the plot (quite literally), and I don't know if that's because of his workload or whatever. His entire Batman run, but particularly RIP, has been bordering on incomprehensible, and goes beyond the oblique storytelling of, say, The Invisibles, where the reader is supposed to contribute, as in David Lynch films. Final Crisis was all over the place. He normally placed his interesting ideas in a good plot structure to make them palatable, but if even that's gone, why should I bother to read something without character and the subsequent emotions and moral perspective?

I don't know - I want something smart and affecting from my comics, and I'm not really getting it.
Wesley Osam
14. Wesley
seth, #12: I was just bemoaning the mega-momentum that the comic book genre has generated in recent years. I'm not trying to say the genre isn't valid. I just wish SF would get more traction in contemporary pop culture. With the box-office success of all the comic book movies, the studios are trying to twist every SF release into a PG-13 comic book actioner.

Comics are a form, not a genre, and there's plenty of stuff out there that doesn't even remotely resemble superhero/action tripe like Batman.
Lou Anders
15. LouAnders
Seth, not at all. I was just explaining why comics-reviewing is my chosen bailiwick here, or part of it. I'm going to be doing more author profiles too, which are distinct enough from reviews.

I will say though, that we have a host of big budget SF cinema coming down the pike, and the success of this is usually a rising tide lifting all boats. I expect that when the new Trek is the huge hit I'm expecting, the net effect will be very positive.
Jared Kardos
16. darkknightjared
On referencing too much stuff from the silver age: To be fair, comics have a long history of such things--difference being back then they'd add an asterisk and tell you where it's from (which I think would have made for a good bit of stuff, espicially since I'm sure most of that stuff's been collected in some form). Even past that, is the massive referencing that big a deal in the information age, where you'd be able to easily understand the reference with a quick google search?

I do agree that I thought they were going to make a bigger deal of the possibility that Hurt is Thomas Wayne. I think either you're correct and DC got cold feet and yoinked it, or Morrison's point was that Bruce's love for his parents was so strong that no one could ever convince him that his parents were anything but overall good people. And I think that Hurt's plot looking ridiculious is part of Morrison's thinking--that you can never permenately break Batman.

I do agree, though, that Last Rites should not have been included in R.I.P., since they relate more to Final Crisis.

I also thought the ending was kinda weak-sauce--espicially since I was assume that Batman was actually going to die in it and not in Final Crisis.

I dunno, I had a lot of the same problems, but R.I.P. and the rest of Morrison's run didn't bother me. It was crazy superhero stuff and when things didn't make sense at first, they usually did in the end. So I enjoyed it either way. *shrug*
Lou Anders
17. LouAnders
Yeah, I guess that when I look at something like The Invisibles, which is probably my favorite comic series ever, I just want a bit more, but I'm not faulting anyone who enjoyed this. I'm reading a lot more comics this year than I have since the 90s, and I'm starting to differentiate between big, lasting, graphic novels that stand up against, well, actual novels, and monthly comic books, which serve a different purpose. So I'm enjoying reading Batman regularly again, while not expecting *everything* to be Dark Knight.

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