Comics / Back Issues

Backissue Retrospective: Grant Morrison and the Gospel of Batman

By Dan Horn
June 28, 2012 - 13:17

Writer Grant Morrison is no stranger to stirring up controversy (or at the very least a little critical thinking), whether he's probing the dizzying literal connotations of Dadaism, portraying a nude Queen Elizabeth or the fantasy fulfillment of gunning down a boarding school headmaster, metamorphosing Superman into a Bruce Springsteen sun god, or reinterpreting William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch to gut-wrenching effect. Recently, his mainstream comics work in particular has piqued my interest, however, and with the news that Morrison is receiving an MBE title from the Queen of England (perhaps she was flattered by her bare depiction in Vimanarama) and with The Dark Knight Rises looming also, I thought it was an appropriate juncture to pry analytically into some of Grant's work on DC's Batman.

The instant which sparked this article was very recent actually, though I'll be digging deeper into my back-issue annals in a bit. In the debut installment of his second volume of Batman Incorporated, Morrison, via Chris Burnham's gorgeous panels, presents a gruesome scene in which Batman and Robin bust a Leviathan-run slaughter house. Between panels of the father-son vigilante duo incapacitating goat-masked Leviathan agents are disturbing images of cows being slain in quick succession, bled-out, and gutted. From the goat imagery to the ritual sacrifice of calves, this scene has several symbolic implications, foremost a religious context whose broader parameters I will be examining, but it seems here Morrison is picking at a certain psychological scab. Are copious amounts of gore acceptable when they do not distinguishably originate from human bodies? It is a question that begs an immediate visceral response from its viewer and one that thumbs its nose at the inconsistencies and unviabilities of comic book rating systems and censorship. Morrison's subversion here is of a more subtle stock relative to his mature readers books because of Batman Inc's somewhat mainstream manacles, but because of Morrison's prerogative to supplant normative storytelling constructs, that subversion remains ever present.

For that matter, Morrison's current Batman saga, spanning the gargantuan run of Batman (Volume 1) #655-658, 663-683, and 700-702, Batman and Robin (Volume 1) #1-16, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #1-6, Batman: The Return, Batman Incorporated (Volume 1) #1-8, Batman Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes!, and Batman Incorporated (Volume 2) #1-present, seems like little more than a deliberate and picaresque pastiche of the long-form comic tale. The staggering longevity itself of the saga makes the story, each chapter almost inextricably linked back to the beginning, difficult to follow, and its mining of decades of obscure continuity minutia beyond Morrison's own influence is enough to make a seasoned comics reader's head spin. Even the reboot of DC's continuity has done little to rein in Morrison's neurotic experiment in comic book convolution, leaving his Batman Inc as perhaps the only series unscathed by the line-wide retcon despite inclusion of or allusion to characters that no longer exist in DC continuity (Stephanie Brown, Kathy Kane, Jezebel Jet, etc.).

Morrison's parody doesn't end anywhere near there, though: the third issue of Batman Inc (Vol 1) is written partially in Spanish, a surefire way of infuriating American nativists (of which I spoke at length in the first Backissue Retrospective); the seventh issue of that same volume forces Americans to take a hard look at their own apartheid and internalized third world colonies, Native American reservations; Batman #663 is written in dense, absurdist text with ugly computer-generated illustrations, another unequivocal method of aggravating people who are too lazy or too inattentive to read; his very first Batman arc introduced Bruce Wayne's illigitimate son Damien (this was interpreted as comic apostasy in many circles); no less polarizing, he put his titular hero in yellow, purple, and red tights and armed him with a baseball bat for a few issues during the R.I.P. arc; finally, in the pages of Final Crisis he killed Batman, and then almost immediately brought him back from the dead (in which case Batman's death was then seen by many as an exploitative marketing maneuver)! The list goes on and on and on. Despite popular belief, Morrison's satire is never performed sardonically, however. It's more of a love letter to the medium, something that says, "See? I was paying attention all this time. Now it's my turn." And accompanying his sense of irony is an equally prevalent revisionist verve, but to assess those revisions of and their mythic connotations to comic lore, we must look back at least two decades.

Morrison's relationship with Batman began long before his current run, with his and Dave McKean's best-selling Arkham Asylum graphic novel and the Legends of the Dark Knight arc which I'll be focusing on for a moment, a five-issue story entitled "Gothic" or "Gothic: A Romance" with art by Klaus Janson. "Gothic" took full advantage of the continuity-free Batman book in its fledgling months, exposing mainstream audiences to a berserk, satanic fever dream as the unsettling story explored among many motifs the Faustian immortality pact. For our purposes, it's worth noting a particular Janson cover in this series, Legends of the Dark Knight #7, as it relates to Morrison's Batman now. The cover at first glance seems terribly odd, incongruous when compared to the fairly commercial illustrations promoting the other four issues of "Gothic." An abstract, unbalanced composition with no clear point of reference, an imperfect linear perspective, and subtle hierarchic scaling, it certainly wouldn't appeal generally to the average comic reader. However, the image does evince something familiar, the religiosity and symbolism found in 15th Century Northern European paintings.

The background of the cover illustration contains in the right corner a modern, brick, curtain-wall structure and toward the left corner the parapet of a Gothic-revival cathedral. This in particular seems to indicate a parallel of relative time periods: past and present or the post-modern United States and its devoutly religious roots in Europe and colonial America. Through the foreground of the image, criminals are scattered across a rooftop like the somber and beleaguered denizens of hell in a Hieronymous Bosch piece, an inverted Batsignal dominating the bottom right corner like some heretical upside-down cross. Just below the upper right corner is the signal's converse, Batman, weirdly illuminated in the shadows between two rays of light, the only hope left for the criminals who have gathered on this rooftop to summon him, yet seemingly so far removed from them spatially, as if Batman exists on some other plane apart from those around him. This image conjures occult tonality and presages Morrison's radical presentation of Batman as a Christ figure.

We see these classical art motifs once again in J.H. Williams III's cover illustration for Batman Incorporated (Volume 1) #1, where Batman, standing before a collage of national flags, is crowned by a Japanese rising sun, like a plate halo adorning Christ in Gothic portrayals. The same literary motifs appear time and again as well, most notably in the death and resurrection of Bruce Wayne, Bruce's post-mortem excursion through time-space reflecting the assertion of the Apostles' Creed that Christ descended into hell after his crucifixion and the institution of Batman Incorporated perhaps being an analogue of Christ's disciples taking the Gospels abroad after the Ascension.

Similarly, Bruce's son, Damien, impish and impetuous, could easily be interpreted as the Devil or the Antichrist. In both Batman #666 and #700, an adult Damien is portrayed as a future Batman who is without his father's values and without his belief in the sanctity of life. Damien is a false prophet analogue, a former member of the host who has fallen from grace. He is Lucifer, the antithesis of Christ, even with the best of intentions. Then again, the Devil takes many forms in Morrison's Batman comics, from Dr. Hurt and the Black Glove to Leviathan.

This deification of Batman and strict adherence to scriptural structure might at first seem an implication of Morrison's personal religious fervor, but that is not quite the case. Rather, Morrison handles the transfiguration motifs like an extension of myth, a modern meme of an old god, in much the same way Arthurian legend is continually repackaged and retold, through stories like Star Wars, to preserve its thematic essence yet to also present it to progressing audiences. The identification alone which Morrison makes of the Christ figure as myth is striking, and his assertion that comic books should be the modern torchbearer of that myth is equally eyebrow-raising.

Morrison explains his view of comic books as purveyors of modern myth in his slightly muddled non-fiction text, Supergods. He distinguishes the superhero comic book from other pop-cultural media, like cinema, literature, and even artistic and/or literary comic books, in that the emphasis on superhumans makes the superhero comic a contemporary mythos of gods similar to those found in ancient Greek and subsequently Roman cultures. Morrison postulates that, whether we acknowledge it or not, superheroes are the embodiment and the surviving cultural vestige of our own pagan mythos in the same way that Catholic liturgical antiquity reflects its non-Christian origins.

In this way, Morrison sees his own work on superhero comics as a manipulation of that mythic fabric rather than mere storytelling solely for the sake of entertainment. His addition of Batman to a long line of resurrected messiah cognates, which includes Osiris, Achilles, and of course Jesus of Nazareth, is profanely amusing in that the addition is meant to be a literal transfiguration of a mythic figure rather than a literary transfiguration of an admittedly fictional character or analogue, such as Sydney Carton or Harry Potter.

The question is, with the death and resurrection already out of the way, what comes next for a Christ figure, the book of Revelation? One thing is certain: It will interesting to see what Morrison envisions as the messiah's unwritten act.

Interested in reading more Backissue Retrospectives? You can find the other editorials in this series on ComicBookBin's Back Issues page.

Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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