Thursday, August 13, 2009

COMIC OPINION: The Current State of the Bat Universe

The Batman universe has been a giant clusterfuck of a place lately. Depending on what you've been reading (or not), Bruce either took off after an explosion and some serious psychological wear and tear perpetrated by a man claiming to be Thomas Wayne. He might be dead. He might've taken off. No body was ever found so we can guess where he is: taking some well deserved personal journey time. I like that one.

Or you read Final Crisis and Batman was hit by some weird ray gun thing of Darkseid's and is now adrift in time. This sounds like a 70's plot line and I could honestly take it or leave it. I'm completely unmoved by that story. Every "Crisis" is an even less impacting publicity fueled move than the last.

The odd thing is that both of these solutions were written by Grant Morrison. Now personally, I love Grant Morrison. His run on the X-men entitled "New X-Men" was nothing short of amazing... until Chris Claremont and that Buffy guy had to come and shit all over it (essentially negating Morrison's work). Morrison is known for his mind bending plot lines. He likes to play with his audience and blow your mind as often as he can without ruining his credibility (read: he's not M. Night Shyamalan). He's done this many times and I've eaten it up most of the time.

In the case of Batman, I have no idea what DC is doing and I'm pretty sure they don't either. First off, we have two completely different explanations as to where Bruce may be. One the result of Morrison's building up a huge, year long emotional breakdown for Bruce, which was nicely done. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes eh, sometimes over the top in all the right ways, but it offered captivating new situations and characters that kept me glued to it. And then there's the one where Bats is just hit by some time ray gun and sent off because DC can't figure out how to handle real drama lately. I've always considered myself more of a DC guy until recently when I realized its pretty much just Batman that keeps me there. I have no problem with DC characters and, when written well, they're all fascinating mythologies.

Lately, however, with Marvel's fantastically well oiled Brian Michael Bendis helmed machine, DC has picked the worst time to mishandle their biggest property. A year after the "Dark Knight" almost becomes the number one film ever and they decide to pull their core character out of his mask and replace him with a former side kick. That's ballsy and could have really paid off for them. IF they'd handled it well.

DC must be getting trampled in sales. Marvel decided they wanted massive character/universe altering material, they let Bendis unleash this multi-year story arc maelstrom in the form of Civil War (turn the heroes against each other) to Secret Invasion (Skrulls exploiting this weakened state and causing large scale damage to the Marvel U) and finally the current Dark Reign (in which former Green Goblin, Norman Osborne exploits the Secret Invasion to become a national hero and take Nick Fury's old job in the process). That whole wave from Marvel has just astounded me. They continue to up the stakes on situations that I'm already shocked they can top in the first place. And EVERY one of these arcs have had lasting effects that not only last, they SET UP the next major event. That's brilliant and I can't remember a time in mainstream comics where the huge universe changing cross over has ever been so masterfully handled and, most surprising of all, sustained for as long as they have (with no signs of stopping).

DC has some of the most epic mythologies in comics backing up and defining their characters but they don't own it. They keep trying to modernize them at the expense of who they really are. If you want the squeaky clean heroes who don't kill, OWN IT. Bringing them into the modern age can only happen if DC stops being so damn self conscious. Or stuck. Seriously, the only way I can even begin to explain it is that they seem to be stuck in some horrible nostalgia for themselves. They create these cartoon quality story arcs that have a lasting effect for maybe six months, the fans don't bite, they let their writer's off the leash and they all do their own thing. A lot of great stories have come out of these periods. But inevitably, DC decides they need to circle the wagons with their characters again and create a "Crisis" to bring them all together and (supposedly) re define continuity for a renewed and singular voice.

Well its not working DC. Maybe no one will say it to you directly so I will. Its not working. Stop it. I say that without joy. I love many characters in your lexicon so how bout you start doing the Justice League some damn justice?

So now we have the Bat Universe in its current state. Dick Grayson has replaced Bruce Wayne as Batman. I'm not opposed to this, it was always a possibility in the Bat world so its kind of fun to get to explore that finally. Morrison is doing a fine job of this in the core title right now Batman & Robin. That title is great. Its different, we're getting a taste of how Dick Grayson learns to become Batman while being shadowed by Batman's own son and new Robin, Damien, who is himself an even more intense mini-Bruce than you'd think Bruce himself capable. Damien, for the uninitiated, is a son created from the DNA of Bruce Wayne and Ra's Al Ghul's daughter (one time Batman lover... biblically) Talia. I was opposed to the character at first, but he's grown on me (which was no doubt Morrison's intention, like I said, the man knows how to play with the reader).

Then we have the slew of other books DC has built up to surround Batman & Robin, supposedly to further explore and delve into this fascinating concept. At least in theory anyway (there are two exceptions, however). We have Streets of Gotham and Gotham City Sirens both written by Batman Animated Series scribe and Harley Quinn creator Paul Dini. He's done some great work in the past but neither of these books has even a fraction of impact on this totally re-invented Batgame. In Streets we get random adventures of the new Dynamic Duo doing (and acting) almost exactly as Bruce Wayne and Tim Drake (most recent Robin) did. It has throw away dialogue that is on par with what the mainstream THINKS comics read like. Gotham City Sirens should have been great, the team up of Catwoman, Harley and Poison Ivy. Only it too reads like a re-run offering us little more than Spice Girls movie quality GIRL POWER! that's clearly written by a man.

Then we have Red Robin. Red Robin is the new identity of pre-all this shit Robin, Tim Drake. Drake is convinced Bruce is still very much alive and travels the world in search of his former mentor, trainer and adoptive father. And again, could have been fascinating. So far Red Robin has done very little investigating and instead spends time getting into "adventures" with locals where ever he goes for mere sentences of info that won't ultimately matter because we all know that when Bruce does come back (please DC, sooner rather than later!) it will be in Morrison's book as this is ultimately his baby.

What perplexes me most is that it seems like the only real meat we're getting from this story arc is IN Morrison's title. We have to wait for his book monthly before we can feel we've taken a step forward. I honestly believe this is precisely what the other writers are being forced to do. None of the writers on the current Batbooks are by any means bad writers. What I think is happening is that DC won't let them delve into the action too hard because it IS Morrison's baby and Morrison is not Brian Michale Bendis. And that is in no way a pro or con directed at either. Bendis is clearly a planner type artist and Morrison a more organic "do it on the night" sort of artist. I love their work precisely for these individual traits. But surely DC knows this... so why give us such filler crap? Why not something new? Marvel has their "filler books" too. The current Dark Wolverine arc about Wolverine's son and current Dark Avenger, Daken or Sinister Spider-man which is actually a title about Dark Avenger Venom, who is posing a Spider-man. Are these books required reading of Dark Reign as a hole? No. Do they add character development and different dimensions from which to view the bigger picture? That's a big enthusiastic YES.

Why can't DC achieve this?

Their filler feels (insultingly) like filler. I've already dropped all of these side books after their second issues. I usually go 3 with any series to be respectful and acknowledge that there's always the possibility I'm just not getting it. I've seen EVERYTHING DC is doing in the Bat titles right now so many times I just can't read them. They're white noise to my ears.

There are the two exceptions I spoke of. The first being Judd Winick's Batman. Its the actual comic title Batman and here we have all of the 'Dick Grayson has big Bat boots to fill" related struggles for him as a character replacing a respected mentor who is also his polar opposite. So how do you become what you set out to purposely avoid becoming? That's a solid book concept there and its being handled with competence and respect for the current impact of such a big change as removing Bruce Wayne from every current Bat title.

The other is Batwoman, which is the one I most lauged at initially. Batwoman is the new lesbian Bat side character. Before a gay and lesbian group gets on me allow me to clarify my reasons for laughing: I'm all for diversifying characters and their worlds. Marvel has that in droves and always has. But somehow, when DC does it, it always feels so forced and cheap because they tend to invent some third string side character to just dump into their comics every time they catch some bad press for not having modern enough heroes who live in a modern and diverse world. Luckily, this character was created and is being written by Greg Rucka. Greg Rucka writes some of the best modern noir you will ever get your hands on. And Batwoman, I must say, feels the most like a real Bat book out of this whole mess. Batman and Robin being exempt from that comparison as Morrison has said its not meant to be what we're all used to. And the best part, Rucka does not treat this new "minority" addition to the DCU as if that were her only purpose for existing. She is a well thought out character with realistic motivations and problems without just being a well thought out (PR move) lesbian character.

So there you have it. Your head spinning? Mine too. I wait patiently every month for Morrison to drop more awesome onto the local comic racks while DC tries desperately to give it some marketing support in the form of very lost and forced side stories/re-runs despite being surrounded by what could (and should) have been the biggest Batman upset story arc ever. Luckily we have Judd Winick and Greg Rucka involved in two of those titles or I would literally be buying only one DC book right now, instead of three.

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