Through a Cowl, Squinting...
When Nietzsche said God is dead, he forgot to mention that Satan died in the same horrific accident.
—Grant Morrison (1960-present)
I reverse the phrase of Voltaire, and say that if God would have existed, it would be necessary to abolish Him.
—Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876)
There will come a time when I will look in your eye.
You will pray to the God that you’ve always denied.
I’ll go out back and I’ll get my gun.
I’ll say “You haven’t met me, I am the only son.”
—Mumford and Sons, “Dustbowl Dance”
Though many fans and critics have, over the years, complained about Grant Morrison’s depiction of the so-called “Bat-God” that began years ago in the pages of his acclaimed run on the re-launched JLA, many overlook the obvious: the guise of the Batman was intentionally designed by Bruce Wayne as a sort of pagan ceremonial garb to strike fear into the “superstitious cowardly lot” that plagued Gotham City. Over time, the Batman became synonymous with Gotham: the dark knight detective, watching over his city from who-knows-where like an angry deity, swooping down from the skies to administer punishment to the wicked and absolution to the just.
This became the way the people of DC’s Earth saw Gotham City, beginning a little over a decade after the double-murder of the Waynes, and they trusted in that black-clad savior. And this became Batman’s identity: a swooping, monstrous dark angel of vengeance. Only fitting then that, like Michael, the angel who drove Lucifer out of Heaven, that Bruce Wayne, the original Batman, would go down fighting a demon.
Whether his disappearance from Gotham was due to a climactic battle with Doctor Hurt, who may or may not have literally been Satan himself, as most of the DC Universe believes, or against the mad tyrant god Darkseid as the superhero community knows matters very little. What matters is that Bruce Wayne fell, mythically, in battle, against an all-consuming darkness that threatened to destroy the world he had sworn to redeem.
Enter, then, the identity crisis of Gotham City.
Enter, then, a world without a Batman.
Enter, now, a new Gotham with a new Dynamic Duo.
Bruce Wayne’s son, Damian, has ascended to the role of Robin, supplanting Tim Drake, who has adopted another identity. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne’s first ward, Dick Grayson, former Robin and ex-Nightwing, has supplanted his mentor’s cape and cowl. Gotham has become a strange, schizophrenic hybrid of Bruce Timm’s grim and gritty art deco of the 1990s animated series, Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City, and some rusted-over, crime-addled urban rendition of Baum’s Emerald City. This is the status quo as Morrison begins his current run on Batman and Robin, which just concluded its first year with the conclusion of its fourth arc.
The criminals, police and various other denizens of Gotham City, whether they knew it or not, had all become used to Bruce Wayne’s Batman and, perhaps subconsciously, often reacted accordingly. This is lamp-shaped very early on, when several police officers comment to Commissioner Jim Gordon about Batman sounding different and appearing to be shorter. Gordon, who has always maintained as much willful ignorance to the identity of Batman as possible (a remarkable similarity Batman shares with his nemesis, the Joker), agrees that there may be something slightly different about Batman, but acquiesces there’s most certainly something familiar about that Robin. At first slightly suspicious, he no doubt realizes who the new Batman is during the arc’s closing pages as he shares a tender moment with his daughter’s former lover. With the trust of Jim Gordon behind the new Batman and Robin, the trust of the city will no doubt follow suit.
Working from the ground up to establish their identities as Gotham’s new angels of vengeance, Dick and Damian have, perhaps unbeknownst to them, inverted the traditional behavioral norms of the Dynamic Duo. Damian as Robin is intimidating, intense and only speaks when necessary. Dick, always the circus performer, is quick-witted, quippy and sometimes even smiles.
It’s only fitting, then, that Morrison begins their legend as they take down Professor Pyg and his Circus of Strange, residing on the old fairgrounds where the Joker, whose specter haunts the first year of the book, once tortured Jim Gordon. And it is only fitting that at the end of the third issue, the fairgrounds have been destroyed, fire serving as a cleansing rain to relieve the Bat-family of the pains of their shared past.
It’s typical for Morrison to write masks and false identities into his works. The Invisibles’ John-a-Dreams and his many fictionsuits practically run all things in the DC Vertigo series, and some of them even wear literal masks, most notably the deviant pornographer Mister Quimper. Both of the worlds Greg Feely inhabits in The Filth are themselves masks after a fashion, and traditional superheroic masks take center stage for most of Morrison’s tenure on Animal Man. The theme is seeming crystallized when, inevitably, the Seven Soldiers must individually decide which of their many faces they truly want to be remembered for wearing.
It seems the entire point of the opening arc of Batman and Robin, entitled “Batman Reborn”, is to inform the reader that no one is ever what they seem. Professor Pyg, a warped Henry Higgins if his name didn’t already give him away, is revealed to be a whimpering coward. In the second arc, his creation Scarlet, whose identity even Pyg willfully ignores, teams with the Red Hood, the former Robin Jason Todd as the two battle to make crime-fighting more “adult”. By calling out his elder, Dick Grayson, for apparently being childish, he pushes Grayson’s buttons just as Bruce Wayne apparently pushed Jason’s. Jason, as the Red Hood, complains that Bruce forced Jason to dye his hair to look more like Dick, a reference to DC insisting that a redheaded Robin would ruin the tremendous amounts of Grayson-related merchandise; after all, a dark-haired Robin action figure could then be either Dick or Jason.
By the end of that arc, Jason has dropped the Gilbert & Sullivan-quoting theatrics, and Scarlet has escaped Gotham City, her true face returning.
The third arc is almost entirely devoted to demystifying the comicbook resurrection as Dick Grayson attempts to revive Bruce Wayne in a Lazarus Pit; purposefully ironic, no doubt, as its title, “Blackest Knight”, parodied the contemporaneous company-wide crossover “Blackest Night”, wherein the dead walk and have superpowers. What Dick soon finds out about the body he was attempting to resurrect is that it was nothing but an imperfect clone of Bruce, letting the Dynamic Duo realize that the real Bruce is out there.
The fourth arc, “Batman vs. Robin”, contains possibly the most unmaskings of the entire series thus far, as it is largely a three-issue revelation. Further secrets of the Wayne family’s history and ancestral home, the identity of mystery man Oberon Sexton, Damian’s declaration of his destiny as he pledges his loyalty to the Wayne family over his maternal House of Al Ghul; and the acceptance of the flaws of the new Dynamic Duo, with their admission that Tim Drake was right and that Bruce Wayne is alive somewhere.
Oberon Sexton oddly, seems to have guessed at least Dick Grayson’s identity as the new Batman. When the two meet, he mentions that they share an interest in crime. In “Batman vs. Robin”, Damian’s still-burgeoning detective skills show their weakest point yet when he flat-out asks Sexton if the latter is Bruce Wayne. This, of course, stops Sexton dead in his tracks. Why would the new Robin be asking him this unless…no. No, it can’t be. Given Morrison’s frequent reference of the Joker’s hyper-insanity, when the need for the Sexton identity has run its course, he’ll more than likely go back to forgetting all sorts of information about Dick, Damian and Bruce.
In a perverse way, going back to the supposition that Batman is a sort of deity or avenging angel to the denizens of Gotham, the Joker has always, in a sense, been Batman’s high priest. Often in fiction, men of faith, such as Lost’s John Locke, have an unwavering belief in whatever it is that they have found themselves worshipping blindly until it comes back to injure them. Bruce Wayne, the original Batman, shot the Joker, so to has the Joker’s faith been validated, in the way that only a true madman could believe, by the seeming immortality of the legend, if not the man. Batman may have shot the Joker, but both still live on, and as any number of character’s in Inherit the Wind would sing, “If it’s good enough for Brady, then it’s good enough for me!”
In essence, Batman and Robin has abandoned the “Bat-God” paradigm Morrison established so long ago. While not a complete demystification of the man who can do anything (in stark, almost upsetting contrast to Alan Moore and Superman’s “The Man Who Has Everything”), it feels more appropriate to refer to the Bat, in his current Dick Grayson incarnation at least, as a “Bat-Myth”. All the trappings of mythology from ancient Greece to Joseph Campbell all there, and all one has to do is look at it closely, maybe through a cowl, squinting, and they will see the beginning of a new age in Bat-Mythology. With all of the changes, if nothing else, the ceremonial garb of this urban pagan god is still largely the same, and in the end, that’s all that matters.
The identity of the boogieman may have changed, but not his true face.