“The Eternity Edition” is considered by scholars to be the most complete, most correct version of Hamlet. But what of the other editions? Kenneth Branagh once esteemed Hamlet: Prince of Denmark as that one hoop through which every actor must launch themselves. PopMatters’ time with Grant Morrison has opened our minds to other hoops.
The Greatest Batman Story Ever Told
There is a singular, arresting, savage beauty to Frank Miller’s Batman: the Dark Knight Returns, and not all of it can be found in the story itself. Much of the beauty lies in the reboot of the idea of Batman. It’s a beauty that on the tenth anniversary, Miller himself chronicles in “Dark Knight Days”, a new introduction to the commemorative edition of the Dark Knight Returns. Miller writes,
1984. In any number of restaurants and hotel bars. Many times. Dick Giordano [DC Editor-in-Chief at the time] says sure Batman’s sales are flat. But look at what any time somebody conducts one of those reader surveys in the fanzines. Batman’s just about everybody’s favorite character. The time is more than ripe for a high profile, all-out relaunch of the old war horse.
But that was just it. That was exactly what came to bother me about Batman. He wasn’t old, damn him. Despite nearly fifty years of continued publication, there he was, unwrinkled, handsome, perpetually twenty-nine. Never a kink in that tree-trunk neck. Never a moment fretting the possibility that his athletic prowess would ever fade. Perpetually young, younger than Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan. Impervious to time itself.
1985. My apartment in New York City. A sudden realization, and not a pleasant one. My thirtieth birthday is right around the corner. I’m poised to turn one year older than Batman.
I’ve come to accept, in recent years, that Spider-Man is younger than my little brother, but Batman? Batman? My favorite childhood hero? That lantern-jawed, ever-wise father figure? I’m actually going to be older than Batman?
This was intolerable. Something had to be done.
Miller goes on to chronicle the creative process of the Dark Knight Returns, and of course by this time you want to read the graphic novel. You’ve heard about it before, about the powerful vision of a Batman who reclaims his mantle decades after his retirement. About the challenges of a new world that’s grown more cruel in his absence. About Miller’s creative genius in extrapolating ‘80s politics into a vivid and vicious fictive setting that is easily the equal of any Springsteen album of the time. The Dark Knight Returns is political nightmare scenario built on what could perhaps be considered a logical progression of Reaganomics and the culture of deregulation ushered in by the same. And at the same time, the Dark Knight Returns is also a deeply incisive meditation on the DC Universe. By casting Batman’s final villain as not the Joker or the Scarecrow, but as Superman, Miller unearthed underlying tensions that were buried deep, but became painfully obvious once exposed.
“‘Yes’—you always say yes—to anyone with a badge, or a flag—no good,” Batman’s ring like an accusation against Superman, just as they still ring in my mind.
Much ground was gained with this arresting vision of Batman, more than could be imagined prior to the project. The Dark Knight Returns solved two problems. One, Miller’s own hesitancy around the Batman as superhero. Why did Batman have to become smaller over time? And two, a publishing problem. What did fans see in Batman that creators until then were unable to tap?
But perhaps equally much was lost. Many will point to Miller’s vision of the Batman as borderline psychopathic. But this is something of false trail. Batman, Bruce Wayne, as a man who finds himself “by demons driven”, is actually a core subject in Returns. In many ways the point of the book is an examination of whether or not Bruce can find a way to escape his demons without being driven into an endless underground cave. Tragically, Miller finds this not to be the case, and the Dark Knight Returns is made all the more poignant for that.
The real “damage” done, in the crass, cruel, bloated sense of the word, by the Dark Knight Returns however, lies in its success. The Dark Knight Returns achieves all of the things Miller wrote about in his introduction to the 10-year anniversary of the book. It was exactly that “a high profile, all-out relaunch”, a kind of reward for the fans who, like Miller, were themselves no growing older. The same fans who now once more had a Batman who was larger than themselves.
A consequence of this runaway success was something that could perhaps only be measured 10 years on, around the time when Miller began to pen “Dark Knight Days”. It was a reinvestment in the idea of the star system. When sales are flagging, or at least this is the story we began to tell ourselves over that decade between the Dark Knight Returns and “Dark Knight Days”, we need a star creator. Somehow, someway a singular, visionary writer will emerge and reclaim lost miles. The old and the weathered and the dated will, by some secret alchemy of the creative process, be reconfigured as the new, the bold. What will bring readers back? The Death of Superman. Mark Waid will helm the Return of Barry Allen, the speedster we believed lost to time when he ran so fast he became his own origin. Chuck Dixon will write Crossroads where one Green Arrow will die, passing the mantle on to a son he didn’t realize he had.
One generation on from the Dark Knight Returns, Grant Morrison faces a conceptual challenge. He’s already rebooted the much-beloved Justice League of America as the techno-sophisticated JLA, drawing the characters as easily into contiguity with Jack Kirby’s Fourth World tales, as with the political expansiveness of DC’s fictive Mid-East. He’s already retooled Marvel’s X-Men to produce a vision of the team facing genuine evolutionary challenges rather than internecine mutant conflicts. Would his own fame, stand in his way? Would Grant Morrison build a Batman, and within five years, a Superman who would, like the Dark Knight Returns simply dwarf every vision of the characters before or since?
Stars Fallen Down
“When you’re working in the DC Universe or the Marvel Universe,” Grant says during our interview, “which has basically been created over diverse hands, you’re actually constantly working with people who’ve already created stories. So for me it’s immense immersion. When I was doing Batman I was reading everything by Bill Finger and Denny O’Neil and everyone who’d ever worked on the character, was being fed into what I was doing. The Frank Miller stuff and the Mike Grell stuff, and everything was part of the mix and the matrix of Batman. So I felt constantly in touch with the people who’d also created or added to the mythology of this character. So for me it’s always about that, about getting in touch with that network of everyone who’s ever had thoughts about this thing. Which is something I find quite strange—that there are otherwise intelligent people who spend an awful lot of time thinking about Batman. And by thinking about Batman they become part of that network, and you want to read everything they thought about Batman, because it qualifies and illuminates what you think about Batman.”
It’s maybe hard to see at first, but when married with something Grant writes in his farewell meditation on nearly seven years of having written Batman, we glimpse into that strange alchemy of the creative process. Grant writes,
The original pitch was for 15 issues winding up with Batman R.I.P. but something happened along the way and, as I was researching his rich history, I became fascinated by the idea that every Batman story was in some way true and biographical—from the savage, young, pulp-flavored “weird figure of the dark” of his early years, through the smiling, paternal figure of the 1940s and the proto-psychedelic crusader of the ‘50s, the superhero detective of the ‘60s, the hairy-chested globetrotting adventurer of the ‘70s, to the brutally physical vigilante of the ‘80s and snarling, paranoid soldier of the ‘90s.
By taking his entire publishing history as the story of his life, I was able to approach Batman from a different angle and the multifaceted character that was revealed became the subject of my story.
But something happened along the way…
This is an entirely new mode of superhero storytelling, one that harness the nature of perpetual fictions. Instead of a singular, arresting, savage vision of the character produced by a superhumanly genius artist-hero, imagine a network of voices all feeding into the single greatest Batman story ever told—the story that is the Batman itself. It’s a kind of storytelling that is equal parts Facebook and Wikipedia. There’s the thrill of being on the network, of sharing, of being shared. And equally, there’s the Wikipedia-like joy of what Chris Carter at the end of every episode of X-Files when his production company’s logo played, so aptly assayed as “I made this!”
How do you build a Batman that is so singular that it doesn’t dwarf every other vision of Batman that’s ever been? By building those other visions of Batman into your own. By confronting them, contending with them, wrestling with them, and writing your way through them to get free of them, only to write yourself into them.
In the end, what Grant Morrison gives us, is exactly what Frank Miller gave us one generation ago, to this day. It is, the vindication of our fandom within the fandoms of generations past. The idea that nothing about the Batman was arbitrary, and that the Batman is large enough to contain all possibilities. It is that moment at the end of Skyfall. It’s last year and we’re watching the end, long after the reckoning of Lovecraftian proportions for Bond, but mere moments after visiting the Skyfall estate for us. Bond walks into the antechamber office, he flirts once more with the spy who we realize now is Moneypenny. He walks through a leather-panel door, and six years on from Dan Craig taking the role, Bond begins…