[11 January 2012]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Over the course of his lifetime, some 400 years ago, astronomer and physicist Johannes Kepler grew obsessed with the problem of 93 million miles. The exact distance from the sun, at the center of our solar system, to the earth. This distance meant a perfect temperature, neither too hot nor too cold. In the area between the tropics, water would neither freeze nor boil away, providing remaining as the liquid water essential to the development of life. A 24-hour rotation period of the Earth on its own axis meant regular diurnal/nocturnal biorhythms could be established. And seasonal tilts meant that vegetative cycles would ensure regular crops. 93 million miles, Kepler correctly observed, was just perfect for the formation and the sustained expression of life as we know it. But, Kepler went on to ponder, by what mechanism had the Earth developed at just the right distance? How could the planet have formed at exactly the right distance from the sun, in what would later become called the Goldilocks Zone? How, or by whose hand?
There is of course a flaw in Kepler’s thinking. A kind of backwards-rationalization in the midst of playing out. It is the assumption that life on Earth, life as a we know it, was an intended outcome. And, as a corollary of that assumption, the idea that conditions necessary for that outcome were prearranged either by some divine hand or the mechanisms of stellar evolution. Kepler’s mistake, was the mistake of assuming intent. The mistake of assuming agency. Mistaking the consequence of life developing where it was perfect for life to develop, as an intended outcome instead. This kind of logical flaw is referred to as “fundamental reasoning”, since the reasoning falsely assumes a fundament (in Kepler’s case the idea that life as we now recognize it was an intended outcome).
But the more subtle flaw that Kepler’s obsession opens us up to is the false assumption that all life is life as we know it. That somehow all life is dandelions, and monkeys, and humans who build straw men and robots. Only in the last generation have we began to study extremophiles who exist where no life should—lifeforms that exist deep in undersea volcanic recesses, or bacteria that grow deep within rocks. The more subtle flaw in Kepler’s thinking?—that life as we know it, is the only way life can exist.
In a completely different area of endeavor, comics rather than astrophysics, Grant Morrison deals with exactly the problem of fundamental reasoning. In Batman Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes, Grant (together with artists Cameron Stewart and Chris Burnham) offers a double-punch that measures the possibility of the Batman.
We’ve seen it before, in 2009, after the crescendoed events of “Batman R.I.P.” and Final Crisis (events that ostensibly saw Batman meet his match in Dr. Hurt of the Black Glove and his death at the hands of Darkseid)…we’ve seen a reinvention of the Batman, as Dick Grayson. And again in 2010 in The Return of Bruce Wayne, with the original Batman slowly crawling his way through a labyrinth of time, in each era seeding the impossibility of there not being a Batman. And in 2011, with Bruce Wayne’s invariable return to the present, and his establishing “Batman, Inc.”—a way to “fight ideas with better ideas. The idea of crime, with the idea of Batman”. We’ve seen Grant perpetually expand and reinvent the idea of Batman.
Batman Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes is a one-shot that concludes the storylines which ran through Batman, Incorporated. Given the rapid-fire nature of the storytelling in Batman, Inc., the end-of-edition montage which throws together key moments in a linear through-narrative proves incredibly useful. Grant’s energy is frenetic, and the sheer momentum of the story creates an incredibly high-stakes feel.
But the real wonder here, is (yet-again) Grant’s unflinching expansion of the idea of the Batman. Both during Batgirl’s infiltration of St. Hadrian’s Academy (a ghoulishly clever British boarding school for teen-girl supervillains) and Batman, Inc’s takedown of the shadowy Herr Netz’s web of global crime, our focus begins to shift. It’s ever so subtle at first, but we quickly lock into step. The question here, isn’t “How did Batman come to be?”, “What is the effect of Batman in the world?”.
There’s a freedom in Grant’s conceptualization of the Batman. He’s not writing for a Batman that is destined to exist, so he’s not writing for a Batman demanded by unseen corporate figureheads. This is a vibrant and vigorous Batman, one that simply exists, one that can take action in the world. The can-do Batman, contrasted with the reactionary Batman of the past. A Batman that isn’t simply demanded by market research. A Batman that isn’t 93 million miles away.
If anything, Grant achieves the hardest thing for any writer of continuity characters. Without a reboot or a megaevent crossover, Grant shows the flaws in the sociopathic framing of the Batman character, flaws that first began to appear in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. If anything, Grant is able to show how Frank’s Batman hinges upon a kind of parochial elitism that damages self and demands retribution on a social scale. And yet, in Grant’s hands, we encounter a strong, disciplined, resilient Batman. So much better a characterization for a man whose only real power was the insight to dress as an icon.