This Will Go On, Forever: ‘Batman & Robin #16’

But to be fair, it probably was an end DC was facing…

I remember standing with a copy of The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. It was my first time holding a trade paperback collection. It was an opening salvo, a debut, my first skirmish with the idea of something bigger than me getting the institutional recognition I deep-down felt it fully deserved. I remember the overwhelming feeling was not awe, but anguish. I was being cheated.

Was this it? Were there no more stories of Batman left to be told? Could we already be at a point where The Greatest Stories could already be told? Was Batman being wrapped up and packed away, never to be taken out again?

To be fair, it probably was an end DC was facing with Batman. Honestly, the commercial machine that paid for Batman stories was beginning to run dry. Maybe the move to direct marketing wasn’t the right move after all. Maybe being a feature of the daily lives lived out on the newsstands of NYC was all the comics industry should have hoped for. Maybe comics, the industry of comics, overreached.

But, of course, that wasn’t the whole story. We were just on the cusp of a radical change. On the cusp of Tim Burton’s Batman: The Movie and his sublime Batman Returns. On the cusp of “KnightFall” and “KnightsEnd”, of the murder of a Robin and the installation of a new Robin, on the cusp of Batman becoming not only vital again (an internal condition) but becoming essential. Will Booker’s Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon would begin with a man in Sarajevo braving Sniper’s Alley to rescue a survivor. A man performing a rescue while wearing a Batman tshirt.

The wealth of cultural capital around Batman would continue flourish. But in 2005, at ComicCon, there came a shiver. “The first to feel the cold,” as Mike Mignola writes in Hellboy: The Island. Dan DiDio, Publisher of DC, offered a puzzlebox comment in response to the future of Batman. That if Batman, the world’s greatest detective, had really wanted, he could easily have tracked down his parents’ killer by now.

One comment, cutting to the bone. Surely as chilling as holding The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. Both felt like a highpoint, but they only felt like a highpoint. In truth, the Batman was primed for decline.

And yet, over the past 24 months, visionary writer Grant Morrison has offered nothing but an education in the simple fact that a well-calculated decline is infinitely better than a slow decay. With ‘Black Mass’, Morrison closes a circuit that began in 2008 with ‘Batman R.I.P.’ with Final Crisis. That not only would the Batman ostensibly die, but Bruce Wayne would find himself neutralized — his family and his reputation subject of a byzantine conspiracy priming both for disgrace in the Gotham media.

With Bruce Wayne finally returning to Gotham and his Batman identity, there really do need to be some predictable elements. Professor Pyg and his plan to turn all of Gotham into junkies who would willingly trade identity for their next fix, really does need to be (and is) thwarted (“Superhero time…,” stand-in Batman, Dick Grayson, says). Wayne family ancestor and devil-worshipper, the man posing as Dr. Simon Hurt, the man behind the conspiracy to ruin the Wayne family name and the Batman, finally does meet with his comeuppance.

But even more surprisingly, Bruce Wayne on his return, brings with him the root of the Batman. The Core. Batman as toolmaker. Batman as the thing that can adapt, engineer and overcome. “I was Batman’s partner longer than anyone else. Trust me–being marooned in the past with no memory is just one more problem for him to solve,” Tim Drake’s Red Robin says to the Justice League.

The tool Bruce Wayne brings along with him this time however, proves conceptual. The fundamental idea of the Batman identity itself as a tool that can be infinitely adapted to whatever the situation demands. The idea that the Batman needs to be incorporated. That the Batman is more than simply a panacea against the victims of poverty.

And while ‘Black Mass’ is a creative victory for Morrison, it is also a conceptual victory for DC. That rather than simply infuse a standing property with cosmetic changes, the Time-Warner subsidiary takes the creative and commercial risk of evolving the brand and continuing the story generationally. It is a courageous step. That the company has now genuinely begun to to grapple with the idea of a new form of economy, one that may eventually prove to be more successful than the debate around ownership of intellectual property. One that relies on a paradigm of open source, low-priority intellectual property rights. The kind of world Johanna Blakely envisions when she speaks about lessons that can be learnt from the fashion industry.

And that beyond the pure innovation of using batarangs and grappling hooks to “punch out crime”, there is a deeper, more meditative sense of innovation that Morrison evokes with incorporating the Batman. It is the story of our time, the story of our lives. It is our escape from the icy chill of the global financial crisis. And it is an act of imagination and art that provides with an exit strategy.