All’s Quiet on the Battlefront of Ideas

Years ago when I first read it and even just now, Michael Herr’s Dispatches feels mythic in my hands. Holding it for that first time, it was Zeus’ thunderbolt or Green Lantern’s ring. By the time I was fourteen, Dispatches had coalesced as the definitive journalism of the Viet Nam war. Herr had Been There, Seen Things. The Great Hunter S. Thompson (before I even knew the S stood for Stockton) had informed me that Herr was chronicling the myriad ways in which Viet Nam had reconfigured the American psyche during the 70s. William Burroughs felt that Herr’s writing stripped away poetic and heroic illusions of combat and exposed the underbelly of fear and angst and the rot of war.

I had to read this book. And when I finally did, it only exceeded expectations. Not because of the cinematic quality to haunted, empty writing that laid out Herr’s observations. Not because of the raw, unapologetic language Herr wielded like a knife to describe the emotional states. But because Herr had conveyed what no one else had about Nam; that it was a battle of ideas. “Hell Sucks” told you everything you needed to know about Nam in short artillery-round bursts of vocabulary. The marines weaponized themselves by tattooing slogans on their apparel. “Born to raise hell”, “Born to kill”, “born to die”, every GI deployed ideas long before they slung bullets or grenades.

Ideas were the only things that could kill the meaninglessness of fighting a losing war.

In “Nightmares in Numberland”, the eighth issue of Batman, Inc., Grant Morrison rounds his back to the point he began with nearly a year ago in Batman: the Return. “Today we begin fighting ideas with better ideas”, Morrison had written for Bruce Wayne’s Batman last November. And just now we’re beginning to get a sense of the full scope of what he meant.

The issue opens with Bruce Wayne, publicly identified as the billionaire funding Batman’s war on crime, calling a meeting in cyberspace. But this isn’t your grandfather’s internet. Bruce has built the internet 3.0. Full haptic control built into the headsets means the cyberglass feels exactly like glass. Real world geography means avatars can run and jump and die just like in their everyday lives. But death here means being hacked and having your fortune deleted. The “zombie economy” of undead numbers from previous iterations of the internet mean exactly that. But fortunately Internet 3.0 comes with its own Batman, Inc. antiviral software. Software in the form of Barbara Gordon’s Oracle/Batgirl.

Undoubtedly it was just pure fun to see Oracle as Batgirl again, to see the marriage between Barbara’s two alter egos, Oracle and Batgirl, to see the internet the way Oracle must always have seen it. And on a more sober note, you’d have to ask why now? Why would DC release this incredible vision of Barbara on the cusp of a continuity-wide reboot that will see her return to Batgirl and perhaps discard Oracle altogether. It seems too much of a tease. After decades of seeing Oracle mired in physical reality, visualizing her secret internet life is mind-blowing, but all too brief. We may never see her like this again.

The real winner though, is Grant Morrison’s crafting of the genre of Batman. To move from Batman, Inc. #7’s “Medicine Soldiers”, where the series villain Leviathan is shown as weaponizing mediocrity, to this issue’s take on a Neuromancer-tomorrow, Morrison demonstrates how he is not simply one of the greatest comicbook writers of all time, but one of the greatest writers.

The scope of what Morrison achieves is stunning. Here is a Batman that can flex and bend to encompass tech-fueled aspirational stories about how we reach for a better tomorrow, while at the same time encompassing narratives of social justice in third-world hells.

With Batman, Inc. ending shortly with issue #10 (Incorporated was only ever meant as “season one”, Morrison’s words) and rebooting early 2012 as Batman: Leviathan, the challenge has been set for Morrison. Will he be able maintain this high level of supernaturally good storytelling on Batman while writing Action Comics? By now we know enough about Morrison to trust that the challenge will be met.

RATING 8 / 10