“So Impress Me…”: the Ferryman’s Dilemma in “Batman, Incorporated #1”

It’s not apocryphal. It’s in there somewhere in Grimm’s, but you’re just not sure where. The Brothers Grimm, were not only the DC of their day, they carried on a tradition of popular culture that went back all the way to medieval times, all the way back to the founding of the very first universities. It’s not apocryphal, the notion of the Ferryman’s Dilemma. It’s in there somewhere in Grimm’s, but thinking about it now, it may well be a Hans Christian Andersen fairy story.

The idea goes something like this. Some youngster on an important quest somewhere, was asked in the final leg of his outward voyage this: As Ferryman I’ve grown to be indentured into my position. There must be a Ferryman, as there will always be a need for people to cross from the shore of the lake we’re on, to the far shore, or to the island afloat in the middle of the lake. And people will always need to return. But for all this service, and it is service, and I do make a good enough living doing it, what about me? What about my dreams of going Out West to Hamlin and taking in a Pentz & Tahler show, or gambling the night away. Think of it now, Hamlin, baby, Hamlin!

It’s the generational question of the moment. The Millennials won’t be asking themselves this once they’re ready to start running things. They’ll be asking, “You mean they voted for TARP? Didn’t they realize it would screw us?”. But right now, the last of the Gen X’ers are asking themselves, “Where’s my 1993? Where’s my 1998? My 2004? Where’s my 37 percent return on investment from the stock market?”. Where’s the night of my payday, why don’t I get to go out to Hamlin, or Vegas or Iceland (Iceland, good luck with that). The generation to really get pounded, psychically so, by the Long, Hard Ugly of 2007/2008, is Generation X. Because Gen X is old enough to have seen The Promised Land. But also unlucky enough to have gotten there just as everyone was leaving.

And by this strange trip, Dear Reader, we are returned to Batman, Incorporated #1. And to perhaps the singularly most arresting piece of character definition for the Batman since that moment on the bridge in Batman #681. Not that moment on the bridge. That moment on the bridge that good people usually talk about is the moment when Gordon and Batman first forged their friendship. When in Frank Miller’s magnificent Batman: Year One (way, way back in Batman #407), Batman dove in to saw Jim Gordon’s infant son from plunging into the Gotham East River.

No, not that moment on the bridge, but the moment on a bridge that comes much later, at the end of Batman: R.I.P.. The moment when Dr. Hurt confronts the Batman with the very thing we all believed him to be after the powerful savaging Miller-era and post-Miller-era gave the character. “A deluded trust fund orphan who vents his rage and frustration on the poor in alleyways”. It’s been some two years’ wroth of monthly issues that brought Grant Morrison, and all of us, to this point. A point where Grant, and we ourselves, can confront the very worst thing we believe about the Batman. That under all of that, he’s nothing if not sociopathic.

And of course he’s not. But how do you disarm that notion? Tell a two-years-in-the-making story about the psychology of the Batman. And bring him to a point where he himself can confront this thing he’s made of his life. That final moment on that bridge, Grant’s moment, not Frank’s, is the start of something. The start of a reassertion of Batman as an avatar of superhuman discipline. It’s the Batman we’ll see in absentia over the next few months, and it’s the Batman we’ll see Return in books like (surprisingly) The Return of Bruce Wayne and the first volume of Batman, Inc.

And now here we are some two years on from the first issue of the first volume of Batman, Inc. (well, two years on, give or take a season). The same amount of time, give or take, that separates the start of Volume One of Batman, Inc. from the start of Batman R.I.P. back in Batman #676. The same amount of time that separates the end of R.I.P. from the start of Morrison’s run on Batman. Here we are amid a sweeping, fluid grandeur of Batman and Robin chasing down a nobody assassin in “Demon Star”, this opening chapter of Batman, Incorporated: Leviathan.

There’s something beautiful here, something graceful, like that girl who when I was younger installed in me the desire to learn to smoke, because when she smoked in the rain, her cigarettes would hiss in the most elegant of ways. Something painfully human to be found in these pages. But nothing can really equal that moment Grant tackles directly the notion of the Ferryman’s Dilemma.

It’s not the Batman who experiences it, but his son, Damian Wayne, the newest Robin. In this profoundly human moment, Damian begins to realize that he’s become mired in Gotham, and the higher things he had once believed were set out for him, now escape his grasp, and drawing ever nearer, also his reach. I was trained to rule the world, and now I’m here trying to impress you, Dad, or words much to that effect.

But it’s the Batman’s response that cuts to the core, “So impress me…”. And in just that single moment, you get it. You get that there’s a deeper game here to being the Batman. And that this boyhood-ism of high-tech toys and capes and the Very Adventure Of It All, has a deeper purpose, and that Batman is reconstituting a game of kings and worldly powers as a game of superheroes and criminal masterminds. Can you imagine what it would look like, if Enron behaved like the Joker? There must be a Batman because Batman is the disabstraction of evil.

And with Grant, you get that in a flash, from just three words. And because of every panel earlier in the book that led you there. It’s got to be the finest moment in comics writing.

Well either that one. Or the one where Grant has Bat-Cow, from Tiny Titans fame, make a guest appearance.

RATING 8 / 10