This Little Bird's Fallen Out of That Nest Now: On Morrison Exiting 'Batman'
The death of Damian Wayne, current Robin and actual son of the Batman in Batman, Inc. #8 signals the exit of industry legend Grant Morrison after six years of having written the character…
I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959. Elizabeth thought I looked like a spider in it. That was probably why she wouldn't go to Greece with me. It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather. Things were clear. I knew how to dress in those days. It was stolen from Marianne's loft in New York sometime during the early seventies. I wasn't wearing it very much toward the end.
-- Leonard Cohen on "Famous Blue Raincoat" from the album Songs of Love & Hate
"In an R&B song there are four sentences per verse, but in a rap song there are four sentences per bar. There are so many more words that I experimented with how to frame them, and that developed into something new. Instead of simply going for the ‘bang pow wow’ factor, we explored all kinds of things in the arrangements and in the music, and were in a situation where it was fun to be breaking rules and crossing boundaries. We were making music in a very different way. This turned out to work in our favour. When we first put out So Far Gone, we were really scared, but the reactions were so good that we decided to embrace doing things differently. It gave us the courage to continue."
-- 40 (Noah Shebib), mix engineer on Drake's album Take Care
It's not just that Damian Wayne, the current Robin and son of the Batman, died in the pages of last week's Batman, Inc. #8 ("it’s a story that had its end planned a long time ago", writer Grant Morrison assures us in an open letter, "for what son could ever hope to replace a father like Batman, who never dies?"), it's that his death signals an exit for industry legend Grant Morrison from Batman writing duties. Morrison's frank and almost throwaway admission highlights the exceedingly postmodern condition that has come to be ushered in, almost uniquely by comics. A dilemma that presents both at the level of content, with the death of the character, and at the level of creator, with Morrison's exit after having held writer duties for something approaching seven years.
"A story that had its end planned a long time ago", as readers we're in one sense only just catching up to Morrison's plan. But in another, we're far ahead of him and always have been. Damian isn't the first Robin, he's the fourth. In fact, he isn't even the first Robin to die, that standing belongs to the second Robin, Jason Todd. So when Morrison suggests in that same open letter that he achieved a new, deeper awareness of the Batman by reconsidering the character's publication history as his biography, we're most likely to understand this as Morrison himself wrestling with Jason Todd's death and it's effect on the Batman.
Just as Damian's death is "a story that that had its end planned a long time ago", so is Morrison's own exit. "He’ll still be here long after I’m dead and forgotten; long after all of us have come and gone, there will be Batman," Morrison writes near the end of his letter, perhaps as a kind of fond farewell as much to the character as to his fans, perhaps in the assurance that his own story with the Batman could end no other way than with an exit. It's a strange kind of four-person chess that emerges, like the kind originally played at Varanasi at a time when chess was first invented--a game between character, writer, audience and publication history.
It's little wonder then, that at almost every turn, Morrison's grander Batman saga (one begun when Morrison first took over writer duties in the storyarc "Batman & Son") feels like it's about to end. This sense of finality doesn't only emerge at the structured breakpoints of the saga, but in the interstitial adventures as well. There are story moments like Nightwing grasping the empty cowl at the conclusion of "Batman R.I.P.", staring into the vast sprawl of Gotham now compacted by its distance on the opposite bank of the Black River, or Superman cradling the ostensibly dead body of Batman in the last pages of Final Crisis, that seem to be predicated on the idea of hitting emotional plateaux, of reaching meaningful endings while simultaneously acknowledging that things are already moving on. But Morrison's art-of-the-ending style of storytelling isn't evolved from such moments. Rather, Morrison's art of the ending comes from the incidental issues, the throwaways, the single issue stories that draw the reader onwards to these more significant breakpoints in the grander saga. The art of the ending, the creative heart of Morrison's approach to the Batman lies in his investment of these ongoing, incidental chapters, these micro-adventures that could easily stand alone, with the same emotional yield as the more concrete "endings" like "R.I.P." or Final Crisis.
There's no sense in which incidental chapters in the grander saga, chapters like "the Clown at Midnight", or "Space Medicine", or "Joe Chill in Hell", don't seem to close the book on something in Batman's past. This cascading emotional weight of facing down perpetual endings seems informed by something in Morrison's own past--his creator-owned work, the Invisibles. It's in the volume-two chapter, "the Sound of the Atom Splitting", that Morrison wrestles with the emotional experience of "an unimaginable Apocalypse, an Event glimpsed and interpreted by the prophets of every culture--the biblical Armageddon, Norse Ragnarok, the Aztec Fifth Sun, the Hopi Fourth World, the Breaking of the Seals, the Rapture, Eschaton, Doomsday…". In "Sound", Morrison writes for Yoshio, an assassin for and member of a Japanese cult, "the time machine to take us into the future… there to watch Harumagedon as it occurs… and return with the perfect knowledge of how to bring it about… but I have learned something new… Harumagedon isn't coming… it is here already… this is how the collapse appears to those condemned to live in it… Harumagedon is happening now."
With its own art of the perpetual ending, and the cascading emotional yield that accompanies that, Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" is hard to resist falling into as a thematic soundtrack for Morrison's grander Batman saga. Particularly so at the exact moment where Nightwing (himself an adoptive son of the Batman, and the first Robin) fishes out the bright, blue, now-accursed mantle of the Bat from Gotham's Black River. Just as in the notes to Songs of Love & Hate, Cohen reveals himself to be the roguish owner of the Famous Blue Raincoat who he himself as speaker writes a letter to in the song, Nightwing's fishing of the cowl out of the river plays a deep game of metafictional succession. Within the five minutes 10 seconds of "Famous Blue Raincoat", we begin to discern Morrison's game of writer, audience, character and fictive history unfolding itself.
From Batman, Inc. #5, "Asylum" (2012)
Questions around the song multiply after the notes are read. Is the Elizabeth in the notes the Jane in the song? Did Cohen at one point disrupt a presumably unhappy marriage? Or is the song entirely internal, and the move to New York a kind of treason against the person Cohen once was, the same Cohen he's now writing to? A strange contestation emerges. One that plays out between the actual Cohen who wrote the song, the Cohen in the song writing the letter, but writing against his personal history with his "Brother, (his) Killer," and with his wife Jane, and the art(ifice) that exists between the actual Cohen and his fictive counterpart and his history.
The coup de grâce to Cohen's song seems to prefigure Morrison's own exit strategy from writing the Batman. In "R.I.P.: the Missing Chapter", where Morrison deals with the period between "R.I.P." and "Final Crisis" (ostensibly at the prompting of fans who found it hard to understand how the bridge for themselves), Morrison writes, "Then I got it. Somehow I know what he was turning in his hands… it was time. Time is pliable. As I stayed in place, he manipulated whole centuries around me. I was locked into a spinning cage of events. Coincidences. Bloodlines. Connections. The grave. The well, the cave. The missing portrait. Hidden rooms and vacant tombs and family secrets. Whatever they touch, turns to myth. Understand that much." Once decontextualized from speaking about the villain Darkseid, it's hard not to read notions of Joseph Campbell's hero-artist myth into this quote. After all, isn't the writer himself the one who causes time to be pliable, who reshapes entire centuries around the Batman? Morrison's exit strategy then, which already in "The Missing Chapter" seemed to revolve around reconstituting the Batman's very history, seems not so dissimilar to Cohen's move to reassert himself as the villain in his own, possibly fictive, love triangle.
But if Morrison is borrowing from his earlier works and perhaps even unbeknownst to him, engaging Cohen, then at least the truth of Morrison's interpellative act of rereading Batman's publication history should not be completely ignored. For Morrison, by his own admission, writing the death of the fourth Robin must also at some level signal Morrison's own attempts to wrestle with the death of the second. "Death" is a slight underplaying of what actually happened. Robin was murdered. Batman #428, the third installment of "A Death in the Family" was informed by the cliffhanger ending of the previous issue and a 1-900 number that allowed the audience to phone in and vote on whether or not Robin indeed died. In 1988 it appeared that the long, building dislike that fans developed for Jim Starlin's Robin (the Jason Todd, Robin), eventually detonated. The phone-in vote came back as a thumbs-up on the kill. Batman Group Editor Denny O'Neil opened his drawer and greenlit Jason Todd's death for the official Batman canon. But years later in an interview appearing on the Blu-Ray of Batman: Under the Red Hood, O'Neil would confirm the phone line being compromised to reflect one particular view. He stated, "I heard it was a lawyer who was using a MacIntosh and lived in California--I obviously don’t have hard information on this, but I heard someone out there programmed his computer to dial it every couple of minutes, and since there was only about 65 votes that made the difference, if that story is true, that guy, that guy killed Jason Todd!"
One gamble for DC was the question of Jason Todd's death. Would the character remain dead? Such a move would give credence to the view of the writer being able to shape history around a comicbook character. Or, in a dramatic TV soap-style turnaround that is frequently associated with comics storytelling, would Robin suddenly burst from his grave? While Todd's story did end in the latter rather than the former, it did so only after some 18 years. The resurrection was helmed by writer Judd Winick whose focus was less on how this came to be, and more on the implications, emotional and otherwise, for the Batman.
From Batman #641, "Family Reunion conclusion: Face to Face" (2005)
While Winick's Red Hood saga does seem to play that same four-way chess of writer, reader, character and history, and while he does effect his own cascading, perpetual ending-cycle, the true power of Winick's creative vision lies in his characterization of Jason Todd who assumed the Red Hood identity upon his resurrection. As the Red Hood, Todd is a far better Robin than he was as Robin. If Robin's role is to ground the Batman and prevent him from taking unnecessary risks, it's a role that Todd only begins to embrace during his time as the Red Hood, the erstwhile criminal identity of the man who would eventually become the Joker.
"But if I'm a ghost… or a zombie… or a clone… that's not really what this is about…," Todd says when he finally unmasks before the Batman. "Then what is this about?" comes the terse reply. "You Bruce… what you are, and what I'll be…" Todd continues. "Which is what?" comes the even terser reply. "You," Todd states flatly. "I'll be the you you're supposed to be."
Winick leverages Red Hood to bring to light a possible moral failing in Batman's crusade. In a sense, given his ever-growing Rogues Gallery, Batman has failed in his self-appointed duty to Gotham. While caught up in the turmoils of fending off attacks from an ever-increasing Rogues Gallery, ordinary crime increases. The Batman cannot be everywhere. Todd identifies the roots of this failure not only in Batman's "antiquated moral code" which prevents him from killing, rather he goes beyond even that. He's willing to do what the Batman isn't--organize the crime as the first phase in killing the criminals.
"The you you're supposed to be," there's an anguish in Todd's words, the acknowledgement of a certain kind of betrayal. In working outside of a broken justice system, Batman was supposed to be the Batman of filmmaker Chris Nolan's vision, the Batman of Batman Begins. "You've changed things," Gary Oldman still says in memory, and "There's no going back now…hope on the streets…" But the Batman of the comics is anything but. The nature of perpetual fiction means an increase in the threat levels the Batman must face. It's a deep betrayal of founding purpose. And it's a betrayal that echoes throughout Winick's Red Hood saga, not least of all in the title of the final storyarc, "All They Do, is Watch Us Kill."
It's not so far from the themes that crisscross both Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" and Morrison's grander Batman saga. But it is a far cry from the song's muted tones. You'd need an entirely different tune, and perhaps, looking at the inherent consumer-driven media-circus that the title "All They Do, is Watch Us Kill" points to, Drake's "Headlines" from his album Take Care isn't so far afield.
"I be yellin' now money over everything, money on my mind," Drake belts out on "Headlines", "Then she gotta ask when it got so empty. Tell her I apologize, it happened over time." It's a poignant line, one in which Drake wrestles with the psychosocial survivor's guilt of wealth, with the need for constructing a persona that defends against the crowd, and with the self-recrimination that comes from needing to make such a move.
In an MTV News interview, Drake doesn't shy away from the album being self-reflective: "It will tell you the story of what's going on in my life. Unlike a lot of other artists I don't use social media outlets, I don't sit there and complain about shhh… stuff all day long. I just sorta save it for the album. So I think if you wanna know what's going on with me at all, you'll just listen to Take Care and it'll answer all your questions man."
Or perhaps Noah "40" Shebib was right and it's time to try something new, to keep pushing the envelope. Perhaps it's time for a new kind of Batman, one where his ideological challenges are as apparent, as prominent as his successes. Perhaps it's time for, as Morrison suggests, a reassertion of the full history of Batman in every piece of the Batman. A history, that will now include Morrison's own self-mythologized Batman who courses through all of human history in the act of inventing himself.