Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Batman Incorporated 5, originally released November 28th, 2012.
Drew: Patrick once pitched me an idea for a comic designed to simulate the sensation of picking up a long-running, densely serialized series late in its run. Batman Incorporated is already a fantastic example of the kind of comic mythology Patrick was aiming to lampoon, but with issue 5, Morrison flexes is own insane mythology muscles, dropping us into a future we know nothing about. Except for when we do. While Morrison’s Gotham of the future still relies heavily on hilariously vague, yet vast-sounding mythologies, it contains enough hidden rewards for longtime readers of Morrison’s Batman epic to set up some emotional through-lines for that future. Unfortunately, that same coherence can only make it more frustrating for newcomers to this series.
The issue opens with Bruce explaining why he must return Damian to Talia. This explanation comes in the form of a vision of the future first established in Batman 666, where Damian has made a deal with the devil to carry on his father’s mission. The entire city has fallen into chaos due to a Joker virus, which has turned everyone into violent Joker-zombies. Damian has recovered a seemingly immune baby, which he hopes may lead to some kind of cure or vaccine for the Joker virus. He brings the infant back to Arkham, where the few healthy Gothamites — including commissioner Barbara Gordon — are making their last stand. Damian enlists the help of Jackanapes — one of his arch nemeses, and brilliant microbiologist — to work on the vaccine. Jackanapes reveals that the baby is, in fact, not immune, but is a carrier for the virus, wreaking havoc inside the asylum. Meanwhile, the president, on the advice of Dr. Hurt/Thomas Wayne (no, not that Thomas Wayne) orders the nuclear bombing of Gotham. Back in the present day, agents of Batman Incorporated fall into a trap left by Leviathan, and are seemingly blown to oblivion.
True to form, Morrison has packed the issue with event AND an insane amount of important details. As I mentioned, the mythology here is mostly frivolous window dressing — a fun exercise for Morrison to go wild — but parsing out just which parts are supposed to mean something is going to be nigh-impossible for someone not intimately familiar with Morrison’s Batman run.
First , there are the small glimmers of recognition that serve to goose a lot of the impact of this issue. Take, for example, the setting of Damian’s opening action scene.
There are maybe enough context clues to tell us that this is Damian’s hideout (the dioramas of Bruce and Dick are big hints), but the visceral impact of seeing it overrun with rioting Jokers comes from recognizing this place — from knowing it undisturbed.
We also get a hint of a satisfying emotional arc between Damian and Babs. When we first see this vision of the future, she has sworn to stop him. This makes their team-up here mean something, which is kind of fun. Longtime readers will also recognize Jackanapes (and the rest of Damian’s rogues), but the drama of their team-up is much more implied — more of an abstract ideal of this kind of story.
The detail that really matters, though, is Hurt’s presence in the Oval Office. To Morrison’s credit, he tries to give us a context to at least recognize that Hurt is bad, but the exact nature of his relationship to the Waynes is going to be completely lost on anyone who doesn’t have a solid handle on the Batman epic. Exactly how Hurt’s plans interact with Talia’s aren’t totally clear — we’ve learned that Talia was pulling strings within the Black Hand, but Hurt has actually been fighting Bruce since long before she was born — he’s hardly a pawn in her game. Patrick, I know you read The Return of Bruce Wayne, which isn’t a great introduction to Hurt, but does give us a sense of his vendetta against Batman. I’m curious if you recognized him as bad beyond Chris Burnham’s effective introduction of him here.
Of course, just as much of the meaning of this issue comes from recognizing things that haven’t been introduced into the narrative before, from the image of Shiva the destroyer at the end, or any of the myriad touches Burnham’s art contains. I suspect the omnipresence of t-squares in the riot scenes is just an inside joke, but check out the background in this scene.
The breaking-up and washing-out of the background here may simply represent the crumbling of Damian’s family, leaving him awash in a featureless abyss, but it may also represent the voiding of the scenes from the future we’ve gotten throughout the epic. What was before presented without comment is now known to be a dream Bruce had. I wouldn’t put it past Morrison to have Bruce’s dream somehow be an accurate premonition, but the fact that it’s objectivity is called into question recontextualizes every scene from the future we’ve gotten in this series. I may have to do some re-reading to check out that interpretation (I seem to remember some time-traveling, which may call this into question), but it’s an intriguing potential paradigm-shifter.
Patrick, I’m dying to know what you thought of this issue. Was it full of the kind of underexplained mythology you’re so fond of? Was it anything besides that for you? Does this enhance your understanding of what’s going on in this series at all?
Patrick: You know me pretty well, Drew. Any story that relays the final days of an iconic superhero is going to appeal to me. Similarly, I’m drawn to alternate versions of iconic characters. (The two are sort of part’n’parcel – the “Old Batman” of Dark Knight Returns might as well be a different version of Bruce.) This issue essentially offers me a slice a cake, informing me that I can both have and eat it. Additionally, the contained nature of this story lends itself well to reading in isolation. I may not pick up on many of the more obscure references, but the most interesting interactions are between characters that are fundamental to this universe anyway. Namely, Barbara (back in the chair, I might point out) and Damian’s relationship is a horrifying funhouse reflection of the original Batman / Jim Gordon relationship. But there’s also the hilarious and touching detail that Damian names his cat Alfred.
But mostly, I like what this version of the future says about Damian as a character. A common refrain on this site is “Damian may be one of the most competent killers in the world, but he is also only 10 years old.” It’s important to understand that Damian’s rage and unfocused energy are components of his personality. Further, he’s never been allowed to form a bond with regular people – so unlike Bruce (who had parents, and loved them enough to making losing them the most painful experience imaginable), Damian is incapable of perceiving when a situation has gotten out of hand. Consider the siege on Arkham: Bruce would never let it get so bad. Bruce would have called for help, or he would have planned for this contingency, or something. But Damian doesn’t really value Gotham in the same way – and he certainly doesn’t value Gothamites in the same way. This is my favorite ultra-telling exchange in the whole issue:
Bruce crusaded for a people and a city he believed in – that’s why he’s Batman. Damian doesn’t know why he’s Batman: he’s just keeping a promise.
Y’know, I think even if there was time travel that brings these characters into the future to witness some of these events, this issue makes it pretty explicit that this is a future that has been averted. But it’s incredible how that doesn’t feel at all like a cheat. Showing the future, only to take it back in the final pages SHOULD be unsatisfying. After all, why show me something that’s not going to happen? Well, we get some clues throughout about how we should be treating this issue. First is that Damian’s fighting Joker – not Talia, not Leviathan, not the League of Assassins, but that fundamental dimension of the Batman mythology. And then there’s the state of Gotham, literally engulfed in flames, instead of metaphorically burning to the ground. It’s a super striking image but one that begs to be seen as representative of the worst possible thing happening.
I know the goal of Morrison’s Batman Epic has been to explore the nature of Batman. Along the way, that meant exploring superheroes more generally and comic books as a medium. I’m startled at how well this one issue lives up to this mission statement, while also giving me the kind of giddy thrills I expect from a Batman book. I mean, I don’t care who you are: seeing Batman take a grenade to the chest is exhilarating.
And if you’ll forgive the lapse in intellectualism, I’d like to make a crass and/or impossible proposal. I’d like to see RockSteady take on this storyline for an Arkham Asylum / Arkham City-style game. Not only would the burning skyline make for an arresting game environment, but Damian-as-Batman allows for an immeasurably brutal hero. PLUS ZOMBIES. It’d be like Dead Rising meets Arkham City, but the whole thing’s on fire. Now that’s a fucking pitch.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?