Today, Shelby, Drew, Spencer, Mikyzptlk, and Patrick are discussing Batman Incorporated Special 1, originally released August 28th, 2013.
Grant Morrison’s Batman, Incorporated epic recently concluded with the “death” of Talia, the “end” of Leviathan, and dozens of Damian clones in jars. While we lost a few characters, some we loved more than others, Morrison’s run spawned a multi-cultured cast of goofy Batman and Robin agents, working ’round the world to do good. Forced to shut the program down, Batman is giving Batman Incorporated casefiles one last looksie before “closing” everything down.
Batman Japan in Rending Machine
Shelby: Batman of Japan and his diminutive winged partner Canary have made a gruesome discovery: a shrink-wrapped black market organ trade, operating out of ice cream vending machines. The shiny happy team trace the body parts to a capsule hotel, where the insidious Doctor Inside-Out, so named for his resemblance to high school anatomy teaching tools, is harvesting the organs of unsuspecting salary men. A fight ensues, and Batman Japan ends up strapped to a capsule about to be ejected into the ocean for the waiting sharks. Canary uses her Canary Cry to shatter Inside-Out’s glass casing, literally spilling his guts.
While I’ve not been a huge fan of Batman Incorporated, I’ve always loved Chris Burnham’s work, and with him on pencils and writing here I love it even more. He’s got a twisted, dorky sense of humor, both in his writing and drawing, which is perfectly suited for the story he’s got to tell.
On my first read through, this story mostly had me rolling my eyes (although I did love the way Batman Japan announced his moves before making them). As I read it again, though, I realized I was supposed to roll my eyes at this story. This is supposed to be a delightfully over-the-top cariacture of Japan, and Burnham totally lands it. It’s dumb and funny and gross and a lot of fun.
Drew: And how! I’d add that it’s also meant to be an over-the-top caricature of Silver Age Batman stories, which is kind of what Batman Incorporated was always about — filter the same “anything goes” zaniness through a different cultural lens, and you get a funhouse mirror reflection of a classic Batman story. At least, that was what the series was about in it’s first volume; when it returned with a new first issue after the relaunch, Morrison was in full endgame mode, putting the emphasis much more on plotting than world-building (though, being Morrison, he couldn’t really avoid saturating the story with colorful details. I love the goofy one-offs that this series is capable of, but when Burnham’s last outing with Jiro preempted the final two issues of Morrison’s run I didn’t really have the patience to properly appreciate it.
Freed from any expectations, this issue is an absolute joy. Shelby is right to highlight Burnham’s distinctive sense of humor, which pushes things so far beyond over-the-top that you can’t help but accept them. My favorite bit has to be when Canary lives up to her namesake, tipping off Jiro that the air may not be safe — with Jiro adding that, “My Canary is a goldmine!” It’s so dumb, it’s brilliant (or is it so brilliant it’s dumb?), and it’s a total blast.
The Knight in Without You
Drew: Writer Joe Keatinge and artist Emanuel Simeoni capture that same spirit in their Knight story, though they darken up the tone quite a bit. The issue picks up immediately after Cyril’s death, and Beryl is an absolute wreck. She’s reminiscing hardcore, and shrugging off the help of her friends, but news that an old foe is on the loose pulls her out of her funk and back into the Squire uniform. After bringing the baddie to justice, Beryl decides to take up the mantle of the Knight, and the issue closes with her back in the goofy Batman Incorporated fold, fighting off steampunk dinosaurs.
We saw Beryl don the Knight helmet at the end of Batman Incorporated, which robs the revelation of surprise, but it more than makes up for it in emotional resonance. Batman and Robin recently undertook a six-month long tour of Batman’s grief over Damian, but I’d say this little seven-page story wrings every bit as much pathos out of Beryl’s loss.
Perhaps the real resonance comes from the sense of closure that Beryl achieves as she starts to move on. There’s a universality to her sentiments as she starts to see the light at the end of the tunnel:
I’ll admit fighting alone was horrifying to start. But I’m never quite alone anymore, am I? Everything you taught me, everything we learned together — it’s all stuck in me…I know I’ll never fully accept you being gone. I know it’ll never be easy. But I do know you’d want me to move on. And I will. For today, I’m without you. For tomorrow? We live on.
It’s moving to see a character go through such a relatable mourning process — no crime-fighting binges, no virtual reality helmets, no seeking out methods of resurrection. In being so straightforward, this story offers an actual roadmap for navigating grief, which I find much more powerful than veering into melodrama.
Spencer: You’re right, Drew: this manages to tell a realistic and poignant story about grief, and I love that it does so against the background of bizarre, outrageous threats such as the Steampunk Dinosaurs (new band name?). One of my favorite aspects of the Knight and Squire as characters has always been that their stories combine modern character-based storytelling with a wonderfully absurd Silver Age world of villains and allies (which should be no surprise, considering Grant Morrison created this incarnation of the duo). In this particular story it adds just enough humor to keep things from becoming too morbid, but not so much as to detract from the somber tone.
I also appreciate this peek into why Beryl decided to take up the mantle of the Knight. We often take it for granted that sidekicks will eventually replace their mentors–and Beryl is actually the third Squire to do so–but I like that it wasn’t an automatic decision for her. That’s consistent with her character; Beryl was the one who rescued Cyril from a life as a degenerate, she acted as the “adult one” for most of their partnership, and she was often the more important character in their stories, so becoming the Knight wouldn’t have necessarily been a promotion or even a necessary step for Beryl. Instead, she becomes the Knight so that she can use the skills he taught her to keep Cyril’s memory alive and never again be alone. Again, it’s a touching and realistic tale of grief and moving on…even with all the Steampunk Dinosaurs.
Raven Red in Brave
Spencer: Our next story follows another Robin analogue, Raven Red, as he chases a crook known as the Coyote up into the rafters of an unfinished building. As Raven narrowly avoids falling to his death, he remembers an earlier encounter he had with a man named Tom Jacobs, whom shared with Raven his story of a life spent facing his fears–and confronting prejudice–as a riveter. Using Tom’s story as an inspiration, Raven manages to bounce back and take down Coyote before he can escape.
Nathan Fairbairn and John Paul Leon use this story to slip in some information about one of the stereotypes faced by Native Americans, and I greatly appreciate the history lesson, as it’s a stereotype I had never heard of before.
So often, stories about Native American characters only focus on their spirituality, and while that’s obviously a very important part of the culture, it’s nice to see another aspect explored here. Tom’s tale about facing fears and overcoming prejudice and making his father proud would have made for a compelling story all on its own, but by tying itself into Raven Red’s narrative, it takes on even more power.
Raven Red admits to Tom that he’s not a fan of heights, yet finds himself chasing Coyote through a perilous obstacle course of unfinished girders anyway; even with his skill, he still nearly falls to his death. It’s Tom’s story that gives Raven the courage to finish his fight. Raven wins because he takes the time to listen to an old man’s story, embraces the lessons found in this story and in his own people’s history, and becomes determined to apply them in own life. I think that’s an example we could all benefit from applying, no matter what our background is.
Mikyzptlk: Ya know, it’s kind of funny Spencer. You and I recently covered the second Flash Annual, where the biggest takeaway for me was the kid-friendly message the conclusion left us with. Although the message was simple, I appreciated the fact that kids could walk away from the story with something positive. Similarly, I enjoyed the message that Raven Red’s story left us with.
Raven Red certainly used that message to give him what he needed to overcome his fears and take out the bad guy, but its a wonderful sentiment that can be applied to anyone. A superhero isn’t just someone who puts on a costume to fight crime. A superhero is the police officer who risks their lives to protect others. A superhero is the soldier who fights wars so that his or her family back at home doesn’t have to. A superhero is the parent who works countless, backbreaking hours so that their children can have it better than they ever did. I can be a superhero. You can be a superhero. In the end, we can all be superheroes. It’s an inspirational message that took me by surprise. In an era where superhero comics aren’t always appropriate for kids, it’s a welcome surprise at that.
Nightrunner, Dark Ranger, and El Guacho in The Danger of El Muerte en Vida
Mikyzptlk: Our next tale is by Mike Raicht. We catch up with our heroes in the middle of the action as they attempt to contain a situation involving deranged and violent people. Think The Crazies as opposed to Night of the Living Dead. We learn that Nightrunner and Dark Ranger were spending the evening at El Guacho’s nightclub when all hell started to break loose. Apparently there is some kind of sound frequency that is causing people to go nuts. Our heroes are not immune to this frequency, although they are faring better than most. Eventually, Dark Ranger’s helmet locks on to the source of the frequency. No longer able to fly, he decides that Nightrunner’s parkour skills will be needed to get the job done. Ranger gives Nightrunner his helmet in order to counteract the “madness frequency,” and to track down said signal. Nightrunner finds the villain behind all of this, La Muerte en Vida, but it is El Guacho who saves the day. As it turns out, he had earplugs in the whole time, so he was unaffected by the signal.
Well, I’m not exactly sure why, but this story felt a bit flat to me. Rending Machine was full of the zany fun we’ve all grown to expect from the Batman of Japan, while Without You and Brave were both poignant in their own ways. The Danger of El Muerte en Vida, on the other hand, was a straightforward action story. While there is certainly value to be had with stories like that, I’m not so sure I took anything away from this entry other than “El Guacho is a badass.”
While I would certainly agree with the idea that El Guacho is cool dude, I’m not so sure I see the need for a story based entirely around that conceit. I mean, I’ve read Grant Morrison’s Batman run. I’ve seen just how awesome El Guacho is already. I don’t need a story to tell me something that I’ve already seen. I’m not saying that this story necessarily suffers from telling instead of showing, but I think my problem is that the conceit was laid out a bit too bare for my tastes.
John Stanisci was the artist for this entry and I think that his rough pencils fit well with the story at hand. A story about a city going mad and becoming violent is certainly a dark premise, and I think that Stanisci’s pencils really added to that darkness. I don’t know Patrick, am I missing something? Were you able to get anything out of this story?
Patrick: I think I got a little more out of this story, but it’s all in line with what we’ve been saying throughout this piece: Silver Age goofiness projected on to a modern setting. I absolutely love the insane level of coincidence necessary for the story to conclude this way. First, our heroes just happen upon a school for the deaf, giving them a clue as to the nature of what’s driving everyone crazy. And then, in the end, El Gaucho is only able to keep his wits and destroy the transmitter because he likes to wear earplugs when he goes out clubbing with the ladies. It’s such a delightfully mundane and arbitrary solution – one that almost feels more at home in something like Batman ’66.
I also really love the implication throughout the Special that each of these Batmans (and Robins) are equally valid pieces of the mythos. We know Raven Red to be part of the Man of Bats team, and Batman of Japan and Canary are fast friends, but this is the closest we get to a real team formed around a different Batman patriarch. El Gaucho can be the center of a new Bat-family, and years from now we can all relish in the insight of “the first truth about El Gaucho is that he was nunca solamente.”
Bat-Cow in Cowardly Lot
Patrick: Which brings us around to Bat-Cow. Since we last saw our hero, she has donned a cape more befitting of her station. When she hears a commotion on the country roads near Wayne Manor, Bat-Cow charges out into the street, causing the drivers of a stolen vehicle to veer off the road and into a tree. The cops are right behind them, with a hysterical mother in the backseat. Turns out, there was a baby in the back of the car when the thieves stole it. The mother is happily reunited with her baby and the thieves are arrested. But the baby is inconsolable, and the bottle was damaged in the accident. Where ever will this poor mother find milk for her baby?
Is there a concern more elemental than a mother’s need to provide her child with milk? Similarly, is there any more classic crime story than “two dudes steal a car, only to discover a baby in the backseat?” Obviously, the suggested solution to the milk problem is just as absurd as the idea of Bat-Cow consciously putting herself in danger to assist the police, but I love seeing Dan Didio and Ethan Van Sciver celebrating an idea as absolutely bonkers as Bat-Cow. She’s never depicted as anything but a cow (in a cape), and any agency or special quality we ascribe to her is because we love the concept. It’s like a collective illusion we all buy into because we believe in Damian Wayne, and he once stood up and proudly declared: “This is Bat-Cow!”
Mostly, I’m happy to see Didio’s credit because it suggests that he gets it. Didio might actually be a deft hand at writing Silver Age stories, but you’d never know it for all the crap he takes from the fan community. Bat-Cow is a punchline – the sort of punchline only Grant Morrison is capable of crafting, but it’s nice to know that the top brass know how to ring that bell again, and seemingly recognize the value of it. Shelby, I know you’re not the most in-love with Morrison’s Batman, but you have to admit that it represents something we don’t see that much in the rest of the DC’s line. Are you at all encouraged to see the Co-Publisher playing with those same toys?
Shelby: Yes, to a point. I loved the Bat-Cow story, simply because Didio kept it so simple. Bat-Cow doesn’t have any powers (other than a decidedly non-bovine sense of justice); hell, she doesn’t even really “charge” into the street inasmuch as she just stands there. Anyone who’s spent anytime around cows knows that you do NOT want to hit one with your car; that is not a fight you will win. Her mere cow-ness was all it took to bring those car thieves down, which is what makes her such a charming addition to the Bat Family Menagerie, as well as a nice little touch of Damian’s legacy.
It fell apart for me at that udder shot, however. It was too on the nose. We already get that she is a cow, the whole “uh-oh, we’re out of milk!” gag just felt cheap. For me, it was Didio taking the joke too far, which kind of falls in line with my experience with his writing in the past. Too on the nose would be my biggest complaint about this whole issue, and it comes in at the end.
I get it, I really do. In comic books, nothing is ever really the end, no one ever really dies. We’ve got years worth of Damian babies to torment Batman, and no reason to stop telling Batman, Incorporated stories while they still make money, I understand. I don’t need it spelled out. I don’t need to be reminded of what I find to be one of the more frustrating aspects of comic book story-telling. Capping this book with “never the end” takes what was overall a fun read, even for someone who doesn’t care much for Batman, Inc, and weighs it down with the promise of never-ending history.
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