Thursday, August 24, 2006

Termite (Sequential) Art: Batman #656

Yeah it's a film blog. Guess what: I like comics too.

Holy shit, this comic is good.

Way better than it has any right to be. Yeah I like superhero comics, yeah I read them on an almost weekly basis, but with a lot of them, even the best ones, there's a ceiling to how good they can be. They're fun, bubbly, escapist literature, they offer an outlet to parse society's moral dilemmas and, though no one would agree with me, they're just plain cool. Look carefully enough, and you can find fascinating stuff bubbling just below the surface, but that's not what they're designed for. They're made to be fast and fun. Fewer than a few are anything more than that, but that's the way it is with all art forms. Most movies are a big pile of meh too.

Even though Batman, and particularly the just-out-today issue 656 looks like any other comic, what goes for books goes for graphic novels: don't judge them by the cover. This is the smartest thing I've read anywhere — books, magazines, the Internet, on the side of a cereal box — in 2006. It is totally, utterly, brilliant.

For about twenty years, Batman's comic book characterization has been dominated by his portrayal in Frank Miller's watershed 1986 mini-series The Dark Knight Returns. In Miller's vision, now referred to in shorthand along with its myriad imitators as "grim & gritty," Batman was a brutal and brutally dour crime fighter. You can't deny Miller had a point: guy spends every waking moment of his life avenging his parents murder while dressed as a bat, he's probably not someone with fun on his mind.

In many ways, Miller's Batman was a response against the goofy, eyebrow-arched pop art Batman that became a multimedia star in the mid-1960s. Miller swung the pendulum back towards Bob Kane's original vision of the character, as a creepy shadow stalking evil in the night. Miller's was the Batman that inspired Tim Burton and Michael Keaton's, and that version became a massive hit, so it only made sense to keep Batman just that dark, just that depressed in the comics.

With his run on Batman, writer Grand Morrison officially swings the pendulum back in the other direction. An on-the-record admirer of "hairy-chested Neal Adams love god" Batman, it took exactly one issue to tear down decades of sulking and return the character to a state of fun ("big splashy James Bond adventure" is how he puts it). I got to interview him at San Diego Comic-Con this year and within thirty seconds I realized I was talking with a legitimate genius: in twelve words he can succinctly explain exactly what makes comics great (it has something to do with the way comics is the only artform that requires left and right brain participation), and he can do it wearing a fabulously tailored suit.

Morrison's a writer of wild ideas of the sort that are so crazy no one else could think of them, yet so perfectly simple it's hard to imagine how no one thought of them before. How do you declare the return of fun pop art Batman? If you're as smart as Morrison, you set your entire issue inside an art gallery displaying pop art. Nobody sits and examines the art, nobody really discusses it (Bruce Wayne says it's too "high-brow" for him, which is almost too meta for words), it's just sitting in the background of every panel, brilliantly commenting on the action. Take a look (click on the image for a bigger version that's easier to read):

It's the sort of comic that you can't read quickly. It was made with a great deal of intelligence and care and you need to read it with an appropriate level of attention: going through it more than once is a must. It boggles the mind that no one has ever done this before, but, to my recollection, no one has. The comic costs a not-cheap $2.99 but I promise you, if you are at all interested in super-hero comics, this is one to read. And with Morrison just starting what will hopefully be a long run on the character, Batman is going to be a must-read for a long time.

The images for this post stolen with gratitude from my favorite comic book website, Newsarama. Their interview with Morrison is as insightful as it is fun, and it clearly outlines Morrison's intent with the character, and showcases his contempt for the Miller version of the character. And, in other comics news, we've got a bit of comics coverage in the new issue of The Voice, including a grand piece on Alan Moore's Lost Girls plus my sidebar on artist Melinda Gebbie.



Blogger Ed said...

this looks terrific!

9:03 PM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

Oh it is. I reread it again. It's fan-freaking-tastic. I'm a Batman fan for the first time in my life. The other main Batman book, Detective Comics is also fantastic right now, in a totally different style. I might write about that one in the near future.

10:28 PM  

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