Thursday, May 27, 2010

Crossing the Distance Between Metaphysical and Intimate in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #2

Grant Morrison, author of Animal Man, The Invisibles, and Final Crisis, has a reputation among comic book fans of being obscure and impenetrable. It's a fair reputation. Look at the panels on the left. "And so the plane time -- space b," is not previously referenced in the comic. What is plane time? Where is space b? The "And so" indicates that this is following something else, but all it follows is more dense prose ("We call this line space a. Vanishing point stands at its terminus. But there are other timelines. For time extends not only forward and back but laterally also").

A reader looking to make meaning out of Morrison's work has to often throw their hands up and assume that the impenetrability is itself the point -- we are meant to be confused, to be disoriented. Certainly we aren't supposed to piece together what it means for time to run laterally, are we? At best, we may associate the lingo with amateur speculations on time travel, that there are multiple timelines running concurrently, all possible narratives. But that's not really the point. This is pulp science fiction. (If you're really a sucker for DC canon, you may assume that Superman's comment, "It certainly fits with what I've experienced" is actually referencing Superman Beyond 3D from Final Crisis when Superman entered an alternate, 3D glasses rendered dimension to battle a Vampire Superman or something like that. Yes, really.)

I don't think Morrison wants this to be easily deciphered though. He wants us to be as confused as Superman and the others. Confusion is at the heart of Batman Returns. For those not following along, during Final Crisis Batman succeeded in killing the super villain god Darkseid, but was sent back into history. In the first issue he has to deal with tribes of cavemen. In this second one he appears to be in 17th century America in the midst of witchcraft hysteria. He does not know who he is, or where he has come from. For the entire first half of the comic, he actually believes himself to be Mordecai (hey, that's my name!), a witchhunter sent to deal with 17th century Gotham's supernatural problems. Meanwhile, Superman is on a quest to stop Batman from returning to the present DC Universe because, apparently, Darkseid has strapped a metaphysical bomb to Batman. If he returns, it will destroy the Universe.

And that's really the heart of the metaphysics. Disentangling the meaning of multiple universes isn't the point. Like Batman we're disoriented and confused. Like Superman we're hunting for meaning in a complex, indecipherable location. It seems to me that your willingness to suspend your own ability to understand the narrative is the extent to which you can enjoy this and other Morrison's comics. In this issue, the metaphysical actually becomes a gateway to intimate moments that elide most other comics. It starts here, where the archivist (who may or may not be some kind of Batman avatar?) says, "Each track a new vibration, a separate universe, a superstring on a mighty fretboard." You may be inclined to read this as a metaphor, but we know from other Morrison comics that music is an important trope for him. In Final Crisis Superman destroys Darkseid's soul by singing an incredibly powerful note to him.

It seems likely to me that Morrison literally conceives of time-space in the DC Universe as being musical in form, and I love that idea. Comics are much more like music than like literature -- they have certain tropes (chords, notes) that they play with slight variations. They transmit affect (feeling, emotion) with incredible potency, but are less powerful at transmitting ideas. They can make us feel excited, powerful, moved, or angry, but they rarely inspire deep meditations on the meaning of time travel, or heroism. (In fact, they often fail to communicate ideas about the very things they're about -- look at Brian Hibbs' very hurt/angry post about this week's Justice League: The Rise of Arsenal #3. The comic completely undermines the meaning of superheroes, heroism,  etc. But in terms of transmitting affect it's super effective. "I felt incredibly dirty and gross after I put it down," Hibbs writes.)

For Morrison, affect is transmitted through the move between his dense metaphysics and intimate interaction. In this issue, Batman/Mordecai has a romance with a young witch. She is eventually burned. On the right you can see the panel where the archivist notes her death. Look at his mangled, tree-branch hand. In the second panel, his tilted oval black head. The single word speech bubble, "annie." The second: "This is where she died... right here... a tiny spark unnoticed in all the cosmic geometry." I find this panel incredibly moving. I've seen many superheroes die that I've read for years, and cared less about their deaths than this character introduced and killed in this one issue. Her death is not made meaningful in spite of the dense metaphysics that Morrison is playing with, but because of it. It is tragic because of how meaningless it is in light of "all the cosmic geometry." She is a "tiny spark."

This is maybe a narrative lesson. Because Morrison is willing to be so unclear, when he steps forward into a moment of humanity, it is incredibly potent and affective. Unlike comics that drill us with humanity (sex! drugs! illness! murder! soap opera discussions!), like The Rise of Arsenal, Batman Returns works because it is so muted, so momentary and transient. This issue exemplifies why Morrison slays me so much and is my favorite comic book writer working today.