Sunday, April 02, 2006

Mike W. Barr, Grant Morrison, and the '70s Love-God

Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and Seven Soldiers are all good examples of the notion that nothing is too lame or too obscure for Grant Morrison to make cool. Even Morrison's JLA started with the (self-imposed) restriction of using the seven original members as they presently existed. Maybe that last one wasn't such a handicap, but you see what I mean.

Now Morrison will be the new regular writer on Batman, which by itself sounds like DC's latest license to print money. I'd venture to say most fans today associate this pairing with JLA more than they do earlier ventures like the Legends of the Dark Knight arc "Gothic" or the Arkham Asylum graphic novel. And why not? The Morrison JLA's uber-Batman solidified the character's public perception as the one indispensable Leaguer, whose combination of intelligence and physical skills more than made up for his lack of superpowers. Just over a year into Morrison's run, his hype for new villain Prometheus was basically that he could defeat Batman.

If Morrison's Batman has a handicap, it may be his stated focus on the "hairy-chested love-god" shaped by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, and an initial arc which could include revisiting the 1987 Mike W. Barr/Jerry Bingham graphic novel Son of the Demon. In SotD, Batman does more than team up with Ra's al Ghul -- he becomes second-in-command of al Ghul's empire, Talia's husband, and (eventually) the father of Talia's child.

Son of the Demon is best remembered today as the inspiration for Kingdom Come's Ibn al-Xuffasch ("Son of the Bat" in Arabic), the young man who Bruce thought Talia miscarried but who Talia gave up for adoption. That represents SotD's only legacy, since Denny O'Neil stated soon afterwards that it was not official DC continuity. (Denny O'Neil apparently didn't think Batman should be having sex.) Opinion on the story seems split -- here's a positive review, and here's a negative one.

At the time, though, it was a pretty big deal. It was the first hardcover Batman graphic novel. Mark Hamill, still five years away from Joker-hood, wrote the introduction. More violent and profane than the regular books, it showed a barely-clothed Bruce climbing into Talia's bed. In scope, Son of the Demon presented O'Neil and Adams' globetrotting "James Bond Batman" with a mature-for-1987 sheen -- the '70s love-god updated for PG-13 readers.

The theme of the book, not surprisingly, was "parents and children." Qayin, the villain of the piece, blames Ra's for the deaths of his parents, and took revenge by killing Talia's mother. Batman blames Qayin for Talia's miscarriage, and has issues with the "bat-demon" which seems to have replaced his own parents. Finally, Batman gets to be happy as a husband and father, before circumstances restore the familiar status quo. The rest of the plot involves terrorism, Bond-scale battles, and a weather satellite that could start World War III, all in just 78 pages.

Accordingly, while Son of the Demon moves at a pretty fast pace, it makes Batman's life-changing choices seem all the more capricious. Alfred and Commissioner Gordon appear briefly, establishing Batman's connection to Gotham City, but once Batman decides to join Ra's, he apparently leaves Gotham for several weeks without a word to either Alfred or Gordon. At that point I began to wonder how far the Bat-costume could go between washings.

I think this is where the book diverges from the Morrison paradigm of "Batman always has a plan." It is possible, and probably even Barr's intent, for us to believe that Batman would ignore his life in Gotham in order to stop Qayin. In Batman's mind it may be just a temporary absence, and a necessary part of completing the current mission. Once Talia gets pregnant, Batman may even feel justified in settling down with her, and perhaps taking her back with him. However, we see none of that, getting only a Batman caught up in the emotions of the moment.

It seems to me that the Morrison Batman could still have enjoyed his time with Talia, but the readers would have gotten at least a mention of Robin and/or Nightwing minding the store until he got back. The story might even have involved Batman going off the reservation, maybe severing his ties with Gotham completely, only at the last minute to reveal that his proteges, watching from afar, had provided him a safety net. The Batman who bought off Mirror Master in "Rock of Ages," and who beat Prometheus at his own game in "World War III," would have something like that in reserve. Even the O'Neil/Adams Batman of the original Ra's al Ghul stories faked Bruce Wayne's death so that Batman could track Ra's unhindered.

Still, for whatever reasons, the story only got 78 pages. For the most part it uses them well; but it doesn't seem concerned with convincing the reader that Batman is ready to be a husband and father. To be sure, it doesn't show Bruce Wayne's commitments, and the only person Batman seems to leave behind is Alfred, who merely tells Talia to "take care of him." The more those things were mentioned, the more they'd have to be addressed, I suppose, and probably pages were tight. In any event, the book presents Batman as Bruce's only real life, just as it presents the Bat-suit as Bruce's only real clothes, and that's hardly an invalid approach.

Nevertheless, Son of the Demon doesn't exist in a vacuum, or even in a sort of generic-Batman setting. It refers both to the original Ra's stories (a character from that arc is murdered) and to Barr and Trevor von Eeden's Batman Annual #8 (1982). And, of course, those life-changing events wouldn't have much meaning if they didn't happen to the "real" Batman. That's why I have the feeling that the story of Son of the Demon would be better served with more of an opportunity to explore its ramifications. Even the Bane of the Demon miniseries, which advertised the union of Talia and Bane, got four issues -- ten more pages than this graphic novel.

Since Morrison picks up after Batman's "One Year Later" reintroduction, maybe he can get into the emotional consequences of a Bat-child. Maybe he will even paint a plausible picture of a Batman ready to be domestic. However, I have a feeling that whatever Morrison's love-god gets into, he will have a plan for getting out.


Nobody said...

So did Superboy's punches knock Son of the Demon into continuity? Or do you think Morrison will be writing a new in-continuity version of the same story?

Tom Bondurant said...

I can't tell definitely from the news reports whether Morrison is bringing SotD back into continuity, or whether he's just using Batman and Talia's child as a plot element. I guess for SotD to be completely acceptable, DC would have to acknowledge somehow that Talia got pregnant when Batman was Ra's second-in-command. Otherwise, the child could have been conceived during another "untold" Bats/Talia liaison.

Anthony said...

i know this is bad form, but if i had news or something that would be cool to post on the blog, how would i go about it?

Simon said...

using Batman and Talia's child as a plot element. I guess for SotD to be completely acceptable, DC would have to acknowledge somehow that Talia got pregnant when Batman was Ra's second-in-command. Otherwise, the child could have been conceived during another "untold" Bats/Talia liaison.