The very best Batman stories tend to be one-offs or graphic novels. Looking at our list of DC’s greatest stories featuring the Dark Knight, many of them are isolated in continuity, or relatively short-lived events that become foundations of the character’s depiction for decades. Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke and of course, Grant Morrison’s own Arkham Asylum all offer arguably definitive takes on different pillars of Batman mythology. It’s rare to find a continuing Batman story that reaches an equally high watermark – but for me, Grant Morrison’s run with the character, which has been published continuously since 2006, manages to hit those same extraordinary levels of quality.
This week, with the release of Batman Incorporated #8, which features a very significant moment in the course of this seven-year epic, I feel it’s worth highlighting why this is one of the best Dark Knight stories DC has ever published.
Son Of The Bat
Starting with Batman & Son in 2006, which took the non-canon story Son Of The Demon and used it as a springboard with which to introduce Damian Wayne, Bruce Wayne and Talia Al Ghul’s child, Morrison has taken the concept of Batman through numerous smart interpretations.
Here’s just a sample of what Morrison has brought to the table with his run: he’s killed the Dark Knight, reinvented the idea of Batman and Robin for a modern audience, portrayed Bruce Wayne as a caveman, reinvigorated forgotten parts of DC mythology, explored the idea of Batman being a global crimefighting franchise and even found a place for Batmite as a hallucination. The end result is an ambitious body of work that has taken risks at every step, yet retained critical and commercial success throughout. This is an unprecedented, all-angles take on the DC icon that will be reflected on fondly in years to come.
For me, the fundamental appeal of Morrison’s epic comes down to the maturity of his take on Bruce Wayne. Morrison’s Batman encompasses every era of the character that has come before, from the gritty Frank Miller tales that fans revere to the campy Dynamic Duo stories that were prevalent in the Fifties and Sixties – in Morrison’s depiction of Bruce Wayne, they all count as part of this character’s colourful life, both good and bad, with each iteration representing a different part of Batman’s biography. The figure Morrison conceived was a Batman at the very peak of his powers, bolstered by these many shades of insane experiences.
The idea that this man and the people around him have already evolved, absorbing the decades-long mass of continuity, certainly changed the way I thought about the character after years of considering Miller’s portrayal as the only ‘proper’ version of Batman. What if cursing in the dark and being tortured was just one part of Bruce Wayne’s life? It’s that perspective brought by Morrison that makes his extended story so rich, and Batman & Son was the first exponent of that, teasing many aspects of what was to come. But there are many other sides to it, too.
Batman Vs The Devil
One of Morrison’s early arcs, The Black Glove, resurrects parts of DC mythology that most people either forgot or didn’t know about, primarily the Batmen Of All Nations, an arbitrary group of Fifties-created allies who become the focus of this superb murder mystery story. Morrison takes the campy novelty of having a kind of UN Batforce and turns them into a group of bickering has-beens, like embittered ageing band members from a VH1 Where Are They Now-style documentary.
Morrison’s run has frequently extracted elements from DC’s past and contemporised them in engaging ways – indeed, the main villain of the first two thirds of his run, Doctor Hurt, is based on a character who fleetingly appears in the 1963 story ‘Robin Dies At Dawn’. I’d never heard of it, in all honesty, but this one tale powers the narrative of Morrison’s work through to the end of Batman RIP, where Hurt attempts to destroy Bruce Wayne, inside and out.
I admire how specific these references are, and I’ve enjoyed researching the background of them after reading each chapter. We’ve all had stories throughout our lives that mean little to anyone but ourselves – whatever Morrison saw in these late Fifties and early Sixties Batman comics created a very contentious and intriguing lead up to Batman’s 2008 death (which actually happened in Morrison’s miniseries Final Crisis, at the hands of Darkseid).
During RIP, Morrison also revived the idea of the Batman Of Zur-En-Arrh, a 1958 creation that was basically an equivalent Batman on another planet, far out in the galaxy with Superman-type powers. This was ingeniously appropriated by Morrison in Batman RIP as a failsafe persona for Bruce Wayne when he reached utter psychological defeat, so Batman can continue operating as an entity when the man under the cowl is unable to – it’s bizarre, but fits the idea that Batman plans for every contingency to outsmart his enemies. It was quite a path to Bruce Wayne’s demise and naturally, it divided audiences.
The All-New Batman & Robin
With Bruce Wayne gone, it was time for a new Batman. Morrison collaborated with artist Frank Quitely to create Batman & Robin, a 21st Century take on the property that positioned former Boy Wonder Dick Grayson as the Dark Knight and put Bruce Wayne’s son Damian as his ward. The point of reference for readers was the Sixties Adam West Batman show directed by David Lynch, a breathtaking collision between the colourful and the weird that I think represented the pinnacle of Morrison’s impressive arc with this DC franchise.
Damian Wayne, introduced in Batman & Son, suddenly became a much bigger deal. This character, grown in a lab by Talia Al Ghul and raised by the League Of Assassins, is a snobby and merciless 10-year old ninja – he’s also Morrison’s greatest gift to the DC Universe. Despite irritating readers at first, Damian’s development in Batman & Robin turned him into a fan favourite character, a living embodiment of his parents’ fatally dysfunctional relationship. Morrison used the death of Bruce Wayne in Final Crisis to turn Damian into a uniquely compelling hero, a serial-killer kid who takes on a kind of redemptive arc when he becomes the Robin to Dick Grayson’s Batman and vows not to kill again in respect to his father’s memory. He later takes up a vegetarian lifestyle.
Thus, the dynamic was reversed: Dick Grayson was the lighter, more laid back Batman, while Damian was the angrier Robin. With Batman & Robin, it felt like Morrison had hit on the greatest paradigm for storytelling potential at DC since Miller’s Year One – this new iteration of the Dynamic Duo, sans Bruce Wayne, was so fresh and exciting, with Grayson making a logical step in characterisation that gave enormous pay-off to this risky change-up. There was decades of potential in this setup, and Morrison’s continued use of the wider cast of characters was a fantastic creative choice, too. But, of course, Bruce Wayne’s imminent return was inevitable, and though it’s obvious from interviews that Morrison was reluctant to close down this brilliant reinterpretation of Batman & Robin so soon, he steered the Dark Knight’s resurrection into yet another creative renaissance for the character.
There are other one-off stories that demonstrate Morrison’s reverence for the mythology as a storyteller – two of the best chapters in his run, for example, come in the form of Batman #666 and Batman #700, the first of which envisions a hellish future Gotham where Damian has inherited his father’s persona, and the latter of which takes one small story across the Batmen of the past, present and future. Batman #700, entitled ‘Time And The Batman’, even manages to weave Batman Beyond hero Terry McGinnis into the rest of the sweeping narrative at work. Batman #666, on the other hand, is a startling anti-Dark Knight Returns that portrays Damian as a Batman aware of his own shortcomings next to his forebears, booby-trapping the entirety of Gotham City to ensure victory against his enemies. This would later be followed up with issue five of Batman Incorporated, which revisited this brilliantly original vision of Damian’s possible fate.
Then came Batman Incorporated, which sees Bruce Wayne assembling an international army of Batmen to combat a hidden enemy known as Leviathan. This stunningly illustrated run showed us Batman through the eyes of all-new characters living (somewhat) ordinary lives – an always effective storytelling device with regards to the Caped Crusader – before being recruited as part of Bruce’s elaborate brand exercise; the early issues even made certain stylistic choices depending on the location of the story.
My favourite part of Incorporated came with the reintroduction of the original Batwoman, Kathy Kane, who Morrison revises as a kind of cougar-like heartbreaker for Bruce Wayne, an older love interest who falls just out of his reach. It’s a wonderful, semi-realistic story that Morrison digs out of lost continuity, uncovering another side of Bruce Wayne we hadn’t really seen before.
Then, making the transition into DC’s New 52, with Dick Grayson long since out of his Batman attire, we reach the point Morrison is at now with the controversial Batman Incorporated #8. I don’t want to spoil it for you here, considering how readily available comics are on digital devices these days (it’s only two quid). All I’ll say is, it offers a brutal and heartbreaking twist in Morrison’s story, as well as incredible visual storytelling flair from artist Chris Burnham, whose astonishing pencil work offers an ideal visual match to Morrison’s imaginative Bat-epic. With only four issues to go, I know I’ll miss it dearly when Incorporated ends.
Why It’s The Best Batman Run Ever
Increasingly, I have enormous respect creators who will dare to experiment with characters that have overbearing legacies attached to them. Batman is a superhero where I felt like the definitive version really already existed, but between Morrison’s backlog of remarkable stories or Geoff Johns’ phenomenal Batman: Earth One from last year, it’s clear there’s so much more to say about this icon.
Yet the unusual thing about Morrison’s run is that it’s a seven-year continuous tale, a sprawling masterwork that offers readers an unparalleled sense of a journey with such a popular character. Like the Dark Knight graphic novels I mentioned earlier, I know I’ll keep rereading it over the course of my life, swallowed up by the writer’s passion for the character and efforts to push forward his equally vital extended cast.
Morrison’s Batman & Robin was especially groundbreaking – and I’m fairly confident he knows it. Hence this panel in Batman Incorporated #8, a fourth wall-bending speech by the now fan-favourite sidekick Damian Wayne, which we can’t help but read as the writer’s message to his readers and DC Comics about his revamped Dynamic Duo.
So, if you’re going to read the whole thing from start to finish, here’s the Grant Morrison Batman reading order you need:
1. Batman & Son
2. Batman: The Black Glove
3. Batman RIP
4. Batman: Time And The Batman
5. Batman & Robin Volume 1: Batman Reborn
6. Batman & Robin Volume 2: Batman Vs Robin
7. Batman & Robin Volume 3: Batman & Robin Must Die
8. Batman: The Return Of Bruce Wayne
9. Batman Incorporated Volume 1
10. Batman Incorporated: Demon Star