Thursday, February 12, 2015

Legends of the Dork Knight

"Gothic" by Grant Morrison and Klaus Janson

If "Shaman" was an ambitious misfire, "Gothic" is the story where Legends of the Dark Knight finally came into its own and fully embraced its remit. It's important to remember that, back in 1989, there really wasn't much in the way of a track record for Batman stories like this. The three models for "mature readers" (I'm putting that phrase in necessary scare-quotes) Batman stories that LotDK was initially pulling from were 1988's The Killing Joke, 1987's "Year One," and 1986's The Dark Knight Returns. The same year that LotDK premiered also saw the release of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum graphic novel. The idea of a Batman story designed to be read by an audience that didn't include young children was still new. We take it for granted now that many - if not, unfortunately, most - Batman stories currently published just aren't appropriate for kids. But back then the idea was, pardon the pun, novel, and it was this revelation that served as the inspiration for hundreds of subsequent "Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore" headlines. It was a strange idea for many, many people to wrap their heads around.

Even though "Shaman" lacked the Comics Code seal, there was nothing in the story that would have proved problematic for the Authority. Denny O'Neil was an old hand, and even though the story was concerned with "heavy" themes such as myth, cultural theft, and ritual murder, it was still essentially a Batman story of the kind that could have been told at any point in the previous twenty years, just told with a darker color palette. Not so "Gothic." This was a story that couldn't have been told with pre-1986 Batman. The violence, the intensity, the presence of explicit violence and (not so explicit but still upsetting) sex was new. It didn't go as far as Arkham Asylum, but it also wasn't anywhere near as abstruse. Although many of Morrison's early habits were well in place, the story was more brutal and direct than its more highbrow cousin. This was a murder mystery that touched on child murder, sexual abuse, satanism, and rape in the course of its unraveling.

Morrison has written many Batman stories in his career, and much of his later work is prefigured in "Gothic." For one, Morrison wasn't afraid to cross the line separating Batman's mundane crime-ridden Gotham from the kind of supernatural horror elements exemplified by the story's villain, Mr. Whisper. The idea that Gotham is somehow a genuinely haunted, specially cursed placed was one that would become more and more central to the mythos. Now it's often a given that Gotham city, rather than merely an exaggerated vision of 1970s urban hell New York, contains some kind of Mephistophelian affinity to the literal hell. (For modern examples, see Snyder and Capullo's Batman, as well as Batman Eternal.) Morrison also introduces the idea that Thomas Wayne was a deeper and more significant figure in Gotham history than previous writers had intimated. And finally, even though "Gothic" is close to being a straight horror story, Morrison also has fun mixing and matching a few motifs from previous Batman eras: in the midst of a heavy supernatural mystery, he finds time to strap our hero into a Rube Goldberg deathtrap straight out of the 1960s TV show. The idea that all of Batman's diverse and thematically inconsistent histories coexisted as parts of the character's development was one that Morrison would return to later.

The story begins with the a series of murders of Gotham's most powerful criminals. In desperation these criminals turn for protection to Batman, who scoffs at their attempts at negotiation before setting out to hunt the killer himself. (Oh, yeah, I guess these are spoilers for a 25-year-old Batman story?) Morrison performs an extremely clever maneuver here: in the early pages he leads the reader to believe the story will focus on the crime lords being hunted and killed by some mysterious force. But it turns out that the crime lords' purpose in the story is mainly to give Batman (and the audience) a red herring. The actual plot has little to do with the mob bosses. Mr. Whisper is killing them, but more out of boredom while sitting around Gotham waiting for his real plan to kick in.

The "real" plan actually involves a 300-year old serial killer who made a deal with the devil, and his plan to murder every man, woman, and child in Gotham as a means of escaping this obligation. There are allusions peppered throughout, from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus to de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, the latter of which he would return to in the second arc of The Invisibles. Meanwhile, the catalyst for Mr. Whisper's crusade of vengeance against Gotham's underworld is revealed to be, basically, the plot of Fritz Lang's M. Morrison here is still operating very much in the mode of fellow "British Invasion" writers Moore and Gaiman - processing literary and artistic influences in a very literal-minded way, plucking plots and themes directly from older works to create a thick metatextual stew. Morrison would, of course, largely outgrow this tendency over the course of the next decade, with the aforementioned Invisibles acting as his own version of The Sandman, a means for a young creator of digesting and reflecting a large mass of influences through the lens of familiar genre fiction signifiers. Like Moore and Gaiman, Morrison would become a far more subtle writer with age, but his earlier work retains a pleasing density sometimes missing from his later, more streamlined efforts.

If anything could be said to account for the story's relatively low profile compared both to other early attempts at "mature readers" Batman stories and in the context of Morrison's well-plumbed oeuvre, it may be Klaus Janson's art. Janson is, it must be said, an acquired taste, a master of mood and setting (he can draw castles and gothic cathedrals for days), whose figurework often suffers from a merely expressionistic relationship to reality. I happen to like Janson's art, the occasional strange potato-head notwithstanding. Something Janson gets which many more superficially polished artists do not is how to make a fight seem painful and punishing without also appearing pretty: the brawl between Batman and Mr. Whisper that takes up much of the story's last issue is brutal, with broken bones and bloody knuckles, and Batman facing down an opponent who may be nowhere his match in terms of martial skill, but simply can't be stopped, not even by a speeding subway train. It's exhausting to read, and Janson's Batman - far from the invincible paragon he is often portrayed as - feels the rattle of every blow.

"Gothic" isn't a perfect story, despite its many virtues. Some of its defects are still present in Morrison's work down to this day: for instance, pacing can seem a jumble. Each episodic set-piece is exquisitely measured by Janson, but the episodes themselves can seem abrupt. The series' mandate of tying each adventure so closely to the "Year One" era results in a questionable continuity implant that sees Thomas Wayne on the verge of solving a series of brutal child murders on the very day he's shot and killed (while also raising the question of whether or not the Waynes' murder was as random as believed, which carries regrettable implications for the character's origin). The same over-enthusiasm that made Arkham Asylum interesting and frustrating in equal measure can be discerned here, even if Janson's art provides a much firmer grounding for the writer's earnest digressions. Arkham Asylum is ultimately redeemed not despite but because of its excesses - it's a ludicrously overstuffed, ungodly pretentious monstrosity that works because of its deep commitment to every overwrought and underbaked bit of juvenile psychodrama. There isn't nearly as much at stake with "Gothic", and Morrison is far more restrained. Despite the surprisingly cosmic scope, at its root it's still a murder mystery with a bit of supernatural horror thrown in for good measure. If the story seems to overreach at times, its portrait of Batman is perfectly balanced, a human, fallible hero who nonetheless manages to triumph in the face of unearthly evil due to his demoniacal singularity of purpose.


DanielT said...

I like Janson's art also. But I was in high school when Dark Knight Returns came out and a friend of mine was INCENSED over Janson's inking.

Are you going to do the entire series (or at least try)?

Tim O'Neil said...

You should know my track record for long series . . . but I'm going to keep going until I get bored. I was buying comics when these came out but I wasn't really a Batman guy so most of these are new to me.

Jeremy said...

I like Gothic just fine, although Morrison's characterization of Batman here is distinctly different from his post-JLA #1 version.

The next story arc, "Prey", is one of my favorites, hope you enjoy.

DanielT said...

Even though I've read a shitload of Batman comics in my life I've never considered myself a Batman guy either. But this series is one of my favorite Batman things (along with Haney's Brave and Bolds and Year One).

Dale Bagwell said...

Definitely enjoyed reading this article, and seeing more of Morrison's earlier Batman work.

Gothic looks pretty interesting, flaws and all.
Good art too by a master in Klaus Janson.

So Batman's father was trying to solve a series of child murder's? I'd say that boarders on, if not straight seems werid given his profession dont you? It almost seems like Morrison was making it seems as if/or explain how becoming a detective came easy to Batman since his father was doing the whole sleuting thing too.
I'm sure that just confused the hell out of a lot of Batman fans back then.

Tim O'Neil said...

He wasn't a detective per se, but he figured out that the headmaster at Bruce's boarding school (who was later revealed to be Mr. Whisper) might be killing kids. So, suspicious timing.

Dale Bagwell said...

Gotcha. Still, was Morrison trying to imply there was a precdent set by his father, or like you say, coincedental sluthing that had no bearing on Bruce's own quest to become a detective?

Tim O'Neil said...

There's some ambiguity there. It's not the strongest part of the book.