Now, Grant Morrison's Batman saga certainly is...ambitious. Angelo, my pusher, told me that all I really needed to know was that Morrison's take was that all of Batman's publication history was canon. Everything, even the weird stuff. Especially the weird stuff. In fact, it's really an attempt to make the weird stuff fit into the Batman mythos (he invents something called the Black Casebook, which is where Batman files all the weird stuff). Now, it's hard to really review the whole saga without some minor spoilers, so beware! If you care.
The story begins with Batman and Son, with art by Andy Kubert (full Goodreads review), which (re-)introduces Damian Wayne, Bruce's son by Talia al-Ghul (originally conceived in a non-canonical story until Morrison decided to make him canon, and thank goodness!). Damian Wayne is basically my favorite thing in the whole story because he's this violent demon child who's been raised by assassins, so he's a hilarious jerkface who thinks killing people is awesome, but he's also a ten-year-old boy who wants Daddy (and Mommy) to love him. This first book is really uneven, but, in retrospect, it's actually setting up a lot of important plotlines that continue in Batman: The Black Glove, with art by J.H. Williams, Tony S. Daniel, and Jonathan Glapion (full Goodreads review). While the highlight of this book is the art of J.H. Williams, who uses incredibly inventive panel layouts, as he had in Desolation Jones, the Big Story begins to take shape, thanks to the ominous introduction of the Black Glove, who intended to take down Batman. Even though I wasn't fully understanding everything, I could finally see what Morrison was doing, the way he was examining Batman and trying to figure out what makes him tick, as so many writers had done before him. It was clear that the Black Glove would be using a psychological attack, because you don't defeat Batman with a physical attack. Unless you're Bane. And Morrison effectively pulled together elements from these two books in Batman: R.I.P., with art by Tony S. Daniel (full Goodreads review), a surprisingly satisfying conclusion, as we see the Black Glove utterly destroy Batman and Batman fight back in the most unusual way. Unusual and kind of awesome. And ridiculous. And awesomely ridiculous. Really, though, it's the Joker's role in the story that makes the book. It's funny (no pun intended), the Joker is often the most memorable presence in Batman stories (his brief appearance in No Man's Land stuck with me more than many other plot elements).
I was kind of impressed with Morrison for writing such a challenging piece for a mainstream comic. It's some fucking weird, trippy shit, full of psychological horror and an examination of Batman's identity. But wait! It wasn't over! Because Batman had an important role in Final Crisis! So remember that time Batman shot Darkseid in the face and then Darkseid Omega Sanctioned Bruce Wayne back to the Paleolithic era or whatever?
With Bruce Wayne lost in time, it's time for Batman and Robin (full Goodreads reviews: Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3) to be...Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne?? Oh, yes, you better believe it's entertaining, with Damian being a violent little shit and Dick trying to emulate Bruce as best he can. There is some disturbing-ass shit in these books; Morrison creates some fucked-up new villains (the Circus of the Strange, various rival gangs, the Flamingo). But the highlight of the books continues to be Damian, although it's also interesting to see how Dick deals with the loss of Batman. And what of Batman? Well, there's Time and the Batman (full Goodreads review), which is a nonessential book, and Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne (full Goodreads review), a slightly disappointing time-jumping journey that turns into something nigh incomprehensible in an attempt to bring Bruce Wayne back into the fold...but what does that mean for our new Batman and Robin? And, what, is the Joker loose again? And elevating the book again? Oh, Batman and Robin, Vol. 3: Batman and Robin Must Die!, you are the true conclusion of the Morrison Batman saga, and you manage to tie elements of the Batman and Robin series into the Batman R.I.P. story, and, Jesus Christ, maybe it's not entirely coherent, but it was clearly planned out meticulously, and I've got to respect the ambition that went into pulling this shit off.
Afterward, I checked out Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert. Neil Gaiman imagines Batman's funeral, and who's there to mourn? Well, everyone from Alfred to the Joker. In case you were wondering whether Gaiman loved stories about stories...he does. Here, he has the guests tell their own stories about the life and death of Batman. But they can't all be true! And, yet, that's the thing about Batman. In an interesting way, Gaiman is doing the same thing Grant Morrison was doing in his run, trying to turn the publication history of Batman into a coherent life story and emphasize the eternity, the necessity of Batman, but while Morrison is more cerebral, Gaiman goes for the heart and is ultimately more successful, in my opinion.
The collection also includes some old Gaiman stories. There's a cute black-and-white tale that envisions Batman and the Joker as actors "playing" comic book characters, a Poison Ivy story, and a Riddler story.
It was also high time to finally read Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean. My God, what is this. I had been wanting to read it for years, and I think its reputation is well deserved. The story is simple: the inmates have taken over Arkham Asylum (led, of course, by the Joker), and Batman must go in and restore order. Meanwhile, we learn about the founder, Amadeus Arkham, and how he came to build this iconic institution. While Grant Morrison's writing is excellent, unnerving and creepy without being overwrought, the real star of this book is Dave McKean, who imbues the art with such atmosphere that reading this graphic novel is a truly chilling experience. Anyone who doubts the power of visual storytelling should just open this book. Working together, they tackle the nature of madness and sanity and what drives Batman and the Joker—in top form here, especially thanks to Gaspar Saladino's off-kilter red lettering. It's no surprise that this is a classic. Honestly, the word "masterpiece" was dancing around my head a lot of the time.
It seems only fitting, given his prominence in Morrison's Batman saga, that I end with Joker, by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo. Azzarello's take on the Joker is as dirty and gritty as 100 Bullets, with a few bits of the delicious wordplay present in that book. He and Bermejo fashion a more realistic, less fantastical Gotham, where characters like Croc and Penguin look almost normal, though recognizable. The story is told through the eyes of Jonny Frost, a low-level hood who becomes part of the Joker's inner circle upon his release from Arkham. Whereas Grant Morrison's Joker sounds like Mark Hamill's interpretation, a madcap loon with genuine menace and brutality, Azzarello's Joker sounds more like Heath Ledger's interpretation, an amoral criminal with a terrifying disregard for human life. I felt that his voice was off, though; some bits of dialogue felt more like standard criminal talk than something the Joker would say ("Sucks to be you, doesn't it?"). Despite that, though, it's a cool underworld take on what it's like to hang with the Joker, especially because of Bermejo's art, which combines traditional and painted art to great effect. Because this is a manly noir book, women don't fare too well, sadly: Harley is a stripper who never says a word the whole book. But the story moves swiftly along, engrossing and engulfing you in its grimy, toothy filth.