Written by Grant Morrison
Penciled by Yanick Paquette
Batman’s Argentinean adventure concludes as The Dark Knight and Gaucho fight to the death to save the lives of countless innocents. Meanwhile, England’s other Batman, The Hood, stumbles across a monstrous conspiracy — can Batman and his international allies stop a plot that threatens to transform the whole world?
There are a lot of things going on with Batman Incorporated this month, and a few of them even have to do with what’s right there on the page! As we finish off the second arc of Batman’s world tour of learning how to say “a cowardly and superstitious lot” in every dialect on the globe, questions arise regarding the proper way to read this series in the context of Grant Morrison’s favorite games and stylistic tics. If that interests you as much as it interested me to ramble about it, well, you know where to click.
I’ve been reading Grant Morrison comics for years, and I know when I’m being set up. As innovative as the man can be, he has a profound love of classic comic-book tricks — like waving the left hand in your face, while you ignore the right one at your peril. When Morrison’s opuses start to take shape, it becomes something like a locked-door mystery: you know someone’s going to be the “who” in the “whodunit,” you just don’t know who, and you don’t know what they’re doing until it’s too late. There’s a key bit of misdirection this issue, involving The Hood, Agent of T.H.E.Y., the United Kingdom’s one-man Ministry for the Prevention of World War Three. Then, of course, it happens again, with a mind-bending deathtrap revealed as a mind-bending ruse. And as if two in the space of six pages wasn’t enough of a dose, it’s happening on a macro scale — that’s where we don’t know the “who” yet. Batman versus Leviathan — the battle must be happening on a level we’re not aware we’re reading yet.
One of my favorite moments in any Morrison comic ever is the end of “Riot at Xavier’s” in New X-Men, where Xorn and Quentin Quire share a brief moment before Quire “ascends to a higher plane of being.” Of course, when you go back and re-read it knowing the twists and turns the story will eventually take, it becomes obvious that “Xorn” actually killed Quire for figuring out his secret, and passed it off as “healing” him. That truth is never hammered home, and left mostly to the audience to figure out on our own from context and allusion (unless there was some big honking neon sign that I’ve forgotten in the several years since I’ve last re-read it).
In the years between New X-Men and Batman Incorporated, Morrison has grown more ambitious and more restless in his aggressive use of context: this is a title that speeds ahead with the force of a runaway train, refusing to waste precious panel space on anything that risks being unexciting. At the same time, these flashes we receive add up to something more: both individual issues, and the giant superstory Morrison is telling. Everything that we read here is a moment in time, but the key phrase is in time, because that sequential quality is what gives everything purpose. What might seem like just an exciting trifle of a moment will only reveal itself as crucial to the development of the megaplot when we have the luxury of history.
This sort of stuff is on my mind as I read and re-read Batman Incorporated #5 because I feel like it’s going to end up being important to the whole Leviathan thing once that trap springs. This is the climax of a three-issue stint in Argentina, a team-up with El Gaucho (Argentina’s Batman), the Hood (England’s Batman who isn’t the Knight), and Batwoman (Women’s Batman). As befits what is nominally some sort of ending, it’s only here in part three that the story stops infinitely digressing: the previous two issues move forward nimbly, but do so with each hand full of flashbacks, exposition, tango de la muerte sequences, et cetera. Here, bar a single sequence taking us into the history and world of Doctor Dedalus, it’s all here and all now, and the key word in both seems to be “Leviathan.”Continued below
The conceit of Batman Incorporated is that Bruce Wayne is building an army — because what is a corporation if not the most modern and capable sort of armed force on the planet? Clearly, then, he needs an enemy worthy of his effort, a counterpoint that makes the idea of Bat-Franchising seem validated and, ideally, necessary. The idea of opposing the opposite isn’t new to Morrison’s Batman run — Doctor Hurt, villain of much of what came before, is a wealthy, privileged man with ability apparently beyond any conceivable human means, who has gathered a cadre of like-minded individuals in order to further his own personal ambitions and impose his own will upon any sphere he can exert it in. Sound familiar? Here, though, the enemy is more vague.
That a labyrinthian terrorist organization devoted to… well, nothing good, in any event… would be diffuse and a bit hard to pin down concretely is no shock. Still, counting Batman: The Return, it’s been six issues, and all we know is that they’re out there, manipulating things — although now we have “the mystery of Oroboro” on top of it, too. The epilogue, featuring Leviathan indoctrinating child soldiers in Africa, does more to tell us about him than anything in the previous half-year of stories. Like I said above, it’s hard not to take this in the macro context, seeing issues like this one as pieces of something larger whose shape is not yet known, rather than ends to themselves. That in turn begs the question: is it okay that we know so little of Leviathan by now? In a book that seems so committed to hitting the ground running and smashing through any barrier between it and efficient hypercompression, why is the key plotline of the whole enterprise so teased out? Then again, will #12 roll along and reveal that it was all there all along, we were just taken in by the tango scenes and the kung-fu kicks and the bitter Falklands war wounds?
I can’t think of any other mainstream comic book that so aggressively and yet insouciantly makes me second-guess my own reading process while I’m still reading the damn thing. To those already indoctrinated in the TOPY-esque Morrison fiction-cult (Grant Morrison Has a Posse 7’4″ 500 lbs.), it’s a mystery for us as well as for Batman, only we don’t have supercomputers and jetpacks to help us figure it out, just $2.99 a month to buy the next set of maybe-clues. Hell of a racket, if you can fall into it.
As for Batman Incorporated #5 in and of itself, let’s summarize. Yanick Paquette is back, and this isn’t his smoothest work, but he still does the best Batman out there today, drawing on Kevin Nowlan’s grim austerity and Adam Hughes’s expressive facial acting to create a Batman for our times — built like a superhero, but defined by his permanent Judge Dredd frown. Paquette often seems to get crap for his visible enjoyment of the female form, but aside from Scorpiana’s costume being a bathing suit (something that’s down to Tony Daniel, and knowing Morrison’s penchant for involving himself in his books’ art, probably even more down to the man himself), he keeps it clean here, showcasing just how much he’s developed in the past decade. The conclusion to the three-act story we’ve just taken in is typically twisty and (on first read) rather prickly, but downright straightforward compared to the meta-experimentation of, say, Final Crisis, so calm down there, frothing Internet people who aren’t me. El Gaucho continues acting as a fine emotional foil for Batman; Batwoman gets more time in the sun to showcase her quiet, confident capability; and the Hood is a charming, roguish addition to the growing cast of characters. (As an aside, I love what appears to be a running gag of ladies’-man characters trying to charm Batwoman and getting brusquely blown off.)
Is this a satisfying 20-page story in and of itself? No, not really. It is a satisfying conclusion to a 60-page story that’s spanned the past three issues? Yes, that’s more like it. Is it a satisfying middle stage in the ongoing Batman-Leviathan war? Magic 8-Ball says come back later — too early to tell.Continued below