Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Batman 667 - second verse, same as the first?

Grant Morrison has always had a fixation with the history of characters and genres, of battling it out with their strongest incarnations in the only way he knows how - by writing his own version of their stories. It failed miserably a few weeks ago with Batman 666, but it seems that Morrison has conceded that battle and is ready to start anew with 667. And he's left Frank Miller behind, sure, but it doesn't appear that he knows where to go from there.

In fact, Morrison's inspirations and the sources that he's drawing from seem to completely overwhelm the actual plot. The story is super-saturated with allusions, both textual (on Morrison's part) and visual (on Williams'), and it's all too much. The crux of the story is itself derived from a cheesy 50s team-concept called, variously, 'The Club of Heroes' or 'Batmen of All Nations', and its been given the requisite modernizing tweaks: several of the characters look decidedly more like Batman now than they did in the 50s, one is grossly obese, a French swordsman looks like the living incarnation of V's Guy Fawkes mask, another looks like a cross between Darkhawk and Judge Dredd, the Dark Ranger is drawn in such an idiosyncratic style that it appears as if Chris Sprouse has been sub-contracted to pencil him alone, and several are brooding in that characteristic Batman manner. The V, Darkhawk, and Judge Dredd visuals are undoubtedly intentional - these are characters that no doubt owe their existence, if not something of their manner and appearance, to the success of the Batman archetype. Such intertextuality is certainly clever, but it quickly becomes an overwhelming abundance of intertexts, many of which simply don't work in conjunction with some others.

Briefly: most obviously, the story seems to be a retelling of Agatha Christie's 'And Then There Were None' (or, if you will, 'Ten Little Indians'), causing me to suspect that one of the heroes is, in fact, the mastermind; it even resembles Morrison's own Seven Soldiers #1 in some ways, in that it is a gathering of lame heroes that is in fact a trap and will certainly see many of them die; the title also appears to be making a literary reference, this time to 'The Island of Dr. Moreau'; as well, the villain who wears a human face as a mask recalls Morrison's Orlando from 'The Invisibles'. Morrison's attempts to reconcile modern superheroism with its entirely goofy 50s predecessor also works unconvincingly in several moments, as when Batman picks up the hand-written name-card at his seat on the meeting table. I laughed, and it was not an ironic laugh by any means - the name cards are cheesy and stupid, and they have so little business being in an otherwise serious murder mystery that I couldn't help but giggle at their absurdity.

I can't help but wonder if Morrison and Williams could have made a better comic simply by reigning in their urge to reference so many disparate pulp sources. The scenes with Williams' Batman and Black Glove - especially the pages and panels that take the shape of a glove, which is fantastically dramatic and affecting - drip with a wonderful noir aesthetic that seems ideal for the retelling of a Christie-inspired murder tale. Conversely, his two-page splash depicting the murder of one of the Club of Heroes looks rushed and confused - there's also obviously an aesthetic reference being made, but it's beyond me - and is easily the ugliest J.H. Williams art I've seen in my entire life. Any book that manages to get so little out of the best artist working in superhero comics right now is in deep, deep trouble.

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