Posted by on November 7th, 2010 at 6:36 AM

Grant Morrison, Architecture, and Mythology:  Batman: Gothic (Legends of the Dark Knight #6-10)

 

 

Sometimes it’s easy to get so wrapped up in subtext, allusions, and external meaning that I forget to recognize when a story is just good. At its core, that’s what Batman: Gothic is. It’s a really well-told story. Whereas Arkham Asylum was an effective psychological examination without much plot to speak of, Gothic is a plot-driven mystery with a healthy dose of action, adventure, and crime drama thrown in. Mr. Whisper/Manfred/Mr. Winchester is a terrifying villain—a character type that actually returns to the Batman mythos later in different forms. On its own—away from that which came before and after it—Gothic is a well-structured, well-paced, and well-narrated story that holds a wide appeal for a variety of audiences. It’s a tale that ties together gangland murders, child sacrifice, the bubonic plague, and an infernal quest for immorality. It retells (or at least re-contextualizes) part of Bruce Wayne’s origin story. It even includes a Rube Goldberg-inspired mousetrap execution device:

 

It does all of that on a surface level, and that’s enough to make it successful as a straightforward story.

But Morrison was still busy trying to distinguish himself as a writer in American comics in 1990, so Gothic operates on multiple. Morrison’s work is often characterized as “postmodern,” which essentially means that he embraces the narrative play that began to emerge in literature in the mid-20th century. Postmodernism actively tries to destabilize many of the techniques and expectations of traditional narratives. In literature, this leads to things like self-referentiality (a text’s awareness of the author and/or itself as a text), jarring transitions and progressions (in both time and space), heavy citation of modern science and technology, and the conflation of high art and low art. Postmodernism is much more than this, but that’s the basic idea (especially in the context of Morrison’s writing). But this doesn’t apply to all of Morrison’s works, and it doesn’t really explain the bigger picture of what he has been writing during the last two decades.

When I consider the whole of Morrison’s work, I tend to think of him as a Postmodern Romantic writer. He may use postmodern techniques, but the themes and central worldview he presents in all of his most important works (from The Invisibles to Seven Soldiers to his current Batman run) are steeped in Romanticism. When I say “Romantic,” I’m not referring to “romance” in the traditional or familiar sense (love). I’m talking about the genre of Romanticism that emerged in German and English art and literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Romantic movement was, in essence, a rejection of the Neoclassical focus on rigid, balanced structure and pure reason. (See Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson.) Romantic writers argued that humans are not guided solely by rationality and rigid moral structures, but instead are driven by emotion and irrationality. To this end, Romantic writers created characters, settings, and situations that reflected the passions of the human experience. Many of these writers (Goethe, William Blake, Mary and Percy Shelley, Byron, Keats, Coleridge) explored the layers and contradictions of human emotion, but the most focused statement of the Romantic Age comes from William Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802). The entire Preface can be read as useful instruction in the goals of the Romantics, but the following line is probably the most famous and instructive: “For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”

Some contemporary readers tend to dismiss the Romantics as a bunch of navel-gazers who were far too focused on nature and self-pity to recognize and deal with the realities of their age. I’d argue, however, that the Romantics were very much of their age—a time of great political and artistic flux, transition, and revolution. Every time someone creates a sense of fixed, invariable truth—a perfect system, document, classification, or morality—someone will be waiting to debunk or destroy it. There is an anarchistic, revolutionary strain to Romantic literature that continued to reverberate well after the Romantic period came to a close, and Grant Morrison has found a way to capture and channel those echoes in his greatest works. The Invisibles story arc entitled “Arcadia” (which begins in #5) opens with a conversation between Lord Byron and Percy Shelley as they ride along a beach. This scene (and “Arcadia” as a whole) is as crucial to understanding Morrison’s overall artistic project as Preface to Lyrical Ballads is to understanding Romantic literature.

         

 

Gothic, then, is no accidental title for Morrison’s story. Romantic writers such as Blake, Goethe, Mary Shelley, Byron, and Poe used elements of Gothic art in their fiction and poetry. The themes of horror, decay, unchecked emotionalism, and a quest for the sublime all factor heavily in both Gothic and Romantic art. Batman: Gothic is a distillation and redirection of all these themes. (I’ve provided annotations to most of Morrison’s quotes and references below.) As a neo-Romantic writer (even as early as 1990), Morrison used Gothic ideas and images throughout this story to focus and guide Batman through a very old and enduring strain of psychological terror that Mr. Whisper makes literal. While many of the allusions are easy enough to track down, the application of them to Batman as a character is a little more tricky.

Batman was created by Bob Kane as a Gothic character type. The design and atmosphere of Kane’s early Detective Comics stories were influenced by the surface tropes of Gothic storytelling. Batman may rely on familiar horror images to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, but he is actually not a Gothic character. Gothic and Romantic literature focused on irrationality and chaos as central components of human behavior. Batman, on the other hand, is a character driven by reason and order. We may see his quest as irrational and obsessive, but his methods are highly focused and controlled. Disorder (the Joker, for instance) makes him positively livid. Gothic, much like Arkham Asylum, is a story about reversals and inversions—one in which Batman confronts that which terrifies him the most. He relies on terror to make criminals afraid. But when he has to look deeply into the actual terror of unbridled human emotion (the heart of Gothic Romanticism), we as readers come to understand just how much of a Gothic lightweight Batman actually is. When Batman tells Alfred that “I’ll need the gyro fuelled and read to go in an hour” (p. 55) and pulls the tarp off the Batgyro (a machine first used in the very Gothic Detective Comics #31), the scene becomes a form of parody and critique.

     

 

Gothic is a story about terror, but it’s specifically a story focused on Batman’s fear of what lies within himself. Humans fear not only the things we don’t want to become, but also the things we recognize we actually might become. Zombies, werewolves, vampires—these are all forms of corporeal transformation that express the deep, latent desires and fears of humanity. When people give in to their basest, most irrational impulses, we fear them because we realize that the potential to do these things lies in each of us. John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer were humans who allowed themselves to indulge in awful human impulses, much as Victor Frankenstein did in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. These are the things we fear most because they’re expressions of what we’re all capable of becoming.

 

Batman comes face to face with those fears in Gothic, and the result is a terrifying look at what he could become if he allowed his impulses and obsessions to go unchecked. This is an idea that Morrison returned to when he took over Batman in 2006, and it’s a theme that continues in the Batman books he’s writing today. But in Gothic, Romanticism becomes a useful and revealing (and possibly unexpected) antagonist to Batman. Mr. Whisper is the distillation of all that is most fearful in humanity. He’s a Byronic hero (actually an anti-hero) that Batman has decided not to be, and Batman’s battle with Whisper clarifies and re-focuses his purpose as a masked avenger.

     

 

Morrison may be a postmodern writer, but many of his more experimental narrative techniques would emerge in later works (Doom Patrol and The Invisibles especially). Gothic is something else. While not as introspective or cerebral as Arkham Asylum, Gothic brings into focus many of the Romantic themes that have surfaced throughout his career. It’s not a terribly difficult or challenging book. But it is illuminating.

Three additional notes about this book:

1)        I wish it had been drawn by someone else. Klaus Janson is an excellent inker of Frank Miller’s work (Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns), but his rough style as a penciller and inker is not well-suited to the stylistic formality of Morrison’s text. I suppose we could make the argument that Janson’s chaotic rendering is consistent with the “overflow of powerful feelings” of Romantic art. But even Wordsworth used consistent and beautiful structures in his poetry. I can’t think of many Romantic poems, plays, or novels that are clunky and unpolished; for all their talk of spontaneity, these people did care about form. I’d love to see what an artist like J.H. Williams III or Gene Ha could do with a story like this.

     

 

2)       Before I went back and re-read this story, I thought it might be possible that Mr. Whisper is also Dr. Hurt (the villain that recently emerged in Batman R.I.P. and Batman and Robin). I realize now that this isn’t possible, but the connections between the character types are uncanny. The quest for immortality through human sacrifice is clearly something Batman has fought against for years now. Gothic is also tied strongly to Peter Milligan and Kieron Dwyer’s excellent story “Dark Knight, Dark City” (Batman #452-454, 1990). Chris Sims of Comics Alliance recently posted an excellent comparison of Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #5 and “Dark Knight, Dark City.” Anyone who wants to better understand what’s going on in Morrison’s Batman books now would do well to go back and re-read Gothic and “ Knight, Dark City.”

 

3)       It’s strange that Morrison didn’t use any direct reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in this story. I can’t figure out why he would go for Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and ignore (at least as far as I can tell) what is generally regarded as the greatest single expression of Gothic Romantic literature. This is especially curious because Shelley’s text, much like Morrison’s, is a sort of warning about the unintended consequences of human irrationality and impulsive behavior at the heart of Romantic thought. Frankenstein is as much an anti-Gothic story as it is a Gothic story, and Morrison follows this track in Gothic. The only thing I can figure is that using Frankenstein in this context would be too obvious or clichéd. But as we’ll see when we get to Seven Soldiers, Morrison didn’t stay away from Frankenstein forever.

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ANNOTATIONS:

(All page numbers are pulled from the trade paperback collection of Batman: Gothic.)

pp 6-7:  “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clements” – Oranges and Lemons, a nursery rhyme and folk song referring to the bells of seven cathedrals. The meaning is vague, though the themes of sacrifice and child execution are inscribed here. Dates back to the 18th century and first published in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (1744). The Gothic connection is not only to the cathedral Whisper has designed, but also to the children he sacrificed to keep himself alive long enough to build it.

p. 7:  “Like one that on a lonesome road / Doth walk in fear and dread” – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Samuel Taylor Coleridge—1798). The Gothic connection is explicit both in Bruce Wayne’s nightmare about his father (p. 34-35) and in the image of Whisper riding a ship full of corpses across the sea to find a new destination (pp. 66, 94). But implicitly, Whisper is also the sort of irrational transgressor that the Mariner is in Coleridge’s poem.

     

 

p. 12:  “Nine days they fell; confounded chaos roared, / And felt tenfold confusion in their fall / Through his wild Anarchy; so huge a rout / Encumbered him with ruin: Hell at last, / Yawning, received them whole, and on them closed” – Paradise Lost, Book VI, 871-5 (John Milton, 1667); You can see Gustave Dore’s illustration of the scene here. The monks at Whisper’s monastery were all destroyed (their souls presumably swept to Hell) by the flood that swept into the town, though Whisper obviously survived.

pp. 19, 24:  “Don Giovanni! a cenar teco m’invitasti e son venuto!” – Don Giovanni (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1787); Mr. Whisper’s remark (“It’s just the ending, you see. I don’t like the ending”) refers to the conclusion of Mozart’s opera, in which Giovanni, refusing to repent for his ostentatious lifestyle, is dragged down through the earth to Hell. “He who dines on heavenly food has no need for the food of mortal” (p. 24) is a line from the opera translated from Italian. Whisper has lived his life as a Giovanni figure: self-indulgent, cruel, and defiant.

 

p. 35:  “Ring around the rosie, a pocketful of posies” – A familiar nursery rhyme, but one whose subject is pretty awful. The rhyme seems to be a reference to the 1665 Great Plague of London. Ring around the rosie is most likely the skin malady that develops with the onset of the bubonic plague. Pocketful of posey (not posies) is the scented nosegay that was carried to counter the smell of decay. Ashes, ashes all falling down was pretty much what happened to 100,000 people in a little over a year. This allusion also connects to Brother Manfred’s (Mr. Whisper’s) origin as a priest during the Black Death plague outbreak in Europe in the 14th century (1348-1350).

 

p. 40:  “If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken and so die. / That strain again, it had a dying fall. / O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound / That breathes upon a bank of violets, / Stealing and giving odor. Enough, no more, / ’Tis not so sweet now as it was before” – Twelfth Night, Act 1, scene 1, 1-8 (William Shakespeare, 1602). Batman explains this one pretty clearly later.

p. 55:  “…and for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death, / Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme, / To take into the air my quiet breath; / Now more than ever seems it rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain, / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!” – “Ode to a Nightingale” 50-58 (John Keats, 1819).

 

p. 60:  “Stand still you ever-moving spheres of Heaven, / That time may cease, and midnight never come” – The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (Christopher Marlowe, 1604). The Faust allusion, like most of Dr. Whisper’s literary allusions, is a reference to mortal man trying to transcend human limitations and reach for that which should be unattainable to human beings (immortality, perfect knowledge, absolute self-indulgence, etc.). This is a common theme throughout Romantic literature.

p. 63:  Brother Manfred – Manfred is a name that’s tied to two seminal gothic/Romantic works. Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, generally considered the first work of Gothic fiction, features a protagonist named Manfred. The name is also used in the closet drama Manfred, written by George Gordon, Lord Byron in 1816-1817. Manfred is the seminal “Byronic hero”—a man who refused to yield to all human and spiritual forces in his quest for intellectual, emotional, or spiritual fulfillment. The (anti-)hero of Byron’s drama dies after refusing to be claimed by demons, elementals, and ultimately God.

pp. 63-66:  This whole sequence is a summation of many gothic tropes, but it’s largely based on the ideas introduced in The Monk: A Gothic Romance—a novel written by Matthew Gregory Lewis in 1796. Lewis’ novel relates the story of a priest who engages in many of the same horrible sins and transgressions that Brother Manfred does in Gothic. The “Bleeding Nun” character type in Lewis’ novel is transformed into the Burning Nun in Morrison’s story.

 

p. 98:  “Out, brief candle!” – Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5 (William Shakespeare, 1603); This one’s pretty familiar and seems to be a throwaway in the scene. But the full quote connects nicely to Mr. Whisper, given his mission and the fact that he has no shadow. The full quote, spoken by Macbeth, reads: “Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more: it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

p. 101:  “My hour is almost come, / When I to sulph’rous and tormenting flames / Must render up myself.” – Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5 (William Shakespeare, 1601). The lines are spoken by the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Batman’s use of this quote is telling on a number of levels. Directly, it’s a statement that Manfred’s time is running out. But indirectly, it could be tied to the ghost of Bruce’s father, which continues to haunt him.

p. 105:  “And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” – The Masque of the Red Death (Edgar Allan Poe, 1842).

p. 109:  “Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird” – Another line from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” This line not only connects to Batman (here seen by Whisper as a kind of infernal bird), but also connects to Whisper’s recorded recitation of the poem that Batman listened to earlier in the book (p. 55).

p. 116:  “Oh, Manfred, my good and faithful servant.” – The Bible: Matthew 25:23. The Biblical line is as follows: “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” The Devil’s delivery of this line is a clever reversal of the biblical usage. Gothic, even.

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