Batman #655-658 (2006), by Andy Kubert and Grant Morrison. DC.
Anyone out there remember these? Grant Morrison's epic-length stewardship of the Batman franchise is more or less neatly divisible into three phases, roughly equal in length if not in page count. The first phase is Morrison finding his take on the character, writing 15 or so stylistically bold single issues that don't add up to much together. Phase two is the magnum opus, the frenetic slow burn that wound through the Batman book and the Final Crisis crossover with a crescendo in the Frank Quitely-drawn launch of the new Batman & Robin series. Phase three has been a protracted nadir, the slow flaming out of the writer who was once the most solid reason to keep an eye on mainstream comics followed by the even slower realization that there's not going to be a second act, that Morrison has pulled off the "best writer in comics" act for longer than anyone else in the medium's history and the comics that are coming out these days are him cashing in a well-earned public rest on his laurels (not to mention his built-in 50K audience).
That little narrative of Morrison's tenure on the book makes the early phase one issues by far the most interesting to me. The meaty issues at the middle of the run are great, but they're another great long-form arc in a career full of them, a little better than JLA and not quite as good as X-Men. And given that nothing Morrison's done with Batman is a masterpiece on the level of Flex Mentallo or The Filth, the real place to get something unique out of his work on the series is at the beginning, which just might be the best example we've got of Morrison doing the superhero-hack thing in his typically grand style. Pretty much all of the writer's caped-adventure comics issues have been mere stitches in a larger tapestry, single installments of some grand multi-part whole. That's even true for these early Batman issues -- but given that this particular tapestry keeps stretching on and on with absolutely no end in sight and no meaningful end within reach, it's less compelling to read them as the opening of another Morrison epic, moreso to look at them as the work of the writer with the craziest ideas stretching out on the Batman warhorse for a little bit before bearing down and getting all self-referential with it like usual.
The issues from 655 to 669 or thereabouts are great entertainment, the creations of a Morrison with much more important things (All Star Superman) on his plate, clobbering readers in the face with goofiness and bombast and bombastic goofiness, glorying in the fact that nobody can pull off that particular combination better. These were the issues that came before Morrison had decided that Batman was going to be his serious comic, when he was just having fun with what's probably comics' most iconic world. The thing about Batman is, though, that it's the superhero whose dominant tone and portrayal relies most on being serious and not being fun. Because when you don't treat Batman seriously, you can slip quite easily into some highly subversive caricature that's downright dangerous for the folks holding the purse strings at corporate headquarters. But Grant Morrison is Grant Morrison, and what he was able to put on the page in his unserious, silly first year with the Caped Crusader still defies belief. Why? Because it goes right into the age-old, obligatory laff at the Batman concept with a vigor no one before or since has dared. In other words, it's really really gay.
I don't pretend to be an expert on queer literary theory, but I've got enough to know that one of its significant elements pre-1960 or so (and perhaps its dominant element pre-1920 or so) is coding, a process by which gay characters and relationships are presented either silently, without being overtly painted as such, or stealthily, under cover of gender changes or mysteriously absent or deceased opposite-sex love interests. You didn't think Dorian Gray actually likes girls, did you? You didn't think Blanche DuBois actually is a girl, did you? Coding can also occur when gay sentiments or acts are presented in the context of a larger hetero plot structure that explains them away. It's anything from an unmarried character being described as "a queer fellow" to Walt Whitman following up his virtuosic, homoerotic "Calamus sequence" in Leaves of Grass with a few clumsy, uninspired verses on male-female coupling. Coding was a necessary form of self-censorship for most of literary history, but it can be tough to pick your way through as a critic in these somewhat more enlightened, open times. It's often necessary to go at old works by gay authors with a directness bordering on the illogical, ignoring plot points intended to indicate that all is in perfectly hetero working order in favor of isolated events and snatches that depict a moment of two of homosexuality before being inevitably "corrected".
It's a tough critical faculty to develop, this willful discarding of broad mechanics and story logic for the quick beats that hold the real significance. Being an occasional critic of superhero comics helps, though, because that's what you have to do to get any aesthetic value out of the damn things: ignore the ridiculous, farcical plot beats in favor of a really killer panel here or a slick bit of sequencing there. The meaning of the pages doesn't matter; what's actually on them does, just like it does when you're dissecting coded gay lit. And the thing about coding is that once you've learned to pick it out, the same little "tells" can be found in books that aren't gay, or at least not known to be. Such is the case with the first arc of Morrison's Batman, which packs a ridiculous amount of barely-concealed homoeroticism into a perfectly straightforward story about Batman bringing a new boy home to the secret cave he shares with Robin. Yes, I'm perfectly aware that the new boy is a) his son and b) the product of a passionate hetero hookup. But I'm also aware that c) the female end of said sexual union is the daughter of archvillain Ra's Al Ghul, who was out of play for DC writers at the time after being apparently killed in the Greg Rucka/Klaus Janson miniseries Batman: Death and the Maidens. And none of those three backstory items affect the immediate impression left by the boundary-pushing tidbits that follow, presented with minimal commentary.
- #655, page 13 panel 1: Robin, the character whose very existence makes the Batman concept more explicitly queer than that of just about any other superhero, makes his entrance into Morrison's run by sliding down a phallic Batpole. The '60s Batman TV show's beloved mode of mansion-to-cave transportation only makes this single appearance in the entirety of Morrison's run if I'm not mistaken -- one has to question why it's used here of all places, in the same panel as the teen ward's opening line, which can be read as a statement of what's on his mind just as easily as a greeting. "Guys."
- #655, page 14 panels 3-5: Robin's exit comes hot on the heels of his entrance (he'll be back), and in similarly flamboyant fashion. Zipping on a jacket strikingly reminiscent of Jake Gyllenhall's in the then-recent Brokeback Mountain, the Boy Wonder announces that he's so excited about, yep, going up into the mountains for a little while! Alfred the butler reminds him about the necessity of removing his mask to pass for a member of the "normal" populace outside the cave, and Robin quickly complies with an Andy Kubert-drawn pout of the lips and dainty hand gesture.
- #655, page 21 panels 6-9: Alfred ties Bruce Wayne/Batman's bowtie for him while teasing him about his reputation as a studly, eligible bachelor. An insanely girlish pose accompanies Bruce's declaration that Alfred "has crossed the red line with him." Ahem. The butler growls "Playboy!" before running through how to come off as the owner of that ladies'-man reputation one more time.
- #656, page 12 panel 5: Issue #656 is taken up mainly with a long fight scene in an art gallery that's showing a Roy Lichtenstein-esque pop art exhibit. One might think that Kubert would go off the hook copying his favorite vintage panels of DC-owned characters in a sequence like this -- but the only one that appears is HG Peter's rendering of William Marston's Wonder Woman, she of the highly camp, almost explicitly queer early issues, a gay icon almost from the day the first installment hit the stands.
- #657, page 9 panels 1-2: Robin comes back from his weekend in the mountains only to find that Batman has brought another young boy (his bratty son, Damian) home to the cave with him. His immediate question: "What about us?" It's a completely naturalistic bit of dialogue that takes it for granted that these characters have a much deeper relationship than crimefighting partners. Fans of the comic will no doubt think "of course, Batman's Robin's father figure" -- and that's what you're supposed to think -- but how many Hollywood movies drop that line between soon and father, and how many between lover and lover? Especially given the queer context Morrison's set up, it reads that way far more immediately to me.
- #657, page 11 panels 4-6: Look at that top panel and don't infer any depth. Wow. Of all the compositions Kubert could have used to depict this moment, he chose this one.
- #657, page 15: Yes folks, "sparring" is "fucking" in hipster slang, and has been for a good few years now. That's historically been an area of linguistics Grant Morrison's liked to keep up with, is all I'm saying.
- #658, page 10 panels 1-2: So after no end of troublemaking, Damian fianlly gets to tag along on a mission as a substitute for Robin, who's out for the count after too much sparring. Batman inducts him into the crimefighting fraternity by taking him for a ride on his rocket. "I have a lot of stuff nobody knows about," Batman tells Damian over his shoulder. Clearly.
I have no idea whether any or all of this is the product of either Morrison or Kubert's (or both's) intention or not. If so, it's a pretty fascinating subversion of a comic that's carried plenty of potential queer themes for decades now, but hasn't ever really seen creators working on it who are willing to exploit them. I'm certain some people will object to my readings of these panels as too overt, too campy -- and yes, they are ridiculously campy, no doubt about it. But camp has been an integral part of gay art and literature for decades now, and Batman himself, in his pop-art 1960s, has done his time as a legitimate camp icon. If all this imagery and innuendo is completely unintentional, then at the very least it shows up the Batman tropes and concept as being more susceptible to accidental homoeroticism than I'd imagine anyone previously suspected. Once again, I'm not claiming the "Batman & Son" story is a full-on gay text -- constructing an actual queer narrative for it is a bridge too far. But its parallels with coded gay lit are rather striking. At times it really appears to be performing homosexuality within the confines of a typical heterosexually-tinged superhero narrative, and I wouldn't be at all surprised that Morrison, before getting serious about making his Batman comics, decided he'd play around with the old joke about Batman and his Boy Wonders a little bit. Maybe he even asked Kubert in on the fun. Who knows? I don't, but I think these are moments worth considering from that angle.