Superhero Narratives and Social Values

The role of globalisation and the avant–garde in Grant Morrison’s Batman

by Mark P. Williams

Anybody could be Batman, and Batman could be anyone—this is the world of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated. Taking globalisation as a central theme Batman Inc. continues Morrison’s explorations of the possible social meanings of the superhero which characterised [Morrison’s 2008 Batman miniseries] Final Crisis. During his run on DC’s most distinctive dualistic character, Morrison has taken Batman into territories which threaten to undermine his most fundamental principles – and which raise important questions about the superhero narrative and its social values.

Someone might protest: “That happens to superheroes all the time; the supervillain turns their world upside down and then the superhero reverses the course of events, it’s a central tenet of the form.” True, such reversals are intrinsic to the structure of superhero plots, but they rarely affect the form of the superhero narrative itself, rather they take place within it. Morrison’s superhero narratives play with the basic form, and with how that relates to wider questions about contemporary modernity. I would like to sketch some of the ways I think this operates in Morrison’s fictions and some of the implications for considering superhero narratives as a form. There is always more to be said so I will restrict myself to certain key uses of avant-garde theory which seem to be of increasing importance to Morrison’s expansion of Batman.


Souce – Wikipedia – © 2011 DC Comics, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
In Batman Inc. Morrison is working with a contemporary formulation of how superheroes function socially that he and the writers Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid and Keith Giffen, helped shape in its DC universe manifestation for the series 52, and which Morrison expanded into a more personal vision in Final Crisis. In this conception superheroes and supervillains are individuals who can directly affect socio-political change on a global scale by inspiring or dominating, oppressing or empowering. In this way, superpowers constitute the ability to manipulate the overdetermined assemblages that affect regional, national and global culture.

Morrison’s Batman fictions remind us that Lex Luthor’s Lexcorp and Lexmart, and Bruce Wayne’s Waynetech are economic extensions of their characters which represent the moral codes of their owners. This is used to particular effect with regard to the alternate versions of Batman such as Damian Wayne’s future Batman in Batman#666 from the Batman and Son plot arc.


Source – Wikipedia © 1935-2011 DC Comics, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
On one page of Batman#666 from Batman and Son, we see a large splash-image of the future Gotham where a truck prominently bears the supervillainous slogan ‘Lexmart: Dominating the retail industry worldwide’, creating a parallel between capital’s dominance through global marketing and the supervillainous quest for world-domination. Elsewhere, the present-day Batman, Bruce Wayne, hands out Waynetech business cards to young prostitutes to get them off the streets, saying ‘I hear these people are hiring reception girls’, using the billionaire status of Bruce Wayne to give lasting economic support to his attempts as Batman to affect the region of Gotham. [1] In Batman R.I.P., the supervillain Dr Simon Hurt and the criminal organisation The Black Glove describe themselves as ‘operators at the highest level’, [2]who boast that there is ‘no court on the planet we can’t buy, no judge or jury beyond threatening or bribing’, concretely linking supervillainy with economic exploitation. [3] The Black Glove share some resonances with Mark Millar’s more extreme visions in Wanted and Nemesis, where supervillainy is expressed as the individualistic indulgence of morally repugnant activities through social or economic power, by being knowingly exploitative. Relating superheroes and supervillains to empowerment versus exploitation under globalisation characterised innovative series such as Warren Ellis’s The Authority (later taken up by Mark Millar and, later still, by Morrison himself). The approach Morrison takes, while clearly related to all these, is based on a different rhetoric: the avant-garde critique of culture.

1: Grant Morrison’s Avant-Garde Aesthetic

From his early breakthrough texts to the present, Morrison has demonstrated a counter-cultural attitude informed by avant-garde art theory and post-punk rhetoric. It has manifested as an anarchic sensibility in his creator-owned fictions like The Invisibles and Kill Your Boyfriend, and more recently The Filth, but has always been present in his mainstream superhero works, from the psychoanalytic framework of Arkham Asylum to the metafictional break of Animal Man meeting his writer ‘Grant Morrison’.

His interest in the avant-garde was perhaps most obvious, and most entertaining, in the Surrealist and Dadaist inflections of Doom Patrol, but its traces run throughout his superheroic fictions. These traces have developed a strong new focus with his recent epic narratives Seven Soldiers of Victory (to which I would like to return another time) and Final Crisis, which is being worked through in his Batman fictions to produce a coherent vision of superhero continuity as a meditation on contemporary globalisation.

There are two key aesthetic problems of representation which his superhero projects work through: whether they should strive towards ‘realistic’ engagement with real-world politics or an ‘allegorical’ version of such; and the question of whether superheroes are inherently apolitically escapist or can provide political engagement as a material escape from dominating ideology. In responding to these problems, Morrison explicitly thematises them within his work in terms of an on-going debate between ‘seriousness’ and ‘absurdity’ as effective and desirable ways of describing the world through fantasy.

The absurd, Surrealist dimension of this work appears in the form of reflexivity and play with the comic book medium and the superhero form, introducing authorial or artistic characters with demiurgic functions, and famously, in the case of Animal Man, through a climactic sequence of successively more extreme metafictional breaks leading to the superhero meeting his writer, ‘Grant Morrison’. For these reasons, his work is typically categorised as postmodernist.

However, in recent interviews Morrison described his own writing in terms which resist readings of his work as postmodernist, saying ‘[s]ecretly, I’ve always felt I had more in common with the modernist approach than with postmodernism, but I can see where the connection might arise’, [4] and , ‘I think post-modernism is a misnomer anyway—post-modernism is actually the decadent, recombinant phase of culture which appears prior to modernism in a given cycle’ which he says, in his opinion, ‘should properly be called pre-modernism’, [5] echoing Frederic Jameson’s summary of The Postmodern Condition. Morrison’s words also echo contemporary avant-gardist Stewart Home’s introduction to Morrison’s prose collection, Lovely Biscuits (1998). In his introduction, Home writes that ‘from certain twisted angles, Morrison’s output exhibits a closer affinity to paradigmatic examples of modernism’ than to his ‘“po-mo” contemporaries’ for its aesthetic refusals of category and of identity. [6]

Stewart Home’s literary and artistic output in novels such as 69 Things to do with a Dead Princess (2002) and Memphis Underground (2007) interrogates the use of postmodernism in popular and literary culture from a radical left avant-garde position. It is possible, given Morrison’s personal acquaintance with Stewart Home, that his own distinctions between modernism and postmodernism could have been formulated in conversation or correspondence with Home and his avant-garde circles as it certainly seems to be influenced by them. (Home’s engagements with global culture are manifold and not restricted to literary arenas but include performance art, pamphleteering, pranks and political activism, see http://www.stewarthomesociety.org .)

As a distinction of phases of the avant-garde, Morrison’s description of postmodernism as a ‘decadent, recombinant phase’ has much in common with the distinctions Donald Kuspit makes in his book The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist (1993). Kuspit describes the sense of decadence felt by the modernist as follows:

To be modern means to be split between a deep fear of decadence and an equally deep wish for rejuvenation. [….] Modernity can be defined as the desperate search for means of rejuvenation—symbolised by the value placed on newness—to counteract decadence[.]

For Kuspit the ‘[a]rchaeological, mannerist archness’ of self-reflexive art functions ‘as both defence against decadence and as a new kind of decadence: that is the postmodernist method’. [7] Kuspit’s argument, working through distinctions between ‘avant-garde’ (modernist) and ‘neo-avant-garde’ (postmodernist) art—while negotiating the problem of ‘pseudo-avant-garde art’—asserts that there are essentially two kinds of art: one which is geared towards some kind of therapeutic function, helping the individual cope with and express something fundamental about the (modern) world, and that which is divorced from reference to individual life (by cynicism or cultural pressure) and that is thus non-therapeutic. For Kuspit, true avant-garde art is that which strives for a therapeutic effect; for left radical avant-gardists drawing on the traditions of Dada or Surrealist critique, or subsequent groups, the individual therapeutic value must also be tied to a political stance, otherwise the art is merely escapist.

2: Superhero Continuity: The Great Escapism?

Morrison’s superhero fictions speculate on whether the superhero narrative form encourages passivity, consuming superheroes purely as escapism, or whether they can encourage engagement with the world and operate in critical or satirical terms. The central questions of his work remain ones concerned with the tensions between escapism and engagement, often manifested as a conflict between realism and wonder. Morrison makes a case for engaged conceptions of superhero fantasy, but is concerned in the process that his fictions should ‘take up arms on the side of the dreamers and the outcasts and the outsiders’ through imagination because ‘the world of imagination sometimes gets short shrift’. [8]

In an online discussion in 2006 Morrison describes his avant-gardist desire to subvert or change mainstream superhero comics in terms of ‘magical’ thought experiments within populist media. His use of the term ‘magic’ here must be understood, on the one hand, similarly to Alan Moore, as referring in part to the connectivity of the faculty of the imagination with the senses, and with conscious and unconscious drives, and on the other, as being similar to Stewart Home’s use of it as a conceptual language which deliberately blurs the distinctions between subjective and objective experiences to emphasise the materiality of the subjective:

Beyond Marvel and DC as corporate entities lie the Marvel and DC universes and I have a great scientific interest in these little living paper worlds with their own internal cosmological structures and laws. These miniature universes even continue INDEPENDENTLY of their creators. We can enter them and destroy characters, maim worlds, run utopian ideals to their destructive conclusions, re-run, delete, annihilate…and put it all back the way it was if we choose. They can even outlive us as Jack Kirby, Joe Simon and many others would surely remind us if only they could interact with the material plane like they used to. As a magician using comics as a medium for the purposes of effecting ‘magic’ (‘magic’ like ‘comics’ is another one of those terms which really obscures its subject), I enjoy getting my hands on corporate icons recognised the world over and charging them with new intent. (Interview with Warren Ellis from: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=13349 )

For a comic book writer such as Morrison, dealing with and rewriting the ‘little living paper worlds’ of Marvel and DC there are many contrary demands to negotiate with: editorial expectation, readerly expectation and the history of the characters as they have been written by generations of other authors. The conjunction of these demands is referred to as comic book continuity and it is continuity which Morrison makes the centre of his approach to rebooting Batman.

It has been suggested that superhero continuity constitutes a historically unique phenomenon in its own right; in Superhero! Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Film” Roz Kaveney speculates on a ‘casual remark by Nick Lowe in the course of a train journey’ that the superhero continuities of DC and Marvel now constituted ‘the largest narrative constructions in human culture (exceeding, for example, the vast body of myth, legend and stories that underlies Latin and Greek literature), and that learning to navigate them was a skill-set all of its own’. [9] In The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture, Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith describe continuity as a ‘state of being’ rather than as a story:

Continuity is the relatedness among characters and events said to inhabit the same fictional universe, and it can pose a problem for creators trying to deal with decades of backstory. Marc Singer believes it is not a story which persists in the minds of comic book readers, but rather a state of being. Expanding on a term borrowed from Neil Gaiman, Singer refers to the alluring aspect of unchanging superheroes as a ‘state of grace’ that consists of the hero’s power, appearance and behaviour.

Continuity treats characters not as functions tied to a narrative purpose, but as attitudes which may or may not point towards to any ends. This then raises the question of how characters can be adapted to import ‘new intent’ if their content is so overdetermined by generations of collective work – particularly given that the companies which own the characters, and take the author function, can only ever allow them to be ‘charged’ with enough ‘new intent’ as to be sufficiently different to interest a new audience but similar enough to the established versions to maintain as much interest from the old audience as possible. These are problems of form which Morrison responds to using avant-garde concepts.

In The Role of the Reader, Umberto Eco links the meganarratives of DC and Marvel continuity directly with Surrealism. He observes that the events which occur in the superhero narratives of the DC and Marvel continuities exist in a fluid relationship with the material history of their original writing and publication. Although time passes the characters always remain roughly the same age; the past of characters such as Superman and Batman is always the recent past, even when the events which make up that past may have been written over several decades. The ‘present’ of continuity is always the shifting moment of now; superheroes in continuity exist in a dream-like relationship with modernity, an ‘oneiric climate’, ‘where what has happened before and what has happened after appear extremely hazy’ and in each narrative ‘[t]he narrator picks up the strand of the event again and again, as if he had forgotten to say something’. [10] To Eco, this is caused by the superhero narrative’s struggle to balance the impulses of the mythic (timeless) narrative, and the novelistic narrative (which is ‘particular’ and ‘historic’). He finds it comes to the fore in Imaginary Tales and Untold Tales which re-tell ‘events already told but in which “something was left out”’, [11]where there is a strange anxiety about how to place the things which occur. Not only does the narrative become more or less elaborate according to the needs of the individual story writer but the relation of the character to the world becomes more or less dream-like.

This dream-like quality, the ‘oneiric climate’, produces an effect which is already tacitly surreal in its logic: history, despite seventy years of writing, only ever refers to recent history (approximately the preceding decade) and all early adventures and origin stories occur within that recent history. Grant Morrison’s superhero narrative begins by uncovering this tacit surrealism present in continuity and then using it reflexively as a way of incorporating critique into the mode. He contrasts subjective dream-logic with strict history, and cyclical or static activities with actual historical progression as a political gesture: what we see in the panels of his comics is only what is perceived to be happening not what is actually happening. Later issues may then add alternative perceptions when they recapitulate events through a different narrative focaliser.

This has become of increasing importance to his treatment of Batman in the parallel narratives of Batman and Robin Reborn, where Dick Grayson takes on the mantle of the Dark Knight with Damian Wayne as a distinctly more aggressive and arrogant Robin, and The Return of Bruce Wayne which sketches Batman’s struggle to return to Gotham across a slew of different time periods using different styles. There is much more going on in the artwork and layouts which can only be dealt with by detailed exposition on the art work—particularly the artwork of Frank Quitely, Frazer Irving and Cameron Stewart on Batman and Robin. I would just like to briefly consider the use of ‘art’ as a concept as it is used within the series.

3: The Art of Superheroics

In addition to the artwork of the comics being used to portray subjective experience through shifts in style by Morrison’s collaborating artists, Surrealism and avant-garde art appear as a source of rupture within the narratives. In Batman and Son we see Bruce Wayne at an art opening in London, looking at Lichtensteinian canvases and a Hirst-parody ‘monster in formaldehyde’, telling Jezabel Jet that he finds ‘[a]ll this comic book stuff way too highbrow for me [,] I collect tribal art, schizophrenic painters, “outsider” work I believe they call it’ before fighting off ‘Ninja Man-Bats’ using the exhibits as weapons. [12] In the subsequent Batman arcs, art appears as a concept applied to supervillainous activities: the members of supervillain society The Black Glove actually say that their scheme for breaking the Batman ‘will be a work of art’. [13] Another Black Glove recruit, Le Bossu, addresses the Joker as a master artist, saying:

There are so many of us here who were inspired by your relentless invention.

Your élan, maître. [….]

Scorpiana, El Sombrero, Pierrot Lunaire…

All of us, we revere your flamboyance, your dedication to your art.

The Joker’s art is that of murder and chaos within the superhero narrative, but they also complete the form of the narrative, like the relationship between writer and artist. As Batman’s opposite he is also Batman’s collaborator; all of the Joker’s attempts to kill the Batman simply result in the creation of more elaborations of their relationship. The Joker describes himself as having been ‘driven literally in. sane.’[sic] trying to get Batman ‘to loosen up’, ‘every single time I try to think outside his toybox he builds a new box around me’. [14]

In Morrison’s conception of it, Batman’s superpower is a demiurgic one which comes close to metafiction; he determines the course of events during his adventures because his most distinctive ability is that he ‘thinks of everything’. [15] Batman imagines and prepares for every possible scenario and villain before they exist:

Every day I run through a thousand different scenarios.

I work out ways to defeat villains with MOs and pathologies that haven’t been thought of yet.

I imagine a thousand potential death traps and plot my escapes.

Batman scripts his own actions and then, like a collaborating artist, the hypothetical villain appears to complete the scenario. He even records his adventures knowingly for his implied audience: ‘I practice that self-conscious hard-boiled style Alfred loves to read’. [16] The conflict between Batman and the Black Glove is a conflict of written concepts and visual concepts and between form and content.

4: Medium/Message: Spectacular Society

Morrison has explicitly drawn upon the concepts of the Situationist International in his work on The Invisibles and elements of Situationist critique are also present in his Batman fictions. The oft-rehearsed basic premises of the Situationist group are that society has moved into a new phase of commodity relations where the image of commodity has developed a unique power to influence and determine contemporary life. In Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), [17] Debord writes that ‘[t]he spectacle’ is ‘a social relationship between people that is mediated by images’ [18] such as brands and logos which permeate commodity culture. Spectacular society ‘corresponds to the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life’ and ‘the world we see is now the world of the commodity’. [19]

In their book Empire (2000), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri draw explicitly upon the idea of the Society of the Spectacle to help characterise ‘postmodernity’. Empire is a system which allows multiple metanarratives to interpenetrate and co-exist by regulating and managing the ideological conflicts of workers and interest groups economically and socially. It does this economically by differentiating blocks, regions, nations and locales within the overarching world market, and socially by differentiating nationalities, ethnicities, regional, gendered and sexual identities, under a global culture of postmodernity.

Hardt and Negri argue that the cultural system favors particular economic regions directly at the expense of others by validating the economic conditions which enrich more dominant nations and impoverish less dominant nations while simultaneously reproducing cultural forms which naturalize these economic conditions as logical consequences of globalized trade. They argue that the idea of ‘More’ and ‘Less’ Economically Developed Nations perpetuates a deterministic belief in a teleology of historical progress which ignores the co-presence of ‘More’ and ‘Less’ Economically Developed Nations within the same markets, engaged in networks of supply and demand that require cheap labour to be produced as much as they require cheap goods to be produced. Empire argues that ‘More’ Economically Developed Nations actively produce ‘Less’ Economically Developed Nations to sustain them both conceptually and economically; the acceptance of this is supported by the ideological naturalising mechanism of the spectacular society.

Drawing on Guy Debord and the Situationist International, Hardt and Negri describe the spectacular society as a social form based on an international media culture which lays claim to a uniquely authentic representative function for accessing the Real, and global markets which, as events since 2008 have compellingly demonstrated, supersede the regulatory powers of nation states. The regulation of the spectacular society extends from global news and entertainment to all cultural and artistic forms by managing and differentiating international markets for cultural products such as art, film and literature. In Empire (2000) Hardt and Negri suggest that, in aesthetic forms as well as political ones, postmodernity tends to differentiate and assimilate subjectivity in such a way as to manage dissenting identity politics within the structure of a dominant ideology of multiplicity and private choice (‘The Ideology of the World Market’ and the ‘Triple Imperative of Empire’, 150-54 and 198 – 201).

The spectacular society is the fantastic landscape that Morrison’s supervillains occupy and develop for their own ends, and that his superheroes contest to protect others. In this sense, Morrison’s use of the superhero narrative accords with the vision of postmodernity offered in Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) that the culture of Empire constitutes a unique social form which spans the entire territory of the world. In Morrison’s Batman narratives, the forces of postmodernity are the playground of his supervillains that his superheroes have to learn to fight across. His superheroes and supervillains have a direct and explicit relationship with the linkages of globalised capital.

The spectacular society appears most directly in more recent Batman Reborn: Batman and Robin episodes where the disgruntled former-Robin Jason Todd sets himself up as Red Hood, a vigilante to rival to Batman. His conception of how to accomplish this is based on a marketing book ‘Getting the Best Out of Your Brand’; he declares ‘[t]hat’s all Batman is now—a brand, a logo, an idea gone past its sell-by-date’, adding ‘we’re making him obsolete’. [20] What Jason Todd ignores here, revealing his perspective to be flawed, is the material consequences of the content conveyed for the lived experience of people. The image of Batman is defined by his attitude towards the world based on specific principles which value people; Jason Todd’s Red Hood does not have these values, only slogans. Chief among these principles is that Batman does not kill; [21] Jason Todd’s Red Hood does kill criminals and consequently sparks a violent escalation with Eduardo Flamingo the ‘Alpha Enforcer for the Penitente Cartel’ coming to Gotham. [22] (El Penitente proves to be another alias of Dr Hurt.)

Underlying Morrison’s work is a strong sense of the importance of material struggle as it affects people. Although, as Roz Kaveney observes of Morrison that ‘[w]hat he finds scariest, and makes most scary, are nightmares so ineffable as to be vague when you try and think about them’, [23] nevertheless his ineffable horrors are always linked to some materially tangible negative aspect as well, typically violence and exploitation. Where Morrison’s texts describe positive fantastical things or become whimsically fantastical it is as part of a sense of ‘material’ including also the subjective experience such as psychedelic experience, literature, art and music. What Morrison typically means by art in this context is that which disrupts the norm, shocks the sensibility out of apathy or unleashes a utopian desire for thinking about the world in a different way; as he says in interview: ‘[m]y idealism about the future isn’t guarded; I’m an out-and-out utopian’. [24] Morrison’s utopianism has taken a number of forms, but it is frequently defined in terms which use avant-garde ideas. The concept of open names is one such utopian idea which Morrison has made his own idiosyncratic use of in his fictions which now appears to be playing an increasingly significant role in his Batman narrative.

Open names: From Dr Simon Hurt, Spartacus Hughes and Luther Blissett to Batman Inc.

Morrison’s primary supervillains in his Batman narratives are also his most abstract characters: Dr Simon Hurt and now the former Nazi supervillain Doctor Dedalus. As the Dedalus arc is still developing I will concentrate on Dr Hurt and the suggestive resonances he has with Morrison’s other abstract villains, such as the arch-enemy of Ned Slade in The Filth, Spartacus Hughes. Hughes is a ‘parapersona’ who informs Slade that ‘[a]nyone can be Spartacus Hughes’, in the same way ‘anyone can be President and the President can be anyone’; Hughes is ‘an anti-person’, who describes himself as acting like a human virus: ‘reproducing myself into the future the only way I know how. By violence’. [25] Hughes is like the commodity form itself, always the same and always different, like Morrison’s Sublime in New X-Men he can take on or ‘infect’ new bodies. However, there is a liberating potential to the person/anti-person model which Morrison’s new Batman narratives have been gradually working towards. Spartacus Hughes’s character suggests a link with collectively developed open names like ‘Wu Ming’ and ‘Luther Blissett’. The principle of open names, or ‘open reputations’, is explained by the Luther Blissett Project, now the Wu Ming Foundation, as a response to global capital designed to empower individuals to take part in collective counter-culture activities within the media sphere of contemporary culture. [26]

Stewart Home has produced work under the open names ‘Monty Cantsin’, ‘Luther Blissett’ and ‘Karen Eliot’ and his comments on the experience are illuminating for considering Morrison’s developing use of superhero roles. Home writes that with names such as Luther Blissett ‘[t]here is no fixed referent, merely a fiction created by those using the name’ but ‘as soon as you use a multiple name, by sharing the identity and adopting an arbitrary signifier, you immediately find that you are in a position to mould both the signifier and what is signified’, ‘by doing something as Luther Blissett, you find yourself actively shaping the identity.’ [27]

Elsewhere, Home has even (parodically) suggested that ‘Stewart Home’ can be considered in the same way; in his satirical second introduction to Suspect Device: A Reader in Hard-Edged Fiction, he writes of the ‘Stewart Home Project’, ‘launched on 24 March 1979 by the Celtic bards K.L. Callan and Fiona MacLeod’ so that ‘diverse individuals’ could ‘produce a body of work that would be credited to a fictional author called Stewart Home’. [28] It is notable that Morrison’s Spartacus Hughes and Dr Simon Hurt share not just initials with Stewart Home but also habits of subverting narrative expectation and identity: Hughes appears in three different bodies in The Filth, and Dr Simon Hurt is associated with several aliases including three possible Thomas Waynes, as well as Mexican crime-cartel leader El Penitente, and Mangrove Pierce in his connection with The Black Glove, and may also be a time traveller and/or an immortal occultist. In both their narratives Hughes and Hurt operate as abstract supervillains without fully defined character; they are essentially formed around an absence. At the climax of Batman R.I.P. he describes himself as ‘the hole in things, the piece that can never fit, there from the beginning’. [29]

The question of who Dr Simon Hurt ‘really’ might be is irrelevant: his identity is that of Batman’s ultimate Enemy. His character, every detail about him is defined by the concept that he embodies that abstract concept: while there is a Batman there will be Batman’s enemy—perhaps he will occupy other identities or other bodies, even other frames of reference, from supernatural to science fictional, but he will always exist as such, whether he exists as ‘Dr Simon Hurt’ or not. He might be understood as the richest madman in the world, as Darkseid’s hyper-adapter in human form, or as the Devil, but he remains Batman’s enemy. Doctor Simon Hurt is Batman’s double as a constant blank whose identity is ultimately hollow. As The Black Glove he represents form over moral/ethical content—anyone could wear the black glove, just as ‘anyone can be Spartacus Hughes’—so Batman’s ultimate enemy has no fixed identity or character content, only a perpetual form, always renewable, always the same, producing endless spectacle. Morrison’s Hughes and Hurt are like the commodity form, always the same and always different.

Morrison’s Batman learns how to use open identity in a similarly subversive manner through clashing with this ultimate abstract enemy. Alfred uses performative language to justify the passing of the Batman mantle from Bruce Wayne to Dick Grayson following the events of Batman R.I.P: ‘think of Batman as a great role, like a Hamlet or Willie Loman… Or even James Bond. And play it to suit your strengths.’ [30] The power of the superhero for Morrison is that, for a differently structured set of economic reasons, it is very similar to the idea of ‘open names’ and can thus be reinterpreted in radical ways; the superhero narrative is structurally disposed towards being inhabited by avant-garde rhetoric because of continuity.

Batman Inc. makes Batman into an open reputation and franchises it out across the world in preparation for an impending conflict with yet another ultimate supervillain using globalised trade to engineer a new world war. The latest issues of Batman Inc. include yet another allusion to the avant-garde use of open names. Argentinian crime-fighter El Gaucho tells Batman about the murder of the famous Argentinian writer Espartaco Extrano, who wrote short stories about one ‘Doctor Dedalus’:

His murder, like his work was a complex fiction…an elaborate puzzlebox…A dense and allusive literary hoax…

Extrano was the creation of the Florida Group of avant-garde poets including Jorge Luis Borges”

This passage is itself a ‘dense and allusive literary hoax’ with several layers to it. Part of it operates as an allusion to a famous hoax initiated by the original Luther Blissett project about a fictitious ‘missing person’ named Harry Kipper used to subvert a popular media show (see the Wu Ming Foundation on the Luther Blissett Project). The reference to Borges and the Florida Group of avant-gardists alludes to several things: it relates to the speculation that Umberto Eco was one of the four writers who produced the cult thriller Q (2000) under the name Luther Blissett; it also alludes to Morrison’s earlier engagements with Borges’s intricate labyrinthine Ficciones (1944), which are referred to in Morrison’s early work such as Doom Patrol. The name ‘Espartaco Extrano’ clearly returns us to Morrison’s own supervillainous open name, Spartacus Hughes. Finally, the allusion to Borges reminds us of the intrinsic Surreality of the superhero form itself by situating it within Borges’ literary theses on the nature of fiction.

Superhero continuity bears a familial relationship to Borges construction of literary traditions as theoretical megatexts which operate as universes in their own right. In interview Morrison has argued that superhero narratives should either ‘allow characters to grow old, die and be replaced’ or ‘allow characters to simply go on forever with no pretence towards real time and under the full understanding that this is an imaginary world made by generations of workers’, celebrating it as such. [31] More recently still, Morrison suggested that superheroes have the potential to be ‘utopian role models’ which act as symbolic anchors for grounding ‘hopeful images of humankind’s future potential’ against the ‘[t]error-stricken, environmentally-handicapped, overpopulated, paedophile-haunted world that’s being peddled by our news media’. [32]

Morrison’s superhero fictions suggest that superhero continuity acts as a kind of holding-pattern of the populist imaginary; by embedding their plots in a dialectic of repetition and change, balanced between an absurdist sense of the fantastic and of realist problems superhero narratives also embed a sense of continually renewed optimistic desire within the exchanges of contemporary media culture which neither an ultimate supervillainous Enemy nor the bad news of ‘real’ media can extinguish. Superheroes make sense of globalisation because the continuity that defines them imitates the form of globalised capital in microcosm. By emphasising the utopian potential opened up by continuity as a fantastic form, Morrison suggests that contemporary globalised society similarly opens up potential in everyday life for communicating utopian ideas to receptive audiences all over the world.

Footnotes:

1. Morrison, Batman & Son, p. 185 and p. 146.
2. Morrison, Batman R.I.P., (New York: DC, 2008, 2009) ‘Midnight in the House of Hurt’, p. [2].
3. Morrison, Batman R.I.P., ‘Hearts in Darkness’, p. [19].
4. Morrison, in interview www.avclub.com/articles/grant-morrison ,30678, 17/11/09.
5. Morrison, interview www.sequentialtart.com/archive/aug02/gmorrison2.shtml , 17/11/09.
6. Home, Stewart, Introduction to Lovely Biscuits (Swansea: Oneiros, 1998), p. iv.
7. Ibid., p. 17.
8. Morrison, in interview with Timothy Callahan, Grant Morrison: The Early Years (Edwardsville, Illinois: Sequart Research & Literacy Organisation, 2007), p. 260.
9. Kaveney, Roz, Superhero!: Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Film, p. 25.
10. Eco, Umberto, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, [1979] 1984), p. 114.
11. Eco, The Role of the Reader, p. 115.
12. Morrison, Batman and Son, (New York: DC, 2006, 2007) pp. 35—52.
13. Morrison, Batman: R.I.P., ‘Batman in the Underworld’, p. [6].
14. Morrison, Batman: R.I.P: ‘The Conclusion: Hearts in Darkness’, p. [18].
15. Ibid., p. [2].
16. Morrison, Batman: The Black Glove, ‘Joe Chill in Hell’, p. [6].
17. Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995 [1967]).
18. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, p. 12.
19. Ibid., p. 29.
20. Morrison, Batman and Robin (New York: DC, 2010) #5, p. [14].
21. As Will Brooker explains in Batman Unmasked (2005), Batman’s ethical insistence on not killing was introduced in 1940 as an editorial policy stimulated by audience response to the moral ambiguity of Batman’s vigilante status. Brooker sees it as a result of ‘surrounding journalistic discourse of moral concern’ (63) which leads to DC establishing an internal comics code. Brooker, Will, Batman Unmasked: Analyzing A Cultural Icon (London: Continuum, 2005), pp. 53—67.
22. Morrison, Batman and Robin #5, p. [17].
23. Kaveney, Roz, Superheroes! Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films (London and New York, 2008), p. 172.
24. Morrison, in interview, www.sequentialtart.com/archive/aug02/gmorrison2.shtml , 17/11/09.
25. Morrison, The Filth, p. 51, and 193.
26. See www.wumingfoundation.com.
27. Home, Stewart, ‘Bringing it all back Home’, from Confusion Incorporated: A Collection of Lies, Hoaxes and Hidden Truths (Hove: CodeX, 1999), pp. 132—33.
28. Home, ‘Proletarian Postmodernism, Or From the Romantic Sublime to the Comic Picturesque’ by ‘Stewart Home’, from Suspect Device: A Reader in Hard-Edged Fiction ed. Stewart Home (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998), p. 53.
29. Morrison, ‘Hearts in Darkness’, Batman R.I.P., p. [25].
30. Morrison, Grant, Batman & Robin: Reborn #2, (New York: DC, 2009), p. [19].
31. Morrison in interview, www.sequentialtart.com/archive/aug02/gmorrison2.shtml , 17/11/09.
32. Morrison, interview with Big Issue Scotland www.bigissuescotland.com/features/view/16 , 17/11/09.

 

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Mark P. Williams is an academic with interests in contemporary literature and politics who has recently moved to New Zealand. His PhD was entitled ‘Radical Fantasy: A Study of Left Radical Politics in the Fantasy Writing of Michael Moorcock, Angela Carter, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and China Miéville’.

http://independent.academia.edu/MarkPWilliams/About


ENDS