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Breaking Down the Secrets of Grant Morrison's Batman, Part 1

Delving into the thematics of Grant Morrison’s run on ‘Batman.’

This has been a long time coming. For the past four years we’ve watched Grant Morrison deconstruct Bruce Wayne, only to build him back up again--stronger and more determined than ever. And now that the entire saga of Batman versus the ultimate evil mastermind has wrapped--spanning over 50+ issues in Batman, Final Crisis, Batman & Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne--it’s now time to revisit the entire epic run and see how all the pieces came together.

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This is Part 1 of our comprehensive analysis of Grant Morrison’s Batman run, covering Batman #655-658, 663-681 and DC Universe #0. For the trade readers out there: Batman & Son, Batman: The Black Glove, and Batman RIP.  Spoilers ahead!  
== TEASER == It’s not easy trying to analyze the work of comicdom’s mad genius. Coming up with a through-line to sum up Grant Morrison’s entire run on Batman has been a difficult challenge, but after racking my brain for what seems like days, I think I’ve got it: Morrison’s work on Batman has been an exercise by the writer to create a proactive reading experience for comic fans that mirrors Bruce Wayne’s quest to fill in the puzzle pieces and give explanation to the unexplainable. 

The Hole in Things 

It’s a phrase we see muttered numerous times throughout Morrison’s tenure on Batman. It’s everything that can’t fit. Everything that has no destined place in order or structure. The unexplainable. It’s also a phrase that sums up the reading experience of Morrison’s Batman, which at times can seem confusing, scattershot and without direction. But that’s exactly what Morrison wants you to think, that he has no grasp of his own story, that even he can’t handle the nature of spiraling events. Morrison’s approach to writing Batman--by making sense of so many loose threads in the character’s history and pulling them together into one cohesive narrative--mirrors Bruce Wayne’s drive to find reason and explanation for the contents of his “Black Casebook.” Therefore, in a creepy meta way--as only Grant Morrison can pull off--the writer has directly connected himself with our hero, Bruce Wayne. Both Morrison and Bruce Wayne share the same goal: give rhyme and reason where there otherwise is none.

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This is why I believe so many people were confused or put off by Morrison’s approach to writing Batman, as the story jumped from Gotham, to London, to a tropical island, and finally back to Gotham for RIP. Morrison never stayed in one place for very long, and seeing the pieces start to fit together took a level of dedication to Morrison’s writing that not every reader can commit to. But Morrison was setting the stage. He was creating the holes for readers to fall into. Throwing so much at Batman meant there was a level of confusion being built that would be hard for readers to decipher what was actually significant and what was merely red herring. Therefore, Morrison could drop hints right under our noses without us ever picking up on them. Classic sleight of hand.

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For example, look at the first few pages of Morrison’s first issue on Batman-- issue #655. Morrison wants your attention drawn to the fact that Commissioner Gordon was poisoned and the Joker was shot in the face. We’ve been trained as comic readers to take what’s at face value as significant. But look at the graffiti on the walls during this opening sequence--Zur-En-Arrh. It’s the hypnotic trigger phase programmed into Bruce’s mind during the isolation experiments, supervised by Dr. Hurt years ago. Dr. Hurt even draws reference to this write-off artistic detail during the final confrontation of Batman #681.

These types of winks and nods are littered throughout Grant Morrison’s run on Batman. The clues were always there from the very beginning. It’s just a matter of picking up on them and filling in the holes, because Morrison is not the type of writer to spoon feed his audience. In fact, the original mission statement of this article was to point out every breadcrumb Morrison left for us to pick up and chew on. Honestly, that would have been a disservice to the writer’s story. But believe me, you are rewarded for reading through the entirety of Morrison’s Batman work multiple times.

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Now before moving on, I wanted to bring back up red herrings, specifically their importance to Morrison’s Batman. So let us look no further than the biggest red herring of Morrison’s run: the red and black Harlequin checkerboard pattern-- symbolizing life and death, the joke and the punchline. This was Morrison’s ultimate gag on his audience. For readers following Morrison’s Batman on a monthly basis, they were lead to believe the red and black pattern played a significant role in the writer’s overall story. However, as we found out in RIP, the red and black checkerboard pattern was nothing more than a symbolic device used by the Joker to get inside Batman’s head and make him chase his own tail. In the context of the story, it was a wild goose chase concocted by the Joker to drive Batman mad by playing off his incessant need to give meaning where there otherwise isn’t. The same can be said for the readers of the comic, desperately searching the internet for hypotheses and plausible explanations behind the pattern, month after month. Morrison preyed on his audience’s need for explanation--in order to close the gap and fill the hole--and we played along like mice in a maze.

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Probably the biggest anomaly of Morrison’s over-aching Batman story is Doctor Hurt. Having read the entirety of Morrison’s work on Batman--through even Batman & Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne--we now know who/what Doctor Hurt is. But for years we were kept in the dark. Many, including myself, speculated that Hurt was indeed the Devil, fitting in line with the whole “hole in things, the enemy, the piece that can never fit, there since the beginning” angle to the mystery character. The clues were even peppered throughout Morrison’s run that supported the theory, with many characters saying they sold their soul to Hurt or that he was the Devil, outright. But even if Hurt turned out to be something else--yet similar--the point of the character was to give living embodiment to the idea of “this hole.” Because when push comes to shove, there had to be a physical manifestation of the unexplainable for Batman to best and punch in the face. I mean, this is a superhero story after all.

The final major idea Morrison leaves us to chew on--playing off the running “hole in things” theme--is the true meaning behind the phrase “Zur-En-Arrh.” We know “Zur-En-Arrh” is the hypnotic trigger phrase programmed into Bruce’s mind by Dr. Hurt (as discussed previously), as well as the basis for Bruce’s “backup harddrive” persona created in case of psychological attack (read Batman RIP). But the true genesis of the phrase is far more interesting; a concept Morrison masterfully introduces to add a new unexpected layer to Batman’s origin, while also kick-starting the idea of a void, a hole in things that has picked at the back of Batman’s psyche since the very beginning.

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Bruce never got an explanation for what his father meant by that.

Zorro in Arkham. Zur-En-Arrh.