Zorro in Arkham: Reflecting on a Legendary Batman Saga With Writer Grant Morrison, Part 1

If there’s ever a Mount Rushmore of Batman storytellers, Grant Morrison’s face surely deserves to be carved into that rock. Morrison is the writer of some of the most acclaimed and influential Batman comics ever published, from 1989’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel to a lengthy, game-changing run on DC’s monthly Batman comic in the late 2000’s. That latter project changed the franchise forever, introducing Bruce Wayne’s son Damian, ending the reign of the New Gods and transforming Batman from lone vigilante into a worldwide force for justice.

These days, Morrison is among a number of comic book creators who’ve made the jump to Substack. Morrison’s Substack channel Xanaduum has already proven to be a treasure trove of fascinating anecdotes and reflections about their storied DC career. Morrison recently wrapped up a multi-part look back at Superman and the Authority, revealing their surprising motivations for tackling one last DC project. Now the time has come to turn everyone’s attention to Batman.

IGN was fortunate enough to be able to join Morrison on this look back at their sprawling Bat-saga. In the first of a two-part retrospective series, we examine the early stories that set the tone for Morrison’s eight-year run. Read on to learn more about the challenge of introducing Batman’s son, the origins of mind-bending concepts like the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh and the twisted enigma that is the Joker’s mind.

Returning to Gotham City

Morrison was certainly no stranger to Batman by the time they took the reins of DC’s flagship series in 2006. Early Bat-tales like Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and Batman: Gothic helped cement Morrison as one of DC’s rising stars in the early ’90s. Morrison later made Batman a focal point of their critically acclaimed JLA series, a book that painted the Justice League as godlike beings defending humanity from threats across time and space.

Readers could have been forgiven for thinking Morrison had said all there is to be said about the Dark Knight by the end of the ’90s. But that proved to be anything but the case. 2006’s Batman #655 kicked off what eventually became a massive superhero epic spanning multiple titles and adding fundamental new characters and ideas to the franchise. Coming off the events of 2005’s Infinite Crisis crossover and the chaotic but critically acclaimed weekly series 52, Morrison was presented with a blank canvas on which they could present a radically different take on Batman.

I’ve been accused of promoting a ‘BatGod’ interpretation, but I saw no other way than to acknowledge the superhuman accomplishments and longevity of the in-continuity Batman. He would have to be uncannily good at this job!

The Batman had, against all odds, kept his mission vital for 80 years. According to canon, he was a master of multiple martial arts, an escapologist, the world’s GREATEST detective on a par presumably with Sherlock Holmes and much more. An expert meditator, he was handsome, into leather, uber-rich! His butler was an ex-special forces actor who could stitch a wound and heal a broken heart with the same wry efficiency. His girlfriends were fetishistic femme fatales. His enemies were supercool performance art freaks. He’d trained partners capable of surpassing him. Taking all of this history of Batman into account meant that the simplified grief-stricken vindictive and isolated take on the character just couldn’t cut it.

It seemed clear to me that Bruce Wayne would be mad WITHOUT Batman and the fresh start gave me a chance to explore and develop that idea in an attempt to find some new ground besides the ‘urban soldier’ approach. Batman was the ultimate, unthinkable, genius solution of one young billionaire to the problem of meaningless indiscriminate violence and loss. Together with the incorruptible, ass-kicking Commissioner Gordon he had succeeded in undermining the mob and rooting out rampant police corruption in his city. For me, it was obvious Batman worked. Batman was the unlikely antidote to Gotham’s sickness and along with my artistic partners I wanted to portray Gotham not as an urban hellhole or US cousin to Beirut but as the most exciting glamourous scary city in the world. People had to want to live there we reasoned. A certain kind of people chose to live there. Gotham is the New Babylon – seductive, destructive, deserving of a song as good as Alicia Keys New York!

As I saw it, people are drawn to Gotham. Gotham gives as much as it takes, and the wheel of fortune can lift you to the heights or dump you in the gutter. Batman is part of that. And it’s why I think the Mad Max warzone Gotham is an increasingly played-out trope yielding fewer and fewer story possibilities. Gotham should be like Eisner’s New York, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City or Judge Dredd’s Mega City One, a place where 10 million stories can be told. The emphasis on blazing dystopian Gotham feels a little wrung out. For that reason, I think there would be an appetite to see the relationships of the people to their city and to Batman and the Joker and all the others explored in smaller and more intimate stories.

Long answer but yes – I made hay with the newly-turfed playing fields of Gotham City!

The Creation of Damian Wayne

Morrison’s most significant addition to the Batman mythos is also one that was introduced in their very first issue. Batman #655 ends with the surprise debut of Damian Wayne – the son Batman didn’t know he had.

Damian’s genesis dates back to 1987’s Batman: Son of the Demon, which sees Bruce Wayne briefly claim his place as Ra’s al Ghul’s heir and conceive a son with Talia. Seeing the profound psychological impact fatherhood has on her beloved, Talia pretends to suffer a miscarriage and has their marriage annulled. But secretly, the son of Batman still lived – a loose end that was finally, definitively addressed almost 20 years later.

Since his initial debut as a hotheaded antagonist to Bruce Wayne and Tim Drake, Damian has grown to become a core pillar of the Batman franchise. Even now, Damian is the star of DC’s monthly Robin series. But for all that this character has managed to strike a chord with DC readers, Morrison admits they weren’t overly enamored with Damian at the start. In fact, Morrison originally planned on killing off Damian at the end of their opening story arc, “Batman & Son” [note – more on that in Part 2 of this feature]. It took some coaxing from then-Editor-in-Chief Dan DiDio before Morrison saw the long-term potential of Batman’s long-lost son.

A Unified History of Batman

One of the core ideas fueling Morrison’s Batman saga is the notion that every Batman story – from the Golden Age tales of a gun-toting vigilante to the campy Silver Age adventures to the modern Dark Knight Detective – happened in some form or another. Not always in a literal sense, but Morrison frequently found ways of integrating bizarre, forgotten pieces of Bat-lore into his stories. And for anyone interested in doing a deep read of Morrison’s Batman work, those classic stories are reprinted in a companion collection called Batman: The Black Casebook.

For example, 1958’s Batman #113 features a story called “The Superman of Planet X,” where Batman travels to the planet Zur-En-Arrh and meets Tlano, a scientist inspired to to mimic Bruce Wayne’s costumed exploits. Morrison gave that tale a completely new context. The Batman of Zur-En-Arrh is actually an alternate personality created by Bruce Wayne himself. This garishly costumed figure is designed as a mental failsafe, one that can take control of Bruce’s body should his mind be overwhelmed by the enemy. Which is exactly what happens in 2008’s Batman RIP, as Dr. Simon Hurt and the members of the Black Glove launch a devastating psychological attack on the Bat-family.

The name “Zur-En-Arrh” is even revealed to have a heartbreaking connotation. As revealed at the end of Batman RIP, the last thing Thomas Wayne said to his son upon leaving the movie theater that fateful night was, “They’d probably throw someone like Zorro in Arkham.” That, according to Morrison, is basically Batman in a nutshell.

Joker: Insane or Super-Sane?

No proper Batman run is complete without a good Joker story. The Clown Prince of Crime is never necessarily the main villain of any particular storyline in Morrison’s run. Rather, Joker pops in and out of Morrison’s work at key points, beginning with “The Clown at Midnight” in Batman #663, an illustrated prose story featuring what may well be Joker’s most disturbing transformation.

That issue and subsequent stories built on an idea Morrison and artist Dave McKean originally floated in their Arkham Asylum graphic novel. Morrison suggests Joker isn’t criminally insane so much as he’s “super-sane.” With his mind operating on a higher plane of consciousness, Joker constantly reacts to stimuli and rebuilds his personality in response to the world around him. Long before writer Geoff Johns teased the existence of three versions of Joker, Morrison argued this super-sanity is the reason Joker has evolved from scheming criminal to goofy prankster to deranged lunatic over the decades.

“The Clown at Midnight” shows Joker shedding all trappings of his old life, including Harley Quinn, before transforming into what Morrison dubs “The Thin White Duke of Death.” Still recovering from a gunshot to the head and the effects of catastrophic facial reconstructive surgery, this Joker is a rasping, barely intelligible murderer whose dialogue is presented in an unnerving, all-lowercase font. That version of Joker returns in Batman RIP, and the character later undergoes another profound shift when he masquerades as costumed detective Oberon Sexton. The only constant for Joker is perpetual change.

Check back soon for Part 2 of our Batman retrospective, as Morrison looks back at Final Crisis, Dick Grayson’s ascension as Batman and the creation of the global crimefighting empire known as Batman Incorporated.

Until then, you can check out the top 12 moments from Morrison’s Batman run and IGN’s picks for the 27 best Batman comic books and graphic novels.

Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.

Author: Jesse Schedeen. [Source Link (*), IGN All]