[An analysis of Morrison's first official Batman story. I originally posted this in a since-axed Morrison Group. I posted it on July 15 2009 and have to report that I am still making my way through Morrison's output. See the Morrison Reading Project thread. Will it never end? I've also attached a section of the transcript from Jupiter's original Morrison thread on the old board where we discussed Gothic before I'd a chance to reread it. I've added some scans to relieve the tedium of all that text!]
Gothic is a fine little Batman tale. As I’d remembered from my reading of it years ago, it offers us a much less coldly rational Batman than we usually get. He’s driven by his nightmares and acts on hunches. He’s more emotionally rounded too, as his relationship with his long-dead, much-loved father seems to be something that is still ongoing for him. It’s not stated explicitly, but this story seems to be set in the early years of Batman’s career, and the characterisation of Batman benefits from this. He seems all the more human in a later point in the story where he thinks he’s seeing a ghost when he’s exploring a sunken monastery. His shock and fear at that point wouldn’t be quite in character for the Batman of then-current continuity.
The plot is well structured, with lots of threads coming together by the end of the story: Manfred’s career as a monk and his role in the damnation of his whole monastery, the backstory of the gangster’s attempted slaying of Manfred years before Batman enters the picture and Bruce’s life before his parents are killed.
Batman has to unravel mysteries from his own life as well as solve the various crimes. In this way his role is quite complex. It’s unspoken, but he also has a role in the final end of the villain Whisper, and as such he is perhaps an avatar of a higher power, playing his part in a mythic drama, just as he did in Final Crisis.
Some of Gothic reads like a writer still finding his voice. The quotes from Milton, Faust and Don Giovanni all alert the reader that there is some satanic pact at play here. However they are somewhat heavy-handed and sophomoric. I’m reminded of a Kurt Vonnegut novel where he goes on derisively about some writers’ reliance on ‘The Oxford book of Quotations’.
Still, the quotes refer to the Faustian dimensions of the story before it becomes clear that this is exactly what is happening. An interesting twist to the ‘deal with the Devil’ theme is that the criminals try to make a deal with Batman in order to get rid of Whisper. To them Batman is the Devil - exactly as Bruce intended. Actually, the relationship between Batman and his hoodlum adversaries is more complicated than it seems at first. Typically for Morrison, its buried in the details of the plotting, but Batman owes far more than he realises to these men. If they hadn’t acted to stop Whisper all those years ago, Whisper’s next victim would have been little Bruce!
As well as the quotations, Morrison has lifted whole plot elements from wherever he can find them. The criminals hunting down the child-killer is directly from ‘M’, the great Peter Lorre movie, Whisper’s story is very like the central plot conceit of Angel Heart, quite a recent movie when Morrison wrote this, and the final confrontation in the unlikely Gothic cathedral is taken straight from Tim Burton's 1989 Batman. This was published Apr – Aug 1990, so perhaps begun while the Burton movie was still running in some theatres.
The whole book moves from the noir gangster milieu of Batman: Year One to more overtly horrific and supernatural events. I’ve already noted elsewhere that Morrison's first issue of Doom Patrol moves from the imagery of the first page of Dark Knight Returns to absurd surreal horror in the space of a few panels. In this earlier work, Morrison is moving away from Miller much more tentatively.
Not so long ago I went through a phase of reading and rereading Morrison’s most recent work on Batman, so I was particularly interested in how his earliest and latest ‘Batmen’ compare. Many of the same themes are explored in both. Whisper and ‘Hurt’ both seem to know more about Bruce’s life than he does himself. In both, Bruce has to revisit his relationship with his father along the way. Morrison is rather oblique about it, but it seems that by the future time of Batman #666, Damien has made some kind of deal with the Devil, just as Whisper did.
It’s worth pointing out how deal(ing)s with the devil tend to operate in Gothic, as it might be relevant to Damien’s eventual fate. Whisper is convinced that he can get out of paying the price of his invincibility through an elaborate scheme. The Devil, when (s)he eventually appears, credits him with being able to do it if he hadn’t been foiled by Batman.
Batman doesn’t make a deal with the devil in Gothic, but he deals with Manfred/Whisper, the devil’s agent. Perhaps it is just sub-Saturday morning serial plotting, but twice, Whisper gives Batman a chance to find a solution when it would have suited Whisper much better to have acted quickly against Batman. The first time he ties Batman into an elaborate Penelope Pitstop trap which even has the classic burning candles used twice in the mechanism. We don’t actually see Batman escape from it, but between the panel where the final deadly mechanism is sprung and the next panel, Batman has freed himself from his bonds and is standing there rubbing his wrists and saying ‘Nice try!’. I’m tempted to say that he made some kind of deal with Old Nick himself to get out, but that might be stretching it. It may be the first glimpse we get uber-competent Batman of JLA though!
Another example of Manfred’s over-complicated planning leaving a solution open for Batman was his plan to spread the plague throughout Gotham. He’s about to break the vial in front of Batman, but then sees that Batman is breathing through some device. Instead of smashing the vial there and then, thus contaminating Gotham, he leaves it on the table before physically attacking Batman again. His plan is that the sound of the cathedral-bell striking midnight will shatter the vial later.
This all gives Batman time to win a round with Whisper in the subway and get to the clock-tower in time to stop it. This point in the story is the most obvious and most flamboyant use of the technique Alan M elsewhere called Sans Media Res. On the page after Batman realises that he has to get to the clock-tower, we just see a weary and wounded Batman leaning against the wall of the Bell-room with the ball-ended hammer propped up beside him. It takes us a moment to realise that he has, in fact, succeeded in stopping the bell from sounding. When we see the bell moving, it’s with a little shock that we realise we are ‘hearing’ the exact same sound as Batman is at this point in the story – the silence of the bell! It’s a good deconstruction of what normally goes on when we read a comic (remember Scott McCloud’s ‘Do you hear what I’m saying?’) and it hits us just at the key point in the tale where Bruce has foiled his nemesis’ plans. His weary self-satisfied smile might be Grant’s!
At first glance this seems a more straightforward comicbook than Doom Patrol or Animal Man, but there is a post-modern self-awareness in Gothic too. It ends, after all, with the words – ‘…but these are only stories.’
Like the recent Black Glove and RIP story-arcs in Batman, a lot of the plot turns on Bruce’s relationship with his father. However that relationship is much less problematic here. Bruce breaks down when he hears his father’s voice, calling him ‘…my Dad!’ Perhaps this is the first time I’ve seen him refer to his father using that term. Normally it is the more distant ‘Father’. There is a closeness between the two in this arc which transcends the long years Thomas has been dead. Bruce even credits his dad with showing him where to look for Winchester’s origins: “If I can’t trust my Dad, who can I trust?”
We see that Thomas was quick to confront Manfred/Winchester when he realises that his son’s life and that of the other boys are in danger. In an echo of this, Batman’s first words on returning from Europe to Gotham are “Children are not to be threatened!”
He’s his father’s son alright.
In Batman: RIP, the journey Bruce makes through the different layers of his consciousness; the different trigger-words and personas and levels of awareness he is at along way; are represented here in Bruce’s exploration of the monastery sunk in Lake Dess. An underwater environment such as a Lake or an ocean is a very common metaphor for the unconscious. Batman swims down to explore that which is long-buried, forbidden, and returns with answers to his present problems.
Alfred here is his usual dryly witty self. When Bruce tells him about being a pupil in a school run by a mass murdering Satanist, the unflappable butler remarks: “What an interesting education you must have had!”
The scenes with Alfred display another recurring element that Morrison has brought into his present Batman run. Alfred is constantly trying to get Bruce to eat. Sometimes Bruce acquiesces to a sandwich at his Bat-console and sometimes he’s too busy or excited to eat. It’s just a little detail. Whereas it humanises Bruce as Alfred tries to convince him that he needs to eat like anyone else, it also subtly draws attention to Batman’s almost superhuman drives which override the normal drives of us lesser mortals.
Morrison even uses this insight into superhero appetites to tell us something about the current Dick Grayson Batman. He’s an old hand and eats chicken-jalapeno sandwiches ‘by the ton’ while working on cases at his console.
(Speaking of Alfred, one of his sardonic remarks is “Shall I alert the Tin Man, sir?” What does he mean by this?)
I like the ending of the story. I’ve already mentioned the final words of text, but Batman’s last words are “You’re free. Go in peace.” Batman’s only peace is in easing and avenging the suffering of victims, so the burning nun is released while his suffering continues.
Furthermore, the line “Go in peace” is very like the closing words of an old-fashioned mass, which somehow seems appropriate for this tale of Gothic cathedrals, satanic pacts, damnation and salvation.