Robot 6

Everyone’s a Critic: What we talk about when we talk about Batman R.I.P.

Batman R.I.P.

Batman R.I.P.

Welcome to the first 2009 edition of Everyone’s A Critic, now safely ensconced at its new home at Robot 6.

For those who aren’t familiar with the series back when it was over at Blog@Newsarama, the object of this column is to offer germane discussion on comics criticism, macrame and similar lighthearted fare. OK, I was lying about the macrame part. That was just to draw you in.

Every so often I’ll be poking out from my hidey-hole and offering my thoughts on a particular review-related issue of the day, pointing you towards an interesting discussion or review or talking with some of the industry’s more intelligent and articulate pundits.

I say “every so often,” because at this point, for a variety of reasons that I can’t go into right now (I’m lazy, my big toe hurts), I don’t have the ability to do the column as a biweekly, let alone weekly, thing. As things settle down it will, I promise, but for now it will more or less show up when I feel the discussion is germane enough. I like typing the word “germane.”

Today I want to point you towards a lengthy discussion you may have noticed taking place a few days ago over at Sean T. Collins’ site.

It all started when Collins posted a link to Tom Spurgeon’s holiday interview with fellow critic Tucker Stone. Stone had said:

when you’re working on the biggest super-hero character of the year, and your job is to do that characters big bestseller of the year, then that isn’t the time for you to put out something that any Batman fan, even the dumbest one, calls “confusing.”

To which Collins replied:

I don’t know what it is about superheroes that occasionally draws this sort of thing out of critics, but you rarely see people demand that the big summer movie or the big autumn hip-hop record be more simplistic lest some people get turned off. Keep in mind that even though Tucker’s not a fan of Batman: R.I.P. on a qualitative basis, that’s not what he’s talking about–this criticism would hold even if it were a great comic, as long as it was still confusing to some readers. That seems proscriptive and self-defeating to me.

And it was off to the races from there. Stone and Collins got into it (politely I should add) in the comments section. Here’s Stone:

I do think it would benefit comics to have a bit more clear demarcation of where their Summer Crowd-Pleaser is going to be. With the super-hero stuff, a huge Batman epic event story–one that’s going to get as much hype as DC is willing to give anything–that should be their tent-pole. Instead, it’s an insular text that operated without connection to the books it’s listed as being connected too, it appealed to the primarily Grant Morrison fan (instead of the primarily Batman fan) and I think that was a stupid call to make.

And here’s Collins again:

I think you get into tricky territory as a critic when you start criticizing (or praising) material for how it does or doesn’t function as commerce–to me that’s an entirely separate issue.

Final Crisis

Final Crisis

That then led to another post by Collins wherein he attempted to explain in greater and better detail how he reads and critiques a crossover event like Batman R.I.P. or Final Crisis. The comments thread to that post then turned into a big foofoorah with folks like Tom Spurgeon and Kiel Phegley chiming in. The discussion even spilled out onto other blogs, with folks like such as Tim O’Neil, Dick Hyacinth and Mark Oliver-Frisch offering their thoughts.

So why all the ruckus? Well, it seems at the heart of the matter is two very different ways of thinking and writing about comics and, on a broader scale, art in general. I thought it might be useful to try to parcel the two views out and weigh their individual merits. My apologies in advance if I misinterpret anyone’s statements.

Let’s start with Collins. If I’m understanding him right, he’s saying that when it comes to reading and critiquing a big superhero crossover event like Final Crisis or Batman R.I.P., the need to pick and choose — to be selective, favoring the main storyline and ignoring say tie-ins like Rage of the Red Lanterns or Death of the New Gods — is not only preferable but imperative to one’s enjoyment of a particular book.

In other words, by not getting bogged down in a ton of needless esoterica, contradictory plots and inferior work (or at least, work that doesn’t hit your particular sweet spot) you prevent yourself from being soured on the work you are interested and can focus solely on its own unique aesthetic merits. Don’t let the existence of the Animatrix, or The Matrix Revolutions for that matter, spoil your enjoyment of the first film.

Countdown

Countdown

Sean’s method is strikes me as something of an auteurist stance. I don’t mean that as a slight; I’m simply saying he picks and chooses the books he reads because of his interest in a particular writer or artist, in this case, Grant Morrison. He might have a interest in Batman or the other DCU characters, but they’re second to his interest in Morrison

I’m rather sympathetic to that stance because that’s how I read a lot of these types of books myself. I refused to read any of the Secret Invasion tie-ins (the main series was bad enough) and I’ve tried to stay clear of a lot of the Final Crisis and Batman R.I.P., partly because of finances but also because I’m more interested in Morrison as a writer than I am in how these comics are “going to chance everything. What’s more, I’m not convinced reading Paul Dini’s “storyline from another world” in Detective Comics mattered in the long run in how I perceive Morrison’s work.

So, yeah, I think Sean’s methodology has merit, especially as a reader. It’s when he starts suggesting it’s a preferable method of criticism, particularly in relation to Stone’s, that I think he falters. I’m very leary of saying one method of criticism is inherently superior to another in general — I tend to think different methodologies can provide a fuller picture of a particular work or genre. Stone’s take on Batman has merit, not the least of which being that it assesses the work in relation to the culture at large.

Because, let’s face it. As much as we’d like to pretend that a work exists in a perfectly sealed vacumn once it comes off the printer’s press, there are a thousand things, both economical and otherwise, that influence our perception. The Godfather is still one of my favorite movies of all time, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that remembering the mere existence of The Godfather III has never soured my enjoyment. And don’t get me started on those last three Star Wars films.

So let’s move on to Stone. I think a couple people misinterpreted his comments, feeling that he was suggesting that any work of art had to “dumb it down” in order to appeal to mass audiences and that this was a commendable goal.

Joker

Joker

I don’t think that’s what he was saying at all. I think (and again, perhaps I’m wrong) he was saying that if you have a popular character like Batman, who is currently starring in one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, and your big Batman comic book crossover event, which you’re heavily hyping, is not only so esoteric and bewildering to confuse casual readers, but has a horrible anti-climatic ending that continues in another series and features art by a guy who can’t draw a fist connecting with a face, well that’s just plain stupid.

No, Stone is not necessarily addressing the success (and let’s not forget that Batman R.I.P. was one of DC’s biggest successes of 2008) of the series on the same aesthetic grounds as Collins. He’s taking it purely from DC’s standpoint, which is they wanted a tentpole event that could draw in folks from far and wide around and lead them to purchase other DC comics, like Final Crisis. Despite the sales numbers, he’s saying they failed utterly on those terms because the audience that did tune in quickly grew frustrated and confused and might not make a second attempt.

Of course, I’m doubtful that DC honestly ever considered Batman R.I.P. to be the general crowd-pleaser Stone thinks it should have been. I think that was definitely aimed squarely at the fans, the regular readers. I think the recent Brian Azzarello Joker graphic novel intended to serve that purpose instead, and while it may not have reached Watchmen numbers, it looks like it may have served its purpose.

Sure, there are problems in attempting to form hypothesis about whatever the mythical “mass audience” wants, but I think it’s perfectly valid to criticize a work in the larger context of whether or not it succeeded at its own modest goals, even its economic ones. There are a number of critics who steadfastly refuse to engage a work solely on its own terms but place (or mock) it within its relationship to the culture at large or as pure product. (Anthony Lane of The New Yorker comes immediately to mind.)

In the end, I think it’s extremely valuable to read an assessment like Stone’s on whether or not FC or what have you succeeds as product. Because let’s face it, DC regards it ultimately as a product (hopefully an entertaining product, sure, but product nonetheless). It’s just as valid to castigate a comic for failing to meet its demands for its intended audience as it is to praise it for its own particular set of aesthetic qualities.

But I also think Collins’ view is whwhile since he comes at it from a different set of criteria. Asking whether the work is intellectually or emotionally satisfying is very important to me as a reader. I want to know what Sean thought of the book. But I also want to be able to garner a wider viewpoint without fling like I’m slumming or being a “reverse-snob.”

So in short, everybody wins. Can I go home now?

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Comments

7 Comments

I personally have not read Batman R.I.P. (besides the first issue) simply because I know how Morrison works and his stuff is more accessible in collections. (Really, can you honestly tell me reading Final Crisis months apart makes any sense at all? But it does when you read them all together in one sitting.) Does this make it less accessible to fans? Depends on the fans…casual, just-came-from-Dark-Knight fans: yes. Wednesday regulars? It’s all part of the fun.

It’s hard to find a balance between accessibility and complex, interesting storytelling. I’m sure DC and Morrison alienate many readers, including many Wednesday regulars, but the fact is Batman R.I.P. has been a complete sell-out (in a good way). It will also most likely be a perennial seller in collection form. And really, doesn’t come down to sales in the end?

Nice Carver ref. in the post title.

Carroll said: ” It’s hard to find a balance between accessibility and complex, interesting storytelling. I’m sure DC and Morrison alienate many readers, including many Wednesday regulars…”

That’s what happened to me. Batman Begins brought me back to reading comics after about a decade away. TDK probably should’ve brought in a ton of new readers (and, to be fair, I’m sure it did bring in at least a few), but if you wanted to jump right into what was happening with Batman after seeing TDK? Good luck.

I gave Morrison a fair shot because he was the guy who wrote Arkham Asylum and the Gothic arc in the late, great Legends of the Dark Knight. I can’t remember if All Star Supes had started by the time he took over Batman or not (it was plenty long ago), but he’d built up enough good will with me. Sadly, he squandered pretty much all of it with his Batman run (My favorite story in Batman the past few years was “Grotesk,” written by someone else as a fill-in for Morrison). I found Morrison’s writing exhausting, often confusing, and not terribly exciting. I’d also had it with the concept of trying to revive all these goofy Silver Age notions in a modern setting. Before RIP even rolled around, I’d quit. I stuck with Dini, because he always brings the goods, but I was through with Batman proper. Now I’ve dropped ‘Tec as well, since I’m not interested in Bruce being MIA yet again.

Anyhow, for the new reader who wanted more after TDK, what could you give them. The Joker GN, certainly, but mostly it was giving them the old chestnuts: Dark Knight Returns, Year One, Killing Joke, Long Halloween, and (yes) Morrison’s Arkham Asylum. All that stuff still ranks among my favorites too, but DC just isn’t putting out stuff of that quality anymore. A shame, really.

I think you are thinking like sukrat, but I think you should cover the other side of the topic in the post too…

Realistically, though, what more can be said of Batman? I first stopped reading Batman in the 80’s, during the Nocturna storyline (hey, when’s SHE coming back?) and picked it up again around Dark Knight Returns. I dropped it shortly after, kept up with Nightwing and enjoyed Bats in various OTHER DC books but not really his own. The 90’s were not kind to Batman. I picked up the earthquake storyline in trade and enjoyed it but I only liked Batman in specials, not his own books. (Same with Superman as well.)

I’m inclined to say they’re BOTH right – maybe this wasn’t the time to let Grant Morrison play in the Batman sandbox with any and all crazy toys he can find ( Batman on dope? It HAPPENED, dear reader!) But comics are all about cliff-hangers and if Grant Fucking Morrison wants to tell a Batman, I say let him and sort it out later, on the merits of the story. DC has TONS of archive material they can package to support The Movie, not to mention other specials (which is where Bats excells, outside the chains of Regular Monthly Continuity.) Let The Creator Create.

I didn’t like either of Chris Nolan’s movies, either. The Joker sounded like Daffy Duck and the Bat-Voice was Bat-stupid.

I read Batman R.I.P. like other comics, and found it utterly confusing. I’m all for subtle details that payoff later, but I’m not sure if I can read Batman R.I.P. again and search for all the things I missed. There were things I loved about it: the Joker, the Alfred/Martha/Thomas Wayne almost-scandal, the way the kids banded together, Batman’s probe into himself. I appreciate crazy story lines, but it verged so much into the insane I got lost. And I’ve been reading Batman since the late 90’s. Never missed an issue.
(What was up with that lump? The Batman clones? Was that an alternate reality or some fake-out? I was expecting something more like Bruce Wayne: Murder?, psychological like that…)

just to grant morsion my name is david b conway , and i just herd that you what to kill of batman and bruce wayne all yogether , and i think that you are making a big misstake just to that grain , just because we the fans , we do,t know just what happed to bruce wayne parents as munch as bruce wayne does not know him selfs yet just be before batman dies just at the end and that does not make snices to me at all , and i feel like dcau should have shown about the operation black glove episodes as well and specialy with the final crisis episode just for the justice league the final days as well and just when batman had a horse trainsportaion just after batmans gave was gone . love david

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