Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Batman Incorporated #13. Written by Grant Morrison (Supergods, The Invisibles) and drawn by Chris Burnham (Officer Downe, Nixon’s Pals), the concluding issue of Morrison’s seven-year Batman epic honors the myth of the character while showcasing the qualities that have made this run spectacular. (Warning: major spoilers ahead.)
All things come to an end, unless you’re Batman. That’s one of Grant Morrison’s enduring messages at the conclusion of his seven-year run writing the Dark Knight, highlighting the misery of existence for a superhero whose fight never stops. No matter how hard Bruce Wayne tries, he will never completely win the war against evil as long as Batman continues to make money for his corporate overlords, and over the past 74 years, he’s never seen rest, just reboots and resurrections. It’s part of the nature of superheroes; the popular ones are forever young and motivated while the others age, give up, and eventually disappear into comic book limbo. Creators work on different books and try to make significant changes to the characters, but eventually these heroes all go back to square one, especially at DC Comics, where line-wide continuity reboots happen every few decades.
Over the past seven years, Grant Morrison introduced Batman’s son, Damian Wayne; revived the Silver Age League Of Batmen; killed Bruce Wayne; made Dick Grayson and Damian the new Batman and Robin; brought back Bruce via time travel; established a corporation that put Batmen all over the globe; killed Damian; and set Gotham City on fire. There are very few runs on a superhero comic where so many drastic events happened for a character, and Morrison helped establish a progressive status quo for the Batman family before DC’s New 52 wiped most of it away. Morrison was building something huge and taking the hero and those around him to exciting new places, but DC ultimately opted for something more reader-friendly and decided to mostly ignore whatever Morrison was doing in Batman Incorporated.
The conclusion of this series not only marks the end of Morrison’s run, it also closes the door completely on the pre-New 52 DC continuity. Like Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern, Batman Incorporated wasn’t forced to abandon what came before Flashpoint, and holding on to those story threads has largely separated the book from the rest of the New 52 DC universe. It would have been nice to see Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown continue in the roles they started playing in the narrative before being wiped from DC history, but otherwise Morrison has done remarkable work not compromising his story for the new editorial regime.
Bruce Wayne’s relationship with Talia Al Ghul has been the driving force of this book, with Talia building international terrorism organization Leviathan to destroy the life of her beloved. It’s one of the most dysfunctional romances in comics, a doomed love that ends in tragedy for everyone involved. Their drama comes to a head in Batman Incorporated #13, which sees Morrison taking inspiration from Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Batman as he pits Bruce and Talia against each other in the Batcave for a sexually charged sword fight. These past events are framed by a conversation between Commissioner James Gordon and Bruce Wayne at Gotham P.D. in the present, where the heavily bruised and stitched-up billionaire playboy is being held for questioning regarding his involvement in the wave of terror that has swept over the city.
Placing these two sequences side by side helps Morrison manipulate the tension beautifully over the course of the issue, establishing the victor of the duel but withholding the information of how Bruce wins by moving away from the fight to explore deeper elements of the Batman character. Bruce’s conversation with Gordon is where Morrison explains the reasoning behind his interpretation of the character and the arc of this epic story, specifically with Bruce’s line, “There are people whose hurt feelings can trigger wars. People whose broken hearts become grand opera, on an international stage.” Morrison’s run has actively steered away from the more realistic contemporary version of Batman and embraced the spectacle and fantasy of the character’s varied past, building a story that is massive in scope yet still deeply personal. These past seven years have really just been about a mother and father fighting over control of their child while dealing with their own unresolved issues with each other, a domestic drama that reaches a new level of grandiosity thanks to the superhero intrigue.
Morrison is a writer who understands the relationship between sex and violence in the superhero genre, beginning Bruce and Talia’s duel with a kiss between the two former lovers. Talia tells him to kiss her to prove that he’s still a man, and as they lock lips, Morrison shows glimpses of the battle waging around Gotham City to show just what’s at stake here. The kiss is foreplay to fighting instead of sex, but their actions essentially serve the same purpose, giving them the opportunity to act on their intensely passionate feelings. Talia’s people will release their hold on Gotham if Batman kills her, and as they fight to the death, Talia reveals why she’s waged war on the House Of Wayne: She did it for him. “You chose to make war,” Talia says. “I gave you an unbeatable villain. I did all this, for you, in my spare time.”
As long as Batman exists, Bruce Wayne will never be able to give another person top priority in his life, and if Talia can’t force him to give up the cowl and love her, she’ll break him with the power of her international criminal empire. Like the rest of Batman’s rogues’ gallery, Talia ends up completely bonkers, but unlike most of those costumed clowns, she has the ability and the means to plunge the entire world into doomsday. Batman and his colleagues manage to stop her current evil plot, but as long as Talia is alive, Earth is still in jeopardy. As Talia gloats over Bruce’s inability to end her life, the last piece of Morrison’s puzzle walks in to do it for him. Morrison has been foreshadowing the resurrection of Kathy Kane, the original Batwoman, for a while now, and she finally makes her appearance to send a bullet through Talia’s head. It’s a shocking end for Talia, and Kathy disappears immediately after she serves her story purpose.
Kathy is one of the many loose ends that Morrison leaves at the end of this issue, and the writer has predicted that readers will likely be displeased with his conclusion. That’s because it ends with a series of cliffhangers that, if they’re ever followed up on at all, will not be resolved by Morrison himself. When Bruce returns home from the police station, he discovers that Damian and Talia’s bodies have been removed from their graves, and the final page reveals Ra’s Al Ghul’s stockpile of Damian embryos, the Sons Of Batman whom he commands to “Rise!” with the last word of Morrison’s narrative. Batman’s story isn’t going to end with Morrison’s departure, so the writer brings attention to that fact that by making sure the plot continues after him—even if its just in the minds of his readers. DC may never address Ra’s Al Ghul’s junior Batmen or the disappearance of Talia and Damian’s bodies, but Morrison ends his run by acknowledging that there is always more story to tell.
Andy Kubert, J.H. Williams III, Frank Quitely, Frazer Irving, and Yanick Paquette are just some of the outstanding artists who have helped Morrison realize his vision of Batman, and Chris Burnham has done remarkable work detailing the chaos and heightened emotion of Morrison’s final act. There’s a clear shift in the layouts of the dreary present day sequences to the more dynamic superhero action of the past, with Burnham breaking from traditional panel structures to create sequences that are more graphic and visually stimulating. The two-page title spread is a psychedelic mix of ouroboros imagery with alternating shades of red and blue, the defining colors of Batman and Talia. The following page uses Batman and Talia’s swords as panel separators, showing how the fight has grown to such proportions that it has knocked the gutters off the page.
When Batman is poisoned by Talia’s blade, the spiral design of the title page returns, but the snake eating its tail is replaced by the dinosaur in the Batcave and the red and blue is replaced by a sickly green. Nathan Fairbairn’s color palette doesn’t aim for realism, instead using heavily saturated hues that are closer to the limited palette of Batman comics before digital technology. There’s an explosion of color in the superhero sequences, and by using more vivid colors, Fairbairn accentuates the rhythm of Burnham’s pacing. The aforementioned page with the sword-separated panels alternates between shades of orange and green, using color to emphasize the back-and-forth quality of the fight. Talia is dressed in bright red to stick out against the dark green background of the Batcave, and those complementary shades come back into play on the last page, where bright green Batman embryos are backlit by blood red to make them look even more unsettling.
There’s been a certain element of horror in Morrison’s run, and he’s wanted to show the ugly side of the character’s mission that readers may not be interested in seeing. In an interview with Parallel Worlds, Morrison explains this idea in detail:
“Batman’s mission is really … almost a never-ending one and there’s a kind of terror to that I think that people may not necessarily want to see. They might not want to understand that the Batman’s mission never ends. There’s a kind of hope in that Batman will ultimately win and I guess what the story is saying, really … is it’s taking a long-running franchise where this guy is going to be revamped forever and he will always be new, and he will always come back shiny and new, and bigger and faster. But for him there’s a kind of horror in that. … That’s kind of where I was trying to get at: What if the Batman story never ends? What if you felt that for just a moment?”
No matter how hard Bruce Wayne tries to abandon Batman, it will never let go of him. He declares the hero dead when he’s talking to Gordon, and it’s possible that he really believes it in that moment, but when he gets home and sees two empty graves, he leaps right back into action. As much as Bruce would like to give up his superhero identity, at this point it’s the only thing that keeps him from succumbing to total paralyzing grief. In his conversation with Commissioner Gordon, Bruce tells him that the bullet that killed his mother also left a hole in him. “I looked into that hole in things over and over again until it hurt, Jim… and you know what I found in there? Nothing… and a space big enough to hold everything.” That hole is Batman, and it’s never going away.
On the issue’s last page with Batman on it, Gordon narrates: “Batman never dies. It never ends. It probably never will.” That last sentence is accompanied by an image of Batman leaping toward the reader against a lightning bolt in the background, a twist on Frank Miller’s iconic cover for The Dark Knight Returns that is more terrifying than inspiring. It’s also the perfect shot to encapsulate Morrison’s version of the character, with Batman emerging from the black abyss of his cape to terrify Gotham City. The cover for Batman Incorporated #13 plays with the same idea, showing Batman emerging from the black insignia on his chest. It’s a striking way of showing how completely Batman has permeated Bruce Wayne’s being, and as long as Bruce lives, the Batman will always exist in that hole in his heart where his parents’ love used to thrive.