There is a hole in things.
The inexplicable absence. The piece that does not fit. The nothingness we cannot know.
It is in you. It is in me. It is in all of us, all around us. The things we can’t explain, the things we can’t know, the things we cannot prepare for. That which we can never understand, rationalize, ‘explain’ or break down. That which just is and must be contended with. Its absoluteness both infinitesimal and infinite.
It is every dark, dreadful thought we can’t make sense of, it is every stupid notion and petty cruelty that is a means to nothing except itself. It is all the gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the world, the universe, and ourselves. It is the reality we all contend with, never truly know, never fully understand, always missing something. It is the forgotten thoughts, the fading memories, all the things we can’t retain or get back. Life isn’t the easily explained order, but the chaotic mess of disorder.
The Hole In Things is our broken essence, our darkness, the void at the heart of all of us, and everything, the super-blackhole that reality is surrounded by, the immensity we cover up with our assumptions and ideas.
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The hole is important because what isn’t there is just as important as what is. Humanity, people, are defined not just by what we know and are, but what we don’t know and what we are not. To be human is to try and push against that immensity of nothingness, that infinite absence, that absolute void, to be more. To cover up that hole, to fill it up, to ascend higher, that is the human project. That is our essential nature. We make planes, for we yearn to fly. We build rockets, for we wish to touch the stars. All that we cannot do, we yearn to do. All that which is held as impossible, we try and smash, to prove as utterly possible, in our own way, despite our human limitations.
The Hole is forever, it is eternal, and it is the sum totality against which all of human endeavor is built. It is because The Hole exists that we do, in the way we do. For without our imperfections, all our little flaws, all the things we wish we were not, who would we be? What would we dream of? What else would push us to touch the stars, if we were already able to at birth? What would be the pursuit of knowledge, if it was all present in our minds upon arrival into existence? To push up against that cosmic void is our destiny, it is our purpose, it is our journey in life.
And it is not a journey we measure the success of in accomplishments, but in the attempt itself. To try itself is human.
This is what Grant Morrison’s The Bat-Epic hinges on.
Ed: Some spoilers for Morrison’s Batman follow!!!
It is The Batman against the ultimate threat, the endless enemy–nothingness itself. The very breakdown of meaning and explanation, for the one man who values those things more than anyone else. The one man who represents all of us, the best of us, our very infinite human potential, and the worst of us, all our frailties and flaws and limitations. The one individual who with all his humanity ascends to the stature of the superhuman, alongside his Super-Friends.
The Hole is many things and none of them.
In response, The Batman is many things and yet none of them.
The Hole takes many shapes, many forms, from the Joker, to Doctor Hurt, and even Darkseid.
And each time, in every shape, the black glove of the Bat arrives to wrestle with it, as is its human purpose.
It’s why the run is covered in spiral imagery, endless loops, and even operates upon a spiral structure. It’s not the first time Grant Morrison’s applied this technique, especially within the realm of their superhero work, most prominently visible in Doom Patrol. That run played with spiral motifs and structure, as things fed more and more into itself, in a structural approach one might describe as resembling the workings of a Matryoshka doll. Pictures within Pictures within Pictures. It’s why The Painting That Ate Paris is such a definitive and defining image of the run:
And certainly, one of the more striking and memorable images of the entire run is Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn’s iconic cover here:
But even just imagery aside, this connection is of great interest to me. Beyond just structural and visual motifs, there’s a lot more going on here. At the heart of Doom Patrol was a Therapy Group, a couple of deeply traumatized individuals, wrestling with a broken world that we couldn’t truly ever understand. And it’s this connection that interests me.
In her 2008 academic essay (written in 2004), Amazing Fantasies: Trauma Effect, and Superheroes, Elizabeth Sandifer argues against a typically held-truism of superhero stories. It is often said that superhero stories are Power Fantasies. Sandifer offers an alternate theory. Superhero stories are not Power Fantasies, they’re Trauma Processing. They’re not narratives about wishing for power, but that in the face of all our traumas, regardless of whatever powers we may hold, we can endure. We can survive and process our horrors and messes. It is that survival story and spirit of endurance that is central, not necessarily just the (aesthetic) powers. If there is any power of importance at all, it is perhaps merely that power of will.
And that – whether one fully agrees with it or not – actually holds quite true of the Morrisonian vision of The Superhero. It makes sense, given their view of the superhero as defined in relation to The Bomb, which they were traumatized by as a child. The Superhero was a means by way to process Trauma. Not a power fantasy, because even as a child Morrison knew that Superman was a fake cartoon picture. He was fiction. They, nor their parents, could not be Superman or have the safety his powers afforded him from The Bomb. But the idea of the superhero, that was a useful Trauma Processing Mechanism for a little child.
It holds true in Flex Mentallo, a work about a man having a breakdown, on the verge of suicide, who is able to overcome that with this fictional, made-up mechanism to process his mess. It holds true in Doom Patrol, and ultimately, I think it holds true in Batman. For what superhero is more tied to trauma and processing trauma than Batman? The spiral imagery makes a hell of a lot more sense in this context, the terrors and fears, the endless anxieties conjured into visual motifs. It makes sense of the Black Hole devouring reality in Final Crisis, the most literal Hole In Things. No other superhero work by Grant Morrison, save Doom Patrol (and Flex Mentallo, which spins out of Doom Patrol) is as fixated and focused on Trauma and attempts of Trauma Processing as Batman.
Batman’s world is one defined and shaped by Trauma, and The Hole In Things is forever tied to his core trauma. The Hole in his mother and father, caused by the gun of Joe Chill forever altered the course of his life, binding him eternally to that horrific visual. The spiral tear in things, the void that splits life asunder, arriving with a loud ear-shattering gun-shot. But in that same moment, Batman was bound to more than just trauma and the darkness of the unknown void. By falling into the gravity of The Hole In Things, he became subject to another aspect of The Hole, something far beyond him: The cycles of the world. Not just one, but the various cycles that layer about on a life. The unbroken, tightly wound loops, that seem endless and impossible to stop or avoid, which we must all confront in our own turn. Bruce Wayne isn’t the first to face the trauma he has, and he won’t be the last, and it is this realization, this horror, that inspires a Batman into existence.
Millions have suffered and watched The Hole In Things, the absence of things, take away people they loved. They don’t know why. They’ll never know why, not truly. At the end, there were people that were, and now they are not. Where are they now? Are they at all? No one can know. All one can see is their absence, meaning they’ve become one with The Hole In Things. They vanish, leaving traces that will fade, and memories that vanish, as the people they left behind join them in the void. In the end, The Hole devours all. This cycle of death and decay is endless. But so is the cycle of violence, which has plagued us all eternally, and leads to the cycle of loss and death. One cycle breeds another. And cycles, all of them, are hard to escape.
And Batman? Batman is a being impossibly bound to the cycles he attempts to shatter. He’s a man who must use violence in his pursuit of a world without need for it. He’s a capitalist in a world of strife and poverty capitalism is largely responsible for. He’s man who would, and must, cease to exist the moment he truly breaks his cycles. Which is also why he never truly can.
It’s perhaps why one of the most powerful and striking visual motifs in the run, which manifests constantly, is the Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail.
There is a Hole In Things, Batman, and you’re caught in its gravity, its cycles.
It’s a symbol that immediately clarifies the nature of this cyclical struggle at the root of the entire Batman story, bringing things right back, always, to where they once began. Which is where the finale of the whole Epic takes us in the end.
Batman’s story began with the loss of a family devastating a boy. With two graves, two holes, altering the course of his life forever. And so we return and begin again, with that same boy devastated by the loss of his family. With two graves, two holes, which alter the course of his life again. Even on a textual level, beyond the thematic and narrative loops, we return to Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon, which is not only how the run began, but also how the original Batman comics began way back in 1939’s Detective Comics #27.
Everything comes full circle. Everything feels like a loop. And there’s nothing Bruce could’ve done to stop it.
Talia Al Ghul and Damian Wayne are dead and lost by the conclusion of Batman Incorporated, the former shot dead by Kathy Kane, and the latter slain by The Heretic. Everything feels lost.
Once more, the boy wrecked by tragedy, whose future seems uncertain, picks up his costume and becomes Batman. The boy who vowed he would never ever be in the position of powerlessness of his youthful tragedy is…forced to be in that position once more. And the narrative weight of him, the old father figure surviving, while his little boy dies, is further devastating. The cycles of trauma and violence that birthed him have recurred, but with even greater cruelty.
And as if to emphasize the further horror of The Hole’s cruel cycles, even Damian’s state comes full circle. Damian was, after all, introduced at the start of his run, and so we end the run on Damian once more, looping back, in a perverse way.
In a rather disturbing mirror to their iconic ending in All-Star Superman, wherein we witness the line of our hero continued– endless, eternal – we see a vicious enforcement of a loop that cannot be broken.
It’s a rather bleak, harrowing conclusion. It’s a tragedy, at its heart, wherein a couple’s divorce destroys not only their child, but their entire worlds. The optimistic upbeat conclusion offered in 2008’s All-Star becomes poisonous and corrosive in this 2013 reflection.
It’s an ending written in a different moment, in a different climate, for a different character, wherein Neo-Liberalism’s horrors and limits are exposed, wherein Batman’s own Incorporated operations are described as “Provocative capitalist imperialism. Authoritarian black leather paramilitary operations sold as international superhero adventure”.
Having examined Batman from every possible facet and fragment, having taken him to the edge and extremity of The Modern Paramilitary Superhero, this conclusion damns him for his hubris, for his foolish idea that this stupid imperialist enterprise of corporate power was worthwhile. It arrives at the inevitable extremity of the Post-Authority/Ultimates/Civil War/MCU militaristic hero, wherein he is forever a tool and a part of greater, even more horrific cycles and systems. The work pushes the character right up to the edge of modern superhero realism and points out where these things break, in a way that, say, the also imperialist MCU will never do with its own heroic figures. It’s brutal. And in so doing, it restarts the Batman story once. The death of his family here once more serves as, effectively, the new origin for an all-new Batman and Bruce Wayne, who can be anything and anyone after this. But will never be, for Batman is tragically bound to these eternal cycles. It is his nature.
The Ouroboros lasts, and it is also why the Ouroboros marks the final image in the run.
And yet, for all of that, for all the bleakness, all the limits, lines, and impossibilities of cycles, of The Hole In Things, which binds us down to this earth, amidst all the horrific pain and tragedy and heartbreak…there is a triumph. A triumph not in outcome, for Batman has clearly failed, that is evident. He’s made grave, grave mistakes, which will haunt him and hurt him till the end of his days, which he can never undo or take back. He’s a failure of a man who couldn’t even save his son.
No, his triumph is in the will to look directly at one’s ultimate traumas in their infinite mass, and then get back up to try again, and again, and again. To look at that impossible hypnotic spiral, that hell of anxiety and horror, and keep on anyway. After all, that is what his son, his little boy, Damian Wayne did. He never relented in the face of the forces and cycles that shackled him. He died fighting them till his dying heroic breath, in defiance. And so must Batman, in the end, much like his son. There is a strange tragic beauty, a relentless humanity, to that, even in this costumed crusader.
To go through that gamut, that cycle, over and over, even if it is futile and stupid, doomed to end in failure. To define Batman as a mechanism to process pain into purpose, trauma into transcendence, through which he helps himself and others, but also, vitally, receives help from them. That’s the true meaning of Batman and Robin will never die!
So long as our human desire and nature to turn pain into purpose exists, there will always be those who help us, who join us, making us no longer alone. The people who share our pain, and can help us become more, as we help them become more, as we grow together. It’s why Morrison consistently and constantly defines and contextualizes Batman in relation to others.
What begins with a single Robin ends with a universe of Super Friends.
Batman in the hands of Morrison, is an incredibly powerful metaphor for the human spirit. Which is why when faced with all his endless failures, with all this pain, with all these limits, staring right into The Hole In Things, Bruce must learn from his mess and try again anyway, regardless of the outcome. To do that is to be human.
“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.”
– Batman Incorporated #13
The Hole In Things is the eternal abyss of absence, the infinite void of emptiness we cannot conquer. But how we respond in the face of that, that counts, even as we’re bound to cycles we may not be able to break. The Hole is all of the above, yes, but it is also the infinite expanse and canvas to imagine upon. It is every blank page before meaning is ascribed, it is every chance encounter we don’t even know we’re about to have, it is every new thing we might yet conjure in the future. It is the unknowable void, but it is also infinite potential.
Perhaps that is why, fittingly, it all ends the way it began, the way Batman itself began, on ruminations of all that we have been, and all that we can be, whilst confronting the death and demise of that which he hold dear. It’s a conclusion written in the period wherein Morrison was dealing with their mother being on the verge of death, with her eventually passing on not long after. It is, evidently, incredibly personal work, for you don’t spend over 7 years on something, doing the longest run you’ve ever done, without some measure of ties.
Taken as a whole, The Bat-Epic, as it is called, is an incredible, meticulous masterwork in superhero comics. It is one thing and yet many things. It is a magnificent cyclical structure that contains profoundly moving, flowing stories that don’t always succeed, but are always delighted to just try anyway, regardless. It’s a tome that is full of incredible humanity. It is a complete story that works wonderfully well, and possesses a multitude of possible readings. It never needed anything more.
And yet…there was more.
Next: The Epilogue To The Bat-Epic
FYI, Morrison identifies as a male. He said that he would have probably identified as they/them when he was younger had those terms been available.
Gary Mann says
Well thought out; well written. Absolutely terrific piece, Ritesh.