The Old 52 is not a series examining Grant Morrison’s seminal Batman run. If I were writing about Batman Inc. (Vol. 2) for such a series, I wouldn’t hesitate to praise it to the stars. The end of Morrison’s monolithic run was characterized by consistently astonishing artwork from Chris Burnham, Morrison’s typically playful and inventive profusion of ideas, and excellent characterization of each of the lead characters. I’ve previously argued that it’s a fitting end to one of the greatest superhero stories ever told and that it’s due for a critical reappraisal.
This begs the question, of course, why it received such a lackluster reception at the time. It wasn’t necessarily that critics or fans thought that it was bad, per se. It’s more accurate to say that Morrison’s ending felt spoiled, both in a literal sense (which we’ll get to), and in the sense that the disdain DC editorial held the comic in was so obvious that it felt self-evident that the events of the series weren’t what Morrison had originally intended. Reading it on a monthly basis was an ambivalent experience; Morrison’s vision of a Bat-story drawing upon the character’s entire history had already been hopelessly compromised by DC’s baffling new line-wide continuity demands, and readers watched in horror as the situation was exacerbated by the publisher’s willingness to permanently compromise the story’s effectiveness in exchange for momentary publicity gains.
Even though Batman Inc. is a relatively special case within the New 52 — the only other series that was a direct continuation of a pre-reboot run was Geoff Johns’s Green Lantern. Its demoralizing publication history ironically makes it a perfect case study through which to examine the staggering editorial mismanagement that hobbled the entire initiative. So, instead of a critical deep-dive into the themes Morrison & Burnham explore through the series, this article will tell the story of one of DC’s most colossal failures over the five-year history of the New 52.
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Once the decision had been made to undertake a line-wide reboot of DC Comics, it was transparently clear that Grant Morrison couldn’t remain in charge of the Batman line. Their run, while critically-acclaimed and a strong seller, was foundationally dependent on a continuity that DC sought to erase/streamline. If we accept as a premise that the New 52 was a good idea (and I think it could have been, if handled by people who had come across the concept of “long-term planning” — or even “medium-term planning,” really — sometime before their middle-age), it’s hard to begrudge DC this decision. It’s not as though Morrison would have wanted to throw out the story they’d been working on for a half-decade and come up with an entirely new concept, even if DC had wanted to keep them on. So, a replacement needed to be found.
Luckily for DC, the heir apparent was obvious. Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics run (collected as “The Black Mirror”) had garnered universal acclaim, praised for its vivid blend of Snyder’s horror instincts with clever arc plotting and an excellent voice for Dick Grayson. It’s worth noting how much inspiration Snyder takes from Morrison’s work, despite the fact that he’s working in an entirely different register. Each arc is divided into three parts, just as Morrison structured their run on Batman & Robin. When the Joker makes a cameo he’s written as The Clown at Midnight, which is especially charming considering that Morrison had moved Joker on to a different personality in their own run, meaning that this creative choice was almost certainly made out of affection for Batman RIP. Ideas such as a supervillain black-market or a revamp of Tiger Shark as a spiritually-infused fanatic would have felt at home in Morrison’s work. However, the tone of Snyder’s dark thriller was immediately appealing and fit smoothly into the post-Miller Bat-paradigm, whilst Morrison’s work to push Batman’s character to less-obvious extremes was met by derision from certain people (ie. nerds). It was a no-brainer to give Snyder a chance on the main title.
This decision quickly yielded huge dividends; Batman was a sales juggernaut, and each of Snyder’s first three arcs were breathlessly hailed as instant classics. I wasn’t able to track down the article, but I remember reading a piece on the New 52, written a year in, which claimed that Scott Snyder was already to Batman what Morrison was to Superman and what Johns was to Green Lantern — after a scant two years writing the character! Snyder’s run was a titan, particularly in the wake of the dire critical response to the majority of DC’s rebooted output.
For Morrison’s part, they were doing… fine for themself. Possibly as an apology for removing them from Batman and almost certainly in an attempt to capitalize on All-Star Superman’s popularity, DC placed Morrison on Action Comics Vol. 2 and gave them a wide degree of latitude to revamp Superman. Morrison’s unexpected angle of a lower-powered socialist superhero, which has become more and more resonant over the intervening decade, was met with suspicion by readers and embarrassment by the publisher. But Morrison had been guaranteed eighteen issues, so they could more-or-less do as they liked (Morrison expressed sentiments in 2011 that they were interested in continuing post-issue 18 and building a Superman run similar to their Batman run, and it’s tragic that this was never a feasible idea under Didio’s and Lee’s management).
It’s unclear exactly when DC decided to revive Batman: Leviathan, Morrison’s planned 12-issue maxiseries wrapping up the threads of their run, as Batman Inc. Vol. 2. As soon as fans learned that Batman Inc. wasn’t included in the reboot they began to call upon DC to allow Morrison the chance to finish their story in an out-of-continuity series. Instead, half a year after the relaunch, Batman Inc. Vol. 2 was announced along with the Second Wave of New 52 titles. While the publicity around James Robinson’s Earth Two sucked up most of the oxygen, to those fans in the know, it was clear which of the eight Second Wave titles was the most exciting. At the same time, however, the mood within fandom was trepidatious. How the hell was Morrison supposed to wrap their story up in a way that would fit with a ten-year continuity (DC more-or-less arbitrarily decided that Batman got an extra five years of history over everyone else once it was pointed out that four Robins in five years was a bit of a stretch)? It would be a miracle if they managed to pull it off.
DC was not, at the time, equipped for miracles. This resulted in what might generously be described as a “woefully unsatisfying” comic. My preferred term for it would be “a nightmare.”
For their first installment of Batman Inc. in the new continuity, Morrison adopts many of the trappings of a clean jumping-on point. The first page is a dramatic flash-forward wherein Bruce Wayne is arrested by Commissioner Gordon and solemnly informs Alfred that the madness of his life as Batman “is over” while standing over two anonymous graves. This leads to a lovely double-page spread of Batman and Robin leaping out of the Batmobile from Morrison’s Batman & Robin, ready to give chase to an unseen baddie. The rest of the issue consists of a long fight scene in a slaughterhouse, the introduction of an assassin called Goatboy with the issue’s first (and only) internal monologue, a car chase intercut with a chilling introduction to Leviathan (ie. Talia al Ghul, Damian’s mother), an interlude introducing readers to the Dead Heroes’ Club, and a final fight culminating in a flash-forward in which Goatboy shows Leviathan a picture of Batman cradling Robin’s limp body.
This should by all rights work. Morrison & Burnham are at the peak of their craft and their collaboration, working utterly harmoniously to such an extent that Morrison gave Burnham carte blanche to make changes from Morrison’s scripts before Morrison took a final lettering pass. The pace is frenetic without being stressful, setting the pieces in place for the rest of the series while providing oodles of that good-good Bat-action and Morrison’s usual excellent dialogue (yeah, people complain about it, but they’re wrong and I’m right). So why did it feel so underwhelming upon release in 2012?
Part of it was, I suspect, latent bitterness at the assumed editorial intervention. While Peter Tomasi had managed to craft a reasonably-compelling dynamic for Bruce and Damian’s partnership, the sight of Dick’s Batmobile was a reminder that editorial fiat had snatched one of Morrison’s greatest innovations — Dick & Damian’s incredible relationship — out of their hands. References to other New 52 titles like Tomasi’s Batman & Robin (Batman tells Robin off for breaking the vow he made never to kill another enemy after Nobody’s death) felt gratuitous, making it feel like Morrison had been reduced to playing third-fiddle in the Batman line. However, this doesn’t sufficiently explain the atmosphere of ambivalence that surrounded the title.
The main problem with #1 is that it’s drenched in its own continuity. While Morrison has clearly put thought into the techniques they use to prevent it from feeling like #11 of Vol. 1 repackaged and redrawn, the story is transparently picking up in the middle of a longer story. The half-billion dollar bounty on Damian’s head was a holdover from the climax of the Batman: Leviathan Strikes! one-shot, which had been belatedly published six months after the New 52’s first issues, debris from an earlier continuity. The Dead Heroes Club, while relegated to two pages, is a setup that would be utterly incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t followed Vol. 1, and trying to reconcile their existence with the New 52 timeline provoked the migraine to end all migraines. Leviathan’s introduction assumes the reader’s pre-existing knowledge of both the organization and its leader. It’s hard to parse why Morrison chose to write a first issue that simultaneously adopted the aesthetics of a fresh start while throwing readers into the deep end of a saga in its final act.
Batman Inc’s Doctor Who Influence
To understand what Morrison’s doing, it’s instructive to look at their favorite television programme, Doctor Who. Specifically The Pilot, the premiere of the tenth series of the show’s modern iteration and the introduction of new companion Bill Potts. This was a relatively lightweight adventure carried by writer Steven Moffat’s sparkling banter and a breakout performance by Pearl Mackie and was marketed as the perfect place to start watching the show. The comparison might seem strange — why not look for precedent in the realm of comics, especially in the light of linear time, which tells us that The Pilot was written years after the ending of Batman Inc. However, it’s a surprisingly resonant connection once you get past its counter-intuitiveness. Both Batman Inc. Vol. 2 #1 and The Pilot were written by critically acclaimed yet controversial middle-aged Scottish writers in their seventh year working on their respective franchises, the first installment of the final sixth of their reign, with the narrative conceit of a fresh jumping-on point. While the comparison isn’t perfect (Doctor Who is a primetime BBC show, so there’s only so far it can go with continuity play), these series are clearly bedfellows.
The first thing to note about this pair of stories (other than that they’re both good) is that their claim to work as jumping-on points is blatantly false. I’ve already explained in-detail the continuity density of Batman Inc., so let’s turn to Doctor Who. As Series 10 goes on, the show builds an entire arc around the character of Missy, who was introduced two series previously and is treated as a fundamentally known quantity, culminating in a hugely self-indulgent finale (plus Christmas special) that includes two versions of The Master, a host of Cybermen, a recast First Doctor, Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart’s grandfather, and the reappearance of the Doctor’s old companion Clara. I don’t list these characters because I have any expectation that you’ll know who they are or because I have any intention of explaining, but to demonstrate that the idea that a non-fan can start watching Doctor Who with The Pilot and expect to understand the rest of the series is ludicrous.
Between the two, I would argue that Morrison’s script for #1 is better than Moffat’s script for The Pilot — Morrison’s work is taut and razor-sharp, whilst Moffat’s work is a little baggier, a little more softballed. However, The Pilot is orders of magnitude better at its ostensible goal of providing a clean introduction, even if its conceit of being a good introduction is disingenuous. Moffat centers the script cleanly around Bill, building her up and slowly building the plot in the background before diving into Bill’s first adventure with the Doctor. Morrison, on the other hand, uses clean-start storytelling techniques while throwing readers into the deep end of their story. And when you put the two side-by-side, it becomes easier to see why Morrison’s issue felt somewhat bathetic: while they may be introducing us to their story, they aren’t actually introducing any major new elements. Goatboy, the issue’s narrator, is a new character, but he’s a fun low-rent Gotham gimmick villain who appears twice more before being taken out like a chump. One does not imagine that he played a significant part in the Batman: Leviathan outline.
With this in mind, it becomes clear: this isn’t an introduction — this is a breather, a palate cleanser. Taken in the broader arc of Batman Inc., this makes perfect sense as a move. Batman’s been out of Gotham. After a shocking reveal at the end of its first “season”, the second season begins by re-establishing Gotham’s texture and modelling the status quo which will be upended in the second half. In context, it reads great. Unfortunately, while this creative decision makes sense in the light of Morrison’s original plans, it’s severely jarring in the context of the New 52. For one thing, a line-wide reboot is a hard enough reset that it obviates the need for a breather. Furthermore, #1 was published the same month as #9 of Snyder’s run on Batman, the second issue of “Night of the Owls.” Which is to say, the main Bat-title had just come off a seven-month long arc exploring Gotham in intimate detail. The last thing a reader at the time wanted or needed was an arc to re-establish Gotham’s texture two months after an arc revolving around major reveals about its secret history. And so, in spite of their best efforts, Morrison’s first issue was something of a misfire. This bodes poorly for the rest of their run.
Fortunately, #2 fared significantly better. A spotlight episode focused on the history of Talia, framed by a belligerent conversation between her and her father Ra’s al Ghul, #2 is a joyous greatest-hits compilation of Talia’s decades-long history with her father and the Dark Knight as well as a compelling character study in its own right. Morrison weaves their usual magic with continuity, making a back half almost entirely composed of scenes from previous comics into an engaging story. But the first half is where they do their real work. Morrison tells the story of Talia’s youth, the richest child in the world yearning for the love of her uncaring, yet controlling, father. This is exacerbated by the revelation that her father had her mother (a poor Romani fortune-teller) murdered after Talia tracked her down, cutting off any chance that she could form healthy relationships. The one-percenter entitlement Morrison invests her with carries through the second-half montage, providing the concrete psychological motivation for the scope of her anger at Batman’s rejection of her that was needed to make Leviathan into more than just another big, angry supervillain army. Talia’s wealthy petulance instantly strikes a chord, and her arrested development gives her a unique voice as a Batman villain. It’s a virtuoso performance from Morrison and Burnham, and aside from the obvious continuity headaches it provoked, it was rightly regarded as a triumph.
#3 seemed to carry the swagger newly picked up from its predecessor, with a three-page opening sequence explaining how Leviathan insinuated itself into Gotham. It’s a breathtakingly bleak opening, one that furiously and forensically exposes the rotting infrastructure of Gotham and its apathy towards the poor and the marginalized, clearly demonstrating that this institutional failure is what gave Leviathan the opportunity to run amok. It’s a genuinely upsetting read and possibly the single greatest sequence in the entirety of Morrison’s seven-year run. The details are as well-chosen as they are chilling, the “oddly smiling social workers [separating] kids from their families” being the perverse highlight. It was an opening that promised greatness.
Unfortunately, the rest of the issue failed to carry this forward, instead following Batman as he attempts to get an ‘in’ to Leviathan by resurrecting his much-loved criminal disguise of Matches Malone. Damian is revealed as having, unsurprisingly, survived, but has been ordered not to go out as Robin. The issue ends with Batman being ambushed at his contact’s proposed meeting-place and with Damian breaking out of the Batcave in a new disguise — that of Redbird. #4 follows directly from #3 ( #0 came out between issues 3 and 4 as part of the New 52’s one-year anniversary, but it’s not relevant to the story. However, it does serve as a ‘deleted-scenes’ of the previous volume of Batman Incorporated, which I must imagine must have been utterly impenetrable to anyone new to the series while simultaneously setting up some B-plots that would play out over the next nine issues. Enjoyable, absolutely, but definitely symptomatic of the problems the run was already facing.), with Batman Inc. (the organization, who surprisingly hadn’t shown up in their eponymous title until then) launching a full-on siege on the Leviathan warehouse, which has been filled with dozens of world-class assassins (these assassins do not last very long). Redbird teams up with Wingman, a minor supporting character over Morrison’s run and one who hadn’t yet appeared in this volume of the series, and who is dramatically revealed to be…
Okay. So, if you don’t recognize him (which makes sense; Burnham had never drawn the character before this reveal), that’s Jason Todd, better known as the Red Hood. He’s better known as the Red Hood in large part because DC was, at the time of this issue’s publication, running an ongoing series called Red Hood and the Outlaws with him as the starring character. Which isn’t wrong in it of itself, other than the fact that it was a bad series written by a serial sexual abuser, but it does completely ruin this reveal.
See, Morrison had picked up the threads of Judd Winick’s “Under the Hood” reintroduction of Jason in the original Batman & Robin, making Jason into, effectively, the influencer generation’s bloodthirsty superhero (which was and is a great take on him). He was defeated ignominiously and hadn’t been seen again. The secret of Wingman’s identity had been teased in the previous volume, and this moment would have — in an ideal work — been the culmination of Jason Todd’s redemption. However, Jason had already been turned as a ‘charming’ antihero as part of the reboot, making this both redundant and confusing for anyone who hadn’t recently reread their copy of Batman Incorporated (Vol. 1) #6. Which once again begs the question, why the hell did DC decide to release this in continuity? Not only did it not seem like it wasn’t going to have any major effects on Batman’s world (not when Scott Snyder was in charge of the franchise), but its presence in continuity was both actively impeding its ability to work as a story and wreaking absolute havoc on DC’s already paper-thin New 52 continuity.
That being said, while it’s certainly a telling one, the fact remains that this is just one moment in the issue, and the reveal is only focused on for about half a page. It’s not nearly enough to write off the issue as a whole. However, #3-4 suffer from the same problems as #1 — they’re enjoyable reads, but are predominately table-setters with too much baggage and not enough new to offer to the Bat-line. In addition, these issues make it clear that the series as a whole is suffering from another problem on top of the ones already identified.
As my friend Sean Dillon details in his excellent article on Snyder & Capullo’s run, one of the things Snyder excels at is grounding his horror in the subjective POV of his protagonists, which pulls double-duty, letting Snyder push the scares to even greater heights while making the stakes for his characters feel more visceral, more immediate, than most other superhero comics. Batman Incorporated’s first four issues have been fun, but looked at from this light, they really do suffer from the ease with which its superhero protagonists dispense with their problems. Batman is only shown in peril once over the four issues, and, even then, within pages it’s revealed that he’s fine. Even when Damian’s presented as having been shot, the reader never feels the danger. Which means that as well as Morrison & Burnham can put together an enjoyable fight comic, the reader is never as emotionally invested as they are in the work Snyder is publishing concurrently.
However, the final page is very interesting, as Batman reveals that he plans to return Damian to his mother because he believes that Damian is destined to doom the entire world. It’s a stunner of a statement, compounded by the last panel tease that the next issue will take place in the Batman 666 timeline, presumably revealing at long last the details of Damian’s deal with the devil. This has genuine potential — it’s an alternate future seen so far in two previous issues, so there’s little risk of the continuity becoming overbearing, and it has genuinely grand stakes for Damian as a character.
Things Start Looking Up
Spoilers: this is going to be a short section.
#5, by virtue of being a flash-forward that only has to illustrate why Bruce would be afraid of Damian taking over the cowl, had a great deal of freedom with which to work, and it takes full advantage of it. All of the exhilaration, high stakes, and gravity that had been missing in the previous four issues showed up in spades, the grave setting providing a playground on which Morrison & Burnham can run wild.
Morrison takes the dystopian future they’d set up in Batman #666 and #700 and pushes it into the apocalypse, opening with Damian’s Batcave (well, Bat-suite) being overrun by Jokerfied zombies and giddily escalates the stakes with seemingly every page. Gotham is burning, the last survivors are trapped in Arkham Asylum, and the walls aren’t going to hold for much longer. The issue ends with Commissioner Barbara Gordon being infected by the Joker virus by a baby whom Batman had thought was immune but turned out to be an asymptomatic carrier (this plotline has no modern relevance whatsoever and sent zero chills down my spine when I re-read it), opening the gates of Arkham to allow the zombies to rip the remnants of Gotham’s population to shreds. We cut to the White House, where Dr. Hurt (Batman’s greatest enemy, revealed earlier in this issue to be the “devil” Damian sold his soul to) tells the President that he knows what the right thing to do is, which in this case turns out to be dropping a nuclear bomb on Gotham.
Morrison has a perfect artistic collaborator in Burnham, and since we’re nearing the point in this article where my focus is going to turn towards DC & Morrison’s antagonistic relationship, now seems like a good place to elucidate on Burnham’s many artistic virtues. First and foremost, he’s one of the best layout artists in comic books.
Using the sides of the buildings as panels is an ostentatiously clever trick, to the point where it’s almost custom-designed to annoy people who object to cleverness for cleverness’s sake. I, however, tend to think that cleverness is a virtue in it of itself, and find these kinds of tricks hugely engaging. However, the virtues of the page go beyond gimmickry.
One of the things that the comic page as a storytelling unit can do that’s unreplicable in any other media is depict the movement of characters across a physical space over several distinct beats while maintaining a single, finely-detailed ‘shot’ of the tableau in-frame. This is a unique way of approaching that trick — the reader gets a strong sense of the physical geography of the cityscape Batman & Robin swing through on the first ‘panel’ with a level of granular detail that could only be achieved by giving the entire page over to the shot, even as the page moves through four panels/beats.
Furthermore, it’s easy to lose sight of how impressive the clarity of the storytelling is. This is a very cool way of framing a page, but it’s also a very strange way of doing so; by all rights, it should take the reader more time to decipher how to track the forward progression of events. However, Burnham expertly controls the viewers’ sightlines: the reader moves down as they read the dialogue until they focus on Batman; their eye moves up to look at Robin; Robin’s straight legs point the reader’s eye directly at the second ‘panel’; the reader’s eye follows the dialogue (and Batman’s caped silhouette) down to the third ‘panel’; finally, the reader completes the natural arc to rest on the fourth panel. At no point does the reader have to stop and think about where they should be looking; Burnham makes it seem effortless, but this is complex stuff.
In addition to his skill with the mechanics of the comics page, Burnham has an excellent eye for shot composition. The point-of-view of this shot, with the bullets coming directly toward the viewer, is what lends it its power; the size of the bullets relative to Batman relative to the tiny gun flashes emphasizes both the distance Batman is falling and the speed at which the action is occurring. In a static medium, the dynamism Burnham invests his pages with is invaluable.
His compositions are just as impressive as his layouts. His rendering style is spiky and detailed, cartoonishly soft but with a sense of genuine weight. He has a keen sense of where to exaggerate physical features (thanks to him, it’s my unshakeable belief that Damian Wayne should never exceed the height of three feet), and his detailed line provides a lush texture. What distinguishes his work here is his keen grasp of the lurid. When Burnham’s characters are injured, it’s bloody. Teeth are knocked out, bones are snapped, and there are plenty of scenes over the course of Batman Incorporated in which the reader is left to wonder how a character could have possibly survived the beating they endured (at both the hands of their adversaries and Burnham’s pen). In a more realistic style, this kind of violence would be nauseating, but his cartoonishness means that it heightens the impact of the violence without tipping into the stomach-churning. Combine this with his savvy use of exaggeration, and you get a style of beautiful ugliness that’s deeply reminiscent of Frank Quitely, but with the balance turned down on the lushness and up on the dynamism. This has many virtues, but sometimes it’s easy just to highlight the obvious — he draws real good punches and kicks, and that’s an important skill for a Batman artist.
With Morrison and Burnham working overtime to make the 666 timeline as grotesque as possible, this issue may actually represent an aesthetic endpoint for the character. It’s hard to imagine a Batman comic that’s more gory or more bleak than this one that would be remotely palatable to the reader. This is supposed to illustrate the worst-case scenario, and it succeeds at that task beautifully. By the end of the issue, the reader is obviously still on Damian’s side and is horrified at the thought that Bruce might actually send him back to Talia, but it’s also far easier to understand why Bruce thinks this is the only choice if this is the premonition he was given. However, there’s no time to linger on the startling revelation, because the issue ends with a Batman Incorporated strike team headed by fan-favorite and all around Good Boi™ The Knight being lured into an ambush by Leviathan, as a massive explosion demolishes the upper floors of the homeless shelter they’d been investigating.
#6 picks up with Bruce traveling to the site of the explosion by himself (while Alfred and the boys listen in on comms), where Commissioner Gordon reveals that Leviathan have taken hostages and will only speak to Batman. For the bulk of the issue, we follow Batman as he runs through what will eventually be revealed as a gauntlet meant to measure his reaction times and physiological responses. In practical terms, this means we’re in for another fight comic, and for the most part the energy and vitality of the previous issue carry over, although the issue is slightly marred by poor fill-in art (the pages of which Burnham was thankfully enough given the chance to redraw for the Absolute Edition and subsequent collections).
While Batman is distracted by Talia’s traps, the true horrors begin on the roof, where the Knight’s strike team struggles to recover in the debris left by the explosion. The Knight’s sidekick, the Squire, was grievously wounded, trapped beneath a heavy wooden beam. By the time the Knight extricates her, her heart has stopped breathing. He desperately applies CPR before, as a last-ditch resort, shocking her heart with his taser. As she takes a sudden breath, all looks well… until a large hand wraps itself around the Knight’s neck.
This is the Heretic, a mysterious villain the height of Lady Dimitrescu and dressed like a cross between a stereotypical Middle Eastern terrorist and one of Batman Incorporated’s Bat-sentinels. He was introduced in the 2010 one-shot Batman: The Return, a prequel to the first volume of Batman Incorporated chiefly concerned with Batman’s exploration of the industrial ‘bio-factory’ abattoir where the Heretic was born. He comes face-to-face with Damian, whom he taunts with the threat of a later encounter, his identity clearly signposted to be a mystery. His most recent appearance prior to this issue was on the last-page cliffhanger of Leviathan Strikes!, standing to the right of Talia, visually denoting him as her chief lieutenant.
The Knight flails helplessly in the Heretic’s grip, and as Beryl (the Squire’s civilian name) desperately demands that he be released, the Heretic effortlessly crushes the Knight’s windpipe in his hand. It’s a shocking, brutal moment, and to this day one of the most upsetting (and memorable) character deaths I’ve ever read in the comic. Batman makes it to the roof moments too late and launches himself at the Heretic. The Heretic makes quick work of Batman as Talia declares that he was the Batman who destroyed Gotham in Bruce’s dream, not Damian, and hurls him off the roof of the building.
As #7 begins, Batman is grabbed by one of Talia’s ninja Man-Bats moments before Nightwing, Red Robin, and Wingman (whose every appearance is a fresh reminder of DC’s incompetence) arrive at the base of the shelter. They decide to split up — Nightwing stays with Commissioner Gordon while Wingman reconvines with the remaining Batman Inc. forces, leaving Red Robin to track the signal from Batman’s belt. Nightwing comforts the Squire in a touching moment (and Morrison proves once again that every criticism of their dialogue is wrong, capturing Beryl’s trauma perfectly — “But I wuh-wasn’t there… / I was… was always thuh-thu-there for him… / Cyril’s dead-duh-duh-dead and… and and and it’s all my fuh-fault. / It’s my fault.”) as the Bat-sentinels carry the Knight’s limp corpse out.
While the Knight’s stunning death in the previous issue indicated how serious a threat Leviathan was, #7’s non-stop escalation dramatically raises the series’ stakes. Red Robin tracks Batman’s belt to a booby-trapped apartment, escaping the explosion by the skin of his teeth. Wingman is electrocuted by British Batman Incorporated agent The Hood, who reveals that his “first loyalty is to Spyral” in a triple-cross, having stolen (or I guess considering the new context “stolen”) classified Spyral files for Batman Incorporated in Leviathan Strikes!. However, Nightwing faces the worst situation of the three, as he and Commissioner Gordon watch in horror as a cadre of armed children unload from a school bus, grinning and chanting “Leviathan” in a deliciously stomach-churning payoff to #3’s opening sequence. This also leads to perhaps the most perverse line of dialogue I can remember in a Batman comic, wherein Commissioner Gordon stammers, “They wouldn’t use kids. / We can’t. / We can’t shoot kids,” a moment so depraved that I still can’t believe it got published.
As the kids charge, screaming “Leviathan Rises,” we cut back to Wayne Tower. In the lobby, Waynetech receptionist Ellie (a former street prostitute introduced in one of Morrison’s first issues on the title, who Batman offered a job in Batman #702) greets Arnold the security guard, who’s murdered in front of her by a Leviathan agent masquerading as Waynetech security. The agent begins to hunt for her as she hides behind her desk, but stops to stand to attention as Talia enters the lobby alongside the Heretic, who’s carrying a safe on his shoulder. On the roof, it’s revealed that Bruce has been chained up and locked in the safe, which the Heretic throws into a large swimming pool. Talia reveals that she’s used the information collected in the previous issue to calculate exactly how long it will take Bruce to break free of the trap, insinuating that she’s engineered a catastrophic event to take place moments before Bruce is able to escape and prevent it.
All of this is overheard by Damian, who has been confined to the Batcave in acknowledgement of Bruce’s fears, and Alfred, who’s manning the Batcomputer. Damian laments his father’s naivete when dealing with Talia, whom Damian thinks he’s underestimated. Damian declares that he’s the only one who can save the day, admitting that he wants to prove to his father that he was wrong to fear that Damian would destroy Gotham. He turns around to see that Alfred is holding up his Robin costume with a wry smile, noting that “Master Bruce has been wrong before on several occasions. / I’ll tell him you overpowered me, sir.” Damian equips himself with a suit of Iron Man-esque armor, bypassing the Batcave’s locks by imitating Bruce’s voice, and flies to the rescue as we see the trouble the three former Robins have gotten themselves into.
By this point, it felt like this volume of Batman Incorporated had found its groove after a shaky start. Leviathan genuinely felt like a monumental threat, between the perversity of using children as soldiers and the scale of the devastation it had already wrought on Batman’s forces. Anyone who was still reading was willing to put the continuity snafus out of their mind and enjoy the show, and with that confusion out of the way, it was easy to get caught up in the wild ride that Morrison & Burnham had prepared. The series’s status as a Gotham ensemble had hobbled it dramatically at the start due to the sense that Bruce wasn’t being personally challenged the way he was in his eponymous title, but its scope now revealed itself as a virtue, as Morrison used the entirety of the Bat-family to lend their story a grandeur that the other Bat-titles couldn’t match.
Everything looked like it was on-track for a rousing conclusion until the day prior to the release of Batman Incorporated #8.
To Be Continued in Part 2!
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