I suppose it is possible to do subtlety in Batman comics. To do it well, even: from Greg Rucka’s nuanced characterization to Grant Morrison’s elliptic narratives; from Dan Slott’s skill at disguising plot points to Ed Brubaker’s occasional flirts with realism… Still, the notion doesn’t seem like a natural fit in a series about a guy for whom the best way to handle problems is dressing up like a humanoid bat and jumping from rooftop to rooftop in order to punch those problems in the mug – and by ‘problems’ I mean insane killers with flashy costumes and explicit themes running through their regular crime sprees.
One of the reasons I love Alan Grant’s work on Batman so much is that he unabashedly embraced the visceral appeal of this world, without attempting to soften or hide it. In the hands of this Scottish writer, Gotham City became a springboard for satisfyingly blunt, frantic, outraged, and outrageous stories. Grant’s Dark Knight was often furious, insulting criminal scumbags and the system that spawned them while burning with indignation. Grant’s villains were dangerously delusional or further pushing society off the edge…. or both, like in the case of Scarface, the ill-tempered gangster who was either a psychotic ventriloquist or a demonic wooden dummy with a speech impediment:
After making a name for himself as one of the key voices of the irreverent British anthology series 2000 AD, Alan Grant arrived in Gotham City circa 1988. He penned a stupendous run on Detective Comics (#583-597, #601-621), at first co-written with his regular partner-in-crime, John Wagner, with hyperkinetic art by Norm Breyfogle. In late 1990, Grant moved to the more continuity-heavy Batman title, for which he did around twenty issues (mostly illustrated by Breyfogle) before being given a spin-off series (with various artists), Shadow of the Bat, entirely devoted to his brutal take on the Caped Crusader’s corner of the DC universe. Grant wrote that series until issue #82, in 1999, as well as a bunch of crossovers and specials throughout the nineties. The quality of his output became increasingly uneven, but there were odd gems right until the end.
Along the way, we got all sorts of deliriously tasteless comics, including disturbing tales of cannibalism and more dead kids than in Game of Thrones. From the onset, Alan Grant filled his scripts with macabre ideas and characters. Some of these caught on, like the serial killer Victor Zsasz or Jeremiah Arkham, the asylum director whose strategies for dealing with patients were dubious at best. Other characters remained mostly confined to Grant’s stories (perhaps because they were too eccentric to appeal to more reasonable writers), like the deranged debt collector Tally Man or the death-obsessed Mortimer Kadaver:
As you can probably tell by now, there is a strain of dark humor running through these comics (particularly the ones set in Arkham Asylum, a recurring location), but it never fully takes over the material. While Grant’s most purely comedic series can be quite dumb and lowbrow (Lobo, Robo-Hunter, his final arcs on The Demon), in his Batman work the humor tends to match the overall tone, set somewhere on the border between amusingly silly and downright sinister.
Indeed, the flashes of comedy shouldn’t be mistaken for irony. Like I said, there is an earnestness and committed bluntness to Alan Grant’s writing, whose raw power sometimes approaches that of Scottish anarcho-punk. Himself a self-professed anarchist, who in the mid-90s became a follower of Neo-Tech, Grant often treated Batman comics as a vehicle for his takes on philosophy and politics (by ‘vehicle,’ I mean bulldozer). This was especially the case in comics featuring his beloved creation, the vigilante Anarky.
Grant would often choose a specific theme and build the whole story around it, like an after school special. That month, every single character would end up engaging with the same topic, whether it was the notion of violence as entertainment (Detective Comics #596-597), the proliferation of garbage (Detective Comics #613), or hero worship (Batman #466). He occasionally came up with neat ways to frame the debate: in Shadow of the Bat #72, a writer goes around asking Gotham citizens about the meaning of life while Batman pursues a particularly grizzly case; in Shadow of the Bat #77, a teacher delivers a lecture about Darwin’s theory of evolution to the corpses of his dead students.
At his best, Alan Grant was able to blend his political and philosophical points into the series’ off-kilter vibe, but he didn’t always manage to avoid sounding preachy. One tale that bravely tried to walk that fine line was ‘An American Batman in London’ (one of several comics in which Grant took the Dark Knight to the UK). This wall-to-wall action romp starts out just like so many other stories featuring cardboard jihadi terrorists, yet halfway through it confronts Batman and the readers with the other side’s perspective:
The issue – cover-dated September 1988 – interestingly tries to offer a counterpoint to the many thrillers about Muslim villains coming out at the time (and still common today), with their one-sided, Islamophobic discourse… It also places this trend in a long tradition of simplistic public discourse about terrorism by setting the tale during Guy Fawkes Night. Yet the comic can be seen as becoming too much of a straightforward polemic, losing sight of what makes Batman stories so special.
The following issue, ‘Aborigine,’ was also pretty heavy-handed, although I would argue that it incorporated its critique of racism and colonialism in a more appealing way. In that swift-moving adventure, Batman faced a badass Indigenous Australian armed with spears and boomerangs on a bloody quest to recover an artifact from a Gotham exhibition. The result is goofy and weird and arguably offensive on many levels, but it’s also a lot of fun, even if Batman barely does anything significant in the story other than realize that not even he can stand in the way of historical justice…
I’m also a fan of that 1995 one-shot in which Alfred and Nightwing travel to the United Kingdom to stop a group of Eurosceptic aristocrats from staging a coup – a comic that feels oddly prescient in the current Brexit era (even if the villains’ plan involved blowing up the Channel Tunnel, so that British insurance companies would get hammered, the stock market would collapse, the pound would nosedive, and they could then basically buy the country… a slightly riskier route than the one the UKIP ended up taking!).
One topic kept coming up more than any other one in these comics: drugs. You can pick any random issue written by Alan Grant and starring the Dark Knight and it is more than likely to feature illegal substances and psychotropic trips at some point, often at the core of the story. Perhaps it’s not so surprising, given that Grant was living in the Scottland that gave birth to Trainspotting, but in any case you can see this trait right from the start: Grant’s very first issue was about an outbreak of designer drugs called Fever (for feverol trinitrite), highly addictive pills that gave users a power rush. From there, Grant went on to write about every weed and opiate in the book. Detective Comics #611 even introduced a new cocaine derivative, called ‘super-crack.’
Seriously, Grant’s Gotham City was overflowing with narcotics…
Even background characters couldn’t get enough of the stuff:
We got to follow reporters Vicki Vale and Horten Spence around, as they were actually assigned a news story on this issue:
Alan Grant’s drug comics have that mix of grim outrage and shamelessly trashy entertainment you find in exploitation movies like Coffy and Class of 1984. It’s not just that the Caped Crusader spends much of his time beating up dope pushers and dealers, it’s the fact that they can be as hysterically over-the-top as everything else. In Detective Comics #608, punk rock star Johnny Vomit gets his ass kicked for smuggling smack in his guitar. In Shadow of the Bat #32, Scarface ruthlessly goes after a competing drug lord by cutting his heroin with strychnine, thus killing dozens of helpless junkies in order to ruin the guy’s reputation. Later, there was an unbelievably ridiculous storyline in which the Floronic Man, after having been beheaded at the climax of Mark Millar’s Swamp Thing run, came back as a grass-themed supervillain:
What else can I say? I wouldn’t want all my readings to feel like this, but Alan Grant’s works are the kind of pure, uncut stuff that gets me high on Batman comics (just to stick to Grant’s favorite imagery)… They can be hectic and gritty and borderline sadistic. They can feature a ham-fisted lecture or gloriously awful junk fiction. They can show the Dark Knight at his coolest, kicking butt and taking names, or just wrap up with Batman downtrodden by the cruel society around him, having let another villain get away or yet another kid die in vain. Or maybe you’ll get a corny final splash with the Caped Crusader framed between an eagle’s head and an US flag while thinking about the importance of making sure every child has a chance, regardless of background. In any case, you can be damn sure you’re in for a ride, with verve and panache to spare. It’s like every page is screaming: if you want subtlety, fuck off and go look for it somewhere else!