The Hidden Casket of Immortality (Book Three, Part 29: American Scream, Batman
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Peter Milligan, once he broke out at DC in earnest, did so on a number of fronts, including taking over Animal Man from Grant Morrison. The core text, however, remains Shade the Changing Man.
“Barbatos will lead us to the hidden casket of immortality and life eternal. All is prepared for the ceremony of the bat.” -Grant Morrison, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne
Back on the book on which the bulk of Milligan’s reputation was ultimately built, meanwhile, Milligan settled into someting of a status quo, which Milligan finally slows down to explain in the fourth issue, which sees Shade trapped in the Area of Madness following his confrontation with the Kennedy assassination. Here he confronts the American Scream in the form of a skeletal Uncle Sam, and recalls his life back on Meta, where he was a hopelessly romantic child—“a little martyr, a poet trickster. I used to stare at flowers, rage at death, cry at sunsets.” He was from there recruited by Wizor to become a Changing Man, sent to learn about Earth, and eventually given the Madness Vest. This both serves to finally fill in some of the comic’s backstory, which had previously largely been glossed over by a confused and uncertain Shade, and as the impetus to slightly redesign the character to look less like Troy Grenzer, giving him instead a mop of red hair and an ostentatious mod jacket adorned by what would become the character’s trademark design, a bevy of monochrome bullseye designs. This established a sort of core thematic engine for the book, with Shade as a mod poet confronting the dark madness of America.
This, of course, paralleled the underlying creative reality of the book, which was that it was written by a British man who was seeking to comment on America for an American audience. In many ways this constituted a significant evolution of the already successful perspective offered by the Kennedy two-parter. There Milligan had succeeded with a sort of intellectual detachment, like a scientist studying a specimen. Here, however, Milligan allies himself with something more romantic—a competing (and, it must be noted, distinctly British) vision of madness that Milligan is presenting as a tonic to the American one. It is difficult not to read this as, at least in part, a claim about the British invasion writers at large.
Milligan put this perspective to use in the next arc, another two-parter this time focusing on Hollywood. Much of the arc was muddied and unsatisfying—a broad satire of Hollywood cliches that cast too wide a net to say anything too interesting. Nevertheless, it gets through on an ecstatically clever reveal in which, after a lengthy “who is the American Scream possessing to cause all this chaos” plot, the answer turns out to be a movie camera that is trapping the characters in “a kind of crazy, illogical, multi-layered movie” based purely on cinematic tropes and the visual language of film, utterly untethered to any human concern or sense of narrative and purpose. It’s a stunningly ambitious reveal—one whose implications are in many ways made all the more powerful by the fact that they cannot possibly be explored in the back half of the second issue of a two-part American comics story.
This basic pattern continues, allowing Milligan to provide a sort of travelogue of American obsessions as perceived by an Englishman. This is done with a frisson of outsider perspective that ensures the book is never lacking insight. Indeed, even the basic path traced by his interests is revealing: serial killers, JFK, Hollywood, homelessness, the failure of the hippies, suburban puritanism, domestic violence. It’s a strange and compelling list, especially when compared directly to its nearest equivalent, Alan Moore’s American Gothic arc in Swamp Thing, which came to far less interesting conclusions about the dark subconscious of America.
In practice some of Milligan’s storytelling lets him down—the domestic violence issue, for instance, despite some charmingly bonkers guest art from Bryan Talbot in which Shade steadily grows insect legs out of his head ultimately lets itself down with a late decision to blame the victim of domestic violence for killing her abuser while defending herself. Others, however, shine—the treatment of hippies makes a perceptive diagnosis of the narcissism that in practice underlied the bulk of utopian psychedelia. And the story about American puritanism is a delightful triumph hinging on the late reveal of a basement S&M machine. On the whole the stories are both pleasantly inventive and show real insight into the pathologies of the American psyche.
A second strand of narrative through the larger American Scream arc focused on Troy Grenzer, whose consciousness continued to exist within Shade and begins periodically repossessing his body. This arc was largely less successful, poisoned by a jaw-droppingly ill-considered decision on Milligan’s part to have Grenzer rape Kathy by having sex with her while in control of Shade’s body. (“I didn’t think it’d be so good… you were wilder than I thought you’d be,” she says to Shade later, a line so egregiously awful as to morally implicate everyone who continued to buy the book the next month.) That the next issue sees Kathy going into rehab for alcoholism—a plot point that is entirely unrelated to her being raped by her parents’ serial killer (which Shade doesn’t even tell her about until further along)—tips the book into a sort of wincing misery porn of the sort that highlights the worst aspects of the idea of “comics for adults.”
On the other hand the same issues see the establishment of a third main character in the book, Lenny. Introduced a few issues earlier in the hippies arc, Lenny is an openly queer and deeply sardonic bon vivant who befriends Kathy and, subsequently, Shade and adds a solid dose of both blunt pragmatism and emotional drama to proceedings. An early highlight comes when Lenny joins Shade inside his own subconscious as he confronts Grenzer and Grenzer’s own inner demons; her reaction is to ask if there’s a bathroom, reasoning that “whenever I’m in a situation that’s getting beyond my experience I try to orient myself by finding a bathroom. Bathrooms are great levelers, Shade.” (She subsequently resolves the situation by pointing out that Grenzer’s demons are presumably a bigger problem for him than they are for Shade and Kathy.) This underlying dynamic was a strong one—for all the problems in the book’s treatment of Kathy, it still stood out among the books of its era for centering a female relationship, albeit among the sidekicks instead of the title character. It also made the book one driven, at its heart, by character relations.
The American Scream story resolved in issue #18, a year and a half into the book’s run—a long time for a single plot arc in a comic, and certainly longer than any of the book’s other stati quo. The resolving arc ran over four issues, and was similarly outsized—no other sub-arc of the American Scream phase took over three issues. For all its scope, however, the resolution was unsatisfying in key ways. After a surrealist Old West style gunfight that provided cool visuals without really feeling like it was a meaningful way to conceptualize facing down the symbolic essence of American madness the comic dives full force into the mythology of Meta, such that the American Scream’s defeat takes place on a different plane of reality to America—a fundamentally unsatisfying way to resolve the thematic concerns that were often the book’s biggest strength. Worse, Shade spends the entire arc separated from Kathy and Lenny, with Kathy having a separate arc in which she discovers Grenzer’s rape of her and decides to return to her uncle’s house in Montana to contemplate whether she still wants to be with Shade. This probably constituted as good a resolution as the plot point could have—at the end of the day there’s no graceful recovery from “raped by your parents’ serial killer possessing the body of the main character.” Nevertheless, it left Kathy on the periphery of the plot—a mistake the book would make more than once, and never with good results.
By the time the eighteen month American Scream arc wrapped, Milligan had become an established part of the American comics scene, and through a route that no one else in the early wave of British invasion creators took. In October of 1991, the month that Shade the Changing Man #18 came out, Milligan was the writer on both Batman and Detective Comics. This was part of an association with the Batman line that stretched back to June of 1990, dead in the middle of his first issues of Shade the Changing Man and Animal Man. That Milligan had three projects emerge essentially simultaneously makes clear that DC did not view Skreemer as some sort of expensive flop so much as a fascinating oddity—a work of obvious talent that it was not immediately clear how best to harness. Where Milligan’s other two 1990 debuts responded to the problem by returning to the basic template for the British Invasion crowd, putting him on Batman showed a different sort of thought. Skreemer, after all, was a weird and thoughtful gangster comic; if Milligan could do noir like that, why not give him their iconic noir character?
This immediately served to put Milligan in a different class than his contemporaries; nobody in 1990 was talking about putting Morrison or Gaiman on one of the core DC titles, nor had Moore over his five years at the company been offered an ongoing book more prestigious than Swamp Thing. And it immediately put Milligan in a different sales bracket to anyone else; Batman and Detective Comics both sold at least four times what the bulk of the Berger-edited books were selling. This foreshadowed in many ways the fundamentally different direction Milligan’s larger career would take; although he continued doing independent projects under what became Vertigo throughout the 90s and early 00s, his career eventually saw him become the sort of jobber who makes a career of throwaways like DC’s Red Lanterns book or Marvel’s The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix.
Milligan’s Batman stories are in many ways a document of him learning to play this latter role. His first Batman story, a three-parter in Batman entitled “Dark Knight, Dark City” that filled the gap between the Marv Wolfman and Alan Grant runs. (Grant is in many ways the forgotten man of the British Invasion, making the jump in 1987 and independently of Berger and staying almost entirely in DC’s mainstream superhero line instead of forking off into Vertigo.) This was an acclaimed and well-loved story, and marks Milligan’s largest mark on the character given that Grant Morrison used a key element of it in their extended Batman run. Milligan’s story concerns longtime Batman villain the Riddler, reimagined as a callous and murderous psychopath. This is gradually revealed to be because he’s demonically possessed by Barbathos, a demon bound beneath Gotham City. The Riddler’s absurd and dark chain of riddles are in the climax revealed to be a complex plot to trick Batman into a series of otherwise unlikely actions that will ritually prepare him to be sacrificed so that Barbathos can be bound and controlled. Instead, however, Barbathos seizes control, sending the Riddler fleeing as it reveals its role in Batman’s creation, explaining how it is “the city that modeled you, that shaped you, whose darkness and desolation is in your soul,” demanding that Batman free it.
“Dark Knight, Dark City” is a clever story, and one that reflects Milligan’s desire to explore “the relationship between Gotham City and Batman… how Gotham is a character in itself, as important and Batman, The Joker or, indeed, The Riddler.” But the oblique unapproachability of Milligan’s other work is still firmly in place here. The story is brilliant without ever quite being engaging, holding the reader at arm’s length as it conducts a demonstration of its own cleverness. Milligan’s presence in the text seems fundamentally allied to the Riddler—the puppetmaster alternately advertising his own intelligence and his capacity for a savage horror. This is not to say that the story does not work—its status as a classic is straightforwardly deserved. But it still sits at a sort of cross-purposes with DC’s mainline superhero books, austere and largely uninterested in populist instincts.
Subsequently Milligan began a brief run as the main writer of Detective Comics, penning nine issues in the space of about a year. These begin with a similar sort of unapproachability to “Dark Knight, Dark City,” but gradually move towards something very different. The first, “The Hungry Grass,” is built out of an interpolation of the Irish folk myth of the same name—a patch of grass that curses whoever crosses it with insatiable hunger—this time with grass that drives people to a despairing fit of violent madness. It’s an impressive concept, but an awful lot to establish in twenty-two pages. His second story, “And The Executioners Wore Stiletto Heels,” sets up a neat mechanic in which Batman has to decide what to do with an escaped criminal facing the death penalty given his firm rule against killing—a clever hook that Milligan adorns with interestingly strange ideas like an assassin named Two Tone who’s a biracial set of cojoined twins. But the story still feels like it has one twist too many, all fit into a mildly nonlinear narrative that makes a simple story with a good final reveal (Batman turned the criminal over but is relieved that he escaped custody) more baroque than quite serves it. [continued]
November 9, 2021 @ 8:37 pm
When I was younger and more interested in superheroes, I had the idea for a Doctor Who/Batman crossover fan-fic that would reveal a demonic force responsible for Gotham’s ghoulish qualities. I should have known someone had beaten me to the idea.