Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Week 30: The Panopticon in the Empty Quarter

Over at the always-enlightening 52 Covers Blog at Wizard, J.G. Jones sets me straight on what's up with the covers and solicitations. (J.G., if you're reading this, thanks for the correction.) This week's cover might be my favorite one of the series so far, actually--I'm glad Jones went back and changed it from the bat-shadow sketch he shows to this fantastically resonant composition. As he notes, it's a riff on St. Michael spearing the devil. Besides the image in the Wizard blog, see this one--it's shown up on the back of coins, in stained-glass windows, you name it. And the eye in the sky is the "all-seeing eye" of God that's usually used in a similarly iconic way; Ichorskeeter over at the Newsarama Forums pointed out this example.

Speaking of the all-seeing eye, let's talk about the Panopticon for a minute. No, not the one that's the Crime Syndicate of America's headquarters here, although it's what that one is named for (and by the way I'm hoping you all read Superman/Batman Annual #1 a couple of weeks ago, since not only does it involve alternate worlds and the Crime Syndicate, it's also the best issue of Deadpool since this one).

The Panopticon, in its more classical sense, is a kind of prison invented by Jeremy Bentham, in which all the prisoners are being watched all the time--or, rather, in which all the prisoners know that they could be being observed all the time, and don't know when they actually are or aren't. Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish is partly about how the Panopticon is a useful metaphor for contemporary systems of social organization--pervasive observation and documentation as a way of keeping society in line.

Batman, of course, can think of nothing more suitable than a perfectly orderly, rule-based society: superheroes of all kinds generally fight menaces to the social order, but Batman in particular is much more interested in criminals as such--people who deliberately break formal, documented rules--than in other kinds of social, physical or spiritual disasters. (On reflection, a lot of his more interesting enemies are criminals whose own personal "codes" are very specific rules: Two-Face and his coin-flipping decisions between "good" and "evil," the Riddler and his compulsion to leave clues, the Mad Hatter and his advice column.) The "Crime Bible" plot of 52 mostly seems to tie into the Montoya/Question/Batman-in-absentia thread, which makes sense.

The line from this issue that jumped out at me was Tim's "I don't know why nobody's saying it"--as in Week 27, there are a few crucial names that everyone's dancing around saying this week. The first of them is the all-seeing eye that's closest to Bruce's recent history: OMAC.

The old JLA's "monitor duty," which I was talking about last week, is all about surveillance; the original OMAC's satellite advisor Brother Eye was occasionally rumored to be a reconfigured version of the '70s-era JLA's satellite. The pre-Infinite Crisis Batman has gone from being interested in information (I remember some old Robin story where Dick mentions that Batman trained him to automatically memorize every license plate number he sees; anybody want to identify it?) to obsessed with watching everybody else all the time, hence Brother I and the OMAC project, as well as his reliance (for a while) on Oracle. Which is another great thing about this issue's theme (and cover): now the all-seeing eye is watching him.

The idea of a Ten-Eyed Man isn't new to Batman--I'm betting Grant Morrison ran across him when he was researching the Man-Bat arc in Batman, since the original one only appeared here and then here and again here--in the second and final issue of Man-Bat's original series--and was killed off near the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths, which is kind of funny since he'd already been killed off in his previous appearance.

But I suspect that Bruce's sequence in this issue is best understood as what's going on in his internal landscape, rather than a literal, physical conflict: the "empty quarter" really is empty, no matter what his all-seeing eyes may try to find there. The actual Empty Quarter, besides providing the title for a good book of experimental fiction by Sharon Mesmer, is a huge desert, the Rub' al Khali, covering a gigantic area in the Arabian Peninsula.

So why would Bruce go there for his personal psychodrama? Maybe because that's the region of the world he associates with his "evil self"--the other name that nobody utters this issue. Ra's Al Ghul really was Batman's dark mirror image in a way that even the Joker isn't--a man of reason who honored and respected Bruce's skill; a father-in-law who tried to replace Bruce's absent father (Morrison's been playing with this theme some in his Batman); a man who cheated death instead of avoiding it; a killer who thinks that the ordinary people Bruce wants to protect from "crime" should die for the greater good. Batman used to be uncomfortable with any kind of "greater good" scenario, but the whole OMAC disaster was him finally yielding to that idea. No wonder he wants to purge himself of it.

The question of fathers and sons also opens up the worm-can of whether Bruce thinks of Batman as a dynasty, or maybe even as an office--if he's training them to be heroes or training them to be him, and if Dick wants to "graduate" to being Batman in the first place, which he pretty clearly doesn't. Hence Dick's sotto voce "I can't believe he'd do this to me," and the startling suggestion that as a young Robin he thought of his relationship with Batman as little brother-big brother rather than the son-father relationship Tim has with Bruce.

Not much to annotate as such this week, but a few things to point out:

Pg. 2: I don't know if this was an actual story, but the enormous art supplies are a nifty nod to Bill Finger's fondness for giant props.

Pg. 3: Taking off from the previous page's take on the Robin-Goes-To-College issue and "A Death in the Family," these six panels survey "The Killing Joke," "Knightfall," "No Man's Land," "Hush," Tim's father's improbable death in "Identity Crisis," and what looks like Bruce drawing a bead on Alex Luthor near the end of "Infinite Crisis," except that somebody who looks a little like Eric Idle has been substituted for Alex.

Pg. 5: A quick question on the title: can anyone document any instance of Batman being called a "Dark Knight" before Frank Miller? I know in the '70s he was the "Darknight Detective" in plenty of captions, but I always read that as "Dark Night."

Pg. 7: Guess Charlie's now too sick to travel; I figured they were going back to Nanda Parbat, but it sure looks like that Gotham toe-tag in a couple of weeks belongs to him.

Pg. 9: He approves of her meditating, I see.

Pg. 10: I love how Kirbytech always looks like Kirbytech--it's the zigzag part near the lower right of that panel that really does it. And Cain is the "maker of martyrs"? Is Abel the patron martyr of the Cain-cult? The House of Secrets Abel?

Pg. 18: Dick does indeed have a thing for redheads, and I'm wondering when we're going to find out what happened in the six months between his engagement to Barbara and his attempting to hit on a woman who's in the middle of beating up Wonder Wart-Hog (with that "party with the models in Cannes" somewhere in there).

The Origin of the Metal Men: I really like how lively Rouleau's art is here; if I have one nitpick, it's that the "essential storylines" don't include the mid-'70s Steve Gerber "Doc goes mad" period that 52's been referencing right and left.


At 10:34 PM, Blogger raphaeladidas said...

Um, all the links go to a Tomb Raider cover. Disturbing.

I don't really have anything to say about this issue except I was expecting more Batman.

Over Thanksgiving, I reread the first half of the series and out of curiosity decided to figure out the "screen time" all the main characters have received so far.

Supernova: 22 pages
Luthor: 28
space heroes: 48
Steel: 49
Booster Gold: 53 (through #15)
Ralph: 57
The Question: 67
Black Adam: 74
Montoya: 86

At 6:38 AM, Blogger Squashua said...

I know in the '70s he was the "Darknight Detective" in plenty of captions, but I always read that as "Dark Night."

That's odd, I always read that as "Dar Knight".

At 9:21 AM, Blogger Austin said...

I'm not sure I agree about the Empty Quarter being an entirely internal, spiritual type struggle. There's the one frame as Robin approaches that seems to be from his point of view (the Bat-fourby is in the fourground) and shows five guys in keffiyeh facing the center of a circle, which suggested to me that Robin saw Bruce surrounded by the ten-eyed warriors.

At 9:22 AM, Blogger Austin said...

urg, foreground, even

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Squashua said...


Scroll Down to the Third Post.

Boggles the mind.


At 10:02 AM, Blogger webrunner said...

On "Dark Knight" I actually recently read through Comic Book Resources' urban legends column and found this:

Dark Knight, spelled like that, appeared in Detective Comics #40.

At 11:35 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Isn't panel 4, page 3 actually referencing the return of Jason Todd as the Red Hood, rather than HUSH?

At 11:59 AM, Blogger Squashua said...

Better than that, explain why there is a Batman holding Time Drake in front of his dead father while another Batman looks on from the reader's perspective?

At 3:18 PM, Blogger raphaeladidas said...

"Time" Drake? Typing error, OR SOMETHING MORE?!?

Interesting about Beetle seeing as how the scarab seems to scare the crap out of the power rings and the Guardians are so interested in 52.

At 3:21 PM, Blogger raphaeladidas said...

And as far as the Identity Crisis panel goes, who's holding Batman's head? Is it Jason Todd from the previous panel?

At 8:17 AM, Blogger Michael Nicolai said...

Concerning the new Blue Beetle: Wasn't he missing for the entire year? I want to shrug it off as coincidence, but 52 and BB are linked by Kieth Giffen.

The "Batman in the foreground of every flashback" was really confusing. When did Batman shoot Alex Luthor?

Were they serious when they talked about putting together a book of all the covers? I would pick one up in a heartbeat.

At 1:01 PM, Blogger Jeff R. said...

One should note that it's possible that the Nightwing who meets up with Batwoman is Jason Todd, rather than Dick Grayson. The Newsarama interview this week goes out of its way to be cagey on one question just to keep that possibility alive...

At 2:44 PM, Blogger raphaeladidas said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger raphaeladidas said...

The book of covers idea has only been mentioned in passing, I think, and not officially announced. But I'm certain it'll happen.

Cully Hamner said the 52 on Beetle was a coincidence. And then implied that maybe it wasn't. I'm actually kinda leaning towards coincidence, but who knows?

At 9:29 PM, Blogger Papa Bear said...

Bats didn't shoot Alex Luthor. During Infinite Crisis he came very close to putting a round in Alex's noggin, but managed to stop himself.

And a little while later the Joker, piqued at being left out of the festivities and urged on by Lex Luthor, blew Alex's head off in an alley.

At 12:20 PM, Blogger Jamie Ott said...

That's an awfully close coincidence for me.

And I'm with you, Jeff, I believe that we saw Jason Todd as Nightwing in Gotham and that Dick was on his way to New York.


At 2:05 PM, Blogger KingUnbeliever said...

I thought that OYL Nightwing that Dick Grayson was still not 100% from the injury from Alex's bolt of energy. It seemed like he was in tip top shape here in week 30...

At 3:00 PM, Blogger Kaizer - John Harvey said...

Bruce Jones = Hack without a clue. I'm more than happy to disregard anything in that run.

At 5:20 PM, Blogger Tom Bondurant said...

I'm going to guess that Dick's license-plate anecdote comes from a 1989-90 issue of New Titans where he begins teaching Tim Drake the rudiments of detective work. Can't remember the precise number, although it would have been in the late 50s/early 60s.

Also, Kate Kane's highrise looks a heckuva lot like the old Wayne Foundation building from the 1970s, where Bruce and Alfred (and sometimes Dick) lived after Dick went to college. They all moved back to Wayne Manor in the early '80s, just before meeting Jason Todd. If Kate's related to Bruce through Martha Wayne, it would make sense that she'd be staying in a Wayne property.

At 8:47 AM, Blogger Emmet Matheson said...

I don't know if it's worth making a new comment now that a new issue is out, but I didn't make it to the comic shop last week...

Another thing about the cover that I found striking was the similarity between Batman's pose and this classic image:


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