I've recently re-read the entirety of Grant Morrison's Batman epic, and it's really quite something read together like that. It's a compulsive read, deconstructing, reconstructing, and celebrating the world of Batman, and it keeps building on ideas and themes taken from even the first story 60 issues ago. The amount of content he's able to pack into every issue is commendable as well; there's rarely an issue you read and think you're waiting for the good stuff to show up because this one's a little slow. It shifts tones from ugly, dark and gritty to colorful, funny adventures and everything in-between. There's some bum issues here or there, and I don't have the intention to ever read a Tony Daniel/Philip Tan-drawn issue of anything again, but there's so much good stuff here it's hard to complain about the bad. I came up with a top ten list so far, feel free to chime in with your own favorites:
10. Time and the Batman (Batman #700)
This issue focuses on three time periods, old school Batman and Robin, new school Batman and Robin, and 666 Damian Batman, with a mysterious Professor Nichols and his unconventional death tying them all together. The story isn't without it's faults, as some unfortunate artistic errors confuse the story more than it should(why is there a bullet hole on future Nichols, Kubert!?), and I HATE that Quitely couldn't even be bothered to finish his little eight page story, so while we got one great lookin' fight sequence with B&R vs the Mutants, Scott Kolins does some bizarre artwork that completely robs what should be some instantly iconic montage panels of their power. But even these blunders can't shake the story's entertainment value, which is full of the wacky ideas and great dialog that has become a hallmark of this series. My particular favorite being the beginning story, where we find Batman avoiding flaming arrows from Egyptian royal guards, and Joker screaming for Nichols to get him out of there("The crucifixion! The Children's Crusade! Vietnam! JUST SEND ME SOMEWHERE FUNNY!"). This is a very apt anniversary story, and it gets to a central theme of Morrison's run, which is a celebration of Batman in all his many forms. Whether it's Bruce, Dick, Damian, Terry, or someone else entirely, the point is clear: where there is evil, there will be Batman.
9. Batman and Son (Batman #655-658)
The story that started this entire Bat-Epic is a very good one(for the most part), and probably the most conventional of the entire run. And by "conventional", we mean "Morrison conventional", which means it opens with Gordon falling off a building laughing himself to death, Joker killing Batman(in front of a bunch of disabled kids!), said Batman waking up to shoot him in the face! The story actually improves upon re-reads now that most of Morrison's run is out there; so many of the ideas Grant would go on to develop start here: Zurr-En-Arrh, his evolution of the Joker, Damian, Talia, Jezebel Jet, etc. Andy Kubert draws this one, and although I have a preference for Adam as far as Kuberts go, Andy does a great job with this one. The standout issue for him(and this story) being, of course, the big art museum issue of #656. The juxtaposition between the on-panel action and the background art plays brilliantly, and Andy's action storytelling chops on full force with Batman vs the ninja manbats("an alarming twist!" gets me every time). Despite all the craziness of ninja bat commandos or giant Bat-rockets, some of the best material in story is just some of the characters interacting. Morrison has a GREAT Alfred, maybe the best I've read; his interplay with Bruce is consistently hilarious and on-point. Jezebel Jet makes a strong impression from the very first panel, as she and Bruce shares an instant, very charming chemistry. Things would end badly for Jezebel, but right here she's wonderful.
So there's a lot of good(I didn't even get to mention a lot of the Damian stuff I liked), but the main reason it's down here on the list is that weak sauce ending. Talia's motivation for her entire scheme is so weak, so wafer-thin, it makes the entire premise seem unearned and flaccid. That inconclusive sudden ending didn't do it any favors, either. It's a very good Batman story before that, but the bad ending always leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth after reading it.
8. Batman and Robin Reborn (B&R #1-3)
I remember the hype for this story. Morrison/Quitely, one of the greatest creative teams in the history of the medium, kicking off a new era of Batman. I could not WAIT to get my hands on this damn book. It's one of the few floppies I own, since I had to have the book immediately. Now, in 2012, divorced from the hype, "Batman Reborn" is a very entertaining Batman story, although I'm not quite sure it's a great one.
Batman and Robin's tone and atmosphere is one of it's greatest strengths, a mix of Adam West 1960s Batman kitsch with David Lynch bizarre darkness. Gotham is a neon city of high life and oddities, all day-glo colors and fast movement. Dialog is terse, concise, and sharp, the story barreling ahead at 120 MPH. Not a line of dialog is wasted, and sometimes it's even less than that. Fight scenes are incredibly choreographed, some of the best I've ever seen, fused with character drama, with actual sound effects coming out of the environment(Damian gets thrown into a wall, the cracks in the wall spells "SMASH") and unique panel layouts keeping it interesting. Pyg is fully introduced here, and he's got to be one of my terrifying and weird new Batman rogues of the past decade, his bizarre ramblings and disgusting behavior even Damian can't stand("Dude...you just redefined 'wrong'.")
It's not all fun and games though; the strongest emotional cords are hit in the middle issue, with Dick and Alfred's conversation about how to be Batman. Dick tries to be Bruce, and it's just not working. He's constantly overshadowed and burdened by the presence of the Batsuit(there's this REALLY great panel where his face is obscured in darkness, with the bat ears over his head), and Alfred gives him this perfect answer of how to think of Batman, as a role like the next James Bond. "The show must go on". It's a perfect bit of storytelling economy and characterization.
But the price of all this high-speed adventure means things may go a little TOO fast, TOO hypercompressed. There's one tendency of Grant that I don't like, when he breaks a part a sentence to show how fast the characters are moving. "Get" in one panel, "Him!" the next. I get what he's trying to do, but I don't think it translates well into a comic book, especially if you're like me and like to look at the panel for a few seconds before moving on to the next one. There's also another element that affects several of Morrison's arcs, where he adds an extraneous doomsday element to give the story bigger stakes, but doesn't really develop it. The Doll-o-tron bomb/disease plot is undercooked and underdramatized, a big bad event that kinda happens in the peripheral, and you rarely get a sense that it's this big deal that affects all of Gotham. More over, which this change to concise, fast storytelling, a lot of the depth fans enjoyed about the first act of Morrison Bat-epic isn't here. Pyg rambling aside, there's not too much to pick out and think about for annotations.
So a little too pedal to the medal that it misses a lot of the scenery, but it doesn't stop this story from being a damn fine example of what pop superhero comic storytelling can be: inventive, humorous, exciting, and heartfelt.