Tougher – Better
You are much stronger than you think…

Peter Milligan’s one hell of a writer…

Many moons ago I started off this little project with the hope of exploring characterizations of Batman throughout various eras.  I settled on a rather small snippet culled from a 90’s run of Detective Comics by one Peter Milligan.

That's one hell of a cover image

Milligan’s career has shown some remarkable legs (as a quick jaunt to wikipedia can tell you) and I was truly impressed with his handling of the Dark Knight Detective.  In hindsight it’s easy to see that a lot of his best writing was internal – compressed packets of hard boiled sentiment that cut to the core of how Bruce Wayne reconciled and experienced the world through the guise of Batman.

It’s something I wish more modern writers would get right.

On its face #630 is a straight up procedural with some nice twists and turns.  A signature of Milligan’s was his avoidance of “name” villains (outside of the Best of Class Riddler tale “Dark Knight / Dark City” which is currently in vogue due to the creation in its pages of the demon Barbatos.  Barbatos is getting some small play in the current Return of Bruce Wayne arc.  You may have heard about it.  Ahem).  At any rate, Milligan here taps a recently released and easy to empathize with hit-man to play foil (Stiletto aka Saul Calvino).

Calvino works on a certain level as a “might have been” Bruce Wayne.  He’s suave, preternaturally persuasive, and good at his job – which was to execute mob players for money.  He’s got the right targets – just the wrong methods.  That always makes for some good Bruce angst.

To play the heavy Milligan brings in Two-Tone, a character he introduces as a sizzling pile of dead guy(s). It’s a flashback set-up and Two-tone has been killed for botching one too many jobs.  Oh, did I forget to mention he’s a giant bi-racial siamese twin type?  Well, it’s out there now.  He and (look, I’m just going to refer to Two-tone in the singular.  It’ll help me) Batman do get in to it and wonder of wonders Two-tone takes it to our boy Batman to the tune of a disgustingly illustrated Jim Aparo broken jaw.  It’s just a big ugly welt and man, did I love it.

Ouch!

This comic had no less than six (SIX!) scenarios in which Batman got the short end of the stick when it gets physical or otherwise.

Sure, there were extenuating circumstances but still:

1) He’s too late to save Stiletto’s former sidekick from a brutal and creative death at the hands of Two-tone.

2) He gets blown up real good as a result.

3) He mis-interprets said sidekick’s dying clue for a good 6-8 hours which allows Two-tone to reap more carnage.

4) He gets swerved by the slimy, stuttering, one off CIA agent (Who invests this level of character in a one time appearance? A great little bit of craft from Milligan there.).

5) He gets his jaw busted by Two-tone after leaving himself open…to be fair he was busy saving an innocent little girl from a falling luggage rack (alright, not everything can be  Shakespeare).

6) Stiletto saves him from getting shot.

7) Stiletto then gets the drop on him prompting Batman to think the following, “He was so swift, so sure, it was almost painless…almost a privilege.” Oh, does Batman hate himself for thinking that one.  You can tell he really starts grinding his teeth at this point.  Seething at his own litany of failures.

8.) Two-tone gets him one more time while Batman and Stiletto are having a moment about what makes them different and rams the bus they’re on into the river.

Batman and Stiletto die.

No, wait, Batman pulls it out, creates an air pocket with his cape and swims them both to the surface!  Whew!

But after that trainwreck you’d be forgiven for thinking he might have bought it.

And that, my friends, is kind of the point.

I’ve read the other issues of Milligan’s work and it’s largely from this cloth.  Batman takes a whipping, a positive whipping. Even the villains who you would think have no chance against Bats (One turns out to be an insane librarian who has a vendetta against the Dewey Decimal System) are portrayed as dangerous threats.  Unhinged personalities who represent the twisted wreckage of life in Gotham City.

Batman is human here.  Often portrayed in quieter moments with mask off – he is constantly with Alfred (his safety net) being patched up and ministered to both physically and psychologically.  Gone is the uber-bat who has conceived of every trap and has secret files on how to disable Superman with a paperclip.

Say hello to the human version of Batman

In a recent article with CBR Milligan gave a pretty definite idea of what he thinks Batman represents and it meshes beautifully with this issue.

He can be a vehicle to write fun dark stories about urban craziness or you can really dig deep into troubled psychological territory. It seems that though he was created some years ago he can really stand as an everyman for our own new age of anxiety.

It’s that bit about the everyman that really hit it for me.  To me, Batman works best when he is a highly skilled man who practices his craft with diligence and adheres to a strict moral code.  When you take this man and make him the ultimate man he becomes just another vehicle of escapism and violence.  He becomes Superman wearing a shroud.  Batman stands apart because he faces and exceeds his limits, yes.  Knowing that he will exceed those limits because we are told he’s the baddest man to ever live takes away the magic.

It takes away the “you ‘n me.”

Batman’s modern iteration works best when you can stretch the bounds right to the breaking point.  I mean, for Milligan to say he’s an everyman is stretching it but when he takes his lumps, makes mistakes, falls down, gets his ass handed to him, and STILL gets up to make it work…if you squint a bit you can almost believe he’s just a man.

What would you do faced with an army of giggling killers and fiends who you barely comprehend chomping at the bit to destroy life and society?

Or let me put it to you another way — The way that makes it easier to subconsciously buy into this Batman.

What would you do faced with a growing uncertainty about the life you’ve made for yourself?  The choices that have brought you to this point?  A mortgage with a bad interest rate?  High credit card debt?  A failed marriage?  Or if you’re younger a bully?  Bad grades?  Nobody likes you?

It’s one thing to escape into capes, heat vision, and god like powers.  It’s another to escape into a thinker, a scrappy fighter, a guy who takes his lumps but through will determination and focus overcomes it all and you SEE him sweat for it.

Whatever you’ve got going on…go sweat it out.

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One Response to “Peter Milligan’s one hell of a writer…”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this piece since I read it yesterday, Mr S. What I like about it is that it takes the two approaches that you use in your pieces and combines them very effectively. I always enjoy blogs, as you know, which help me understand why the writer enjoys a particular character or book. But the care by which you also take the evidence of a single issue really focused my attention too. The single panel you scanned of Batman/Bruce Wayne hitting his head is, of course, so appropriate to your argument, and so interesting in itself, because it is indeed Batman as a human being. I am so incredibly weary of Batman as a Terminator-level “unstoppable” creature, because as you intimate, it destroys the fun of the premise that he’s a man with a mission who will not give in. But just because he won’t give in doesn’t mean that he must be unstaoppable!

    Having said that. I’m not sure that I can warm to a Batman who’s as regularly slapped around and as human as THIS, mind you, but the whole piece has made me wonder whether I read the Milligan issues with the right frame of mind. I think I was put off by the historical figures he associated with some vile acts in DK/DC”; I thought that was a dubious use of the author’s privilage, or I least I think I did; perhaps my memory fails me. But this does make me think that I ought to take another look at the material.


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