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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Panel Vision - Batman Incorporated's Nightmares in Numberland

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Edited by Robert Beach

At the time of writing, Barbara Gordon is back in the news thanks to the complete bungling of The Killing Joke’s animated feature, and we’re all joking about the new film Nerve, a cyber-thriller about Internet dares; the time is right to revisit Batman Inc.  Batman Inc. was a 23-issue comic run from superstar author Grant Morrison that closed off his run on Batman.
It’s one of my all-time favorite Batman comics and probably the best Batman book of the decade. I’m not going to be reviewing the comic in full, mainly because the first eight issues are neatly broken up into individual short stories. I only need to focus on one to fulfill my pathological desire to be topical, a Batman and Oracle team-up comic entitled ‘Nightmares in Numberland.’

First, a little background: before Batman Inc., Bruce Wayne had been lost in time after defending Earth from an invasion by alien gods (roll with it). In his absence, Dick Grayson took over the role of Batman while Bruce’s son Damian Wayne became the new Robin. When Bruce returned, rather than reclaim the mantel or return to business as usual in Gotham City, he had different plans in mind. 

While lost in time, Bruce had glimpsed the future, a future in which Damian became Batman and Gotham had been destroyed, first by a Joker Virus then by a nuclear explosion to fight the contamination. Seeking to avert the oncoming crisis as well as its herald, a sinister new supervillain terrorist organization known as Leviathan, Bruce launched Batman Incorporated, an effort to enfranchise Batman-esque crime fighters across the globe. 

More or less an extension of an old Silver Age concept Morrison had revived called the Batmen of All Nations, it was still a nifty idea and a great example of how to use the “coming storm” narrative well. This is a common trope in superheroes when someone tells the hero “a storm’s coming” to foreshadow some greater menace only for the hero to do nothing till the storm breaks. Batman Inc. is an excellent example of how a proactive hero can work. Batman gathers an army of fellow heroes under his banner while also extending his arsenal, myth, and reach.

See, Batman Inc. isn’t just about making sure that Australia and France have their own Batmen; it’s about redefining the idea of Batman, extending it into all corners of a world increasingly consumed by the idea of evil. This is a common theme for Morrison, fighting ideas with better ideas, saving the world through stories, and ‘Nightmares in Numberland’ is a great example of it. 

In this story, we discover Batman’s proposed Internet 3.0, a haptic interface that allows the user to enter into a virtual realm like The Matrix meets Reboot. However, during a presentation to a group of big money investors, Wayne, and his guests are attacked by the deadly forces of Leviathan. It falls to former Batgirl and current "Warrior of the Web" Oracle to save the day and purge the virus from their systems. 

If that all sounds a little weird and high concept, that’s because it is. This issue was the final installment of Batman Inc. before DC’s 2011 universe reboot. That reboot, unfortunately, meant a lot of the biggest ideas of the story ended up compacted for a single issue, which makes this a seriously dense and crazy read.  

The coolest part of the story by far is Morrison’s vision of Internet 3.0, a crazy digital playground where the entire world can shift and change in an instant. The whole structure is an excellent blend of multiple cyber-thriller sources like The Matrix, Tron, and especially the animated series Reboot. 

The artwork, by Scott Clark and Dave Beaty, is this incredibly trippy and weird CGI work that gives everything an alien and artificial tone. The weirdest part is seeing the level of detail that’s achieved through the CG work as all the backgrounds are thoroughly realized rather than relying on the block colors of a lot of comic structure. While the character creation is drawn from the Reboot style of uncanny valley CG creations, the color scheme is much more in line with Tron Legacy, especially the look of Batman and Oracle’s costumes. 

The Tron influence goes well beyond the color and design, though, the whole point of Internet 3.0 is that it’s meant as a fusion of ways we interact with technology.  As such, even though it’s technically a web browser the world operates off a certain amount of video game physics and logic. 

Stuff like Oracle being able to produce copies of herself, Batman snagging a power-up in the middle of a fight, or the idea some avatars have multiple lives or upgrades all emphasize how the interactive portion of this world is culled from the playbook of a video game. Conversely, the actual world itself and the more mundane aspects of it are much more in line with The Matrix only with a unique angle. 

The “joke” of the Numberland part of the title is that everything we see in 3.0 is (technically) made of numbers, in the form of binary code. That “scrolling code as reality” visual conceit is the main thing borrowed from The Matrix here. The biggest difference here is the added wrinkle that the people in Internet 3.0 are also made of numbers, just different numbers. 

Rather than simply code numbers, the collection of billionaires and CEOs Wayne has brought into Internet 3.0 are made up of financial information. If they suffer any injury, or their avatar is destroyed, they end up losing their money. 

That’s such a brilliant little concept I’m honestly shocked it took people so long to think of it. It’s a great way to lend legitimate stakes to characters existing inside a simulation without falling back on the old “you die in the dream you die for real” stuff that was already tired when The Matrix did it back in 2000. It also adds a unique identity to the villain and the overall structure of the experience. 

The villain’s central attack on the meeting is, technically speaking, a malware infection of the system. It takes the visual form of warping reality from a walking simulator into a horror game, complete with zombie minions, whirling death traps, psychological horror, and even ghosts. 

This is one of the ideas that got cut down for space, and you can see the structure of a lot of cool ideas around it, especially during a brief scene at the end of the 2nd act where the villain taunts the billionaires and throwing out possible explanations. This where we get a more clear vision of Morrison’s narrative conceit with internet 3.0 and what fascinates him about the prospects of virtual reality: it’s a universe that walks the line between metaphor and literalism. 

For instance, the characters are later taunted for their failures as people before being turned into literal representations of those failures. Even the video game-esque villain attack is a literalization of old ‘80s arcade games where the only thing really at stake is your money. This extends to the villain as well. The villain is framed as "Hungry Ghost" from Chinese mythology, a mythic figure of horror that feeds on money. The claim is quite literal here. The villain is an insubstantial being who feeds on the number code of Internet 3.0. 

While I’d consider this issue to be an acquired taste, mainly due to the high-concept nature of the artwork, it’s still an excellent read and part of a trilogy of great stories along with issue 6’s Nyktomorph and issue 7’s Medicine Soldiers. From its inception, Batman Inc. was all about tearing away the stereotypes and misconceptions that had come to inform the idea of Batman in the window of his greatest popularity from 2008 to 2011. 

We’re recovering from that era now. At the time, the most popular idea of Batman was a brutal thug using the excuse of his trauma to waste his money bludgeoning the poor and mentally ill for kicks while causing more problems than he solved, forever working alone because he doesn’t need anyone. Batman Inc. focused on Batman taking his mission world wide, teaming up with all manner of other heroes because he does need help, and (in issues 6-8 especially) using his money for more than just beating people up.  

It’s established that Leviathan targets communities the law and governments prefer to ignore, indoctrinating the populace into violent extremism, so Batman learns he can only truly fight Leviathan by fighting the source of their powers: to enfranchise the societies they prey upon. That’s the idea of Batman fighting the idea of crime in this series; the idea of overcoming tragedy to become stronger, and the idea that you don’t have to do it alone.  

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