At the end of July, we said goodbye to Grant Morrison’s Batman run with the final issue of Batman Incorporated.
Goodbye to one of the best Batman story arcs for a long time, to a Batman that remembered how to smile even in the darkest and strangest days, and to a great villain in Talia al Ghul.
Morrison has a knack for creating unsettling antagonists – think of the Candlemaker in Doom Patrol, or Professor Pyg with his Dollotrons in Batman and Robin – but for Asian-American female readers such as myself, Talia goes beyond unsettling all the way to heartbreaking. She is our worst-case future; our Issue #666, if you want to get meta.
Finding positive representations of Asian women in popular media is tough even on a good day.
We are so often portrayed as culturally fetishized sex objects: geishas, “me love you long time,” the helpless Oriental (ugh) damsel waiting for a white male rescuer. Even Google is against us: if you type in “Asian beauty tips”, you get ads for Chinese brides or links to Hot Asian Babes.
Even when we get to fight alongside the white male characters who dominate most comics rosters, the sexualization doesn’t go away. Look at Mantis. Sure, she’s a martial arts master, but she starts out as a prostitute in Vietnam and, as related in Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, can kill people with her ultra-strong thighs; if they’re around a victim’s neck, imagine where the victim’s head would be.
Against this context of Orientalism, colonialism, and cultural oppression, Morrison’s treatment of Talia stood out. How could she not? (I realize that the Talia of Batman Incorporated and its preceding comics is actually the joint creation of Morrison, Burnham, Kubert, and various other artists – which is important to note, given the current debate about the recognition of artists vs. writers – but in this case I’m focusing on the writing. Hence, Morrison’s treatment.)
She was strong not in a misguided “strong female characters” way, where physical strength takes precedence over all other kinds, but strong in the sense of being resolute, purposeful, vivid enough to stand up to The Batman’s 74-year publication history, powerful enough to incorporate stereotype into archetype and come up with something unique to herself.
Much of this was due to Morrison’s ability to avoid the twin pitfalls of ignoring or over-emphasizing Talia’s sexuality, which was simply – yet clearly – a part of her character rather than a defining characteristic. Instead, the significance of that sexuality was explored indirectly through Damian’s existence and its implications for Talia herself and the Batman universe as a whole.
Most of Morrison’s villains tend to range from the mentally ill (Pyg) to the fantastical (everybody from Doom Patrol) to the supernaturally evil (Darkseid, Cassandra Nova). However, although Talia’s upbringing and circumstances are pure comic-book – being the daughter of the immortal head of a terrorist empire doesn’t exactly fall into the “realistic” category – the sources of her antagonism are not. She’s the Tiger Mother pushed a little further, and a little further, and a little further again until she reaches the heights of archetype.
A little background for those unfamiliar with the term “Tiger Mother”: Tiger Mothers are Asian or Asian-American (or Asian-Canadian, or Asian-British) mothers who raise their children in the West and employ strict discipline and tough-love tactics instead of more permissive parenting styles, which they often associate with a Western way of life.
The term was coined in a book that Chinese-American author Amy Chua wrote about raising her daughters. As Chua’s husband is Caucasian, her daughters are half-Asian and half-Caucasian – just like Damian Wayne, whom I’ll get to later. Chua herself describes the book as being “about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how [she] was humbled by a thirteen-year-old”. The Tiger Mother’s usual state, then, is one of conflict between love and control, tradition and assimilation.
And Talia has always been a conflicted person. Before having a child, she was caught between love for her father who wanted to destroy humanity and love for Bruce Wayne/Batman who wanted to save it (although it must be said that he punched a large proportion of it in the process). As a mother, she remains an extremely conflicted person; even her most destructive impulses are tinged with maternal associations. At various points throughout the comic, she is linked to goddess figures such as Kali and Tiamat, which thus portrays her as a sort of mother – or anti-mother – figure to the world; the end of Inc vol. 2 #6 even features a rendition of Kali with the heads of the Batman Incorporated members around her neck. Kali is a goddess of combat and destruction, while Tiamat is the mother of deities and an agent of chaos: both powerful beings not exactly known for nurturing behavior. These goddesses come from Asian and Middle Eastern cultures (Kali is Indian and Tiamat is Mesopotamian), thus reinforcing Talia’s otherness. In conceptual emulation of her role models, Talia’s strategy as the head of Leviathan is to strike at civilization through its children, simultaneously taking control of them in an all-mother capacity and using them as the agents of the world’s destruction.
However, this conflict is most pronounced when it comes to her son Damian.
Damian’s gestation takes place in an artificial womb and is overseen by Talia, thus keeping him at a physical distance but in an environment that Talia can fully control. At no point are any medical reasons for the artificial womb mentioned, which suggests that this is wholly voluntary on Talia’s part. Talia mentions later that there are “dozens more, just like [him], waiting in their jars to be born” – and we see one of these new clone-sons in the form of the Heretic, as well as a room full of embryos at the end of the last issue of Batman Incorporated.
Yet she treats Damian as an individual, giving him the opportunity to “disobey” her and choose to be part of the Bat-family and therefore “an enemy of the house of al Ghul”. Even before his birth, there are panels that show her gazing at his embryo with affection/worry just as any other mother might.
But she isn’t any other mother; rather, she’s The Other, marked as a specifically Asian mother by her visual depictions and backstory. Talia is of Chinese-Arab ethnic descent, and is drawn in a way that establishes her as thoroughly Asian: browner skin tones, almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and a predilection for cheongsams. Standing in opposition to Talia is Bruce Wayne/Batman, the scion of old American money and a billionaire who maintains his fortune through capitalism.
The demarcation of Talia’s otherness thus transforms the conflict over Damian from good vs. evil or mother vs. father into one of Eastern vs. Western culture. Her fear that her son will choose Batman over her is implicitly a fear that he will assimilate into a new culture, a new way of life – in other words, the Tiger Mother’s underlying fear.
This assimilation is visual as well as narrative. Although Damian is half-Asian – specifically, one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Arab – his features grow increasingly Caucasian as he becomes part of the Bat-family. When he first meets Batman, he is initially drawn as looking at least vaguely Asian, and is dressed in a martial arts-movie-esque outfit while wielding a katana.
At this time, he shares the ethics and mindset of his mother, and continually compares living with Bruce to how things are done “in the League of Assassins”; in other words, he is morally ambiguous at best. However, when he decides to ally himself with Batman and become one of the good guys, his face loses its Asian-ness entirely.
As problematic as the relationship between Damian’s gradual Caucasianization, familial assimilation, and ethical self-improvement may be, it is nevertheless the case that he is allowed to express his own autonomy, even though it means moving away from his mother’s way of life. To Talia, this is a mistake which she resolves not to make with her second son, the Heretic (who is an artificially aged clone of Damian).
In vol. 2, issue #10, she has no qualms about building an electroshock system into his suit and activating it when he “disobey[s]” her; as she informs him, “You have been made to do as you are told”.
One issue before this, she describes herself as having “many children” but rejects the title of “mother”, ordering the Heretic to call her “Lady Talia” and stating that “Leviathan is mother to no one”.
This move signals the loss of her individuality and humanity: Leviathan is a collective (in this series) and a Biblical monster. Talia goes from representing Leviathan to becoming the creature itself, which culminates in her self-description as mostly non-human in vol. 2, issue #12 – “I’m Kali, Tiamat, Medusa. I’m the wire mommy…The Red Queen. I am the mother of skeletons.” – just before she decapitates the Heretic with a sword reminiscent of the one Damian wields during his first meeting with Batman.
Earlier in this issue, we learn that the Heretic has the body proportions of a grown man but the head of a baby, as seen above. Whereas his predecessor was an emotionally conflicted but physically whole person, this son of Talia has a body whose components are in opposition to each other. The conflict of the mother has been displaced in a very visible manner onto her latest child. However, when she cuts off the Heretic’s head, she not only separates the two opposing components of this body but also evidences her refusal to face any other conflict in her children.
Since personal conflict suggests the existence of free will – without free will, there’s nothing to feel conflicted about; you simply do one thing or the other because you must – Talia’s actions cost her her free will and control over her own actions. The wire mother of Harry Harlow’s famous experiment was built for the express purpose of giving no comfort and without the physical or emotional capacity to nurture a child. Along similar lines, as a fictional character in Through the Looking-Glass the Red Queen is unable to develop beyond the traits with which she was created. (It may also be the case that Morrison confused the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts, like I did initially, as the latter’s catchphrase is “Off with their heads!”) Although Talia’s speech starts off with comparisons to goddesses/monsters, it soon implies that she now does what she does because she no longer has any other options.
So she wins the battle she wants to win against her more loving side but loses the Tiger Mother’s battle – a battle I have seen grandmothers and friends’ mothers and my own mother fighting many times throughout their lives. And for Asian-American female readers, this is a tragic loss. It may sound presumptuous to say so, but it’s as though she loses our battle and falls past the old Dragon Lady trap into a new one with even tougher snares: the archetype lurking behind the Tiger Mother’s darker side, the Leviathan that critics saw in Amy Chua’s rejection of her daughter’s handmade Mother’s Day card on the basis that she could “do better”.
We’ll probably be seeing Talia al Ghul again soon. Given the impermanence of death in comics and her family’s easy access to Lazarus Pits, as well as her body’s not-so-mysterious disappearance in the last issue, it won’t be too long before she’s up and fighting, or at least up and retconned.
In the meantime, all I’m left with are questions. Will Talia be nearly as compelling when she returns to DC continuity? Are we going to get other Asian female characters whose plots and personalities go beyond Sexy Murder Geisha to reflect contemporary social phenomena anytime soon? And both on and off the page, what unknowable cycles are readers like me, women like me, locked into?