Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic Part 4: Time and the Batman

August 15th, 2013

I’ve been re-reading Grant Morrison’s years-long run on Batman.  You can follow these links to read my previous reviews of the last several years of Batman continuity: Part 1 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, part 2 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, Batman: The Animated series’ Paul Dini’s run on Detective Comics, the post-death-of-Bruce-Wayne stories that culminated in Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, the re-launch of the Bat-books under the Batman: Reborn banner, and finally Part 3 of Grant Morrison’s run, the launch of the new Batman and Robin series.

The six-part story-line Batman R.I.P. felt like the culmination of the first-part of Mr. Morrison’s Batman story, before he shook everything up by killing off Bruce Wayne in the big DCU crossover Final Crisis.  But Batman R.I.P. left me deeply unsatisfied when I originally read it (and similarly unsatisfied upon subsequent re-readings).  I delighted in the complexity of the tale, but I also felt frustrated because I always felt I never quite understood what the heck was going on in the story.

After a year of fun with the new Batman and Robin team of Dick Grayson (former Robin turned solo super-hero Nightwing, now returned to take over the mantle of Batman from the deceased Bruce Wayne) and Damian Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s son from the 1980’s tale Son of the Demon, returned to continuity at the very beginning of Grant Morrison’s story) in the newly-launched series Batman and Robin, Mr. Morrison began writing the story of Bruce Wayne’s return.

This story was spread out through several different comic book series.  Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne’s side of the story was mostly chronicled in Batman and Robin #10-12 (in the story-line “Batman vs. Robin” and #13-15 (in the story-line “Batman and Robin Must Die”), while the missing pieces of what happened between Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis were told in Batman #701-702 (in the story called “R.I.P. The Missing Chapter”).  What happened to Bruce Wayne after being struck by Darkseid’s Omega Beams was told in the six-issue mini-series The Return of Bruce Wayne, and the whole thing was wrapped up (sort of) in Batman and Robin #16.

Reading these stories, it is at last clear to me why Batman R.I.P. so dissatisfied me: because that six-issue story-line only told half of the story!  (Less than half, actually!)  Mr. Morrison had withheld a heck of a lot of information, and so it’s only in reading these issues, published around two years after Batman R.I.P., that we can at last begin to understand the events of that tale.

That’s a very interesting approach to comic-book story-telling, to take so long to dole out what I would consider to be essential narrative information.  Furthermore, these issues that I am writing about now, chronicling the return of Bruce Wayne to “life” and comic book continuity, are — taken as a whole — a classic example of a characteristic that I have written about before in Mr. Morrison’s writing.  That is, rather than presenting a narrative in a linear fashion (event a happened which lead to event b happening which lead to event c happening, and so on), Mr. Morrison often seems to like to fracture his narrative and present to us multiple events almost simultaneously.  This was seen most notably in Batman #673, “Joe Chill in Hell” — click here for my thoughts on that story.

When I got to this point in Mr. Morrison’s story, and I pulled out my copies of these issues of Batman and Robin, Batman, and The Return of Bruce Wayne, I had a hard time deciding the order in which I should re-read them.  Ultimately I settled on the order that I laid out a few paragraphs ago, but what I wound up doing was reading the issues in that sequence and then going back and reading them all again.  Because the events in these issues all take place at about the same time, and even when they don’t (such as when we’re reading about Bruce Wayne’s adventures in the distant past in The Return of Bruce Wayne), information vital to the understanding of one series is presented in another.  You want to read about Dick Grayson and Damian’s discovery of secrets within Wayne Mansion in Batman and Robin #10-12 (which I discussed here) before reading about Bruce Wayne’s return in The Return of Bruce Wayne.  But all the references in Batman and Robin to various Wayne ancestors, Barbatos, the secret batcave, the ancient bat-demon of the Miagani tribe, etc, are hard to understand without reading about Bruce Wayne’s adventures in the past in The Return of Bruce Wayne.  The story is circular.  The fun and the challenge of Mr. Morrison’s writing is that you need to try to hold all of these details in your head while reading these stories.  If one could somehow read these issues simultaneously, that would be best!  This whole undertaking represents a magnificent experiment on Mr. Morrison’s part, an entirely new way of presenting a narrative to the audience.  I find the experience of reading and re-reading these comics to be exhilarating and frustrating.

Batman #700 — In this anniversary issue, Mr. Morrison pens a done-in-one story-line not connected to the complex Batman R.I.P./Final Crisis continuity I have been discussing above.  It’s a ripping yarn, a head-spinningly complex example of Grant Morrison at his peak.  The story, “Time and the Batman,” is set across different eras of Batman’s history (with each era illustrated by a different art team).  We see Batman and Robin (Dick Grayson) early in their career; the current-continuity Grayson & Damian Batman and Robin team; a future in which Damian has inherited the mantle of Batman (a future continuity first glimpsed in an issue early in Mr. Morrison’s run, Batman #666, which I wrote about here); and then some further future scenes, including (in my favorite touch) a glimpse of the continuity of the Batman Beyond animated TV series.  The story is a rather complex time-travel-involving murder mystery.  I love it when Batman stories are detective stories (rather than focusing on punching super-villains), and this is a great, head-scratching mystery.  Batman promises Robin, at one point, that “it’ll all make sense one day,” and even though I’m not sure that it really does, I loved going on the journey.  This is a terrific single-issue story, one of the best I have read in years.

Batman and Robin Must Die (Batman and Robin #13-15) — The story starts with the villainous Dr. Hurt (a one-off villain from the ’60s brought back by Mr. Morrison as the monster behind the attack on Batman in Batman R.I.P., who just might be Bruce Wayne’s father Thomas Wayne) shooting Dick Grayson in the head.  The story then jumps back three days to pick up right where issue #12 left off, with Batman and Robin confronting the now-imprisoned Joker.  As Batman beings to put together the pieces of the plot, and the connections between Dr. Hurt, El Penitente (seen in Batman and Robin #6), and the horrific Mr. Pyg (the villain who kicked off the series in Batman and Robin #1), Robin attempts to interrogate the Joker alone.  The arrogant young Damian feels he can handle the Joker without help, and in a resonant reversal of the Joker’s famous murder of the second Robin (Jason Todd) way back in the “Death in the Family” storyline in the 80’s, Damian viciously beats the Joker with a crowbar.  But, of course, the Joker eventually turns the tables, and now Batman must deal with unraveling Dr. Hurt’s complicated plan while his partner is in the Joker’s clutches.

These three issues continue the high-intensity pace of the previous “Batman vs. Robin” story-line from Batman and Robin #10-12.  Each page is dripping in intensity and meaning, with the feeling of incredible peril for our heroes and also growing excitement as the many pieces of Mr. Morrison’s layered and super-complex story-line (even more tangled than that of Dr. Hurt’s plan!) are beginning to come together.  The painterly artwork by Frazer Irving is gorgeous and completely unique, bringing Mr. Morrison’s story to beautiful life.  I love Mr. Irving’s use of color, frequently using monochromatic color schemes to give his pages a distinct feel.  There’s a realism combined with the occasional  cartoony exaggeration that is wonderfully effective, particularly when depicting the frequently horrific events of Mr. Morrison’s story.  The three-page spread that opens issue #13, in which we seem to see the defining events of Batman’s origin from the perspective of a warped, evil version of Thomas Wayne, are gloriously deranged magnificence.

The only weakness of the story, in my mind, is that as we learn a little more about Dr. Hurt, he feels somehow less dangerous here than he did back in R.I.P.  In these issues, we pick up on the idea hinted at (though not really explored) during the climax of Batman R.I.P., that Dr. Hurt had released scandalous information to the public of Gotham about Thomas and Martha Wayne, and that Hurt might in fact be a still-alive Thomas Wayne.  I wasn’t sure quite what to make of that ludicrous idea in Batman R.I.P. — was it really Mr. Morrison’s intention for readers to take that suggestion seriously?  That story-line returns in these issues, as Hurt announces himself to the public of Gotham as Thomas Wayne, not dead at all — a revelation that curiously seems to be accepted unquestionably by the public of Gotham. This aspect of the story-line feels a little undercooked.  I never bought into the idea that Hurt REALLY was Bruce Wayne’s father, and found myself continually questioning whether Mr. Morrison really wanted us to think that or not.  And the public revelation of Hurt as Thomas Wayne feels like an event of enormous consequence to the future of Batman’s secret identity and Bruce Wayne’s public persona going forward, but that event only gets a few panels of “screen-time” during the story.  It feels like that story got condensed because of all the other goings-on, whereas I would have liked to have seen a little further fleshing-out of this idea.  (A close reading of The Return of Bruce Wayne gives us a different — and to me more likely — spin on Dr. Hurt’s origin than the idea that he is Bruce Wayne’s father.  I’ll get to that soon, when I discuss that mini-series.)

(I also think the way Mr. Morrison got around Hurt’s shooting Dick Grayson in the head in the opening scenes of the story was a little weak.  Oh well.)

R.I.P. The Missing Chapter (Batman #701-702) — I love this two-parter.  It goes a long way towards redeeming the confusing Batman R.I.P. story in my mind.  I wish it had been published about a year before it was, as I hated having to wait so long to get some answers to the many, many questions left in my mind by Batman R.I.P.  This two-parter is set during the month between the final scenes of Batman R.I.P. and the beginning of Final Crisis (in which Batman finds himself caught up in the murder investigation of the New God Orion, and eventually gets himself killed by the villain Darkseid).

Finally we get the follow-up to the events of R.I.P. that I had long felt we needed to see.  We see Batman reuniting with Alfred; we see Batman investigating the helicopter crash, searching for evidence as to what had become of Dr. Hurt; we see Batman worried by how close he had come to having his mind unraveled by Hurt’s machinations and making plans for how to prevent that in the future; we see Batman’s reaction to Hurt’s dragging his parent’s names through the mud in the Gotham City media; and we get confirmation that Batman and Alfred were on to Jezebel Jet (the femme fatale who proved to be a villain in Batman R.I.P.) from the beginning (a relief since Batman seemed surprisingly duped by Jezebel in Mr. Morrison’s earlier stories, and I always prefer to see Batman being several steps ahead of his adversaries rather than several steps behind).

In part two, issue #702, Mr. Morrison connects the dots between scenes we saw in Batman R.I.P., Final Crisis, and the “Last Rites” story-line from Batman #682-683 (which I wrote about here) which chronicled Darkseid’s mental plot against Batman’s mind.  We see Darkseid reference his “hyper-adapter” and release a tentacled monster from a Jack Kirby-looking device, two plot elements that don’t make much sense until one reads The Return of Bruce Wayne.  Several important phrases are emphasized — we note that Batman hears “bells and thunder” when being struck by Darkseid’s Omega beams, and we again hear reference to “the hole in things” (which is how Dr. Hurt described himself in Batman R.I.P., and also references the end of Final Climax in which the fall of Darkseid tears a hold in the fabric of reality in the DCU).

At the end, we return full circle to the end of Final Crisis, in which we see that Batman is not dead at all, but somehow stranded at the dawn of time (in the time-frame of Anthro: The First Boy, a DC Comics series from the 60’s).  But this time we know a little more about how he got there, and we also know that Superman and the Justice League know the truth as well, due to a message Batman sends to them through the centuries.  “I know you’ll look for me when all this is done.  You can hear molecules bonding.  I know you’ll hear this somehow.”

More on The Return of Bruce Wayne next week!

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone