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Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic Part 5: The Return of Bruce Wayne

September 6th, 2013
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My re-reading of Grant Morrison’s years-long Batman epic continues!  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 then Part 3 of Grant Morrison’s run, the launch of the new Batman and Robin series, and Part 4 of Grant Morrison’s run, Time and the Batman.

As I wrote about last week, Mr. Morrison was giving out long-withheld answers in three story-lines being published simultaneously in three different comic book series: Batman and Robin, Batman, and the mini-series The Return of Bruce Wayne.

The Return of Bruce Wayne At the end of Final Crisis, we saw that Batman had not been killed by Darkseid’s Omega beams.  Instead, he was somehow transported to the dawn of time (actually, in a clever bit of DC Comics continuity, Batman found himself in the time of Anthro, the “first boy” from a DC Comics series in the 60’s).  The events of R.I.P. The Untold Story in Batman #701-702 gave us a little more information on how that came to be.  In this six-issue mini-series, writer Grant Morrison set about telling the tale of how Bruce Wayne would manage to return to the present day.

The premise of this mini-series is silly on the surface: that Bruce Wayne was sent back in time to pre-history, but is jumping through the centuries on his way back to present day.  Andy Kubert’s covers to each issue playfully render Batman in different time-frames: neanderthal Batman, pirate Batman, Puritan Batman, 1960’s private eye Batman, etc.  Grant Morrison’s story, thankfully, is far more serious, playing up the mystery of what is happening to Bruce Wayne and why, as well as the dread of the terrible danger that apparently is waiting for Bruce Wayne once he arrives in the future.

Each issue was illustrated by a different artistic team.  The first few issues, in particular, are gorgeous, illustrated by Chris Sprouse, Frazer Irving, and Yanick Paquette & Michael Lacombe.  The art seems to deteriorate a bit in the last few issues — I get the feeling the series was rushed to completion, which is a shame after such a high-quality artistic beginning.  (Ryan Sook does a fantastic job illustrating issue #5, but the last third of the issue is drawn by someone else, nowhere near as good.)

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this series.  As I wrote above, the premise is ridiculous, but somehow Mr. Morrison was able to craft a truly compelling story for Bruce Wayne in each of the six time-periods.  I loved seeing Bruce Wayne tussle with Randall Savage (an immortal DCU villain) in pre-historic times.  I loved seeing Bruce Wayne (disguised as “Mordecai Wayne”) combat the religious fanaticism of witch-burning Puritans.  I loved seeing Bruce and Blackbeard the pirate exploring the caves beneath what would some-day become Wayne Manor (with the twist of course being that Bruce knows those caves like the back of his hand since they would in the future become his Batcave).  I loved seeing Bruce Wayne as a private eye, investigating the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne and, essential for any good private eye story, dealing with a mysterious dame.  I loved how John Mayhew and the Black Glove (introduced by Mr. Morrison in the “Club of Heroes” story from Batman #667-670) were involved in issue #5.

Most of all, I loved how, through the vehicle of Bruce Wayne’s journey through time, Mr. Morrison finally provided explanations for many of the weird and confusing aspects of the story he had been weaving through the Batman comics of the previous several years.  We see the origin of the mysterious “ancient Bat-people” called the Niagani, and their connection to Wayne Manor and the caves beneath.  We see the history of the construction of Wayne Manor itself, as well as the “garden of death” that figured so heavily into Batman and Robin #10-12.  We see the origins of the mysterious, ancient box labelled with a bat-symbol that Dick Grayson found hidden beneath Wayne Manor in those issues and, in a key page in The Return of Bruce Wayne #6, we see what items were put into the box, and by whom.  (I didn’t understand the significance of that page until reading the series through for the second time.  At first it seemed that, near death, Bruce was flashing back to the details of his journey through time, but a closer inspection reveals far more critical details finally being revealed.)

I was frustrated how, in both Batman R.I.P. and in his re-appearance in Batman and Robin #13-15, we failed to learn anything significant about the villainous Dr. Hurt.  Who was this mysterious criminal, really?  What was the truth about his connection to the Wayne family (were we really meant to believe that he was Bruce’s father, Thomas Wayne?), and why did he have such a grudge against Batman/Bruce Wayne?  To my surprise, it was not in any of the regular present-day Bat-books, but rather here, in The Return of Bruce Wayne, that we learned the truth.  I won’t spoil all the details, but I was impressed by the clever bit of narrative trickery pulled by Mr. Morrison, revealing that Dr. Hurt is Thomas Wayne but he isn’t.  (I also loved learning, in issue #5, just how Dr. Hurt was able to have “evidence” of Thomas and Martha Wayne committing scandalous behavior.  That was a nice touch.)

I also loved the explanation at last for the recurrence of characters hearing “bells,” and the connection to an iconic scene in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One.  That is such a clever idea.  I loved the way Mr. Morrison took a classic Batman scene and seized on one element that isn’t one of the things people usually think about when then remember that scene.  Everyone remembers the bat and the window, but not the bell.  But once the connection is made, is such an “of course!” moment that I was delighted.  (And Mr. Morrison’s clever adjustment to punctuation that results in the phrase “bleeding in time” was just the icing on the cake.)

Despite all the answers we got, since this is a Grant Morrison story, there were of course plenty of other questions raised that were not quite resolved.  Who belonged to the rocket ship seen in caveman times in issue #1?  That’s not how Bruce got back in time, so whose ship was that and how did it get there?  And although I have read and re-read the scene in issue #5 in which Bruce speaks with the parents of his mother, Martha, I feel like I have never quite understood what is going on in that scene.  What is up with those wasps?  What is Martha’s father trying to tell them?

I also don’t really understand why Darkseid’s Omega Beams didn’t kill Batman.  Instead, they sent him back in time, but not permanently?  Superman tells Batman, in issue #2, “you’ve been booby-trapped!  Darkseid turned you into a doomsday weapon and aimed you directly at the 21st century!”  While that sounds sort of crazy and cool, it doesn’t really make any sense to me.  By what method was Bruce sent back in time, and by what method was he then hopping forward through the centuries?  And as plans go to destroy super-heroes, this seems insanely convoluted.  Why didn’t Darkseid just kill Batman (which, to all appearances, is what he did) and be done with it?  Why such a complex super-plot?  As much as I enjoyed this mini-series and the whole story-line that begun with Batman getting hit by Darkseid’s Omega Beams in Final Crisis, ultimately I am left a little unsatisfied by the explanations given for why Batman wasn’t killed.

Batman and Robin #16 — And so, with Bruce Wayne returned to the present, the final confrontation with Dr. Hurt begins.  Following Batman’s re-appearance on the last page of Batman and Robin #15, this issue opens back in 1766, in which we see the long-lived Nathaniel Wayne summoning the Bat-demon Barbatos.  Taken on its own, the scene gives important context for Hurt’s confrontation with Batman in the present-day, though after having read The Return of Bruce Wayne the references to the secrets of the Niagani and the Omega Adapter make a lot more sense.

After such a long saga, it’s a delight to read this issue and finally see some resolution to some of the story-lines.  Bruce Wayne has returned and is reunited with Dick Grayson, Damian, and Nightwing; Dr. Hurt is defeated (though of course his final appearance is written with just enough wiggle room that a return appearance somewhere down the line isn’t impossible); and the rumors about Thomas and Martha Wayne finally seem to be put to rest by the Gotham media and the public.  My favorite moment in the issue is the reprise of the first (and, chronologically, the last) line of Batman R.I.P.: “Batman and Robin will never die!”

It’s hard not to feel a little bit that, after so much build-up, Dr. Hurt is defeated rather easily by our heroes, but I’m not sure how that could have been avoided. Similarly, the Joker’s final moment in the issue is great (and I love his last line), but I still don’t entirely understand how he fit into the over-all story-line.  I am still unclear as to why he pretended to be Oberon Sexton, and the laughing Joker who gets Dr. Hurt to trip on a banana peel seems like a very different character than the serious, vicious reinvented Joker introduced by Mr. Morrison back in Batman #650.

Still, over-all, a solid finale to this middle-third of Mr. Morrison’s Batman epic.  The conclusion, in which Bruce Wayne reveals himself publicly as the financier behind Batman and introduces the new, international Batman Inc., is an intriguing launching-point into what will prove to be the third and final act of Mr. Morrison’s epic story.

Batman: The Return This one-shot, illustrated by David Finch, launches the next wave of Batman stories.  I love the opening sequence, in which the classic scene from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, in which a bat crashes through Bruce Wayne’s window, thus inspiring the creation of the Batman, is re-told from the bat’s point of view.  It’s a very clever and unusual way to begin!  The rest of the story, in which we see Batman’s newly-international operation and discover a mysterious new criminal organization called Leviathan, is a little more by-the-numbers.  Not bad, just a surprisingly straightforward tale from Mr. Morrison, particularly after the crazy time-travel saga that just concluded.  I liked seeing Batman interact with the rest of the Bat-family of heroes (nicely setting the stage for what I assume would become the new status quo in their individual series), though I was less taken by the scene, clearly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, in which Lucius Fox briefs Bruce on all sorts of new gadgets than can be used by Batman.  It seemed a lame attempt to utilize the dynamic that worked so well in the films, but which to me seemed very out of character for the Lucius we have seen in the comics.  Still, it’s interesting to see a more “normal” Batman story from Grant Morrison, and I am eager to see where this Batman Inc./Leviathan story is going to go.

More from me soon!

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