Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #5 opens with what amounts to a diegetic recap page–a necessity as this issue’s come out a few months late–wherein Red Robin explains the situation to the random smattering of superheroes that amounts to the current incarnation of the Justice League: the Flash, Cyborg, Dr. Light, Green Arrow, Starman, Congorilla, and a few others. These kinds of brief catch-up pages are classic Morrison. We get a bizarrely high-concept situation that sounds even more bonkers as characters explain it and unique turns of phrase like “Accumulating enough omega energy to blow a hole in time.” Plus a simian casually inserted into the scene just to make matters weirder. This is why I love comics.
“Masquerade” is the obligatory noir chapter in Grant Morrison’s dismantling-rebuilding of Batman, which shows off not only his detective work, but actual crime afoot. Morrison offers an unconventional mystery, too. Bruce Wayne wakes up, again amnesiac, with no clues save “cowboy clothes and an antique book,” which we the readers already know come from the previous chapter of his time-traveling adventure. If that wasn’t enough, he has to investigate the death of his own mother, recently killed in this era.
Morrison’s script eschews much of the pastiche one would expect from a writer emulating a noir story. Though, of course, he has to introduce the first Bruce Wayne scene with the ever-so-cliché, “It always starts with a dame.” To make up for that, he refrains from the obligatory hard-boiled narration until the end. And even then, it’s distinctly Morrisonian.
Ryan Sook and inker Mick Gray, by the way, handle the art in this chapter beautifully, with the chiaroscuro lightning typical of noir films and some great art deco designs. More importantly, Sook renders striking images. One choice panel features a shadowy Wayne reading the antique journal whilst superimposed over a close-up of pages from the book. You can almost imagine it as it’d be rendered in an old black and white movie.
The addition of artist Pere Perez to the last section of the book seems a worrying notion considering George Jeanty’s sub-in for Cameron Stewart turned out disastrous. However, Perez is a solid artist whose style meshes fairly well with Sook’s and thus keeps his section from looking like a last-minute rush job.
Morrison and company throw Bruce Wayne into a realm of gangsters, pinstriped suits, and dames smoking–the sort of world Bob Kane and Bill Finger originally birthed Batman into back in the late ‘30s. Even in the hyper-modern films Batman fights gangsters–a concept Christopher Nolan gleefully latched onto, in effect making the Dark Knight an epic crime movie where the protagonist just happens to be a guy in a fetish suit who punches clowns. But “Masquerade” is hardly a gritty crime story. There are masks, disguises, and an nefarious cult. While this may seem like a surprising turn, I’d like to point out that Detective Comics #31 features Batman fighting a vampire.
As Bruce Wayne gradually reaches the present, we get increasing ties to Morrison’s entire Batman run–the Black Glove, Barbatos, the conspiracy surrounding the Waynes and even Carter Nichols, the obscure time travel-obsessed scientist reintroduced in Batman #700. These moves in issue #5 make the series more than just an examination of Batman or an obligatory event comic to resurrect a character that we knew was going to come back. More than that, The Return of Bruce Wayne is a vital part of the huge Bat-story that Grant Morrison has been telling since he took over the book.