Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest: Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #1

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2010
By: Thom Young

Grant Morrison
Chris Sprouse (p), Karl Story (i), & Guy Major (colors)
DC Comics
“The Return of Bruce Wayne” begins approximately 30,000 years in the past as our time-lost hero befriends the son and grandson of Anthro, the First Boy on Earth. During his time in the Paleolithic period, Anthro's grandson becomes an analog of Robin and refers to Bruce as "Man of Bats" as they face off against a Neanderthal chieftain, the immortal Vandal Savage, and his tribe of brutes who have been tyrannizing Anthro's tribe.

Danny Djeljosevic:
Chris Kiser:
Dave Wallace:
Thom Young:

Danny Djeljosevic:

One day, someone will write about the power of the Grant Morrison opening splash page--and I hope to be that person, assuming no one has done it already. For now, though, I’m just going to write about the splash page of Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #1.

Morrison writes a curious opening page for a Batman comic: a group of cavemen inspecting a crashed spaceship--a Stone Age remix of an image from the Superman mythos. On a story level, it works: to these primitive people Bruce Wayne, with all his skills and knowledge, is Superman.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll remember the spaceship itself as a dangling thread from Morrison’s Final Crisis, but this juxtaposition of early man and the Man of Steel’s origins being the first thing we see in a Batman comic suggests not only that Batman owes his existence to Superman (the concept that spawned thousands of imitations, cash-ins, derivatives, and successors), but also that Batman is where mundanity and the fantastic collide in a fiery, bat-shaped explosion.

After all, we’re talking about a concept somewhat rooted in reality (i.e. no superpowers) but with a severely tenuous grip on it with its sci-fi closets and Lazarus Pits. That these superheroes, amidst a world-ending cataclysm, shot off into the distance past a time capsule containing a Superman cape and a Bat-Signal suggests not only an act of sowing the seeds of basic superhero archetypes (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) in human history, but also that Morrison is subtly reusing an idea he lent to Mark Millar in Superman: Red Son, where the hero necessitates his or her own creation. Read between the panels and realize Morrison just wrote the DCU creation story and nobody noticed. It’s less subtle than the Red Son ending, but it’s also on a much grander scale.

It’s clear that Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne is meant to break down Batman into all of his component yet paradoxical elements as he travels through time. Ever since his JLA run, Morrison has made Batman a bit of a pet character, going so far as having Superman refer to him as “the most dangerous man on the planet,” and often putting Batman in the position of succeeding where other superheroes fail--to the point where some fans have dubbed him a Bat-God of sorts.

Morrison’s cavemen perceive Wayne as such, referring to him a “Shining One” as he towers over them. As Batman becomes the leader of the cavemen and battles a young Vandal Savage, we see the primitive struggle of “good versus evil” that courses through the veins of all superhero fiction, as well as the basic premise of Batman as a man literally wearing the skin of a bat. In the Stone Age he’s referred to as a god, but as he’s whisked away into the next era he’s immediately addressed as “Master Demon.” Thus, we can expect the next issue to evaluate Batman’s more supernatural, demonic elements.

It’s not shocking that Morrison breaks down Batman in this way, but it is shocking that he’s doing it in what is clearly an editorially mandated miniseries that meant to get from Status Quo A (no Bruce Wayne) to Status Quo B (see: the title). This series shows Morrison’s devotion to these characters, and the story will clearly fit in thematically with the rest of his Batman run, which has broken down the character by addressing his entire fictional history--from the grim to the silly.

By showing us the different threads that make-up the tapestry of the mythos, Morrison reminds us what makes Batman such a special and enduring character.

Chris Kiser:

With the right mindset and a little bit of work, it’s possible to read this first issue of Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne as a creative re-imagining of the Batman mythos. From the proper perspective, it looks like a very insightful exploration of all that makes the franchise tick.

After all, this issue directly picks up from the last scene of genius writer Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis, the heady mini-series of a year ago that cast the DC Universe as the definitive iteration of an eternally repeating hero story. Why not use this follow-up tale as a vehicle for exploring the timeless and universal application of the Batman legend?

Thus, as Bruce Wayne finds himself mysteriously transported back in time to who-knows-when B.C., it’s conceivable to think of the primitive civilization there as a sort of prototypical Gotham City. The land’s roving band of cave-brutes, led by the murderous Vandal Savage, is not unlike the street gangs and organized crime that once held Gotham in a grip of terror.

Likewise, though his time traveling experience seems to have left his memory damaged, Bruce still manages to recall enough of his true identity to take on the role of a prehistoric Batman. He strikes fear in the heart of wrongdoers as he dons the guise of a giant bat creature and makes use of the futuristic tools in his utility belt--reminding us that modern man can be just as superstitious as his primeval forbearers.

In this era, as in any other, the “Man of Bats” is able to become a symbol--not only terrorizing evil but also inspiring good. Once helpless, Savage’s prey, and even some of his minions, are empowered to stand up against the villain as soon as they witness the courageous acts of the hero who has emerged among them.

As a diehard Batman fan who has been especially pleased with the approach Morrison has brought to the character, I ought to be eating this issue up. Yet, to be perfectly honest, my reaction to the tale here was lukewarm at best.

Despite the potential validity of my interpretation, which I think Morrison would agree with, there’s little that the tone of this comic does to encourage readers to look beyond a simple literal reading. Even when the opportunity presents itself to endorse a powerful statement about the immutability of myth, Morrison’s script seems content to keep things surface level.

In this way, The Return of Bruce Wayne resembles any one of a number of Batman Elseworlds stories from the 1990s. Rather than developing a thesis about the endurance of the Dark Knight throughout the ages, Morrison is merely contributing yet another piece of supporting evidence toward that assertion.

Ultimately, I think the success of this series will be in its cumulative effect, giving us multiple implementations of the Batman template in rapid succession. At this point in the game, however, we’re only at phase one, where Morrison’s master strategy is at its most basic.

Dave Wallace:

The first issue of Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne is as much a sequel to Final Crisis as it is a furtherance of Grant Morrison’s current Batman work, continuing the story that began in the final pages of the writer’s big crossover event of a couple of years ago.

There are plenty of connections to Final Crisis here: we see the story of the stone-age war between Anthro’s tribe and Vandal Savage continue, we get plenty of references to the New Gods (or “shining ones”), we find out what happened to the contents of the rocket sent back in time at the end of that miniseries, and, crucially, we see what happened to Bruce Wayne after he left Anthro’s cave following the final pages of Final Crisis #7.

Happily, the book manages to stay fairly focused on Bruce’s story, even if we don’t really manage to get into his head yet (thanks to a clever device that sees Bruce’s dialogue warped into a barely-readable phonetic language that conveys the difficulty that the cavemen have in understanding his modern-day English), which means we don’t get much of a sense of how Bruce might be reacting to his predicament or making plans to get out of it. Instead, it’s a fairly action-based issue that sees Bruce do battle with Savage’s tribe before being whisked away to a new time period to set up the next issue.

Chris Sprouse is a good choice of artist for the tale, providing a feeling of weight and solidity (strengthened by Karl Story’s inking) worthy of the Stone Age, and gifting his characters with square-set features that convey the same sense of rugged masculinity that we saw in his work on Tom Strong. Morrison spoke in the past about trying to capture the “hairy-chested love God” version of Batman, and Sprouse’s depiction is probably as close as any of Morrison’s artists have come to matching that description.

The big moments of the story are sold well by the art, such as Bruce emerging from his cave, being staked out on the ground by his foes, and launching an attack on Savage’s crew dressed in the skin of a giant Bat (which receives no more justification than the fact that it looks cool--which is enough, I guess). Sprouse also copes well when called upon to convey smaller details of the story purely through the art (such as the disintegration of the contents of the rocket with the exception of Superman’s indestructible cape).

This first issue is an enjoyable comic that is unlikely to disappoint those who have been looking forward to seeing the “real Batman” back in action under the pen of Morrison. Still, aside from the connections to Final Crisis, it’s a surprisingly straightforward story--especially considering that the tale of Bruce’s return has been so long in the making, and that this first issue is almost double-sized.

There are a few interesting little touches--such as the caveman analogues of Robin and the Joker, the visual reference to the well-known Batman story in which Bane broke Bruce’s back, and the occurrence of an eclipse that appears to have some connection to clues found in the Batcave by Dick Grayson in the most recent issue of Batman and Robin. For the moment, though, the big questions of the story (such as who or what is controlling Bruce’s Quantum Leap-esque journey through time, and exactly how much Bruce understands about his predicament) remain unanswered. Hopefully, future issues will delve into these subjects in more detail.

The only part of the issue that bothered me slightly was the appearance of some time-travelling members of the JLA towards the end of the story. Despite setting up an interesting mystery that I’m keen to see explained in more detail, the entire page felt out of place, in terms of both the tone of the storytelling and the quality of the writing and art. I’m hoping that the page was included as an integral part of Morrison’s story and not as an editorially mandated plug for the tie-in miniseries Time Masters: Vanishing Point that DC will be releasing to run alongside this main event.

Thom Young:

After much hype, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne is finally here. The obvious problem with a lot of hype is that it becomes almost impossible for the work to live up to the expectations that the hype helped create. Fortunately, I try to not get too caught up in marketing hype.

The above is a paraphrase of the opening to my review of Final Crisis #1, which is appropriate in two ways. First, The Return of Bruce Wayne is a direct sequel of Final Crisis, as this first issue contains direct continuations of two of the plot points from the earlier series:
  • The time capsule that was launched into the time stream by Lois Lane, Supergirl, Jimmy Olson, and Captain Marvel on pages 6 and 7 of Final Crisis #7;

  • Bruce Wayne living in a cave with the aged Anthro, as shown in the two-page epilogue of Final Crisis #7.
Second, the opening splash page of Return of Bruce Wayne #1 is sort of its own sequel to the opening three-page spread of Final Crisis #1. In my review of the first chapter of Final Crisis, I referred to those opening three pages as a sort of triptych. Of course, it wasn’t an actual triptych since pages two and three formed a single image, not two.

In a way, the opening page of Return of Bruce Wayne #1 is the third image that completes the triptych. Thus, it would have been great if J.G. Jones could have penciled it. Nevertheless, Chris Sprouse (who has always been among my favorite comic book illustrators ever since I first saw his work on DC’s early 1990s version of The Legion of Super-Heroes) has done a commendable job in continuing the theme of Jones’s three-page opening to Final Crisis #1 (I only wish colorist Guy Major had paid more attention to details, but more on that problem a few paragraphs from now).

As I mentioned in my review of that earlier issue, Final Crisis #1 opened with a full-page image of Anthro, the First Boy on Earth, being startled by . . . something or someone off panel who says (albeit telepathically), "Man.":
Of course, the name "Anthro" comes from the Greek word anthrōpos, which means man--and so the telepathic balloon on the page containing the word Man is simultaneously a salutation, a description of the species we're seeing, and a translation of the boy's name.

[Pages two and three are] a two-page spread of Anthro facing Metron of the New Gods--with Metron's telepathic balloon explaining, "I am Metron." This picture by J.G. Jones is a beautiful image of a Cro-Magnon man (Anthro) confronting a god (Metron).

In Hebrew, the Tetragrammaton YHWH (or Yahweh, the name of the Hebrew god in the Old Testament ) translates as "I am." In essence, then, Morrison has Metron saying unto Anthro, "Yahweh Metron"--which would translate out of the Hebrew and Greek as "I am the measure" since metron is the Greek word for measure or meter (as I'm sure Kirby knew when he named his New God of Knowledge).

However, the fact that it's Metron saying this to Anthro also calls to mind the motto of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Protagoras (about 490–420 BC), "Anthrōpos metron"--which translates as "Man is the measure (of all things)."

Of all the writers working in comics today, Morrison is one of the few who would play with these meanings within a rich mythological scene in which a Cro-Magnon youth has a literal epiphany by meeting a god who essentially says, "Anthro, Yahweh Metron" or "Man, I am the Measure"--as in God is the measure of Man, or that to which humans must aspire.
Now, on the opening page of Return of Bruce Wayne we have the continuation of that theme as Anthro’s son and grandson (Anthro and Agóri, respectively--or “Man” and “Boy” in English) inspect the time capsule from Final Crisis #7 along with three compatriots (Surly, Giant, and Joker--yes, even 30,000 years in the past Batman meets a Joker, though he’s an ally here).

The presence of the time capsule (which was apparently the same rocket in which Kal-El came to Earth as an infant) indicates that Man has measured up to God--which is reinforced by the fact that Superman’s Kryptonian surname, El is the Hebrew word for God (as opposed to Yahweh, which is the Hebrew name for God).*

In other words, in the form of the superhero, Man has become the Nietzschean Overman and has measured up to the status of God.

As my colleagues above have indicated, the rest of the issue is a fairly straight action-oriented story in which Bruce Wayne squares off against Vandar Adg (aka “Chief Savage” and, eventually, Vandal Savage).

In addition to that opening page that is essentially a sequel to the opening pages of Final Crisis (and to the continuation of the time capsule rocket), I also liked that Anthro is now known as “Old Anthro” (or “Old Man,” specifically) as his son is now known as Anthro/Man. Similarly, Old Anthro’s grandson is “Boy” (or “Agóri,” if we want to maintain the Greek language version of the names), and he is in the process of becoming “Young Anthro.”

I also enjoyed the apparent continuation of elements from DC’s Anthro series from 1968-69. In Anthro #2-3, a tribe of ape-like men attacked Anthro and his tribe. Even though they were drawn as if they were Australopithecines, such a tribe 30,000 years ago would have had to have actually been Neanderthals--which means Vandal Savage’s tribe (first seen in Final Crisis #1) is most likely the same tribe of hominids that appeared in Anthro #2-3.

(Unfortunately, due to his incorrect assumption about human evolution, Anthro’s creator, Howard Post, set up a situation in which Anthro was a Cro-Magnon boy whose parents were Neanderthals--i.e., Post apparently believed that Cro-Magnons were a mutant offshoot of Neanderthals. Historically, though, Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals were two separate races of hominids that existed on Earth simultaneously for several thousand years, and Morrison’s recent work involving Anthro revises Post’s character to be more accurate anthropologically.)

I only wish we were told more about the mother of Anthro’s son. She is referred to as “White Fawn” in this issue, but the names of Anthro’s two wives in his polygamous marriage were Nima and Embra (see Anthro #6, “The Marriage of Anthro”). However, since Nima was a brunette and Embra was a blonde, I’m guessing that “White Fawn” is Embra--especially since she was Anthro’s true love, and he was forced into the three-way wedding with Nima as part of a tribal custom after Nima and Embra fought (to a draw) for the right to marry him.

As for what I didn’t like about this issue--and why I can’t give it a five-bullet rating:
  • Colorist Guy Major doesn’t appear to have bothered looking at the rocket that was sent out as a time capsule in Final Crisis #7. It was dark blue with red tail fins--essentially a slightly modified version of baby Kal-El’s Kryptonian rocket as it appeared in ”The Origin of Superman” from Amazing World of Superman #1 by E. Nelson Bridwell, Curt Swan, and Murphy Anderson. However, instead of dark blue with red tail fins (as it also appeared in Final Crisis), Major colored it light blue with dark metallic blue tail fins. Additionally, either Surly or Joker (they look like twins) speculate that the rocket is a piece of the sky that has fallen to Earth: "Like a flake off skin or flint? It’s the same blue sky is.”

    Unfortunately, Major didn’t color the sky blue; he colored it red. He must have thought that the sky should be colored red since this series is a sequel to one of DC’s multiverse-shattering Crisis events. Clearly, though, the Cro-Magnons in the story are referencing a blue sky as they look at the rocket, and either Surly or Joker notes that the rocket is the same color the sky was “when it first fell.”

    Major has had difficulties before in coloring Morrison’s Batman stories (blood on the Joker in Batman #676 that shouldn't have been there, and the green and black checkerboard motif that should have been a red and black checkerboard motif in Batman #679). This issue apparently continues in the tradition of such coloring mistakes as it seems that Major doesn’t actually read the dialog of the scripts he's working from (the reference to blue skies) or check past issues (the specific coloring of the rocket). He may only read the directions that Morrison inserts, but he should take the time to read the entire story.

  • Though it’s understandable, Morrison doesn’t bother to address the language problems that Batman and Anthro’s tribe would have. In fact, when Giant refers to one of his compatriots as “Joker,” Bruce Wayne growls in reaction to the name of his archenemy. In reality, though, Bruce Wayne would not have been able to understand the language of Anthro’s tribe (and their equivalent word for joker).

    Given that Anthro’s tribe would most likely occupy a region of France near the Spanish border, their language would probably be a Gaulish dialect form of Proto-Indo-European--if we accept the Paleolithic Continuity Theory of how far back Proto-Indo-European was being spoken. However, let’s just say that when Darkseid’s Omega Beams sent Batman 30,000 years into the past, they also gave him the ability to understand (but not to speak) a Gaulish dialect form of Proto-Indo-European. (Yay! A No-Prize for me!)

  • As Dave pointed out in his review, the sudden appearance of Superman, Green Lantern, Booster Gold, and Rip Hunter seems out of place. While it’s clear the page was penciled by Chris Sprouse, the heavy inks on that page make it appear as if it is in a different illustration style from the rest of the pages in the issue. Additionally, Green Lantern delivers some expository dialog that he clearly should not have enough knowledge to convey at this point in the story: “Batman has no memory of who he is. He has no idea what’s happening to him.”

    How is that Green Lantern knows that Bruce Wayne is suffering from amnesia? Is it because he discovered that information in the Time Masters: Vanishing Point series that Dave referenced at the end of his review? By the way, the first issue of Time Masters: Vanishing Point is scheduled to go on sale on July 21--the day that Return of Bruce Wayne #4 is scheduled to go on sale--yet DC is marketing it as a tie-in miniseries, and the promotional copy on their Web site states:
    "The Search for Batman" starts here! Vanishing Point – where time ends – is tearing itself apart, and one of the keys to keeping reality from being torn asunder is finding exactly where Bruce Wayne is in the time stream! Rip Hunter puts together a high-powered band of Time Masters to travel throughout history in search of the World's Greatest Detective, but can even the combined might and skill of Superman, Green Lantern and Booster Gold help the Time Master pinpoint where Batman went at the end of FINAL CRISIS?

    DCU fans won't want to miss this 6-issue companion series to the highly anticipated BATMAN: THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE.
    I agree with Dave that the inclusion of the page featuring these “Time Masters” seems to be an editorially mandated intrusion into Morrison’s story to make it appear that the so-called tie-in series is actually an intricate part of Morrison’s concept rather than just an attempt by DC to milk the “event” with a peripheral series that they want readers to buy (but which I won’t be buying)--and the fact that the first issue of Time Masters comes out when Morrison’s series is two-thirds through seems to be a rather telling detail.
Anyway, had Major colored the rocket and the sky correctly, and had the page featuring the “Time Masters” not intruded into the story, I would have given this issue another half bullet--and possibly a full five-bullet rating. As it is, though, this series is off to a good start and I am eagerly looking forward to subsequent chapters.

My only regret is that the three Cro-Magnon companions of Anthro’s relatives weren’t named Brauna, Artug, and Lura--the three Cro-Magnons that Dick Grayson met when Professor Carter Nichols sent him back in time in Star-Spangled Comics #71--and that no one in Anthro’s tribe referenced Rog, the Cro-Magnon that Batman and Robin aided when Prof. Nichols sent them back in Batman #93 (“The Caveman Batman”). In fact, the plot of The Return of Bruce Wayne #1 is almost identical to the plot of "The Caveman Batman":
Batman and Robin make the acquaintance of their Stone Age counterpart [Rog, aka Tiger Man] and help him defeat the ruthless Borr, the leader of a band of brutal cavemen who have been tyrannizing the local cave dwellers. . . .
(The Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes: Volume 1--Batman, 355)
It would have been great if Anthro's tribe had referred to Bruce Wayne as "Rog" and to Vandal Savage as "Borr." Additionally, there was World’s Finest Comics #138, “The Secret of the Captive Cavemen,” in which Prof. Nichols sent Batman, Robin, and Superman back in time to prevent contemporary extraterrestrial invaders, from kidnapping Cro-Magnons to use as slaves for mining operations on their red-sun-orbiting planet--though that would have been a difficult story for Morrison to allude to.

Anyway, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #1 is an intriguing opening chapter that is rich in allusions and motifs (but could have been even richer). It's a stunning piece of work when taken on its own--separated from the so-called tie-in series that DC is trying to convince fans is necessary and significant.

* Additionally, Superman’s Kryptonian first name, Kal, could be considered a short form of the Hebrew name Caleb (Kaleb), which means “Faithful.” Thus, Superman’s Kryptonian name could literally translate from Hebrew as “the faithful of God” (just as Gabriel (Gabri-El) translates from Hebrew as “the hero of God”).

What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!