On his final time bounce, Superman, Green Lantern, Booster Gold, and Rip Hunter catch up to Bruce Wayne, but is he trying to save them or strand them at the end of time?
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That is how I felt after reading this issue that should have wrapped up the story of the return of Batman and presented the dawning of a new day in the Batman universe. Instead, I am left on the precipice of wanting to just drop Batman comic books entirely because I am so freaking frustrated over this debacle.
Look, I never claimed to be the most brilliant mind out there, but when you have to try this damn hard to absorb the contents of a comic book something is just plain wrong. Imagine someone who has just dipped their toes into Batman’s adventures; having this last issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne as your initiation into the character would be akin to literary suicide.
At the root of the problems with this issue (and the story in general) is the writer, Grant Morrison. I have stated in the past that Morrison can be an extremely excellent and effective writer when he reels in his out-there ideas and makes them palatable. However, in the case of The Return of Bruce Wayne, he just allows the broad strokes to be the central theme at the heart of this book, and the story just fell flat on its face.
When you place The Return of Bruce Wayne against his Batman and Robin, you see that this series is a drastically inferior product. Same writer, same characters, totally different outcome.
In Batman and Robin, Morrison does a magnificent job of relaying his themes and ideas to the reader in a comprehensible (and thus enjoyable) manner. However, a comprehensible story is definitely not the case with this offering. Heck, did Morrison just turn Bruce Wayne into the DC equivalent of Tony Stark? Iron Bat? WTF?!?
The Return of Bruce Wayne #6 was the most disappointing comic that I have read in a long, long time. Hell, even the art was a letdown considering the promise of this series.
Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #6 opens at Vanishing Point, which is the End of Time, where the keepers of history’s endpoint are dwarfed by gargantuan representations of Batman’s origin: the pearls yanked from Martha Wayne’s neck, the bell Bruce Wayne rings to summon Alfred when he realizes his true calling in life, and Joe Chill’s handgun. These are gigantic icons of the Batman mythos; each manipulated by human hands to create the Dark Knight.
Before we know it, Bruce Wayne appears on the floor, covered in smoke and bits of flame, as if conjured by heavenly explosion–a Promethean image that Lee Garbett renders as a Jack Kirby splash page with Bruce’s facial features rendered in Kirby’s style, complete with intricate, circle-laden Mister Miracle designs in the background. You can almost imagine the art being accompanied by a Kirbyesque narrative using such loud, declarative exclamations as: “IF I DON’T GET BACK TO THE PRESENT, TIME ITSELF WILL DIE!”
This is a Batman comic, by the way. Y’know, the guy who punches muggers in alleys.
As Morrison has followed Bruce Wayne on his hurdles through history, we’ve seen Batman in several choice action figure forms: Caveman Strike Batman, Puritan Monster Hunt Batman, High Seas Swordfight Batman, Rawhide Ambush Batman, Crime Noir Investigation Batman, and, now, Future Laser Batman.
This last issue is essentially showcasing the superhero element of Batman–the one missing piece of the Bat-puzzle Morrison’s been putting together since his first issue–the guy who pals around with the Justice League and keeps a UFO in his garage: Jack Kirby’s Batman. His cape and cowl even have a glowingly beautiful Kirby Crackle as Wonder Woman introduces the garment to Future Laser Batman.
And Future Laser Batman fulfills an idea Morrison teased waaay back in 1997: Batgod. Back then, Batman was the guy Superman called the Most Dangerous Man on Earth, the guy who figured out the Hyperclan were filthy white martians and, a bit later, and the guy who fought gorillas with a robot Justice League that he stores on Pluto for just such a purpose. Now, he has the power to invent time machines. And he defeats the entire Justice League (i.e., Congorilla, Donna Troy, and Starfire) with bats. And he doesn’t even need balloon tails to talk!
I love you, Future Laser Batman.
Typically, Morrison’s great talent in the superhero genre is his ability to reiterate the main appeal of an ongoing character whilst advancing that property beyond its current (often stagnant) status. His JLA often had the team split up to fight increasingly huge, high-concept threats; New X-Men built on ideas of evolution and mutants as an emerging minority; All-Star Superman took the gloriously goofy Silver Age Superman and sent it rocketing into a hi-fi sci-fi future.
With Batman, however, Morrison’s been in a cycle of review and reinvent. His initial Batman run was about reintroducing the entire history of the character, encompassing such aspects as Bill Finger’s sensory deprivation chambers from Batman #156, Neal Adams’s hairy-chested Batman, and Frank Miller’s lightning crashes. In his summary of Bat-history, Morrison has added his own era in the saga with Batman and Robin exploring a futuristic (but, curiously, set in the present) Batman-after-Bruce, with new, unrecognizable villains and flying Batmobiles.
In The Return of Bruce Wayne, Morrison doesn’t examine the history of Batman, but the Batman in history–breaking down the character into his basic building blocks (ur-hero with animal totem, pseudo-supernatural outsider, theatrical pirate, romantic gunslinger, detective, and superhero capable of murdering a gorilla with electricity) and, in the process, figuring out how to reinvent Batman for his next phase.
For Morrison, Batman has always been around; he just needed to be assembled. The scheduling of the book went awry, as it was supposed to be released before the final installment of Morrison’s Batman and Robin in which we end up with Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne starring in “Too Many Batmen.” Morrison has chosen to advance the Batman concept further in his upcoming series Batman, Inc.–because two Batmen cheapens the franchise, but a gaggle of them is a high-concept reinvention of the whole shebang.
Before Morrison left New X-Men, he toyed with the idea of revolutionizing the book yet again, but realized the inherent silliness of revamping your own revamp. However, for some r
eason Morrison sees more to do with Batman, or perhaps Batman and Robin was just a step in getting to Batman, Inc..
The climax of The Return of Bruce Wayne is where Morrison takes Batman’s superheroics and collides them with his thematic interests about the power of ideas and stories, and of characters necessitating their own creation. Like any proper superhero comic, our hero fights an impossible foe. Technically, though, the villain isn’t a physical threat, but an idea. To defeat him, Batman becomes an idea himself, and he’s made physical by his superhero compatriots (stand-ins for the creators who’ve engineered him over the years, methinks–particularly Red Robin baldy cowl = stand-in for baldy Grant Morrison). They hand him his cowl and tell him Gotham City’s in trouble.
The final piece. Congratulations, superheroes, you made a Batman.
Morrison ends The Return of Bruce Wayne perfectly–not with big ideas made textual or a denouement with “meaningful” narration about how great the Caped Crusader is as he stops some bad guys, but with a statement: Batman’s back and he’s going to punch everything. It’s the title made physical, a moment on par with “You’re WRONG! BATMAN AND ROBIN WILL NEVER DIE!”
Best of all, in these years when my reading pendulum’s swung over to Marvel and shows little sign of returning, The Return of Bruce Wayne #6 reminds me why I love the DC Universe; it’s a world where Red Robin can say things like “When Darkseid shot you back in TIME, I was the one who KNEW that corpse couldn’t be YOU” and not sound completely fucking insane.
That’s because everything in the DC Universe is completely fucking insane.
The Return of Bruce Wayne #6 is a slight letdown, as science hero battles on space platforms is pretty much what this one is all about even though Bruce and the JLA find themselves at the “heat death” of the universe–the event horizon of all that is, and other apocalyptic things the time archivist drones keep chattering about (as they work feverishly to ensure a possibility of survival). The period epochs that formed the high concept of this mini-series are missed here in the finale, as one can witness the reset buttons being pushed even amidst the sense of urgency.
Still, this emotional response doesn’t overshadow my other feelings about the issue and the series as a whole, as it is also quite satisfying to witness events come to climax and conclusion–especially events we’ve been following from Final Crisis, through the excellent Morrison stories in Batman, to the endless invention of Batman & Robin. I’m sure there are aspects of these intertwined tales and characters we’ll be unraveling for years to come. Just the succession of villains, all to some extent aware of each other, has been a tour-de-force. The Joker supplanted by Dr. Hurt in the main title, Pyg and the Red Hood and Flamingo in the team-up book, and of course Darkseid as the ultimate emptiness trying to negate it all from behind the scenes.
Those are a lot of threads to tie up all at once, and if it leaves Bruce more of a god-like superior being than a man, we have only to be reminded of his family ties (hopefully coming in future stories) to bring him back down to Gotham.
He’s supposed to be exceptional, of course. However, as Wonder Woman explains this issue (and who better, and how nice to see her acting like herself somewhere in DC-time), the hubris involved in striking down even a dark god like Darkseid always demands a cost from fragile mortal flesh–which is why the JLA will always be part of the Morrison Batman world. Bruce needs his allies. He’s earned them, and not just the ones he trained himself.
The art is a weak point in the issue. While Garbett provides a decent Kirby-esque Fourth World pastiche at a needed moment, most of his sequences are standard DC house style, adequate depictions of muscular guys standing amidst flashy lights. Perez is a wee bit less stiff and more expressive on his pages, and the styles don’t clash at all, but we’ve had the distinctive work of Georges Jeanty, Frazer Irving, Ryan Sook, and Chris Sprouse on this series, so it’s too bad the final issue has to settle for competence rather than inspiration. That damned hyperfauna, not to mention the “bush robots,” could have been a lot weirder.
My first impulse upon reading the overwhelming, amazingly ambitious and complex comic that is Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #6 was to attempt to craft an extensive review that analysed every section of the book, explaining as much of its symbolism, meaning and connections to previous parts of Grant Morrison’s Batman run as I could manage.
However, I quickly realised that, whilst I’d probably enjoy such an exercise, I really don’t have the time to put together such an exhaustive analysis by the time the slugfest review is posted on Sunday–and I probably would have lost most of ComicsBulletin’s readers by the end of my ramblings anyway. Maybe writing an overview of Morrison’s entire Batman run is a project that I’ll attempt at some point in future, but not as a single review of a single issue.
Instead, I’ll try and summarise what makes this issue so spectacular without delving too far into the details. After all, a big part of the pleasure of reading this issue is in what readers can bring to it in terms of their own interpretation of Morrison’s meaning, and in making their own connections to other parts of the writer’s run on the batbooks.
On a surface level, it’s a glorious romp in which Kirby-esque concepts (some of them originated by Kirby himself) are pulled into the service of an outlandish time-travelling story about Bruce Wayne bouncing around in time and doing battle with the darkest evil of the DC Universe. There are big fight sequences, challenging sci-fi ideas and well-handled smaller emotional moments, all of which provide a perfectly fitting end to Bruce’s Quantum Leap-style Odyssey through time–and bring him right up to date for his reappearance at the beginning of last week’s Batman and Robin #16.
On another level, the book brings together countless different ideas from Morrison’s past work on the character, touching on numerous elements of his Batman and Batman and Robin stories, but also including references to older projects like Arkham Asylum and 52.
It’s nice to see Morrison explicitly endorse some of the theories about his run that many readers have been kicking around in their heads for years. For example, we get confirmation here that Darkseid was indeed using Hurt as an avatar and a potential host body, something that many readers suspected way back during “Batman RIP”. We also get further information about the time-loop involving Darkseid, Barbatos, the Miagani tribe and Batman that was explored in Batman and Robin #16, adding even further depth and complexity to the cycle of symbolism and inspiration that ultimately saw Darkseid become the architect of his own downfall at the hands of Batman in Final Crisis.
And talking of Final Crisis, this issue gives us some of the most direct continuations yet of the ideas that were played with by Morrison in that series, whether it’s the notion of the DC universe as a living story or the destiny of the New Gods to create a Fifth World, the hyper-adapter’
s final fate echoing the backwards trajectory of the god-killing bullet, or smaller elements like the like the technique of using fractured layouts to convey time dilation and compression.
Finally, on yet another level, the issue functions as a definitive statement on Batman as a character. As Bruce fights off Darkseid’s hyper-adapter, thinking his way out of the ultimate ‘dead end’ in a manner that not only saves his own life but that of the entire universe, Morrison delves into the character of the man and gives us a strong, confident vision of the kind of character that the writer thinks Bruce is.
At times, Morrison is boldly literal with his examination of the Batman mythos–such as during a scene that sees the archivists of the future catalogue the key elements and symbols of the Batman legend. There’s also a strikingly visceral scene in which Morrison literally purges Bruce of darkness in a way that feels reminiscent of the Nanda Parbat rebirth sequence way back in 52 #30 (an issue in which Bruce spoke the line “My soul feels black and I feel sick”, a complaint that feels even more appropriate here), but which is really about the writer setting out his stall for where he wants to take the character next in terms of tone.
Other times, it’s Morrison’s storytelling techniques that clue us in to the bigger-picture vision that the writer has for the character, with some pages almost literally creating a collage of Batman’s entire life (through overlapping panels and seeming visual non-sequiturs) that symbolise the idea of a multi-faceted character that can still maintain some semblance of consistency and internal logic, and who can still be boiled down to a few key character traits.
Chief among these character traits is one that might come as a surprise to many readers, but which seems obvious when Morrison points it out. It’s unexpectedly heartwarming to see the end of this issue point towards the idea that, despite the loner tag often associated with Batman, the character draws real strength from his friends and extended family. Having Bruce acknowledge this ‘secret’ is a far more meaningful and important rebirth for the character than a simple “death” storyline could have provided, and it suggests that the next (and final?) phase of Morrison’s gigantic bat-opus could provide something completely different to what we’ve been used to so far.
To quote from Morrison’s second “Last Rites” issue of Batman (issue #683): “Batman’s big secret was the classic whodunnit. Only it’s not about who killed Batman, but who kept him alive all these years.” In light of this issue’s closing revelation, I can’t wait to see what Morrison has planned for the character when he starts actively recruiting a wider support network in Batman Inc..