I read Batman #673 three times before tackling this review. It’s rare that I feel the need to read a comic book more than once before writing about it. Hell, it’s rare that I feel a need to do anything more than once before writing about it.
After my first reading of this issue, I had a vague idea of what was going on--Batman's life was “flashing before his eyes” (so to speak) as he was dying of a heart attack on the roof of the Gotham City Police Department headquarters (see issue #672). However, it wasn’t all of his life, it was selected moments of it--much of which seemed to focus on Joe Chill, the man who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents on that fateful night when he was just a young boy.
However, it was the Joe Chill scenes that bothered me. Some of them didn’t seem to be ones that Bruce “Batman” Wayne should have known about. Thus, they shouldn’t be flashing before his eyes. Morrison had made such a “point of view” error in issue #663, and I wanted to see if he made another such error in this issue.
During my second reading, I saw something I had missed the first time. Batman is indeed present when Joe Chill is in his office telling his henchmen how Batman torments him. Batman is actually disguised as one of Chill’s henchmen, so Morrison did not make a point of view error after all.
This story does work as one in which portions of Batman’s life are flashing through his mind as he’s dying. However, my second reading also revealed that there’s more to this issue than Batman simply reliving past moments in a semi-delusional state as he’s dying. In the second and third panels of the first page, Batman’s narration explains to us:
The Thögal Ritual is one of the most highly advanced and dangerous forms of meditation. During a seven-week retreat known as Yangti, the practitioner undergoes an experience designed to simulate death and after-death. And rebirth, too.Then, in the fifth panel he tells us that this is the “1st day” of his Thögal Ritual, which is an actual meditational ritual that is used in Tibetan spiritual practices. Ever since he was working as a co-writer on 52, Morrison has focused a great deal on Tibetan mysticism playing a role in Batman’s life--and this story is yet another piece of that part of Morrison’s puzzle.
The Tibetan “thod rgal” is a noun phrase that literally means "leap-over," and the Thögal ritual is a Dzokchen* practice from the Bön tradition of Tibetan spiritualism in which the subject transcends (or leaps over) to a greater awareness and understanding. The Thögal practitioner explores, and comes to realize, the spontaneous self-perfection of everything.
Reportedly, during the Thögal meditation, the subject has visions that then give direction to further exploration. In this case, if the scenes flashing through Batman’s mind are his Thögal visions, then it would indicate that his meditation is directed towards “Who He Is and How He Came to Be” (which, of course, is the title of the two-page origin story that was published in Batman #1 in 1940).
Bill Finger’s “The Origin of Batman” was published in Batman #47 in 1948, and it is that story on which Morrison bases his current issue--which he acknowledges in the credits: “(with thanks to Bill Finger).” In that issue that was published almost exactly 60 years ago, Batman sees a “radio-photo” of the man who owns the Land-Sea-Air Transport Company, and he instantly recognizes the man who killed his parents all those years ago.
Instantly, he is given the name that has eluded him for so long: Joe Chill. In Finger’s story, Commissioner Gordon tells Batman that Joe Chill bought out the former owner of the LSA Transport Company. However, in Morrison’s story, Chill tells his henchmen that he “Built the Land, Sea, Air Transport Company up from nothing.”
The main point of divergence from Finger’s original Joe Chill story is in Morrison showing Batman “haunting” Chill for an extended period of time. In the original tale from 60 years ago, Batman threatened to haunt Chill in that manner, and Chill envisioned what it would be like to have Batman constantly watching him from the shadows for years on end.
In other words, Morrison takes Batman’s threat from Finger’s story and makes it a reality--to the point where Chill finally kills himself with the gun that he had used years earlier to kill Bruce Wayne’s parents. In a profound twist, Batman hands Chill the gun, which he had kept “all these years” since his parents were murdered.
Some may be shocked to see Batman not only carrying a gun (one panel even shows him holding a gun and wearing a holster on his utility belt), but handing Chill the gun that he fully intends Chill to use in the commission of suicide. However, this depiction of Batman is in keeping with Bob Kane’s initial version of the character during the first year of stories in Detective Comics.
In fact, the homage to the Golden Age Batman is one of the things I really enjoyed about this issue. Tony Daniel does a great job of depicting Batman’s various “looks” from the Golden Age. Some panels show Batman in his 1939-40 costume--with the bat ears on the cowl splayed outward and gloves that come up just above his wrist. Other panels show the mid- to late-1940s costume in which the ears look more like truncated bunny ears rather than bat ears.
In one interesting panel, Daniel shows Batman with the late-1940s ears but with the beard stubble that Frank Miller and Jim Lee currently have Batman sporting in All-Star Batman--and Robin (Dick Grayson) in that panel looks a lot like the Miller and Lee version of Robin as well.
There are places, though, where Daniel falters. In one panel showing the Gotham cityscape, some of the buildings are out of proportion in relation to the other buildings (and to the silhouettes of Joe Chill and one of his henchmen that are visible in two of the windows in the foreground).
In another scene, Morrison’s narrative has Bruce Wayne remembering a moment from when he was five-years old. However, Daniel draws young Bruce as being older than that--perhaps as old as ten or twelve. Despite these few missteps, Daniel does a good job of visualizing Morrison’s story. It seems he might become the “upper echelon Batman artist” that I thought he was capable of becoming when his appointment to the title was first announced.
The scene with the “five-year-old Bruce” is particularly interesting since the adult narrator identifies it as the moment he realized his parents were going to die--not necessarily soon at the hands of Joe Chill, but eventually. He realized that everyone eventually dies, and his parents would not be exceptions to this rule. He then has a “flash forward” vision of his own funeral--with Clark Kent, Oliver Queen, and two other men as the pallbearers (Dick Grayson and Hal Jordan, perhaps) followed by Alfred Pennyworth and Barbara Gordon (in her wheelchair).
It then seems that Bat-Mite (that mischievous imp “from another dimension” who first appeared in the Batman mythos in 1960. Is Bat-Mite showing young Bruce a vision of his own funeral, or is the imp merely an imaginary friend that Bruce had during his lonely childhood (but going back to a time before his parents were killed)?
In fact, is this story actually taking place as memories flashing through Batman’s mind while he’s dying on the roof of the GCPD headquarters, or is it a combination of memories and hallucinations that he is experiencing while undergoing a Thögal meditation?
At one point, he rules out that they could be hallucination flashbacks and flash forwards that he might have experienced while in a sensory deprivation tank experiment that he underwent for the US space program. (He wanted to see if he could get a glimpse into the mind of The Joker by undergoing sensory deprivation).
In the end, the flashbacks (and flash forwards) in this issue seem to have occurred while Batman was being resuscitated with a defibrillator by the demonic “third Batman imposter.” Nevertheless, the focus on the Thögal ritual (which Batman underwent “last year” in a cave in Nanda Parbat”) calls into question what Morrison has in mind for Batman’s eventual fate.
Most readers have undoubtedly read or heard the rumors that Morrison and DC are planning to have Bruce Wayne die so that one of the Robins can become the new Batman--with Bruce then undergoing resurrection as one of the New New Gods in Morrison’s Final Crisis resurrection of Kirby’s concepts.
I doubt that the rumor is true, but something sure seems to be afoot. Just as the Fourth World of Mayan mythology is set to end on December 21, 2012, Kirby’s Fourth World is ending now and in Morrison’s upcoming Final Crisis. Is Batman’s death and/or Thögal visions tied into the final crisis in the DC universe?
Is it the “final crisis” in the DC universe because the “Fifth World” universe is going to come into existence after Morrison’s series is completed?
I suspect that Bruce “Batman” Wayne will play a role in Final Crisis, but it won’t involve him being resurrected as a Fifth World New God. Whatever Morrison has in mind, he’s hooked me with this Batman series that seems ready to explore Tibetan spiritualism and hallucinatory states along with possible visitations by extraterrestrials and other-dimensional imps.
Morrison is packing his story with the intelligent and mind-bending content that I’ve come to expect from him, and I’m eager to see where this story takes us.
* Dzogchen is the natural, primordial state of every sentient being. It is a state of "great perfection" that can be achieved through meditation.
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