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Sunday Slugfest: Batman #701

Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2010
By: Thom Young

Grant Morrison
Tony Daniel (with Ian Hannin, colors)
DC Comics
"R.I.P., the Missing Chapter, Part One: The Hole in Things"

Now it can be told--the first of the lost chapters of Batman: RIP, one of the holes in the thing, that ties that earlier arc into The Return of Bruce Wayne!

Dave Wallace:
Shawn Hill:
Thom Young:

Dave Wallace:

Batman #701 feels like it should be an important chapter in Grant Morrison's epic Batman saga. It covers the period between Batman RIP and the start of Final Crisis, and it touches on plot points that some readers felt were neglected in the immediate aftermath of RIP--including the true nature of villain Dr. Hurt, Bruce Wayne's escape from the helicopter crash that saw him apparently "killed" before his reappearance in Final Crisis, and the supposed curse that apparently ensured that his confrontation with Darkseid would be his last case.

However, the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether this is a story that was worth telling in such detail. It's a fairly well-written and well-illustrated issue, which ties together several different elements of Morrison's Batman run comprehensively--but since much of what we learn in this issue could have already been inferred from existing issues of Batman, Final Crisis, and Batman and Robin, I can't help but feel that turning the clock back and revisiting the post-RIP period risks seeming redundant at this point.

That said, we do learn one or two details that enrich our understanding of present-day events in the Batman universe. There's a fairly explicit confirmation that Hurt's photographs exposing Thomas and Martha Wayne's debauched lifestyle were nothing more than high-quality fakes. A possible dream sequence suggests that the secret shrine to Barbatos seen in Batman and Robin was a hidden room that was known to Thomas and Martha Wayne, and to which Bruce was forbidden entry when he was a child.

The same possible dream sequence makes intriguing references to a "sickness at the root of the [Wayne] family tree" using language that evokes Darkseid's "black hole at the bottom of creation" in Final Crisis--which itself feels like it might be linked to Hurt's assertion that he is the "hole in things." I've long felt that there was a more tangible link between Darkseid and Hurt than was ever revealed in RIP or Final Crisis, and I'm hoping these vague references are leading towards a more definite revelation along those lines.

There's also another pleasing reference to the parallels that were established in Batman and Robin #13 between the story of Bruce's return and the Christian story of the resurrection of Jesus. As in Batman and Robin, we see references to the idea that, after apparently being "killed," Bruce will return to the land of the living in three days' time. I wasn't sure whether this was just a coincidence when it occurred in Batman and Robin, but this issue would seem to confirm that it's an intentional reference.

There are also plenty of enjoyable minor character moments that mark Morrison's take on Bruce Wayne as one of the most satisfying I've read. There's the acknowledgement that Bruce has helped to rehabilitate former criminals by giving them jobs at Waynetech (via a follow-up scene with a prostitute that we met earlier in Morrison's run).

There's also more of the ultra-preparedness that we saw in RIP, which helps to ensure that Batman is the ultimate survivor-- tempered with a resolutely human quality that helps to make his achievements seem even greater. I enjoyed his line about having earned his place on the JLA so convincingly that its members often forget that he's just a man.

Tony Daniel's artwork feels a little different here than it did in RIP, with slightly thicker lines and bolder finishes that lend the visuals a greater sense of solidity than we saw in that storyline. However, there's the same sense of creeping dread and darkness that permeated the earlier story--and the issue frequently employs the stark red-and-black colour scheme that was a visual motif during that arc.

Daniel pulls off subtler moments well, too, such as the tangled sheets that suggest a disturbed night's sleep for Bruce, or the visual metaphors of the splashpage that depicts the Batplane--an image of meticulous symmetry and polished design combined with a sense of claustrophobia (all of which reflects the idea of a trap "locking into place" around Bruce), set against a skewed skyline that reflects the twisted nature of the evil that Batman faces.

Ultimately, I think I can see why Morrison has chosen to revisit this relatively recent era and fill in the gaps between RIP and Final Crisis. Bruce's journey towards his fate at the hands of Darkseid carries a greater dramatic weight now that we know what's going to happen to him (and Morrison doesn't let us forget about it, frequently reminding us of how many "Days to Omega" Bruce has left). There's also a certain satisfaction in seeing exactly how Morrison sees Final Crisis fitting into his big Batman storyline, rather than leaving it to readers to piece together for themselves.

However, there's still a nagging sense that we don't actually learn a huge amount here that advances the plot currently running through the Batman books. Perhaps the concluding issue will offer some slightly more revelatory developments to justify this flashback more convincingly.

Shawn Hill

The "hole" of the title is a brilliant metaphor for this story. It is poetically used as a haunting refrain in Bruce's troubled thoughts. It's where Dr. Hurt said he'd be hiding, where he couldn't be found . . . in the gaps. Was there a hole in R.I.P. for this story to fit into? It seems there was.

What we get here, finally, is a look at Bruce in the month before Final Crisis. We saw this side of things from the outside; now we see it from the other side. It doesn't seem like we missed too much, but what we did miss was Bruce's side of things. We now see his inner monologue and his feelings after being betrayed by Jezebel Jet; tortured by his adversaries; and drugged, buried, and left for dead. He's hurting--in a stoic, Bruce Wayne sort of way, sure, but hurting nonetheless.

Alfred's professional sympathy for him is a palpable example of male bonding, informed by defined and established personal roles between the two men who are never less than intimate within their formality. He shoots Bruce some mighty troubled looks, and Bruce earns them. There's something poignant and a little frightening about seeing him return to the site of the fiery crash into the river, searching fruitlessly for Dr. Hurt's remains. He hasn't been broken, but he's been scarred.

It's vital to see details like Alfred serving Bruce some mulligatawny, and Bruce drinking it--and for Bruce to also make the wise choice to get some much-needed rest. Of course, his dreams are nightmares, as he knew before his head hit the pillow that the dregs of the drugs were still in his system.

All of these rather "night-in-the-life" moments for the Caped Crusader are given amazing depth and drama by Tony Daniel, who may just become one of Batman's signal artists yet. He's upped his game amazingly from two years ago, giving us iconic scenes of the Bat that emphasize his strength and weight and stature--even battered and abused, even after having just swam up from the bottom of Gotham's dirty river, even while tossing and turning in bed. Daniel's inks drench the pages in black--with stuttering shadows of batwings providing mood, but never obscuring story.

And when the JLA calls with news of Final Crisis . . . well, let's just say Clark with an angry look of outrage is not a face you want to be on the wrong side of. Bruce spends a few thoughts on his own predicament, with a rueful awareness that he's made his own bed as far as becoming a force even the god-like supers rely on, and then he gets to work.

Batman #701 is a great issue, a satisfying coda to Morrison's reign on Batman. It turns out "killing" him was the best way to invigorate Batman yet. In seeing how much he could suffer--bending without ever being broken--we found the real man again. We now get a chance to spend some final days with a man we wish could survive his personal apocalypse.

Thom Young:

Shawn is correct. The hole motif in Batman #701 is a brilliant metaphor for all of the plot holes and missing scenes that plagued the entirety of Grant Morrison's 2006-08 run on Batman. I mentioned several of those holes in my reviews of those issues back when they first were published, and I'm going to repeat them in this review.

Dave is correct, too. On the surface, the "hole" between Batman: RIP and Final Crisis seemed to have already been filled by the bridge that Morrison built in Batman #682-83. However, since it's unlikely Morrison could fill all of the holes in his two-year run on Batman, expanding on these post-RIP details makes the most sense as a way of filling the earlier holes with the idea of Dr. Hurt (The Devil) being "the hole in things . . . the piece that can never fit."

In my review of Batman #683 nearly two years ago I wrote, "I'm not convinced this story is coming together quite as Morrison intended. There seems to be too many pieces that don't fit--possibly due to delays that may have upset the coordination between Batman and Final Crisis.

In a way, Morrison seems to be admitting that I was correct. There were holes in his earlier Batman stories; there were pieces that didn't fit. Now we are told that the solution to those problems is that they were indications that The Devil was at work in the plot. It's a brilliant retroactive solution that Morrison has improvised here to address these shortcomings of his run:
  • The quick conclusion to the Agatha Christie-styled mystery with the "Club of Heroes" arc in Batman #667-69, which didn't have the revelatory dénouement that is one of the conventions of that type of mystery.

  • The rushed feeling of Bruce Wayne falling in love with Jezebel in Batman #566-81. Even though that range covers 16 issues spread over two years, four of those issues were fill-in issues not written by Morrison, and two were part of the "Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul" event that did not feature Jezebel. Of the other ten issues, she only appeared in seven of them--issues 656, 664-65, 676-77, and 680-81--and most of the pages in those issues were not devoted to Jezebel. It's no wonder the love affair seemed rushed, Morrison didn't take the time to actually develop it. In contrast, Steve Englehart used Silver St. Cloud in only seven issues, too, but they were consecutive--Detective Comics #470-76--and several of the pages were devoted to showing Bruce and Silver doing the things that dating couples do as they are falling in love.

    In order to sell the "shocking revelation" that Jezebel was a villain, Morrison needed to devote more attention to her as Bruce Wayne's legitimate compatriot and confidant--similar to how well Marv Wolfman convinced readers that Terra was a trust-worthy female hero in New Teen Titans #26-44.

  • The chapter that I felt was missing between issues 674 and 675 (i.e., a chapter in which Bruce would have been shown recovering from his "sky diving accident"--after Batman was tortured by his sadistic impersonator--which would have also allowed the relationship between Bruce and Jezebel to seem more believable).

  • The forced exposition on pages 19-20 of Batman #681 in which Morrison attempted to clarify who Jezebel Jet was and at what point Batman realized she wasn't who she claimed to be--which all hinged on a letter that Batman "stole" from the safe in Jezebel's suite at the Four Seasons hotel. I wrote in my review of issue #681:
    . . . perhaps Morrison just threw this bit in at the end of his story as a way of putting a patch over the several holes that have become evident in the overall plot of "RIP." If anything, I suspect that "RIP" didn't "conclude" as Morrison originally meant for it to when he planned it out more than seven months ago (probably more than a year ago)--at least not in relation to the coordination between Batman and Final Crisis. . . that he had planned for there to be more synchronization between the two titles.

  • And the missed opportunity to fully develop the significance of the memories that Lump pulled from Bruce Wayne's mind in Batman #682-83.
Obviously, Morrison isn't adding "missing chapters" for all those holes and pieces that don't fit. Instead, he is filling them all with The Devil--and Dr. Hurt's apparent death and disappearance in Batman #681 is the logical place to provide this retroactive fix to the problems that plagued Morrison's coordination (and possible editorial interference) between RIP and Final Crisis.

So, how exactly does the presence of Dr. Hurt/The Devil as the "holes" in the overall story work?

Well, it doesn't actually work for why Morrison failed to explain the mystery in a dénouement at the end of issue #669, but it could be used to explain the confusion of when John Mayhew had been killed and how he could appear to be alive after he had been skinned (with someone wearing his pelt). After all, "the devil hath power t'assume a pleasing shape" (or even a shape that's not necessarily pleasing, but which serves the purpose to confuse people).

The idea that The Devil is also responsible for Bruce falling in love with Jezebel Jet so quickly could also fill that earlier hole--which, of course, was later filled with the forced exposition in #681 that Bruce had suspected her almost from the beginning even though there was no indication that he was suspicious of her.

In fact, I floated the idea a few years ago that the machinations of Darkseid and his denizens of Apokolips was responsible for Bruce falling for Jezebel so quickly and without obvious cause. With the possible strengthening of the connection between Dr. Hurt as The Devil and Darkseid as a God of Evil, it would seem my speculation wasn't too far off the mark.

However, the presence of The Devil doesn't explain the apparent missing chapter between issues 674 and 675. I still think Morrison rushed the pace of his Batman plots in an effort to synchronize elements with Final Crisis, but at least The Devil is a reason for why that missing chapter didn't need to be shown (though it still would have made for a more believable deception of Jezebel's true intentions).

So, anyway, while the missing elements and ill-fitting pieces of Morrison's run on Batman still bother me, I like this solution of blaming The Devil for the problems.

My only problem with this issue is in the way Batman is drawn by Tony Daniel. I can certainly see that Daniel has improved considerably in the two years since he worked with Morrison on Batman. As with his work on last month's anniversary issue, Daniel does an effective job in almost all aspects of illustrating the story--except that his Batman seems too stocky, too thick of muscle. He looks more like he's Jack Kirby's Orion of the New Gods dressed in a Batman costume that is ready to burst at the seems in an effort to contain Orion's bulky muscles.

Marshall Rogers once said in an interview that Batman should not have the physique of a body builder; instead, he should have the physique of an Olympic gymnast. In this case, Batman not only looks like a body builder, he looks like he has the physique that Kirby had for Orion.

Still, that's a minor problem in an otherwise very entertaining story that is well-illustrated by Daniel and well-written by Morrison. I'm looking forward to the next issue which seems to indicate that there will be a clue as to how the Dr. Hurt plot ties into Darkseid having sent Bruce Wayne into the past.

I'll also be interested next issue to see if there is any significance to the star chart showing the constellation Sagittarius on page 3 (which looks a little off from typical star charts of Sagittarius) and as to why the grandfather clock at Wayne Manor inexplicably stopped at 1:15 (presumably AM).

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