March is Superman month here at the m0vie blog, what with the release of the animated adaptation of Grant Morrison’s superb All-Star Superman. We’ll be reviewing a Superman-related book/story arc every Wednesday this month, so check on back – and we might have a surprise or two along the way. In honour of the Scottish scribe, I thought I’d review the latest chapter in his on-going Batman epic.
It’s a testament to writer Grant Morrison how much I enjoyed his weird and fantastical six-chapter “Batman lost in time” adventure epic. Between this and his superb run on Batman & Robin, Morrison might have redeemed himself for the mess that was Batman R.I.P. That said, the collection isn’t for everyone, but it marks a rich exploration of the evolution of the Batman archetype through his various iterations – a meta-textual look at the elements which make Batman who he is, and why those elements are important to him. It also, of course, features Batman in a sword fight with Cthulhu.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still more than a little peeved with Morrison’s Batman R.I.P. Not least of which because the “death” actually occurred in Final Crisis, but also because the book (and its build up) felt like the reader needed a doctoral thesis to understand it properly. Not, of course, a doctorate in philosophy, English or metaphysics, but in the character of Batman himself. The early issues of Morrison’s run were peppered with references to old stories like Batman: The Superman of Planet X! or Robin Dies at Dawn!, stories told nearly half a century ago. And the dependency wasn’t a casual Easter Egg or a nod to reward long-time fans, it was a thorough and involved reference – one which served to exclude anyone not already familiar with the individual stories of the Silver Age Batman.
Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne is similarly steeped in the history of the Caped Crusader. For example, Morrison ties his new villain Simon Hurt to an early scene from Peter Milligan’s oft-overlooked Dark Knight, Dark City, and borrows heavily from various iterations of the character (most notably the recurring images taken from Frank Miller’s Year One). Indeed, the penultimate chapter even slips in a reference to Morrison’s own Batman: Gothic. However, these references stand perfectly fine on their own – a reader familiar with the source material will recognise them, while another reader will just enjoy the sense of depth they lend to proceedings.
When we last saw Bruce in Final Crisis, he was hit by Darkseid’s “Omega Beams” - “the death that is life.” Many assumed that the charred remains that Superman found belonged to Bruce, but subsequent events (as shown in Blackest Night and Batman & Robin) make it clear that the body isn’t that of Bruce Wayne. Instead, Bruce was throw back in time, and forced to live out various past lives, working his way slowly towards the present. The irony, however, is that Darkseid’s “final act was to turn Batman into a weapon.” As Batman travels through time, approaching the present, he builds up “enough Omega Energy to blow a hole in time” – his arrival would be the “all over”, the end of things.
In short, Darkseid turned Batman into a bullet and fired him at the present. As with all of Morrison’s run, the symbolism is important. Batman was created by a bullet. His final act was to kill a god with a bullet. Now, he finds himself turned into one. In the final chapter, when we presented with Batman’s story, and the “representations of its defining elements”, we’re shown the pearls that his mother died for, the bell he used to summon Alfred, and – finally – a gun. Despite the fact that Batman has vowed never to use a sidearm (well, not since his earliest incarnations), he is forever tied to the image of the firearm – his life begins and ends with a gun.
Morrison’s Batman is not an iteration of the character to be pigeon-holed. He is not the smart if foul-humoured hero of Batman: The Animated Series, nor is he the gothic monster of Tim Burton’s Batman or the neo-noir protagonist of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. He is all of these things and more. I believe the problem with the early part of Morrison’s run was that he was trying too hard to reconcile the dozens of facets of the character within a narrative that simply couldn’t hold it. Here, however, Morrison has a plot which allows him to pull out all the stops.
“Batman lost in time” isn’t a storyline that many people can picture for the Dark Knight. It’s so far outside his typical frame of reference that it seems jarring. However, if you can go with that basic premise, you’ll find that the writer and his team of fantastic artists have a whole selection of treats in store for you. Without the typical trappings or mood that one might associate with a Batman story, Morrison has an almost infinite freedom to explore his own ideas about the Caped Crusader, but in a forum that can expand and move fluidly enough to accommodate his radical ideas.
We’re presented here with six chapters. The final one is a coda which ties it all together, but the first five each explore a key component of the myth of Batman – the pop culture psychology in which the character is so deeply rooted.each chapter provides an insight into a particular facet of Batman, a character who can be portrayed by both Adam West and Christian Bale and countless actors in between. That’s a lot of ground to cover, but Morrison knows damn well what he’s doing.
We see the “primal” Batman, the unknown hero who is beyond the comprehension of those around him, who does the impossible to protect his community (Chapter #1: Shadow on Stone). We have the gothic crusader and investigator who shrouds himself in the irrational while clinging to reason and logic (Chapter #2: Until the End of Time). We have pulp fiction Batman, here dressed as a pirate, calling to mind the theory in Watchmen that if superheroes had never developed as pulp trend, pirates might have emerged instead (Chapter #3:The Bones of Bristol Bay). We have Batman as a cowboy, an anonymous vigilante who fights by his own rules, avenging on behalf of all those who have lost loved ones (Chapter #4: Dark Night, Dark Rider). Finally, we have Batman as detective, perhaps the most sophisticated level of the Batman myth (Chapter #5: Masquerade). Combine them, and you’ve brewed yourself a Batman.
Along the way, Morrison surrounds Batman with various archetypes which call to mind various other characters in “the Batman myth”, so to speak. Shadow on Stone gives us a young sidekick and a “Joker” – arguably the most essential supporting characters (although it is missing an Alfred archetype, I must concede). Until The End of Time gives us grotesque monsters and a woman who has close relationship with animals (though a ferret rather than a cat) – indeed, her line, “stay with me and I’ll love you until the end of time” calls to mind a segment of Neil Gaiman’s better-each-time-I-read-it Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Even the appearance from Jonah Hex in Dark Night, Dark Rider calls to mind Harvey Dent. It’s interesting to see the myth of Batman, the very story itself, continually trying to assert itself – no matter how foreign the setting, the elements overlap.
Along the way, he peppers the narrative with various references to archetypal Batman moments. There is, of course, that famous scene from Year One with a wounded Bruce sitting in his study, but there are also other moments. “What are you?” Vandal Savage asks of his mysterious foe, in much the same way as Carmine Falcone would in Batman Begins. In a moment lifted from the same film, a pirate empties a few rounds at where the Caped Crusader was, only for Batman to slide down behind him and take him by surprise. There are countless other ones, from the recurring image of a white necklace (as emphasised by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns) through to Batman resolving a Wild West shootout with his batarangs (from an episode of Justice League Unlimited), which hint at various important aspects of the character’s rich history (along with some “not important, but still cool” aspects).
How well you react to any (or all) of these chapters will depend on your own preferences about how you see the Dark Knight. Personally, I loved Until the End of Time and Masquerade, but I imagine there are countless other competing opinions out there. There’s a lot to love, and Morrison casts his net widely over the established Batman mythos. It’s fascinating how he’s managed to do this without really relying too heavily on the standard narrative crutches of Batman. He’s eschewed the familiar selection of villains (save the Joker) and stayed away from the pulpy crime style which Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight seemingly brought back into fashion. I can honestly say that you’ve never read a Batman story like this.
The collection is also fascinating for what it tells us of Batman. Morrison’s take on superheroes absolutely fascinates me, because he draws a stronger link with mythological archetypes than most other writers would dare. This is the new pantheon. It’s interesting that, as much respect as Morrison has for the Joker, he doesn’t believe that the Joker’s chaos provides a suitable foil to the hero’s “apophenia.” Instead, according to Morrison’s vision, Batman’s perfect opponent isn’t any of the colourful foes he’s faced over the past few decades, but Darkseid – a god.
In All-Star Superman, Morrison made it clear that Superman as “man as god” - the very best in us reflected out, the purity of human soul. The underlying belief, as articulated by Lex Luthor at the book’s climax, was that anybody with those powers couldn’t help but become one with the world around them. Superman is man with a hint of the divine, the power to shape the very world around him and burn at the heart of his own sun. Even in a short appearance here, Superman is practically divine. “I can hear every heartbeat on the planet, and Batman’s isn’t among them,” he explains. Later on, he can grasp advanced temporal mechanics from a single sentence.
In contrast, Batman is “man as the killer of god.” It’s fascinating that Batman’s last act was to fire to a gun and kill the “New God” Darkseid. The cavemen who find Batman’s rocket describe it as “same that brought down the fire”, recalling the myth of Prometheus, who gave mankind fire, and with it rationality and power. To the savages, Bruce is a man to “tell us some great secret or show us a new tool or a weapon”, just like the gods would? Batman takes the divine mandate, the things out of our reach and that we are told we cannot have (or are only allowed at the whims of the gods), and shares them amongst us. In the Garden of Eden, Batman would have been baking apple pie.
He wounds the immortal man, he sword-fights with the old eternal monsters of the HP Lovecraft mythos (which, by the way, is a very clever little nod from Morrison, seen as Batman’s Arkham Asylum is named from the works of Lovecraft) and he’s able to pull a fast one on a god. He spends his time with Superman (practically a god) and Wonder Woman (literally a goddess), and he never misses a beat. “You’re a special man, Bruce,” Diana assures him at one point, “but even you scarcely comprehend the power of gods, new or otherwise.” However, she underestimates Bruce – who by her own measurement is just a man (albeit a “special” one). Batman not only “comprehends” the affairs of the gods, but he can foil them as well.
“Gotcha,” Batman deadpanned to Darkseid as he pulled the trigger, and he manages to outwit the divine weapon chasing him through time while uttering the same glib remark. “Such hubris on the part of mortals has always had a price,” Diana observes of Batman’s actions – but he’s fast enough to avoid footing the bill. That is the very essence of Batman. He’s Prometheus in a cape and cowl, the man who knows that at any given moment he may need to strike down a god, and who is aware of the consequences. It’s no coincidence that Morrison’s villainous Batman doppelganger in Justice League was called Prometheus. Batman doesn’t need gods. Tim Drake admits that “I prayed every night that you’d come back to us”, but it wasn’t a divine intervention that brought Bruce home – it was his human will. Similarly, it wasn’t Diana’s prayers to her mother that saved Bruce’s live – it was Tim Drake, holding the cowl, telling others to inform Bruce, “Gotham’s in trouble. And tell him he’ll need this.”
It’s curious that Morrison explains Batman’s co-dependence on others as “the first truth of Batman.” The revelation that Batman is never alone is a powerful one, but one that I fear is more motivated by an attempt to move away from the “psychotic loner” persona of the character in the nineties than in any real truth of Batman. It’s fascinating that Morrison features so frequently the bell used to summon Bruce’s oldest and most trusted friend, yet Alfred himself (or any direct stand-in) is conspicuously absent.
It’s always been the case that Batman has a large supporting cast, perhaps more populated with iconic characters than that of Superman, for example. He has any number of counterparts and equivalents and sidekicks, which is somewhat counter-intuitive for a character who was isolated by the loss of his parents. Of course, this supporting cast was built up by a huge market place demand for “Batman-related characters” rather than any genuine thematic intent on the part of the writers, but it makes for a fascinating paradox. Batman is a hero who so regularly goes it alone, and yet he’s so thoroughly surrounded by people who love him.
While I admit this facet of the character is important, I am not convinced that it is important or essential enough to be “the first truth of Batman.” It seems especially odd when we don’t see the one supporting character who is always there in any incarnation, Alfred – the loyal butler. Still, I suppose that the observation does provide a nice way for Morrison to segue into the next chapter in the on-going adventure, Batman Incorporated.
As an aside, am I the only one who picked up echoes of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, especially his tie-ins to Crisis on Infinite Earths? Aside from a tribe protecting a long-hidden secret, the potential end of all things, and the heavy occult vibes, it just felt like Morrison was consciously channelling the other great mind-bending British comic book author. Maybe it’s the fact that the unfinished mansion here reminds me of a similar one from Moore’s work, especially with the Wild West setting. Perhaps it’s simply the attempt to take an established character and more firmly root him the history of the shared universe. What I liked about Morrison’s Arkham Asylum was the way that it suggested Batman had somehow caused bats to echo and ripple through Gotham’s history – a theme continued here. We see that Batman is perpetually self-sustaining – his trip through time and the “hyper-adaptor” chasing him help shape the region’s association with bats, which in turn inspired him. I detected a faint echo of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who in the time-travel nature of things, but that’s always a good thing.
A few minor complaints aside, I really enjoyed Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. It’s a book which – if you can go with it – actually uses a wonderfully original storytelling method to grant insight into its central character, a pop culture institution. Of course, it being Morrison, it’s also hokey good fun. If you aren’t immediately turned off by the premise of “Batman lost in time” and you’re read Final Crisis (or have a passing familiarity with Morrison’s epic), it’s well worth a look.
You might enjoy our other reviews and explorations of Grant Morrison’s Batman-related works:
- Arkham Asylum
- Batman & Son, The Black Glove, Batman R.I.P.
- Final Crisis
- Time & The Batman
- Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn, Batman vs. Robin, Batman & Robin Must Die!
- The Return of Bruce Wayne
- Batman Incorporated
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