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Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne (Review)

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.

You know you’re reading Grant Morrison’s Batman when something like this happens…

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.

Batman’s winging it…

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.

Bullet-point summary…

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.

He’s some cowboy, that one…

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.

It’s never black-and-white…

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).

Just a hint, to wet your appetite…

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.

Feel the power of the Dark Seid…

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.

Batman finds his life shattered into fragments…

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.”

Batman caves, and finds support…

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.

“You’re telling me Superman could take this thing? Yeah? Well, I can do it with my shirt off!”

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.

You’d have to be batsh!t insane to draw against him…

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:

7 Responses

  1. This one didn’t really work with me. Like Final Crisis (and most of Morrison’s “Meta” stuff) I had a tough time following it and I mean that on a very basic narrative level. (So Hurt was created by Darkseid dying so hard that he created a devil shaped hole in time? Huh?)

    Ironically I had very little trouble following RIP once I went back and read the trades for And Son and The Black Glove. So to each his own I guess. I’ve been enjoying Batman Inc and as far as I’m concerned Batman And Son might be the best run of superhero comics since I started reading comics again so I guess I can give Morrison a mulligan on this one.

    • That’s strange. I disliked (and still dislike) R.I.P., but I “admire” more than I “like” Final Crisis. I don’t know, it just seemed like a really awkward way for Morrison to get his core ideas across within a framework of a somewhat typical Batman story (in terms of tone and structure, if certainly not in concept and content). I think I liked this because it removed some of the more awkward barriers on Morrison’s ideas by moving so damn far outside what has become the typical Batman story that the reader has no choice but to get with the programme.

      Of course, nobody divides fans quite like Morrison. At least we can all agree that we loved Batman & Robin, right?

      And, speaking of his “meta” arc, I recently finished his Justice League and started his Seven Soldiers. It’s amazing how well his stories blend together as one gigantic saga. I’m aching for a hardcover release of DC 1,000,000 to give me more of this. That said, I’m also anticipating the we3 and Flex Mentallo deluxe editions coming soon.

      As I said, Morrison month sometime in the backhalf of the year!

      • I’ll be there.

        And yeah we can definitely agree on the awesomeness of Batman And Robin, that’s what I meant to type instead of And Son there at the end.

        I think Batman And Robin actually retroactively made RIP work better for me.

  2. It’s a shame Morrison can’t work in a visual medium like film. Granted, he may alienate larger audiences, but his interpretation of Bruce/Batman is so deep and rich that it begs to be born onto the bigscreen.

    • I actually think that Batman R.I.P. could (in a slightly more streamlined form) make an interesting follow-up to Nolan’s films, just because it would be such a sharp contrasted to the noir aesthetic and the gripping realism that the first three films presented. And any of the follow-ups to Nolan’s films need to distinguish themselves fairly quickly (if only because it’s hard to imagine anyone beating him at his own game).

      It doesn’t depend on any of Batman’s established villains save the Joker and Ra’s Al Ghul’s family, and you could easily trim a lot of the back-references that (I felt) clogged up Morrison’s narrative – while keeping everything from the wacky weapons-grade heroin to the back-up personality plot points. Bring back Linus Roache to play Simon Hurt and I think you’ve got a winner.

      By the way, I maintain that if Grant Morrison were working in any other medium, he’d be using the name Steven Moffat. There are various moments during Moffat’s Doctor Who where I want to use the phrase “Grant-Morrison-esque”, things like a crack which isn’t in a wall (knock down the wall, the crack stays there), the universe collapsing down until only the British Museum remains and sentient ideas that kill people (“what if our dreams no longer needed us?”). I’d love to see Steven Moffat and Grant Morrison swap jobs for a few months, just to see how the repective projects would look.

  3. Awesome article Darren. Although, sorry to be a terrible nitpicker, but Alan Moore is English, not Scottish… although they have certainly shadowed each other over the years, both career-wise and in their esoteric belief-systems.

    Bryce – I’ve read almost everything by Morrison over the years and am a big Batman fan – I was practically cheering at the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references in this and the tie-in Batman and Robin arc to ‘Gothic,’ one of my favourite Batman stories – insane that Grant’s picking up on threads he was playing around with two full decades ago – but even I still didn’t really get all of his dense metatextual commentary on the history of the character of Bruce/Batman, or quite get who Simon Hurt ultimately was supposed to represent as a person, antagonistic menace or symbolic figure of evil. Other than that thinking he was supposed to be Darkseid inherent ‘evilness’ reflected back through Bruce’s own past…

    Indeed I think that I’ve seen that answer you supplied explained and broken down in various places online… indeed, I still have issues with Final Crisis and its ties to this – see ‘how did Darkseid’s clone body / charred skeleton wind up replacing the real Bruce when he was hit with the Omega beams?’ and – ‘Seriously – where the hell did the rocket come from? Did it bring Bruce’s body back in time, or not?’

    There’s stuff in here that’s more complicated than parts of The Invisibles… but it’s stuff like this that shows why Morrison remains such a deep and fascinating creator of comics. Often the truth about what he intends or implies seems buried far into in the text – a complex set of mysteries for the inquiring reader to uncode. You can’t simply zoom through his work and just enjoy it on a superficial level – there are almost always multiple layers of meaning in there. Which is either awesome writing or plain obtuseness, depending on your perspective I suppose.

    And it’s true that Morrison is a true ‘proper writer’ in the way he’s always re-working and expanding on he key themes and ideas over the years – I’d forgotten Bruce faced Darkseid before back in JLA’s ‘Rock Of Ages’ in a similar way… The stuff about the nature of time explored in the Return Of Bruce Wayne actually directly references elements Morrison introduced to the DCU back in his Animal Man run – Seven Soldiers seems to almost tie into the Invisibles in places… and Grant’s earlier Flex Mentallo basically works as a prelude to what happens in Final Crisis.

    And I totally agree re. Doctor Who, Steven Moffat and his distinctly Morrisonian approach to the series. In fact, ever since ‘Who’ got resurrected in 2005, so much of the show has reminded me of Morrison’s work in one place or another, whether by coincidence or design…

    This was never more evident Season Six’s 2-part finale – you’ve got the Doctor imprisoned in a machine that seems to be lit in the same sinister glow as the machine Batman was imprisoned in in Final Crisis / RIP – and then he goes on to say ‘Gotcha’ before symbolically ‘dying’ and plummeting back through his own personal timeline… where he manages to alter his past so that he can return… never mind all the universe-rebooting…

    And David Tennant’s finale as the Doctor – ‘The End Of Time’ – no, nothing like ‘Final Crisis’ – saw the normally paficist Time-Lord facing down an ancient alien god from his past… with a gun… before more symbolic ‘dying’ only to be reborn… I was almost sure Russell T. Davies was ripping off Morrison’s work…

    Moffat even got Neil Gaiman on board to write a recent episode and there’s been a few rumours floating around that Morrison was in line to write for the show. (He actually wrote a Who comic strip back in the 80’s…) If it does happen, then that will be a pretty wild episode or two… Morrison knows his mind-bending paradoxical time travel tropes, and that’s totally what Doctor Who’s about… here’s hoping…

    • Thanks Colin!

      I don’t mind nitpicking. It allows me to update the article so it’s correct for the next generation of nitpickers! So I can proclaim, What? I never said he was Scottish! It now says British, and it always has. I swear! (No, good spot and good call, corrected now. Nitpicking always welcome and encouraged – as long as you aren’t rude about it.)

      I do think you can zoom throw quite a bit of Morrison’s work and still enjoy it at a surface level. Batman & Robin, for example, reads a really fun old-fashioned superhero story, and All-Star Superman is twelve issues of Superman being awesome. There are obvious exceptions, like Final Crisis or (in my opinion) Batman RIP. I’d even argue that Arkham Asylum is a great comic even before you dive into the subtext and you can enjoy Return of Bruce Wayne as a simple story of Batman travelling through time. But yep, it gets infinitely better when you take the time to digest it slowly.

      I did not know about that rumour. Given how well The Doctor’s Wife turned out, I am now officially excited at the idea of bringing another comic book writer on-board.

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