Published on July 23rd, 2014 | by Michael0
The Death of Batman?
The following contains spoilers for Grant Morrison’s run on Batman as well as Final Crisis. Recommended reading for this storyline includes the Batman trades Batman and Son, The Black Glove and Batman RIP as well as Final Crisis and the first three volumes of Morrison’s Batman & Robin and Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. Additionally but not integral to the plot Dan Jurgen’s Time Masters: Vanishing Point offers part of the story from the perspective of other characters.
After the wildly successful Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth in 1989, Grant Morrison made the dreams of millions of fans come true when he took over head writing duties for the character of Batman in 2006. Writing across a number of Batman titles as well as the company wide crossover Final Crisis, Morrison intended to put Batman through the full spectrum of experiences, bring huge changes to the character’s status quo and to fold in numerous elements from older Batman stories that were usually ignored or dismissed in the modern era.
Morrison started as he meant to go on, nailing all three of these conditions with his first arc, The Son of Batman. The story sees the introduction of Damian Wayne, last seen in the 1987 storyline Son of The Demon, not previously considered canon. Damian is the son of Batman as long time frenemy Talia Al Ghul (Catwoman must be devastated) though Morrison admits he got the details of the encounter wrong – having not reread the comic in preparation he misremembered the details and thought Batman had been drugged at the time. Luckily for Morrison his story took place between Infinite Crisis and DCs huge New 52 reboot so any inconsistencies can be explained away as the result of Superboy punching reality out of shape, the most convenient plot device known to man.
Suitably given his name and his lineage, Damian is a very gifted but hugely unlikeable young tearaway who believes that to earn his father’s affections he must kill his rivals, most notably Bruce’s recently adopted son Tim Drake (then serving as Robin). Through much patient effort Damian’s rougher edges are smoothed away and he becomes a highly valued if often mercurial addition to the Bat family.
Despite having given the books the most drastic shake-up since the shocking murder of Jason Todd, Morrison was not content to rest on his laurels. Indeed, starting with ‘The Three Ghosts’ arc and continuing through ‘The Black Glove’ is seems that the Dark Knight is heading inexorably to his own death. Seeds are sown throughout the story, such as the appearance of three alternative Batmen to ‘replace’ the original, the emergence of the enigmatic Dr Simon Hurt and Batman’s own ruminations on the possibility of an ‘ultimate enemy’ who can out think even The World’s Greatest Detective. Out of costume, as Bruce Wayne, he begins dating billionaire supermodel philanthropist turned state leader Jezebel Jet and, not having his suspicions sufficiently aroused by her first name, lets her in on his secret identity. Around this time mysterious ‘Zur-en-arrh’ graffiti appears around Gotham, another nod to a classic story in which Batman travels to an alien world that grants him powers like Superman’s.
This story kicks up a notch when Batman and Robin are invited to an island belonging to rich adventurer John Mayhew. Here Batman is reunited with the ‘Batmen of all Nations’, another forgotten storyline resurrected by Morrison. The invitation is revealed to be a trap laid by ‘The Black Glove’, a sinister organisation looking to pit good against evil and along its mega rich members to bet on the outcome. A Club of Villains to rival the Batmen of all nations is hinted at but not confirmed as the heroes must band together to smoke out the traitor in their midst and survive this ordeal. This story not only introduces the Black Glove who will haunt Batman throughout the following months but also vital Batman allies including the Argentinian El Gaucho and English pair The Knight and Squire (aka Cyril and Beryl).
It was revealed to fans that the next arc in the comics would be entitled Batman RIP. This caused some ambivalence among fans (your author included). While suitably dramatic, Bruce Wayne as Batman is one of the very few characters to survive from inception against the threats of cancellation or, in world, replacement and death. Most of his contemporaries such as Superman, Green Arrow, Aquaman and Flash had suffered such indignities but never Batman. He had his own ragnarok to rival Death of Superman of course in the seminal Knightfall but the result was just a temporary side-lining due to an injured back rather than a death and barely credible rebirth. That Batman might be killed (even accounting for his then inevitable return) and have that asterisk forever next to his Hall of Fame entry did not sit well.
We needn’t have worried as the story that unfolded was masterfully told and delivered on its promise without compromising the character of Batman and Bruce Wayne. Batman’s fall is masterminded by Dr Hurt, revealed as the creator of the three replacement Batmen. Hurt is portrayed as the ultimate enemy Batman had feared – Completely evil with limitless resources and complete access to Batman’s psychological history. The latter is due to yet another story dug out of the archives by Morrison, in which Batman undergoes complete isolation for ten days to try and get into the mind of the Joker. Morrison simply retconned the story so that the director of the experiment Dr Hurt. So who is Simon Hurt? Well this is the puzzle that torments Batman. Morrison as writer and Hurt as antagonist deliberately toy with the reader and Batman as suspects and seemingly contradictory evidence pile up. Throughout the saga we could reasonably think that Hurt is: Bruce’s father Thomas Wayne, another, immortal, Wayne ancestor, Mangrove Pierce (who impersonated Thomas), the demon Barbatos, the Hyperadaptor (weapon of the New Gods), Darkseid or the Devil. The Joker mocks Batman as he tries to figure it out: ‘you think it all breaks down into symbolism and structures and hints and clues. No Batman, that’s just Wikipedia’. Hurt calls himself ‘The enemy, the hole in things, the piece that can never fit’, rhetoric which fits in with Darkseid and the hole he creates in reality as he dies in Final Crisis. Interviews with Grant Morrison support the view that he is Satan, saying that ‘this is the story of how Batman cheats the Devil.’
The plan itself is a mixture of elegance and thuggery. Batman is subjected to all sorts of post hypnotic suggestion before finally being beaten, drugged and left out in the street. Fortunately he is guided to safety by Honor Jackson, the spirit of a dead man Batman had tried to help two days prior. Even with all his meticulous planning Hurt has underestimated Batman who has created a back-up personality for when his mind is under attack. In the colourful rags of ‘Batman of Zur-en-arrh’, our hero makes his way to the final confrontation at, where else, Arkham Asylum. Along the way he receives encouragement from the Bat-Mite, yet another refugee from the archives. He’s a sort of benign Batman version of Superman’s foe Mr Mxyzptlk and he comes from the fifth dimension. Batman enters the Asylum as battle rages throughout Gotham and Morrison again plays with the reader as Joker voices what we’ve all been thinking: will he and Batman team up to take out the new guy? Nope, the Joker is in on The Black Glove’s scheme, as is (shock horror) Jezebel Jet. Batman is poisoned and buried alive, to be excavated seconds after his brain starts to die. But once again Batman is one step ahead. Heralded by the Joker of all people, who bets on Batman to defeat the Black Glove, Batman bursts out of his coffin and uses his radio (dismissed as junk by the overconfident Black Glove) to signal his allies across the city who have had their ranks swelled of the Batmen of All Nations. Despite all the doom and gloom pervading this storyline it boils down the same thing it always does: You think you’ve beaten Batman but the truth is he fucked you over before you even knew what was happening. He’s in your base, incapacitating your dudes.
Success of sorts then for Batman but the story hurtles headlong into the company wide crossover Final Crisis in which we were promised Batman’s death would finally take place. Captured by Darkseid, Batman is placed in machine so that his indomitable will and force can be used to create a formidable army for the evil New Gods. Naturally, this plan backfires spectacularly. ‘What kind of man can turn even his life memories into a weapon?’ cries a hapless flunky. Well, Batman can. Obviously. His escape allows his to take part in the grand finale of the event as he shoots Darkseid with the radon bullet Darkseid himself had shot back through time to kill his son, Orion (it’s complicated) just as three generations of the Flash arrive, chased by the Black Racer personification of death (it’s really complicated). Darkseid falls through time, perhaps creating ‘the hole in things’ which allows Hurt to exist such a contradictory and prolonged existence. As he falls the dying God unleashes his ‘Omega vision’, striking Batman and apparently finally killing him. A distraught Superman emerges from the underground bunker with Batman’s body.
The final panel of the story though shows an aged Anthro, caveman superhero, sitting in a cave as a mysterious figure daubs a bat symbol on the wall. The heroes who remained behind in the modern day eventually realise that the body Superman found was that of one of the failed clones. In Bruce’s continued absence Dick Grayson takes up the mantle of the Bat with Damian stepping up as the new Robin. Meanwhile, a displaced Bruce Wayne must fight his way across time and history itself (across the classic pulp genres of Caveman, Pirate, Witch finder, Western and Noir) to find his way home, all the while avoiding the attentions of Hurt and the Hyperadaptor, a living weapon sent after him by Darkseid. Morrison scripted both Batman & Robin and Return of Bruce Wayne so the stories dovetail beautifully as even more hints about Hurt and the sinister history of the Wayne family are revealed. As ever with Grant Morrison both books are characterised with by grim violence and esoteric, often non-linear narratives. Batman & Robin is particularly brutal as a wave of crime masterminded by Hurt threatens to overwhelm Gotham. For a more light-hearted take on the same saga there is the rollicking Time Masters: Vanishing Point which deals with Booster Gold, Rip Hunter, Superman and Hal Jordan as they attempt to locate the time displaced Batman. Written by Dan Jurgens, it harks back to the classic JLI books which starred Booster and Batman and strengthens the special relationship between the two heroes as seen in the pages of Booster Gold.
So then, Bruce Wayne never actually died. The ‘RIP’ of the pre-Final Crisis storyline was eventually revealed to simply mean ‘Rot in Purgatory’ and even Darkseid couldn’t finish him off. Despite that I as a reader never felt cheated either: Dick Grayson was given a good long run as Batman while Bruce Wayne was thrown into a situation the likes of which he had never dealt with before, cut off from his resources and his allies. In keeping with Morrison’s themes of changing the status quo Bruce Wayne is forced to confront ‘the first truth of Batman’ upon his return to the 21st century. His body is charged with a deadly energy that could destroy the world as Bruce finally realises that ‘Batman is not alone’. With the help of his friends, Darkseid is once again defeated and banished from existence. From this point Morrison spins out into Batman: Incorporated as Bruce Wayne takes Batman global, recruiting similar crime fighters across the world. He soon finds another deadly trap closing around him of course but that’s just par for the course.
Despite the headline grabbing antics of the story’s title, Grant Morrison succeeded in his aims of crafting a memorable Batman story that did indeed change the character going forward and he did it with a blend of his own imaginative ideas and with liberal use of the plethora of history the character has. His take on Batman would go on to produce many more highlights on the Batman: Incorporated title as well as with Dick and Damian in Batman & Robin but perhaps didn’t quite top the highs of RIP.
And Dr Simon Hurt? Like Doomsday killing Superman or Bane breaking the Bat, he had made a very impressive debut. Would he suffer the same fate as other rookies whose biggest victory was their first? Well not quite. He broke his neck slipping on a banana skin, got a faceful of Joker venom then was buried alive. Serves the bastard right.