There is a hole at the center of everything. A mystery that can never truly be solved, even by the world’s greatest detective. And within that hole lies a trap waiting to be sprung.
Grant Morrison’s seven-year run on Batman is the story of Bruce Wayne being confronted with threats older than time and greater than reality. It’s the story of one man’s struggle to defeat evil that may come at the cost of his sanity.
While this long-unraveling story of The Dark Knight being broken down physically and mentally may seem like deconstruction, Morrison’s Batman is the story of one man rising to defeat evil again and again until he becomes something unchained by time and space.
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Morrison was no stranger to Batman prior to his main title run, having already shot to prominence with Arkham Asylum in 1989, Gothic in 1990, and his heavily Batman-centric run on JLA in the late 90s. These stories explore two ideas – Batman confronted with the threat of madness or supernatural enemies and Batman as the most dangerous man in the world.
But Morrison’s run on Batman from 2006 through 2013 is the ultimate encapsulation of his thoughts on The Dark Knight.
Morrison’s time on the title can be broken down into three separate arcs that tell their own stories, but also echo one another and weave together a larger portrait. Act 1, which will be the focus of this video, is Morrison’s time on the main Batman title from issue 655 through 683 and some elements of Final Crisis. Act 2 encompasses his time on Batman & Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne miniseries. And Act 3 covers his two volumes of Batman, Inc.
Morrison’s first act of Batman is intensely focused on his hero’s discovery of the so-called “hole in things” – the unknowable mystery at the center of his life and his struggle to solve it. To better understand Morrison’s Batman, we’ll look at his approach to continuity, which builds a deeper and more complex world around his hero, his characterization of Batman, which creates a hero that can succeed in that world, and the ultimate battle of RIP and Final Crisis, which creates the ultimate antagonist for that hero.
Morrison’s first of three acts is purposefully ambiguous and designed to screw with readers’ minds because this is first and foremost a mystery. A mystery of mind, of meaning, of continuity. Who is The Black Glove? What is real and what is madness? Can Batman solve the mystery that seems to pull at the strings of his mind? Or will unraveling the truth end in the unraveling of self?
Morrison’s first act is a wild, scattered, high energy affair that pinballs readers between widely disparate stories until Batman and the reader are both in the deadly grip of evil.
The Madness of Continuity
DC Comics’ history of restarting its universe and continuity is almost as old as its history of simply existing. Given how many contradictory stories and long-running plot threads there have been for a character as popular as Batman, these resets are helpful for keeping characters streamlined and preventing new readers from being utterly lost.
But what if everything mattered?
Morrison’s approach to Batman is a simple one, but its simplicity inherently complicates The Dark Knight. Freed up by the continuity changes made possible by the then-recent Infinite Crisis, Morrison decided that everything that once happened in Batman comics is now in continuity. The ripple effects of having decades of stories now part of Batman’s past can be seen throughout this first act, with Morrison specifically leaning hard into the lunacy of Silver Age Batman stories.
Morrison said this about his approach:
“I became fascinated by the idea that every Batman story was in some way true and biographical – from the savage, young, pulp-flavored “weird figure of the dark” of his early years, through the smiling, paternal figure of the 1940s and the proto-psychedelic crusader of the ‘50s, the superhero detective of the ‘60s, the hairy-chested globetrotting adventurer of the ‘70s, to the brutally physical vigilante of the ‘80s, and snarling, paranoid soldier of the ‘90s.
By taking his entire publishing history as the story of his life, I was able to approach Batman from a different angle and the multifaceted character that was revealed became the subject of my story.”
If all of these strange, indescribable things happened to one man, how can both Bruce Wayne and Grant Morrison hope to bring reason to Batman’s life? That’s the central struggle of Batman the character and Batman the comic in Morrison’s hands. By tracing these homages throughout each story arc that happens in Act 1, we can see how Morrison recontextualizes the character and world of Batman.
First, and most important to Morrison’s entire story, is the suddenly in-continuity 1987 graphic novel by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham, “Son of the Demon
Morrison’s first four-issue arc, Batman & Son, introduces Damian Wayne as the son of Bruce and deadly assassin Talia Al Ghul. By introducing Damian, who was conceived during the graphic novel, Morrison creates a new fatherly dynamic that also expands Batman’s continuity. The author also leaves Damian’s fate ambiguous in an explosion in case he couldn’t continue his story. Now, the door is open for all manner of long-forgotten stories to reassert themselves. It also introduces the importance of father-son relationships to all of Morrison’s subsequent Batman tales.
“It’s weird, I don’t do much about mothers,” said Morrison. “I always thought it was strange, but it’s because my mother’s still alive and we’re really good friends. It’s probably because when we were kids and my parents divorced, I went to live with my mom, and my dad became a more distant figure. I tend not to deal with the mothers. I’m constantly obsessed with the fathers in these stories.”
The absence of a father – Morrison’s own hole in things – motivates his rumination on father-child relationships in his own work. The rest of Morrison’s continuity-laced Batman stories are a mixture of both homaging and recontextualizing the wildest pieces of Batman lore.
The prose-focused “Clown at Midnight” is Morrison’s attempt at reshaping The Joker. Here, Joker becomes a far more psychotic version of himself, acknowledging the character’s many different interpretations over the years as part of his psychosis.
A two-parter has Batman fight a Bane-like version of himself and it’s here where Morrison introduces The Three Ghosts of Batman – replacements tied to a police conspiracy we’ll soon learn more about.
Batman in Bethlehem from issue 666 tosses us into the future where Damian is now Batman in a Gotham seemingly on the verge of the Biblical apocalypse. It’s here where Morrison plants the seeds for his own new mythology – a dark future without explanation, the devil pulling the strings, and multiple new villains who will rise in Batman & Robin. What does this future mean? Morrison isn’t interested in explanations here, but instead in the larger idea of Batman’s possibly inevitable doom.
The three-part The Black Glove places Batman and the Batmen of All Nations – crime fighters from around the world inspired by The Dark Knight – on a deadly island. It’s an old school Agatha Christie-style mystery that pulls long-forgotten characters once introduced in 1955 into the modern age. Some have gone soft, some grown bitter, and some still fight the good fight, but it’s here that The Black Glove organization reveals its hand. Illustrator JH Williams III depicts each hero in a different style, but chooses to render Batman and Robin in a more realistic, painterly manner, contrasting them against the more cartoonish heroes around them.
The Black Glove’s scheme continues in another three-parter, where we learn that The Three Ghosts of Batman were created by the vile Dr. Simon Hurt. Here, Morrison makes the most direct ties to Batman’s silver age stories, with the two-part Robin Dies at Dawn, where Batman hallucinates an otherworldly trip while locked in isolation, being the moment where Hurt, based on a nameless doctor in the old comic, first began to psychologically target The Dark Knight and create the three imposters. This moment, along with the many strange encounters of the Silver Age and beyond that are now canon within Morrison’s approach, show a Batman whose mind could fracture from the sheer weight of everything he’s seen and done.
Finally, RIP serves as the climax to this first act as Hurt and The Black Glove organization spring their trap on Batman, shutting down his mind with the hidden trigger phrase Zur-En-Arrh. But Morrison and Batman have one last trick up their sleeves. While Bruce Wayne’s mind has been shut down, the back-up personality of The Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, the childish Id of Batman given free reign, takes over. This garishly costumed persona shows that the intergalactic trip of The Super Batman of Planet X from 1958 was actually all in Bruce’s head. This, along with the appearance of Bat-Mite, show how the psychedelic Silver Age adventures may have been caused by hallucinations.
Morrison’s Act 1 stories are colorful, weird, and balance action-filled adventures with mind-bending concepts. Adam Kubert’s art in the early stories is bold and extravagant, rendering a bright hero in a vibrant city, while Tony Daniel’s grimy, darker take in the final stories showcases a larger-than-life evil descending on The Bat. These push Batman away from the brooding misfit and toward the aspirational adventurer.
“I prefer to focus on the wilder, weirder nights of his career,” said Morrison. “And I like to see him facing devilishly brilliant, flamboyant psychos who can actually put him under pressure and take him to his limits. Watching a billionaire Batman disarm poorly-trained, poverty-stricken muggers effortlessly or beating up skinny junkies does tend to raise thorny issues of class and privilege that the basic adventure hero concept is not necessarily equipped to deal with adequately.”
A Hero Without Limits
If every decade of Batman is the story of one man’s evolution as a hero, what does Morrison’s saga evolve Batman into next?
In Morrison’s hands, Batman is an aspirational figure and a source of hope. Throughout these stories, we see Bruce Wayne as a man who was molded by great tragedy and became the pinnacle of human capability. There’s a reason why the term “Bat-God” was coined when it came to Morrison’s approach to The Dark Knight. His Batman can escape any trap, solve any puzzle, beat any opponent. In future storylines, we’ll see him capable of escaping time and fighting gods.
“I never really subscribed to the idea that Bruce was insane or unhealthy,” said Morrison. “Bruce Wayne’s physical and psychological training regimes (including advanced meditation techniques) would tend to encourage a fairly balanced and healthy personality. Bruce Wayne would have gone mad if he HADN’T dressed as a bat and found a startling way to channel the grief, guilt, and helplessness he felt after the death of his parents. Without Batman, Bruce would be truly screwed up, but with Batman he becomes mythic, more than human, and genuinely useful to his community. I believe he began to slay his demons the moment he became a demon.”
This is the elevation of Batman into mythic status. In Morrison’s story “Time and The Batman” in issue 700, we see the legacy continue far past Bruce Wayne. The idea of The Dark Knight outlasts us all in our culture.
The idea of a so-called “death” of Batman is a ridiculous notion. To quote the flash forward opening of RIP, Batman and Robin will never die.
To emphasize just how unique Bruce Wayne truly is, Morrison fills both this act and the acts to come with Batman imposters and usurpers.
The gun-wielding imposter Batman from Morrison’s very first issue is soon revealed to be one of three Ghosts of Batman, cops chosen to replace The Dark Knight if he should fall but turned into something much darker by Dr. Hurt. Alongside the pistol-wielding Batman is a giant Batman filled with Venom and Monster Serum and a Bat-Devil who tortures The Dark Knight.
The future Damian Batman from issue #666 exacts lethal vengeance on a new generation of criminals, but can never live up to his father. We soon see the Bat-Devil in this future as well, only to learn that Damian has struck a deal with The Devil for control over Gotham’s future.
On the brighter side of Bat imposters is The Club of Heroes. While none quite measure up to The Dark Knight, each represents a form of heroism.
And finally, there’s Dr. Hurt, the man dedicated to Batman’s destruction. He, too, takes on a form of Batman impostering, dressing up in Thomas Wayne’s old Bat masquerade costume to psychologically undermine Bruce.
There will be even more reflections of Batman in the stories to come, but for now, these Bat-imposters serve to underline how Bruce Wayne has been formed into an irreplaceable hero. This is a Batman who has prepared for every eventuality 10 times over to the point of being far ahead of both his villains and readers. The feats that Bruce is capable of here are preposterous, like secretly replacing his arm with a fake one before it can be chopped off, and highlight a Batman ready to take on every challenge, even the devil himself.
The Hole in Things
Act 1’s climax, RIP, pits Batman against Hurt and The Black Glove, who trigger Batman’s mental collapse, fabricate evidence to destroy the legacy of Thomas and Martha Wayne, and free The Joker to work alongside their Club of Villains. While these threats are bad enough on their own, it’s the unsolved mystery of Dr. Hurt’s true identity that challenges Batman the most.
At first, Hurt insists that he’s Thomas Wayne – Bruce’s father who faked his death and orchestrated the murder of Martha Wayne. But as the story progresses, Batman comes to believe that Hurt may be the devil himself. The pure embodiment of evil that represents everything Batman opposes.
While RIP was marketed as being the end of Batman, it was also published at the same time as Final Crisis, where a very much alive Bruce fights against Darkseid, another pure embodiment of evil.
The conclusion to act 1 of Morrison’s time on Batman is purposefully obfuscated. Hurt’s identity isn’t determined here. RIP’s true meaning for Batman is unclear. The sudden transition into Batman’s story in Final Crisis, where he relives his memories through a massive trip through continuity in the two-part Last Rites, dissorients the reader.
It’s a storytelling decision that reinforces the notation that there will always be a missing piece. Something innately unknowable that not even Batman can ever truly discover.
Said Morrison, “I chose to build my story around the basic trauma, the murder of his parents, that lies at the heart of Batman’s genesis. It seemed to me there would be a part of Bruce Wayne that resented his parents for leaving him and especially resented his father for not being Batman that night, so the principal villains were an archetypal bad father figure in the form of Dr. Hurt and a dark mother in the form of Talia.”
Batman, of course, doesn’t die at the end of RIP, but instead seems to die during Final Crisis. While these interweaving and cross-pollinating stories keep his story from being the finely tuned and cohesive arc that some people may wish, they instead promote Morrison’s larger than life ideas about good and evil, life and death, mortality and legend.
In both RIP and Final Crisis, Batman is confronted by pure embodiments of evil. According to Morrison, RIP is “the story of how Batman cheats the Devil,” coming face to face with Dr. Hurt’s plan to destroy him and still surviving by being more prepared than the story he finds himself in.
But Batman’s story in Final Crisis is the story of The Dark Knight cheating death itself.
Batman’s story climaxes with The Dark Knight confronting Darkseid and shooting the embodiment of evil with its own bullet, only to be hit by Darkseid’s Omega Sanction. Batman is seemingly killed, but is shown at the end of the event to have been sent back to the dawn of man. He’s been quite literally dropped into the hole in things and must now dig himself out.
Act 2 of Morrison’s Batman is focused on the surviving Bat Family carrying on Bruce’s legacy while The Dark Knight must defeat time itself. The journey will see Batman become his own inspiration for being a hero, creating a closed loop that circles forever and ever around the hole in things – the senseless death of The Waynes. A cycle that turns death into life, tragedy into triumph.
Batman is propelled by the understanding of death’s inevitability but is, by nature of being an idea larger than life, essentially immortal. Batman is both the broken young boy who turns himself into the hero we all might be when embracing our best natures, as well the unattainable idea that encompasses the timeless struggle of good and evil.
Latching onto Batman’s immortal courage gives us the strength to face evil itself. To stare into the hole in things and to not be shaken.