The evil in our world is greater than what the human mind can grasp. Beyond time and space lie threats and fears that break the bonds of reality. Only one man can hope to overcome these demons, but what can we do when our hero has been lost to time itself?
Grant Morrison’s Batman is rooted in the idea of Bruce Wayne transcending his limitations as a human hero and overcoming challenges that cannot be defined by logic or reason. But when Wayne is disintegrated by Darkseid’s Omega Beams during “Final Crisis” and placed back at the dawn of man, it’s up to his friends and family to pick up the pieces and live up to his legendary legacy.
As we’ve previously discussed, Morrison’s time on Batman from 2006 through 2013 can be broken down into three separate acts that tell their own stories, but also echo one another and weave together a larger portrait. Here, we’ll explore Act 2, which encompasses Morrison’s 16 issues of Batman & Robin
, his single issue story Time and The Batman, and The Return of Bruce Wayne miniseries.
Unlike his Act 1 story, which centered on creating a Batman greater than any challenge, Act 2 is centered on the larger than life myth of Batman, two people trying to live up to a hero they can never truly match, and that hero’s time- and genre-defying return, which will ultimately change his understanding of a world that is far larger and stranger than even he previously understood.
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Here, to understand what Morrison’s strange, hyper-colored, farcical Act 2 of his Batman epic has to say about the legend and legacy of The Dark Knight, we’ll look at his reconfiguration of the Dynamic Duo, how our original hero digs himself out of the hole in things, and how ultimate evil is brought down to earth in Act 2’s climax.
No matter the terrors that invade from dimensions beyond our reality or the darkness within our hearts that will never be extinguished, we can rest assured that one truth will remain: Batman and Robin will never die.
A New Dynamic Duo
In “Batman & Robin,” which debuted in June 2009, Morrison places Dick Grayson, longtime Nightwing and the original Robin, behind the cowl of Batman, and Damian Wayne, son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul, as the new Robin. In doing so, he creates a new dynamic for the dynamic duo – a smiling and carefree Batman and a brooding and dangerous Robin. It also puts a far more fallible and human pair at the forefront of Morrison’s story, which had up until now been defined by a Batman without limits.
Morrison’s series is not about the journey to becoming Batman, but what it means to live up to a man whose mythic nature is ultimately unreachable. These 16 issues of “Batman and Robin” are composed of 5 different three-issue arcs and one extra large conclusion, playing into Morrison’s “super compression” approach to the title by having his heroes run a massive gauntlet of challenges in as little time as possible before the mandated return of Bruce Wayne.
Both “Batman and Robin” and “The Return of Bruce Wayne” are a fight against and through a wide variety of genres, forcing their heroes to adapt to and triumph over many different tones, ideas, and genre trappings to succeed in the end. Likewise, both series use a variety of artists throughout their run, either for separate arcs or for each issue, to underline this constantly shifting fiction.
There’s the psychotic circus freaks of “Batman Reborn,” the battle against violent antiheroes in “Revenge of the Red Hood” (which might be the first true stumble in Morrison’s run), the fight against a lazarus pit resurrected Darkseid clone of Batman in “Blackest Knight,” the remote controlled treachery and Wayne history revelations of “Batman vs Robin,” and the inverse R.I.P. of “Batman and Robin Must Die.” Each is a test of Grayson’s ability to remain hopeful in a naturally grim role and the chance for the petulant Damian to grow as a person.
Longtime Morrison collaborator Frank Quietly’s art on the opening arc establishes a so-called “acid bubblegum” approach to this new take on Batman. Gotham is hypercolored, its heroes are men of acrobatic action, and its new generation of villains are twisted, psychotic versions of fairy tales without mercy. It’s in this opening arc where we meet Professor Pyg, first shown in the dystopian flash forward of Batman #666 like several other villains within this series, and his circus of Dollotrons – mindless, masked servants that smack of a deeply twisted take on Pygmalion. We’re also given our first hints of a larger conspiracy cascading like sometimes quite literal dominoes. What is this larger battle happening around the world and what place do Batman and Robin have in it?
Quietly’s “Batman Reborn” is the ultimate mood setter for this series. Its vibrant nature feels aligned with ‘60s comics and Adam West’s TV series. It’s also Quitely who designed the new costumes for his heroes, making small tweaks to iconic designs. Most importantly, he distinguishes the lithe and lean Grayson from the hulking Wayne under the mask. In doing so, both Grayson and Damian feel faster and sleeker, but also more vulnerable than their mythic predecessor.
Each subsequent story elaborates on the new Dynamic Duo’s place in Gotham and each hints at a greater mystery, once again highlighting the “hole in things” established during Act 1. Morrison’s ongoing narrative is designed to trap his fresh-faced heroes in a mystery they can’t solve, but in doing so, it matures both characters.
According to Morrison, “The first story that came out is about masks, and the second story is about faces, and the third story is about bones, and the fourth story is about family history. Each story peels back another layer of what Batman is. It all ties into the idea of the man in the mask.”
The series title alone illustrates that we are not only dealing with a new pairing of Batman and Robin, but in fact TWO Robins trying to live up to the example of Batman. Morrison makes no pretensions that Grayson is the permanent replacement for Bruce Wayne, who we know is alive long before this series begins. Instead, he forces Grayson and Damian to understand their own limits and, in doing so, rely on one another.
Morrison also rejects the idea of a lethal and psychotic Batman as the antidote to Gotham’s ills. He instead embraces the lightness and positivity of Grayson, which slowly seeps into the brooding Damian.
Regarding Damian, Morrison said, “When we introduced the character, most of the readers hated him. You have to play the long game, because I knew where I wanted to take him, but I had to start with him as quite an obnoxious, spoiled brat–and then to watch the change in the character, to watch him learn to be a superhero, I think, is what’s given him that popularity. They like to see him change, and they like the fact that he’s also willing to change.”
Regarding Grayson, Morrison said, “By giving him his own, definite Robin, I think it actually elevated Grayson into being a real Batman. He rose to take up that role. I kind of always saw him as the quintessential superhero–you know, he’s the first-ever sidekick and he’s grown up. He’s pretty relaxed. He’s handled the traumas in a way that maybe Batman even hadn’t done.”
There’s another layer to these arcs – a missing layer actually. The absence of The Joker, who played a crucial and unresolved role in Act 1 and whose spirit seems to inform many of the new villains and locations that make up each story. There’s the forced identity reformation and poisonous gases of Professor Pyg, the total, blinding evil meets Prince getup of Flamingo, the unending obsession with Batman found in Doctor Hurt. It seems as if, in the absence of The Joker, the world of Gotham has created a piecemeal replacement for the Clown Prince of Crime. That is, until we realize that The Joker has been with us all this time, in disguise as the masked crime-fighting detective Oberon Sexton.
Suddenly, Batman and Robin are caught in a game of death being played by The Joker and Doctor Hurt. First symbolized by dominoes, then shifted into chess during the final arc, with both sides hoping to use our heroes as knight and pawn.
The Man in Black Returns
“Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne” was published in 2010 in alternating order alongside “Batman and Robin,” trading off issues that saw Wayne traveling through time with stories that detailed Grayson and Damian beginning to unravel the mystery of what happened to Bruce.
Here, we pick up with the cliffhanger ending of Final Crisis, which showed Bruce to be stranded in the prehistoric age by Darkseid’s Omega Beams, only to be pulled further forward in time through the history of Gotham with each new issue.
Like the stories covered in Part 1 of this series and those which will be covered in Part 3, The Return of Bruce Wayne dwells on the closed loop circling forever around the hole in things. The ouroboros forever eating its own tail, creating an eternal cycle of destruction but also bringing everlasting life. Here, Morrison once again pays homage to strange Silver Age comics by
placing Batman in outlandish historical settings and bringing in various members of the Wayne lineage mentioned throughout comics history. In the process, Batman is elevated to Bat-God, a man capable of defeating the pantheon of New Gods and in the process, becoming an equal to the supergods of Wonder Woman and Superman.
Early on in “The Return,” we’re introduced to the concept that time is not only a linear path, but a hypercube of timelines that each represent infinite parallel universes on a cosmic fretboard. And between these superstrings are beings that lie outside reality and defy our understanding. Chief among them is The Hyper Adapter, a being created by Darkseid to follow Bruce through time, filling him with Omega Energy that will destroy everything when he reaches the present. The result is that Batman has been fired through time like a bullet, and at both the beginning and end of time, we see Batman’s journey connected to a string of pearls, a bullet, and a bell – the items that defined his origin still with him until the end of everything.
Each trip forward through time is marked by an eclipse, once again creating a hole in things, a tunnel punched through reality bringing Batman further and further toward a dark destiny.
In each of these timelines, Bruce enters the lives of people who need an avenging angel. And each time, he encounters both villains and heroes who see reality and time through a small window and as such are unable to fully grasp the totality of the world and the many interdimensional entities that exist beyond their worldview. These limitations cause men and women through the ages to reinterpret their experiences to fit with their beliefs and in doing so create legends that live forever – the Miagani tribe of Bat people, a curse on the Wayne lineage, and specifically, the legend of the Batman – a dark figure of the night whose link to bat iconography becomes implanted in the history of Gotham, leading to his own creation. Another closed loop.
Each of these eras touch on a type of pulp fiction genre that was popularized before the coming of superhero comics – cavemen, puritans, pirates, cowboys, detectives, and sci-fi. And in each, we find a key ingredient of Batman – the primal beast of myth, the staunch do gooder, the swashbuckler, the dark avenger, the hyper-intelligent detective, and the figure larger than time. Despite Bruce having no memory of who he is, he is instinctively drawn toward the elements that make him The Dark Knight, building himself back up into Batman, even without the inciting incident of his parents’ murder.
Batman’s journey also brings him to the end of all timelines, which converges in The Omega Point, a theory by French Jesuit Catholic priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. At The Omega Point, all becomes one but life may be able to transcend through its transference into a virtual version of itself, creating a new universe. At the end of time, the time traveling heroes who have been searching for Wayne are sent through the Omega Point and back into the present. In essence, they’ve been reborn into a brand new universe, which is exactly the same as the last. Traveling through the hole in things that has been conquered by Batman to return to their world. And being fictional heroes, they can survive. On the other side of the temporal rebirth, Batman
himself reaches a moment of transcendence where he almost becomes aware of his existence within a comic. In the end, his great realization is that he’s never truly been alone in his struggle. The pearls and bullet may have begun Batman’s war, but it’s the bell that summoned Alfred and began the Bat Family, which has always made his heroism possible.
For Bruce, this trip through time is the opening of the mind’s eye, seeing beyond himself and his previously limited focus as a hero of only Gotham. In doing so, Bruce gains the knowledge needed to fill the hole in things.
Filling The Hole in Things
Ever since his introduction in The Black Glove and his attack in Batman R.I.P., Doctor Simon Hurt was the embodiment of the hole in things, something that could never be truly solved and, as such, the symbolic motivation for Batman’s never-ending war.
In Act 2, Hurt’s identity is solidified – Simon Hurt was Thomas Wayne, but not Batman’s father. Instead, he’s another Thomas Wayne, one from much earlier in the Wayne lineage whose occult dealings in the 1700s gave him long life but also made the family disavow his existence. Bruce’s trip through time brought the Hyper Adapter into contact with Thomas, who absorbed its essence through a ritual. Here, we once again see a human come into contact with the great metaphysical unknown and force their own limited understanding on it. Thomas believed that the Hyper Adapter was the dark lord Barbatos, a demonic spirit originally from Peter Milligan’s “Dark Knight, Dark City.” And while writer Scott Snyder would later make Barbatos a literal dark god, Morrison shows us that Barbatos isn’t real, it’s only our human imagination giving definition to the darkness we can never truly understand.
Hurt may be long-lived and purely evil, but his pretensions at being The Devil are a mistake. When Batman escapes from his time travel trap and triumphs over the metaphorical and ungraspable, he gains understanding of Hurt’s true nature. Thus, Hurt is made knowable and therefore defeatable.
If Act 1 was Morrison taking everything in Batman comics history and making sense of it, then Act 2 is reforming the understandable as farce – something that is meant to be serious, but has become ridiculous. Absurdity overtaking what was once grounded.
By the final arc of “Batman and Robin Must Die!,” everything has truly turned upside down, as is illustrated by its opening of Thomas Wayne joyfully standing over the corpses of his wife and son. This inverse also leads to Robin beating Joker with a crowbar and The Joker ultimately being on the side of the heroes in his own twisted way. “Must Die” is R.I.P. gone wrong, with history once again repeating itself, as is Doctor Hurt’s intention, but in a way he never intended. In this way, Morrison takes inspiration from Karl Marx’s essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.”
“It came from the notion that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce; this is “R.I.P.” as farce,” said Morrison.
Each issue is titled after a different gothic painting, “The Garden of Death,” “The Triumph of Death,” and “The Knight, Death and the Devil.” Like the apocalyptic warnings of “Return of Bruce Wayne,” these stories seem to foretell of the great “All-Over” – the triumph of the devil and the end of everything. This would be a forgone conclusion, if it wasn’t for the farce of it all.
Now, in Black Mass, Batman inverts the trap of R.I.P. on Dr. Hurt. Rather than a psychological trigger buried deep within Bruce Wayne’s psyche that is sprung to destroy him, Bruce buries a trap for Hurt deep within the history of Gotham, creating a seemingly mythical box that, when opened, will trigger the apocalyptic “All-Over” for the world.
The contents of that box are a mystery for all of “The Return of Bruce Wayne” and are only revealed in the climax of “Batman and Robin.” What are they? A homing device and a note with a single word: “Gotcha.” The trap is sprung for Hurt and the man that proclaimed himself to be The Devil has, like the many characters of “Return,” mistaken his own mythical greatness for the aftereffects of a cosmic existence far greater than his own understanding. Hurt may have wanted Bruce to Rot in Purgatory, but instead, Bruce gained power over the self-proclaimed Devil.
But the last laugh is given to The Joker, who defeats Hurt by having him slip on a banana peel and burying him alive. The Devil is cast down by St. Michael, in this case personified by a Big Mike banana and the final domino toppled by the Clown Prince who pushed them into motion.
Unlike Act 1’s fixation on unanswerable questions and the pull of madness, Act 2 is focused on answers and the reformation of the self, whether that’s Bruce’s self-recreation, Grayson’s search for identity underneath another man’s mask, or Damian’s rejection of Talia’s control. The double climax of Return and Batman and Robin is the filling of the hole in things made possible by defining what was once unknowable and therefore being able to triumph over it.
The triumph of Bruce, Dick, and Damian over Doctor Hurt is the confirmation of an innate truth of Batman.
https://techland.time.com/2010/05/07/exclusive-interview-grant-morrison-on-batman-times-three / https://www.amazonbookreview.com/post/2aeccdeb-4c5f-4d31-962a-72758bbe6da8/graphic-no vel-friday-the-grant-morrison-interview-all-things-batman-and-more
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