by Grant Morrison
232 pages, DC Comics
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Damn you, Pat Black! You beat me to it! I've wanted to write a piece on Frank Miller's seminal “The Dark Night Returns” for some time now but never got round to it. Still, at least I can convey some of my fanboy enthusiasm for the caped crusader in this review for a recent work by Grant Morrison.
I'll start by stating a few facts. Firstly, I'm a huge Batman fan. For me, he's not just a great superhero but a real cultural icon. One only has to look at his numerous incarnations to see how flexible the character is. From Adam West's hi-camp pantomime to Tim Burton's gothic take on the character and now Christopher Nolan's brooding psychodrama – the story of Batman has shown how a comic book hero can adapt and survive in our ever-changing world of popular culture.
Secondly, although Batman is considered to be a superhero, the title doesn't really fit him in my opinion. For a start, he has no superpowers. He can't fly or shoot lasers from his eyes. He's not supernaturally strong or bulletproof. Sure he's got his gadgets and is able to crack some skulls in a fight but the fact remains that Bruce Wayne is human. Maybe it is this vulnerability that makes the character so endearing... other than his seemingly unlimited financial resources and some pretty serious childhood psychological trauma, Bruce Wayne could be you or I.
Scratch off “super” then, what are we left with? “Hero”? Once more, we can question this appellation. The Dark Knight is a vigilante working outside the boundaries of the law. Some incarnations of Batman have seen him working closely with Commissioner Gordon and the Gotham City Police Department but for me, the character works best when he is feared by criminals and pursued by the law in equal measures. As Pat Black pointed out – Batman tackles crime with terror tactics and extreme violence, doling out his own brand of justice by scaring people silly then punching them in the face. Whilst his tenacity and courage is admirable, he's hardly the most progressive of law enforcers.
“Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne” collects Grant Morrison's acclaimed 6-issue miniseries in one attractive hardback volume. The premise of the series is as brilliant as it is audacious and shows that Grant Morrison is one of the most daring mainstream comic-scribes out there. Following a clash with Darkseid, Batman has become unstuck in time. He pops up in the Gotham City area at various stages in history and gradually pieces his identity back together. Sounds bonkers? We haven't even begun yet. Running parallel to this fractured narrative is the sub-plot following the Justice League (Wonder Woman, Superman et al) as they confront the superbeings at the end of time and try to prevent Batman's return as it could trigger the end of the known universe.
The collection does not include the “Final Crisis” story where Batman becomes lost in time and so readers who are unfamiliar with this incident might find Bruce Wayne's first appearance in the stone age a bit bewildering. A nasty case of amnesia means that he has difficulty explaining who or what he is to the local tribesmen but as his memories return, so does his encyclopedic knowledge of kicking ass and his peculiar fashion sense.
Batman next pops up as a witch-hunter battling a supernatural being in Puritan Gotham. This episode, though not as viscerally pleasing as the previous adventure, at least goes some way to examining his tortured psyche and his rigid adherence to protecting the weak. Another jaunt through time sees Wayne taking on a crew of pirates bent on looting treasures from the sacred caves of an American Indian Tribe – the same caves that Wayne Manor will one day be built on top of.
Skipping forward another few generations, the book takes us to a Wild West-era Gotham. Here we see Bruce Wayne, now more aware of his purpose and identity, continuing to fight crime with his traditional non-lethal (but still extremely violent) methods. Gunslingers take on this masked man who throws bat-shurikens with uncanny accuracy and good old Jonah Hex makes an appearance as the bounty hunter hired to track down and kill the vigilante. The final leap through time takes us to a 1930s Gotham in the grip of mobsters. Here, Wayne takes on the role of world-weary private eye as he investigates the murder of his own parents. Morrison takes this opportunity to rewrite the Wayne family history and add some additional layers of intrigue to the already ludicrously complicated narrative.
As you might well have guessed, this is not a normal Batman comic book and those expecting a traditional adventure with the caped crusader are likely to be left scratching their heads and wondering what the hell just happened. However, readers willing to give Grant Morrison's time-travelling tale a chance will discover not just an exciting story which dares to do something different with the character but also an insightful dissection of the Batman mythos and the complex personality of Bruce Wayne. The setting of Gotham through the ages is also of great importance – as we see the evolution of the Batcave and Wayne Manor we come to realise that Batman and Gotham are mutually interdependent. Without Batman's interventions through history, Gotham would not exist. Without the sinister shadow of crime in the city, Batman would not exist. This brilliant paradox shows us how each is responsible for shaping the other. In its purest form, Gotham is Batman and Batman is Gotham.
Needless to say, the book is so far away from the traditional Batman-punches-Riddler-in-face tale that it is likely to divide its audience. Some (like me) will love its complexity and will sing its praises from the rooftops. Others will see it as a step too far, needlessly complicating what was, in essence, an already perfect origin story.
What “Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne” does best is to show Batman's ability to adapt and survive. Whatever period of history he finds himself in, regardless of the odds stacked against him, he pulls through. As a collection, this book does the same thing. Batman's enduring legacy is due to the various writers being able to adapt the character to suit the cultural climate of the day. In “Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne”, Grant Morrison shows Batman in numerous cultural guises: prehistoric warrior, swashbuckler, cowboy, pulp detective... a very super hero indeed.
Hereward L.M. Proops