Beginning in 2006, Grant Morrison sought to reincorporate the weird, crazy, mystical silliness of old Batman comics into the story of the modern Dark Knight. Over the course of the next five years, he’d send Batman to ten minutes before the end of time and back, replace his familiar rogues gallery with Hollywood-inspired supervillains and serial killers, and revive the Batmen of Many Nations– a self-described league of heroes who sought to emulate Batman in locations across the world.
In short, he brought the batshit back to Batman.
Morrison’s run covers three — I hesitate to use the phrase “distinct arcs”, because the continuity of events and proper reading order is difficult to decipher– to four and half storylines, including a cross-over series, a journey through time, and an appendix of Silver Age adventures. It begins rather innocently with Batman and Son, a fun, accessible excursion that introduces Bruce Wayne to his 11-year-old son Damian, a product of a forgotten liaison with Talia Al Ghul. Talia drops Damian off at the Batcave to spend some time with his absent father, and the pre-teen assassin quickly becomes a nuisance, killing criminals and threatening Robin’s role as Batman’s surrogate son. Bruce also picks up an adventurous, socially-conscious girlfriend, Jezebel Jet, which complicates Talia’s plans for winning back her lover and establishing herself as matriarch of the most awesome family on the planet. It’s a pure thrill ride, and for anyone like myself, who’s familiarity with Batman comes mostly from television and movies, an easy entry point into the comics.
Except…Batman and Son also introduces The Black Casebook. As Bruce puts it, “Vampires, flying saucers, time travel…all the things we’d seen that didn’t fit and couldn’t be explained went into The Black Casebook.” Essentially Batman’s X-Files cabinet, The Black Casebook allows Morrison to pull fanciful storylines from the past into contemporary continuity. Its first mention is deceptively innocuous, as Bruce struggles to recall a night when he met three different versions of Batman. But The Black Casebook, and those multiple versions of Batman, will turn out to be the primary creative engine for the next eight volumes.
The story of Batman and Son continues in The Black Glove, where we meet the first of many nefarious, vaguely detailed secret societies that will plague Batman throughout Morrison’s run. Also present for the first time are the aforementioned Batmen of Many Nations. Though they come with colorful antagonists, it’s difficult to take the threats to Mexican Batman, Australian Batman, and Native-American Batman et al, seriously. Mysteries are not Morrison’s strong suit, and Batman’s detective work here pales in comparison to his action hero exploits in the first book. But it does introduce Morrison’s most interesting villain, Dr. Hurt, who claims to be Bruce’s father, Thomas Wayne. Also, he may be an immortal devil-worshiper. Either that, or the Devil himself.
Things get weirder from here on out. Batman RIP concludes the story that began in Batman and Son, as the Black Glove comes to Gotham and tries to take over the crime trade. It’s established in the first issue of the series that by this point, Batman’s most recognizable foes have all been locked up in Arkham Asylum. This gives Morrison and his artists license to fill the panels with all manner of nightmarish bad guys. Here, that means the strange counterparts to the D-List foreign Batmen introduced in book two. They’re fun to look at, but the real payoff comes when Morrison pulls out the Joker, delivering an iconic interpretation that rivals Heath Ledger’s film incarnation for menace. He envisions the Joker as an entertainer, a pop culture phenomenon shedding faces to keep himself relevant. He’s frightening in a way the Black Glove can’t match and ultimately doesn’t prepare for.
Batman RIP contains the best individual story in the first arc of the series. Unfortunately, it’s the most incomprehensible book in the series as a whole. While showing off the Batcave to his new girlfriend, a post-hypnotic suggestion implanted long ago by Dr. Hurt causes Bruce to lose his memory. Wandering the streets of Gotham, he reverts to a backup Batman personality he built into his subconscious in case of just such an eventuality. The results are awesome, but for it to all make sense you have to read the actual Black Casebook, which DC published in 2009, that collects the comics Morrison drew on for inspiration. Without that frame of reference, Bruce’s ramblings about his “bat radia” and the appearance of Bat Mite will likely leave you wondering what you missed.
The book then ends with two cyclical mindfucks unrelated to the story so far, tie-ins to the Final Crisis cross-over event happening at the time. Out of context, there’s no understanding them. Having slogged through Final Crisis myself, I can’t say they’re any more comprehensible. For all Morrison’s dedication to bringing back a certain gee-whiz element to the canon, it’s frustrating that there are no footnotes in RIP referring the reader to “see issue XX of XX, where something stupid happened to Batman.” Knowing there was an explanation somewhere for what was going on would have been good enough for me. Having done the legwork on both The Black Casebook and Final Crisis, just the assurance that he was referencing a work I wasn’t familiar with would have been preferable to actually reading them.
This article is the first in a series covering Grant Morrison’s five-year tenure on Batman, from Batman and Son to Batman Incorporated.