This article is the second in a series covering Grant Morrison’s five-year tenure on Batman, from Batman and Son to Batman Incorporated. The first installment is available here.
As confusing as things became, the influence of The Black Casebook comics and the events of Final Crisis were responsible for the storyline that got me excited to read Grant Morrison’s take on Batman in the first place. Luckily, there’s no need to read Final Crisis to find out what happened. There are two “lost chapters” of Batman RIP collected in Time and the Batman that attempt to summarize the story as well, but they’re only slightly less confusing. All you need to know is this:
1. Batman gets shot in the head with a bullet that sends him back in time.
2. Trapped before the dawn of civilization, he becomes Cave Batman.
Skipping through historical eras at the trigger of a mystical eclipse, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne follows our hero as he flits unmoored through the time stream. Hot on his trail are Superman and the rest of the Justice League, determined to prevent Bruce from returning home. It seems the god Darkseid implanted Bruce with omega energy, and if he returns to the present day… Okay, so my mind wanders whenever Morrison gets Darkseid involved. That’s my cue to remind myself that whatever is about to come out of a character’s mouth, Grant Morrison considers himself a practicing magic-user, and I haven’t done the drugs or read enough comic books to make sense of his metaphysical bullshit.
No matter how tenuous the logic that ties the stories together, in theory it’s just exciting to see different versions of the Dark Knight. Here we get six: Caveman Batman, Puritan Witch Hunter Batman, Pirate Batman, Old West Batman, Gangster Batman, and Restaurant At the End of the Universe Batman. Since the series’ concept appeals more to style than substance, it’s unsurprising that each individual tale succeeds or fails according to the vision of the collaborating artists. Frazer Irving, who worked on the Klarion Witchboy storyline in Seven Soldiers, is primarily responsible for this collection’s stand-out story as well. His artwork brings a similar dank tone of oppression to the tale of colonial vigilante Mordecai Wayne. Whereas Yanick Paquette, who would go on to make Batman Incorporated almost unbearable to look at, almost ruins the no-brainer fan service that is Pirate Batman. Judged on writing alone, Morrison’s best work comes as usual right before everything unravels at the end, when Bruce goes undercover as his deceased father to investigate his parents’ murder. It’s an satisfyingly unpleasant backlot mystery, and temporarily puts Bruce in the shoes of his most recent nemesis Dr. Hurt.
The Return of Bruce Wayne is the .5 component of Morrison’s 3.5-story arc. Plot-wise it’s inessential and the art is frustratingly inconsistent. And like Batman RIP, it’s incontrovertibly tied into the metaplot of a larger superhero universe, making it a turn-off for casual readers or people like me, who find it difficult to suspend disbelief when Superman, Green Lantern, and a super-intelligent gorilla show up on Batman’s turf. But while it may be all over the place in terms of quality and content, thematically it fits right in with the rest of Morrison’s storyline. He’s playing with people with masks wearing multiple masks, a recurring trope that’s equally prominent when Morrison turns his attention to present day Gotham.