Buying individual comic books is out for me. I’m a shut-in comics nerd in his mid-thirties, the last thing I need is another periodical or six to clutter up my cramped apartment. So like many of my peers, I wait for trade collections of comic books, usually (and very gratifyingly) grouped by story arc and available within a few months of the last comic in the storyline’s publication. Such is the case with Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, collecting the six-issue mini-series of the same name that came out last year.
I’ve been following Grant Morrison’s work on Batman as well as Final Crisis through their trade editions, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve liked Grant Morrison ever since Batman: Gothic, which is where I first heard of him. I feel Morrison is a great talent, and should certainly be mentioned among other great comic book authors, particularly those who can weave epic, complex stories over many issues (and sometimes, through many titles) like Neil Gaiman. However, there’s always something a little off in his stories.
I noticed it in Batman: Gothic as well. That story, which is a trade collection from the Legends of the Dark Knight series that ran after the success of Batman: Year One, is about a four-hundred year old Satantic sorcerer who sold his soul in order to survive the Black Death, and now intends to release the plague on Gotham City and barter the city’s souls against his own. We learn that, while waiting around four centuries for this prime opportunity, the Satanist has been a total prick, killing children at his whim and generally being a lecherous creep. Turns out he actually had a stint as headmaster at Bruce Wayne’s boarding school, and it was an argument with this weirdo that caused Thomas Wayne to pull his son from the school and bring him home to Wayne Manor, an event celebrated with a night out to the movies… [SPOILER ALERT: THAT'S WHEN BRUCE'S PARENTS GET KILLED IN FRONT OF HIM, INSPIRING HIM TO BECOME BATMAN.]
Which is a swell story by itself, doesn’t need a lot more to color it in. But there’s this extension of the plot where it shows that the long-lived villain was once a devout monk living in a monastery in Austria. He was corrupted, convinced his brothers that Satan was cool, then they raped a nun…then I think the monastery was drowned…something about Batman had to bring back the Satantic monk’s heart? It was just a bit overboard, like a lovely cake that was ruined when it was served with lug nuts as a topping. The result is one of mild confusion, yet it did not keep me from enjoying the story as a whole.
I fear that Grant Morrison’s gone over the deep end now, folks. I saw it in New X-Men, we all saw it in Final Crisis, a story so dense it needs several publications and websites to annotate, deconstruct, and effectively understand it. And it’s happened here in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, though it has done nothing to dampen the Batman geek in me–in fact the story, by and large, has tickled me to the core of my Batman geek penis.
So the setting of this story is that Batman was shot by this evil god Darkseid’s laser gun, which everyone thought killed him but it actually sent him back in time. This six-issue series deals with Bruce Wayne finding his way back to present-day Gotham City (turns out every solar eclipse makes him jump forward in time), each issue concentrating on a different time period. My inner Batman fanboy salivated and clapped with glee over this nod to the 1950s era Batman, a campy, tamed version who was at times a chivalrous knight, a cowboy, or a viking. Morrison has skillfully resuscitated this much-maligned period of Batman over the course of his writing, lending gravity to once silly notions like Batmen of All Nations and the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh.
However it’s not as simple as Bruce Wayne merely fast-forwarding a few times, no there’s chicanery afoot. Darkseid, in his infinite wisdom, counted on Wayne having the tenacity to, you know, travel through time, so he somehow made it so that Bruce would gather Omega Energy each time he zapped forward, until he had enough to destroy the present day. It’s unclear what Omega Energy is, but suffice to say it is bad and you should not let it build up too much. To hasten Wayne’s advance through time, Darkseid also tossed out this killing, time-traveling monster to chase him through the fourth dimension. Oh, and also Superman and a few pals are cruising through time, trying to catch up to Batman before he kablooeys the present day. Who isn’t traveling through time in this fucking comic? It seems like the time stream is getting more traffic than the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
In the sixth issue, the story runs off the rails a little with that overblown redundancy I was talking about earlier. Yes, it does add information and color to the story somewhat, but I found it confusing and a little disappointing as a conclusion. I’m not going to spoil the whole ending, but the main part I will spoil: turns out Batman was instrumental in his own creation. The particulars of this and the way the story is told, however, are crucial and worth your scrutiny. It’s just this whole scene at the end, there are these weird robots cataloging time…I’d worry that I was giving important plot points away if I fully understood what was happening. Much of the sixth issue of this series is Batman talking to robots, a real decline in what had been an action-packed and compelling comic book.
Still, even with that extra stuff, the general story is great and satisfying on many levels to the avid Batman fan. If you’re a fan, you’ve already been reading the shit and you’re just reading this to see if my opinion aligns with yours. If you’re not a Batman fan, I can’t say this is a good place to get into Batman, but then if you’ve gone this far along not reading Batman then you can probably just keep on rolling and skip it. Me, I love the shit, Grant Morrison rules. Even if I might not be smart enough to understand what the hell he’s writing about.