Read Part 1 HERE!
[The following is spoiler-light. No key surprises are explicitly revealed. That said, the post does discuss broad plot points and themes concerning Morrison’s work on Batman. So if you don’t want to know anything before reading the comics, please bookmark this for later!]
Of course, Bruce wasn’t actually dead at the end of Final Crisis. Instead, he was experiencing a strange form of metaphysical torture by Darkseid called “The Omega Effect.” Chillingly described by Darkseid as “THE DEATH THAT IS LIFE,” the Omega Effect sentences its victim to die an infinite succession of lives, with the suffering of each pathetic existence snowballing for all eternity.
In keeping with the Multiple Batmen motif, The Return of Bruce Wayne depicts Bruce as a Batman reincarnated over and over again throughout time and into the distant future. The result is exceedingly awesome: we get Caveman Batman, Salem Witch-Hunt Batman, Pirate Batman, Cowboy Batman, Film Noir Batman, and Bush Robot Batman. Morrison said, “it was also to show what he grew out of, those antecedents in the heroes of the past, the pulp fiction heroes. Cavemen and cowboys and pirates – it was a lit bit of a literary joke as well in the sense that he was kind of reeling in the entire history of pulp.”
Exploring Batman as a confluence of pulp archetypes may sound gimmicky and a bit repetitive at first, but The Return of Bruce Wayne was actually very challenging in its narrative structure. The truly fascinating aspect about Bruce’s time travel adventure was that it seeded “the Batman” as an ancient mythological concept in Bruce’s continuity. By traveling back in time, Bruce inspired a culture of cave-dwelling Bat-god worshipers called the Miagani. This obscure culture mixes in with classical demonology over the centuries, eventually attracting an unsavory occult following.
Images of anthropomorphized Bats end up haunting generations of the Wayne bloodline, and Bats are woven into the spiritual fabric of the land that’d become Gotham. The myriad threads tie together brilliantly, and this time-warp phenomenon ends up forming the basis of almost everything that happens to Batman during Morrison’s work. Most ambitiously, it purports to explain where the Bat in Batman came from in the first place.
(If you’re looking to get a solid nerd headache for a few hours, ponder this: the final moments of Bruce’s time travel adventure loop back into the beginning, so that the narrative snake truly swallows its own tail. With this in mind, it’s surely no accident that the Ouroboros repeatedly appears throughout Morrison’s subsequent third act.)
Following this cosmic ordeal, Bruce has an epiphany about recognizing “The First Truth of Batman.” It gives away nothing to tell you that (you guessed it!), the answer involves embracing the idea of multiple Batmen. Bruce resurrects the International Club of Heroes, (AKA “The Batmen of Many Nations”) to form a global network of WayneTech-sponsored masked vigilantes called Batman, Incorporated. As one writer at Comics Alliance pointed out, “Batman Incorporated [is] a kind of double entendre — yes, its Batman as a corporation, but it was also a kind of mission statement for Morrison’s run, incorporating together the many different styles, interpretations and periods of Batman’s history into the Unified Theory of the Batman.”
Morrison’s third act follows Bruce as he recruits new initiates and becomes wrapped up in a dark Nazi conspiracy involving the original Batwoman, Kathy Kane, and her mysterious connection to geopolitical espionage. After suffering a crushing personal loss, Bruce leads this worldwide legion of multicultural Batmen in the final showdown with Bruce’s most powerful and unforgiving enemy yet.
The story ends with a characterization of Bruce as an ultimate survivor, capable of replicating himself ad infinitum in a Sisyphean crime-fighting purgatory. The cover to Morrison’s final issue is a fractal image of Batman emerging from the Bat symbol on his own chest, a visualization of Commissioner Gordon’s closing monologue: “Batman never dies. It never ends. It probably never will.”
When Morrison started on Batman, he felt that
“The prevailing trend was the Frank Miller-style Batman, ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ Batman, which was great. I grew up with that stuff and loved it…I was kind of used to the savage vigilante, but when I really began to think of it, someone who had gone through this life process to be Batman would have much more psychological depth.”
As a result, Morrison said he “had to throw out a few of the accepted ideas about Batman as a semi-unhinged, essentially humorless loner struggling with rage and guilt. The totality of his history and accomplishments made that portrayal seem limited and unconvincing.”
It’s not about bringing back the shark repellant or musing on the merits of rubber nipples. But Morrison’s thesis, with which I’ve come to agree, is that Batman’s dark psychology is only one aspect of his character. In addition to being a dude with issues, “this was a master of martial arts, meditation, deduction, yoga and big business.” Morrison’s contribution to Batman is its recognition that Batman has breadth and complexity beyond that of a mere sociopath in leather.
In the context of Morrison’s career at large, his work on Batman is a major point heading in his ongoing theoretical battle with purveyors of amoral superherosim like Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Although he has plenty of appreciation for the technical expertise and historical significance of Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, Morrison is ultimately opposed to propagating or celebrating the spandex-clad nihilism found in these stories.
For Morrison, writing superheroes is about investigating the pinnacle of human potential, not its nadir. He sees this as essential not only to his personal success as a writer, but to our collective success as a species. He has fascinating, trippy theories regarding the fifth dimensional metaphysics of fiction and its relation to sympathetic magic that you can read about, but he can also state his view on writing quite simply: “We have a tendency to reenact the stories we tell ourselves.”
Even without impugning the undisputed brilliance of the canon works of the so-called “Dark Age” of superheroes, I do agree that there’s something problematic and simplistic about the perception that superheroes need to be dark and disturbed to be interesting.
Morrison’s work on Batman proved that this just isn’t true.- syvology