Pity the poor Batman. He’s had his back broken, his sidekick killed, another sidekick shot and paralyzed below the waist, his city ravaged by plague and earthquake, and his pet supercomputer go berserk and try to take over the world. Also, he’s got unresolved daddy issues and has troubles with intimacy.
What, then, is a reader to make of Batman R.I.P., which writer Grant Morrison promises will be a resolution to ongoing conundrum that is Batman, and not just a death? After all, we’ve seen the deaths of numerous DC icons ranging from Superman to the Flash to Green Lantern, and most have come back relatively unscathed. Sure, there have been some side trips — Superman’s unfortunate “Blue” period, Hal Jordan’s sojourn as The Spectre — but really, the big changes tend to be reserved for the second stringers, guys like Question or Blue Beetle.
Then again, it’s Grant Morrison, so you can throw the usual playbook out the window. Instead of a brutal, pre-ordained beatdown a la The Death of Superman this is an attempt at deconstruction of what the Batman actually is and means. In true Morrison fashion, this means digging deep into the character’s past for the goofiest, weirdest bits of continuity imaginable and using them to attempt to illustrate the core of the character by highlighting all the things Batman could be. So, we get Bat-Mite manifesting as a delusional Bruce Wayne’s sense of rationality. We get The Club of Heroes, an international band of dysfunctional Batman wannabes. We get attempts to rewrite Batman’s family history by claiming the Waynes were druggies and pervs. We get possibly the most ridiculous band of super-villains ever to grace the halls of Arkham (A killer mime? A Ned Kelly impersonator? A luchador-alike named El Sombrero? Come on. . .) and Bruce revealing the secrets of the Batcave to yet another ridiculously monikered girlfriend. And most importantly, we get the Batman of Zur-El-Arrh, a brightly-costumed riff on a story from 1958 now revealed to be Batman’s “backup identity,” a mental failsafe put in place by Bruce Wayne as a defense against anyone attempting to mentally deconstruct him.
And it’s the deconstruction of Batman that we get, in brutal detail. Betrayed by Jezebel Jet (You’d think the name would have tipped Bruce off), he has his psyche flayed by the mysterious Dr. Hurt of criminal organization The Black Glove. Reduced to an amnesiac street person, driven by phantoms, Bruce Wayne still manages to deduce enough about himself to trigger this failsafe identity, and to ride it back to Arkham, where the villains have camped out in preparation for the final phase of their plan.
The main storyline ends with the explosion of a helicopter which Batman had leapt onto; there’s no trace of a body. Six months later, villain Le Bossu (another one of the Black Glove’s overly self-referential third-stringers) is merrily torturing his way through the Gotham PD in the absence of a Batman to stop him, when suddenly, the Bat-signal appears outside his window. What does this mean? Only future Grant Morrison books can say.
However, there’s one story left to the Batman R.I.P. hardcover. Fans of the early part of Neil Gaiman’s run on Sandman may remember Glob, here put to use by unnamed villains to try to walk Batman through his dreams and memories so they can be looted to create an army of invincible Bat-Clones. Or, well, something like that. Needless to say, Batman uncovers the deception, resists, and wins Glob over to his side in a manner of speaking. It’s another riff on the indomitable nature of sheer Batman-ness, and it also hints that Batman did indeed survive the helicopter explosion at the end of the main tale. More importantly, it’s a tip of the hat to long-suffering Alfred, and a re-affirmation of his central place in the Batman mythos.
Special kudos go to artist Tony S. Daniel, who took a narrative that could have been a muddle and characters who could have been jokey, and instead created something vibrant and iconic. As ridiculous as the Batman of Zur-El-Arrh costume (red, yellow and purple) could have been, here it’s framed against a gritty background, a frenzied icon to stand out against the darkness Bruce Wayne might otherwise be lost in. Daniel’s Joker is just as iconic. Marred by a bullet wound to the forehead and stripped of his gimmicks and toys, this Joker is leaner and more predatory than ever, There’s a big cast in here, and Daniel handles it with aplomb and skill.
As a reader, you either go with what Morrison’s doing, which is to use the worst excesses of Batman’s long and storied history to try to get at some core truths about what has made the character so enduring, or you don’t. If you do, the narrative is an intriguing, clever look at precisely how powerful the idea of The Batman is, as manifested by Bruce Wayne’s imitators, followers, and ultimate drive to seek the truth when even his core personality has been stripped away. If, however, you don’t, it’s a muddled mess that’s overly reliant on willfully obscure bits of continuity, loaded with ridiculous supporting characters, and too clever for its own good. For myself, I went back and forth literally from page to page, sometimes amazed at the audacity of what Morrison was trying to pull off, sometimes shaking my head at the aggressive ridiculousness of it all.