The Journey Is the Destination:
Grant Morrison and Batman R.I.P.
It has often been said of Grant Morrison that he doesn’t know how to end a story. However, I think it’s not so much that Morrison doesn’t know how to end a story, more that he focuses intensely on the journey and it is this journey that defines the characters, and not the end. Take for example The Invisibles, The Filth, and Doom Patrol. Neither of these books had really what you could call a big climax but as each story progressed, incredible things happened along the way to change the characters and alter the worlds in which they exist. Granted this type of storytelling is not for everyone and especially in serialized fiction, we expect and often get a grand Earth-shattering conclusion to the stories we read. More often than not though, the world changing climaxes are either retconned out of existence or are just stepping stones to the next line-wide crossover. The comic book medium is so vast and with near limitless possibilities, I think there is plenty of room for new and interesting methods of storytelling; one where great revelations happen along the way and not in the last issue.
Since Grant Morrison took over writing Batman with issue 655, he has been bringing together all of the eras of Batman stories and putting them into a context that not only explains the more fantastical stories from the past, but also strengthens the character of Bruce Wayne as well as the extended “Batman family.” It’s also worth noting that Morrison took over writing Batman not long after the DC Universe’s most recent line-wide event at that time, Infinite Crisis, which had some impact on all of the DC characters and their monthly titles. The timing was right for a close examination of the Batman character and his considerable history. All of this came together in the most recent six-issue storyline Batman R.I.P. with art by Tony Daniel. Ostensibly, R.I.P. is about a mysterious organization called The Black Glove, which has appeared for the express purpose of breaking Batman. Other characters include Bruce Wayne’s most recent love interest Jezebel Jet, Dr. Hurt, a shadowy figure connected to Batman’s past, Bat-Mite, a fantastical element taken from the Silver Age stories who exists here as a figment of Bruce Wayne’s imagination and a kind of advisor. Finally of course, Batman’s long-time nemesis the Joker who, under Tony Daniel’s pen looks more horrifying than he has in years.
Batman R.I.P. takes us through every age of Batman, from the pulp-inspired Golden Age beginnings (names like the sinister-sounding Black Glove, Dr. Hurt, and the temptress Jezebel Jet) to the psychedelic Silver Age fantasies and to the bronze and modern age toughness. It’s important to remember that when Batman debuted in 1939, he was really a pastiche of characters taken from the pulp magazines of the day, characters like The Shadow, The Spider, Doc Samson, as well as the cinema: The Mark of Zorro and The Bat. Morrison populates the R.I.P. storyline with characters and concepts that seem to be taken wholesale from this pulp tradition. A shadowy and villainous organization known only as The Black Glove, a mysterious figure called Dr. Hurt, and a femme fatale called Jezebel Jet seem tailor-made for old pulp magazines and stories.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, Batman stories took a radical turn for the fantastic. Science Fiction elements, like Batman traveling to other planets and dimensions took over. For many years afterward, these stories seemed to be something of an embarrassment for DC and often went unacknowledged. It’s understandable considering these stories came about as a way to make Batman seem more kid-friendly in the days of the Wertham hysteria and the rise of the Comics Code Authority. However, Morrison saw something of worth in these sometimes surreal stories and decided to bring them back into continuity after a fashion. They now exist as hallucinations from a time when Bruce underwent a severe drug and sensory deprivation experiment; his stated reason for doing so being that he wanted to better understand a deranged mind like the Joker’s. The idea of a League of Batmen; a group of costumed men inspired by Batman also returns, first in the earlier Black Glove story arc and again in the last issue of R.I.P. Another concept from the Silver Age making a return to Batman continuity is Bat-Mite. Originally, Bat-Mate was an imp from the Fifth Dimension, now he has returned as a figment of Bruce’s imagination, as Mite explains it: “Imagination is the fifth dimension.” The most interesting concept resurrected from the Silver Age is the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh. Originally appearing in Batman 113, The Batman of Zur-En-Arrh was an admirer on another planet who adopted the Batman’s methods and a colorful version of his costume to fight crime on his own world. In Morrison’s hands, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh becomes a kind of backup personality that Bruce can assume if he is ever in extreme danger. Probably the greatest strength of Morrison’s Batman run and the R.I.P. storyline in particular has been the way he took these lost stories and made them a compelling part of the current Batman canon; a difficult task, but like Batman himself says in 681: “difficult, but far from impossible.”
The Bronze and Modern age stories saw Batman pulling away from the Science-Fiction and fantasy of the Silver Age into a darker and a comparatively more realistic world. The Batman stories from the 1970’s, especially those written by Denny O’Neil and Steve Englehart are often credited with saving the character, along with the iconic artwork of Neil Adams and Marshall Rogers. In these stories, Batman became a lot tougher, at time he seemed almost like a James Bond-type character. While he did not travel into outer space, he did often travel to other countries to combat evil. From the beginning of his run, Morrison gave us a more outgoing Bruce Wayne, in contrast to the cave-dwelling paranoid obsessive he had become just before Infinite Crisis. The Modern age, and in particular Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s monochromatic retelling of Batman’s origins in Batman: Year One came just after DC’s grand universe reboot Crisis on Infinite Earths. This was a “back to basics” re-imagining of Bruce Wayne and his obsession to fight crime and the things that influenced him. Morrison touches on this in the epilogue of R.I.P. where Bruce and his parents, having just exited the theater after seeing Zorro are walking out to meet their fate. Young Bruce talks about how great it would be if Zorro were real and fought crime in Gotham. His father remarks that if someone like Zorro existed in Gotham he would be put into Arkham Asylum. Zorro-in-Arkham. The last words spoken by Thomas Wayne become Zur-En-Arrh, the trigger phrase of Batman’s mental break as well as his backup personality.
The journey that Morrison takes us on in Batman R.I.P. is one of summation. Through it we see almost 70 years of Batman comics consolidated into one six-issue story arc. Along the way there has been much speculation about the outcome of the story and when the final issue arrived this week there was in some people maybe a feeling of being let down. It’s safe to say that Bruce did not die in the fiery helicopter crash, a scene seemingly lifted from Batman 429, the last issue of the infamous Death in the Family arc, where the Joker, after killing Jason Todd appears to die in a helicopter crash, only to return again in Batman 450. We are given vague hints that Dr. Hurt might be “the devil”, a possible reference to a time back in the early 1990’s when the Batman books added some darker occult elements to the stories, like the Dark Knight Dark City arc (Batman 452-454), Detective Comics 616, 617, and 622-624, and Morrison’s own Arkham Asylum graphic novel as well as his Gothic storyline .from Legends of the Dark Knight issues 6-10. Morrison also alludes to Damien, Bruce’s son with Talia Al Gul, taking on the mantle of the bat in a dark future and selling his soul to Satan in return for the safety of Gotham City in his current run in issue 666. So, there aren’t any deaths, at least not any important ones and the last issue of R.I.P. ends with the future of Batman in some doubt. What was the purpose of the story, and why Batman R.I.P.? If I had to guess, I’d say that this arc was a way to lay-to-rest everything we have come to know about Bruce Wayne and Batman. As for the purpose, I honestly don’t know. It’s entirely possible a reboot is on the horizon once Morrison finishes his Final Crisis story and Neil Gaiman finishes his upcoming Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Story. We could be seeing a brand new Batman in 2009, at which point the character will turn 70 years old. Just in time for a new beginning perhaps.
Before I end this, I really want to say a few more words about Batman 681. This issue more than just about anything else I’ve read hit me on a very personal level. You see, the very first Batman comic I ever bought; in fact it was also my first DC comic and pretty close to being my first comic book ever, was World’s Finest 269 from 1981. The first story, “Buried Alive,” by Gerry Conway is about a “nobody” crook who captures and buries Batman alive. This story completely captured my young imagination and I read it so many times over the years that the book just fell apart. But seeing Batman in a similar situation at the beginning of issue 681 completely took me back to those years. It almost felt like I was discovering this amazing character all over again.
By David Faust