Monday, September 27, 2010

Revisiting RIP

So here I am, writing about Batman again. Sorry. I’ll get off this kick eventually, I’m sure. But for now, it’s the best-written funnybook on the stands today, so much so that I’ve been doing research and re-reading to really, firmly unpack all its hidden meanings. And to that end, I’ve just completed a re-read of the “first act” of Grant Morrison’s Batman run, culminating in the “Batman RIP” arc, and including the recently-published “Missing Chapter.” Those two issues add a lot more to the story (and to Morrison’s run as a whole) than I’d given them credit for on first blush, so I thought I‘d come back to them for a few minutes.

In some ways they’re spackle, something to make the final collected edition of all these comics read better. They attach “RIP” to “Return of Bruce Wayne,” and they seem intended give you just enough of the Final Crisis part of the story that you don’t have to read Final Crisis itself to understand the Batman run. In that, I suspect they fail rather badly: if I hadn’t read Final Crisis, I don’t know that “The Missing Chapter” would entirely make sense. But it’s a noble effort anyway, and if you read things in the right order, they illuminate Morrison’s larger plots and themes quite well.

The “right order” I’m talking about, by the way, goes like this: Batman #676-681, Batman #701, the first 8 pages of Batman #702, Batman #682-683, and then back for the rest of Batman #702. That takes you through “RIP” proper, gives you the immediate aftermath, leads you into “Final Crisis” right up to the moment of Batman’s capture by Darkseid, covers his mental battle with the Lump, and then runs you through the end of “Final Crisis” and into the opening of “Return of Bruce Wayne.” I’m hoping that’s how they do it when and if we get any sort of definitive collection of these comics, anyway; the story flows well, and makes about as much sense as it’s going to.

Also, reading “The Missing Chapter” interspersed with the “Last Rites” two-parter gives “RIP” a marvelous introspective epilogue, digging into Batman’s head in a way you don’t often see. We get his ruminations on who or what Dr. Hurt really was, coupled with the fears and doubts that Hurt gave voice to. Then the Lump takes him on a ghost train ride through his own life in a story that serves as a sort of “mystery eulogy” for the character before he “dies” taking on Darkseid. I also like that, if you take it in my preferred reading order, the first thing in Batman's "Missing Chapter" narration after the two-parter with the Lump is the line "I hope I'm still making sense." Hysterical. Because, no. No, Bats, you're not. But that's okay, because it all kind of straightens itself out in the end.

Reading it all together like this also allows you to draw connections between things that I just hadn’t remembered. For instance… As part of the mental battle against the Lump, we see an alternate reality in which Bruce Wayne’s parents survived the mugging and Bruce never became Batman. In that reality, Bruce goes down into the old well on the Wayne estate that connects to the Batcave. And what does he find there? See for yourself:

Bats starts to fight back at that point, so the Lump changes the scene quickly, and the identity of that desiccated corpse is never revealed. But Morrison doesn’t just toss crap like that in for nothing, especially not on this book, where he‘s treating the meta-plot as a detective story for the readers. I’m not sure who it is, frankly, but… In issue 701, we find out for sure that Hurt had found Wayne Manor’s hidden room when he occupied the mansion during “RIP.” Batman wonders how he even knew it existed, then says…

(click picture to embiggen)

Who, indeed? It seems, from the evidence we’ve gotten in “Return of Bruce Wayne,” that Hurt may really be the original Thomas Wayne, a family black sheep from colonial times who dabbled in diabolism. That Thomas raised a demon in the caves beneath Wayne Manor, and apparently found some method of immortality (still seeming a young man when we see him a century later). But Wayne Manor as we know it today was built after that Thomas Wayne left the family. And why would he go to so much trouble to ruin the good names of Bruce’s parents? Especially when he planned to take over the Wayne fortune as the murdered Thomas Wayne? It’s a good question.

Then, towards the end of issue 702, we get this enigmatic panel:

(click picture to embiggen)

Ignore the “everything they touch turns to myth” stuff for a moment. It’s cool, sure, but we’ll have to come back to it another time. What concerns me right now is the other bit. “Hidden rooms and vacant tombs and family secrets.” Over a picture of the entrance to Willowood Asylum. Hmm. The name didn’t mean much to me, so I went digging a bit. Turns out that Willowood Asylum was the last known address of yet another Thomas Wayne: Bruce’s brother Thomas Wayne Jr, who suffered a head injury in childhood that drove him mad.

Which is a completely insane idea, so where else would it have appeared but in World's Finest? I've been digging into that run for another "Who Puts Up With the Most Crap" cover post, and holy crap let me tell you: the mainline Superman and Batman comics have got NOTHING on that book when it comes to putting Our Heroes through humiliating bullshit.

But, anyway. Thomas Wayne, Jr. The character evidently only appeared in a couple of Bob-Haney-penned stories from the 70s (World's Finest #223 & 227), died heroically at the end of the second story, and has been kind of swept under the continuity rug by DC ever since. But if Morrison’s assuming that every Batman story ever published actually happened, and if he’s brought back Bat-Mite and the Kathy Kane Batwoman… I can’t see him passing up something as juicy as "Batman's crazy serial killer brother!" Especially not in a run that’s been all about Bat-doppelgangers from day one.

So let’s put all that together. We’ve got a brain-damaged evil son of Thomas and Martha Wayne. A secret room beneath Wayne Manor that young Bruce was forbidden from entering. And an alternate dream-reality where Bruce finds a corpse in the system of caverns that we know as the Batcave. And juxtaposing “hidden rooms and empty tombs and family secrets” with Willowood Asylum certainly seems to draw a connection between crazy Thomas Junior and the Secret Batcave. Is Thomas Junior not really dead? Did Bruce’s parents lock him up in the Secret Batcave for a time before committing him? Is that why Bruce was forbidden from ever entering the hidden room? Was the dream-vision of the corpse an effect of Bruce’s subconscious putting those pieces together? Hmm.

So what am I saying here? Is Dr. Hurt really Batman’s crazy brother? Is his plot to ruin the Wayne reputation all about getting revenge against the parents who put him in the nut-hatch (and maybe locked him up in freaking cave before that)? Does he hate Bruce so much that he thinks the Wayne fortune is rightfully his? Well… I dunno. We’ve got more evidence against colonial Thomas Wayne, certainly. But, damn. It would make sense, wouldn’t it? Especially when you look at those World’s Finest issues. Thomas Junior, having become a boomerang-wielding madman (hey, I never said it was a GOOD story), was possessed by Deadman at the end of issue 223. In 227, we see Deadman using Thomas Junior’s body to resume his daredevil stunt career … in a devil costume!


For the record, I’m hardly the first person to suggest Thomas Wayne, Jr. as a possible secret identity for Dr. Hurt. The theory enjoyed some minor popularity among Bat-bloggers back when RIP was running. Most notably, perhaps, the theory was put forth by no less an authority than Grant Morrison scholar Timothy Callahan at his blog Geniusboy Firemelon (which may be the best blog name ever, by the way).

Also for the record, I think I’m dead wrong about this. I suspect that the Willowood panel, and all the business about family secrets, is actually set-up for the upcoming Batman Inc. run. So while I think we will be seeing crazy ol’ Thomas Junior again, I don’t think he’s actually been Dr. Hurt / Thomas Wayne / the Devil all this time. But, man! Is it ever fun to speculate!

Now, that stuff about “everything they touch turns to myth,” on the other hand… I think that’s the key to everything Morrison’s done on the character so far. But as I said, that’s a topic for another day. Tonight, I’ve rambled on long enough.

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