Return of Bruce Wayne #6 (of 6)
by Grant Morrison, Cameron Stewart, Chris Burnham, Frazer Irving, Lee Garbett, and Pere Perez
So I have to admit: I over-thought things on this book. Seriously, I blew it. Morrison’s plot and theme have been so labyrinthine that I got lost in the maze, just another victim of the lit-crit minotaur lurking at its heart. So it is with hat in hand that I come to you this fine evening to admit my critical failure: it wasn’t Alfred in the Bat-Suit after all.
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Otherwise, though… I think I pretty much nailed it.
(Oh, and I suppose that now’s as good a time as any to let you know that this post will be ALL-SPOILER, ALL THE DAMN TIME. So stop reading now if you don’t wanna know…)
What was I saying? Ah. Yeah, I think I nailed it. Not in every detail, certainly, but on the whole. Hurt really was trying to take Batman’s place through communion with Barbatos, and didn’t realize that all he was actually doing was taking the place of the Joker as Batman‘s number one arch-foe. Or trying to, anyway. Because, let’s face it: in the field of iconic arch-enemies, Joker has had Hurt badly out-classed from the outset. Sure, Hurt’s a classic “opposite number” villain, and he’s got the weight of history behind him, drawing on all sorts of hurtful minutiae from Batman’s past. But that’s the sort of thing that only matters to comics historians and massive dorks like myself. Joker’s the real deal, the actual antithesis of everything Batman stands for. Plus, his gimmick’s all his own, no previous knowledge of Batman necessary. And he’s way-cool to boot, something Hurt just can’t lay claim to.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?
The two issues listed above represent the dual finale to “season two” of Grant Morrison’s Batman work, but also the conclusion of his run to date. There are themes and concepts yet to play out for season three, of course (I’ve been tracking parallels between this story and the life of the Buddha, for instance, that seem to play right into the upcoming Batman, Inc.). But the story of Batman’s spiritual enlightenment through Thogal, begun way back in the pages of 52, comes to a head right here.
Thogal, if you’ll remember, is the Buddhist death ritual Batman underwent to clear his head after the spiral of ever-increasing tragedy that’s struck him in recent years. It’s a sort of “rehearsal for death,” intended to strip away all external stimuli and reveal to the participant the truth of his life. But as it turns out, for Batman, Thogal was a rehearsal for a rehearsal for a rehearsal for a rehearsal of death. He’s “died” or undergone classic near-death experiences three or four times since the Thogal: once when he was buried by Hurt in RIP, again during his experience fighting off the Lump in Darkseid’s fortress, and yet again during his time jaunt in Return of Bruce Wayne. You could even count that Neil Gaiman “Whatever Happened to…” story if you wanted. Morrison himself made oblique reference to it somewhere in the mix, so it looks like that happy accident counts, too. Huh. I guess when that monk told him that the Thogal never ends, he really meant it.
But it was all for the best, because all that practice enables him to kick ass and take names in short order when he finally gets to the big party at the end of Return of Bruce Wayne. Oh, yeah. That’s right. Forgot to mention: Bruce Wayne dies. It’s the only way to get rid of the chronal energy build-up that will blow time apart when he returns to the present. So, yes. Sadly, to save the whole damn time-space continuum from Darkseid‘s final “from Hell‘s heart I stab at thee“ attack, Bruce Wayne has to snuff it.
I’m getting ahead of myself again, though. Let me back up and get this straight. Batman and Robin 16 wraps up the Batman and Robin saga with Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham and Damian’s final rite of passage to true super hero status. Dick’s already had his apotheosis as Batman, I think (when Barbatos gave him passage to the Bat-Casket that he’d denied Hurt so many times), so he kind of sits this one out with an injury: that pesky gunshot wound to the back of the head delivered by Hurt last issue. Or was it four issues ago? Hmm? What do you say? Which was it? Eh, it’s a trick question: it was both, actually, and you should get used to viewing time that way. Things are going to get weird before we’re done here tonight.
As I discussed last time, Hurt’s been reduced to just another sucker on the vine by this time. Pyg’s identification of the snail’s horns with the devil isn’t just a pretty metaphor, I don’t think; it was a signal that Hurt had been diminished, no longer a dragon but a snail. Which… Oh, I’ll get to that in a minute. The facts of the case are this: Bruce comes back, helps Dick and Damian take out the 99 Fiends, and then goes off in search of Hurt, who’s fled into the Batcave with Alfred a prisoner in a classic Bat-Villain death-trap. A trap he uses to distract Bruce while he escapes. Again, Hurt’s diminishment is complete: he’s resorting to the kind of crap the Riddler would pull. Or maybe the Joker.
But as I already spilled above, the Joker wins the game that’s been going on between him and Hurt, hands down. It’s become a game of dominos, chess, and (the Joker’s favorite) cards all at once, and Joker easily wins all three. Joker’s chess knights (Batman and Robin) beat Hurt and lead him right into the Joker’s clutches, where he buries Hurt alive to complete the Mexican Train, leaving him with this reminder: Joker trumps Deuce. Deuce being double, which is what Hurt is to Batman. Or, again, wants to be. But as the Joker tells him here, he really doesn’t compare:
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(Aside: Love that line about Dick being too much like the Joker. That speaks volumes about both of them, doesn’t it? Always back to the laughing contest with those two…)
There’s a good reason for the Joker‘s disdain, too: Hurt was a cheap imitation to begin with. The issue opens by confirming two long-standing suspicions about Dr. Hurt: 1) He is colonial-era Thomas Wayne, kept alive by ritual blood sacrifice, and 2) He’s also Darkseid’s Omega Adapter (formerly known as the Hyper-Adapter), sent into the timestream with Bruce Wayne as part of the Omega Sanction Life Trap. Which is the theory many Bat-Bloggers (myself included) have been working on for some time. So how does Thomas Wayne become the Omega Adapter? Barbatos, as it turns out. The scene is somewhat ambiguous, as you’d expect, but it looks to me as if Thomas Wayne (family black sheep and experienced black magician) agrees to become a weapon for Barbatos, and winds up bound to the Adapter.
Which raises a really interesting question. If Barbatos is, as I’ve been assuming, the spirit of Batman “turned to myth” by contact with the New Gods… How does he bond Thomas Wayne to the Omega Adapter? Well… Because Barbatos IS the Omega Adapter. Also.
Many kudos to the always-brilliant Rikdad of Rikdad’s Comic Thoughts for twigging to that particular idea. That was one point I’ve disagreed with him on for some time, but he was right. But I think I was, too. Retroactively. At the same time. Let me explain…
In Return of Bruce Wayne 6 (which happens before Batman and Robin 16, but was published and meant to be read after -- are you sure you're keeping up with this?), we find out an awful lot about everything, including the trip the Adapter made through time. Evidently, it popped up in prehistory a few days before Bruce, turning up in one of the Gotham caves and emerging as a giant bat-monster. Vandal Savage killed it (probably by its own design), only for Bruce himself to recharge the thing when he’s staked out in front of it overnight. Then he wears its skin to defeat Savage and create a legend that lasts for millennia in the worship of the Miagani tribe. So Barbatos has always been both the Omega Adapter and the Bat-Myth, a thing of pure platonic evil turned toward the defense of the good by those who experience it.
Except, of course, for Hurt. Barbatos uses Hurt as a weapon (“Weapon in my hand” is the actual line), tainting an already-evil man with the evil of the Omega Adapter. I assume that Hurt is intended as a weapon of the Adapter’s mission to crush Bruce Wayne’s soul over time. But he’s also a weapon for the Bat-Myth in the end, because Hurt’s machinations in RIP are, as I said earlier, really just a rehearsal for what Bruce faces later against Darkseid, and for his actual out-of-body experience in this issue, which he uses to finally defeat Darkseid’s plans for good. Which brings us back to Bruce dying.
And, yes. He snuffs it.
But don’t worry: he gets better.
It’s really just one of those “dead for two minutes on the operating table” kind of things. See, Bruce’s trip through time has caused some kind of chronal energy to build up around him, reaching critical mass when he reaches his own time, and blowing spacetime itself apart. And, sure enough, time starts breaking up around him as soon as he arrives at the Hall of Justice in his weird futuristic Bat-Suit from the End of Time, rather brilliantly represented as fragmented comics panels showing symbols from up and down the Bat-Timeline. In a particularly impressive moment, the Tarot card of the Hanged Man is transposed with a hanging bat…
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…implying that Batman has been the Hanged Man all this time, in stasis, unable to move on until he overcomes some challenge within himself. But more on that in a sec. The chronal energy will only dissipate safely in the event of Bruce’s death, and since Bruce’s secret super power (my words, not Morrison’s) is survival, that wasn’t likely to happen. Except that, since dying is what he has to do to thwart Darkseid’s schemes, that’s exactly what Bruce does. Because, you know… BATMAN.
And Bruce is so bad-ass at this point that he doesn’t just die. He uses his death to fuck Darkseid’s whole plan over from the get-go. His out-of-body experience places him on the blasted plain of the Fourth World after Darkseid’s victory there. A giant Darkseid head drones on and on about how empty the place is (“THE EMPTINESS SHAPED LIKE GOD!”), and how everybody’s gone, and so on. But then Bruce finds himself inside his own thought balloon, and… well, here:
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That’s followed by Bruce embracing the Bat again, and finally turning Barbatos into a force for good all the way up and down the timeline (since “all days are one” and “all time is now”). Which means that I was both right and wrong, but in the end mostly right. Half-right, maybe. But that still leaves the question open: What is the first truth of the Batman?
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Which has been the whole point of Morrison’s “season two” stories: much as people see Batman as a loner, his entire existence has been defined by his support system. Alfred. Commissioner Gordon. Robin. Batgirl. The Justice League. And the list goes on. That’s the Bat-Dharma, the primal truth the Thogal’s been trying to teach him all this time, and the source of his Bat-Enlightenment: Bruce Wayne is a lonely man who’s built himself a family based around his little crime-fighting empire, and he always has been. I like how the thought makes him throw up, though…
So there we have it. All the themes come round, the plots are resolved, and we’re set up and ready to go for Bruce Wayne to start reaching out with Batman franchise opportunities in Batman Inc. And there’s oh so much I haven’t talked about here tonight. Some great character moments, the resolution to the problem of Professor Pyg and the Joker’s nuke… It’s too much to talk about tonight, an overwhelming amount of story and theme and super hero goodness. There were some details that got glossed over or not dealt with in an entirely satisfactory manner (like, how they broke control of Pyg’s drug, or why the Joker Venom in the Wayne Manor sprinklers affected the 99 Fiends but not Our Heroes). But I was pleased with this fractured two-part finale. The Morrison Batman run feels whole now. But there’s still room to grow, so onward to Batman Inc.!