Deconstructing “Batman R.I.P.”

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Grant Morrison’s Batman run. To detractors, it’s just unreadable. This often goes along with ugly comments about Morrison in general: that he’s admitted to being inspired by drugs and that he’s just off his rocker — or that his old work is great but that his newer stuff doesn’t stack up. But to supporters, Morrison’s Batman is an instant classic — something shockingly good.

From Batman #676

I have to admit that I used to be in the first camp. Not that I’m down on Morrison generally, but that his recent work hasn’t always stacked up for me. I loved his ZenithArkham AsylumAnimal ManDoom Patrol, and JLAThe Invisibles was somewhat hit-or-miss, but was world-shattering stuff when it hit — and remains a crucial series in comics history. I even dig Sebastian O and the like.

But New X-Men was a mixed bag: “E is for Extinction” and “Riot at Xavier’s” is fantastic stuff. Morrison infused the X-Men with more new ideas than any writer before him: the vague idea that Professor X was corrupting the X-Men, however undevelopped, was wonderful. Morrison showed the contradictions of Xavier’s mission, this far into it, better than anyone. But the shifting artists and the presence of the other X-books kept things down for me, distracting from what could have been a near-perfect run.

And Seven Soldiers mostly left me cold: I admired the sweep and ambition. God, did I admire that. But the actual stories… some were good, but others were pretty bland — good ideas that didn’t move me.

Now, everyone loves All Star Superman. Myself included. And everyone’s reluctantly disinterested in Final Crisis. Myself included.

It’s Batman that they’re split on.

I confess, I used to just “not get” Morrison’s Batman. Oh, the first storyline — “Batman and Son” — was approachable enough. It was a James Bond story, high on action. The ties to the Batman mythos were known to me and not hard to decipher.

I even “got” Morrison’s text story, “The Clown at Midnight.” Yeah, you had to know Arkham Asylum and Morrison’s ideas about the Joker. The story didn’t thrill me, but I saw what he was doing and liked it.

But reading Morrison’s run sequentially, I was often just lost. Who was this guy attacking police headquarters who people were calling “the Third Man?” He traps Batman, but you don’t really know what’s going on. Then a month passes, or two if you miss an issue, and you forget most of the details. So the next issue just seems all the more confusing.

I loved the J. H. Williams-illustrated story, with the various Batman-inspired heroes getting bumped off on an island from an old Batman story. Sure, it was more clever than dramatic: I’m a big fan of J. H. Williams, going back to his days on Chase, but his art doesn’t typically carry melodrama well. And the Black Glove was a pretty ambiguous villain.

“The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul” was as straightforward as the title. It was an above-average Batman crossover, but not by much. I dug Damien, Batman’s son, but the story felt very conventional — and it didn’t help that Morrison only wrote a few of the issues.

So in sum, I was confused heading into “Batman R.I.P.” I’d heard the buzz and seen the ads. I didn’t care too much — DC alienated a lot of readers with its buzz over the past year, particularly with the nearly unmitigated disaster that was Countdown. So another “this changes everything” story couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Still, I picked up the issues. The prologue and first installment weren’t all that exciting. For one thing, the minor villains attacking Batman feel out-of-place for such a major storyline. I mean, you don’t have to fully endorse the excesses of “Hush” to think, instinctively, that someone other than villains no one knows or cares about should star in the story that’s supposed to take Bruce Wayne, once and for all, out of the cape and cowl. The secret villain behind everything — the Black Glove himself — could be anyone and these second-stringers would still feel odd.

That’s not to say that there was nothing good in these issues. Batman #675, the prologue issue, had Bruce Wayne’s current girlfriend, Jezebel Jet, figure out his identity. It wasn’t unprecedented, but it was well-executed — including Bruce freaking out and acting like Batman, pushing her away. She might still be largely undevelopped as a character, but I get the feeling that she’s there, in part, as a commentary on all of Batman’s past girlfriends — Morrison’s way of saying that there’s another possibility for that particular type.

Then came the second installment: Batman #677. It changed everything. I defy you to read it and not see it as brilliant. At least, if you know anything about what makes Batman tick.

I don’t know if any single issue in Batman history has most upset the very idea of the Batman formula.

See, Batman’s always been close to the edge psychologically. Viewers of The Dark Knight will recall him losing it and beating up the Joker. That’s a strain that’s been going on for decades in the comics. Recall how Batman kicked everyone out of his life and abandoned being Bruce Wayne entirely during the “Bruce Wayne — Murderer?” arc.

Batman’s also a control freak who keeps Kryptonite and files on how to take down other super-heroes. In The OMAC Project, he launched a satellite to keep tabs on everyone. He’s a guy who’s prepared for any eventuality.

Now, Morrison’s giving all of this paranoia and quasi-insanity a new twist: Batman believes that everything that’s happened to him recently, since at least Grant Morrison took over the title, is the result of the Black Glove, an unknown criminal who (it’s clear) is someone we’ve seen before. And he seems to be right. He’s into the same kind of conspiratorial mentality that’s been a part of Morrison’s writing since at least Animal Man and Doom Patrol — and that was such a large part of why New X-Men worked as well as it did.

But there’s a twist: Batman says that he’s been haunted by the idea that someone out there isn’t just trying to take him down, but has been planning how to do it for years. Planning the same way Batman plans: maniacally, precisely, anal retentively. Because, you see, Batman knows the power of this kind of planning. And he knows that, if someone turned it on him without him knowing in order to counter-plan, Batman would go down. Pure and simple.

And this time around, there’s good reason to suspect that Batman’s a little nuts. As part of Morrison’s attempt to consolidate all Batman stories and place them back in continuity, in one sense or another, he’s shown that Batman volunteered for an experimental test that left him in a sensory deprivation tank for some time. This was actually shown in “Robin Dies at Dawn,” a classic tale from Batman’s silly era, between the harder-edged stories of the 1950s and his return (under creators like Neal Adams) to the night in the 1960s. That story even has the aliens so common of the period, though it’s explained away as a hallucination.

Morrison’s revealed that, during that little escapade, the man behind the tests — one William Hurt — was actually a villain who turned three cops into twisted versions of Batman, all as part of a plan to help Gotham City prepare in case of Batman’s departure from the scene. And, as part of Batman’s time in sensory deprivation, he was hypnotically implanted with certain commands — triggers that would cause him to, essentially, psychologically self-destruct on command. For an unpowered hero whose strength relies on his psychological toughness as much as anything, this is devastating news. It’s hard to imagine how Batman could defeat such opponents.

To top it off, all of this seems connected with a similar period of sensory deprivation during the “One Year Later” period that followed Infinite Crisis. This period was chronicled, in part, in 52 — co-written by Morrison. During that time, Batman retreated into a cave in Nanda Parbat, a kind of Tibetan holy place where he rediscovered himself during his year off. In the cave, Batman experienced an extended ritual designed to simulate death — in order to get in touch with himself again. His emergence from the cave was a kind of resurrection of sorts. But it’s left his companions, Robin and Nightwing, feeling that something happened in there to Bruce — something they don’t understand but has left them questioning his sanity.

But that’s not all that’s going on. One scene in Batman #677 has been relatively ignored but should have everyone talking. Gordon, upset over a news story that considers whether Bruce Wayne is schizophrenic, busts into his boss’s office. Gordon’s told that what we know about Thomas and Martha Wayne — Bruce’s loving parents whose deaths inspired him to become Batman — is all wrong. Yeah, we’ve seen “everything you know is wrong” stories before — going back to Alan Moore’s second issue of Swamp Thing. But we’ve never seen such a total deconstruction of Batman.

from Batman R.I.P.Gordon’s shown a dossier that claims that Thomas Wayne abused his wife Martha. That Thomas Wayne was addicted to liquor and hard drugs. That young Bruce way have witnessed his father’s abuse (which may help to explain Bruce’s psychological problems). Alfred Pennyworth is said to have infiltrated the Waynes’ home and have — just maybe — been Bruce’s real father. After all, as those same old Batman stories depict, Alfred was once a stage actor… as shocking as Morrison’s suggestions are here, they actually make sense given the character’s past. Gordon is shown a photograph of Thomas and Martha Wayne with others, including other rich people known to have been involved in Batman’s subsequent life — and the apparent conspiracy surrounding him. Martha Wayne looks stoned in the photograph and has needle tracks on her arm.

Now comes the kicker: Thomas Wayne may still be alive. We’re told that Martha Wayne’s family believed that he had her killed and faked his own death. All this information was compiled by a private detective hired by Martha’s family. The detective disappeared mysteriously, apparently just before going public with his findings.

This whole sequence is just two pages, but it takes the entire Batman mythos and origin story apart. The conventional depictions of Thomas and Martha Wayne suddenly seem such simplistic blather. They were rich, and the rich are allowed to be eccentric. They hung out with other eccentric rich people. Is it so impossible that they could be more complicated than the conventional picture we’ve been given? Or that Bruce didn’t fall so far from the tree in becoming Batman, devoting vast amounts of money to his eccentric, self-obsessed mission?

The issue then gives us a conversation between Jezebel Jet and Bruce, dressed as Batman, in the Batcave. This is nothing too revolutionary in itself. But Jezebel doesn’t say what Batmans’ girlfriends are supposed to say. She doesn’t hate his mission as Batman, but she says that it’s immature. She comes from a third-world country and sees what a fortune has been wasted on Batman’s technology — a fortune that could help so many in other, more direct ways. She also saw her father gunned down in front of her. And she can calmly tell Bruce how becoming Batman is an immature response to such personal tragedy. Through her eyes, we can see the whole Batcave with its technology and sentimental artifacts as obviously unhealthy.

Bruce responds by saying that the Black Glove is trying to drive a wedge between them — something that may be brilliant or insane or both. But Jezebel won’t give up: not only does she question his sanity, but she wonders whetherhe is the Black Glove. After all, who should be plotting to take down Batman more than the child whose life has been twisted by becoming Batman. It’s Batman who has a history of such plotting.

Bruce is wavering, unable to confront her logic. He turns to the processing power of the Batcave’s computers for answers, but he’s confused about why all the screens are showing static. As we and Jezebel can plainly see, they’renot. They’re showing spraypainted walls around town that reads “Zur-en-Arrh,” apparently the alient planet that Batman “visited” during his hallucinations years before. This, it seems, is the trigger discussed previously. Batman collapses.

Whereupon goons appear, having entered the Batcave. We don’t see what they do to Bruce or Jezebel. But they set the whole place on fire. When Alfred enters, they beat him savagely.

I can’t express how good this single issue is. It deconstructs Batman more than anyone ever has, irregardless of how “Batman R.I.P.” turns out.

The next issue has Bruce Wayne wandering the street, having been injected by the Batcave-crashing villain with crystal meth and heroin. Bruce “finds himself” only through a homeless man who seems to have been a ghost. Bruce ends up becoming Batman again, though not the one we know: he crafts the homeless man’s cloth into a multi-colored Batman suit, seems to think a broken radio is a sophisticated transmitter, and has become the Batman of Zur-en-Arrh. In other words, he thinks he’s on an alien planet.

Behind Batman is Batmite, the multi-dimensional sprite from those once-embarrasing silly years. He’s been seen occasionally in Morrison’s issues, and his role is unclear at present. He doesn’t seem to be a hallucination, since he seems to know that Bruce has gone, well, batty.

To make matters worse, Nightwing has been beaten and thrown into Arkham Asylum, where he’s confused for a crazy villain and left foaming at the mouth.

And Dr. Hurt, in charge of the villains who broke into the Batcave, breaks into a glass case and retrieves the prototype Batman costume that Thomas Wayne once wore — and puts it on. The strong implication is that Dr. Hurt is Thomas Wayne. Even if that doesn’t prove to be true, the idea — the threat of it being true — is brilliant.

Batman R.I.P.It should be clear by now that you’ve never read a Batman story like this before.

Forget Final Crisis. Forget Marvel’s Secret Invasion. If you want to talk hype, “Batman R.I.P.” is what should have everyone buzzing. It’s not only a story that promises to retire Bruce as Batman, changing the Batman mythos — with Grant Morrison promising to stay on afterwards to demonstrate the dramatic potential for Bruce Wayne’s new role in a new Batman’s life. No, this isn’t just an “event.” It’s also one hell of a story.

If the rest of “Batman R.I.P.” falls on its face, it’s still a major event in Batman history — with a major footnote for its revelations and storytelling style. If the story comes off, it’s indisputably one of the best and most startling Batman stories ever written.

You can love it or hate it. It’s frenetic. It’s certainly out-of-the-box. But it’s something shockingly different and new — something Batman hasn’t had for a long, long time. It’s a paradigm shift. It makes stuff like “No Man’s Land” seem controlled and tame.

You can call it crazy. It may well be a little “crazy.” You can say that it’s not “your Batman” — that this is stuff that just shouldn’t be done with the character. But you can’t argue that it’s anything but a brilliantly new take on a character that hasn’t felt this brilliantly new since The Dark Knight Returns. And a lot of people — Batman creators included — said at the time that Dark Knight had ruined Batman forever.

And, if you go back and reread Morrison’s Batman from the beginning, reading straight through, it all makes a lot of sense. There are things we don’t know yet, whether about Dr. Hurt, Thomas and Martha Wayne, whether Alfred is hiding things or is Bruce’s father, what Bat-Mite is or what he’s doing, whether there’s more to Jezebel, whether Damien really is Bruce’s son, what the Joker’s role in all of this really is, and just how crazy Bruce really is. But, reading straight through, you can see how all the pieces fit together.

You see, it only looks crazy… until you spot the patterns.

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In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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