Review: ‘Batman’ #681
The nature of super-hero comics (and serial storytelling in TV as well) has become an incestuous thing, one that feeds on its own cast of characters, no matter how wrongheaded it might seem. In any given story arc, the reader (and the viewer) has been trained to expect The Last Person You’d Ever Expect (fill in the name of your favorite Beloved Supporting Character) to be revealed as the villainous mastermind. And/or salacious details about Our Hero. Dark secrets that threaten the very underpinnings of the lead characters’ being. The promise of certain death for players who’ve existed for decades. (No, really. We mean it!)
The pleasure in last week’s wrap-up to [[[Batman R.I.P.]]] was in the way Grant Morrison mocked all that. Consider yourself under a Spoiler Warning for the duration of this column.
At its best, the story was a love letter to Batman as he ought to be — prepared to a degree that anyone else would find ludicrous (as in a terrific flashback sequence) and uncompromising in the face of threats against the reputation of his family name. Watching him emerge from an inescapable deathtrap and wade through all comers was quite satisfying after months of questioning whether Batman had lost it.
Just as 1993-1994’s [[[Knightfall]]] arc gave us the ultra-violent Batman that a fringe of fandom imagined they wanted, R.I.P. delivered the story formula that readers have been conditioned to expect. And then, in the final act, Morrison pulled the rug out from under them. Think that the Black Glove was going to stand unmasked as Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce who’d faked death and became a criminal mastermind? Lies. All lies. Waiting for the culmination of Batman’s mental breakdown? Didn’t happen (at least not to the degree it seemed). He was acting! (Thanks, Alfred!) And that caped-and-cowled, ready-for-slabbing corpse? No body.
I can’t help but think, too, that Morrison’s treatment of the Joker reflects a bit on the villain’s usage in the wider DC Comics line. In Morrison’s first issue (#655), the character was casually defeated by a nut in a Batman costume who shot him in the face. And in this climax, his fate was even more dismissive: He was accidentally run off the road and killed (yeah, right) by a speeding Batmobile driven by the deranged Damian. The two scenes struck me as a statement of sorts on the sheer over-saturation of the Joker, a villain who’s appeared in 44 comics in 2008 alone! A character that almost anyone in the DC Universe can hold their own against is a character who can be sucker-punched by nutty Batman wannabes. Couple that with his ubiquitous presence in Bat-books proper and the persistence in characterizing the Joker as the biggest and most unstoppable mad-murderer in history and you have a Batman who’s rather ineffectual, too. But I digress.
For just a moment, it seemed that Morrison was going to reveal the Joker as the true mastermind behind this latest plot but, no, the truth was stranger. The Black Glove was Mangrove Pierce, an actor/director mentioned over the past year who was trading here on his resemblance to Bruce Wayne’s father in order to mess with Batman’s mind. A number of readers poring over previous issues have accumulated clues and hints that the Thomas Wayne lookalike was, in fact, the Devil (or possessed by him). And, yeah, Old Nick has certainly had it in for Batman, nearly claiming his soul back in 1973’s [[[Brave and the Bold]]] #108 and returning for revenge in 1978’s [[[B&B Special]]] (a.k.a. DC Special Series #8) as well as targeting Batgirl and Robin ([[[Batman Family]]] #1, 1975). Even Morrison included Satan as the power behind the mysterious Mister Whisper in 1990’s “Gothic” ([[[Legends of the Dark Knight]]] #6-10). But a definitive answer remains elusive.
And therein lies the flaw in this finale. Batman RIP succeeded in the moments when it defied the conventions of current comics storytelling but it failed when it embraced them. There are lots of characters running around in this story but even a diehard reader would be hard-pressed to name them since little to no effort is put into identifying many of them by name.
In 2008, the last chapter of a multi-part opus is less an opportunity to resolve and summarize the events one just read than an occasion to direct the reader to the next big thing. Niggling details like the identity of the villain and other loose ends can wait. Even the surprise last page that suggests how the “Zur En Arrh” gibberish lodged in Bruce’s head raises more questions. A bit of ambiguity is fine to provoke debate and interest but some answers would be nice, too. In the comics, I mean, not the [[[Wizard]]] post-game wrap-up.
That said, despite the fact that (to the hardcore fan) this story obviously continues in [[[Final Crisis]]], Morrison did a nice job of making R.I.P. stand on its own with the neat penultimate page that looped directly back to the first page of the arc in #676.
And certainly R.I.P. reads better as a unit than in serialized pieces. (That’d be “writing for the trade,” by the way, another one of those modern conventions.) For my tastes, at least, it’s not the blockbuster it was built up to be. The details of Batman’s breakdown were overlong, I think, and the wrap-up too rushed. I remain disappointed at the shallow characterization of Jezebel Jet, a woman that we had to be told that Bruce was falling deeply in love with because it was never shown. Stylistically, Tony Daniel’s art isn’t entirely to my tastes, either, but he’s a solid storyteller and he rose to the occasion here with fine, dramatic imagery.
On a purely fannish level, I’m disappointed that we’re going into yet another cycle of stories wherein Batman quits Gotham and leaves it in the hands of his extended family. Like he did after [[[Knightfall]]], at the start of [[[No Man’s Land]]], and following [[[Infinite Crisis]]]. Even if we see the [[[Dark Knight]]] drawn and quartered on panel in [[[Final Crisis]]], there’s absolutely no question that Bruce Wayne will return as [[[Batman]]] sooner or later. No one short of mainstream feature writers believes otherwise.
But R.I.P. was still a good story, one of the more engaging, thought-provoking examinations of the Dark Knight’s mental state that we’ve read. Time will tell whether it attains greater status in Batman lore than that.