Reading Today’s Batman

Batman RIP Part III

(WRITER’S NOTE 12/02/2010: This post is now officially out of date, and I recommend you read this instead. Thanks!)

This Wednesday, the 678th issue of Batman comes out, forming the third part of Grant Morrison‘s monumental Batman R.I.P. storyline. Since a decent chunk of my readership comes from a comic book forum, and since anyone else I know is inevitably exposed to my Batfetish, I figured now might be a good time to offer my thoughts on this series which has been in the making for nearly two years now. (Plus, The Dark Knight is right around the corner; why not take some time to familiarize yourself with the comic book?) To start things off, I’ll create a handy little map of the road to R.I.P., so that you can keep things straight throughout this entry, and also to help interested parties actually pick up what they’ll need to enjoy the plot. Even as it unfolds, I can declare that it is perhaps one of my favorite overall comic arcs of all time, and I actually sleep with the entire stack of issues next to my bed. Sometimes, during moments of heated passion with the ladies, I will turn to this glorious, plastic-covered heap of paper and mouth “you are my true love,” winking delicately and blowing soft kisses to them. That’s not true.

Maybe it’s true.

Without further ado!

Your roadmap to BATMAN R.I.P. :

 

Part 1: Batman and Son
(Batman #655 – 658, collected in hardcover format as Batman and Son)

Batman and Son

This four part series deals primarily with the sudden emergence of Damian, the lovechild of Batman and Talia al Ghul that originated in Son of the Demon. As is typical of Grant Morrison, this arc, like all that would come after it, subtley tied into an overarching tale, such that those reading it for a first time would likely pass over details that would smack them in the face upon a second, more informed read through. Of immediate pertinence to the R.I.P. storyline is the presence of an imposter Batman, the incapacitation of the Joker via a bullet wound to the head (caused by said imposter Batman), issues of identity between Tim Drake and Damian (both vying for the mantle of Robin, Batman’s sidekick), the introduction of Jezebel Jet, a new love interest for Bruce Wayne, and the general theme of upheavel and duality (two Batmen, two potential Robins, a split identity between Batman and Bruce) in Batman’s world. And, of course, the theme of Batman’s past finally catching up with him.

This arc is pretty action-oriented and relatively lighthearted (the second issue is basically an all-out brawl between Batman and ninja Man-Bats), but lays the groundwork for each arc that would follow it. I noticed that some readers complained of a lack of a satisfactory conclusion in their reviews of the hardcover edition – that’s probably because the story isn’t concluded yet. For the best results, Morrison’s run seems to demand that readers view it as one core unit rather than a cluster of unrelated parts, perhaps both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Part 2: A New Joker
(Batman #633, also collected in the Batman and Son hardcover)

Batman 663

Grant Morrison’s epic tale took a 4-issue break after #658 – those interested in following the prelude to R.I.P. via single issues need not pick those up, as they are unrelated to this story.

This single issue, #663, is bizarre even by comic standards. It is almost entirely prose, with a few images strewn about to keep things flowing. (As they are all rather grisly computer-generated images of clowns, I’m not particularly upset that they were kept to a minimum.) It’s a fascinating, if somewhat heavy-handed, short story involving the Joker, who is recovering from his gunshot wound in Arkham Asylum after the events of Batman and Son. The wound has inspired a malevolent change in the Joker’s psyche, sending the already disturbed villain cascading down a path of twisted violence and insanity. Harley Quinn also cameos, which is always welcome! (Though it’s worth noting that even she is distressingly morbid in this tale.)

Worth reading not just because it’s one of the more innovative and well-informed Joker stories I’ve come across, #663 also has significant bearing on R.I.P. Most importantly, it establishes the new status quo for the Joker, who will play an integral role in R.I.P., but once again Batman is faced with a challenge of duality and chaos, this time via cryptic messages from the Joker involving a black and red checkerboard pattern.

Part 3: The Haunting
(Batman #664-666, also collected in the Batman and Son hardcover)

Batman 664-666

This is probably where readers start to get tripped up on Grant Morrison’s arc, and a lot of it probably has to do with the original release schedule. Since comics come out once a month (when they’re on time), there was a four month gap between the end of the Batman and Son arc and the Joker issue. Coupled with the fact that the Joker issue was somewhat inaccessible (the amount of story we got in #663, probably amounting to several months’ worth of comics, was likely outweighed by the prohibitive amount of text and unpleasant artwork in the minds of many), most Batman readers were entering this plotline five months out of the loop.

Nevertheless, this is when things started to get self-referential, and when it was first implied that some sinister force was manipulating things from the shadows. In the first issue, Batman is severely injured by yet another imposter Batman (remember the shooter from #655?), who is dressed like Bane, the villain that broke the Bat during the famous Knightfall arc. (Note that Knightfall featured a new Batman in Azrael, perhaps of thematic importance to R.I.P., as Morrison has confirmed that we will be seeing someone other than Bruce Wayne under the cowl when all is said and done). In the issue that follows, we learn more about the imposter Batmen, referred to as “ghosts” (there are three of them in total – the third of which we’re told is “the worst of them all”), and then get a hint about a “black casebook” that Bruce Wayne keeps to document “all the things we’d seen that didn’t fit and couldn’t be explained.”

This is the start of Batman’s degeneration and a vital piece to the R.I.P. puzzle. Once again, the critical theme of identity is at the forefront, as is Batman’s haunted past. We get teases towards things that will be important during R.I.P. (the prominent display of “ZUR EN ARRH” in an alleyway, for instance, a buzzword that will trigger a mental breakdown in Batman in the second issue of R.I.P.), and we begin to wonder if all is quite as it seems in Bats’ world…

The final part of this three-issue arc, #666, seems at first to be somewhat unrelated. It’s a grim tale of the future in which Damian has taken over the mantle of Batman. It’s somewhat unclear if this is to be taken as a canonical story or if it’s an “alternate future,” but given how dark it is, I’m hoping for the latter! Damian is a wildly violent Batman that kills his enemies and is at odds with the police. His central foe is the third of the imposter Batmen (who has lived to reign over Gotham as a Satanic figure). Lots of major hints here, it seems; it is implied that Damian is the third Batman (Bruce Wayne being the first, Dick Grayson the second), and it is also suggested that he severely injured or killed either Grayson or Tim Drake (given his respect for Grayson, Drake seems most plausible). The issue ends with Batman triumphant, but given the tone of the issue, it’s pretty clear that this is not a future we want to see come to light.

Part 4: The Black Glove Emerges
(Batman #667-669, collected in hardcover format as Batman: The Black Glove)

Batman 667-669

In this three-part murder mystery, Batman is invited to a reunion with the Club of Heroes, an organization he was previously affiliated with. It quickly becomes apparent that Mister Mayhew, who owns the island that’s housing the group, is not quite what he seems. Things start going wrong as the Club is imperiled, and Batman uncovers the presence of the Black Glove, suggested by a film that Mister Mayhew created. Who or what that Glove represents is still a bit unclear, but it’s now obvious that a very powerful force is gunning for Batman.

This arc marks the first time we actually see a member of the Black Glove in action, and the film in question will be referenced again in the second issue of R.I.P. And, of course, we have the theme of Batman’s past (exemplified in the Club of Heroes) getting tarnished and biting him squarely in his Bat-rump. You can probably read any of these arcs on their own and have an enjoyable experience, but with some really sweet art by J.H. Williams III, this is definitely not one to be missed, and Morrison has stated that it contains some very important hints to R.I.P.

Part 5: The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul
(Batman #670-671, collected in hardcover format as The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul)

Batman 670-671

This two-month interruption to Grant Morrison’s ongoing Batman epic was the result of a crossover event between Batman, Detective Comics, Robin, and Nightwing called “The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul.” Though still written by Morrison, these issues don’t seem to have anything to do with R.I.P. whatsoever (with, I suppose, the exception of the whole “Batman’s past is coming back to shove a scimitar up his ass” thing) and are included here for the sake of completeness. You can safely skip these issues, and probably should as they represent the prelude to and part 4 of the overarching “Resurrection” story, which was thoroughly mediocre all around. Morrison’s issues may have been the best of the lot, but that doesn’t mean that they’re particularly worth reading. A bit of a shame, sadly.

Part 6: Breaking the Bat
(Batman #672-675, collected in the Batman: The Black Glove hardcover)

Batman 672-675

This is it! The direct lead-in to the R.I.P. event. Batman intervenes in an attack on a police station by the third “ghost,” but finds himself outmatched; the imposter Batman takes Commissioner Gordon hostage and blasts Batman in the chest, stopping his heart and sending him into a state of shock. In the narrative that ensues, key moments of Batman’s past come back in vivid detail, blurring reality and hallucination (marked by the entertaining, if a bit creepy, return of Bat-Mite). We see an early Batman stalking Joe Chill, the man responsible for the slaying of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which leads to a terrified mental breakdown and suicide.

We then learn of an isolation ritual in Nanda Parbat that led to a bout of temporary insanity in Batman, as well as his participation in a police-sanctioned experiment that led directly to the creation of the three imposter Batmen to be used in the event of Batman’s death. The experiment was led by Dr. Hurt, and it’s quickly revealed that he had a much darker agenda than to help save Gotham if anything was to happen to its champion. The entire experiment had been blocked from Batman’s memory, but in the third ghost’s torture chamber, it all comes tumbling back to him. We learn that Dr. Hurt planted a series of post-hypnotic keywords in Batman’s head to be triggered for his own devices, but the imposter destroys the only evidence of such.

“It’s all in the files,” he says as he puts them to flame. “Hurt’s ‘research.’ Everything you need to know to save your own life and Gotham’s future… is turning to ash in front of your eyes.” This is perhaps Bruce Wayne’s darkest hour yet, but he manages to break free and successfully repel the third Batman. The “Bane-Batman” that injured Batman in the third part of this tale comes to attack Bruce as he is about to detain the imposter, however, allowing the villain to escape; Bane-Bats is then repeatedly shot in the head by a police officer and killed.

In Batman #675, which serves as an interlude to R.I.P., Jezebel Jet discovers that Bruce Wayne is Batman, and he allows her into his life.

This arc is probably the most important going into R.I.P. If following Morrison’s entire run to this point is too much for you, pick up these four issues and you should pretty much be set. You’ll miss out on the full impact of Dr. Hurt’s conspiracy, as well as the significant growth of Bruce Wayne between #655 and now (or lack thereof, perhaps; Wayne’s stoicism may be a key factor in his downfall during R.I.P.), but you’ll at least get the main thrust of the plot, as well as an understanding of why Batman’s new foes are to be feared.

Prelude to Batman R.I.P.
(Seen in DC Universe Zero)

DC Universe Zero

DC Comics put out a 50 cent comic book to serve as a sort of primer to all of the company’s major upcoming storylines. The issue was penned by Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns, and features a short new scene between the Joker and Batman in which the classic Batman villain cryptically references the pattern introduced in Batman #663, indicating that Batman’s luck is about to run out once and for all. Batman responds simply with, “If I was scared, I wouldn’t be Batman,” and leaves the Joker’s side.

Perhaps not required reading, this short scene brings to mind what we’ve seen over the course of Morrison’s intricate plotline. It’s a pretty riveting exchange, though, and for 50 cents, why not?

Part 7: Batman R.I.P.
(So far: Batman #676-677)

Batman 676-677

Dr. Hurt has assembled a group of supervillains, including the Joker, fresh from Arkham Asylum and sporting a grisly, very evil-looking new character design, under the command of the Black Glove, whose identity is yet to be revealed. As Batman returns to Wayne Manor with Jezebel Jet, Hurt’s initial attack is sprung. The phrase “Zur En Arrh” is used to trigger a breakdown in Bruce Wayne, rendering him in what appears to be a catatonic state, as Hurt’s powerful henchmen descend upon the mansion and attack Alfred, who may have more to him than meets the eye.

The second part of R.I.P. reveals that Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, may have arranged for the assassination of his wife Martha all those years ago, faking his own death and disapparing off the face of the Earth, also suggesting that Alfred Pennyworth, faithful butler, may actually be Bruce’s father. “Who could resist the scoop on the sordid secret history of Thomas and Martha Wayne?” asks a superior to Commissioner Gordon. “[Thomas] evidently transformed into a brutal, foul-mouthed degenerate on booze and hard drugs. Who knows what the boy witnessed. That’s if he actually is Wayne’s son and not the creepy Butler’s.” It’s also suggested that this could all be a machination of the Black Glove to further dismantle Bruce Wayne, and thus Batman’s, life. It’s all up in the air right now, but one thing’s for certain: some big shit is going down, and Batman will never be the same!

So there you have it. Everything you need to enjoy Batman R.I.P., short of the comics themselves. But reading these summaries doesn’t give you the fairest view of the story so far. Grant Morrison’s writing is a huge aspect in the whole ordeal; this wouldn’t be the same story if it was penned by, say, Geoff Johns or Paul Dini. Much of the tale reads like a dream, and you can’t help but feel like you’re trapped in Batman’s head as it all unfolds, surely a deliberate choice by the author as the story deals quite explicitly with Wayne’s consciousness and perception of the world around him. Some people are faulting the writing for being flashy for flashy’s sake or too confusing. To the first, I posit that if this entire story is intend to bulldoze Batman’s identity, what more powerful way to involve the reader than get us right into his head? Morrison does that. For the second concern, perhaps the story is a bit dense at first glance, but I found that the whole thing read very well on the second go-around. Go through it in order a couple of times and you should be golden.

Understandably, DC can’t really market a 20+ issue run as one story, and it’s looking to make a lot of money on R.I.P. itself, but this simply isn’t meant to be taken as a mini-series. For the whole thrust of things, you really do need to be onboard for the long haul. It is so worth it, though, a story of such myriad delights that it’s kind of like the perfect Christmas morning; the sheer spectacle of the tree, the lights, the ornaments, the mountain of presents is one thing, but when you start unwrapping, it’s something else entirely.

I read super hero books for a lot of reasons. They’re entertaining, high-concept, more intelligent by design than TV or games, to name a few. But deep down, I read them because I love seeing characters faced with impossible odds, characters who will descend into the darkest tunnels only to find the faintest glimmer of light on the other side. Batman has always been my favorite, and tacky as this is going to sound, this is a story that has touched me on a very real level. (Let it be known that tacky writing about Batman helped get me into NYU, though!) Good ol’ Bats has Hell beating at his door, and it’s been an amazing read. Grant Morrison is an exceptional writer, and this epic plot, with its clever interweavings and dreamlike narrative, has been an absolute treat.

R.I.P. may not be the easiest comic for new readers to get into (check out All-Star Batman and Robin or Detective Comics if you’d prefer the Harry Potters of the comic world as opposed to, say, the Moby-Dick), but for those of us that care deeply for this mythos, it cannot be missed. Am I worried about how things will turn out in the end for my favorite hero? Nah. Because as we see in the first page of R.I.P…

Batman and Robin Will Never Die!

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4 Responses to “Reading Today’s Batman”

  1. Rosencrantz Says:

    I think its true.

    Yiff!

  2. […] Comic Reviews! 08/13/08 Since my “Reading Today’s Batman” and Final Crisis features have generated far more hits than any other content  posted on […]

  3. RADAMES Says:

    Thank you for posting this…it seems you have great insite in All Things Batman…I’ve added you to my Favorites Links.
    Q. Are you still doing Batman reviews of the current run?
    Q. Are you on Youtube?
    Q. Are you on Facebook?

  4. […] mind, and in the spirit of a now somewhat embarrassing post I made two and a half years ago (“Reading Today’s Batman“), I wanted to weigh in on some of the goings on in this massive corner of the DC […]

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