Batman, Back to the Beginning
“And I’ll take my clothes off, and it will be shameless/ Everybody knows that’s how you get famous…”
—Lily Allen, ‘The Fear’
Batman #701 feels, finally, like a changing of the guard, a passing of the torch. And skillfully scripted, this issue shows Bruce’s Wayne’s Batman (in Batman #701) naked and alone, experiencing fear for perhaps the first time in the character’s long publication history.
It has been a Long, Cold Dark for Grant Morrison and Batman since December 2008, since the Conclusion to Batman R.I.P., and since the second to final issue of Final Crisis which saw Superman cradling the ostensible corpse of Bruce Wayne’s Batman. With Morrison taking creative lead on both events, there was a freneticism to events. Things happened quickly, and in rapid order one after the other. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that there was a general sense of being inundated, overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of what was happening.
But the question for R.I.P. was never a question of the management of creative resources, but whether or not the story itself stood as a classic work in the publication history of the Batman character, or of comics itself. Could R.I.P. be mentioned in the same hushed tones as The Dark Knight Returns or as Daredevil: Born Again, would it?
In “R.I.P.: The Missing Chapter” a two-parter spanning the current issue of Batman and the subsequent, Morrison fills in the gaps between the end of Batman R.I.P. and the beginning of Final Crisis. With this issue, Morrison offers a classic inversion of the character arc traced by Bruce Wayne throughout R.I.P..
Perhaps the most moving part of the earlier storyarc, was Bruce Wayne’s monologue that appeared at the very end of R.I.P.. It was a meditative and composed Bruce Wayne that spoke to readers from an omniscient place. “There are only some many ways to kill a man, and I’ve mastered escaping them all… By the end of my quest for self perfection did I find the Devil waiting, and was that fear in his eyes?”. R.I.P. was the resurrection of Batman, a resurrection of spirit.
But what confronts readers in Batman #701, instead of the unbridled victory of Bruce Wayne, is a naked Batman, both in the sense of his having lost his cape and cowl, and psychologically in that he finds himself haunted by the last words of Dr. Simon Hurt. “I am the hole in things. The next time you wear your cape and cowl will be your last.”
There is a slow unraveling at work here. This is a portrait of Batman that is finally undone by an ultimate adversary. More so than the Joker, whose genius mind is every bit the equal of Batman’s, or the Riddler, or Two-Face, Dr. Hurt is a Batman adversary who was able to use Bruce Wayne’s greatest strength, his quest for self-perfection, as a crippling psychological blow. In the hands of Dr. Hurt’s manipulations, Batman’s strength became his own devastating weak point.
The true subject for R.I.P. emerges then, only long after the fact. And thematically true to Hurt’s words, emerges in the space between story moments. R.I.P. was never about the new Batmobile, or the slick gadgets. It was never about the toys or the props or the workaday cunning that Batman has always used to capture street-level criminals.
Even in the most pulp of senses, Batman was an emergent idea. Batman was becoming a story About something. A story about self-perfection, about what the late Harvey Pekar said of comics, “Getting better than they are”. Morrison’s skill lies in shaping an end to that story. In telling the story of Batman, for the character to properly extricate itself from its pulp and camp roots and properly become a classic, the story of Batman’s antithesis must also be told.
In Morrison’s hands, for the first time since That Terrible Night In Crime Alley, it feels like Bruce Wayne has finally come of age. It feels like there’s no going back home. It feels like no more giant pennies or fake dinosaurs. It feels like a classic.