There’s a deep cynicism here, or at least the opportunity for a deep cynicism. Just how many times this month is Bruce Wayne’s Batman, the original Batman, going to return from not being dead.
By now it is old and tired and maybe even verging on a small, dark joke. In the closing pages of Final Crisis, Batman stared down Darkseid, the God of Evil from Jack Kirby’s original New Gods.
Bruce Wayne had by this point already gone missing in the final stages of ‘Batman R.I.P.’, the multi-title crossover storyline that ran from its home in Batman. Bruce Wayne, as Batman, had come up against the Black Glove a sinister organization dedicated to the corruption of the human spirit. Broken and beaten (or ‘wasted and wounded’ as Tom Waits might say), Batman remained defiant, still standing.
“The Black Glove quivering in an insane asylum,” the Joker had warned the cohort of evil, “Exactly where he wants you. Now you’re in his box too. You can never prepare for the unexpected, the well-timed punch line.”
Rather than meeting and end, as the title ‘R.I.P.’ might suggest, Bruce Wayne’s Batman managed to crawl from the wreckage and neutralize the Glove. But this itself was pyrrhic, Bruce Wayne was Othello’ed. The malefactors were neutralized, but their machinations lived on. And by the time the ‘Final Crisis’ was ending, Batman was staring down the barrel of a god-gun, pointed at the God of Evil.
The Finder-Beams locked onto Batman, and Bruce Wayne was blasted into oblivion. Our so readers were clearly meant to think, wink-nudge. On the very next page a mysterious figure seen wearing Batman’s costume could be seen in neolithic times, grabbing a very familiar utility belt from near a campfire illuminating a bat-sigil painted against the cave wall.
So, Batman clearly wasn’t dead—just misplaced in time—and desperately needing to fight his way back from the dawn of human civilization. Enter Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, a title which ran from late Spring of this year until just recently. Six issues which saw a history-flotsamed Batman claw his way through historical eras, slowly, steadily reconstructing his identity.
“I was Batman’s partner longer than anyone else,” Red Robin warned the Justice League, “Trust me, being marooned in the past with no memory is just one more problem for him to solve.” And so it was. Batman reappeared practically unscathed in the 21st century and reappeared more than once.
In the mythographic ‘Black Mass’, the 16th issue of Batman & Robin (and writer Grant Morrison’s last issue as series-runner), Bruce Wayne made a stand against Dr. Hurt, the mysterious guiding light of the Black Glove. In Bruce Wayne: The Road Home, Batman reemerged disguised as the Insider, secretly testing his allies, his “Family”, for their readiness to assist in the next phase of his mission. And, of course, in the last issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne, the “real” Batman returns and finally jettisons the ‘curse machinery’ of the New Gods that Darkseid infected him with.
So, why read Batman: The Return at all? Surely three returns is enough?
Because Batman: The Return is Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. Because it’s not An End, it’s a beginning. The beginning. Batman, begins.
“Some of you may have wondered… how does a man like Batman afford to constantly update his crime-fighting technology? Where does his money come from?,” Bruce Wayne offered the crowd in his press release debuting Batman Incorporated, “Well, the answer is me. I’ve been financing Batman in secret for years… Ladies and Gentlemen, Batman’s war against crime goes global tonight.”
But that’s only half of the story. Only a fraction. The real story is what comes next.
“Starting today we fight ideas with better ideas. The idea of crime with the idea of Batman. From today on, Batman will be everywhere it’s dark, no place to hide.”
Wasn’t it supposed to feel like this on the day you voted in the 2008 election? On the day you voted and everyday after that? To fight ideas with better ideas.
“When the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor, we didn’t just declare war on Japan,” iconic Batman writer Frank Miller offered PopMatters in a Fast Chat, “we declared war on Germany. It was an international fascist effort. And so when I said that the attack on Iraq made sense, it was the same way we had to attack not just Afghanistan. Instead, we had to attack the center of Islamofascism.” In a simple, elegant thought Miller encapsulates the true potential of Batman. The possibility of fighting ideas with better ideas.
So isn’t three returns enough?
No. Not by a length.
Because true creativity is rare. It is slow, and determined and obsessive. And in a popcultural medium like comics, it is something encountered time and again. Something stated and restated until just the right statement can be made. It is that distant thing on the horizon that we recognize as our own, ourselves, the nearer we get. Creativity always returns to the scene of the crime. And true creativity is thoughts, not deeds. Because thoughts shape what we should be. Because ideas are the human dream factory.
And with Batman: The Return, Morrison offers readers a rare glimpse of what Batman should always have been.