By Raymond Lam
(Read Part Two of this blog series here)
In this third and final exploration of Batman and the “theology” constructed by Grant Morrison over the decade of 2008–18, we dive into The Return of Bruce Wayne (RBW) (2010), one of Morrison’s finest Batman works and one that elevated the idea of Bruce Wayne to a superhero leitmotif that would reverberate through the lives of many heroes, villains, and bystanders in the DC Universe (DCU). We also discuss how the godlike entity Barbatos ties together the time-traveling madness of RBW and the new creation myth of the DCU in Dark Nights: Metal (DNM) (2018).
As tricky a problem as time travel is, the premise behind RBW is actually quite simple: rather than killing Batman with his Omega Effect during their final confrontation in FC (2008), Darkseid sent him back in time to the Stone Age with the Omega Sanction. Correctly betting that Bruce Wayne would slowly regain memories of his identity and make his way back to the present age, he also released the Hyper-Adapter, a relentless time-hopping creature that would slowly infect Batman with Omega energy until fully possessing him by the time Bruce reached the present age. On this basic level it’s relatively straightforward: Batman must make his way back to the present and destroy the horror that is chasing him.
What makes RBW unique is almost not the main plot itself, but the narrative devices that enrich the Batman mythos to an almost Platonic level. From my own reading (and I may have missed some plotlines), the Bat effectively becomes a kind of folk memory in the many civilizations and historical periods of the DCU, starting when Bruce Wayne himself marks a symbol of the bat on the cave wall of Anthro, the First Man. This bond with primeval antiquity, otherwise impossible without time travel, is further consolidated when Batman encounters Barbatos, a relatively ambiguous being that has a connection to Darkseid and the bat-motif. Echoes of Batman are left throughout history, particularly in the area that would become Gotham City, simultaneously taking Bruce Wayne closer to the present day where (or when) the Hyper-Adapter can possess him like an “Omega bomb.”
Things became less ambiguous (as far as comics go, due to continuity issues) by the time DNM was published in 2018, completing the decade-long evolution of Bat-theology. I quote in full this except from Comic Book Wire:
He was created in the earliest days of the Multiverse and worked as the dragon of destruction in the Forge of Worlds, the location where every universe is created. There, his job was to destroy unstable universes and prevent them from entering the order of the Multiverse. However, his appetite for destruction grew so he decided to leave his post and kill his masters. This action left the Forge of Worlds unattended, allowing the unstable worlds to enter into existence as a new realm of nightmares, called the Dark Multiverse.
From this Dark Multiverse, Barbatos observed the world and saw Batman chased into pre-history by the Hyper-Adapter. While in the past, Batman inspired the creation of the Bat Tribe, an action that was also noticed by Barbatos. He corrupted this Bat Tribe and gave it a new goal, to summon Barbatos on Earth. Over thousands of years, the Bat Tribe evolved and eventually became the Court of Owls.
Over a decade, Morrison wove an “Over-mythos” of Batman that explains the Batman story itself. But even that wasn’t enough. The true meaning of RBW is quite simply Batman meets Carl Jung. One of the most famous scenes in RBW is the declaration of Bruce as he’s sitting alone in his manor, brooding, when he is inspired by that primeval motif: “I shall become a bat.” But this archetype already was moving through time, through centuries. As Mindless Ones explains in its fantastic RBW commentary (which I wholly recommend readers to enjoy in full):
It all starts with Annie. Annie, Bruce’s doomed lover, before she’s burnt at the stake calls down a curse on the Wayne family, damning them to destruction, a curse whose sigil takes the form of a bat. Why a bat? Because the cave represents the unconscious of Gotham and the Bat is its totem animal (it’s even engraved on the wall for Satan’s sake!) and the cave being Annie’s home, her sanctuary, the bat is also her guardian spirit. She calls the demon out from beneath the ‘ground’, the flock of Bats who Morrison identified as early on as Joe Chill in Hell with death and existential darkness, to plague the Wayne’s – and by extension Bruce – forever.
But, and this is a big BUT, Bruce learnt to outdo death and darkness a long time ago, not by fighting it. By making friends with it, taming it and riding it.
He uses the enemy by integrating it into himself. A common solution in pacifist Grant Morrison’s comics.
For Morrison, who surely must have read Hans Georg-Gadamer (an eminent hermeneuticist), it is not just protagonists integrating archetypes of evil, free will and time – it’s us. For a text does not exist without the subjectivity of the readers, and beyond even meta-commentary about mere proprietary commercial properties owned by an American publisher, we are engaging in the conversation of Batman as free will, as the Bat. It is no surprise why in RBW, there is a distinct New-Gods-feel to the whole comic despite the fact that all the New Gods are dead by this time, even Darkseid, whose shadow hangs over the plot. Through all the motifs of echoes through time, the Bat symbol, and the totem of the Bat, Batman suspiciously feels like a New God himself. This is no accident:
. . . they are primal baddies and goodies portrayed with little to no motivation. They don’t need motivation precisley [sic] because they ARE the goodies and they ARE the baddies – the comicbook [sic] schematic reduced/ascended to its purest form. The meeting of Batman and Darkseid was fascinating because they really do represent the two fundamental polarities in a superhero book, the earthy, ‘realistic’, base level optimum man, the perfect bridge between reader and universe because appears to obey many of the same rules we do, and the most comicbooky [sic], crazy ass sci fi supervillain ever – a meeting of Heaven and Earth, the Final Crisis, Darkseid ‘falling’ down to Batman’s level and Batman ‘ascending’ to his, both collapsing into each other.
As we come to the end of Batman’s journey in RBW, with a new DCU multiverse origin in DNM (in the form of Perpetua and a revised role for Barbatos), we can note that the themes that Batman almost like a kind of narrative “accordion.” He can hit the note of a detective noir, a Gothic horror, an epic action, or a Jungian commentary. From 2008-18, Morrison leaned towards the “higher” notes of “pure” themes like the conflict between free will and evil, and even recently Doomsday Clock (2017-19) was very much about Superman as Hope and Dr. Manhattan as Cynicism or Indifference. Part of the genius of Morrison’s treatment of the Batman was simply taking the character and “mythologizing” him in the same way Darkseid already had been in FC, as part of his villain’s reboot to redeem him from his Jobberseid reputation pre-2008.
Conversely, as fans complained Darkseid was too weak for plot purposes, Batman was lampooned for being far too strong as a human being for the same reason: for the sake of plot, somehow he always managed to be the only one able to beat Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman despite being the only one with no powers. Morrison’s solution was the same for both Darkseid (too weak for fan’s liking) and Batman (too strong for his human status): take their fight to the archetypal, textual level.
The theological plane of Bat and Evil.