What if we told you every Batman story happened?
Maybe they didn’t quite happen how it was presented originally, perhaps they didn’t quite happen how you remember them, but somehow, some way, they all happened.
That’s the idea upon which Glasgow’s very own Grant Morrison built his mega-run on Batman, a run which spanned seven years and seventy-two issues. It incorporated the work of a diverse range of artists including Andy Kubert, Tony S. Daniel, Frank Quitely, Frazer Irving and Chris Burnham, amongst others.
This is one of the biggest writers in the history of comics making the biggest statement about the biggest character. It’s a dense, multi-tiered, multi-faceted, multi-stranded work of art.
Okay, this is sort of a cheat. We could have broken it down for the purposes of this list, but then, the top five would all have been from this run. And we’d never have agreed on a top five. Instead, we’ve fudged the lines, but only a little. It is all one story. Each part progresses the story Morrison started in September 2006 and finished in September 2013.
We’d love to write a mammoth, sprawling academic paper on it. We’d love to analyse the myriad themes, go in depth on the plot, the characters, the techniques, the connotations and the meanings. But that’s not what we’re here for. Besides, it’d be ridiculously long and we’re guilty enough of that already.
This is our favourite Batman story ever, comics or not. Quite simply, it’s the most fun we’ve ever had reading comics.
It’s not just that. Every time we re-read this run, it’s still the most fun we’ve ever had reading comics.
It’s still the best written, most exciting, most engrossing, moving, thoughtful, inspirational, entertaining, bold, innovative Batman story ever.
It started in Batman #655, the first of four issues that comprise Batman and Son. It moves things forward massively from the status quo. All of a sudden, Bruce Wayne meets his son, Damian. Raised by Talia Al Ghul and The League of Assassins, Damian had been groomed to rule the world, fulfilling the destiny Ra’s envisioned for his daughter and The World’s Greatest Detective.
We could try to summarise the plot of Morrison’s magnum opus. If fact, we did. It just wasn’t feasible. I mean, it was well written, rest assured. It was just way, way too long and we can’t do it justice. We’re talking about seven years of comics here. Comics that have far, far more ideas and developments and strands than any others. The sheer weight of the ideas in this run would be overwhelming, were it not for the frankly astonishing skill of the writer. He gives us pretty much every kind of story there is.
There’s the globe-trotting adventure story of Batman and Son. There’s the twisted horror story of The Clown At Midnight, an experimental prose issue that deals in the disturbing psychological nightmare that is The Joker. The Three Ghosts of Batman is a street level mystery story, a detective story and a ghost story all at once. Bethlehem is a glimpse into a dystopian future.
The Island of Mister Mayhew is the tightest written, best executed murder mystery story you’re likely to read and The Third Ghost is an edge of the seat conspiracy thriller.
Then there’s Batman: R.I.P. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Batman tale. We’ve got the master-fiend and his master-plan. We’ve got the hero brought down to his nadir, his mind shattered, his home invaded and his cave destroyed. We’ve got the death-trap, the city under siege and the lunatics running the asylum. We’ve got the damsel in distress, the arch-enemy, the rallying of the allies and the hero’s glorious victory, just in the nick of time.
Batman and Robin contains element of all of these, but is primarily the purest form of superhero adventure. It’s also got the moving gradual development of Damian Wayne from spoiled, homicidal aristocrat to selfless superhero via his touching relationship with Dick Grayson.
The Return of Bruce Wayne literalises this multi-genre approach, with each issue in the six-part miniseries being a perfect distillation. Be it Pre-historic adventure, 17th century supernatural story, pirate treasure hunt, Western, hard-boiled private eye noir or sci-fi futurism, the writer and his specifically chosen artists nail it. It also includes the over-arching styles of science fiction and myth making.
Batman, Incorporated also touches on several of the genres already mentioned, but at its heart it’s a tragic romance, doomed to fail and with horrific, operatic consequences.
This run is full of would be Batmen.
One of the key planks of Morrison’s approach was to bring a whole host of forgotten Batman stories back into continuity. The 1950s saw Batman comics awash with alien visitors, psychedelic tales and supernatural adventures. For the best part of 50 years, everyone ignored them.
Not Morrison. He cited them as the inspiration for this seven year saga. The Three Ghosts of Batman sees the introduction of The Black Casebook, the file in which Bruce recorded “all the things we’d seen, that didn’t fit and couldn’t be explained”.
All of a sudden, swathes of unexplored comics were back on the table. Things from the Black Casebook seemed to be coming back out of the woodwork, including these three ghosts of Batman, dark visions of what could have been.
A considerable amount of Morrison’s run has Dick Grayson taking Bruce’s place, with Damian as his Robin. It’s a remarkably clever inversion of the original Batman and Robin dynamic, with The Dark Knight the one cracking the jokes and a Boy Wonder who’s all business. It stands as one of the most celebrated parts of the entire Bat-epic, a real highlight of the seven year uber-story. We get a glimpse at a possible future where Damian has become Batman in a Gotham gone to hell. Having sold his soul to a Devil-figure, he has had to give up everything just to keep the city’s head above the sludge and sewage in which it swims.
In The Black Glove chapters, we meet the International Club of Heroes. Another obscure 50s story element, the Club of Heroes was made up of heroes from around the world inspired by Batman’s example. The Club of Heroes are one of the true master-strokes of Morrison’s run. He takes this throw-away bunch of glorified Batman tribute acts, “The Batmen of Many Nations” and turns them into something special. El Gaucho, Chief Man-Of-Bats, Knight and Squire and Dark Ranger end up becoming some of the most interesting characters you’ll find in any comic anywhere. This bunch of would-be Batmen don’t measure up to the real thing, yet stand as an example of the universal strength of the concept.
During Batman, Incorporated, we get an expansion of this idea, with more “Batmen” spread out even wider throughout the world. We also get the terrifying, daunting Heretic, Leviathan’s own villainous Batman, custom made via genetic engineering and artificial ageing.
During Batman and Robin, we see Jason Todd react to Bruce Wayne’s apparent death in Final Crisis (also by Morrison). Todd aims to replace Batman in his own way. Of course, his extreme, deadly method of fighting crime makes things worse, not better.
What Morrison does throughout the run is make clear that Batman needs Bruce Wayne. Bruce is integral in successfully creating a legacy, through his sidekicks, his extended family of crime-fighters and the example he sets for the likes of The Club of Heroes. Ditto the members of Batman, Incorporated. There are several good Batmen in Morrison’s story, from Dick Grayson to Terry McGinnis to other, unnamed future Batmen featured in the one shot Batman #700, Time and The Batman.
The Batmen who adhere to the principles as instigated by Bruce Wayne are the ones who successfully wear the Cape and Cowl. Todd rejects the core principles out of hand and so fails. The three ghosts have been manipulated into doing the bidding of a monstrously evil villain. The Heretic is an inversion, a bastardisation of the very idea of Batman, bred by his ultimate foe to destroy the symbol he created and replace it with something twisted, sick and hellish. Possible Future Damian, for all his good intentions, sells his soul and thus the very soul of the Batman idea.
Morrison’s Batman run makes Bruce Wayne very relevant for the 21st Century. It does this by positioning him as the good capitalist. Bruce Wayne is the model businessman, Donald Trump but with Superman’s morals.
Here, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate man. He really is at the peak of human physical fitness, intelligence and knowledge. That’s not to say he’s infallible. Nor does he come off as cold. Morrison’s Bruce is flawed, but his strengths outweigh his weaknesses. He’s an aspirational figure, a man whose example we should follow just as much as the other characters should.
That he inspires us is not because of his strength, his intellect, his will-power or his oodles and oodles of money. It’s not that he’ll always beat the bad guy, or protect his city. It’s not that he always finds a way.
It’s that Bruce Wayne converts trauma to motivation. He turns defeat into victory, sorrow into joy and anger into compassion. Batman represents the human spirit, the drive to turn the bad into the good. He is our ultimate metaphor for perseverance. He is our ability to endure, to bounce back. No matter what trap you put him in, no matter the blows you deal him or the pain you inflict, he keeps going. He meets a son he can’t connect with. His mind is broken. He is sent back through time. His city is besieged. His heart is broken. His son is murdered, in one of the most bitter-sweet issues ever written. He keeps going.
No matter how dark or deep the hole, he’ll pull himself out.
And if he can do it? Maybe we can, too.
Morrison delivers this message as eloquently as one would expect. The end of Last Rites sees Alfred reflecting on his charge.
“… but when I saw what he meant, when I watched how he surrendered himself to an ideal… how he used each ordeal, each heartache and failure, to become a better man, in the service others… what could I do but stand in humble awe? And keep his wounds clean and his uniform tidy. And send him safely on his way… The whereabouts of The Batman remain unknown. And yet… I can see him now, in the grip of implacable forces, innumerable foes. Somewhere without hope. In a place where all seems lost. And I know this… the enemy will look away, for just a moment, underestimating him for that single fraction of a second too long. And no matter how dark the night…
There will be no hiding place for evil.”
We’re given the story of a man and his family. Morrison’s characterisation is so strong, creating moments that are note perfect. Several times over, he and his artists craft scenes that pull on the heart-strings. Touching moments between Bruce and Alfred, Bruce and Dick Grayson, Bruce and Damian, Dick Grayson and Alfred, Dick Grayson and Damian, Damian and Talia, Knight and Squire, Knight and Dark Ranger, Raven Red and Chief-Man-Of-Bats, Bruce and Jason, Jason and Scarlett, Bruce and Talia, Damian and his cat, Damian and Bat-Cow… yeah, there’s lots of touching moments.
Special mention on this front has to go the sensationally expressive art of Chris Burnham. Of all the new things Morrison gives Batman comics throughout this run, Chris Burnham might just be the best.
Morrison captures the voice of the characters better than any writer before or since. Many times you’ll read a Batman comic and think “nah, that’s not how Bruce/Alfred/Gordon/Joker etc talk”.
With Morrison, that’s exactly how Batman would talk. That’s precisely the way Gordon would phrase something. That’s a spot-on Alfred, that’s The Joker to a tee, that’s just such a Dick Grayson thing to say and that’s definitely how Damian would speak.
Morrison ends his run by bringing things full circle. The narrative structure is full of circles, oroborous, the snake eating its own tail. It’s in part a comment on the nature of Batman comics. No matter what you do, at some point the status quo is going to return and Batman will return to the classic set-up.
Alas, even Morrison’s own story suffers from the freshening up of continuity. The New 52 came in right before the last volume of Batman, Incorporated. The first fifty-eight issues took place in one DCU, the last fourteen in another. It’s hard to say how different things would have been had the very history on which the run was built not been largely ripped up and compartmentalised by The New 52. Nonetheless, Morrison acknowledges that this is always the way.
The dial is reset, the snake eats its own tail and the character always reverts back.
That’s not always a bad thing, though. It’s because of this that RIP can open with a splash page of The Dark Knight defiantly roaring “You’re wrong! Batman and Robin will never die!” The reason Damian could never grow up and replace his father, that Dick can’t ever inherit the mantle permanently, is the same reason Batman, Morrison’s ultimate survivor, endures.
The entire run, and Bruce’s entire life, is spent trying to fill “the hole in things”. It crops up over and over, recurring again and again. It’s to this idea that Morrison returns again, at the close of his story. Bruce Wayne tells Gordon that he looked “into that hole in things over and over again, until it hurt, Jim… and you know what I found in there? Nothing…”
Many have read this as a negative, downbeat note on which to end a run marked for its enthusiastic celebration of Batman. They must have forgotten Bruce’s next, crucial, words.
“… and a space big enough to hold everything”.
It’s the everything that matters here, not the nothing. The everything is all the stories that have been told, are being told and will be told about Batman. The everything is all the various developments, changes and interpretations Batman has, can and will go through. It’s infinite, everlasting.
As Gordon attests in the final few pages of this wonderful run, all we really need to know is this; “Batman always comes back, bigger and better, shiny and new. Batman never dies. It never ends. It probably never will.”
Grant Morrison’s Batman run did the impossible; it made us love Batman even more. Grant Morrison’s Batman run gave us our favourite Batman in his greatest story. It did this whilst paying tribute to every Batman and all of their stories.
Truly, it’s a celebration of everything that Batman was, is and can be.
It’s how we’ll be celebrating Batman Day, because that’s exactly what it is; a celebration.
Here’s to the next seventy five. No doubt the best is yet to come.
By Andrew D and Peter James Duffy