It’s Batman Day today, so naturally, I’ve had DC’s Dark Knight Detective on the brain. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about writer Grant Morrison’s epic seven-year stint chronicling the Caped Crusader’s exploits, which kicked off back in 2006 when Batman #655 hit stands.
In tandem with a host of artists – most notably Andy Kubert, J.H. Williams III, Tony Daniel, Frank Quitely, Frazer Irving, and Chris Burnham – Morrison navigated crossover events and line-wide reboots to offer a definitive (if occasionally disjointed) take on Batman that touches on the character’s entire history.
Along the way, Morrison didn’t just offer their own inspired takes on several classic Bat-villains, they also introduced several baddies of their own. From the demonic Doctor Hurt to the depraved Professor Pyg, they’re all worthy new foes for the Caped Crusader, however, they aren’t a patch on the ultimate antagonist of Morrison’s run: darkness itself – an unbeatable enemy which threatens to break the character for good.
The three phases of Morrison’s Batman run
Before we unpack this further, first let’s break the Morrison run itself down into three easy to digest phases:
- Phase 1: Batman and Son, The Black Glove, Batman R.I.P., and Final Crisis
- Phase 2: Batman and Robin and Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne
- Phase 3: Batman Incorporated
Each of these phases works as its own self-contained story within Morrison’s overarching narrative, and each offers a different take on Batman and the darkness he’s forced to confront – both within himself and in the world around him. It’s a battle Batman comes this close to winning, but as we’ll see, one that he’s forever destined to lose.
Phase 1: Batman and Son – Final Crisis
A signature of Morrison’s writing style is the way they draw upon existing continuity, especially their own. So, while Phase 1 of their Batman run officially begins with the Batman and Son arc in Batman #655, Morrison sets-up several key plot points and character beats in another 2006 book, 52.
Here, Morrison establishes that before the events of Batman and Son, Bruce Wayne undergoes a mystic ritual to purge himself of the increasingly toxic aspects of his Batman persona. Bruce emerges from his spiritual ordeal in a healthier state of mind, dragged out of the mind-numbing darkness – all the existentialism, grittiness, and pseudo-realism that has gradually overtaken his world since the 1980s – and into the light by Morrison.
It’s an upbeat start, and this optimism colours the first phase of Morrison’s run. The Batman of Phase 1 is very much the “Bat-God” incarnation of the character Morrison popularised during their tenure on JLA in the ’90s – he’s bigger than anything the DC Universe (or writers like Morrison) can throw at him. Heck, Morrison even positions Batman’s eventual “death” during the Final Crisis crossover event as the Caped Crusader’s greatest triumph over darkness yet. Finding himself alone in a room with the New God Darkseid, Batman doesn’t flinch and inflicts a fatal wound on the living embodiment of evil before he’s blasted back to the Stone Age (like, for real).
What’s more, the final page of Batman R.I.P. establishes that the Dark Knight’s former protégé Dick Grayson and reformed assassin son Damian step in to keep the legend of Batman and Robin alive in his absence. So, together with Bruce’s god-toppling efforts in Final Crisis, Morrison’s message is ostensibly clear: Batman – as a man and as an idea – can outfight anything, including the very concepts of evil and darkness.
Yet deep down, Morrison doesn’t seem to fully believe this – otherwise, they wouldn’t have pressed ahead with the “hole in things” motif that’s central to their run.
Introduced in Phase 1, this storytelling device literally and metaphorically stands in for the dark void in the Dark Knight’s life that he struggles to fill. It’s everywhere in Morrison’s run (as critics at the time pointed out), from the hole in Bruce’s heart left by the death of his parents to the hole in every one of Batman’s cases that didn’t add up, and even the black hole at the heart of the DC multiverse itself. It represents forces bigger than Batman – whether that’s supernatural intervention, or simply the messiness of real life – that he’s spent his whole life trying (and failing) to fit together, and which will inevitably overcome him.
It’s no coincidence that when Batman tries to tackle this threat head on – in a story arc that Morrison intentionally loads with red herrings and bogus arch-symbolism – his mind shuts down. How could it not? In its purest form, the “hole in things” represents the gnawing suspicion we all feel that life is really a series of random, unexplainable events, and that’s something not even Batman can punch or puzzle his way past.
Batman only survives this brush with crushing existential darkness by taking refuge in a back-up personality, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, until his damaged psyche has time to heal. Easily (and wrongly) dismissed as Morrison over-indulging their affection for comic’s Silver Age, this is them implicitly showing us the limits of Batman; that faced with the kind of long night of the soul real people experience when mulling over the loose ends in their lives, Batman can’t cope.
It’s also no accident that the Dark Knight’s only hope of escape here is to force himself (and the narrative around him) back into the fantastical realm of pre-programmed mental personas and primary-coloured spandex – a world where the darkness manifests itself in ways he’s equipped to deal with.
Phase 2: Batman and Robin – The Return of Bruce Wayne
Still, Batman enters Phase 2 of the Morrison run largely unscathed and ready for another slugfest with the darkness.
He nearly comes out on top, too; this next stretch of the narrative sees the Bat-God concept taken to its ultimate extreme, with Bruce successfully fighting his way back through time – including a pit stop at the end of the universe! – to the present day in The Return of Bruce Wayne. And with Dick and Damian proving the enduring power of Batman’s legacy as the new Dynamic Duo in Batman and Robin, it’s easy to see Phase 2 as a wholly celebratory affair… except it’s not.
It can’t be, because Phase 2 is also where Morrison exposes Batman for what he really is: the ultimate trauma machine. Batman takes all the hate, pain, violence, heartbreak, and fear he experiences – and which stands in for our own experiences with the same – and converts it into something positive. There’s something beautiful about this, but also something inherently sad, because it’s clear that there’s a cost to it, that even Bruce Wayne has a trauma threshold.
Admittedly, this threshold is effectively superhumanly high. A running theme in the Morrison run is that only Bruce Wayne possesses the unique mental and emotional framework to deal with the sheer volume of damage he’s sustained throughout his career (as Darkseid’s ill-fated Bat-clones discovered in Final Crisis tie-in Last Rites). If ever there was a guy to deal with murdered parents, broken backs and fallen friends, it’s Bruce.
Yet he’s also a guy who started this story by going to extreme lengths to exorcise the darkness within him, only to endure a similar ordeal all over again at the end of Phase 2. Seriously: we literally see Bruce spew up the blackness inside him. Clearly, this isn’t someone who has defeated his demons for good, it’s someone who’s going to wrestle with them forever – and based on current form, only ever win in the short-term.
That’s what makes “the first truth of Batman” Morrison reveals in The Return of Bruce Wayne – that from the moment his Batman persona was born, Bruce was never alone – so poignant. Bruce didn’t embark on his superhero career solo because, simply put, he couldn’t. He needed help from dutiful butlers, loyal sidekicks and superpowered allies to survive, emotionally as well as physically. More than anything, it was their love and friendship that helped Batman keep the darkness at bay, over and over again.
Fortunately, our hero accepts this humbling truth and it gives him the strength to foil Darkseid’s post-mortem plot and take down Doctor Hurt for good. The upshot is that while the end of Phase 2 isn’t 100% jubilant, it’s still decidedly upbeat, and if Morrison had wrapped up the entire run here, Batman could have claimed a draw in his battle with darkness. But of course, Morrison didn’t stop here…
Phase 3: Batman Incorporated
Instead, they dived headlong into Batman Incorporated, the third phase of their run – and it’s here that the darkness of Batman’s world finally and ruthlessly overwhelms him. Reacting to the modern trend of increasingly bleak Bat-tales, Morrison stress tests late-stage Batman to failure, pushing the character past the point where he can function effectively.
It’s a brutal, extended critique that hits even harder because of how positively Phase 3 starts out. Not only does Bruce Wayne franchise the Batman “brand” by bringing crimefighters from around the world into the Bat-fold, but he also ups his game when it comes to targeting the root causes of crime. There’s a palpable feeling that we’re witnessing the evolution of the character, that Batman is finally breaking the seemingly endless cycle of trauma in favour of a brighter future that trades bloody showdowns with increasingly twisted psychopaths for a more aspirational mission.
And then things go rapidly downhill. A vast criminal organisation, Leviathan, sets out to destroy Batman Incorporated and succeeds with chilling ease, using methods evocative of real-world terror cells. These chapters are a harrowing read, as a beaten down Dark Knight has the limits of what he can cope with – as an individual and as an idea – rubbed in his face by former lover, Talia al Ghul, Leviathan’s leader and architect of this nightmarish chain of events.
By the time Talia’s finished, Batman has lost his son and several friends, and watched as every supposedly world-changing innovation Batman Incorporated wrought was dismantled in a way that made it all look flimsy, even childish. Darkness prevails over him, as Morrison once again butts heads with the limits of the superhero genre and its characters.
To underscore this, Morrison doesn’t even allow Batman to save the day in Batman Incorporated. Instead, the Caped Crusader is bailed out by Kathy Kane, a one-time superhero turned secret agent, who dispatches Talia armed with a gun and self-assured pragmatism. Before she departs, Kane advises Batman to “stick to what [he] does best”, summing up Morrison’s ultimate views on Batman and what he is and (more importantly) isn’t equipped to deal with.
See, the danger posed by Talia and Leviathan in Batman Incorporated goes beyond the more symbolic threat of Doctor Hurt or Darkseid, beyond universal concerns over the randomness of life. It’s far closer to the actual senseless violence and radicalised hate we see in the real world than to the melodramatic fisticuffs of superhero comics. Up against that kind of darkness, Batman’s costume and gadgets and no-killing code are utterly ineffectual, even silly – in this scenario, we need someone like Kathy Kane to step in.
Morrison gets this, which is why what they’re basically saying (through Kane) is that while Batman has his place, he has limits and can’t exceed them. Because of this, moving fully into the light isn’t truly possible for Batman, but equally, sliding further into the darkness is just as untenable. So, the only real option is for Batman to stay squarely in his lane headlining stories that counterbalance their darker elements with escapist thrills and comic book morality and logic, the place where he makes sense and works best.
That’s why the epilogue to Phase 3 of Morrison’s Batman run essentially hits the reset button, with all the pieces on the board more or less back where they started and a recharged Caped Crusader poised to take on the next run-of-the-mill supervillain mega-plot. It’s anti-climactic in the wake of what we’ve just read, but ultimately necessary – because Morrison knows this is exactly what has to happen for Batman to go on.
Did Grant Morrison’s run break Batman forever?
Now, the big question is, does knowing all this hurt Morrison’s run or permanently break Batman as a character? Hardly. If anything, it only makes the run more definitive by giving us a fuller picture of the character and his limitations, and safeguards his future by providing a yardstick for future creators to refer to before taking their stories in ill-advised tonal directions.
And besides, if Batman Day reminds us of anything, it’s that our hero’s 82-year history is defined as much by how hard he’s fought as how often he’s won, and nothing – not Grant Morrison or even the darkness itself – is going to change that.