Death Takes The Dark Knight
Batman is dead. Everyone who knows him best thinks so. Alfred, Dick, and Tim. Green Lantern and the Flash.
But some fans aren't sure. After a wild ride of twists and turns, with numerous stories showing us people who weren't who we thought they were, armies of clones, memories that never happened, and events that weren't really real, what do we know for sure? Was the skeleton we saw in Superman's arms at the end of Final Crisis #6 really Bruce Wayne? Was that even Bruce Wayne who shot Darkseid, or in Final Crisis at all? Is the skull that Black Hand is brandishing really the cranium of one of DC's flagship heroes? And who is ("was") wearing the bat-pants in the past, as seen on the last page of Final Crisis #7? Were all, none, or some of these Bruce Wayne? When Bruce Wayne comes back (And, yes, he will.) where is he coming from?
Any way you look at it, something tricky was going on. And with combinations of rumors and innuendo circulating, there are fans going over artwork with a magnifying glass looking for clues. In particular, there are suspicions that the skeleton and skull attributed to Bruce are not his.
Showdown in Blüdhaven
We know that Bruce Wayne raised a gun at Darkseid and pulled a trigger. Grant Morrison said so in an interview for Wizard: "So, Batman himself is finally standing there to complete that big mythical circle and to have the image of Batman up against the actual personification of evil and now he's got the gun and he's got the bullet." It doesn't get much more direct than "Batman himself". It was him. The Omega beams hit him. What then?
Skeletons in the Closet
Rumors stirred up by Dan Didio, and perhaps artist Doug Mahnke, suggest that what we saw in Superman's arms later in the same issue was not Bruce Wayne's skeleton. I'm not going to parse Didio's comments again -- he says what any reasonable interpretation would take as a statement that it was not Batman's skeleton. But he doesn't flat out say it, and after a long history of Didio's comments having misled fan speculation (for the sake of fun), we shouldn't take this as the straightforward message it seems to be.
In the absence of such comments, the stories that have followed (particularly Blackest Night) have dealt with Bruce's death, and even his actual corpse, in a fashion that introduce no doubt that it is his skull that Black Hand is wielding as a battery for the Black Lanterns. The story doesn't deny that they are Bruce's remains. Do they confirm it?
I think so. In Green Lantern #43, William Hand hears the voice of whatever cosmic death force is behind the Black Lanterns, and he hears a list of names: First, two lists (separated by a pause) of superheroes and associated characters who have died. Then a third list of those who died and returned. The second list ends with "Bruce Wayne". William Hand never would have known that Batman was Bruce Wayne. This cosmic force that speaks to him does (as well as knowing the secret identities of many other dead superheroes), and is presumably near-enough omniscient to be trusted on the matter. However it's coming up with this information, it seems to be trustworthy.
But does that mean that Bruce died in Final Crisis #6? Since we saw him in the ancient past (Grant Morrison has also confirmed that it was him, not a caveman in Batman's pants), isn't it possible that the death also took place in the past? Probably not. Because the names in those lists are for the most part in chronological order. The first list, featuring characters who have died fairly recently, is perfectly ordered, even to the point of listing the three Freedom Fighters who died in Infinite Crisis #1 in exactly the right order. The second list is also perfectly ordered, but starts from far earlier than the first list, beginning with Boston Brand (who died in the Silver Age) and Tara Markov (who died in 1984), and ending with Jonathan Kent (who died right before Final Crisis) and then Bruce Wayne. These sequences are not likely to be coincidence, even if they fall short of being a signed contract that there are no exceptions. (The third sequence, portraying those who have returned from the dead, is in order except that it ends with Barry Allen. That could signify either his time-traveling nature or the emphasis on Barry as a central character in this plot.)
Furthermore, while Black Hand doesn't quite point to the skull and ever say, "This is Bruce Wayne", the story keeps giving us every reason to believe that it is. Multiple characters in the story think so. But probably the most authoritative statements come from outside the story: The narration caption in Blackest Night #1 calls the setting "The graves of Thomas and Martha Wayne and the unmarked grave of their son, Bruce." This is an omniscient narrator (distinguished with subtle shape and color differences from the narration balloons attributed elsewhere in the issue to Hal). You have to get pretty philosophical to question whether or not the unmarked grave of Bruce might contain someone else's skeleton.
But even this level of certainty is trumped if you look at the director's cut for Blackest Night #0, which appears in Tales of the Corps #3. Geoff Johns says flat out: "The darkest place in the DCU... not just any grave, the grave of Batman -- Bruce Wayne." You have to be exceedingly philosophical to find any leeway there. People have argued crazier things, but when the writer says that it's someone's grave, it's a pretty good bet that that's whose body is in the grave. And if he says that it's the darkest place in the DCU, it's probably not the grave of a clone.
Two more omniscient narrators hammer the point home. The preview for Blackest Night: Batman #1 shows a page in which scenes only an omniscient narrator could be showing us include Black Hand staring lovingly at the skull he's toting and it has a bat-ear as a stylistic flourish. And more convincing yet, with the power of the almighty dollar behind it: The merchandising for Blackest Night includes a figurine of Black Hand wielding a skull with the same obvious Batman touches. (Remember that an action figure for Bart Allen as the Flash was revealed before it was revealed in the comics. And a poster showing Barry Allen as the Flash was released before his return to life.) Do you think anyone wants to refund fans' money if it turns out not to be Batman's skull? DC has hinted with innuendo that it's not Batman's skeleton, but has told us loudly with direct omniscient narration and action figures that it is.
Edit: Blackest Night: Batman #1 has Deadman say that it is Bruce's skull in Black Hand's grasp, and he seems to have that knowledge in some direct way that wouldn't be fooled by observing events in the conventional way (he didn't even know that Bruce had been replaced by Dick). Moreover, the bat-ears appear on the skull on the cover of Blackest Night #2.
Alpha and Omega
OK, so Batman's dead. Where is he?
Despite what we saw on the last page of Final Crisis, scholarly fans are combing old stories trying to decipher what the Omega Sanction did to Bruce. But the simple answer is: No past story can be used as a guide, because the Omega Effect can do many different ("intriguing"!) things, depending upon Darkseid's whim, and he's often strangely generous. But sometimes not.
He has killed victims before, including Batman in an alternate timeline in Grant Morrison's "Rock of Ages" story in JLA v3. He also gave Desaad the "total wipe out" in New Gods #11 (a story by Jack Kirby -- Desaad's return six years later in a Gerry Conway story should be regarded a retcon).
But the first time we saw the Omega Effect (Forever People #6), it merely sent the victims into the past, and it was rather trivial for Highfather to retrieve the Forever People (leaving Sonny Sumo to live happily in Japan's past).
And Grant Morrison has concocted his own version of the Omega Sanction, showing Mister Miracle Shilo Norman living out a series of dreary lives that he had to live through in succession before he finally (naturally) escaped.
But what happened to Bruce needn't be any of those. And despite the suggestive presence of the rocket that had borne Batman's story to the past (as well as the bat-signal, if not other bat-relics), we know that the bearded man in Batman's pants, wearing the best boots the past had ever seen, is Batman, because Grant Morrison said "Final Crisis revealed Bruce is still out there and he’s got to make his way back in some way." So since it revealed that, that's him on the last page, not a Neanderthal enjoying someone else's pants.
If you can accept an old cop being possessed by an evil god who can shoot beams out of his eyes that can destroy a person or send the person alive into the past, then you can probably accept an old cop being possessed by an evil god who can shoot beams out of his eyes that can destroy a person and send the person alive into the past. Can't you?
Back in Time
A clever twist of Final Crisis is that one cover of the first issue showed the bat, super, and wonder symbols with a typical cave drawing of deer. This finished painting, which you see before the first page of the series, is not part of the narration anywhere until you get to the last page, when you see Batman beginning the painting.
Why did the Daily Planet's rocket land right where the Omega Sanction dropped off Bruce? Why did every last chunk of Krypton's explosion end up on Earth? Because it's convenient. That's usually a good enough reason.
Good news for our long-lost Batman. Cave Carson and his crew found, in Final Crisis #3, the symbol that Anthro painted in Final Crisis #7. If that's the same exact rendition, then Bruce's art is just a few feet away. His return to the present could be as simple as Cave Carson taking six more swings of a pickax, finding the heroes' symbols in the past, and then summoning some time-traveling JLAers to go get Bruce and bring him back. It could be that simple. Or arbitrarily complex.
But we do know that Bruce is coming back. The ghostly image seen in the previews for the third arc of Batman and Robin could be related or totally unrelated. (That image might not even be corporeal or even ectoplasmic in the "real" world of the DCU.) But as another post in this blog has mentioned, Grant Morrison has already told us plenty about Bruce Wayne returning to the Batman identity, and when. As for how -- I doubt if it will be as quick as the simple possibility mentioned above. Bruce Wayne's story is never that of someone who overcomes small challenges.