Wednesday, June 9, 2010
It begins, though, very much like the struggle between Batman and Doctor Hurt began: Bruce Wayne submits to the experiment of a man he trusts, a man of science, and that trust is turned against him, subjecting him to experiences for the sake of evil, turning the experiment into captivity that he has to break out of. That is chronologically how Morrison's Batman story begins, although we found it out no sooner than Batman #674. We also see a good man's glasses broken (which happens in the first "shot" of Morrison's run, in Batman #655) and the story ends with a good man (just a toddler) dosed by Joker venom (which is also in the first "shot" of Morrison's run).
This time around, the scientist is a good man whose experiment is taken over by a quintet of prominent Batman villains). Professor Carter Nichols debuted in Batman #24, back in 1944 -- the year after Alfred's first appearance. Nichols was the vehicle for a number of time travel stories taking the Caped Crusader (something, we learn, he doesn't like to be called) into times and places where fanciful stories pit Batman against just about everything a young boy might read about in history class (when that boy might wish he were reading, instead, about Batman). And here we have another parallel with Morrison's main Batman stories, which currently have Bruce Wayne on a serial time travel adventure thanks to Darkseid's Omega Effect. Return of Bruce Wayne is a modern take on those Professor Nichols stories. By putting these stories into continuity, Morrison is performing a similar task to the one he did by putting other sci fi stories into continuity by explaining them as hallucinations (which was the explanation offered by some of the older stories themselves).
The story is a mystery, and it throws down the gauntlet early, asking on the splash page if the reader can solve the "impossible crime". A related challenge is offered early in the first part of the story, "Yesterday", when the Riddler, not referring to that crime, asks a question that is not directly answered, but is repeated in the tripartite story's final panel. The impossible crime itself appears in the first panel of the second part of the story, "Today", when an older Professor Nichols is found shot dead in a locked room with no weapon. Is this really a mystery? Much of the explanation seems obvious from the start: His age is a giveaway that the body is from the future, and in the "Tomorrow" story, we even see that Future Nichols has been shot with the weapon that caused the death wound. Dick Grayson ends the "Today" story providing an explanation which is not inaccurate but also not complete. We see all we need to know in the "Tomorrow" section, but the lines between the dots are not drawn. They go like this:
In "Yesterday", the villains' raid demoralizes Yesterday-Nichols to the point that he can never again serve as the time travel service for Batman. It leaves the man traumatized. He destroys his equipment.
In "Today", before the main action begins, Today-Nichols-1 finds the mortally wounded Tomorrow-Nichols in his basement. He finds out from Today-Nichols-2 (the same man, maybe minutes or hours older) that he must go into the future to recover Tomorrow Nichols (himself) on the day of his death and bring him back to "Today". As soon as Today-Nichols-1 goes on that short jaunt into the future, he is Today-Nichols-2, who loops back to have that chat with Today-Nichols-1. Then he goes back to make a crucial phone call to the police in "Yesterday". Then Today-Nichols goes on to an unstated, but happier, life that eventually ages him to become the older Tomorrow-Nichols who is shot by Two-Face-Two.
Nichols lives the last fifteen years of his life with restored confidence and purpose. His final moments are spent lucid enjoying some happy dream that the Maybe Machine produces. Then, with a smile on his face, he succumbs to the mortal wound.
The larger purpose of this spaghetti-tangled time travel is to save the child Terry McGinnis. It's that boy, eventually the fourth Batman, to whom Today-Nichols is referring when he tells Damian, "I only came to rescue him from all of this." Today-Nichols learns about this precisely because of the arrival of the dying Tomorrow-Nichols. And the body of Tomorrow-Nichols is what tells Damian (as a ten-year-old Robin) precisely which house he has to get to as a twenty-five-old Batman, to save his eventual successor. Here we have another recurring element in Morrison's work, the time loop. (Also seen in Red Son (story by Mark Millar; creative assist from Grant Morrison), Seven Soldiers, and as both the bullet and superhero sigils in Final Crisis.)
Nichols explains the mystery to Damian with a note that repeats the Riddler's question. When the Riddler says it, he's referring to Batman and Robin, whom the villains had beaten, but cannot defeat. When Nichols says it, he's referring to... The Clock. One might variously say he's referring to "fate", "time", "destiny", etc., but "Beat the clock" is a definite phrase in the language, and it is highlighted when Dick Grayson, as Robin, on the first page says "I'll clean your clock, Joker!" The emphasis on your implies that "clock" had already been referred to. It had not, explicitly. And therein, Morrison calls attention to the word, answering the question (another time loop) one page before it is asked. Does Nichols beat the clock? Yes, every time he employs his technology. He, and Batman, get everywhere they need to, just in time... which is the actual meaning of "beat the clock".
...but never defeat. Nichols faces the same conundrum that Batman does in having a destiny he cannot escape. The Joker proposes to undo Batman (and himself) by preventing Batman's origin, and Bruce observes to Dick at the end of "Tomorrow" that this is not possible. Nichols cannot, either, defeat the clock. This is one of numerous instances that one part of this story reflects another part of it. And gives us still another possible parallel to Morrison's main Batman story, if the detective Bruce Wayne in ROBW #5 is faced, as I suspect will be the case, with the possibility of preventing the Waynes' murder -- precisely what the Joker proposes in "Yesterday". (And the topic of a famous Batman story from another anniversary issue -- Alan Brennert's "To Kill A Legend" from Detective #500.)
The story has yet another relationship to the main Batman story in progress, with a book serving as a MacGuffin -- the Joker's Jokebook arising in all parts of the main story in #700, just as the book that "Mordecai" Wayne begins in the 1690s has yet to reveal its significance in ROBW and Batman and Robin.
#700's main yarn is a richly textured story, with the first two parts each foreshadowing the next twice, with each Batman telling his respective Robin that the future will make the mystery clear, and with each of the first two parts positing (but not seriously) that its respective Robin will go on to be Batman. (The laugh line of the issue is Dick Grayson telling a bragging Damian "You'd be the worst Batman ever." Given the extraordinary quality of Batmen, that may actually be correct and not particularly something to be ashamed of.)
The story is filled with lots of little reflections of Batman lore. The prostitute seen in "Today", Holly, shares a name and profession with the younger one from Batman Year One and may be Morrison's appropriation of the character Holly Robinson. The first man seen with her resembles, perhaps coincidentally, a taxi driver who gives a ride to a prostitute and her pimp in The Dark Knight Returns. Dick and Damian then fight a version of the Mutant gang from DKR. The pimp himself is Lone-Eye Lincoln, the drug dealer seen in Batman #678 when Bruce is at his lowest moment during Batman, R.I.P.
And the story is self-reflective. The villain, Two Face Two, has a good, larger, older face, who is sleeping (like the almost-dead Nichols, who wakes up later, and knowing the story asks if it's time yet... for his death) and a "bad little face" (the issue's most fun line) that mirrors the temporary state of the hostage Terry McGinnis. And in another note of self-reflection, Morrison names a neighborhood of Gotham for himself, Granton.
While I have referred to #700's main tripartite story, it also moves into fast-forward in showing us three more futures with three more Batmen. And this proves the Riddler's complaint true and echoes the first line of RIP: Batman and Robin will never die.