One day in Gotham City, a thug wearing a gargoyle mask stabbed Batman in an otherwise futile attack. The blade of the knife was coated with a chemical that made him susceptible to psychological attack. Visual exposure to the trigger phrase that was to bring on an attack on his mind had worn away at his well-being for months, but due to the influence of the drug, Bruce Wayne fell unconscious when he heard the trigger phrase aloud. As he lay on the floor, Bruce was injected with heroin and methamphetamine. Then a tracking device was surgically inserted under one of his teeth, and Bruce was dumped unconscious in a Gotham alley. After a day of wandering the city sick and amnesiac, Bruce managed to activate in himself the blunt, hyperactive Batman of Zur En Arrh personality. In this identity, Batman tracked down criminals, winning some tactical battles, until he had to fight his way through a large number of henchmen in Arkham Asylum. Upon sweeping the Joker aside, Batman had to break through glass, upon which, he was dosed with the Joker's lethal nerve gas. Surviving because he had administered himself an antidote, Bruce woke up in a coffin underground. Once he escaped from that and he tunneled to the surface, he fought another round of thugs, resisted more mental attacks from Doctor Hurt, and then entered the city harbor in a helicopter crash. Batman #701 begins the next moment, with Bruce underwater, needing to surface and swim out to survive.
Because we already knew that Bruce would talk with Alfred in the Batcave, then partake in the events of Final Crisis, the general trajectory that Bruce follows in this issue was largely what one would have expected. The added details are, however, very meaningful. Or, enigmatic, but indicative of something important, lacking only clarity as to what they mean.
One mystery is cleared up right away. At the end of RIP, it was a curiosity (in my mind) as to why Bruce would remove his cape and cowl during his face-off with Hurt. When he tells us that he was not aware that his cape and cowl were missing, we can conclude that he did this as a partial response to the mental command Hurt attempted to trigger by telling Bruce to "put away his Batman costume and retire from crime-fighting" (a line originally from Batman #156). Bruce doesn't remember taking his mask off because he didn't do it voluntarily: He began, as Hurt asked, to "put away his Batman costume", but his will was too strong for him to retire from crime-fighting. According to the RIP backstory, this command affected Bruce for "a couple of weeks" the first time Hurt employed it, back when Dick Grayson was Robin. This time, it hardly affected Bruce at all.
Bruce's swim is a kaleidoscope of minor, but intriguing details. We see in the form of charts showing the weather, the value of stocks, and the stars in the sky (Sagittarius -- no, this does not mean that Green Arrow is in the story), that the world continues to go on while Batman is submerged. The first person whom Bruce sees upon reaching land is Ellie, the former prostitute who was last in the story right around the time that "devil ears" and an "enemy as old as time and bigger than all of us" were invoked back in Batman #665. She has taken the job with Waynetech that Batman offered her back then; her return symbolizes things coming full circle as well as redemption.
Much of what we learn in this story concerns Bruce's reaction to and interpretation of the villain who had just made the past five days of his life a living hell. He at once tells himself that swimming away from the crash is, for anyone less than himself, impossible. Lane, one of the three people in the helicopter, is a serious athlete on the superhero level. Hurt has never proven any physical ability, and Bruce deems his escape impossible. But Hurt never surfaces. More than five minutes go by in addition to the time that it took Bruce to swim out. And yet, when he later checks the wreckage, there is no body. And so, Bruce cannot explain Hurt -- he remains for Bruce "a ghost" as well as a threat.
Alfred, paraphrasing the opinion that Morrison attributed to some readers, doesn't want to accept the supernatural explanation. We already have Morrison's reply to this, when he said "For me, this is the ultimate supernatural Batman story." Alfred gets another shadowy form of that reply when he sees that the clock in Wayne Manor had stopped at the precise moment of the helicopter crash.
Bruce himself expresses uncertainty when he says that Hurt "may or may not be some manifestation of the Devil, or my dead father." But he takes the curse absolutely seriously, calling it "a death trap".
Many of the small details in the issue reinforce, conveniently, details that we saw for the first time quite recently in Batman and Robin. Bruce goes to the Barbatos shrine under Wayne Manor. He knows that Hurt had been there, and he sees the paint that Dick Grayson told us was relatively fresh. We find out that Bruce's parents knew about the room, and it becomes increasingly likely that it was the scene of a Black Glove party. So we find out that Bruce knew about the things that Dick Grayson discovered so recently, but only partially. He knew that those things were there, but not why.
Bruce enters that room through the library in Wayne Manor, standing almost on the exact spot where Doctor Hurt shoots Dick Grayson. He looks at the paining of his parents that is to overlook Dick's shooting. Martha is again shown with lighter hair, so we know that it is Martha, because Bruce does not react in any unusual manner. There is a figure before them, an art piece whose strangeness -- a large knight from a chess board -- suggests that it has some special role. It, too, is to look down upon Dick's shooting.
The "three days" reference to Easter from Batman and Robin #13 also appears here. Bruce tells Alfred that if he sleeps for three days, not to wake him. Sleeping for three days then rising -- Bruce will be resurrected.
The most important symbol in this issue, though, is the one that represents Hurt. In his own words, a hole. Bruce ends the issue looking at a hole. But more important, he calls Hurt a hole. An empty space. An absence. Bruce has an empty space in his life -- maybe in that sense, an enemy who is an absence represents not Bruce's father but the hole in his life where his father should be. Bruce suspects that Hurt goes back in his own family tree. An anti-father. An anti-Bruce as well. As Bruce is the one who sleeps for three days then rises, an anti-Bruce is symbolically an anti-Christ.
The story ends with questions. Part two of this story within a story is yet to come.