Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Batman, R.I.P.'s final issue, Batman #681, had a first person narration by Batman himself, illustrated in the style of notebook excerpts. As we read these, we knew that Batman at least survived the threat to his life which was still playing out in the graphical presentation of the story. But that narration left more than one enigma, including the terms under which Batman composed it. By the time Last Rites showed that Batman recovered from RIP at least momentarily, it offered a possible explanation for when Batman performed that narration -- he might have done it during the brief respite between RIP and Final Crisis. But for one anomaly: He says "And so I write this final entry in the Black Casebook". Accepting at that moment that he survived RIP, we don't know of any reason why he would believe in its aftermath that there would be no more for him to record in the Black Casebook. Because he was near death? Because he could no longer be Batman? Because after an encounter with Doctor Hurt there was nothing left to consider mysterious? We still don't know. But it is suggestive that the narration in Batman #681 and #701-702 is all part of one message that is recorded in audio format (and not written) and is composed in a cave at the beginning of time, where Darkseid's Omega trap first sends him. Certainly the narration in #701-702 comes about like that, spoken into a utility-belt recorder while the Omega amnesia rapidly spreads over Bruce, leaving him the nearly-mute cipher he is when ROBW begins. What we learn in this issue is what Bruce knows just before the amnesia kicks in. He's losing his brilliant mind just after appearing in the past. Like the protagonist of "Flowers for Algernon", he knows this, which is why the last line of #701 is "Think fast, Batman..."
An overarching idea in #702 is that the New Gods and their artifacts are platonic in nature -- the essence of things rather than things themselves. There is the idea of horseness and then there are particular horses. You could kill every horse that's alive but the idea of horses would still exist. Morrison portrays the New Gods not as superpowered aliens but as ideas that happen to interact with the real world. As Morrison said in an interview before Final Crisis began, "We discover that all the previous experiences of the New Gods have kind of been projections into the DC Universe, and we’ve never seen the real thing until now." Darkseid, the bullet that kills Orion, and other things are more the idea of stuff rather than stuff itself. The bullet is the archetype of all bullets. Darkseid is the archetype of all terrible beings that have plagued men. And as in Morrison's Superman Beyond and Final Crisis, he writes a story about story. Zillo Valla's line from Superman Beyond #2, "I found a better story; one created to be unstoppable, indestructible! The story of a child rocketed to Earth from a doomed planet..." is reprised when Batman says in #702 that he has "a New Myth of my own. A myth where Ultimate Evil turns its gaze on humanity and humanity gazes right back and says 'Gotcha'." Just as the first line is a synopsis of Superman's origin from Action #1, the second is a synopsis of Batman's; in particular the gazing right back speaks of the origin as told in Batman #47, when young Bruce's "accusing eyes" turn on Joe Chill and terrify Ultimate Evil itself. The Wayne murder, depicted on four different pages, is very much a topic of #702 when it says that the bullets that killed them are mere examples of the idea of bulletness. As Batman says in Final Crisis #6, "A gun and a bullet, Darkseid. It was your idea." At the time, it seemed that Batman was speaking only of Orion's death, but in #702, he's speaking of every such death -- Orion's, his parents, and all others. Granny Goodness' attack is "like Joker venom. Fear Gas. Doctor Hurt's smile. All at once." It is the prototype from which examples are made.
And what is Batman going to do about them? Another moment from the past is when Jim Gordon says to him, "Look at you, all beat up to hell. Why did you have to choose an enemy that's as old as time and bigger than all of us, Batman?" And he answers, "Same reason you did, Jim. I figured I could take him." Like the platonic essence of bullet, this line simultaneously applies to many situations at once. Jim Gordon is referring to the sort of corruption he can see between the mayor and the police in Batman #665. But he sees it as something bigger than one mayor or a handful of conspirators. In time, the line took on a meaning regarding Doctor Hurt, and in its superlatives and the use of "hell", his identity as the Devil.
#702 seems to suggest that Darkseid is the bigger villain than Doctor Hurt, that Darkseid had a causal role in creating Hurt. Bruce, knowing that Hurt has called himself "the hole in things" (the title of #701), decides that Darkseid's fall "made the hole in things". This suggests a literal cause-and-effect relationship, and that Hurt is therefore secondary to Darkseid. I'm not sure that this suggestion is going to prove important to the larger story. The hierarchy of ultimate evils is tangled. In Final Crisis, Darkseid's crimes precipitate the arrival of Mandrakk, but the Monitors had been planning an evil coup when Darkseid's plan was at its inception.
And the "hole in things" seems to have the Evil Gods' number. Batman remarks, of his escape from the Evil Factory, that the Evil Gods hadn't prepared for any of what was then happening, that the best laid plan of Darkseid was also prone to the Hole in Things. Nothing's perfect. Batman finds gods and aliens hard to prepare for. And they, him.
And so, his counterattack becomes an archetype, too. Humanity (not superheroes, a point of contrast all throughout #701-702) gazes back at Ultimate Evil and says "gotcha". Bruce swinging his black-gloved fist at Doctor Hurt in the helicopter. Cowboy Bruce doing the same to Doctor Thomas Wayne in ROBW #4. A new story, a better story. Or, if you'd like, a very old one, Beowulf. Humanity has a representative who will stare down evil gods and strike fear into devils and never give up and never, ultimately, lose. By giving him Ultimate Evil to face on a platonic battlefield, Darkseid makes a colossal error, allowing Batman into a world of "ultimate stakes" where he can alter the myth of evil and give birth to himself. As Morrison said in an interview, "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." The showdown in FC #6 creates what Batman #679 calls "a miracle in Crime Alley". Retroactively, of course.
The time travel itself is not such a complex part of the story. Darkseid sends Bruce back to 9,000 B.C., with regular jumps to other times (circa 1645, 1718, 1880, and 1980, respectively), but always near the vicinity of the cave. Bruce records his message in a brief interlude before ROBW #1 and this message is found by Rip Hunter and brought to the JLA. This takes place at some point in time after the events of Batman and Robin #12, sending Rip, Booster Gold, Hal Jordan, and Superman on a rescue mission that begins before Batman and Robin #13. Bruce's path goes on as illustrated in ROBW.
But this wonderfully ornate story has two other levels of complexity. One, in known references to earlier stories in the Morrison Batman era. We see his memory of the discovery of the well that connects to the Batcave and his imagined funeral from Batman #673 as well as the funeral from Neil Gaiman's Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? There are logical and thematic connections from Final Crisis, ROBW, Last Rites, and Batman #665.
But the more intriguing references are those which are left dangling without clear resolution. The missing portrait is a clear reference to the Old Thomas Wayne character mentioned in B&R #10 and seen in ROBW #4, and if we merely find out that he is the basis of Doctor Hurt, then it only confirms what has been coming into focus in recent issues. But the issue also has a stunning visual pointer in the depiction of the gates of a "Willowwood Asylum" which is a very obscure pointer to World's Finest #223 and the 1974 story of a pre-Crisis "lost brother" of Bruce's named Thomas Wayne, Jr. This brother was the subject of a brain trauma during childhood that left him mentally unstable, so he was therefore incarcerated in Willowwood Sanitarium. Why is Morrison showing us a pointer to that story?
Many fan-detectives have guessed that Doctor Hurt might be Thomas Wayne, Jr. The Bronze Age stories of Bob Haney have not been acknowledged by Morrison until this time (nor indeed, were much acknowledged by other DC writers at the time). Hurt has already declared himself to be a "dark twin". Could Morrison be opening the door to Thomas Wayne, Jr. being in continuity again, and if so, could he, rather than Old Thomas Wayne, be the body of Doctor Hurt? The answer to the second question is almost certainly "no." Thomas Wayne, Jr. was only three years older than Bruce, whereas Doctor Hurt was an adult in 1978, clearly too old to be the son of Thomas and Martha. The Devil in this story goes far back into the past, and if Morrison were to bring back Thomas Wayne, Jr., this would be quite separate from the origins of Doctor Hurt. The pages showing Willowwood remark on time being pliable, so this may be from a timeline that did stay with us, but only winked in and out of existence as Darkseid turned the Ancestor Box to craft a trap for Batman.
And that brings us to the issue's final chain of suggestive associations. The Ancestor Box (like "Rock of Ages'" Grandmother Box, taken to the platonic, inductive step of generality) has a many-tentacled thing creeping from and about it. Perhaps the hyper-adapter creates the hyperfauna seen in ROBW #2. It is likely that of which Jack Valor cannot speak and that which Alan Wayne calls "sickening." But almost certainly, a box with bells is the same one that is associated with the casket that has become the McGuffin of ROBW and B&R. This is not a great surprise. Somehow, Bruce gets to the end of time, and somehow he stops Green Lantern and Superman in their tracks; a Mother Box is a likely tool for accomplishing these things. It is interesting, though, that something pertaining to the New Gods would also supply "The bells of Barbatos". Whatever blocked the radio transmissions of Dick and uses eclipses as portals for Bruce's jumps, it seems to tie all of the larger story's demons and devils together into one myth, one mythology, and one central hero. Batman #702 is a grand telling of that myth.