You knew this was coming. With an inevitability matched only by death and taxes, the next step of any major A-list superhero who “dies” is their return. Though Bruce Wayne’s apparent demise was meant to be one of the climactic parts of writer Grant Morrison’s “Final Crisis,” I doubt that any fanboy who read that scene didn’t think something along the lines of, “Okay, so when’s he coming back?” In hindsight, that moment now comes off as just another step in Morrison’s master plan for the character. It allowed him to set up Dick Grayson and Damien Wayne as Gotham’s new protectors, freeing up Bruce for his role in expanding the Batman franchise in “Batman Inc.” However, that still leaves the dirty business of bringing the man back from Darkseid’s Omega Sanction. In “The Return of Bruce Wayne,” Morrison and his artistic collaborators give us an ambitious, thoroughly weird and halfway-thrilling tale that succeeds and stumbles thanks to its writer’s strengths and quirks.
Ultimately, Darkseid’s greatest mistake in “Final Crisis” was thinking that he could be more clever than Batman. Rather than simply vaporizing the man with his Omega Beams, he used them instead to convince his comrades of the man’s death while sending him on a trip through time. The ultimate goal of this exercise was to turn Bruce Wayne into a living weapon to destroy the 21st century, but... you don’t need to have completed grade school to know how that plan is going to turn out.
Sending the title character on a trip through time, however, does make for a great set-up to this series. Each issue takes place in a distinct era, so that means we’re treated to Caveman Batman, Puritan Batman, Pirate Batman, Cowboy Batman, Detective Batman (I know that sounds redundant, but the alternative was Private Dick Batman... no I don’t think it’s an improvement), and Crazy-Morrison-Future Batman. Though he has lost his memory, Bruce still retains his keen intellect and detective instincts so it allows him to be “Batman” in each era while allowing for sufficient dramatic tension as he tries to figure out what’s going on. The best examples of this are when he deduces the true nature of a murder in a Puritan village, and figures his way through the various traps of the Bat-People’s cave.
The first three issues of this series are easily the strongest since they do a good job of setting up the uber-plot of Batman’s return and its inherent danger. They’re also decent stories in their own genres. You get the visceral thrill of seeing Bruce beat down ages-old DC villain Vandal Savage as a caveman, puzzle out the mystery of the devil’s work as a Puritan inquisitor, and turn the tables on the pirate Blackbeard after being press-ganged into searching for pirate treasure. You’ll be thoroughly entertained and impressed at how Morrison has taken such an “out-there” premise as “Batman vs. Time” and grounded it in relatable story concepts. Or maybe you won’t because he’s done this so often before.
Morrison also has the good fortune to be working with some very skilled artists in the first half. It should surprise no one that Frazer Irving and Yannick Paquette’s issues look great as they’ve both done good work with the man before. Irving gives the Puritan and Future eras a spooky aura that heightens their inherent creepiness while Paquette goes to town on the pirate motifs strewn throughout his issue. While this is Chris Sprouse’s first collaboration with the writer anyone who has seen his work before (especially his work with Alan Moore on “Tom Strong”) probably already knew that it was going to turn out great. Let me just affirm that it does, as he nails the brutality and ruggedness of the pre-history era, and I hope that the two team up again in the future.
Now this isn’t to say that the four artists who worked on the last three issues turned in bad work... but now that I’ve said that you can probably guess that there were some issues. Georges Jeanty handled the “Wild West” issue, and while the splash pages look great, a lot of the characters look stiff and seem to lack definition in many panels. However, this issue suffers more form the fact that it’s less of a story in its own right than an exercise in Morrison trying to tie it all into his “Bat-epic.” I’ll admit that it’s impressive in seeing him trace the Wayne family’s significance to the Batman mythos back this far, but it all feels too convoluted in its execution. Especially the parts with the “doctor,” as the implication is that he’s Doctor Hurt from “Batman R.I.P.” However, the problem is that the fact that he’s alive in this era is the LEAST confusing thing about his agenda. Even Batman doing his best “man with no name” and Jonah Hex as a guest star can’t really enliven these proceedings.
The next issue is a step up because not only does Morrison do a much better job of a) telling a proper story and b) tying it into his master plan for the character, it has art from Ryan Sook and Pere Perez. His previous collaboration with the writer aside, Sook was an inspired choice for this issue as his style has always had a strong “noir” influence. Naturally, it makes sense to have him illustrate a story where Bruce is dragged into investigating the circumstances behind his parents death. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it’s a good riff on the genre conventions and makes a couple plot points from “Batman R.I.P.” clearer in retrospect. While Sook doesn’t illustrate the whole issue, credit has to be given to Perez for maintaining artistic consistency with his style. The series’ serialization had gone off the rails at this point, so I’m honestly impressed that it looks as good as it does -- split between two artists.
Things come to a head when Bruce arrives at Vanishing Point -- the last outpost before the end of time -- in the final issue, illustrated by Lee Garbett and Perez again. Matching his style to others’ is apparently what got Perez this gig, and while he doesn’t have Garbett’s willingness/ability to draw as many panels as it takes to get Morrison’s concepts across, he does okay here. I won’t go into the specifics of the plot, except to say that Darkseid’s plan for Batman is revealed in full and the entire Justice Leage has to team up to save him. This is also the issue where Morrison’s strengths as a writer really butt heads with his weaknesses. Said weaknessess include his penchant for crazily poetic sci-fi jibber-jabber which is manifested in the scenes at the end of time, and when time starts breaking down towards the end of the issue. It isn’t easy to grasp everything that the writer is going for here, especially when it comes off as being there more for effect than for the purposes of the plot. However, I said earlier that the man knows how to ground these flights of fancy with relatable story concepts and he really nails this at the end. It’s a bold statement he’s making about the character on the next to the last page, something that on the surface seems to run contrary to how a lot of us like to picture the character, but after seeing everything that has come before it has the ring of truth to it.
So the story may be really, almost needlessly, weird in parts and have a story that tries too hard in parts to serve a greater agenda, but it serves up several compelling incarnations of the title character with enough style and intelligence that you’ll WANT to try and understand it all. Now the story itself may be a glorified exercise in moving a character in an established superhero universe from Point A to Point B, but if they were all done with this much ambition, I don’t think we’d mind so much. “Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne” may be just another piece of Morrison’s jigsaw-puzzle of a master plan for the character, but it showcases a greater understanding of how and why the character works than most Batman stories do. I certainly don’t recommend reading this in isolation from the rest of Morrison’s run, but it’s yet another reason why you should start reading it now.