Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne (4/5)
Listen: Bruce Wayne has come unstuck in time. The last we saw of Batman, he had been zapped by Darkseid’s omega beams, but instead of killing him, they actually sent him into the past. The Return of Bruce Wayne follows Bruce Wayne as he skips from one century to the next getting in all sorts of adventures. It’s the kind of set up that’s bursting with potential and any writer worth his salt would jump at the opportunity to write stories about Batman battling the pirate Blackbeard, caught in the middle of a prehistoric intertribal feud, or solving mysteries in Puritan New England. But we don’t have just any writer at the helm of Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. We have Grant Morrison that insanely inventive but wildly uneven Scottsman.
The Return of Bruce Wayne follows Morrison’s writing on Final Crisis, arguably the absolute nadir of his major comic book work. Most of that series reads as if Morrison was vomiting up ideas and hoping that a few of them stuck. What’s most frustrating about Grant Morrison is that he is, when at the top of his game, a tremendous talent. His first creator owned invention, The Invisibles is a wonderful distillation of his interest in magic, countercultural movements, and mind melting time travel. But when he superimposes those interests onto the world of superheroes, the results are often mixed. I sometimes wish Morrison had a mentor around like Gertrude Stein who famously told a young Ernest Hemingway, “Start again – and this time concentrate.” Luckily, The Return of Bruce Wayne, while far from perfect, is some of Morrison’s best work with DC’s major characters.
The fact that each issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne is largely self-contained reigns in Morrison’s more self-indulgent tendencies. While there is an overarching plot dealing with Darkseid’s attempt to use Bruce as a weapon, the story is mostly episodic. The best moments in the series occur early on. In the first chapter, Bruce Wayne is found in a prehistoric cave and discovered by a tribe of early men. The story is told from the perspectives of the cave men, so we cannot understand anything Wayne has to say, since he is speaking in modern day English. The tribe has a run in with another group of cavemen lead by none other than Vandal Savage, and Bruce Wayne must take on the mantle of the bat in order to fight his way out of their clutches. At the end of this adventure an eclipse occurs, which sends Wayne skipping along to the next point in time with only echoes of his memory still in tact.
Wayne then finds himself in an early 17th century Gotham run by Puritans. There Wayne befriends a pagan who lives by herself, hidden away in the local woods. He also becomes an inspector who uses his still intact detective skills to solve crimes in colonial America. Morrison has fun with these jumps in time. The story takes on an epic scope, even if it mostly takes place in and around what would be modern day Gotham. Wayne leaps through time even as he stays relatively grounded in place. Morrison also builds a fun mythology around Wayne’s time traveling adventures. The cape and cowl he brought back from the future, as well as his first appearance as a Bat-like god, appears to later influence the Miagani, a nation of Native-Americans whose culture revolves around the bat.
And because this is a Morrison book, it can be read as a meta-commentary on Batman as a character. Each time Bruce Wayne reconstitutes himself in time, he essentially forms himself into a different variation of Batman. This is reminiscent of ways that Batman has been reinvented throughout his seventy year history, from his beginnings as a hard boiled vigilante to his role as a pop art icon in the 60s to his transformation into an anti-hero by Frank Miller in the 80s. But Morrison is also commenting on the number of archetypal heroes that make up Batman’s DNA, including the bat as a totem symbol, the Western gunslinger, and the film noir detective.
But, unfortunately, Morrison isn’t able to keep up this level of storytelling. As the series runs on, he spends more time explaining Darkseid’s plan to charge Wayne up with omega energy so that when he reaches the present day, he will destroy the planet. These cosmic level shenanigans are far less interesting than the individual adventures Wayne had been having throughout time. And eventually the story devolves into a bunch of technobabble you might find in an episode of Star Trek. Still, the good outweighs the bad, and unless you’re one of those who absolutely cannot stand Morrison’s brand of insanity, then there’s plenty to love in The Return of Bruce Wayne. At the very least, the series proves that no matter the century, Batman will always be cool as hell.