Writer: Grant Morrison ~ Artists: Chris Sprouse, Frazer Irving, Yannette Paquette, Georges Jeanty, Ryan Sook, Lee Garbett ~ Publisher: DC Comics ~ Year: 2011
The Low-Down: The return through time of the original Batman is as mindbending as you’d expect from the pen of controversial comics creator Grant Morrison. A wild, colourful and inventive journey through pulp storytelling, The Return of Bruce Wayne has some serious consistency problems and is in no way a ‘jumping on’ point, but the combination of adventure, mythmaking and experimental storytelling makes for a heady and entertaining brew.
The Backstory: He witnessed his parents’ murder when only eleven years old. Up until recently, multi-millionaire Bruce Wayne secretly used his resources, training and cunning to fight crime on the streets of Gotham under the costumed identity of the Batman – but after an apocalyptic confrontation with the god-like Darkseid, Wayne was apparently killed, and ex-sidekick Dick Grayson took over the mantle of the Caped Crusader.
What’s it About?: Bruce Wayne is far from dead. Displaced in time by the ‘Omega Effect’, he’s now lost in history, his memory in tatters, facing untold dangers in timezone after timezone, fighting to find his way back to the present day. Along the way, he’s also discovering dark secrets of the Wayne family, as well as clues to the identity of Dr. Hurt, the arch-criminal behind the organisation known as the Black Glove. Nothing is going to stop him from reaching his destination – but Darkseid already planned for this, and if Bruce Wayme arrives in the twenty-first century, it could mean destruction for everyone…
The Story: There are some superhero stories where you can easily leap into the fray… and there are some where it’s a really bad idea. Grant Morrison’s comics have always been demanding and heavily interlinked, but his epic run on Batman has taken things to another level. Since 2006, he’s been telling a sprawling, ambitious novel-like story (which has also stretched into series like Final Crisis and Seven Soldiers of Victory), and just to make matters even more complicated, much of The Return of Bruce Wayne fits closely together with stories in his acclaimed run on Batman and Robin (especially ‘Batman vs Robin’ and ‘Batman and Robin Must Die!’ in volumes 2 and 3). So, if you’re looking for traditional, easily accessible superhero action – move along, there nothing for you here.
That’s not to say that The Return of Bruce Wayne doesn’t have plenty to offer, just that like ‘Batman R.I.P’, this is a smaller portion of a much larger work. Throughout his run on Batman, Morrison has been deliberately embracing the crazier elements of Batman’s lengthy history (most notably, working many of the overly camp 1950s-published sci-fi Batman stories into the fantastically twisted and disturbing ‘Batman R.I.P.’), and The Return of Bruce Wayne is the most extreme he’s gone yet. At first glimpse, there shouldn’t be anything further away from a traditional Batman tale than a crazy time-warp adventure that includes such memorable sights as Caveman Batman, Pilgrim Batman and Pirate Batman (although it has to be said, the story’s brief pirate persona for Bruce Wayne isn’t anywhere near as fun as Andy Kubert’s ludicrously brilliant cover illustration).
And yet, what Morrison has done is strip Batman down to barest essentials and rebuild him, while also putting Bruce Wayne in his proper context as a pulp hero. Each chapter of the story gives a new twist, exploring a different aspect of the character, pitching him against the ultimate enemy – History itself – and the end result is a deliriously barmy adventure that stretches a mystery across time, and raises the Batman to a truly mythic level.It also links back in surprising ways with ‘Batman: R.I.P’ and ‘Final Crisis’, layering in a massive amount of detail and pulling off some truly mind-expanding moments, especially in the Jack Kirby-esque science fictional final chapter.
It’s also true, though, that Morrison does throw a few too many ideas into the mix at times, and the book overall doesn’t always hit the fantastic highs of the brilliant Stone-Age-set opening chapter. There’s also the fact that we don’t really get the complete finale of Wayne’s time-travel adventures and Morrison’s uber-storyline here – the rest appears in the stories to be published in the upcoming Batman and Robin volume 3 – while DC’s decision not to reprint the key Batman issues 701 and 702 here (the atmospheric story ‘R.I.P.- The Missing Chapter’, which perfectly bridges the gap between ‘R.I.P’ and ‘Final Crisis’) means that it’s even harder to play catch-up than before. However, for those willing to try and keep up, what this collection lacks in consistency, it makes up for in adventurousness, creativity and sheer pulp pleasure.
The Art: The plan was for each issue of this six-issue miniseries to be handled by a single artist, most of whom had worked with Morrison before (except for Chris Sprouse) – unfortunately, delays and production problems threw a spanner in the works, which means that the first half of The Return of Bruce Wayne is a very different visual proposition from the second. In the first three issues, we have Chris Sprouse’s clean and classical pulp stylings in the Caveman issue, the moody and lush digitally painted work of Frazer Irving on the Pilgrim issue, and the atmospheric pencils of Yannick Paquette on the Pirate story.
Sadly, Cameron Stewart dropped out of doing issue 4, the Western chapter, and while Georges Jeanty (best known for his work on the comic book ‘Season 8’ of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) pulls off some strong moments, his storytelling gets murky at times. The remaining two issues also see a major amount of work from fill-in artists, which is especially frustrating in the massively ambitious chapter 6. It often feels like Morrison is cursed to always see his most adventurous scripts plagued with production issues (similar problems affected the final volume of his Vertigo series The Invisibles), and The Return of Bruce Wayne is left halfway between being a major artistic showcase and a slightly rushed patch-up job. This Deluxe Format edition means the art looks as good as possible on over-size pages, and at its best, its an artistic jam to match the eclectic styles on show in Seven Soldiers of Victory – but there’s still a slight sense that not all the issues got the consistently great art that they deserved.
The Verdict: It’s not quite the rousing success it should have been – but even Morrison’s near-misses are fascinating, adventurous stuff, and The Return of Bruce Wayne is best read as simply one chapter of Morrison’s sweeping, genre-defying, experimental Bat-epic.