Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne
written by Grant Morrison
illustrated by Yanick Paquette, Andy Kubert, Chris Sprouse, Frazer Irving, Georges Jeanty, Ryan Sook and Lee Garbett
As an oftentimes controversial writer, Grant Morrison's run on Batman has been met with divisiveness, producing stories that have largely been conceptually interesting but flawed in execution. Filled with big ideas, like the psychological deconstruction of the title character throughout The Black Glove and R.I.P story arcs, his narratives were disjointed and ultimately offered more than could be believably delivered. Morrison's greatest fault, though, was in making Bruce Wayne's Batman too indestructible. Because of his heightened intelligence, athletic prowess, and combat skills, Batman was always too prepared for any eventuality, sometimes laughably so, and almost always at the expense of the story surrounding him. In a way, Batman became equal with Superman, imbued with an almost inhuman level of perfection, and like Superman and all his gifts, it made for a boring hero who could never truly be damaged. The dramatics of the storyline suffered and, although the stakes were raised to a dire tipping point, they ultimately felt hollow because the protagonist's victory was constantly ensured. With The Return of Bruce Wayne, Morrison has once again raised the stakes for the titular hero, this time creating a well-crafted time-tripping adventure that is successful in many of the ways his earlier work with the character wasn't.
Because The Return of Bruce Wayne is but one chapter of an ongoing saga Morrison has been building to over the course of several years, there is a lot of history leading up to this story. Thankfully, not all of it is required reading, although those who know the background will likely find more to enjoy as there are several nuances within the story and historical details that help flesh out Morrison's overarching story. All one really has to know is that at the close of Final Crisis, Batman was shot back in time to a prehistoric era. He was believed to be dead, but after clues were discovered within Wayne Manor and the Batcave, Earth's heroes realized he was lost in the past.
Crippled by amnesia and being pushed through time, Bruce Wayne must rediscover himself amidst Gotham City's sordid history. Forced to confront situations that he could never have trained or prepared for, Wayne is—perhaps for the first time under Morrison's tenure—honestly in danger. He has to contend with the unknown threats of history, relying purely on instincts and his own strong sense of survival. His successes in the end do not feel like cheats or cop-outs, as they had in some of Morrison's earlier works with the character, and there are moments where he must struggle for victory. In a series of terrific sequences, he is forced to confront cavemen, witch-hunting puritans, and pirates. One particularly strong chapter finds him arriving shortly after the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, his parents, and becoming embroiled in a conspiracy to sully their posthumous image. Although he has no recollection of who he is, or why these events are of supreme importance to him, it's a very compelling chapter presented in pristine noir fashion.
Morrison's Batman has been at his best as a detective, and it's quite enjoyable to see him piece together various puzzles throughout Gotham's history. Despite having amnesia, Wayne's naturally keen intellect is firmly on display, particularly during the Puritan chapter, which sees him working to save a young woman falsely accused of witchcraft. Equally enjoyable is seeing Wayne cast in Batman-like roles in these alternative eras. There's a great sense of joy in seeing iconic Batman imagery in displaced settings, such as a cowboy inspired story that sees the Caped Crusader squaring off against a group of gunslingers armed only with batarangs. It is definably Batman, but uniquely Western at the same time.
Each era of Morrison's time-hopping narrative brings aboard a different artist. Typically, having multiple illustrators working on a single-title generates mixed results. Here, it works well, as each artist's style is evocative of the era they are assigned. The only stumbling block comes with Frazer Irving, who tackles the book's second chapter, "Until the End of Time." While he creates a great sense of place and style in drafting the Puritan era of Gotham, he is less adept at handling the futuristic elements introduced during a segment set in the 64th century. Superman and his team have traveled forward in time to the end of the universe in an attempt to find answers about Wayne's whereabouts in the past, but Irving's renditions of the characters appear flat and sickly. His Superman lacks a suitable amount of definition and occasionally appears oddly slumped over, while others exhibit strange facial structure and putty-like appearances. It's a minor complaint, given the short amount of time spent detouring so far into the future, but visually it's an unwelcome interruption given the strength of his work throughout the rest of the chapter. A later chapter, "Masquerade," finds two artists, Ryan Sook and Pere Perez, sharing the work with almost indistinguishable results. They work very well together, and with inker Mick Gray and colorist Jose Villarrubia, providing Morrison's noir-inspired tale with suitable draftsmanship and dimensionality, relying heavily on the interplay between light and shadows, a key visual component to the noir tradition.
Morrison has been playing with multiple concepts throughout his run in both Batman and Batman and Robin, the most important of which have been family and the rich history of the Batman mythos. With The Return of Bruce Wayne he is able to take these themes a step further by making Batman himself a time traveler, allowing the character to further enrich his own enduring history. Throughout the saga, Batman continually strengthens his place within the history of Gotham, cementing the strength of the urban legend that surrounds the bat, and paving the way for his eventual return to modern times. It also allows for some great character development in the end as Bruce Wayne accepts the truth about what it has meant to be Batman.
Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne is a solid entry in both Morrison's long-term run thus far and within the overarching canon of DC's greatest character. Ever since disappearing at the end of Final Crisis, it was obvious Wayne had to return at some point, but thankfully Morrison makes the heralded return an entertaining, and sometimes unexpected, journey that not only ties into his past work with the character, but enriches it in fundamental ways. Morrison has a firmer grasp on Batman in this book than he did in earlier outings, and is perhaps reenergized by his own work on Batman & Robin, which helped to redefine the character's legacy by creating a new dynamic duo in the wake of Wayne's supposed demise. Whatever the case, he has produced a more human and relevant Batman in this book, one that feels refreshed in light of the struggles that have been endured. At the story's close, readers will no doubt be ready for the Dark Knight's next adventure.