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Batman Omnibus by Grant Morrison Volume One (2009)
Reprints Batman #655-658, 663-683 with material from 52 #30,47 and DC Universe #0
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Andy Kubert, J.H. Williams III, Tony Daniel, Joe Bennett, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Ryan Benjamin, and John Van Fleet
Batman has had a wildly varied history over his 80 years as a comic book character. The popular conception of Batman as The Dark Knight started in the 1970s and was continued by Tim Burton’s 1989 film. That wasn’t always the way. The most notable example of a different sort of Batman is the high-camp television version of the 1960s, but even before then, the title had a much sillier bent in the 1950s as science fiction stories were more popular. Grant Morrison is a writer who always seeks to encompass the totality of a character when he’s writing a comic, finding a way to make all the ideas fit even if some seem absurd. They understand that comics are inherently silly and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. During their run, Morrison managed to reinvent Batman, adding one particular element that has stuck around for fifteen years and counting: Batman’s son.
In the wake of Infinite Crisis, Bruce Wayne traveled the world to rediscover himself and renew his crusade against crime. Things are off to a strange start as a man wearing a Batman costume shoots the Joker point-blank in the face, permanently scarring the villain even worse than he already was. Afterward, Bruce heads to London to participate in a fundraiser for Africa, where he meets and begins a romance with the ruler of Mtamba, Jezebel Jet. Unfortunately, he must also slip into his Batman identity when a horde of Man-bat ninjas attack the art gallery where the fundraiser occurs. This is all part of a plan by Talia al Ghul to abduct Batman and introduce him to his son, Damian. Batman had no idea there was a child but learns he was grown using Batman’s DNA and an embryo from Talia, raised to be a master assassin and is only twelve years old.
This is an interesting route because Batman had already been playing a father figure since 1940 when Robin was first introduced into the book. However, Damian is the most challenging ward Batman has been handed, raised with the sense of arrogance you would expect from the grandson of Ra’s al Ghul. He’s the complete opposite of the leading Robin at the time, Tim Drake, who remains a fan favorite. It’s not surprising that some fans bristled at the introduction of Damian when many of them had made up their minds that the original Robin turned Nightwing, Dick Grayson, would be the heir to the Bat-mantle, or maybe Tim. Just a few years earlier, Judd Winick had resurrected Jason Todd, Robin #2, during a controversial run, so you could see how someone could view this as Robin over-saturation. Damian immediately wants to kill Tim when he meets him, viewing him as a potential usurper of his birthright. He also murders a C-tier Batman foe, thinking this will prove his worth to Bruce, which it does not.
The “Batman and Son” opening arc concludes with Talia stating her demands. She wants Bruce to join her and Damian as a complete family, a dynasty to eventually rule the planet. Batman doesn’t go along with this, and Talia makes it appear like she and Damian are killed in an explosion. This triad of characters will be the centerpiece of Morrison’s run, with other supporting figures coming in and out of the story. Their run sprawls over three titles (Batman, Batman & Robin, Batman Incorporated) and even withstood the brand reinvention of DC’s New 52 initiative in 2011. In the past months, James Gunn announced that “Batman and Son” would be the basis of his first Bat-flick as co-boss of DC Comics’ rebooted cinematic universe, and I wonder how many elements from the Dark Knight’s mythos will be included. The way the arc ends, it would allow Batman to show up again without needing Damian around unless they choose to keep him on as Robin immediately. Morrison even seemed to want to leave the door open should anyone not want the character as an ongoing supporting player. But, enough fans were into the idea that Damian would return down the road.
Morrison returned to the title a few months later to begin his larger unbroken narrative, starting with an issue that likely turned off a lot of fans right away. Batman #663 is a prose story using digital art to tell a story about The Joker & Harley Quinn in the aftermath of the villain being shot by the Batman impersonator. It’s a very different structure laid out over ten chapters and even revisits some elements from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. For example, two of the dwarfs employed by Joker’s dark circus in that story reappear, now kidnapped by Harley to fulfill her boyfriend’s twisted plans. It’s not my favorite part of Morrison’s run, but I always applaud them for doing weird experimental things rather than repeatedly retelling the same stories.
Batman #664-665 continues the storyline of the imposter Batmen, with our hero encountering a Venom-roided Batman who has been provided a stream of sex workers in his basement dungeon to kill. Batman gets help from some of the girls working the street after he’s left a bloody mess and has a vision where Damian appears, telling him there is a third imposter who is the worst of them all. Robin goes out on his own to try and take down the muscular fake and is almost killed before Batman swoops in to rescue him. The conclusion reveals that these two imposters have both been Gotham City cops who are being protected by the rest of the force. Unfortunately, it’s a conspiracy that Batman can’t quite crack yet.
Batman #666 jumps into a possible future where an adult Damian is Batman. He works in tandem with Commissioner Barbara Gordon as they try to discover who is responsible for a series of murders throughout the city. Damian finds the murders create a pentagram, and they have been done by the third Batman imposter. Our hero kills this fake, breaking another promise he made to Bruce before he died. Throughout these issues, the art had been handled by Adam Kubert (sans the Joker prose issue), and he has an excellent style for the stories Morrison is telling. The action is kinetic, with flowing capes and characters feeling fluid on the page. A Kubert figure never appears static; wind blowing or gestures are always happening. It’s an art that feels similar to watching a cartoon at points that keeps the story moving quickly.
My favorite arc in this collection happens in Batman #667-679. Batman & Robin travel to a private island owned by the billionaire John Mayhew. Mayhew was bored and decided to use his money to form a superhero team he named The Club of Heroes. Batman was part of it, but also international crime fighters whose methods were similar to ours, directly inspired by the Dark Knight. These included Legionary (Italy), Knight & Squire (England), The Musketeer (France), and Gaucho (Argentina). This would be continued a few years later with “The Batmen of All Nations,” which incorporated Ranger (Australia). During these silly Silver Age years, Batman would also meet Man-of-Bats & Red Raven, he and Robin’s indigenous American counterparts. And then there was the Swede going by Wingman, a crimefighter wanting to be Europe’s Batman. Morrison takes these long-forgotten variations, erased even long before the Crisis on Infinite Earths attempted to modernize and reincorporate the comics.
Morrison catches us up, explaining that Mayhew’s experiment was a bust, but these Batmen continued doing their thing in their respective nations. A lot has changed since those early days. Squire is now The Knight after his father died. A new female Squire acts as his sidekick. Legionary is a gluttonous egomaniac. Musketeer is interested only in celebrity and has started murdering his foes; man-of-bats has neglected to be a dad to his son/sidekick, who has grown resentment in Red Raven. Wingman is a moody mess, and Ranger is very withdrawn. They all come to Mayhew’s island after receiving invitations only to find out this is an Agatha Christie type of situation with someone in the shadows plotting to kill them off one at a time. Mayhew has been murdered, and a group known as The Black Glove wants them all dead.
The art by J.H. Williams III is incredible in this book. He can deliver moody painted pages but also varies his art style. Flashbacks reimagine the original meeting of the Club of Heroes in a Silver Age style, complete with Ben-Day dots to stand in for the cost-cutting process used for coloring. Each character has their own art style modeled after other comic artists. For instance, Gaucho looks a lot like Howard Chaykin’s pencil work. Not only that, but the structure of the pages is wildly experimental. One two-page spread has panels that make the shape of Batman’s symbol with a black fist coming up through the center. There are panels within panels that serve as zoom-ins on details. A single image is broken into nine panels with two additional panels falling across them. I was wowed the first time I read these issues, and re-reading them loses none of that awe. These are just some of the most stunning and incredible comic art in a Batman comic.
The collection takes a brief detour as “The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul” storyline crosses all the titles under the Batman umbrella. I don’t particularly care for this story as it’s more an editorial decision than a Morrison one, but they contribute their two issues, and we move on.
Batman #672 returns to the imposter Batman story with the fake from Damian’s flash forward showing up at GCPD headquarters. The real Batman begins to uncover more of the truth behind these men and realizes they are victims of a brainwashing program. The phrase “zen en arch” is used, and the impish figure of Bat-mite pops up. Batman #673 goes back to Batman’s early days showing him terrorizing the man who killed his parents, Joe Chill. Even more importantly, it weaves back in another Silver Age story that had been mostly forgotten other than an artifact of the strange old days of the character.
Much of this comic subtly references Batman #156 (1963) with the classic story “Robin Dies at Dawn.” In this story, Batman volunteers to take part in an experiment to test the long-term effects of isolation on the human mind. He has a vivid hallucination of being in an alien world and Robin being killed by a monster. He cannot handle this, and Robin takes over so Batman can recover. This story introduces an unnamed scientist as the one running the experiment. In all their genius, Morrison reincorporates this, and we learn that these experiments did happen in the current continuity, but Gotham police all took part. The strange imposters running around the city are those participants.
With Batman #676, the “Batman RIP” storyline begins the final arc of this first volume. Batman is set upon by The Black Gloves don’t simply want to kill Batman. They want to psychologically destroy him first. The scientist from that old Batman story returns with a name, Doctor Hurt, and he has assembled an international coterie of villains, the nemeses of the international Batmen. When those experiments happened, specific triggers were planted in Bruce’s mind, and Doctor Hurt activates them, sending the hero into madness. He suffers amnesia while Hurt and his crew take over Wayne Manor and the Batcave.
Two elements I really like here are more incorporations of old stories. Hurt begins wearing an old Halloween costume of Thomas Wayne’s. Back in 1956, a story in Detective Comics explained Bruce’s bat inspiration came from an outfit his dad wore once. In a story from 1958, an alien scientist named Tlano saw transmissions from Earth and was inspired by Batman. He lived on a planet called Zur-en-arch and became the Batman of his world. Morrison takes that and, like the “Robin Dies at Dawn” story, makes it part of the hallucinations Batman suffered from after his isolation experiment. It’s also become a trigger that activates a backup personality now that Bruce has forgotten who he is.
A massive fight sprawls over the following issues as Nightwing & Robin try to deal with the villains running wild in Gotham while Bruce searches for a way to regain his identity. Doctor Hurt starts to make some potential earth-shattering accusations. He claims he is really Thomas Wayne, and he isn’t lying. Evidence leaks to the papers that reveal the Wayne family was keeping many dark secrets and that Thomas & Martha may not have been the upstanding people Bruce thought. The conclusion goes down in Arkham Asylum, with Hurt attempting to use the Joker as a weapon against Batman. It’s one of the best Batman stories ever told, except for one little thing.
Batman dies at the end, but then he dies again almost the same month in the other Morrison’s written event series Final Crisis. We’ll get more into this frustratingly confusing plot point in our review of the next omnibus volume, which spends much of its opening issues trying to make sense of this bizarre decision.