Grant Morrison’s The Return of Bruce Wayne has been one of the more critically lauded superhero runs of the year. Despite this, one dogged attack on the book (and of Morrison as a writer) still haunts me; namely complains of Morrison’s experimentations with the bat legacy and his free use of continuity. Morrison has taken Bruce Wayne from his genesis as Batman through to death and back again. As if death was not enough, The Return of Bruce has seen our hero take on the Batman mantle throughout the ages, finding new contexts for his vigilantism in various historical Gothams.
The latest issue finds Batman in a …ehhhh… post Martha and Thomas Wayne Gotham? Temporal specificity is a damning trick here. When the hell were Bruce Wayne’s parents killed? Batman’s original Detective Comics origin story came to the public in 1939. Does this suggest then that they were killed in the 1920’s? Being a hero in a continuous prime, his origin is unset.
This fifth issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne summons up period detail but refuses to align itself with a single period.The world Bruce finds himself in this latest issue is a rough noir sketch of the world Batman originally entered in the Detective Comics of the late 30s and early 40s. We’ve got an obliging hardboiled intro narration and Bruce even makes a one off joke about being given a pinstripe ‘gangster’ suit. This temporal color plays out nicely until we see Morrison fixture (and forties Detective Comics relic) Prof. Carter Nichols enter the story wearing the quintessentially 70s ‘Have a Nice Day’ shirt, replete with giant smiley. This detail has been a contentious one for readers. It seems to be a glaring anachronism. But how are we meant to date this period in Batman’s personal history? If he is permanently in his prime, shouldn’t the death of his parents be fluid, continuously shifting back twenty years, give or take. This admixture of times seem appropriate for Morrison’s aims. He has tried to synthesize the character, bringing an understanding to the entirety of his history. It was easy to intellectualize his choice but I wasn’t sure how I felt about it in practice.
Flash forward to this weekend. I am channel browsing and happen upon the heaping brilliance of asynchronicity that is Tim Burton’s Batman. I hadn’t seen the film in a few years. What I saw in the 15 minutes I watched it was a free melding of time and tone. The film shifts from noir, to slapstick, to over-produced gothic blockbuster and back again. For backdrops we’ve got post-Regan urban squalor and parodies of old Hollywood soundstages. Instead of Heath Ledger’s reliably insane Joker we’ve got Jack Nicholson’s swaggering. He plays the part like the bastard son of Fred Astraire and Jack Torrance, camping it up in one dancey moment only to be utterly menacing the next. Oh, and the film has got Prince. Despite (or because of) its free use of continuity, the 1989 Batman film became a huge blockbuster and a primer for superhero adaptations to come.
While this self-aware Batman has been replaced by the grittiness of the Nolan Batman films, its initial success should be a reminder for readers of Return. While Morrison might be renowned as a alien abductee, doper, or high priest of metaphysics, he is just as concerned with spinning a damn entertaining yarn and is not afraid to play with boundaries to get there.
Tagged: batman · DC · DC comics · Grant Morrison · Movies · Second Helpings · The Return of Bruce Wayne #5
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