It’s long been a tenet of Grant Morrison’s comics runs that everything makes a lot more sense once it’s finished, and that in terms of the bigger picture, it’s often better to read the complete saga altogether rather than attempting to make sense of individual issues on a month-by-month basis.
But on the other hand, Morrison is a man with a deep and inherent understanding of the medium in which he works – and despite the dense layers that sit atop his stories waiting to be unpicked, he’s not someone who simply writes for the inevitable collected edition. He’s working in a medium that is, first and foremost, serialised. As such – and this is true of both Animal Man and New X-Men, two runs that saw earlier issues significantly illuminated by what would follow – among the deep levels of mystery, he’s still aware of the importance of crafting individual, monthly issues (or shorter “mini-arcs”) that on their own terms stand out like jewels.
And that’s certainly the case with Batman #678. Ostensibly nothing more than the third part of the wider Batman RIP storyline, and with pages that advance that main plot by small measures while still retaining much of the inherent mystery and weirdness, where this issue jumps out as one of the best of Morrison’s run so far is in the relatively self-contained tale of a drugged-up, amnesiac Bruce Wayne wandering the streets of Gotham attempting to rediscover his identity.
Now, admittedly the “down-and-out with a heart of gold acting as guardian angel” is a trope that’s almost as old as story itself (even in comics, there are fairly immediate antecedents in the likes of Sandman’s Mad Hettie) but Morrison makes particularly strong use of Honor Jackson here. A character previously seen being given money on the street by Wayne (in one of those Morrisonian blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scenes that you’d never have guessed would prove to be important), here he’s Bruce’s guide (while also using those still-inherent fighting skills as a bodyguard) and it’s a genuinely touching tale – even moreso when Bruce learns that the man he’s spent the day with had actually died that morning (again, something that verges on cliché is given weight by the fact that it was probably Bruce’s money that gave Jackson the means to overdose). How much of the day’s experience was real, then, and how much in his head?
Irrespective of whether you actually know the Silver Age story of the Zur-En-Arrh Batman, meanwhile, that final page (complete with direct quotation of the issue in question) is an absolutely arresting image – has Bats truly gone bats? Or is he clawing his way back to a new kind of sanity? Throughout this run we’ve had hints and references made to a plethora of Silver Age concepts, and with some of the most blatant in this issue (Bat-Mite also makes an appearance, while Dr Hurt dons a costume not dissimilar to the one worn by Thomas Wayne in another old story that posited somehow that Bruce’s father was in fact the first Batman) a sense of the master plan is starting to become clear – by hook or by crook, Morrison is establishing, as part of his “new” Batman mythology, that these stories actually happened. Maybe they actually happened to Bruce, or maybe they all took place in his head as part of Hurt’s isolation experiment. Either way, though, it’s a ballsy move – tearing down the boundaries of “pre” and “post”-Crisis continuity to create something altogether more… dare we say it… legendary?
The last time DC decided to tear down the Batman, they had a drugged-up muscleman unleash the entire population of Arkham upon him before breaking into his home and snapping his back. This time, Morrison is playing on something rooted far deeper within the character – dark, twisted psychology. In requiring more than a cursory read to truly understand what’s going on, it perhaps doesn’t play to the gallery as much as a usual big-bucks blockbuster comics run might – but it’s bold, daring comics, especially in a title of this stature, and it’s all the better for it.