Batman R.I.P. – and good riddance!

So, I’ve been working on how to review Batman: R.I.P. the Deluxe Edition for a while now, and basically I’m trying to figure out how to say “underwhelming” and “a disjointed mess” in more than just two or three words. When DC collected The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul, they collected everything from Batman, Detective, and several other comics, stitching them together into one story. And while it wasn’t great in my estimation, it was at least a consistent narrative that had a beginning, a middle and an end. But with Batman: R.I.P., I noticed that while Morrison was writing in Batman, Paul Dini was writing a “Heart of Hush” storyline in Detective that also carried the R.I.P. tag on its cover, yet didn’t seem to have anything to do with Morrison’s storyline (and from reports I’ve heard, was better written). What’s more, DC ran “Last Rites” follow-up tales in both titles. But the hardcover DC has put out as Batman: R.I.P. contains only the Morrison Detective work, both Morrison’s R.I.P. run and his Last Rites follow-up. Since the Dini R.I.P. doesn’t seem to really fit in and is getting its own hardcover release, I don’t object to the omission in the interest of creating a coherent “graphic novel.” But what I object to is the idea that this is one story you can collect in a hardcover and pass off as a stand-alone narrative.

Anyone coming into a bookstore and picking Batman R.I.P. up off the front table (where I saw it) would be utterly lost. There is no way it stands alone at all. R.I.P. contains far to many references to everything for which Morrison has been laying groundwork for his entire run. It also contains way too many references to everything period.

Some necessary background: In his run on Batman, Morrison began by introducing an impostor Batman, a police officer who shows up in Batman’s costume and shoots the Joker in the face (scarring him in line with his The Dark Knight cinematic version). Then Talia al Ghul appears and dumps off Batman’s son (!) on the Detective, saying the two should get to know each other. This off-hand casual introduction of what should have been one of the biggest bits of new continuity in the history of the character never sat well with me. Even more unappealing, when Damien beheads classic seventies’ villain the Spook, Batman’s response isn’t utter horror that the product of his loins has committed murder. His reaction is more along the lines of “bad boy, guess I can’t leave you alone anymore.” And when this is too much responsibility, he dumps the kid back on his mother, figuring it’s better to let him grow up among a League of Assassins than try and get along with him. I call bullshit.

Incidentally, the cliched name of “Damien” for the troubled boy is cheap and melodramatic. R.I.P. itself is plagued by laughably cliched names. Jezebel for the deceitful woman. Hurt for the evil Doctor. Damien for the bad child. It crosses the border from telegraphing your characters to embarrassing them. Moving on…

The impostor Batman turns out to be a bad cop, one of three, two of which will appear before the R.I.P. storyline, but who are all utterly necessary to understand it, as it is revealed in infodump that years ago, Batman subjected himself to an experiment in an isolation chamber, ostensibly to help space science but actually so he could better understand the Joker’s insanity via induced hallucination. During this period, the aforementioned Doctor Hurt supervised a secret experiment to create a Batman replacement should one ever be needed (the Justice League’s phone number apparently unlisted?). Batman, believing he was hallucinating, was matched against the three potentials, but defeated them all, ending the project (and creating our three psychologically-distraught impostors). Meanwhile, at that time, Hurt placed a trigger in Bruce Wayne’s mind that would switch him off, against the day that he would return, in R.I.P., and drive him mad. This, apparently, being easier than doing anything to Batman at the current time, while he was vulnerable, isolated, in a tank, and hallucinating.  Instead, years later, Hurt reemerges with some documents that would seem to besmirch the late Thomas Wayne’s character, if anybody took them seriously, which nobody does. Add to this Hurt’s claim to be someone very special to Bruce Wayne, and a confused sequence where Batman retreats from Hurt’s psychological torment into a previously prepared just-in-case “backup identity” of a space alien. With me?

I think you can see where this review is headed. The real problem with R.I.P. as a story in its own right is that it isn’t. It relies on everything Morrison has done up to this point, and then it has a two-chapter (i.e. two issue Last Rights epilogue) that goes in a completely different direction. But let’s leave this aside for now and return to what is supposed to be the plot—Hurt’s campaign to drive Batman mad. Even the payoff here—which is only a spoiler if you’ve been deliberately plugging your ears—that Hurt claims to be Thomas Wayne, is horribly inconsequential. I could see how, if someone wanted to ruin Batman, that a narrative wherein he received word that Thomas Wayne was still alive and wasn’t the saint he remembered could unhinge the Caped Crusader, but this card is really underplayed. When Hurt tells Alfred he’s Thomas Wayne, Alfred replies immediately, “I knew Thomas Wayne, sir. You are not Thomas Wayne.” Case closed. Likewise, when he tells Batman who he is, Batman’s basically replies, “no you’re not.” The moment doesn’t even get a single beat of shock (that Luke to Vader “you’re not my father” moment entirely missing!) Batman casually dismisses it with an alternative explanation (“Mangrove Pierce, star of ‘The Black Glove.’ My father’s double, and mine.”) Cue one Dark Knight utterly unfazed. It makes Hurt look ridiculous, running around proclaiming something that nobody takes seriously, like someone who has wandered out of an old Monty Python routine.  One almost suspects that Morrison had planned to make him Wayne for real, then had a higher up at DC (or even at Warner, there is a precedent) step in at the last minute and say, “Uh-uh, no more of that” forcing a hasty write-out of this major plot point. Then finally, and quite arbitrarily, when Batman does “die,” it’s in a helicopter that explodes and crashes into Gotham harbor. Come on! Surely everyone there has read enough comics themselves to know this for the cliched, “we never found a body” old trope that it is. Is anybody besides Nightwing even fooled for a minute?

But this end isn’t the end. Because, in the epilogue, we learn that Batman briefly returned from his helicopter crash, was summoned by the Justice League (apparently before anyone but Alfred saw him alive, and he’s not telling) for something totally unrelated to this storyline, was then kidnapped by the melodramatically-named (and ape man-staffed) Dark Empire, and is being held in a drugged-induced coma.  Batman is hooked up to a “Lump” creature that is siphoning off his genetic material and memories to create an army of Batmen, I kid you not. But during a sequence of flashbacks (and, I suppose from our perspective, flash forwards, since they move beyond the end of R.I.P.), Batman manages to overload Lump with the pain he carries, and (maybe) turn the tables on his captors, though it’s ambiguous as to where the “novel” leaves him. Or, at this point, why anyone should care. So we have an R.I.P. with no real death, and an unrelated kidnapping narrative,  with a villain nobody takes seriously, and a plot that is mostly flashback and infodump, jammed full of the final ends of years long plot points, all bound together with the start of something equally incoherent and completely different, and presented as a single “novel.” Disjointed and vastly unsatisfying. I call bullshit again.

And if that weren’t enough, Morrison is determined to shove everything he’s ever wanted to use into one book, including the most embarrassing bits of decades old continuity. I knew the minute I heard that Morrison was on Batman that Bit-Mite would show up. And I was almost as certain that we’d see the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, so it was no surprise when Morrison managed to work them both in. What was a surprise was that I liked the way he used Bat-Mite, as a figment of the imagination that represented Batman’s faltering grasp on reason after he’d been subjected to psychological attack. And one of the best lines in the series is delivered when Batman asked the Mite “Are you really an alien hyper-imp from the 5th dimension…or just a figment of my imagination.” Bat-Mite replies, “Imagination is the 5th dimension.” Okay, that was clever. But the inclusion of the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh represents one of the key faults of this work. Aside from a single sentence explaining that Batman once hallucinated that he was on another planet, and chose to use this hallucination as an entire backup identity, Zur-En-Arrh is never really explained. You have to be a continuity-knowledgeable fan to get the reference.  But taking this at face value, let’s say you are Batman. You realize that mental attack may be something you have to deal with at some point in your career. You decide to have a back up identity. So you chose, as the most logical choice, what? Another millionaire playboy? A mob figure? An Olympic athlete? Matches Malone? No, the belief that you are a space alien! That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Morrison’s desire to shoe horn in the most outrageous and lamentable bits of the character’s history whether it makes sense in the context of his storytelling or not is more than regrettable. I’ve always loved his “everything and the kitchen sink” approach in comics like The Invisibles and Doom Patrol, but here, I think his appeal has finally worn off for me. It was around the 3/4 mark of R.I.P. that I realized what this is and why I’m done with it. Written only for obsessives with the same knowledge of the character as himself, impossible for a newcomer to penetrate, continuity heavy at the expense of character and story, let’s fit everything that we possibly can in and show how clever we are. I know it’s harsh, but folks, this is bad fan fic.

At a time when Batman’s cinematic expression is pulling in half a billion dollars, garnering an unprecedented level of new fans, this kind of disjointed, incoherent, and ultimately uninteresting story is not doing anyone any favors. I had some issues with Brian Azzarello’s Joker as being offered as part of current continuity when it clearly isn’t, but that was a strong, coherent, stand-alone graphic novel from a talented writer working in fine form, and one whose themes and issues made me think and stayed with me long after I put it aside. If someone had walked out of The Dark Knight into B&N or Borders and picked that up, they wouldn’t have been disappointed, and they might then have cast about for another Batman graphic novel to read next. God forbid they pick this up! If they do, they won’t be back. I don’t think I’ve read my last Morrison, but he’s certainly dropped down many notches in my estimation. And I sincerely hope he and the Batman have now gone their separate ways.


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