Ask Chris #237: What The Heck Happened In ‘Batman RIP’?
Q: Batman RIP: What's going on in this book? I like Morrison, but I do not follow the plot. -- @daingercomics
A: My friend, you have come to the right place. I generally think Grant Morrison gets a bad rap for writing superhero stories that are too complex --- a complaint that you see about almost everything he writes going all the way back to "Rock of Ages" in JLA, and probably back to Animal Man if you go looking for it --- but R.I.P. is a story with a whole lot of moving parts that can be pretty hard to keep track of unless you're the kind of person who has been obsessing over the details of 75 years of Batman comics for their entire life.
Fortunately for you, that's exactly what I am, which is one of the reasons that Batman R.I.P. is probably my favorite Batman story of all time.
And really, it doesn't get that confusing until you start trying to figure out if the bad guy is just a man in a costume, the actual devil, Bruce Wayne's father, or a horrifying "hyper-adapter" sent back in time by the God of Evil's "Omega Sanction" that also once possessed the Riddler into trying his hand at black magic. But, y'know. We're getting ahead of ourselves.
The first big point about Batman R.I.P. is that despite the title, Batman doesn't die in it. I remember this being a pretty big bone of contention among readers back in 2008 who had been sold on this being a big "Death of Batman" story. On the one hand, that's understandable. DC certainly billed it as such, and halfway through it, they solicited that Neil Gaiman/Andy Kubert story that takes place at Batman's funeral. On the other hand, the very first page of Batman #676, the issue that kicks this story off, has Batman yelling "YOU'RE WRONG! BATMAN AND ROBIN WILL NEVER DIE!" --- a word ballon that I'm like 90% sure I'll have tattooed on my body at some point --- and Morrison is nothing if not a writer who plays fair with his audience. If he has Batman shouting about how he's never going to die on the first page of a story, you should probably not dust off the black suit and armband quite yet, even if you're allowing for the temporary nature of death in comics.
The second weird quirk about this story is that in a lot of ways, RIP is the culmination of everything Morrison, Andy Kubert, J.H. Williams III, and Tony Daniel had done on the book up to that point. Morrison would, of course, stay on Batman for the next few years with Batman and Robin and Batman Inc.,, but while everything that came before was about putting pieces in place, this is where they all come together. As a result, there's actually two ways to read this story, one that only looks at it as the climax of the run up to that point, and one that looks at it in the context of everything that came after, a lot of which goes back and changes what certain elements of the story are to fit it into a larger context.
So yeah. I can see how it might be confusing.
The third thing to keep in mind, and the element that probably goes further than anything else in making this one of my favorite stories, is that Morrison's scripts are drawing from a completely different well of stories than most other Batman stories of the time. Most other creators --- and readers, for that matter --- tend to focus only on the version of Batman that showed up in the mid-70s under teams like Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, or Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. It makes sense that they would, too --- that's the version of Batman that is far and away the most popular with readers, the darker superheroic crime drama that was doing its level best to get as far away as they could from the sci-fi of the '50s and the camp of the '60s.
Morrison, on the other hand, goes right for those earlier stories to form the basis of what he's doing. It's a similar approach to what he and Frank Quitely did on All Star Superman, with bits and pieces lifted from Silver Age stories that were often overlooked. The thing is, those Silver Age Superman stories, as weird as they are, are often considered to be a high point for the character. Silver Age Batman, on the other hand... Well, it's an acquired taste.
The point is, when everyone else is drawing on "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge," or "Strange Apparitions," or even Year One for inspiration, and some dude rolls up building three or four years of comics around that time that Batman went into an isolation chamber in order to help doctors working on "space medicine" and had a hallucination about Robin being killed by aliens...
...it's going to feel a little weird.
I'll admit that as much as I love that run looking back on it, it definitely took me a little while to warm up to it while it was coming out. Batman & Son didn't click with me, and the story about the replacement Batmen --- also based on a pretty obscure Silver Age story --- didn't land quite well either. And #663, that weird prose story issue with the PlayStation-lookin' computer art by John Van Fleet? That might've been the most disappointed I'd ever been in a comic book up to that point, especially for being the first Joker story Morrison did in his run.
When it got to that Club of Heroes story, though --- which, again, was based on an extremely obscure Silver Age story, although one that I'd loved ever since I tracked it down when Morrison first referenced it during the Ultramarines story in JLA --- that run had its hooks into me but good. I love that story, the murder mystery built around a bunch of people who were inspired to try to become "a new kind of man" like Batman, but who couldn't quite pull it off, until the junk went down and they all had to step up? That's exactly the jazz I am into. I honestly didn't think there was anything that could top it.
Which brings us, at last, back to Batman RIP.
When you get right down to it, the key to understanding Batman RIP is "Robin Dies At Dawn." Morrison and Daniel even recontextualize the line "I must put away my Batman costume and retire from crimefighting forever," which appears verbatim in the original, into one of the most sinister lines in RIP. It's a story full of amazing callbacks, but at the same time, that's really frustrating. As great a story as it is --- and I'd say it's Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff's finest work by far, which is no small amount of praise --- the last time it had seen print before RIP came out was in the Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told paperback that was released alongside Tim Burton's Batman movie in 1989. Admittedly, that was probably one of the most widely distributed collections of Batman comics ever printed, and you can find copies of it on comic shop shelves even today, but still, that was twenty years earlier. It's no wonder that people, even dedicated readers, were a little hazy on the details.
Like I said before, the original story involves Batman spending ten days in an isolation chamber in order to benefit "space medicine." In Morrison's modern day version of the story, however, there's something else Batman wants out of it. The entire thing is an experiment meant to help him understand how the Joker's mind works, because if he can do that, then he can figure out his twisted clues and stop his crimes before people get hurt. The problem, of course, is that trying to think like the Joker is a pretty bad idea. And while Batman's trying to do that, there's someone on the outside of the experiment who's figuring out how Batman's mind works, and how to shut it off. In the original story, he's the nameless space doctor, but in RIP, he's Dr. Hurt, the man behind the Black Glove.
Again, no surprise here, but I love the Black Glove. A criminal organization with almost limitless power and resources, all of which is laid out neatly in one page. That they can not only cover up a murder of someone in their employ on their doorstep, but know how to do it instantly and throw in disgracing both the victim and his next of kin is terrifying.
The Black Glove exists solely to ruin good people for the amusement of the genuinely awful, who get their kicks betting on how long it's going to take to break someone --- not if, you understand, because that's an inevitability, but just how long. They've been at it for a long time, too, to the point where the story even hints that they're responsible for building Gotham City into a machine that would eventually produce Batman, making them, at least in part, the ones who were ultimately behind the Wayne murders. Their method is a pretty simple one, too: They lie.
That's one of the important things to remember going in. Virtually everything that "Thomas Wayne" says in this story is a lie in one way or the other, and the entire plan to ruin Batman is built around creating a fiction. Morrison has a tendency to go for a metatextual bent in his comics --- that dude has written more stories about writers than I've written columns about Batman --- so it's not entirely surprising that the Black Glove's master plan for destroying Batman is to write a story. It's one that's full of clichés, too, but it should be, since the whole game is to trap him in his own familiar narrative and then change the ending right when he's about to triumph.
It starts by giving him a damsel in distress to save: Jezebel Jet, who makes a perfect romantic foil because they have so much in common: She's a fabulously wealthy orphan, but rather than spending her money on rocket cars and utility belts, she's a philanthropist who uses her fortune for the benefit of her country. Not gonna lie, that part's particularly brilliant, because it chips away at Batman's confidence by weaponizing the same criticism that people have about his character in the real world:
The thing is, Batman lives in a world where dressing up as a Dracula and spending several million dollars on grappling hooks and universal Bat-Antidote Pills is a perfectly logical thing to do. Either way, she's (unsurprisingly, to be honest) in on it the whole time.
The second part of the fiction is that it needs a villain to menace the damsel, and to that end, the Black Glove basically hires the Joker. Perfect, right? I mean, if you're writing your perfect Death-of-Batman story, who else is going to be the villain, and they even set their little play in Arkham Asylum. The problem, of course, is that the Joker does not work well with others, and when these swaggering one-percenters show up with their grand plan to drag Batman down and destroy him, Joker sees them for exactly what they are: A bunch of amateurs who have no idea who they're messing with, and just how far out of their depth they are.
One of my favorite things about this story is the difference in how Batman and the Joker interact with their fans. When the Club of Heroes starts up because there are people out there who admire Batman, Batman shows up for the meeting and even helps to train a few of them. Joker, on the other hand, meets a bunch of international criminals that he inspired, and seems to exist right at the intersection of apathy and hate. There's a great scene where Le Bossu gives a clearly rehearsed speech about how much he admires the Joker and how much the Joker inspired him to indulge his horrifying desires, and the Joker's response is to yawn and then carve up his face with a straight razor so that he can no longer hide behind a veneer of respectability.
This, incidentally, is what delays Le Bossu from lobotomizing NIghtwing, allowing Dick Grayson to escape and contributing to the collapse of the Black Glove's plans, something that's fully intentional. When it comes to trying to break Batman, those guys are amateurs. The Joker is a pro, and has zero time for these baby school frolics.
The last element of the fiction involves "Thomas Wayne," the man behind the Glove, who claims to be Batman's father, who faked his death to get away from the family he hated. He's full of sordid details about the family's past, but really, it's just the finishing touches on destroying Batman: Destroying Bruce Wayne and tarnishing all the good his family did in the process.
The other big part of their plan is where it gets a little complicated, if we're not there already: Years worth of post-hypnotic suggestions (which, in reality, only really start showing up a couple years earlier in Batman #655, although that ain't bad for some long-game planning) that, when activated will just turn off Batman's mind. The thing is, Morrison's run alongside Andy Kubert kicks off right after the "One Year Later" event, which gave Batman a solid twelve months of just going off into a cave in the desert to meditate and get the Ten-Eyed Man to cut all the fear out of his body.
If that sounds complicated, well, it is, but the important thing here is that there's already a built-in explanation for what Batman does in this story, one of the most bizarre concepts in superhero comics: Creating a backup personality just in case anyone ever tried to turn off his regular one.
This is the best.
The trigger phrase is "Zurr-En-Arrh," and while Morrison and Daniel build to a big reveal that it's being a reference to Thomas Wayne's last words before the mugging --- "The sad thing is that they'd probably throw someone like Zorro in Arkham" --- but it's really a reference to Batman #113's "Batman: The Superman of Planet X."
Rather than being a literal Superman with powers, though, Morrison and Daniel's "Batman of Zurr-En-Arrh" is a Super-Batman. He's Batman without anything human --- the limitations, the humanity, the delays, they're all gone, leaving only knowledge and violence. It's Morrison's answer to the question of whether Bruce Wayne is "just the mask," showing you exactly what Batman would look like if he didn't have a human being under the cape and cowl keeping things restrained. It's all bright colors designed to shock and terrify and cracking baseball bats (geddit?) upside the heads of Gotham City's criminal element and cobbling together a deus ex machina out of a busted radio because he doesn't know that shouldn't be possible.
From there, everything's pretty self-explanatory. The Batman of Zurr-En-Arrh personality does its job, giving Batman's mind time to "reboot" itself back into working condition, Joker bails on the losers and promises to kill them later, and Batman digs his way out of a shallow grave to bring things down once and for all, revealing that he knew Jezebel was in on it all along. There's even a great bit at the end that we really should've seen coming, where "Thomas" declares that the Black Glove always wins, just before Batman punches his way through the helicopter to bring it down. Batman... who wears black gloves.
The only real sticking point about the end is just who "Thomas" actually was. He claims that he's Thomas Wayne, of course, a funhouse mirror version of Batman's father who secretly hated his family and wanted them murdered, but he also claims to be the devil, so, you know, grain of salt. And then there's the idea that a few years later, he's revealed to be possessed by the "Hyper-Adapter" sent back in time by Darkseid, which is a Whole Other Thing that, from what I can gather, wasn't actually meant to be part of the story when it came out.
The thing is, it says who he is right there in the story.
What you have to remember is that "Thomas" always lies, and so when Batman tells "Thomas" that he's actually Mangrove Pierce, an actor who was framed for murder years ago and joined up with the Black Glove, we have no reason at all to not believe him. At every point of this story, Batman has been one step ahead of everyone else. He knew Jezebel Jet was a traitor, he knew they were going to attack his mind, and at the end of the day, he knows exactly who he's dealing with. The one thing this story hammers home time and time again is that Batman is always right, because he has to be. If he says it's Mangrove Pierce, then I'm inclined to believe him.
The only hitch is that one issue where Batman gets jacked up on "weapons grade crystal meth" --- Morrison's most Mark Millarest dialogue moment since 1998 --- and walks across the city with a homeless guy who shows up in the first issue and may actually be a ghost who died after Batman gave him a bunch of money in the first part of the story. For that one, you're on your own.