In the strange trilogy of books that make up the end of Grant Morrison's "Batman Reborn" saga, Batman and Robin: Batman Must Die is the most straightforward superheroic, after the philosophic Time and the Batman and the meta-interpretive Return of Bruce Wayne. As a matter of fact, perhaps the biggest surprise in Batman Must Die is the great lack of Grant Morrison's trademark metaphysical weirdness, so prevalent of late in Morrison's other Batman work. There are references to the "hole in things" and Bat-gods, but not nearly to the extent we've seen recently elsewhere.
Batman Must Die is a disaster story of the best kind, where almost right out of the gate the citizens of Gotham are rioting and Batman, Robin, and Commissioner Gordon are caught in the destructive middle. I had some concerns as to whether artist Frazer Irving's wide, painted style might distract from the story, but he's the perfect choice; Irving's grim characters, combined with dark, moody colors, perfectly depict both the Joker and the crazed Gothamites. Even as each chapter has its own title, Morrison drops in on occasion a large, jarring date ("DAY 2"), which underscores the totality of Gotham's chaos. Crashing Bat-planes, our heroes in jeopardy, the Joker on the loose ... Batman Must Die is a nail-biter.
That said, there is not quite the resolution to events in Batman Must Die that I was expecting. True, Batman Bruce Wayne finally returns and squares off against Simon Hurt (nee the ancestral Thomas Wayne), and indeed Morrison flashes the reader back to Hurt's first encounter with the demon Barbatos (Darkseid's Hunter-Adapter), filling in that final story gap. We don't learn as such, however, what Batman Dick Grayson fought in the Batcave just a few issues before (ostensibly Barbatos, though that's not really explained as such, nor why Barbatos is hanging around the Batcave), nor is it ever quite clear what Hurt expects to find in the Bat-casket that Bruce Wayne tricked out in the past.
Some of this obfuscation is intentional on Morrison's part, I know, preserving the mystery of Hurt's identity up to and through the end. Ultimately I like the idea that Simon Hurt is an insane, immortal Wayne ancestor with a Hush-esque grudge against Batman, and maybe the rest doesn't matter. There is, of course, plenty going on just under the surface of this tale, but story's lack of an overt direction to the reader to look deeper (the absence, for instance, of a Kirby-eseque page the likes of Return of Bruce Wayne contains) lends itself to the surface, blithe superheroic tone of the book (similar, I guess, to the first Batman & Robin volume). The least seasoned reader can still approach Batman Must Die, I believe, as a basic tale of Batman versus a villain, even as the experienced reader will find undertones of the Bat-god versus the Devil.
So Batman Must Die hums along -- Dick and Damian get in and out of scrapes, Commissioner Gordon cures himself of a virus-induced addiction (Darkseid's Anti-Life, anyone?) solely by the force of will, and the Joker shows up to drive some chaos into Dick and Simon Hurt's battle. Great story, completely enthralling ... and then Bruce Wayne shows up to spoil the party completely.
I chuckled when Bruce Wayne, newly returned to the present, quips to Dick about the new Robin, "Is that Damian?" I'm thinking, "OK, that's funny, Bruce Wayne's back in the swing of things." But then, as Dick wards off the effects of a gunshot wound to the skull, Bruce demands, "On your feet, soldier," later chides the gathered Bat-family to "pay attention," and calls them his "closest crimefighting associates." Real warm, Bruce. And this is not even including the scene where Bruce takes his son Damian out on a mission, and within a couple of pages is so frustrated by Damian that he shouts at him and determines that Damian will be better off with Dick while Bruce fights a global war on crime -- Bruce abandons his own son, essentially, within pages of his resurrection.
This chapter, the Batman: The Return special, was actually published after a bunch of Bruce Wayne: The Road Home one-shots in which Bruce encounters the members of the Bat-family individually, so maybe there's room for more niceties there. In the first showing of Bruce Wayne by "Batman Reborn" mastermind Grant Morrison, however, the Batman Bruce Wayne comes off as pretty well a jerk. Commissioner Gordon remarks to Dick that he and the police seem to like Dick better, and I don't blame them.
Morrison suggests toward the end that Bruce's standoffishness may have to do with some knowledge of the future that he's brought back from the past, which I imagine Morrison will address later on. But for me, this just brought back memories of the late 1990s Bruce-as-jerk portrayals that Morrison himself had started to peel away post-Infinite Crisis. I'm still following Morrison and Bruce Wayne into Batman Inc., to be sure, but I've yet to really have that celebratory moment that one might expect to have for Bruce Wayne's return to the present.
[Contains original and variant covers; sketchbook and commentary section by Grant Morrison]
Must Batman die? Grant Morrison has been especially literal (if not sometimes metaphorical) in his story titles; over in Return of Bruce Wayne, we found that Batman Bruce Wayne did indeed need to die (and be quickly resuscitated) to foil Darkseid's plans. At the end of this book, contradictorily, Bruce Wayne affirms that Batman and Robin will never die, but to this reader it does feel like a minor setback -- the cessation, at least, of Grant Morrison writing the Batman Dick Grayson. The beginning of Batman and Robin: Batman Must Die is so good, it only reinforces to me what we're losing; for my tastes, I'd be happy to read Grant Morrison writing Dick Grayson again any day. [EDIT: Sadly, with recent Nightwing #1 news, I know Morrison isn't returning to Dick Grayson any time soon, though I am curious to see Nightwing's new place in the DC Universe.]