The Greatest Batman Story Ever Told: An Overview of Grant Morrison's Batman (2007-2013)
Updated: May 31, 2020
What if I told you every Batman story happened?
Maybe it didn’t happen quite how it was presented originally, perhaps it didn’t happen quite how you remembered it, but somehow, some way, it happened.
They all count.
That’s the idea from which Glasgow’s very own Grant Morrison built his mega-run on Batman, a veritable saga which spanned seven years and seventy-two issues. It was told over four series, plus two one shots and spawned all sorts of line-wide events. It incorporated (that pun will be funny later) the work of a diverse range of artists including Andy Kubert, J.H. Williams III, Tony S. Daniel, Frank Quitely, Cameron Stewart, Frazer Irving, Yanick Paquette, Chris Sprouse, Andy Clarke, David Finch, Ryan Sook and Chris Burnham, amongst others.
This is one of the biggest writers in the history of comics making the biggest statement about the biggest character in the medium. It’s a dense, multi-tiered, multi-faceted, multi-stranded work of art.
Ok, cards on the table; this is sort of a cheat. It’s a run that has various component parts. Indeed, I could have broken it down and reviewed each part in turn, diving deep and, maybe one day, I will. I'd love to write a mammoth, sprawling series of academic papers on this story, to write something which analyses the myriad themes, which goes in depth on the plot, the characters, the techniques, the connotations, the meanings and references and points being made. Instead, for now, an overview. It is all one story, after all. However, this piece first saw life as the finale of my brother and I's countdown to the inaugural Batman Day of 2014, where we declared this the best Batman story to date, an accolade it holds to this day. An overview, then, is much more appropriate. Not to mention the fact that it’d be ridiculously long and we’re sure you’ll agree I'm guilty enough of that already.
So, yeah, we’ve thrown it together, the whole run, the complete story. Not just interdependent of each other, each part carries on the story Morrison started in September 2006 and finished in September 2013.
This is my aforementioned favourite Batman story ever, inside or outside of comics. Quite simply, it’s the most fun we’ve ever had reading comics. We got on-board Morrison’s crazy Bat-train a quarter of the way through, catching up when we could. The first time we started buying comics on a month to month basis was when Batman and Robin, one of the many strands in this tale, debuted. We’d always been comic fans, Bat-fans, but this is what made us monthly addicts. Every month was spent waiting on the next instalment, discussing the last issue, going online to immerse ourselves in the mass-communication this run created. We were reading what we consider the best comics ever written about the best character ever created.
It was a golden era.
It’s not just a one-time thing, though. It’s not just a nostalgic reflection on how it felt to be there, at that time, reading them as they came out. Every time we re-read this run, it’s still the most fun we’ve ever had reading comics. It’s still the best written, most exciting, most engrossing, moving, thoughtful, inspirational, entertaining, bold, innovative Batman story ever.
It started, in Batman #655, with a story coming to a close. Immediately, the recurring theme of cycles reared its head. In truth, Morrison had been planting seeds already. In the weekly title 52, Bruce Wayne had left Gotham with Dick Grayson and Tim Drake to retrace his world travelling steps and rebuild Batman. Morrison, as one of the four writers of 52, had him go through a series of meditations, of which we’d learn more in his run. The idea, though, was to refresh Batman, reinvigorate him. Morrison wanted a new direction, away from the paranoid, obsessive, unstable Batman we had become accustomed to.
The four issues that comprise Batman and Son move things forward massively for the established status quo of The Dark Knight. All of a sudden, Bruce Wayne meets his son, Damian. Raised by Talia Al Ghul and The League of Assassins, Damian has been groomed to rule the world, fulfilling the destiny Ra’s envisioned for his daughter and The World’s Greatest Detective.
Looking back at it now, it’s easy to forget how big a deal this was. Though beloved now, Damian was met with howls of derision. Morrison had fired his first shot across the bow; change was a-coming. Bruce gets a spoiled, aristocratic super-villain child and a new love interest, in the supermodel/Head of State Jezebel Jet. He even gets a rocket. It offers a fascinating insight into the relationship between Bruce and Talia, whilst laying the ground for so much of what is to come.
We could try to summarise the plot of Morrison's magnum opus. If fact, we did. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn't stop it from becoming that very sprawling series of academic papers we mentioned previously. It just wasn't feasible. I mean, it was well written, rest assured. It was just way, way too long. Even then, even giving ourselves license to summarise sub-story after sub-story, you just can't do it justice. We're talking about seven years of comics here. Comics that have far, far more ideas and plots and developments and strands than any others. The sheer weight of the ideas in this run would be overwhelming, were it not for the frankly astonishing skill of the writer. He gives us pretty much every kind of story there is.
There's the globe-trotting adventure story of Batman and Son, that's reminiscent of Bond at its finest. There's the twisted horror story of The Clown At Midnight, an experimental prose issue that deals in the most disturbing of psychological nightmares. The Three Ghosts of Batman is a street level mystery story, a crime noir, a detective story and a ghost story all at once. Batman In Bethlehem is a glimpse into a dystopian future.
The Island of Mister Mayhew is the tightest written, expertly executed murder mystery story you're ever likely to read and The Third Ghost is an edge of the seat conspiracy thriller, with touches of detective fiction that are downright Holmesian.
Then there's Batman: R.I.P. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Batman tale. We've got the master-fiend and his master-plan. We've got the hero brought down to nadir, his mind shattered, his home invaded, his cave destroyed. We've got the death-trap, the city under siege and the lunatics running the asylum. We've got the damsel in distress, the arch-enemy in the form of The Joker, the rallying of the allies and then the hero’s glorious victory, just in the nick of time.
Batman and Robin contains element of all of these, but is primarily the purest form of superhero adventure. It's also got the moving gradual development of Damian Wayne from homicidal killer to selfless superhero via his touching relationship with Dick Grayson.
The Return of Bruce Wayne literalises this multi-genre approach, with each issue in the six-part miniseries being a perfect distillation of the type of story it is. Be it Pre-historic adventure, 17th century supernatural story, pirate treasure hunt, Western, hard-boiled private eye noir or sci-fi futurism, the writer and his specifically chosen artists nail it. The Return Of Bruce Wayne also includes the over-arching styles of science fiction and myth making in the mix.
Batman, Incorporated also touches on several of the genres already mentioned, but at its heart it's a tragic romance, doomed to fail and with horrific, operatic consequences.
Morrison's Batman run is chock full of would be Batmen.
One of the key planks of Morrison's approach was to bring a whole host of forgotten, neglected Batman stories from the past back into continuity. The 1950s saw Batman comics awash with alien visitors, psychedelic tales of far-out fantasy and supernatural adventures. For the best part of 50 years, the comics had ignored them, content to pretend they never existed.
Not Morrison. He cited them as the inspiration for this seven year saga. He imagined it all happening, all those stories, even these weird, out there ones, to one man, in the span of a 15 year crime fighting career. He wanted to explore what such an experience would do to a man, even one as well adjusted, as well prepared, as his Bruce Wayne. The Three Ghosts of Batman sees the introduction of The Black Casebook, the file in which Bruce recorded “all the thing we’d seen, that didn't fit and couldn't be explained”.
All of a sudden, a swathe of unexplored comics were back on the table. Things from the Black Casebook seemed to be coming back out of the woodwork, namely these three ghosts of Batman, dark visions of what Batman could be. Morrison recasts these three into cops trained to replace Batman, back near the beginning of his Caped Crusades, should anything happen to him. One of the three we meet in Batman and Son, a gun wielding Batman who shoots and wounds The Joker. Another was given venom and monster serum, turning into a hulking behemoth that soundly beats Bruce, almost breaking his back. The third, convinced that the man who trained the three was the Devil, actually kills Batman. Well, for almost four minutes, before resuscitating him to subject him to more torture.
A considerable amount of Morrison's run has Dick Grayson take Bruce's place in the cape and cowl, with Damian as his Boy Wonder. It's a remarkably clever inversion of the original Batman and Robin dynamic (heh), with The Dark Knight the one cracking the jokes and a Boy Wonder who's all business. It stands as one of the most celebrated parts of the entire Bat-epic, a real highlight of the seven year uber-story. We get a glimpse at a possible future where Damian has become Batman in a Gotham gone to hell. Having sold his soul to a Devil-figure, Damian has had to give up everything just to keep the city's head above the sludge and sewage in which it swims in this future.
In "The Black Glove" chapters, we see the return of the International Club of Heroes. Another obscure 50s story element, the Club Of Heroes was made up of heroes from around the world inspired by Batman's example. Some rich and bored, some serious and committed but ALL eccentric, The Club of Heroes are one of the truer master-strokes of Morrison's run. He takes this throw-away bunch of glorified Batman tribute acts, "The Batmen of Many Nations" and turns them into some of the most memorable characters in the run. El Gaucho, Chief Man-Of-Bats, Knight and Squire and Dark Ranger end up becoming some of the most interesting characters you'll find in any comic anywhere. This bunch of would-be Batmen nevertheless don't measure up to the real thing yet stand as an example of the power of his example, the universal strength of the concept itself.
During Batman, Incorporated, we get an expansion of the Club Of Heroes idea, with more "Batmen" spread out even wider throughout the world. We also get the terrifying, daunting Heretic, Leviathan's own villainous Batman, custom made via genetic engineering and artificial ageing. He too harbours ambitions of replacing Batman.
During Batman and Robin, we see Jason Todd react to Bruce Wayne's apparent death in Final Crisis (also by Morrison) at the hands of the cosmic manifestation of pure evil; Darkseid. Todd, as The Red Hood, aims to replace Batman in his own way;
"Batman is dead... I'm taking his mission to the next level."
Of course, Todd's more extreme, deadly method of fighting crime makes things worse, not better. Still, Dick is a successful Batman. Morrison is not saying Bruce is the only possible Batman, the only one who should bear the mantle. He does stress the pivotal importance Bruce Wayne plays in the Batman idea; indeed, it is the stripping away of Bruce Wayne that leaves the crazed, unbalanced and extreme Batman of Zur-En-Arrh. This back-up personality, intended by Bruce to act as a failsafe should his mind come under the kind of attack it does in RIP, serves as a neat, clever and subtle critique of the "Batman is the real guy, Bruce Wayne is a mask" idea.
What Morrison does throughout the run is make clear that Batman needs Bruce Wayne, in so much that it is only Bruce Wayne who could originate it in the first place. Bruce is also integral in successfully creating a legacy, through his sidekicks, his extended family of crime-fighters and the example he sets for the likes of The Club of Heroes. Ditto the members of Batman, Incorporated. There are several good Batmen in Morrison's story, from Dick Grayson to Terry McGinnis to several other, unnamed future Batmen featured in the one shot Batman #700, "Time and The Batman".
The Batmen who adhere to the principles as instigated by Bruce Wayne are the ones who successfully wear the Cape and Cowl. Todd rejects the core principles out of hand and so fails. The three ghosts have been manipulated into doing the bidding of a monstrously evil villain, whilst abandoning the no kill philosophy. Two of them even use guns. The Heretic is an inversion, a bastardisation of the very idea of Batman, bred by his ultimate foe to destroy the symbol he created and replace it with something twisted, sick and hellish. Possible Future Damian, for all his good intentions, sells his soul and thus the very soul of the Batman idea in his desperate efforts to save a doomed world.
It's a tragic, poignant idea, but one which serves the central thesis; so long as the concept is pure, Batman cannot die.
Morrison’s Bruce Wayne is the ultimate man. He really is at the peak of human physical fitness, intelligence and knowledge. That’s not to say we don’t worry for him or feel he’s in danger. Nor does he come off as cold. Morrison’s Bruce is flawed, but his strengths outweigh his weaknesses. He’s an aspirational figure, a man whose example we should follow just as much as the other characters should.
That he inspires us is not because of his strength, his intellect, his will-power or his oodles and oodles of money. It’s not that he’ll always beat the bad guy, or protect his city and world. It’s not because he always finds a way.
It’s that Bruce Wayne converts trauma to motivation.
He turns defeat into victory, sorrow into joy and anger into compassion. Morrison is saying that Batman represents the human spirit, the drive to turn the bad into the good. He is our ultimate metaphor for perseverance, for determination. He is our ability to endure, to bounce back. No matter what trap you put him in, no matter the beating you give him, no matter the blows you deal him or the pain you inflict, he keeps going. He meets a son he can’t connect with. His mind is broken. He is sent back through time. His city is besieged. His heart is broken. His son is murdered, in one of the most bittersweet single issues ever written. He keeps going.
No matter how dark or deep the hole, he’ll pull himself out.
And if he can do it? So can we.
Morrison delivers this message as eloquently as one would expect from him. The end of the Last Rites two parter sees Alfred reflecting on his charge.
“… but when I saw what he meant, when I watched how he surrendered himself to an ideal… how he used each ordeal, each heartache and failure, to become a better man, in the service others… what could I do but stand in humble awe? And keep his wounds clean and his uniform tidy. And send him safely on his way… The whereabouts of The Batman remain unknown. And yet… I can see him now, in the grip of implacable forces, innumerable foes. Somewhere without hope. In a place where all seems lost. And I know this… the enemy will look away, for just a moment, underestimating him for that single fraction of a second too long. And no matter how dark the knight…
There will be no hiding place for evil.”
It’s a story about many things, Morrison’s Batman run. It makes Bruce Wayne vital, relevant and very much on point for the 21st Century. It does this by positioning him as the good capitalist. Bruce Wayne is the model businessman, Donald Trump but with Superman’s morals. We could be doing with more of that. Morrison has Bruce do the obvious by turning Batman into a franchise, having him build a global network of crime-fighters. He funds them, supports them and even trains them. Morrison has the Batman idea permeate, realising its full potential in the fictional world it inherits. Batman does have a superpower. It’s inspiration.
You wonder how nobody thought of it before.
Recurring throughout this seven year tale is the story of a man and his family. Morrison’s characterisation is so strong, creating moments that are note perfect. Several times over, he and his artists craft scenes that pull on the heart-strings. Touching moments between Bruce and Alfred, Bruce and Dick Grayson, Bruce and Damian, Dick Grayson and Alfred,Dick Grayson and Damian, Damian and Talia, Knight and Squire, Knight and Dark Ranger, Raven Red and Chief-Man-Of-Bats, Bruce and Jason, Jason and Scarlet, Bruce and Talia, Damian and his cat, Damian and Bat-Cow… yeah, there’s lots of these touching moments.
These are made all the more effective for the adeptness with which Morrison captures the voice of the characters. Many times you’ll read a Batman comic and think “nah, that’s not how Bruce/Alfred/Gordon/Joker etc talk, that’s not what they’d say”.
Under Morrison’s pen, that’s exactly how Batman would talk. That is precisely the way Gordon would phrase something. That’s a spot-on Alfred, that’s The Joker to a tee, that’s just such a Dick Grayson thing to say, that’s definitely how Damian would talk.
For all his big ideas, all his high concepts, it’s Morrison’s craft that makes this really sing.
Well, that and his obvious, beautifully expressed love for the characters.