So this week in the Bat-Saga we’re dealing with the volume I tend to forget about when I think of the entire story: Time and the Batman.
I have no idea why I forget about this story. It’s amazing. OK, the last issue isn’t (unsurprisingly, it’s the issue written by, well, not Grant Morrison). But the main story is a mystery cracked, a detective story (well, or sorts) split across at least four timelines. In the old, traditional timeline (and I mean traditional — Dick is Robin, Bruce is Batman, and the rogue’s gallery consents to be called the rogue’s gallery), the Joker tries to catch Batman in a time-trap using the invention of a professor who has, basically, figured out how to move through time using perception. Bruce says, when he escapes and catches everyone, that he planned to go back in time one last time to make the phone call to the police that summoned Gordon and helped save them, but someone else already called them.
In the “present” of the storyline, Dick and Damian are called in on a murder investigation, in which that same professor was killed in the same room the Joker used for his time-trap. The room is sealed, no way in or out. This story also features an amazing look at “a day in the life” of Dick and Damian, featuring possibly the greatest panel in the Bat-Saga — Dick and Damian, in costume as Batman and Robin, at a late-night diner drinking coffee and eating pizza. From what I understand, this run on Batman and Robin (though this story in particular actually ran in Batman) was pretty popular — as it should be. But what a lot of fans probably don’t want to hear is that it strayed very close to the generally-reviled Adam West Batman of the 60s. Dick asks cops how their wives and kids are doing, they go eat in costume, generally they are fixtures in the town, rather than hiding back in the shadows. This makes sense for Dick, who knows a lot of the cops personally, as he was one in Bludhaven.
The first future is Damian’s, where he is the brutal, killer Batman. We’ve seen him before, but this time we get glimpses of his life outside of snapping people’s necks: he’s scarred, shaves his head to reduce any advantage anyone could ever have, and has a cat named Alfred. Someone uses the new environment control system to flood the city with Joker toxin. Damian finds him in the old building the professor used for his tests, and again, the place in which Bruce was trapped in time. And as Damian talks to the professor, alive because he’s been moving through time all through the story, we flash to Terry McGinnis, of all people, and Bruce talking about how he has to learn to survive if he wants to do this (be Batman). The professor opts to kill himself to prevent his research ever being used improperly, and forces Damian to go along with it because Damian has to use the machine to go back and warn Commissioner Gordon of the trap in the “past” timeline. So despite what happens in the final volume of Batman Inc Damian’s future self does exist in the regular timeline in some way, as he manages to go back in time once.
This is a crazy story, and a wonderful one. The art style changes with each change in time. The time travel sort of makes sense but works mostly to drive this comparison between three (sort of four) Batman timelines and the four Batmen who existed in them.
We’ve talked about Batman as a choice, and the version of Batman being the choice made, but in this story we see Batman as a response to surroundings. Each Batman is very different, and their personal histories and surroundings work to cause those differences, highlighted by the time travel story — which will always be about causation, even if it isn’t, because it’s a time travel story. Naturally what causes Batman is always a murdered parent — Damian hints that Bruce is dead because of something he (Damian) did, effectively making him his own father’s killer. People have experimented with Thomas and Martha Wayne’s deaths being Bruce’s fault — for instance, the Brave and the Bold cartoon has Bruce as a child being whiny because he didn’t get the toy he wanted, so his parents take him to see Zorro on Christmas as a way of making it up to him — he’s sulky even when they leave the theater, and then they’re killed off-screen. That sets Bruce up to always feel shitty not only that his parents are dead but that he (sort of) caused their deaths and he never got to make up with them before they died. He has a well-spring of guilt driving him, apparently. Damian has the same in this iteration, though we get far fewer details about what happened to Bruce.
The story snaps shut like it should, with the professor threading through all the timelines and bringing them together like a seam closing. This previews the coming story as well, with Bruce hopping madly through time again, presumably comfortable with it because of his experience here. But more importantly it shows us that Bruce is absolutely confident in his “team,” in Dick and Alfred and maybe even Damian. At this point we already know he’s left clues all through history for Dick to find, and we see him here leaving a task to those he passes the cowl on to, ready to let them finish what he helped to start. So long as it gets finished, that’s what matters.
The bad story at the end even furthers this theme: Dick and Damian are bested by an escape artist and finally catch her. Damian is confounded that Bruce let her father go years ago, only to learn that he did so because the guy was only stealing so he could buy the cancer medication that would let him survive and help raise his daughter (who became a thief in turn, continuing this cycle). With Damian in the role of Dick, yelling at Batman for letting someone go, it shows that everything gets passed on, even the roles themselves. Like Morrison’s earlier work on The Invisibles, the role defines the person in it as much as it works the other way round.