This week we wrap up Batman and Robin with the third volume, Batman and Robin Must Die! This volume marks the return of Bruce Wayne, but is not, uh, The Return of Bruce Wayne (that’s next week).
Plot. Doctor Hurt returns, breaks Professor Pyg out of jail, and releases him on Gotham, spreading his viral addiction through the city. It infects Commissioner Gordon. Doctor Hurt poses as Thomas Wayne returning to Gotham, promising people he can fix the addiction problem “for a price.” The Joker tries to convince Dick and Damian to work with him, because he hates Hurt more than them. Damian tries to interrogate the Joker, but of course the Joker infects Damian with Joker toxin on his fingernails and escapes with him.
Bruce returns just as Doctor Hurt thinks he has won, and everyone splits up. Punches are punched, Hurt tries to frighten Bruce again, Dick and Damian fight Dollotron citizens all over Gotham, ultimately the day is saved. The upshot, regarding the plot, is twofold: Bruce sets up Batman Incorporated, admitting publicly that he’s been financing Batman all these years, and sets Dick up as Gotham’s Batman while he prepares to go across the world, recruiting. Also, Leviathan begins to appear, right at the end, hunting children and indoctrinating them to, in one instance, kill their own father for no reason.
What happens here is the moment of self-doubt a superhero must have, particularly any who don’t have superpowers. Bruce just returned from threading his way desperately through history. Dick is shot in the back of the head because he didn’t fathom what he was getting into. Damian is finally bested in a fight because he just doesn’t bother to understand anything but punching and kicking. Hurt represents these things. He’s actually the perfect Batman villain, but he’s so perfect he can’t come back again and again like the Joker or the Riddler. He represents, as he says, “the hole in things.” He is in a way that is frighteningly literal in the setting, the devil — because, as we learn in this volume, he was a devil-worshipper who didn’t run when an actual devil, the bat-demon Barbatos, appeared. He ate a live bat and became a demonic force himself, circling around Batman in history until the present of the comic. It’s explained in the next volume that Barbatos was actually part of Darkseid’s attack on Batman, sent back in time with him. More on that next week. Since Darkseid is essentially the devil of the world 1 dimension of the DC multiverse, Barbatos is a lesser devil.
So that means Bruce Wayne beats the shit out of the devil — in RIP Commissioner Gordon asked Batman why he took on an opponent as old as time, implying evil itself. His response was, “the same reason you did Jim. I figured I could take him.” Batman is a fury, a spirit of vengeance, and so his mission is, as it always has been, to strike at evil. Contrast that to Superman, whose mission is to increase good. And people wonder why they make such a good pair in World’s Finest.
At the center of this Batman narrative is the hole in things pierced through the world by Darkseid’s fall, by the vampire’s piercing of the multiverse — and that hole manifests in the story of Batman as the holes in his parents’ chests. Traditionally these holes are conceived of as trauma, and they are that, but this narrative reconceives them as cracks in the world, as the portal between the world and the hell in which evil dwells. They let evil into the life of a child and he reacted, well, by becoming Batman. We knew that part.
This volume even includes a few pages reinscribing the scene where Bruce is in his study and a bat flies in. In that version the bat is injured, dying, and confused. Bruce is also hurt, bleeding to death, and they draw each other. Bruce has been drawing the bat toward him since his parents were killed, when he was exposed to the presence of evil leaking into his world. He needed, as he says in this scene, “a totem,” and the universe provides, because the universe is spiraling in toward the point at which Batman is born.
So I guess the moral is that Batman was inevitable? Honestly, that’s not a revelation in the comics at this point. Really, the idea is that Batman is an idea, a totem, and that Bruce is capable of passing it on. Dick can still be Batman, Damian can be Robin, Bruce can be Batman, Barbara can be Batgirl (in the internet), Stephanie Brown can be Batgirl as well (barring DC later fucking over those of us who liked Stephanie Brown). And yes, in a very ABC after school special way, we can all be Batman. Batman is an idea, a meme with power, a concept in all our heads that means justice and vengeance and power and all kinds of things that we can take advantage of. As the plot progresses past this volume Batman’s use will be called into question, but despite how he is or is not effective in certain situations, his idea is always useful. It drives people outside Bruce Wayne, drives them to be better and to achieve. It even drives those who supposedly repudiate it. And Damian is the prime test subject in Batman Inc. We will watch the idea of Batman infect him over time, changing him in a powerful way. Bruce discovered a totem that night, but in a fascinating way that the next volume will illustrate, one he created in advance.