With Animal Man and more recently with Kyle Rayner, we’ve seen superheroes who find themselves disillusioned with superheroism. Both bought into the myth that a single good man with extraordinary powers could save the world; they are such true believers in this idea of superheroism that when they realize its impossibility, they give up being heroes altogether. But Batman isn’t like that, and The Return of Bruce Wayne and Batman, Inc. are the stories of how and why he succeeds where they fail.
Animal Man and Kyle Rayner think that good intentions and their other-worldly powers are all it will take, and this is one of the reasons they find themselves disappointed. They can manipulate the environment in extraordinary ways, but they don’t have what Batman has. Morrison has long been trying to teach us that Batman’s real super power is not that he has leisure and money; Most Excellent Superbat has those, and Morrison pokes fun at this idea that that’s all that Batman is in Final Crisis 6.
Batman’s cleverness and physical fitness aren’t even the important thing. Those are as significant as Superman’s super-breath or super-strength: many characters are stronger or can breathe colder air than Superman. The thing that makes him singular, that makes him important, is his super-morality and his super-faith in mankind. Likewise, for Batman, there are characters that are stronger or physically tougher. The thing that makes him singular and important is his capacity to process and transcend the traumas of life – the murder of his parents and friends; the evil he willingly exposes himself to; the broken world around him.
We caught a peak at this in Batman Last Rites when he overcomes the Lump, but it really becomes clear in The Return of Bruce Wayne: there, he is persecuted by the personification of evil itself, under attack by the Omega Sanction, and chased by a so-called hyper-adapter through time. In Batman 702, Darkseid tells explains the Omega Sanction in the following terms:
Likewise, in Mister Miracle 4, Boss Dark Side says, “Omega is the life trap. Each new existence more degraded than the last. More hopeless. More meaningless. Neverending.” The Omega Sanction is full exposure to the dehumanizing, degrading, and alienating experiences that make up human history and life. It is a form of anti-life in that it aims to leave room for no imagination and no other narrative – it tries to make an irrefutable argument that life and existence and broken and irreparable, that, for all we fool ourselves, the self is Darkseid.
But, despite what Darkseid claims, the real hyper-adapter is Batman himself: the idea of a being who is not overcome or debased by the traumas the world inflicts, as Animal Man and Kyle Rayner are, but who processes them and overcomes them. Batman has every trauma inflicted on him, is subjected to the worst possible worlds – and Batman not only survives them, but tries to fix them. Batman, or rather Bruce Wayne, describes the idea of such a being in Batman 702. When he was facing down Darkseid, Bruce explains,
“He knew I wouldn’t kill his human host. . .but he didn’t know I had a Radion bullet. And a new myth of my own. A myth where Ultimate Evil turns its gaze on humanity and humanity gazes right back and says. . .”
Batman is not a man, but, as he says here, a myth. He’s a counter-myth to Darkseid, he’s the anti-anti life, he’s a being who can stare evil in the face, digest it, and transcend it. He’s a new New God, or rather a god of the fifth world. This is the fruition of what Metron promises in Final Crisis 6:
Batman is, like the new gods, a thought form with a reality and existence beyond the physical, a tulpa brought into being by human imagination. What we see and interact with are merely avatars of Batman. It’s significant that the miniseries was called The Return of Bruce Wayne, and not The Return of Batman: Bruce Wayne may have been lost in time, but Batman was alive and well in the present with his latest avatar, Dick Grayson. And, as the many iterations of Batman in Batman 700 show, there will always be avatars of Batman – “No matter when, no matter where, no matter how dark,” as the issue says.
Attached to this is Bruce’s realization that he is not a single, extraordinary superhero who has singlehandedly survived the world’s traumas and transformed the world. He’s not a knight errant estranged from all humanity, alienated from the world and somehow beyond the world but for some reason and somehow still fighting for it. This is a romantic and false narrative about superheroism, and it leads only to estrangement and anti-life. This is the sort of thinking that made Animal Man and Kyle Rayner break down.
Bruce is not a being in isolation; he’s an avatar of Batman, he’s a product of the world, and he never would have become Batman without help. In The Return of Bruce Wayne and Batman: The Return, Morrison points to a key part of the Batman mythos, and one that is completely lost when one focuses on the romantic idea of a Lone Dark Knight. Batman was never alone.
Morrison retells the story precisely the way Frank Miller did in Batman: Year One over twenty years ago. Having barely gotten back to the mansion from his first foray as a vigilante, Bruce sits, badly wounded, thinking about whether he should live or die. He can ring a bell and summon Alfred to save him. Or he can sit alone bleed to death.
A bat flies through the window; he gets inspired and rings the bell. Alfred comes and helps. That’s when Batman is born – when Bruce rings a bell and asks for help. He didn’t do it all alone, and he was never actually alone. In the beginning, he had parents, who raised him well and left him enough money to do whatever he wanted. Then there was Alfred. Then there was Dick, Tim, Jason, Damian, Lucius, Selina, Clark, and all of his other friends.
Batman is not a solitary hero. That idea is a perilous trap that ruins heroes. Finding friends, pursuing mutual inspiration and betterment, and joining together is how he can change the world. Bruce was doing this all along, only now he knows it and has articulated it. And he now fully realizes, too, the truth that Batman is a myth, or even maybe something more like a god, the god of processing trauma and transcending anti-life. Bruce is his avatar, but so is Dick, and with Batman, Inc. 2 Jiro has processed and overcome his own trauma, and now he is Batman’s avatar too.
For that matter, so was Bat-Woman and Ace the Bat-hound all those years ago.
Such is the lesson. So Batman, Inc., Morrison’s hyper-sigil aimed at metamorphosing us and perfecting the world, goes. Batman is not “just” Bruce Wayne; Batman is not “just” a character in a comic. He is an idea/myth/god/tulpa. You or I could channel him and overcome anti-life too. In a perfect world, everyone everywhere would be a Batman.