Killing off (and then immediately reviving) characters is a mainstay in comic books, with character deaths often acting as a big and very ‘sellable’ crossover events. But as common as they are, it’s always a big risk to kill off your most popular character, no matter the medium, but that’s exactly what DC did in 2009’s Final Crisis (well… sort of).
Final Crisis sees Batman at his most ‘Batman’ by finding a way to mortally wound Darkseid, an all powerful New God who, despite the best efforts of pretty much every superhero out there, is about destroy the entire universe. Unfortunately for Batman the radion bullet he uses on Darkseid isn’t an immediate solution and in retaliation Darkseid shoots Batman with his Omega Beams, seemingly killing him. In the epilogue of Final Crisis however, we see Bruce Wayne in a prehistoric cave drawing a bat symbol on the wall.
Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne reveals that Darkseid’s Omega Beams actually sent Batman back in time rather than killing him, and that Bruce Wayne no longer remembers who he is. Writer Grant Morrison described The Return of Bruce Wayne as a take on a number of the classic pulp hero settings, with each of the six issues showing off a different period as Bruce is pulled through time. To emphasise the different these transitions, each issue boasts a vastly different artist and style, adding up to a great looking set of books for Bruce Wayne’s Quantum Leap style adventure.
The first issue, Shadow on Stone, starts off in Prehistoric times with a tribe (who happen to own a certain pearl necklace) finding Bruce Wayne as he emerges from the cave, amongst a swarm of bats. The tribe is then attacked by Vandal Savage, during the ambush Bruce saves the youngest tribesman (who calls him ‘Man of Bats’) but is injured himself and ends up getting captured by Savage.
Before his final showdown with Savage, Bruce is freed by the young tribesman, now claiming to be a part of the ‘bat people’ and seemingly worshiping Bruce after he saved his life. Bruce then dons the hide of a giant bat and defeats Savage. As he and the young tribesman escape they jump off a waterfall, but Bruce wakes to find he’s travelled through time again. Just after Bruce leaves the Prehistoric era, Superman, Hal Jordan, Rip Hunter and Booster Gold arrive, seemingly searching for him throughout time.
As Bruce wakes up in the second issue, Until the End of Time, he is attacked by some sort of giant glowing octopus creature and of course takes it on with nothing but a sword. We then jump forward again and see him living during Puritan times in the village of Gotham. Bruce (still not remembering who he is) is living as some sort of criminal investigator, looking for truth over superstition and often countering what most believed at the time. Bruce gets close with a woman named Annie (who is clearly an actual witch).
Eventually Bruce confronts a group of witch hunters who are more concerned with killing than the truth, and their blood thirsty leader is revealed as Bruce’s ancestor Nathaniel Wayne. Annie takes Bruce back to the cave where he first appeared and shows him the remnants of the bat people tribe, explaining that after he left the tribe began to worship him.
Annie is then captured by Nathaniel Wayne and burned as a witch whilst Bruce fights the giant octopus monster again. In her final moments, out of anger not for her own death, but for Nathaniel and his men not going to hep Bruce (who she knows as ‘Mordecai’) Annie ironically puts a curse on Nathaniel and all of his kin, cursing the Wayne family until the end of time (which could of inadvertently looped back round and caused her own death, if we look at that as an extension of Bruce Wayne’s part of the curse).
Bruce once again moves forward in time, slowly remembering more of who he is. In part three, The Bones of Bristol Bay, he (literally) washes up on a beach to be immediately captured by Blackbeard (a later identity of Vandal Savage). The infamous Blackbeard believes Bruce to be the mysterious ‘Black Pirate’ a legendary pirate who’s ship he has just destroyed. Blackbeard explains that they are near Gotham and at the secret cave where the Black Pirate is rumoured to of hidden all of his treasure. Along with Bruce the pirates have captured a young man named Jack Valor, whom they believe to be a cabin boy (but is actually the real Black Pirate).
As the pirates venture through the cave, Bruce leading them with his ever returning detective skills, we learn that this is yet again the same cave Bruce first appeared in during Prehistoric times, and that the bat people (now known as the ‘Miagani’) still live there. After defeating the pirates the Miagani let Bruce go into a secret part of the cave no other outsider can access. They reveal that something has been kept their for thousands of years. In the depths the cave Bruce finds his boots, utility belt, and his cape and cowl, remembering that he used to wear them.
The third book ends by showing Bruce leave with another eclipse (with each of Bruce’s jumps through time coinciding with an eclipse), and Jack Valor writing down the entire story of his encounter with Batman into a diary, and then in his later years delivering that diary (upon Bruce’s instructions) to the Van Derm family. The diary is placed inside a wooden box with a bat symbol on it. We then cut to the old west, where two thugs are trying to hire Jonah Hex to kill a man who keeps messing up their criminal schemes.
The fourth issue, Dark Night, Dark Rider, shows us a sort of cowboy, Zorro, and Batman hybrid who is taking on Vandal Savage (here ‘Monsieur Savage’) once again. As Hex is taken to Savage, to protect him from the ‘ghost’ plaguing this men, we see Savage is forcing a young woman to open a box engraved with the bat symbol (the same box we saw at the end of the last issue), the person in charge of her torture is none other than another evil Wayne ancestor, Dr. Thomas Wayne.
Eventually Batman manages to save the young woman (a member of the Van Derm family), and inadvenrtuly causes her to meet Alan Wayne (a severely less evil Wayne ancestor) paving the way for his family to rebuild their home and stature in Gotham. The young woman recognises Batman after he presents her with the Van Derm family pearls (the same pearls the bat people had during the prehistoric era) and she gives him the box. Just as he opens it however Jonah Hex reappears and shoots him. Immediately after taking the bullet Batman falls into the water and wakes up in the ‘Noir’’ Gotham, succumbing to his injuries and getting hit by a car.
The fifth book, Masquerade, shows Batman getting increasingly closer to his own time, and we realise Bruce has arrived in Gotham not long after his parents murder. He is recruited by a woman named Marsha who claims to be Martha Wayne’s best friend. She asks for his help in exposing the Wayne’s murderer. Bruce agrees and finds both ‘Mordecai’ and Jack Valor’s journal inside the bat box, as he reads he begins to slowly piece together that he has been travelling through time.
In their investigation Marsha takes Bruce to his grandparents house, where we see how much Martha’s parents (or at least her Mother) disliked Thomas Wayne. She claims that Thomas Wayne had all kinds of problems that were covered up from the public, and that he revealed all of this to her after his apparent death. She then explains that ‘Thomas’ had Martha and a fake Thomas killed, and that he gave the old Van Dern pearls (the same pearls from the prehistoric era and that Batman gave to the young girl) to Martha so that she could be identified by the assassin.
Marsha and Bruce head to Wayne manor, which she explains is built on top of some old caves that have all kinds of stories about ‘bat people’ and buried treasure associated with them (again the same cave, finally revealed as the future Batcave). Marsha then has Bruce dress as Thomas Wayne as she dresses as Martha claiming that they will expose the killers when some sort of conspiracy related ritual takes place at Wayne manor later that night.
Marsha turns on Bruce, revealing herself to be a part of the conspiracy, and working with Dr Simon Hurt (aka The Black Glove). Hurt being the one who went to Martha’s mother masquerading as Thomas Wayne, claiming he had Martha murdered.
Robed men than attack Bruce and tie him to a table, aiming to film Marsha (dressed as Martha) killing him, performing something they call the ‘Ceremony of the Bat’, which will call forth the bat god Barbatos. As Bruce is set on fire he manages to grab a conveniently nearby time machine (that was a part of the ritual) and jumps forward again, arriving at the Vanishing Point, the end of time where the archivists are organising recorded accounts of everything that has ever happened.
In the present day Red Robin, who has been leading the Justice Leagues’s investigation into finding Batman, explains that sending Bruce back in time was Darkseid’s final attack, and that with each jump in time Bruce has been gathering Omega energy, which will destroy the planet if he gets back to his own time.
The final part of Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, The All Over, shows Batman arriving at the Vanishing Point an hour before the end of time. The archivists reveal that the Hyper Adapter has been following Bruce throughout time (we first saw it as the giant octopus monster), to ensure Darkseid’s plan with the Omega energy works.
The archivists fix Bruce’s injuries and help him remember everything (briefly giving him the knowledge of everything that has ever happened), he then explains that he needs to create a time machine so that he can go back to his own time, and also needs his memory re-wiped.
Soon after, Superman, Hal Jordan, Booster Gold, and Rip Hunter arrive, with ten minutes left until the end of the time (we originally saw part of this scene in the second issue). Batman, now merged with one of the robot archivists, steal Rips’ time sphere and heads back to the 21st century, seemingly trapping his allies there. Once in the 21st century the Justice League attacks Batman, and, as only Batman could, he systematically takes them down.
After a heart to heart with Red Robin however, Batman gets Wonder Woman to lasso him so the he can explain the truth. We then find out that the Hyper Adapter infected the fusion of Bruce and one of the archivists, resulting in this hybrid. Back at the end of time Superman, Hal, Booster, and Rip realise that the sphere they are trapped in is a very advanced time ship that Bruce built for them (who knowing what would happen made them a way to escape). They use the sphere and head back to the 21st century where they help Wonder Woman and Red Robin separate Batman from the Hyper Adapter.
Batman then gets them to put the separated Hyper Adapter into the time sphere Superman and the others brought back from the future. The Hyper Adapter , confused and defeated, changes into a giant bat and is sent back in time (to become the giant bat hide Bruce dons in prehistoric times). The Omega energy then all but kills Bruce, who has seconds to live after Wonder Woman and Superman extract it from his body. Batman wakes just in time, donning his cape and cowl once again, claiming that Gotham still needs him.
As you’d expect the absence of Bruce Wayne had some huge ramifications for the DC Universe, the Justice League had to adapt to no longer having him (and spent a considerable amount of time trying to find him), Gotham descended into chaos without his protection, and Dick Grayson was forced to give up being Nightwing to take on the mantle of Batman.
For Bruce Wayne, his return wasn’t quite immediate (despite re-donning the cape and cowl), ‘Bruce Wayne: The Road Home’ tells the events of Bruce checking up on a number of his allies and enemies. He decides that Dick should keep the identity of Batman for a while, eventually founding Batman Incorporated, a business venture aimed at franchising the Batman identity to different countries.
All in all Batman: The Return is a bit of a strange concept overall, and takes a little while to fully explain itself, but there’s no denying it does a great job of exploring those classic pulp hero worlds, whilst also giving Batman a massive role in both his own and Gotham’s origin story, rounding out to a great Batman (or perhaps better put, Bruce Wayne) story.