Five Ways to Read Final Crisis: Bismillah! A Bat-Bridge!
by Travis Hedge Coke
With thanks to Queen and to Simon & Garfunkel.
Grant Morrison’ long run on Batman, from the Batman title to Batman and Robin, Return of Bruce Wayne, a dip into three issues of Detective Comics, participation in the Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul crossover, and eventually the two volumes of Batman Incorporated begins before, continues through, and rolls on after Final Crisis, but Final Crisis affects not only what comes after, but what came before, in ways we can only reckon with once Final Crisis is complete. While Final Crisis was running, the Batman issues which Grant Morrison wrote largely keep Batman out of the physical goings on for most of FC, a bridge over more than a road through.
Bridge Over Troubled Water
“I am just a poor boy
Though my story’s seldom told”
Batman is an act of coping, a healing suture, a comfort story, created by an emo orphan after the death of his parents, from a well of loneliness situated deep in his heart even before the loss of his immediate family. But, in order to be that comfort, the Batman has to be perfect. The Batman has to do more, see more, understand and cope more than a normative human being or even a remarkable one.
The arc of Morrison’s Batman immediately preceding Final Crisis, Batman RIP, is a clueless mystery in a field wherein we are inspired to anticipate only fair play detective stories. RIP is largely unsolvable by itself or using only comics or information available before RIP’s publication.
RIP is not the worst thing to happen to Batman because he is physically assaulted, drugged, left desperate and hallucinating on the streets, begging for change and jonesing for addictive drugs. RIP is the worst thing to happen to Bruce Wayne because all the mysteries cannot be tied off in a neat bow, the sides of the package cannot be folded down neatly so the pattern on the wrapping paper matches up. It assaults his organizational anxiety, his need for order.
It also upsets our need to know. Not only can we not solve the mysteries faster than Batman, he cannot solve them for us. We are abandoned. What deep pit of deceit and unfairness is this?!
The chief mysteries of RIP are:
1. What is the Black Glove?
2. Who is Doctor Simon Hurt?
3. Will Batman die?
4. Is the Joker correct?
In every way, in every step, the classic Father Ronald Knox Ten Commandments of Fair Play Mystery are defied or flouted. Dr Hurt is introduced early, but his birth name and the transformative truths are never revealed much less established early. All supernatural and preternatural agencies are far from ruled out. There are so many secret rooms and passages some are not even revealed in the story but play a role. “Hitherto undiscovered poisons” and things which require “long scientific explanations” abound. Scary foreigners/ethnic minorities? Tick, tick, tick those boxes! The recently-revived Ra’s Al Ghul, his daughter, Talia, her son with Batman, Damian, Batman’s girlfriend, Jezebel Jett, Jett’s bodyguards, an Italian crime boss, a Latin American assassin, a mastermind in a sombrero, Russians, Middle Easterners, Englishmen, Bruce himself is a scary foreigner, the damaged American.
Morrison could not have done better to tackle the list explicitly, and I would not be surprised if they had. Intuition and accidents and inexplicable happenings aid the Detective, Batman. Bruce is a very clear candidate for the guilty party. He easily could be the Black Glove, and ultimately, he may still be responsible in some fashions. No one has an intelligence “slightly below the average reader.” And, twins and doubles are of the utmost importance, but we cannot know for sure how, how much, or why.
“I hear words I never heard in the Bible
And I’m one step ahead of the shoe shine”
The Black Glove makes poor sense. Is it a person? A group? Is a person synecdoche for the group? Is the group synecdoche for a person?
Is the Black Glove incredibly old or fairly new?
Is the Black Glove a serious Satanic cabal or rich people having laughs?
Is the Black Glove enormously wealthy or are its patrons credit rich and highly in-debt?
What kind of debt would a Black Glove member accrue and why does it not all feel financial?
We – and Batman – are told and shown contradictory things. Batman is told that the Black Glove is measures richer than he is, yet what we see in play in RIP and in the earlier arc, The Island of Mr Mayhew, looks like a budget operation. Membership does not seem to really have any major world, or even government players. The head of a small pilfered nation. A general. A cardinal. The strong arms of the Black Glove include an aging, depleted crime boss and his lackeys who hump boxes and paint the floor, a doctor who hopes to impress his hero, the Joker, and an assassin who seems to have come along mostly to cosplay with a nurse’s cap.
“Half of the time we’re gone
But we don’t know where”
Is Dr Hurt, Thomas Wayne? Is Dr Hurt, Bruce Wayne’s father?
Is Dr Hurt, the Devil? What is the Devil?
The best we know is that the answer to most of these questions is, “It seems unlikely.” They are all half-true or true from a perspective. They are true if you are tricky. And, they are true if this is a story.
There is no answer, no real functional clues given during RIP, and when Batman rejects that Hurt is his father, as does Alfred Pennyworth, they do so from an emotional sense, not a ratiocination.
“When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I’ll take your part
Oh, when darkness comes
And pain is all around”
The big fan fear as RIP serialized, even when it was announced, was that in RIP, Batman would die.
We, the audience, were so caught up worrying Batman could die in RIP, or that it was a foregone conclusion, that many of us missed or wrote off that RIP is not a phrase you say for the dying, it is not a declaration of death, but a pronouncement, a well-wishing after someone dies.
Bruce Wayne died immediately before RIP begins. At the beginning of RIP, his son, Tim, aka Robin, even says outright, that Bruce Wayne had just clinically died of a heart attack, something we saw happen in a previous issue.
This mystery is solvable, if we stop looking at it wrong, but even then, there is a greater symbolic level, and perhaps a great physiological level, in that Bruce Wayne may always be dying. Batman might die every night he goes out and come back, and how would we know?
The point of Batman might be to take over when a person cannot keep on. Batman is Batman so Bruce Wayne does not have to.
“I fall on the floor and die laughing.”
Grant Morrison’s Joker pretty much tells us what we want to hear. Going back to their Arkham Asylum comic, with Dave McKean, in which the Joker would imply he stabbed a woman’s eyes in order to get Batman to come to the asylum, then reveal that she actually was not stabbed, relieving Batman and us in the audience.
Morrison’s Joker is always lying and sometimes those lies are true. This upsets us when it is not bolstering our own beliefs. When it does support our ideas, the Joker is the wise fool; revelatory!
So, when the Joker seems to diagnose Batman as suffering a manic form of apophenia – an insistence of finding connections between unconnected things – the majority of readers and Batman are cut to the quick and must agree. It preys on a concern Bruce Wayne must have about himself, and a humorous observation about how Batman and Robin have operated in stories such as the 1966 Batman movie or the 2010 comic, Batman: Odyssey, in which Riddler relies on keen detectives to rhyme, “order,” with, “water.”
Only a year or so earlier, a Grant Morrison discussion forum had spawned a fan comic of Robin failing to solve the famous goose in the bottle riddle by getting sidetracked into possible supervillains who might have put the goose in the bottle in the first place, culminating in a conviction that this and perhaps all crime were the work of a master criminal named something like Gooseman or the Gray Goose.
The more we consider Joker’s apparent diagnosis, we have to take into account that Joker is speaking through a broken jaw, with a tongue freshly split clean down the middle. No one except Batman seems to respond directly to anything Joker, who prior to slicing his own tongue down to the root, had been receiving fake speech therapy instead of his genuine medical care to regain the ability to speak clearly.
We can never be sure what, if anything, the Joker really said. Perceiving his gurgles and bleats as accusations of apophenia could be the apophenia talking and Batman telling on himself.
A Night at the Opera
Batman RIP is such an unfair mystery an entire two-part chapter is kept from us for a year, establishing new secret rooms, new twinnings and doublings, and guilty knowledge nobody knew.
“Do you feel like suicide? (I think you should)
Is your conscience all right? Does it plague you at night?”
What is Batman’s death-urge, and is it because his parents were terrible or flawed? Terrible and flawed are not the same, but they are often responded to as if they are.
Dr Hurt has documents leaked which imply drug addiction and debauchery amongst Bruce Wayne’s parents and the gentleman’s gentleman who raised him, Alfred Pennyworth. Consensual sex is being terrible. Being an addict is not being terrible. But, people can look terribly on them, and Wayne knows it. We know it.
We know from Gothic, drawn by the incomparable Klaus Janson and written by Grant Morrison, that Wayne was depressed before his parents’ murders, traumatized before their murders. The night they were murdered, they were attempting to cheer him out of a traumatized depression relating to incidents at the private school they had, also, thought would bring him out of his low.
While Wayne’s upbringing shaped him, something deeper, something perhaps from birth, was required to shape him into Batman. But, always, there is the temptation to say it is bad parenting, bad blood (which he will use to make himself feel better after the deaths of his biological sons, Damian and the Heretic). The fear that his father’s compassion was a weakness, that his mother died of grief because she was not strong enough to live.
“The machine of a dream
Such a clean machine”
Barbatos is a name given to the Hyper-Adapter by an ancestor of Bruce Wayne’s, also named Thomas Wayne, as Bruce’s father will later be.
The classical Barbatos, originally recorded in The False Monarchy of Demons, is an archer, a hunter, whose gifts are to understand the languages of animals and to know the future and the past. Thomas Wayne believes the Hyper-Adapter is this legendary demon and maybe it is, but probably not. Thomas’ attempt to name, and thereby limit and control the Hyper-Adapter is destined to fail. The Hyper-Adapter, having adapted over the course of all history to the world, is a thing which cannot fit, which will not fit or be fitted.
But, now we have Bruce Wayne, in the role of the hunter, Orion, pursued and pursuing a demon-machine, called Barbatos. Barbatos will, in turn, with a time-traveling Bruce, shape the world into a concatenation which will develop a Batman – the Batman – and it is only DC Comics’ external diktat which keeps Barbatos from being the very bat which inspired Bruce to choose his avatar that night in his father’s study that he does not die but becomes Batman.
“And the story tellers say
That the score brave souls inside”
In Darkseid and Bruce Wayne’s confrontation, towards the end of Final Crisis, they are trash-talking, playing the dozens, and in this, they are fighting with the real weapons at hand. The gun and bullet which Darkseid killed his son with, and Batman uses to wound Darkseid, the gun and bullet which murdered Bruce’s parents, which haunt him, and which will kill Darkseid if he does not surrender his human victim, the body he occupies, Dan Turpin, these tools appear to be the weapons at play, but these are only ideas given physical form. Gun and bullet. It is the stories they tell that do the wounding.
“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 night… there will be no hiding place for evil.”
Bruce develops stories which will pause and end Darkseid. The humiliation of one human being thumbing his nose at the ultimate dragon of despair and cruelty. The wound the vile god cannot heal without surrendering.
Darkseid counters with stories of his own. Hyper-Adapter “lives to become the fate you can’t escape!” A simple, elegant idea. The Hyper-Adapter will always be with Bruce, will always be so close to Bruce it will be like Bruce.
“I feel like dancing in the rain
Can I have a volunteer?”
All the way back in Prodigal, a mid-90s arc in which the original Robin becomes Batman for a time (echoed in Grant Morrison’s run, as is much of that Knightfall-centered era), Dick Grayson, that Robin, feels that just being Batman is overwhelming.
“Come back, Bruce,” he thinks, “The night needs you… and all I can do is curse the bat eclipsing my own heart.”
By the time of Morison’s Batman and Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne, followups to Final Crisis which ran parallel several months, Dick is Batman once more and Bruce Wayne is lost as time whips around him and uncontrollable pitches and starts.
We learn in The Return of Bruce Wayne, that like Bruce’s friend, Batmight/Batmite, who is a sock puppet who looks like Batman held on the hand of Death or something Bruce imagines like Death, the Hyper-Adapter may be intuited as a kind of friend, a friend-spirit, a familiar, a shadow soul. The Hyper-Adapter needs a volunteer to corrupt, to corrode, to make new flesh and a new soul for Darkseid to be born in.
The darkness, the scab on his soul which Bruce Wayne keeps excising – having it cut out in ritual by the Ten-Eyed tribe, engaging in the thogal rites, examination by psychiatrists, “space medicine” experiments, his drive to understand the illness and cruelty of the Joker, the self-medication of micro-sleeps, celibacy, the avoidance of intimacy, may be Barbatos.
When Barbatos encounters Bruce’s ancestor – not, so as we know, a direct ancestor, but someone farther back on the family tree – that ancestor, Thomas, happily embraces Barbatos, takes it inside himself, but there is nothing to Thomas which would fight the Hyper-Adapter enough to create a fecund ground for a new Darkseid.
Thomas is, instead, replaced by the Hyper-Adapter, flattened in aspect to a paste-on paper doll, a restickable vinyl figure like Colorforms. A thin and absurd mask for the devil set aside from Bruce Wayne.
Barbatos wears Thomas around, Thomas still conscious enough to perceive the world but unawares enough that he will never grip his situation, as Barbatos pushes others into what becomes a ritualized set of practices to find and prepare a soul and body for Darkseid. Ultimately, this is always going to come back to – and be – Bruce Wayne, and naturally, this will never work out.
“You will remember
When this is blown over
And everything’s all by the way”
Likely, one of the reasons Batman will never succumb, never be tilled and ripe earth for Darkseid, is that Bruce’s compassion is bigger than he wants and greater than Darkseid could bear. In Return of Bruce Wayne, at the end of all time, Bruce Wayne pauses, moments to losing everything, to grieve a woman who had, by calendar time, been dead millions and millions of years.
In that comic, Batman is entirely taken with Annie, a murderer, witch, and conspirer with evil gods, so much that he ignores the evidence of her crimes. A prototypical Catwoman, Zatanna, Jezebel Jett, Annie is also the convolution of Bruce’s suspicions of his mother. Bruce has significant psychological and social issues with women and they root down to his mother.
Bruce Wayne’s father was a famous man, a beloved surgeon, a respected philanthropist. His mother, who was an even more daring philanthropist, and heir to her own fortune, is more likely to be forgotten, or to be subsumed into her husband’s legacy and then forgotten. Some of the movie adaptations of Batman do so readily.
Bruce has to remember Martha Wayne.
“I flourished in my humble trade
My reputation grew
The work devoured my waking hours
But when my time was through”
The Batman which arcs through, before, beyond, through, under, over Final Crisis is not the storying of a time travel. All of us travel through time, most at one second per second. This is time, and the effluvia of time, like memory and continuity, traveling around a man. Bruce Wayne, rock in the storm, familiar gargoyle at the corner of the building, spilling rain from a stone mouth, weathering the nights and days, has time and canonicity move around him. Centuries, old comics, hypotheticals and worries. Bad memories. False memories. Maybe days. Restless nights.
Morrison’s Bruce Wayne indulges too heavily in micro-sleeps and lives in a hypnagogic state. If he is seeing Batmite return as Batmight and hearing statues and demons talk to him, so do we reading. Pirate Batman. Puritan Batman. The Detective.
In Return of Bruce Wayne, the Detective is a dollar store costume, a dress up on top of which an actor disguised as Bruce’s mother places an old fancy dress party costume of his father. Dad’s cape and mask. Daddy Bat.
RIP and Return both really show the most mortal of Bruce Wayne’s. And, the most magical. The one who hallucinates magical negro stereotypes and the one who can talk to ghosts and get advice from them. The Bruce Wayne who can be felled by a chain-smoking actor with a kiss, a golf club, and a lit cigarette. She poisons, concusses, and sets Bruce Wayne on fire. He is resurrected by alien robots at the end of time, because this Bruce is magic. He is good this way.
The Bruce of RIP and Return does not have to be Batman. He can be another Batman, a louder, wilder, showier Batman, called the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, or a myriad of imaginary friends, he can be predecessors, successors, ghosts, spirits, animist animations. Bruce is not the last man standing, the hero we all need, he is also the guy we and all his supporters will hold up, he is the hero who needs us.
The real truth of Batman is the real truth of Bruce Wayne: He was never alone.
“I’m just a poor boy nobody loves me
He’s just a poor boy from a poor family,
Spare him his life from this monstrosity”
Bohemian Rhapsody may as well be about Batman, about Grant Morrison’s Bruce Wayne. A Bruce more Scaramouch than he or we would care to accept. A boastful aristocrat hiding an innate fearfulness, a cowardice down inside the veins.
Bruce Wayne is terrified every day. And, he inflates himself. The retellings of events in The Missing Chapter, and elsewhere, reveal a man more than willing to re-story his life into something cooler, braver, smarter, faster, stronger. Bruce is a big kid and his physical and intellectual capabilities marry to his money and family name to allow it.
Bruce is afraid he will never be his father. He is afraid he will never be Alfred. He is afraid of his mother. He is afraid of death, of being a killer, of being at fault for death. Bruce is probably afraid he is the clown he sometimes pretends to be in public and he knows that he associates too intensely, too readily. He sees men like him as men like him and women far too much, too often, as his mother.
Tim Rice called Bohemian Rhapsody a coming out song, and Morrison, of course, during the midst of their long run on the character, declared Batman was – not homosexual but – intrinsically gay. Aesthetically gay.
Batman is super gay. And, Morrison was vigorously digging through his closet for the stuff in the back that too many vocal fans feared. In Morrison’s first issue writing the long run, the bat-poles from the 1960s tv show make their return. Dr Langstrom dresses like he lives in 1887. There’s BAM POW pop art everywhere. The run brought in Batmite, Zur-En-Arrh, Batwoman, the dog wearing a mask and having a Batdog identity.
Batman in rainbows and stubble, bleeding from the mouth and wielding a bat-bat, while villains in formals and domino masks decry, “Batman wears black! Batman is cool!” is a closet exit of the ages.
“Is this real life?” asks Bohemian Rhapsody, “just fantasy?”
The hypnagogic life of Bruce Wayne. He admits, often, it all feels like a fever dream, a bad trip, an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese. The rarebit fiend strikes past midnight! Bad dream called being awake.
“No escape from reality.”
The song does not ask the singer, and the comics do not ask Bruce, to wake or to open their eyes wider. That is for us. We need to see more than they do. They need our help.
For the protagonist of Bohemian Rhapsody and Morrison’s Bruce Wayne, while we can take a better perspective, they are “a poor boy,” who feels they, “need no sympathy.” They will tough it out. They are on their own. They are easy, high or low. Nothing really matters to them.
And, we know this is the braggadocio talking. It is the hype inside. The hype at the heart of Batman.
Just before RIP, in Bruce’s secret dreams even he may not be capable of distinguishing from flesh and sound reality, he believes he, “put a gun against his head,” in convincing the murderer of his parents to commit suicide. On levels, he believes he caused his parents’ murders, as well. And, the deaths of allies, the injuries and tragedies of family and friends.
Like the voice of Bohemian Rhapsody, Bruce is forever trying to make it up to his mother. The way Bruce will give every chance to women who scare him the most, but will never ever get too close, never turn his soft belly up to the claws that might eviscerate him, is an appeasement. Batman is not afraid he fails at being Batman – Bruce frequently says, to himself and to us, if Batman were afraid, he would not be Batman – Batman is external to him, a tale. But, Bruce is different. He might be a very good Batman and still be a Bruce Wayne manqué.
It’s hard to be dad, when dad is rich, smart, talented, beloved, and dead.
“Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go,
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth”
He could be alone. Even his big idea, his best imaginary friends like Death, Batmight, and Batman, may some day leave.
Leave him as a, “silhouetto of a man,” Scaramouch, doing his dance.
Bruce is afraid people think they can stop him, spit in his eye, that they can and will love him and leave him to die. Batman is a way to avoid these risks. Who spits at Batman and why would it matter? Death stops being scary, as Bruce’s imaginary friend who is Death says, when you stop and get used to it.
Bruce is unfair on himself, though. Bruce is bedeviled. Bruce is haunted by a thing of hell and horror.
As John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost: “Farewell, happy fields/Where joy forever dwells: hail horrors, hail/Infernal world, and thou profoundest hell/Receive thy new possessor: one who brings/A mind not to be changed by place or time./The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
“Bismillah!” they cry in Bohemian Rhapsody more than once. It means, in English, “God give me strength!” This is Batman. This is the invocation of Bat-might, of Batmight.
Crying for God and Mama to save and salvage his soul and being is the awakening Bruce experiences not only the night he decided, “Yes Father, I shall become a Bat,” but each night.
And, “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for” Bruce Wayne. Barbatos is that devil. The devil of Wayne. The hunter and hyper-adapter from the ancestor box. The coffin demon that wears Waynes like costumes. The negative space to the cutting costumed silhouette of the Batman. The hole helps make the whole and invalidate it.
Bruce has to make Batman because Barbatos presupposes the vacuity and absentia of a Batman. And, Barbatos makes the abscess because there is a Batman to corrupt.
Bruce has Batman and Batmite. In Bohemian Rhapsody, we have Figaro and Galileo, but aha! Galileo is likely not who we think! Galileo Galilei is a 16-17th Century physicist and astronomer, Galileo, here, can invoke a special Galilean, the Galilean, and ask us to magnify him.
Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ, is a Galilean. Like Prince, Galileo Galilei, named for an ancestor who was a medical doctor, often only went by one name, and like Jesus and Batman, too.
If you are going to make a big name for yourself, if you are going to create that broad and big and sharp and strong a silhouette to cover your small own, why not aim of Jesus (or Prince; I could write for ages on the Prince soundtrack to 1989’s Batman and all it means in this run and more).
Figaro? Figaro is not the aristocrat in disguise in The Barber of Seville. Figaro is the barber. Before that, he was the servant. Figaro is Alfred and Alfred is who Bruce truly wants to be. His father is a good man and a doctor, his mother is forgiving and fun and stylish. Alfred Pennyworth is all this and more. Soldier, actor, artist, appreciator of life, hero of the day, a man for all seasons and a man who can do anything. Alfred hangs the moon for Bruce Wayne and takes down the sun.
Five Ways to Read Final Crisis: Bismillah! A Bat-Bridge!
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