Batman and Robin, Vol. 3: Batman Must Die!
written by Grant Morrison
illustrated by Frazer Irving and Cameron Stewart
Grant Morrison's work on Batman may be the most definitive deconstruction of the character ever attempted. His long-term, overarching saga of the battle between Batman and Dr. Hurt, a psychologist posing as Thomas Wayne, Bruce's murdered father back from the dead, has been by turns polarizing and frustrating, but also a progressive work of sheer genius, or at least brilliance in retrospect. If read singly, Morrison's Batman stories have had little in the way of closure, let alone accessibility, often feeling like the small disassembled pieces of a jumbo puzzle. At first pass, some chapters in his initial outing, Batman and Son, felt like an incomprehensible mess. Other chapters required a keen grasp on the timeline sequence of Morrison's work across both Batman and Final Crisis. If read as an encompassing narrative, as an ongoing story, he has created an impressive body of work that forces readers to actively participate in the construction of the story and to think long and hard about what has been happening and piece together events on their own.
This third volume of Batman & Robin is most definitely not recommended for newcomers, as it not only picks up immediately after the second volume, Batman vs. Robin, but closely connects to several other segments of Morrison's work within the Batman franchise. The confrontation between Dr. Hurt and Bruce Wayne comes to a head, while Joker is back and out for revenge. All of this is set against the backdrop of a Gotham City gone riotous after being poisoned by the disturbingly entertaining Professor Pyg. There's a hefty amount of work in the pages of this volume, but dedicated readers will have already done much of the heavy lifting thanks to Morrison's earlier entries.
Throughout his work on the various Batman titles, Morrison has crafted a unique story that is, ultimately, about time. Not just time-travel in the sci-fi sense, but time in a literal way. Morrison has borrowed from, and been inspired by, 50 years’ worth of Batman mythology in an effort to tell his tale, reaching back to classic Silver Age comic book material, while also taking us into the near-future where Damian Wayne, Bruce's son, has taken on the mantle of the bat. We have gotten glimmers of The Dark Knight Returns, Batman Beyond, and Kingdom Come. His story has not been about Batman the character, but Batman the mythos. It is an expansive, ongoing work about family, memory, and legend, and the creation of mythology.
It's heady, thoughtful stuff that has been told in a fractured way, demanding readers to piece it together for themselves. Like all good mystery writers, Morrison has created an intricate puzzle that draws not only on the history of Batman but the entire Wayne family. It's about murder and magic, and the writer refuses to show his hand too soon. He tantalizes and teases, sometimes frustratingly so, slowly letting his readers in on the mystery before one-upping them again with another twist or a new wrinkle. It demands attention, and those who have dedicated themselves to Morrison's entire complex opus will be rewarded.
Some of the most enjoyable moments of Morrison's work have been watching him upend notable segments of Batman's history. There's a terrific reversal of sorts in this book when Damian, as Robin, confronts Joker, mimicking 1988's Death in the Family, which saw Joker dispatch a Robin (then Jason Todd) with a crowbar. Morrison has exhibited a strong grasp over Joker's craziness and has produced an excellent set of stories for the villain during his run on Batman and Batman & Robin that run the gamut of disturbing to hilarious, sometimes simultaneously.
As with The Return of Bruce Wayne, the weakest link to the story is artist Frazer Irving. While there are a few bright spots, such as his handling of the confrontation between Joker and Damian, too much of his art lacks dimensionality and appears flat. His work manages to be saved by a suitably dark color palette that contributes to the dark atmosphere of the plot. Frank Quitely makes a brief but welcome return, while David Finch expertly illustrates The Return.
Batman Must Die! represents a culmination of the work Morrison began with Batman and Son, while introducing readers to his next phase of stories in Batman, Inc. Examined through the filters of pop psychology, quantum physics, time travel, and an intriguing family dynamic, Morrison has injected an exciting level of freshness to the Caped Crusader throughout his run with the franchise. With Bruce Wayne firmly returning to the role of Batman, there is a renewed sense of energy and purpose that promises to propel the character, and his legend, forward into the future.