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Well, it had to happen, didn't it? Despite being apparently killed off in the Batman RIP/Final Crisis storyline anyone who knows anything about comics knew that Bruce Wayne would return to claim his cape and cowl. And here's the storyline that proves everyone right.
Sent back to the era of the caveman by Darkseid, Bruce Wayne has lost all memory of who he is and what he has been through. All he knows is that he must survive. Mysterious forces leap him slowly forwards in time and with each new era comes a new battle for survival. Unfortunately, Wayne is carrying fatal Omega radiation with him (another present from Darkseid) and if he succeeds in fighting his way back to the present, he will trigger the end of everything. His superhero allies in the Justice League of America must either find a way to stop the threat from the radiation or stop Wayne from ever returning home.
There is a case to be made for arguing that Return is nothing more than a collection of 90s Elseworlds novels pulled together. Elseworlds was a series DC experimented with in the late 80s/early 90s. It took major characters out of their traditional timeline and put them in different times or places. Essentially, Return is five Elseworlds books (one set in prehistoric times, one in the era of pirates etc.) connected by a wider story arc.
This is no bad thing, though. Generally, the Elseworlds books were a breath of fresh air, allowing the opportunity to explore familiar characters in a new way. And so it proves here. Freed from the endless battleground of Gotham (or at least present day Gotham), The Return of Bruce Wayne examines different aspects of Batman's character which gives a new perspective on what makes Batman/Bruce Wayne tick.
The episodic nature of the tale provides a very strong structure and makes it a lot easier to follow. Author Grant Morrison sometimes has a tendency to over-complicate his stories and lose the reader in a sea of sci-fi, techno-babble and time travel nonsense. Whilst the plotting in Return is certainly complex, the tale is a lot more structured than previous Morrison entries and more accessible for the average reader.
Inevitably, thought, the story does bear the strong imprint of principle author Morrison, a man who loves his confusing and mind-bending time-travel tales. This is something which doesn't always work within the confines of Batman's world (the sci-fi elements can clash with the gritty realism of the Dark Knight's world.) This is an example of such a tale done well, however and for the most part, the two elements meld well. It's only in the last part that Morrison's sometime overblown storytelling techniques threaten to get out of hand. By this time, most readers will have invested so much in the tale that this will just be a minor blot, rather than a major black mark, although the abrupt ending is something of a disappointment.
As with other tales in this ambitious series, the artwork is of variable quality and the look and feel of differs considerably between the various parts. Whilst this reflects the number of artists who contributed to the project, it does give it a slightly inconsistent feel at times, with some artists capturing Batman's character and world better than others. The early caveman tale is exactly what you would expect portraying a harsh, hostile world where everything is a threat. The same can be said of the episode set during the Puritan era and the final part which sees Wayne return to the present
The one that really stands out like a sore thumb is the segment set in the Wild West. Here the artwork is almost childlike and really doesn't suit Batman, The over-simplistic, naive-style artwork jars badly with the portrayals elsewhere. In fact, this segment was probably the weakest part of the entire tale since (like the artwork) the story in this segment is simplistic and rather dull.
Of course, as noted in previous reviews of books in this epic story arc, you really need to have read the earlier volumes to make sense of this one, including The Black Glove, Batman RIP and Final Crisis titles. In fact, I'd go further: you need to have read those stories recently so that their events are still fresh in your memory and you can work out how they all link together. If it's a while since you read (say) The Black Glove, it would be well worth going back to the beginning and re-reading the whole saga back to back, concluding with this volume. You'll find it a far more rewarding experience that way.
The whole death of Bruce Wayne storyline has been hugely ambitious. There have been times when it has felt like little more than a cynical marketing exercise - a deliberate shake-up of the Batman universe designed to shift as many comics as possible and generate media interest. Overall, though, I think that's a little bit unfair because whilst there have been times when the saga has over-extended itself it has generally proved a highly enjoyable read. The extended nature of the storylines has allowed authors to develop characters in new ways or explore different aspects of their psychological make-up, whilst the ambitious story arc has proved flexible enough to allow for the introduction of new ideas.
Speaking as a long-time Batman fan, though, I'd like to think this is the last major upheaval in Gotham for a while and that the sci-fi elements (which over the past decade have too often threatened to get out of hand) will now take a back seat. It's time Batman got back to doing what he does best - being the grim Dark Knight fighting the deranged criminal masterminds that flood to Gotham City.
Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne
(c) copyright SWSt 2012