Be careful everyone. He's on Bat-drugs.

Batman #678

I rather liked this (part 3 of 6 for the current R.I.P. storyline), even moreso after I went over the prior two issues again. That's somewhat gratifying, since I do think that one of the chief criticisms levied against Final Crisis -- that it's a grab bag of allusions and ideas spilled onto the sidewalk and pronounced a 'story' -- is more applicable to this series. Although even it reads better in big chunks.

Take the first two pages, in which Robin reads through Batman's notes on their many odd cases. It's a nice little introduction to the issue, setting up the danger Robin's going to be encountering and playing on Batman's fragmented state of mind. The Black Casebook was helpfully set up earlier in the storyline -- both Robin and it went missing last issue -- so it'll work in the inevitable trade collection.

But it only really has impact if you've read various prior storylines, with Batman struggling to put all of his past together - it'll also probably help to realize (maybe via interview) that Morrison is trying to treat all of Batman's adventures as 'true,' having happened to one man in the space of a few years, something I don't think has come across all that clearly in the story itself, unfortunately. Tom Spurgeon had an interview a few weeks back with Robert Greenberger, author of The Essential Batman Encyclopedia, who deemed Morrison's concept "tough to swallow" - well sure! As we see at the top of this issue, Batman thinks it's tough to swallow too, and it gnaws at his mental state.

Which, if you've read some earlier issues, acts at yet another Batman-Joker comparison. The irony of Morrison's concept for Batman is that Bat-history is so fucking hopeless in its jarring tonal shifts and contradictory nature that -- being all true thanks to narrative fiat -- it can't help but drive a sane man to the edge. The Joker, meanwhile -- insane as always -- finds it simple to update his personality, casting off his prior personas like a snake shedding old skin. I mean, who the hell does that?

Actually, superhero characters do all the time, but it's insane - and, as Morrison showed with poor Harley Quinn, it can be hurtful to those invested in the 'old' property, if you take it in an in-DCU sense. It's cruel; Morrison's experiment is to free Batman of that theory of cruelty by forcing him to gel his persona across the compressed decades, which naturally threatens to drive him mad, since he's living in the funhouse mirror Earth of a superhero comic, where nobody dies and full-scale change is but a creative shakeup away.

You sure won't get that from just plucking Batman: R.I.P. off the shelf at Borders this holiday season.

Yet this is also supposed to function as it's own story, so we have the terrible Doctor Hurt activating the evil code he's implanted in Our Hero and pumping him up with heroin and "weapons grade crystal meth," and dumping him out on the streets like in The French Connection II. Bruce then encounters Honor Jackson, a character last seen back in part 1 who veers perilously close to "magical negro" territory, although at least Morrison has the courtesy to frame him as a sort of spirit guide through the underworld (albeit one who got to be a spirit through his misuse of Batman's unwitting act of kindness from a few issues ago... which does complicate things even more).

All of this is broken up with superhero actiony bits, like Robin (who's constantly eating things for some reason) nearly breaking an evil mime's neck and Nightwing clashing with Roman-type guards, but then Nightwing is talking to Robin via Bat-item and there's a villain behind him! "Look out, Nightwing!" I shouted, and everyone else in the parking lot turned and stared, but they don't understand. Meanwhile, Doctor Hurt parades around the Batcave in an awesome silent movie-type Evil Bat-costume - note the vintage of the Black Glove, if you've read the J.H. Williams III storyline. I really like the idea of a pre-Batman Batman acting as the story's heavy.

Anyway, since I'm obviously out to synopsize the entire issue, Batman is given a Magical Item by Honor (gah), and heads back to Crime Alley to be born again. Rain pours, lightning strikes, "zur-en-arrh" is again invoked -- both the code for madness and magic! -- and Batman emerges again in a faintly outstanding purple, red and gold garbage bag Bat-costume with Bat-Mite by his side as his possible boy sidekick! I mean, fuck the health of the industry; I'm glad one of DC's flagships has gotten this goddamned odd.

Or wait, is he Azrael now? Angel of death, patron of the '90s (shit, is that Purgatory?), similar costume. It is as Extreme! a look as it is silly, and it'd fit in well with Morrison's ongoing concerns - still love that Knightfall logo on the cover.

Oddly, Batman also pricks his finger while sewing his new duds, a possible reference to the 'snapping out of a trance' bloodletting bit from Arkham Asylum. Well, more accurately, something that was supposed to happen in Arkham Asylum, before Dave McKean transformed it into a multi-page cataclysm of self-mutilation, "which would surely have rendered Batman's hand entirely useless for the rest of the book, and possibly the remainder of his useless life," as Morrison remarked in his annotations to the 15th Anniversary Edition. There is a ritual element to it all, but what the ritual does remains to be seen.

A few things can be seen at the present, though, enough to make me feel better about waiting things out. I'll certainly want to see what the Joker brings to the table next issue, when he supposedly begins participating in the action more directly - first time I've been looking forward to the next issue in this whole run, honestly.