Poor little Boots.

Batman #679

Even in the weaker of his recent comics, Grant Morrison typically manages to pack in at least one panel of superior fantasy glee, in which absurd, catchy notions are casually pitched out to meet with understated superhero tropes and share a laugh.

In the underwhelming Final Crisis #3, that panel saw Jay Garrick, staring into a coffee mug, sitting on a couch with his concerned wife and Barry Allen's weeping widow, his winged helmet shining in the parlor light, gravely intoning: "It's a little-known fact that death can't travel faster than the speed of light." In this newest issue of Batman, the moment arrives when a supervillain luchador in a jacket and tie strides into Arkham Asylum, gazing mildly at a scroll and offering a stern warning to his blossom-bearing gargoyle henchmen:

"Just don't let the black and red roses come into contact with one another or everyone dies."

And luckily, this isn't one of Morrison's lesser issues - it's probably the best his Batman has been since the wonderful 1990s-as-the-future-as-Hell #666, pushing Our Addled Hero to entertainingly mean places while nudging forward all of this run's special concerns.

Certainly the Knightfall allusions (speaking of the '90s) continue to stack up, with Dr. Hurt vowing to "break" Batman, while the man himself leaps around in his Zur-en-arrh costume -- which still reminds me of Azrael's armor in its color scheme, Silver Age origin or not -- thrashing villains with his trusty Bat-bat (YES) and declaring himself Batman without Bruce Wayne: a temporary, terribly badass situation that played itself out in a prior storyline with a modified Bat-logo in the upper right corner of every cover.

But while the Jean-Paul Valley replacement seemed mandated by the chase for shock money, Morrison plays the whole thing out as the latest and most extreme of all the character's contingency plans - crafting an entire break-glass-in-case-of-emergency subconcious parachute persona to take over in case Bruce Wayne's mind just happens to collapse. If Batman-the-comic can survive any tampering, it makes sense that Morrison -- eager to wrap up every last scrap of Bat-history into one long, strange story -- would have Batman-the-character cook up his own similar 'replacement' for a similarly dehabilitating occasion.

Also, beyond all the 'Batman dancing around town in a garbage bag costume and hitting people with a baseball bat' merriment, there's new hints of a certain discomfort the writer has been exhibiting with 'big' superhero plot twists - think Lex Luthor all but rolling his eyes at the Martian Manhunter's death in Final Crisis #2, while Superman prays for his swift revival. There's a fine bit in here where archfiend Dr. Hurt tries to reveal himself as -- *gasp!!* -- Thomas Wayne, Batman's beloved father, and Alfred just doesn't believe him. Not in the NOOOOOOO sense, but the 'no, that's absurd' sense, which is how that threatened twist has been treated every time it's been shockingly brought up in whatever form.

A lot of self-awareness as to what a major storyline ought to do is on display here, and a touch of mockery; surely the stage was set by that screamingly obvious segment with Random Police Officer A talking about his dear young son, only to be impaled on spears four panels later.

It's great, fast stuff, really delivering on the promise of all those earlier issues, which had a way of just seeming abridged. Put another way, at its worst, Morrison's Batman felt less like reading an actual comic than an illustrated version of Morrison's script notes and outlines for a Batman comic you'd love to see once it's actually written. For readers just stopping in, this, on the other hand, is more like Morrison excitedly telling you about his great Batman comic -- all Caliguan bad guys naming nearby fish senators, the Joker fixing his nails in the red and black pattern of life/death, joke/punchline, and the Knight and Squire rushing to the rescue -- while acting as some sweet fulfillment for devout readers. Christ, he's gonna pull it off again.