As mentioned in our review of its preceding volume, Demon Star – the second installment in Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated arc – has also been designated as volume 1 of the series. This is not a printing error, but a move designed to bring the series in line with DC’s “New 52” continuity. When the company-wide reboot occurred, Morrison’s latest Batman series (the grand finale to his seven year-run on the character) was still fourteen issues away from completion, and many fans feared that he would be forced to abandon the project altogether, or least make major revisions to the story line. Instead – somewhat surprisingly, given DC’s commitment to radically overhauling its key properties – it seems that Batman Incorporated has been allowed to continue with only minor cosmetic alterations. In fact, loaded references to previous story arcs in the first few pages of Demon Star suggest not only that Batman Incorporated is proceeding as planned, paying only the faintest of lip-service to “New 52” continuity, but that Morrison intends the series to serve as a climax for his entire seven year run on Batman, tying together all the various plot strands explored in the Batman & Son, Black Glove, RIP, Batman & Robin, Return of Bruce Wayne and Incorporated story arcs. It’s an incredibly ambitious undertaking, not least due to the intentionally fragmented narrative style which has characterised Morrison’s work on Batman right from the start, but if he pulls it off it’ll be a dazzling achievement.
The seven issues collected in Demon Star leave behind the episodic format of Batman Incorporated‘s first volume. We’re firmly in ‘arc’ territory here, with each issue adding another piece to the series’ vast mosaic, as the global Leviathan conspiracy, led by Talia al Ghul, sets its sights firmly on Gotham City. Bruce Wayne has created a monster of his own in the Batman Incorporated organisation, a mirror image of Leviathan with tendrils stretching around the world. Batman Inc’s Orwellian surveillance practices and forced conscription of agents are justified as necessary evils by its increasingly enigmatic founder, measures which must to taken to avert the future catastrophe he claims to have foreseen during his time-travelling in the Return of Bruce Wayne arc. Like players in an apocalyptic game of chess, Wayne and Talia deploy their pieces and execute their schemes, a situation further complicated by the bounty Talia has placed on the head of their son, Damien Wayne, in order to distract his father from the battle at hand.
Reading Demon Star, it becomes apparent that references to characters and events from earlier in Morrison’s run are starting to crop up more frequently as Batman Incorporated approaches its conclusion. The supernatural undertones which formed a part of the Black Glove and RIP story lines have made a welcome return, and hints that something deeper and darker might lie behind the machinations of Leviathan suggest a hellish fate for Batman and his allies. There is also a brief return to the dystopian future Gotham where Damien Wayne’s Batman literally deals with the devil (first sketched by Morrison six years ago in issue #666), revealed here to be one possible future which Bruce Wayne saw whilst travelling through time. Morrison clearly relishes the opportunity to blend a variety of styles from across eight decades of Bat-history (including even a couple of references to Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy), with the issues collected here marrying elements of nightmarish surrealism with more absurd and whimsical creations, such as the newest member of the extended Wayne family, Bat-Cow. Ably abetting him in this madcap odyssey is artist Chris Burnham, whose work has improved markedly since the series’ first volume. While he still has a tendency to ape the style of Frank Quitely, his character rendering in particular has come on leaps and bounds, and one of Batman Incorporated‘s greatest strengths is his gift for creating truly memorable (and often haunting) images. Whether it’s the sight of an isolated Arkham Asylum surrounded by a burning Gotham, gloating monsters toasting the end of the world at an ornate dinner table, or merely the look of mild anxiety on the face of a bovine crime-fighter, Burnham manages to imbue many panels with a real depth and symbolic significance.
Batman Incorporated, for all its position as a mainstream DC title, actually feels like the most “Grant Morrison” thing that Grant Morrison has written in years. It’s also probably (along with the rest of his Batman run) the best thing he’s written in years, and certainly since his magnum opus The Invisibles ended in 2000. But the same Morrison-esque tropes which will delight his fans (including a fractured narrative, elements of meta-fiction and unresolved mysteries which the reader must piece together themselves) are sure to alienate casual comics readers, and occasionally mean that other parts of his storytelling, such as his characterisation, suffer. A lot can be forgiven, though, simply because Batman Incorporated is such a thoroughly entertaining read. It has its flaws, but every issue is a thrilling page-turner, and plotting ambiguities which may initially have you scratching your head are more often than not resolved into hugely satisfying story developments. It remains to be seen whether the series will yet serve as a satisfying conclusion to seven years of Grant Morrison’s Batman (there are seven issues still to be collected), but if Demon Star is anything to go by, Batman Incorporated will be a fitting denouement to one of the greatest achievements in modern superhero comics.