Overview: Trapped in the Dark Multiverse, an elderly Bruce Wayne finds a mystery lurking in his own history.
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): Last we saw Batman he was trapped in the Dark Multiverse, aged and drained of his forces. This issue opens with him still aged, but in Wayne Manor instead. He is Grandpa Bruce now.
A little girl called Janet, whom we may assume is Tim’s daughter given her name, joins him in his study. She wants him to tell her a story. Other children playing in the halls, four of them. Her cousins. Janet wants to hear a real story, a Batman adventure. Grandpa Bruce tells her to pick one out of the shelf. He has 78 years of his career as Batman written down, along with some photographs and trophies. He even gives them titles. On the book spines we can read titles such as Court of Owls, A Lonely Place of Dying, Knightfall, Dark Victory, The Black Mirror, Long Halloween, Tower of Babel and other real-world Batman stories.
Janet chooses her favorite, The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.
Taking the tome to her Grandpa, the little girl settles on his lap as Bruce proceeds to read his first case. “I was just a young hero then, still taking shape”, he says. The book starts with a window, and that is not how he remembers it. He tells her that, but Janes dismisses him. That is exactly how she remembers it starting.
We are then taken to the story as it is being told. In this version, it starts with a window. Young Lambert is staring out, holding a gun at the ready, paranoid that there is something lurking on the outside of the glass. Batman batarangs it out of his hand, tells him he is there to help. He has evidence that Lambert was not the one to kill his father, the theory the police is going with. Batman inquires Lambert about the window, what was it he saw at the moment of his father’s death. Lambert saw a shape. He says that it is a curious window, birds always crashing into it because they cannot see the glass.
The windowpanes are bloodied. Grandpa Bruce hesitates once again on his reading; the blood on the window is not part of what he remembers. Janet says that it was always like that.
We are abruptly taken to another setting, one in which two Iron Age tribes are fighting each other. The Dawn of Man. An owlish hooded female is there with Bruce. Dressed only in animal skin, a Bat hanging around his neck, Bruce watches as the Bat Tribe, led by Hath-Set, battles the Bird Tribe, led by Khufu and Chay-Ara. This is the first war in a battle that spans all human history, says the Owl. The war of Birds and Bats.
The Owl takes Bruce to a cave where she tells him that something saw him when he got pushed back in time, followed by the Hyper-Adaptor. This being marked Bruce then as the one who would bring him to the world, his ultimate vessel. He remained dormant because the birds pushed him back. The Bat hanging on his neck comes to life and bites him, and we are now in another setting.
This time, Bruce is in full Batman regalia, in the middle of a desert. Big machinery lay ahead and behind him, and people start coming out of a hole in one of them. Their Batman is gone, he can never come back, they say. Batman reminds himself that none of that is real, reminds himself that he is trapped in the Dark Multiverse.
The people are now running towards him, all of them wearing Bat symbols, clamoring for him to save them. They are gunned down by the Hawk Patrol, led by a fully grown Damian. He tells his father that the symbol of the Bat has become a symbol of doom, all because of Bruce. He orders his men to open fire.
As the bullets leave the guns, we are taken back to The Case of the Chemical Syndicate. Grandpa Bruce had fallen asleep while reading the book to Janet, those places were in his dreams. We are now at the moment Batman and Rogers are trapped inside a gas chamber. “Right up against the glass. Looking through. But trapped inside.” Batman breaks the glass, but Grandpa Bruce does not want to tell this story anymore. He needs to find a way back up, he tells Janet. She says no, that he needs to climb down the ladder.
The Batman of the tale climbs down a manhole and turns up in the middle of a sacrificial ceremony. He is now Thomas Wayne, and he is the one who has to take the life of the girl on the sacrificial table to continue with the Ceremony of the Bat. An earth tremor halts them. Barbatos is coming, his companions are all leaving through the same ladder he used to get there. Thomas is left alone in the underground chamber, and the woman on the sacrificial table rises. She resembles Kendra Saunders. She probably is an incarnation of Kendra Saunders.
She tells Thomas that she will die by fire, serving her purpose. Her grave, the cave in which she dies, will be the foundation stone for a new city, “A city marked by him, waiting for you.” The cult believed her to be the one who could bring their dark god into the world, but she knows better, she knows that Batman is the true wagon. “I have been prepared by the Judas of the Bird Tribe,” she says, “To give him influence. To open the window.” Thomas Wayne now turns back into Batman, this time in his Rebirth uniform, and is taken to another setting.
Batman is under a spotlight. Behind him is a wall plastered with headlines that read “MAYOR JOKER says the only rule in Gotham is that there are no rules.” Beside him stand a random guy in a Green Arrow suit, and a random girl in a Batgirl suit. They are part of a game, a game in which the heroes are hunted down and killed by people dressed as the villains. Batman is aware at this moment that this a figment of his imagination. He needs to find a way out, a way up. A window.
As he is gets attacked by the mob, he is taken back to The Chemical Syndicate tale. Stryker, the man who committed the crimes, falls into a vat of acid. Batman asks him who he is, to what the man answers “You know. You’ve always known.” As the man is engulfed by the green fluid, we are taken to another scene.
Gotham is shining golden as Alan Wayne looks through an owl-shaped tower viewer. He finds that the metals used by Wayne Steel are laced with something connected to the Tribe of the Bat. His discovery is cut short by the visit of a Talon who executes him. Nevertheless, the same Alan Wayne is now seen running on the streets of Gotham, wearing only a silk robe. Except he knows he is, in fact, Bruce. Policemen stop him while he rambles. He is screaming he is Batman, he fights with Superman and Wonder Woman. He sees Diana across the street, a golden aura surrounding her. He reaches out for her, but falls into another manhole.
Batman is now in a spaceship, Harley Quinn by his side. They are fleeing earth, fleeing the Justice Wars. He believes that now that he is in space he can finally find the window, so he blows a hole in the hull of the ship and flings himself into the void.
Janet’s voice reappears. “You’re messing up the story, Grandpa,” she says, trying to take him back to the Chemical Syndicate. And there he is, back in the room with the window. The birds that smash into the window, they all follow a trajectory, Batman finds. They are trying to get somewhere. “Birds can be confused by strong vibrations in metal. Even attracted to them,” Batman says, as haloed images of Superman and Nightwing appear behind him. “The birds are trying to help me. I surround myself with them, to remind me who I am.” He reminds himself he is Batman, he is trapped, he needs to escape. He finds a secret passage but has no time to reach it, Janet pulls him out of the story before he does.
She takes the book out of his hands. Bruce is desperate, he wants to get to the end of it, needs it to get out. A creepy smile appears on her face. She won’t let him finish it. Janet turns into a long-limbed, red-eyed creature. She climbs the walls and, like a spider, hides in a dark spot where Bruce can’t find her.
Fire poker in hand, Bruce approaches the window of his study. A voice starts talking to him, a new balloon telling us this is an entirely new character. Batman’s past and future are covered in darkness, the voice says. A past with birds and bats shaping him, a future where he always fails. The voice takes the shape of a face on the windowpane, the face of a man with a disturbing smile on his face.
The face of Barbatos stares back at Bruce. He claims to have always been there, just beyond the window-panes of Bruce’s study. The face of the Bat, the Bat who says he shaped the tribe of Bats, the Owls, Bruce’s family, his city.
Bruce starts pounding on the window while Barbatos continues, saying “I am the Bat and I am the Father.” Bruce defies him, says he’ll get out. He smashes through the window and is now face to face with Barbatos, surrounded by visions of the Multiverse, of universes where Bats control the world. Those universes, whole galaxies, all built by Bruce’s terrors, fears, and failings. The visions change, and Bruce is now shown his own Earth, the Dark Knights battling the Justice League. All versions of himself, all brought through the window by Barbatos. Overtaken by the visions, Bruce gives up on knowing more, gives up on facing Barbatos for the time being.
He is back as Grandpa Bruce, Janet on his lap, the book still in his hands. He believes to have fallen asleep. He starts over, all the way from the beginning of the story. It reads “It starts with a window… and a scream… lost to the dark…”
Analysis: How does one analyze a self-referenced book? Make no mistake, this is a Batman book about Batman, where Batman reads a Batman book. A tale about the character, about the mythos, about his history. In a way this is more of a Batman book than a Metal book, considering how much it drinks from the character’s publication history. It is not by chance that the writers chose to make Grandpa Bruce 78 years old, the same age The Bat-Man is in our own, real world.
So, the question remains. How should Batman: Lost be analyzed? Just like Bruce inside the Multiverse, millions of options present themselves. This could be turned into an analysis of all of the references made to past publications – of which there are many, this book is so heavily inspired by Morrison it almost reads as one of his works. This aspect could also be ignored in favor of a review of the issue itself and how it holds up on its own, which it does mainly due of the quality of the art, guiding the reader through the multiple, constant shifts in direction. Another route would be to tie it to Metal, see how it adds to the understanding of what the event is about. What it is like to be trapped in dark dreams, how the issue remains true to the horror sub-tones of the event.
I found this Gordian knot to be impossible to untangle, my usual reviewing methods all falling short. An unanswerable puzzle. So there I had it, the book is a puzzle. I chose to dive into it like I would a puzzle.
Puzzles, riddles, mysteries. There is a peculiar curve to them. They have to be hard to crack to be enjoyable. Pry our minds and make us think. Make us come back to that tiny detail, realize it changes everything. Make us destroy and rebuild hypotheses, time and time again. The more intricate and well woven, the better the mystery. There is a limit though. An unsolvable puzzle is not a puzzle at all, it is just a mess. You reach that limit, your line breaks. You pass that curve, you lose its meaning.
Batman: Lost is tiptoeing the peak of this curve. The first read gives you a first impression, and it looks complete. There, riddle answered, puzzle solved. Except you’ll find yourself holding a puzzle with uneven ends, begging for more pieces to be added to it.
This first impression we get is that this is a horror story with psychological underlinings. This story takes a man from a comfort zone, leads him through a trail where some uncanny elements put him on alert. The moment he awakens from his comfortable slumber is marked by an incredible display of art by Doug Mahnke. Bruce breaks the glass, shatters the window, jumps through it. The opposite movement of that bat from long ago.
This euphoria is short-lived, for he rapidly gives into the despair that being inside Barbatos’ mind gives him. By the end, we see him break. The idea that the Bat has the face of an ancient god is enough to rip him apart, bring the scared child that lies dormant in his soul to the forefront, and we see this image come to life at the hands of Jorge Jimenez.
This tale about despair, about realizing there is something wrong in your comfortable situation, trying to act on it and, disheartened, to fall back on your old habits is human enough to make this issue stand on its own. But the puzzle is left incomplete if we stop there.
A second reading helps finding some of the lost pieces. You realize the whole plot is guided by glass and metal, by blood and sacrifice. You go in knowing where the Janet piece fits, and knowing that the three artists are representing three different situations. Doug Mahnke is the one capturing Grandpa Bruce. Jorge Jimenez comes in the middle with the dreamscapes. Yanick Paquette deals with page turns of the book Bruce is reading, the “page marker” panels helping the reader find its footing in this crazy journey.
The whole thing starts to take better shape, but the uneven edges remain. As it turns out, the other pieces are only to be found on other boxes. Boxes such as The Return of Bruce Wayne, Court of Owls, The Case of the Chemical Syndicate. They gave you the clue, it lies in the library of Grandpa Bruce.
The story that changes its character right in front of our eyes. Its top notes are of a monster story, its middle notes of a psychological drama, but its base is that of a true detective story. Let it rest for a moment, let those first notes evaporate. This is a detective story, I tell you.
A good mystery is one that not only has the detective in the story looking for clues to get to see the whole picture, but also the reader. Taken out of our comfort zone, we are left trying to make sense of the madness around us. Bruce is lost, grasping for anything solid around him, trying to figure out his own history as he goes, all the while looking for a way out of the Dark Multiverse. The clues are always there: the birds, the glass, the windows, the stairs. Along the way, as we, readers, try to make sense of the rapid shifts in the story, we start grasping for references to the Batman canon, to books we have previously read. We are, together with Bruce, investigating Batman’s 78-year history.
In a self-referenced book about the World’s Greatest Detective, James Tynion, Scott Snyder and Joshua Williamson could not have chosen a better route than to give him the greatest mystery of all: what is it that makes The Bat-Man? His first case, his last case.
Final Thoughts: A multidimensional book set in the Multiverse, as Batman investigates Batman himself. Incredibly well woven, with enough power to send the reader searching for answers in the history of the Caped Crusader, diving into the psyche of the man behind the mask and the mask itself. If that sounds like Morrison, it was probably their intention all along.