By: Grant Morrison (story), Chris Burnham, Andrews Guinaldo, Bit (art), Nathan Fairbairn (colors)

The Story: Batman tries to stop a national meltdown and global tyranny; Robin adopts a kitty.

The Review: You know the great thing about the superhero genre?  Its very nature forces you to accept all kinds of things that defy logic.  The moment you wade into a story, costumed folks with unnatural powers are just the tip of the mind-boggling iceberg.  That gives writers like Morrison a huge opportunity to take advantage of your suspended disbelief and deliver the most ridiculous plot possible on the grandest scale possible.

The world’s greatest detective and the daughter of an immortal assassin acting out a custody battle via international guerilla warfare sounds like it fits the bill.  But is it really all about their son?  For all we know, this could all just be one massive hissy-fit on Talia’s part, a full-blown scheme to wound Batman’s heart one way or another (“Gotham. Or Damian.  Whichever you choose, the other dies.”) as payback for rejecting her.  Remember: “Belladonna” is both a poison and a beautiful woman.

This kind of metaphorical play is exactly the kind of literary wizardry Morrison lavishes in; no other writer comes close.  In this issue, he incorporates—pun intended—the ten stages of enlightenment as understood through the Chinese ox herding pictures, a spiritual commentary on Batman’s journey through the deathtrap* Talia leaves for him.  Here, Talia intentionally changes the animal, which represents true self, from an ox to a goat, explaining it “has so many layers.”  She’s correct on that point.  In Chinese culture, the goat signifies peace and good; in Greek myth (at one point, Talia describes Batman as “Olympian”), the goat is the symbol of protector and preserver; the Bible (a favorite reference source for Morrison) allows the goat to be used to carry away the sins of others, freeing them from the consequences—the proverbial scapegoat.  So the question is: which is Bruce, the goatherd or the goat?

Phew!  That sure gives the ol’ noodle a workout, doesn’t it?  Of course, if you’re not inclined to think so much when reading a comic, you can just sit back and enjoy the craziness of the events before you.  Talia isn’t just dead serious in her vendetta, she has gone completely off the deep end of villainy.  I shan’t spoil it for you, but the evils she commits in this issue are irredeemable, impossible to forgive or justify.  And yet you can’t help respecting the masterful execution of it all; she has certainly earned her place in the highest echelons of Batman’s enemies, right there with her old man, perhaps even higher.

In fact, you have a hard time imagining how the Dark Knight will get out of this one, or whether it’ll even matter if he does.  I do have a theory about how Talia’s meticulous plan can all fall apart, however.  She’s made only one mistake, as far as I can see; when you force someone to choose one thing over the other, you better make sure one of those things isn’t someone who can make his own choices on the matter (Damian: “If I don’t save the day…no one will.”).

Burnham works overtime to flesh out everything Morrison packs into this issue.  The really crazy thing about it is he not only conveys every minute detail in the script, but also deliver the full emotional impact of every scene and the pulsing energy of every movement.  When you take one look at Squire’s tearful, bloody face, the rage and grief and pain completely rattles you.  It’s a brutal issue, and Burnham makes you feel every crack and blow of it.  Guinaldo and Bit manage not to stand out too much in their small fill-in sequence, but that’s mostly due to Fairbairn’s consistently subdued colors; in style and form, Guinaldo and Bit have nothing in common with Burnham and it’s very obvious.

Conclusion: In many ways, you have to earn your own reward from a Morrison script.  On the plus side, this one’s a real doozy, and what you get out of it, should you try, is equally rich.

Grade: A-

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * The building Batman navigates, by the way, is called St. Malphas.  Malphas is the name of a great demon who builds powerful strongholds, destroys those of his enemies, and specializes in defeating the thoughts and desires of others, a god of liars.  The saintly part of the building’s name is, appropriately enough, a misleading misnomer.

– Okay, what is up with all the animals piling up under Damian’s care?  First Titus, then Bat-Cow, now Alfred, the touchy cat.