Since the beginning of his run on "Batman" over two years ago, Grant Morrison has been laying the groundwork for the climax of "Batman R.I.P." Now, with issue #681, we get the conclusion of that story -- sort of -- and it's awfully hard to talk about it without spoiling the revelations at the end.
But I'll try my best to make this review spoiler-free.
"Batman" #681 opens with a familiar superhero trope that recalls everything from Spider-Man in "Kraven's Last Hunt" to the Bride in "Kill Bill, Vol. 2": the buried hero. A necessary aspect of that trope is the flashback, in which the buried hero recalls some event from his or her past. In this case, Batman recalls a post-Nanda Parbat encounter with an agent of the Black Glove, and the flashback demonstrates the degree to which Batman has prepared for every eventuality. That's kind of the theme of this issue: Batman, like any good boy scout, is always prepared. Of course, he's quite unlike the average boy scout with his tormented and fragmented psyche, but he's working on that too.
The other required scene in any hero-buried-alive sequence is the image of the hero punching up through the ground, preferably with some sort of tombstone in the background as the hero ascends into the realm of the living. We get that, although Tony Daniel's preference for a hunched-over Batman with a swirling cape (and image which he repeats twice in the span of three pages) doesn't quite give the heroic emphasis that might have been. But, overall, Daniel's art is perfectly serviceable for this issue, even if it never rises above stock poses and static storytelling. There's nothing in the art that would signify that "Batman R.I.P." is a special kind of Batman story.
But it is a special kind of Batman story, because it's not only the climax of almost two-dozen Morrison-penned Batman episodes, but because it reveals the true identity of Dr. Hurt, the man who has been tormenting Bruce Wayne for so long. He's been "there since the beginning," says Hurt, and while I won't spoil the revelation here, I think it's safe to say that anyone who read my "When Words Collide" column from a couple of weeks ago won't be completely shocked by the "secrets" revealed in "Batman" #681.
Is this issue a satisfying conclusion to "Batman R.I.P."? Yes, as the events of recent issues are explained and put into context more explicitly. But yet we're left with plenty of unanswered questions about the larger picture, and the final few sequences seem too abrupt, as if we're flashing toward too many previews of things to come even as some of the dangling threads have been left unresolved.
"Batman" #681 is a good issue, and important one, but it also puts an end to the speculation and gamesmanship that has sustained the series over the past six months, and in that regard, it comes with a hint of disappointment as well. But mysteries cannot linger forever, and even while wrapping up some of these, Morrison has left the door open for more to come.