The worlds of R Crumb and Batman haven’t really crossed paths in the past few decades, but after reading Crumb’s Book of Genesis adaptation and Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne in quick sucession, it’s not hard to make all sorts of connections.
These are creation myths and legends: stories from when we had just figured out this civilisation thing, the first humans figuring it out as they go along. Taking those first steps away from the animal world and into something stranger and smarter.
It also helps if you happen to be watching The Ascent of Man, the BBC documentary from the 1970s that featured Doctor Jacob Bronowski and his slightly humourous speech impediment, wandering around the world, tracing the rise of mankind. Two episodes it and humanity has just worked out how to cut wheat without losing the good stuff. There is still a long way to go.
And there is still a long way to go in Genesis, especially when Noah has to kick things off all over again. As Crumb gleefully points out in his commentary, the Book of Genesis was the amalgamation of at least three written sources regarding the Creation, and it’s fascinating to see them all mashed up under Crumb's pen, as he faithfully reproduces the first book of the bible, with added boobies.
After a whole bunch of begotting, it gets into those weird morality plays that fill much of the early part of the Word of God and leave this reader with little in the way of spiritual encouragement, and loads of pitiful worries that the ancestors of us all were, well, fucking bonkers.
But the early stuff, where there is only Adam, Eve and the kids, remains my favourite part of the whole bible, because it uses some fairly complex metaphors for the growth of man, from that moment when we first stood out on the world and thought about the future.
No matter what creed you align yourself with, the birth of man is a fascinating piece of history. The use of tools, the establishment of agriculture, those first drawings on those cave walls, all those eons ago.
It’s all the more fascinating for the lack of any real record, and the oldest stories mankind produced are often vague and hard to follow. The very first part of Genesis is about all we’ve got and that’s been heavily twisted and edited over the centuries. So why not add some Batman to the birth of humanity? It couldn’t hurt.
There are no gods in the Return of Bruce Wayne, just ideas and concepts that are powerful enough to spark the dawn of modern consciousness. It’s an amazingly satisfying comic, clever and fast and funny.
There was a terrific moment in a recent episode of the Brave and the Bold cartoon where Batman finds that another version of himself has spontaneously emerged and Batman accepts the fact that his existence is so logical, it was bound to be repeated somewhere in the infinite universe.
Return of Bruce Wayne #1 does something similar with Robin, showing that wherever he turns out, no matter what situation he’s is, Batman will always have a Robin. That’s just one of many wonderful tiny little touches that fill the comic – there are all sorts of others, including the white necklace, the use of caveman grammar, the godlike appearance of Superman and Booster Gold, and the sheer visceral thrill of the scene where Batman puts his costume on and kicks some fuckin’ caveman ass.
But the best thing about it is the way Batman has such a huge impact, just by showing up at this crucial juncture of human history. With his unstoppable fighting style and little knife, he’s like the monolith in 2001, showing Young Man how it is done and influencing human history through force of will, an impeccable sense of justice and strong eye for a good visual.
As the introduction of Mr Wayne to the regular DC universe, this comic could scarcely be more satisfying. It is certainly helped by the usual consummately clean artwork of Chris Sprouse and Karl Story, although it might have been elevated to a comic of pure bloody perfection if they’d brought Joe Kubert, who has made no secret of his fondness for drawing protohumans in his various Tor storylines. While Sprouse remains a fantastic action artist, the story could have used a bit of that dirty Kubert thrill. To be honest, it’s not a shame Andy Kubert didn’t do much more than the cover – like his Dad, he draws excellent caveman.
But this a minor point in a great miniseries and with Batman coming closer to home with the climactic shunt into puritan times, his return looks set to be an entertaining and thoughtful story. It’s certainly got off to the best start, going back to the very beginning of us all and leaving his mark on the universe.