Simonson writes a three-part story arc in addition to the annual, which amounts to the lion's share of the work within. The three-parter, drawn by Jim Fern and Steve Mitchell, concerns a young boy with the metahuman ability to bring video games to life, an ability he seemingly uses to track down and kill an Arkham escapee, and then uses more and more, engulfing more of Gotham.
Commissioner Gordon and Sergeant Essen get wrapped up in the video games the boy uses as his inspiration, which they play for research, while Batman is guided by Robin Tim Drake, himself a video game aficionado.
I'm no gamer, in fact I probably haven't really played a non-Pac-Man video game since this comic was originally released, but it's fun and funny to see old men like Alfred and Gordon talking about video games at all. There's a real senior citizen rapping quality to some of the story, and it's interesting to see Fern and Mitchell and colorist Adrienne Roy try to affect now old-school video games intruding on reality.
I'm glad it's included, as it was a pleasure to read again, and to read it from the perspective of someone who has no read hundreds and hundreds of Batman comics, but it really does interrupt the flow of the book, which is otherwise a fine Batman anthology of shorter comics. If you don't remember, Armageddon 2001 concerned a hero from that far-flung future date travelling a decade back in time to discover which 20th Century hero would turn out to be the fascist masked tyrant "Monarch" in his dystopian era. To do this, the hero, Waverider, would touch a particular character and use his powers to "read" their future. This mainly meant a series of Dark Knight Returns-style dark future stories starring each of the DC heroes; some of the strongest, he explains, need tested repeatedly, which explains the multiple encounters that Batman and Superman get in their multiple titles (The participating Batman annual also had a pretty great cover, and was another I read from the series, along with a Superman one that was an earlier example of the Superman-gone-bad genre which has long since ballooned).
DC doesn't seem to have figured out a way to collect their annual crossover events, which would likely necessitate an unwieldly omnibus of some sort, or else a series of trades, but I would eagerly buy collection of the events, particularly this one, which I missed so much of.
Anyway, Simonson is partnered with the great Tom Grindberg, who colored his own work as well as drew that great cover, for what is essentially another, if final, go-round with the Al Ghul family.
Opening in media res, with Batman fighting Ra's over a vat growing a plague virus, the adventure ends unusually enough, with Batman's bat-rope giving way as he rappels down a mountain, and he falls, breaking his back. While Batman mopes, the Gotham of about-ten-years-in-the-future spirals out of control, enough so that an adult Tim Drake takes up the mantle of Batman to fill-in.
When he's gunned down on the job, the crippled Bruce Wayne is forced to get his shit together to seek vengeance. This he does by building new versions of the sort of cyborg braces we see an elderly Alfred Pennyworth wearing; after a trial-and-error and training montage, Batman eventually builds a sort of cyborg suit he can wear under his normal costume.
The new, bullet-proof, super-strong Batman takes to the streets to find out who killed the boy in the Batman costume, with the answer leading him back to the Al Ghuls. At the climax, Batman finds himself stripped of his cyborg suit and dying again, this time about to be lowered into the Lazarus Pit himself. He chooses a rather unBatmanly way to escape, albeit one that fits with the idea of a "last" Batman story.
It's a pretty compelling story, and, of course, brilliantly drawn. It colored the way I saw Batman for a while, I think, but then, Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns left such a long shadow over the Batman of the early '90s, with a Batman more aware of his mortality, more concerned with his mission than things like his life as Bruce Wayne and more invested in the pose as a terrifying monster of the night meant to scare criminals straight that it's hard to disentangle Simonson's use of these tropes from those of her peers and from Dark Knight in general, which, as I said, seems to have been an influence of sorts on the entire event. (I'd need to read more of it to be sure, though, DC, so get collecting! Checking Wikipedia; it seems there are only a dozen participating annuals, plus the book-ending chapters of the stories, so I think a pair of thick trades would handle the whole series nicely).
The book also collect "Destroyer", a multi-book crossover (here's where those issues of Batman and Legends of The Dark Knight come in). The real-world rationale for the book was to bring the Gotham City of the comics more in line with the Gotham City of the movies, with Batman '89 production designer Anton Furst's designs being imported into the comics. The in-comic rationale for this was a demolitions expert obsessed with old Gotham architecture executing a series of bombings, brining down newer, boxier, more real-world looking buildings, revealing the older, weirder designs they were hiding.
The story, by Grant and Breyfogle and Denny O'Neil, Chris Sprouse and Bruce Patterson and Grant, Aparo and DeCarlo, marks an official turning point in the way Gotham appeared in the comics. I'm not sure it was necessary, per se; like, I can't imagine Kelley Jones not drawing weird-looking towers brimming with bizarre gargoyles when he took over Batman a few years later, but it was a story concerned with Gotham's architecture. (Interestingly, this came out in 1992, the same year that Grant Morrison's "Gothic," also concerned with the spiritual aspects of Batman's home town's architecture, was released).
The rest of the book is done-in-ones by a variety of creators. Perhaps the best of these, one I remember making me very uncomfortable after I fished it out of a back-issue bin some time ago, was the Peter Milligan-written "The Bomb," drawn by Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo. It was basically a new take on The Human Bomb character from the Golden Age; that guy doesn't appear, but someone with his bizarre super-powers of blowing himself up and causing explosions does, and they are treated quite differently than the war-time superhero was.
Milligan and Aparo re-teamed for another done-in-one, this one a murder mystery entitled "The Library of Souls," about a librarian gone bad who treats his victims like books, and tries to organize them thusly.
And, finally, the collection begins with "The Third Man," by Kelly Puckett and Luke McDonnell, in which Batman must try to solve a particularly perplexing series of murders...a case also being pursued by a pair of old ladies who are also gifted amateur detectives.