Originally Published December 2, 2011
DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Drew Baumgartner and I are two such nerds, and we’ve decided to jump in with a handful of monthly titles. We really wanted to pull out all the nerd stops, so we’re also going to be writing about them here and on Drew’s blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of Batman and Robin while Drew is hosting the discussion of Aquaman.
Patrick: We’re reading eight titles for this series. Three are written by Geoff Johns and two are written by Peter Tomasi. I think I would be able to pick out Johns’ writing without seeing his name on the cover – there’s a certain amount of aggressive cleverness in the dialogue and also a lot of posturing and inflated egos from his heroes. But while I think we both agreed that Green Lantern Corps (Tomasi’s other book) is a little overstuffed with meaningless characters and incidents, Batman and Robin feels much more streamlined and deliberate. As such, I think this is a really successful series and a lot of fun to boot.
When the DC Universe relaunched itself, there was an awful lot in the Batman world that didn’t change. It was my understanding that one of the principal aims of the relaunch was to allow for an easy access point for newbies that had been intrigued by these characters as portrayed in other media. Which makes a ton of sense. Batman is at the heart of a film series directed by Christopher Nolan, he’s the hero of Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum and Arkham City video games, DC just released an animated version of Batman: Year One (which maybe we should also discuss in one of these things?) and it seems like there’s always a new animated series featuring Batman (The Batman, Batman: Brave and the Bold, etc.). Batman is a massively popular character but his comic book continuity, as guided by the pens of Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder, was becoming increasingly impenetrable. Batman died. Sort of. His soul (or… something… I don’t totally get it) was sent back in time during the events of Final Crisis and Bruce had to claw his way through time, era by era, before catastrophically crashing into the present. During this time, Dick Grayson plays the part of Batman and Bruce’s son, Damien Wayne-Al’ Guhl, plays the part of Robin. Realizing that Dick and Damien have Gotham under control, Bruce goes about franchising the Batman school of crime fighting, traveling the world and teaching others to fight for justice. They call that last bit “Batman Inc.”
Naturally, would-be Batman fans were a little miffed to discover that all of their basic assumptions about Batman were rendered incorrect as soon as they opened a comic book. If I enjoyed the Thor movie, I wouldn’t want to read a book wherein someone else was Thor and the original Thor was setting up a dojo on Mount Olympus. So the relaunch was intended to do away with all of this confusing bullshit. But the Batman books decide to reinstate the status quo while keeping as much insane history as possible.
Which is what brings us to the opening of Batman and Robin. A Russian Batman is picked up on his nightly rounds by a mysterious figure. By issue’s end, he’s being boiled alive in acid. Too dark for a book called ‘Batman and Robin?’ I sorta thought so, but the tone Tomasi so excellently nails is one of chaos. This chaos is largely represented (and caused) by the 10-year old Damien. You see, being the son of Talia Al’ Guhl, Damien was raised to be a battle-hardened killer without fear, remorse or sentimentality. So much of the conflict that arises as Batman and Robin fight crime is generated by Bruce’s total inability to control his son. Damien is ultra-capable and confident to match, so there’s never any fear that the dynamic duo will be anything less than successful in their missions. And they go on quite a few little crime-fighting missions in the first three issues. I was struck by how light and episodic the stories are in this series – each one ends up being nothing more than a backdrop for an interaction between Super Hero and Side Kick. Father and Son. That’s the heart of the series.
There is one on-going story throughout that involves the aforementioned killer mysterious figure. Bruce calls him Morgan, and sorry Drew, I don’t know who that character is. Should I recognize him? He seems to know Bruce and Damien, but if he’s a normal fixture in the Bat-universe, I don’t recognize him. Whoever he is, he seems to think that Batman Inc. is a big mistake and is working to eliminate all the franchises. (Side note: this sort of thing almost makes me want to check out Bat Wing – the African Batman Inc. series – which is getting better reviews from most outlets than this series.) So Morgan starts to encourage Damien’s murderous tendencies just as Bruce is trying to stomp them out. It’s a wedge that I’m not sure needs to be driven: there’s already sufficient friction between father and son. In issue 3, Morgan puts them both in danger and so much of the dynamic I was enjoying sorta crumbles under the weight of a third character.
Drew, you mentioned early on that you liked the series but fundamentally had a hard time accepting that Batman would ever take a 10-year old kid out into the streets with him. I agree with this criticism almost entirely. It is a lot of disbelief to suspend (and that’s coming from someone interesting in reading superhero comics in the first place). However, I find that once I allow myself to just shut up and watch the characters rub eachother the wrong way, I have a very nice time. It’s really pretty cool to watch Batman struggle to control a side-kick that’s just too damn vicious. Mix in a little “he’s your son too” and it’s hard to object premise. I think it also helps that the Robin design is tight and tough – he wears the yellow and red like an angel of death, not like a fucking bulls-eye. The design matches the attitude of the character and the bright colors do a great job of standing out against the blacks and grays of Batman’s world. Even Batman himself appears to melt into the background when Damien’s in frame.
Of the four Bat-family books we’re reading, I’d probably rank this as my least favorite. But that might only be because I’m enjoying Batman, Batgirl and Nightwing so much. Actually, it’s also because – as mentioned in a previous write up – I’m not really sure how this series fits in continuity-wise with the other Gotham City books. I can imagine a Gotham where the other three books are all playing out at the same time, but this one seems to just be doing its own thing. Like, shouldn’t we have seen something about the League of Owls in this series?
IMPORTANT NOTE: The name of the series is “Batman and Robin” AND NOT “Batman & Robin.” That is the law. Let us never speak of it again.
Drew: It’s interesting; NoBody (as the DC press materials are calling him) is a brand-new villain, but Tomasi writes it like we understand his history with Bruce. I think it’s an effective way to integrate a new rogue into the lineup without wasting time with back story, but it risks alienating (or at least annoying) readers who think they’re missing something. Aside from a passing reference to Henri Ducard, a totally amoral master detective who trained Bruce in Paris, we don’t know anything about NoBody’s motivations. I think the allusions to Ducard and the fast and loose nature as to what that means is an attempt to appeal to a new audience, one that might recognize the name “Henri Duckard” as the alias used by Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Guhl in Batman Begins. In fact, the scene where NoBody encourages Damian to kill a petty criminal is strikingly similar to a scene from that movie between Duckard and Bruce. Maybe I’m off my rocker here, but between the concerns about courting new audiences you mentioned and Tomasi only loosely implying the history, I wonder if some potential for multiple interpretations might just be intentional.
I have to admit this is also my least favorite of the Bat-titles we’re reading, but not necessarily because of the presence of Robin. I’ve almost gotten to a place where I can accept that Batman might bring a kid along on what is otherwise an intensely personal and dangerous mission. That Dick Grayson’s life mirrored Bruce’s so closely makes the pill easier to swallow, and the individual skill sets of the previous Robins almost justified their presence; Dick had nigh-superhuman acrobatic skills, Jason had serious balls, and Tim had detective skills rivaled only by Bruce himself. Damian has all of these things in spades (though he could care less for sleuthing), having been literally bred to be a super-assassin. The only problem is that Damian has no respect. He is completely insufferable as Bruce pays tribute to his parents, and repeatedly disobeys him when they’re out in the field. Bruce is simply too pragmatic to take along such a wild card out with him on a regular basis, especially when he doesn’t exactly trust Damian not to kill people.
It’s an interesting inversion that the reason Bruce would be apprehensive about taking a kid out because it’s unsafe for the criminals, but with Damian being such an entrenched super-killer, one wonders why Bruce risks it. Tomasi offers a compelling reason in issue two, where Bruce confesses that with Damian around, he is, for the first time in his life, afraid of dying. On my first reading, I thought this was generic parental drama that I’m sure has come up with every Robin. Looking at it again, it’s clear that Bruce isn’t afraid of simply leaving Damian fatherless; he’s genuinely afraid of what kind of monster Damian might become without Bruce’s guidance.
To me, the tension between Bruce and Damian that make this a title worth sticking with. Over the years, Bruce has come up against many vigilantes that have no qualms about killing criminals (notably, one of them was also a Robin), but teaching them the error of their ways has never been so important to him. Batman is more interested in apprehending criminals than reforming them, but this isn’t a problem he can walk away from; it’s his parental responsibility to teach this kid morals. Moreover, no prison could ever hold Damian anyway, so if Bruce can’t curb his homicidal tendencies, nothing will.
The moment that got me hooked on this title comes late in the second issue. After Bruce stiffly commends Damian for showing some restraint in apprehending some criminals, Damian lingers in the Batcave. He snatches a bat out of the air, crushes it, examines it with disinterested detachment, and drops it unceremoniously down a crevasse. What does this mean? Is he frustrated with Bruce’s repressed parenting? Was he satiating his bloodlust? Was the fact it was a bat intended as symbolic? I have absolutely no idea what is going on inside Damian’s head, but the prospect of exploring that will have me coming back to this title for a while.
Here’s a list of what we’re reading. The list is Batman heavy, and we’re not going to write about everything. That being said, feedback and suggestions on what to read and discuss are welcome. Overlapping books in bold:
Justice League of America, Batman, Batman & Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Wonder Woman, Action Comics