Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Batman and Robin 18, originally released March 13th 2013.
Drew: I could have told you that summarizing and analyzing a dialogue-free comic would be hard — pictures are worth a thousand words, but the words in comics direct our attention, and provide context for those images. Strictly speaking, sequential art doesn’t require words, but they’re so common (especially in superhero comics) that to eschew them altogether feels downright radical. This isn’t meant as a value judgement — I’ve read many great dialogue-free comics — just to say that it’s a little outside my wheelhouse. By all rights Batman and Robin 18 should be hard to talk about because of it’s lack of dialogue, but instead, it’s hard to talk about because it’s so fucking sad.
The issue unfolds as a series of grief-stricken images as Bruce and Alfred reel from the fallout of Batman Incorporated 8 [Spoiler Alert: Damian dies]. It’s a harrowing read, but one that serves as a beautiful sendoff for Damian — both for Bruce and for any Damian fans. As Bruce makes his nightly rounds, he imagines Damian in costume alongside him, hinting at all the stories they might have shared. We (and Bruce) are shocked out of that fantasy at ever turn, as the reality of Damian’s absence keeps rearing its head. Indeed, writer Peter Tomasi and artist Patrick Gleason put a rather fine point the unfinished nature of Damian’s story with the return of the Wayne Family portrait we saw way back in issue 10.
That sense of incompletion, of untapped potential, permeates the issue, and is appropriately as true for a father who lost his son as they are for fans who lost their favorite character.
Bruce has always brooded, but the loss of Damian adds a sense of immediacy to his despair. Curiously, it also focuses Bruce on his own Batman-ness, as memories of Damian bleed into memories of his parents’ deaths.
Bruce imagines Damian alongside him several times throughout this issue, but here, Damian is replaced with the street lamp that so dramatically lit the murder of Bruce’s own parents. Bruce loses it, smashes the batmobile into the lamp, and takes his rage out on Gotham’s underbelly, rounding up and depositing dozens of baddies on the roof of the GCPD.
Damian does not appear again after that breaking point, but any sense of progress in his grief is undone when he later finds the note Damian left when deciding to join the battle against Leviathan. Damian comes across as mature in the letter, but it’s hard to ignore the impetuousness of his actions. He deliberately disobeyed his father in a way that is perfectly natural for a ten-year-old, but because the stakes are so much higher for the Waynes, it wasn’t just a skinned knee that hung in the balance, but his very life. Upon finding the note, Bruce loses it again, smashing and overturning Damian’s locker in a fit of blind rage before collapsing and cradling Damian’s costume in his arms. It’s a touching scene, but it highlights Bruce’s inability to cope with anything without violence. Gleason foreshadows this beautifully in the opening panel, where Bruces tears reflect his fireplace such that it looks like he’s CRYING FLAMES.
It’s understandable — and totally fitting for Bruce — but it’s also clearly unhealthy. Bruce has only ever channelled his grief into anger, but this situation might call for something more. When he sees Alfred crying in front of the portrait, he covers it up and carries it away — he’s trying to run from his feelings, but that only brings up sad memories of his time with Damian.
My favorite moment of this issue comes when Bruce is leafing through Damian’s sketchbook, where he finds studies of birds, insects, Titus, Alfred (labeled “Pennyworth,” of course), and Bruce. What really caught my eye, though, was his sketch of Thomas and Martha’s graves.
Intriguingly, that page also features detailed turnarounds of a firefly — recalling quite pointedly the closing scene of issue 4, where Damian crushes a firefly in his hand. That’s also when he made a deal with NoBody, which turned out to be a double agent-y thing, but it still recalls a bit of ambiguity to his own morality (which is only further emphasized by the very presence of his sketchbook — the last time we saw it, it was full of disturbingly violent images). I’m not sure exactly what to make of it, but it suggests a little something about how we tend to forget the bad times after are loved ones are gone. I’m also not sure what to make of the movie recommendations from Superman — is this just hinting at Damian’s life outside of fighting crime, or is it supposed to mean something more to us?
For having no dialogue, there certainly is a lot to say about this issue. Patrick, I know I already included several images, but there’s just so much going on here. More than anything, I was pleased with how the absence of dialogue required me to re-read this issue so many times, forcing me to live in its somber tone. Did you find that as effective as I did?
Patrick: I always worry about art that specifically sets out to be silent. The first episode of season three of the Walking Dead started off with a totally dialogue-free sequence where in the survivors take a house, clear it, eat some food and then are forced to abandon the house because the zombies are on to them. It’s supposed to illustrate that the characters have done this so many times that they are able to perform all these actions without taking or giving instruction. The problem is that reality strains against the concept — these people would make some sounds to communicate with each other. Whatever artificial gravitas the “totally silent opening” was going for is undercut by the silliness of it.
I think the problem with that bit from the Walking Dead is partially due to the medium (and partially due to the fact that it’s a dumb show pretending to be a smart one). When I read a comic book, it’s already technically a silent piece of fiction — any sounds are filled in by my brain interpreting symbols on the page. I don’t mean to sound like an asshole there, but I think this is an idea that Tomasi and Gleason are playing with specifically: the emotional storytelling power of images. We get two of these sets of images right up front: the sketches in Damian’s book and the Bat family portrait. They are in-narrative reminders of the power of visual art, which, by the way, are also silent.
So, yes, the absence of dialogue was completely effective for me. It’s funny — we were all upset to see Damian go, but it’s just such a strange emotion to put into words. At the end of the day, he’s a comic book character. If we want to live with the character again — we can — there are years worth of comics we can read that feature the kid prominently. Plus, he’s a superhero, and say what you will — those motherfuckers always find a way back to life. But there’s no escaping the fact that it fundamentally feels unfair to live in a world without Damian Wayne. I can’t express that — certainly not to people who aren’t already feeling it — and if I tried, my words wouldn’t make any sense. I like to think that this is what’s going on here: words risk trivializing the emotion of the issue.
So, maybe we’ve both already written too much. Okay: here are some of the images and ideas that broke my heart. That hug at the end, while devastating in its own right, is a spitting image of the last time Bruce and Damian hugged in at the end of issue 14 (after Damian presented his father with the pearl.)
Just like the lamp Drew pointed out earlier in the issue is a potent symbol because we know what it means in the history of Batman, this image is powerful because we know its history in Batman and Robin.
Also, did you see the simple Titus story that plays out along the fringes of this issue? The dog starts the issue asleep by Damian’s bedside, likely not totally aware of what has happened. When the Batmobile pulls back into the cave at the end of the issue, Titus is all excited — presumably because he wants to see Damian. You’ll notice that the dog doesn’t seek any attention from Bruce.
And then we see Titus slink away after Bruce’s little outburst, and that’s it. It’s quiet, powerful stuff.
Looking at their work over the last couple months, it becomes clear that Tomasi and Gleason have been paying tribute to the late Damian Wayne for kind of a while. Both issue 17 and the Annual seemed to have this celebratory view of the relationship between Batman and Robin. It is hard to see that tone — on the same subject — become so much heavier, but it’s appropriate. This series has done a great job of showing its readers how special Damian was, and now its doing a great job of showing us how hard it’s going to be without him.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?