Today, Greg and Mikyzptlk are discussing Batman and Robin Annual 2, originally released January 29th 2014.
Greg: My friends often make fun of me for liking everything, and they have a good point. If one of them asks me for a movie recommendation, I’ll give twenty, and get at least one “I heard that was terrible” in response. If someone rags on the recently cancelled and critically reviled Sean Saves The World, I’ll pipe in and counter that it was actually one of the best new comedies of the season, prematurely put down. The new Paramore album? On repeat, in my car stereo, no apologies. Sometimes I’ve been criticized as not having enough cultural taste or filtration. My counterargument is that the consumption of media and storytelling fundamentally stems from love and positivity. It behooves a consumer to like things, because of the positive feelings you get. So, whenever I do genuinely, fully, through-and-through dislike something, not only do I mean it, but it pains me to say it out loud. It blots out my blinding sun of naive media love. I’ll put it frankly, no matter how much it hurts me to say: Batman and Robin deserve better than this issue.
While the story has, confusingly, two framing devices, the actual meat-and-potatoes of the narrative is simple enough: the story of Dick Grayson’s first night on the job (made crystal clear by the title Batman And Robin: Week One). Grayson has already told this story to Damian Wayne, the current cocky, wise-cracking Robin, and now after finding a box that promises payback for the story, Grayson must tell it again to Bruce Wayne. Grayson is excited to don his costume, get out there, and bust up some bad guys — too excited for Batman’s taste, who insists he wear his regular, less showy costume, stay 100 feet away, follow Batman’s orders, and basically do nothing. Kind of like auditing a Batman class.
Batman’s trying to bust the grotesque Tusk (grotusk?), and when they shake up one of his crews, Grayson thinks he’s doing him a favor by attacking a guy he missed. Batman is not so much a fan of this, and fires Grayson for disobedience. Grayson has a taste he can’t get out of his mouth, however, and delivers an apology along with information on Tusk’s next hit. Batman takes the info gladly, but sends the apology back for being underdone. Grayson, however, wasn’t honest, and goes off solo to where Tusk’s real hit is taking place — where he is promptly overpowered by the enormous Tusk. Batman shows up to save his partner and is also overpowered, leading to a standoff in a helicopter. Here, we see Grayson’s fearlessness and circus showman background save the day, as he delivers an acrobatic kick sending Tusk to a watery defeat. We also see Batman’s strong moral code and measuredness save Grayson’s conscience, as he stops him from shooting a thug.
The big JJ Abrams question, however, is what’s in this mystery box? Grayson finally opens it to find: Tusk’s tusk and a snarky note. From one arrogantly effective Robin to another. Sunrise, sunset.
Batman’s stance on effective crime fighting is made clear, both in the cultural understanding of his general mythology, and in this specific issue. His power comes not from what we see, but what we don’t see. Fear, darkness, mystery. All powerful ideas that hinge on a partial lack of information, of allowing the human imagination to trick itself into panic and self-defeat. Batman works best, as he says here, in literal and figurative shadow.
I wish very much that writer Peter J. Tomasi had taken his subject’s advice, because the dialogue in this issue is so obnoxiously verbose, blunt, and thoroughly redundant, it robs most of the scenes of any sense of real dramatic impact or mystery. If Batman’s crime-fighting ethos is to remain mysterious and ambiguous until one effectively concentrated strike, Tomasi’s writing ethos is to machine gun word-vomit dialogue, exposition, and character motivation into the reader’s brains, until it’s made stupidly clear what’s going on. Normal human people just don’t talk the way Tomasi makes them talk, particularly people who spend a lot of time together, as Grayson and Bruce have. Not to get all Drama 101, but subtext is as crucial as text. What isn’t said is as crucial as what is. To delete such necessary ingredients and replace them with mouthfuls like “I’d like to know what you said that was so moving that Damian actually did some long-term planning” is sloppy, ineffective drama, plain and simple. Batman trusts that his targets will do a lot of the work for him; why can’t Tomasi do the same with his readers?
I hate to keep going on this “crotchety writing grandpa” train, but as I’ve mentioned before, I will always be drawn to jokes in comics, and this issue, as it does with the rest of its written business, shoves them in my face. And man, seriously, Tomasi needs to take a UCB course or something, because the jokes in this issue are either hair-pullingly, cringe inducingly corny (Grayson calling Damian “son of a bat”; referring to Bruce as “the great and all-powerful Oz”) or, worse, fundamentally flawed as a competently constructed joke.
Sarcasm, simply, is saying one thing and meaning another. It’s clear, based on Alfred’s dour visage and general attitude towards Grayson, that his comment about excitement is meant to be a sarcastically humorous retort. Yet with just one misused word, the joke spirals out of control and is rendered meaningless. If Alfred were to simply say, “I can hardly contain my excitement,” while obviously not meaning it, that would be a successful piece of sarcasm — falsely expressed point of view A contrasted with factually accurate point of view B. But because the word “feigned” is placed in front of “excitement,” there’s no longer a disparity between the presented point of view and the real one. Alfred is just bluntly saying that he’s not really excited. Not much a joke, there. Perhaps it makes sense that Tomasi doesn’t know how to communicate sarcasm, given his lack of finesse with any subtextual elements.
Mikyzptlk, I got so thoroughly bummed out by the writing of this issue, I couldn’t even focus on anything else. Any thoughts on the artwork, or differing thoughts on Tomasi’s work? Any sense of positivity or sunshine after my negative cloudiness?
Mikyzptlk: I’m not sure how many clouds I’m going to part with my contribution, Greg, but I’ll give it a go. Honestly, I wasn’t exactly pleased by this issue, but the biggest thing that bugged me about it is that it seemed to miss a very, very important chapter of the lives of the first Dynamic Duo. Namely, the fact that they actually enjoyed being partners at one point.
The relationship highs and lows of the original Batman and Robin are as embedded in my memory as the origin of Batman himself. I’ll briefly recap that relationship here: Batman and Robin were the best of pals, and even better partners. Then, Robin grew older and felt the need to strike out on his own, but remained Batman’s loyal partner. Eventually, Robin grew tired of having such a stern leader. Robin quits to truly become his own man as Nightwing. Time passes, and Batman and Nightwing eventually reconcile their differences, and the duo rebuild a mutual respect for one another.
Now, should my memory of old stories impact how I feel about this current one? Well…I don’t know, but it does. So, there’s that. Anyway, the reason why I feel it’s important to bring up the Batman and Robin of the continuities of yore is because I feel it is a big part of why I didn’t get a kick out of this interpretation. Here, we are presented with a Dick Grayson who already seems sick and tired of Batman’s rules.
The thing about Dick Grayson is that he never became bitter over the loss of his parents like Bruce did. While Bruce brooded for many years before deciding upon his quest to become a bat, Dick almost immediately had the bat to rely on. Where Bruce felt powerless as a child, Dick became empowered as a child by taking on the role of Robin. This led Robin to having an understandable amount of admiration for Batman. Frankly, the Dick Grayson I know would have been too busy silently rooting on the Dark Knight to be as bored as he’s shown above. Instead, what we are presented with is an ungrateful little shit.
In part, I have to blame the new, Spark-Notified version of history that the New 52 has forced upon its characters. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time for these characters to have spent together to form the meaningful bond they once had. Then again, they are fictional characters, so Tomasi probably could have just written them as sharing that bond.
Instead, we get this…”cooler” version of Dick, and the thing is that I’m completely willing to accept an updated version of Dick Grayson’s first outing as Robin. I get it, the green underwear and pixie-boots are a product of a different time. The problem here is that the essence of Dick Grayson is seemingly lost to an updated version who is unattached to his father figure, a complete know-it-all, a liar, and a manipulator to boot.
I know Dick Grayson, and this simply is not him. While Tomasi maintains the fact that the original Robin liked to joke around while fighting the toughs of Gotham City, he ultimately forgets that this sense of humor comes from a place of warmth within Dick Grayson’s heart. This warmth not only helped him stay positive as a crime fighter, but it also kept Batman from going over the edge throughout all of these years by setting a precedent of what a good Robin should be. With this essential piece missing from the new Dick Grayson, I fail to see why Batman needs a Robin at all. Hmm…I guess things are still pretty cloudy.
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