Spencer: We here at Retcon Punch haven’t been subtle about our love of Batman’s new Hellbat armor. The suit is awesome, and what’s better is that it isn’t just some gimmick meant to push toys; writer Peter Tomasi has created “realistic” (in comic book terms, at least) reasons for the Hellbat’s great power and for why Batman needs to use it in this particular situation. Still, he and penciller Patrick Gleason, inker Mick Gray, and colorist John Kalisz understand just how cool the Hellbat is, and much of Batman and Robin 35’s success comes from how the creative team chooses to portray the suit — which, in some cases, means not showing it at all. The issue is visually dazzling, and the artists know which types of imagery to use to best convey the stories both on Apokolips and on Earth.
Batman has taken the Hellbat on a spin to Apokolips in order to recover Damian’s sarcophagus; he beats down Parademons until they lead him to Glorious Godfrey, but Godfrey has already handed the sarcophagus — and the Chaos Crystal within — over to Darkseid’s son, Kalibak. This half of the issue is a bit thin on plot, but that’s fine, because it’s all about atmosphere. Just check out the very first page of the issue:
This splash-page, free of copy besides one place-setting caption and the credits, does a lot to establish the hellish and oppressive environment of Apokolips — just look at the sparse, dead landscape bathed in Kalisz’s harsh reds — but its greatest accomplishment is whetting our appetites for the Hellbat. It only appears here as a shadow, and on the very next page Batman puts it into stealth mode, meaning there’s two full pages of an invisible Batman beating his way through a hoard of Parademons before we finally get to the money shot:
Holding off on showing us the Hellbat makes the reveal feel that much more special. Gleason and Gray continue to limit how much of the Hellbat we can see; on the very next page it’s largely hidden in shadow, often bleeding into the black gutters, and its a pattern that continues throughout the rest of the issue. Something as cool as the Hellbat could easily start to feel commonplace if overexposed, so it’s a smart choice, not to mention one that compliments the darker tone of Apokolips in general.
While reading these segments I was also struck by how similar the scenes of Batman terrorizing Parademons or Godfrey are to him terrorizing simple muggers or gangsters back on Earth. Batman uses the same methods to prey on them, using stealth and shadows to sneak up on his victims, and using the terror his appearance causes to give himself an advantage. The difference is that, on Apokolips, it takes something as powerful as the Hellbat for Batman to continue to operate that way. It’s a simple and powerful way to demonstrate the severity of the threat Batman’s facing and how determined he is to face it for his son anyway.
Indeed, family proves to be the theme of the earthbound segments of the issue, where Red Robin, Red Hood, and Batgirl kidnap Cyborg so that they can use his Boom Tube to pursue and rescue Batman. Tomasi talks a lot about family in these scenes, and their willingness to trick Cyborg — even if all but Jason feel do feel bad about it — shows how Batman’s protégés have taken on some of his attitudes and methods. To drive the point home, Tomasi contrasts them against some of Batman’s more distant agents, such as Batwing and Batwoman; Kate’s fight against a giant spider is like something out of a totally different book, and her obvious annoyance at Babs’ request makes it clear that she isn’t a part of Batman’s family in the way the others are.
Of course, Tomasi and Gleason also use some powerful imagery to further emphasize the unity of family; in this case, specifically the family they’re trying to rescue.
Damian’s “siblings” don his colors in his honor, and I think the most significant thing about this is that the Robin closest to Damian, Dick Grayson, isn’t present. Tim and Damian did not get along, Barbara barely knew him, and depending on what continuity you look at, he and Jason were once enemies. None of them were especially fond of Damian, but they fight for him anyway because he’s their family and because Bruce is their family. This battle is bringing the Bat-family together in a way they haven’t been since the Joker’s attack — perhaps even since the New 52 began — and it’s absolutely exhilarating.
Thanks to scenes like the above Damian is a constant presence in the issue — despite being dead — and the reappearance of his pets add to the feeling. Titus the dog, Alfred the cat, and Bat-Cow all appear in practically every page set in the Batcave, serving as a reminder of the dead Robin and of the hole his death has left within the Bat-Family and even within the daily routine at Wayne Manor. Batman and Robin is always at its best when focused on Damian — his life or his death — and the earthbound scenes are a great way to keep that focus tight despite the issue’s far-flung locals and many guest stars.
Suffice it to say, I dug the Hellbat out of this issue (I know, I’m the worst); Tomasi smartly explores Batman’s family and many of the coolest characters and locations in the DC Universe, and Gleason, Gray, and Kalisz bring his words to life in the most exciting and well thought-out ways possible. Shane, did you enjoy this one as much as I did? What did you think of the guest stars? I admit, Tim Drake has felt like the odd man out in the Bat-family to me since the New 52 began and this issue didn’t help to clarify his role or character, and I can see the Cyborg or Batwoman scenes possibly coming across as a little mean-spirited. Thoughts?
Shane: I love that you mention how out of place Tim seemed in the issue, Spencer, because when I first read the comic, I didn’t feel that way. I have absolutely no reason for not feeling that way: Tim Drake does little of value here, and he’s had very few meaningful interactions with the Bat-family in the New 52. Even his involvement in major arcs like Death of the Family have mostly portrayed him as a character that’s just there, and we as readers feel like he should be there, but it just doesn’t quite gel. Tim Drake is really in something of a unique position after Flashpoint: he changed more than most of the other Bat-characters in the relaunch, but didn’t receive nearly enough emphasis as the one character who changed more than him: Barbara Gordon. As a result, he seems to glide along with the Bat-family mostly on inertia, and this issue serves as another example of that. He gets a few odd comments in, but none are essential to him; he doesn’t perform any task or fill any role that another couldn’t just as easily fill. Even his hacker expertise, the star trait of the character from the beginning of the relaunch, is undermined by Batgirl, who seems to perform most of the work on Cyborg’s systems. With her the brains, and Jason Todd the outspoken rebel, what is Tim really doing? Barbara’s more passionate, Dick Grayson is the successor, and both Damian and Alfred make a better claim to being the heart of the family.
But nothing here is really about Tim Drake, either. Not the issue, the story arc, or even the series. Here, we’re focusing on, well, Batman and Robin, and it’s a significant issue in many ways. We’re comfortably in the middle of the story arc, and that usually means one of two things: either a padded issue of irrelevant scenes because the writer couldn’t quite get from A to B fast enough, or a tense series of important events to set the stage for the conclusion. Tomasi definitely gives us the latter, as virtually every major character in the story arc definitively draws a line in the sand. Batman has declared war on Apokolips. This is significant for any number of reasons, not least of which that he’s an ordinary human. One might envision Superman going against Apokolips, or Wonder Woman, or even the Green Lanterns, with their current New Gods crossover, but Batman, especially in his own titles, is about as street level as DC heroes can get. He knows that he probably won’t win this, that the Hellbat suit could cause him to die trying, and that even if he succeeds — even if he brings Damian home, dead or alive — that this could well lead to a significant reprisal against Earth. Bruce Wayne is not stupid. But he’s risking everything, against impossible odds — for family.
And his family does the same. Despite suffering serious falling outs with Batman, his heroic family bands together and makes their choice to act against a founding member of the Justice League. Can this go unnoticed? More likely than not, I imagine repercussions, especially as a small but notable scene with Kalibak, son of Darkseid, suggests that Darkseid has been comatose since his defeat at the hands of the Justice League, and that Kalibak has ruled Apokolips in his stead. In a reversal of recent Batman and… arcs, Kalibak has stopped at nothing in an attempt to revive him. This, too, is Kalibak’s own line in the sand: for Apokalips to thrive, Darkseid must return, even if that means targeting the Justice League that destroyed Darkseid in the first place.
I want to step back for a moment too, Spencer, and join the whole of Retcon Punch in praise of the Hellbat suit. It’s an incredible addition to the mythos, with how terrifyingly devastating it is even unseen — but when revealed, the suit becomes arguably even more fearful. Some artists in the past (notably Kelley Jones, a personal favorite) have drawn Batman’s cape as if alive, like a flowing substance that moves on its own accord, but the Hellbat has taken that visual and made it literal, in what may be the most chilling weapon now in Batman’s arsenal. In that armor, Batman utterly subdues Glorious Godfrey, engulfing him in whatever dark substance leaks from the Hellbat. How can anyone stand against that?
There have been several issues of this series since Damian’s death that have not worked for me, but this issue demonstrates a return to greatness. Tomasi is at the top of his game, winding down a story that you can tell he’s been building since he first came onboard after Grant Morrison. Patrick Gleason, meanwhile, has evolved drastically since his early days on Noble Causes and Aquaman, and I can’t imagine anyone handling this arc but him: he manages to bring the best of so many famed artists, including Jack Kirby with impressive renderings of Fourth World technology! It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to say this about Batman and Robin, but (and especially after that last page!) I genuinely cannot wait until the next issue.
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