Today, Michael and Spencer are discussing Robin: Son of Batman, originally released October 28, 2015.
Michael: Here’s an odd question: do you ever have cognitive dissonance about traditional story progression when you’re reading a particular comic book? I know I do. I’ve been exposed to so many comic book series and arcs that I have been conditioned in a way. I often find myself judging the pace of a series and when it hits certain plot points – all based on standards set by prior comic books. Do stories need to be examined with such a focused lens? Or can we as the readers let go of any preconceived notions and trust that the creator has an intentional plan?
Accompanied by NoBody and his pet Man-Bat monster Goliath, Damian continues to atone for his sins during “The Year of Blood.” Damian is ready to return yet another Year of Blood artifact to its proper place when he is ambushed by his resurrected mother Talia. Talia warns Damian that he can’t complete his mission or al Ghul enemy Den Darga will have the powers that Ra’s took from him restored. Unsurprised by her resurrection, Damian ignores Talia’s pleas and continues to attack her until Den Darga retrieves the artifact helmet from Damian and unleashes some powerful magic. With the intervention of NoBody and the imperfect Damian clones, Damian and Talia manage to escape Darga’s wrath as al Ghul Island sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Still weary from the attack, Damian passes out; “Rest now son…Mother has you,” Talia says.
A lot of things come to a head in Robin: Son of Batman 5 – Damian completes a substantial part of his Year of Blood penance, Talia finally confronts Damian, Den Darga nearly kills our heroes (and Talia) and NoBody seemingly gives up on getting revenge on Damian for her father’s death. All of these are excellent yarns to weave in Damian’s current saga, I’m just worried that it’s all happening so fast; not to mention simultaneously. But as I questioned earlier: is that a bad thing? Does it matter that other storytellers would’ve spread those plot points out over the course of many more chapters? Since it’s his book, Patrick Gleason is completely allowed to tell the Damian story he wants to tell. I suppose what gives me pause with this rapid fire of events is that they won’t each get the individual attention that they deserve. For my money Talia is the stand-in character for either Gleason or DC editorial. She breezes in and lays down some exposition that we have no choice but to accept and adhere by, because Den Darga is right behind her. Maybe I’m just too concerned with resolution, but if I were Damian, the first thing I’d ask Talia is “why did you kill me Mom?” I have absolutely no doubt that Gleason will make that conversation happen somewhere down the line, but I also fear that something like NoBody’s change of heart will get lost in the shuffle because of all of the other plates that are spinning.
Alright enough of the criticism, because Gleason does continue to prove that he is a good shepherd for Batman’s only son – both in word and image. You know what’s a fantastic image that captures the spirit of this book? Damian riding on Goliath’s back holding a fish in front of Goliath as bait to continue walking. It’s cartoon nonsense that gives this book heart; a visual gag that no one in-story stops a beat to address. I love the relationship that Damian has forged with his clone “brothers.” The fact that he has freed these unfortunate creatures, given them a place to live and thrive and calls them family is such a great symbol of Damian’s character growth that I want to cry. And of course they lay their lives down to protect Damian; I wonder if they were also doing it to protect Talia? I’d be curious to know Gleason’s schedule on these issues – it’s impressive as hell that he’s done five issues where he’s still writing AND drawing. And while he’s a master of the tender Damian moments, it’s plain to see that Gleason thrives in drawing the grotesque and outlandish. Those “death worms” that come for Damian and Talia are horrific and awesome and there’s no mistaking the devil imagery that Gleason evokes once Den Darga wears the goat-horn helmet.
Spencer, if I’m not mistaken you’ve been pretty heavily invested in Robin: Son of Batman so far, yes? Do you think I’m nitpicking a bit when I evaluate the pace of the book’s events? Do you think Damian would’ve actually killed Talia given the chance? And this might just be me, but that “rescue link” of people held by NoBody made me think of the absurd Superman Returns. What do ya think?
Spencer: Superman Returns? You mean that movie where the “bad guy” is literally just a big hunk of rock? I didn’t even remember that there was a rescue link in that film (it’s much more Iron Man 3 to me), mainly because I’ve exorcized almost all memory of that bomb from my long-term memory.
Anyway Michael, I don’t think you’re nitpicking, as exploring your reaction to the issue at hand is what Retcon Punch is all about. I too found the pacing here to be quite breakneck, but for the most part, I didn’t have a problem with it. There are exceptions to every rule, but in general, I’d rather have a creative team move a bit too fast than a bit too slow. If nothing else, under-explored concepts are great fanfiction fodder; ideas that are beaten to death because they unravel too slowly are rarely remembered as fondly.
Your main concern here was NoBody’s decision not to kill Damian, but I thought Gleason actually explored that quite nicely even with so many other things going on. First of all, the last few issues established that Maya had never killed anyone before and might not even be capable of it, and had her abandoning her father’s mercenary contacts in an attempt to branch out as her own woman. At this point, she seems to have mostly gotten over her vendetta against Damian, even if she’d never admit it. So, of course, Gleason opens this issue by showing that what NoBody’s father has drilled into her head can’t be so easily forgotten.
When first introduced, I mentioned how Maya made a great stand-in for Damian as he was in his earliest appearances, and in this issue she continues to follow Damian’s evolution, if at a much quicker pace. In her head she’s rejected her father’s path, but his influence is so deeply ingrained within her very core that it still lingers, meaning that the possibility of her backsliding — or even killing Damian — is still there, as it was with Damian for quite a long time as well.
But then she meets the Sons of Batman, Damian’s malformed clones/”brothers.” Maya can’t believe that Damian actually cares for them (or vice versa), but that all changes when they sacrifice their lives to save his. Michael, you already posted those pages, but I want to repost a few panels just to focus in on Maya and Damian’s reactions.
Is there any way to argue that these brothers didn’t care about each other? Absolutely not. And it’s not just the fact that the Sons of Batman love Damian that amazes Maya; it’s that they’ve got the guts to sacrifice themselves for love, and it’s that they found the strength to do so in the first place from their brother. Earlier in the issue we see the Sons of Batman smearing fruit juice on themselves in the shape of Robin’s mask and insignia; Damian is their inspiration. That’s a first for this Robin, and the enormity of it doesn’t escape NoBody.
I love the composition of this page, especially the symmetry between Damian’s current predicament and the way he left the original NoBody to die. Gleason is clearly establishing an equivalent exchange here, showing that this is the closest Maya may ever get to genuine justice for her father. Moreover, Damian is already drowning; if Maya is still uncertain that she could actually go through with killing Damian, well, this is her out. All she has to do is nothing. She’ll never have a more opportune moment.
Yet, despite all that, when Maya looks at Damian she can only see that “R” on his chest. She’s no doubt thinking of the Sons of Batman and what that “R” inspired them to do. Throughout this arc we’ve seen Maya grow and change, but this is the first time Maya’s truly believed that Damian has grown and changed as well. That’s what, ultimately, inspires her change of heart. So I dunno, while I look forward to seeing how this milestone changes Maya and Damian’s dynamic in the issues to come, I still think it’s more than thoroughly developed.
I will admit that many of the other plot points flying in Robin: Son of Batman 5 feel more rushed, but even then, they generally work. Damian should be more shocked about his mother’s return, but I can fully believe that he’d hide his shock behind righteous, murderous anger. Likewise, the sheer amount of exposition needed to introduce Den Darga feels like Gleason’s trying to cram three issues’ worth of plot into a few panels, but to make up for it, Darga ends up being a perfect foil to Damian’s redemption. While the character thus far is pretty generically evil, what he represents to Damian is much deeper; in fact, the fact that Darga is pure evil somehow makes Damian’s life less black-and-white.
After all, if everything Talia says about Darga is true, then that means there were some noble motives to the al Ghul’s horrific actions; even Damian’s Year of Blood, which seemed like nothing but a soul-killing bloodbath, served a higher purpose on some level. Undoing his actions during that year may alleviate Damian’s conscience, but is that worth potentially damning the entire world? I imagine that’s a question he’s going to be asking himself throughout the rest of this storyline — or, at least, he will if he ever gets another chance to be introspective with Talia around, mucking things up.
Speaking of which, Michael, you asked if I thought Damian could actually go through with killing Talia. I’m not sure, but I do think that if there’s one person alive Damian still has the capacity to murder in cold blood, it’s the woman behind his death. I hope Gleason doesn’t spend too much time rehashing the whole “will Damian kill” plot, if only because so much of his existence as a character’s been devoted to it already, but if he does, at least he’ll have set it up rather thoroughly.
That set-up doesn’t just come from the plot, but from the imagery Gleason uses as well.
The ouroboros is a callback to Morrison’s run, specifically Batman Incorporated, where it showed up quite often. When dissecting that series, Drew and Patrick identified the ouroboros as representing, among other things, beginnings as endings, endings as beginnings, and the never ending cycle of American comics. It certainly seems appropriate, then, to have Damian and Talia, two characters who have recently returned from the dead, re-igniting long-running feuds beneath its gaze. Even the issue’s opening spread has the ouroboros overlooking the Year of Blood relics Damian has thus far returned, emphasizing the circular nature of their journey; they’ve been stolen by Damian, then returned, but their return threatens the entire world, and Talia seeks to steal them once again in order to stop Darga.
Those kind of patterns practically define American comics, but under Gleason’s pen, they never feel boring. Whether he’s respectfully referencing the past or blazing through new ideas at breakneck speeds, Gleason — along with inker Mick Gray and colorist John Kalisz — always manages to put out an exciting, affecting, fast-paced read. Here’s hoping it stays that way.