Saturday, December 29, 2012

Review: Batman and Robin: Dark Knight Vs. White Knight

DC launched Batman and Robin in 2009 as part of Grant Morrison's ongoing run on the Batman franchise. It was one of several instances where the writer rather shrewdly tied a new story direction to the launch of a new title, underlining the presumed importance of the new direction (and, perhaps not incidentally, generating higher sales than he would have by continuing on a pre-existing title).

This particular book was launched after the events of Final Crisis and the aftermath of Morrison's "Batman R.I.P." story arc in the Batman title left Bruce Wayne temporarily "dead." Dick Grayson became the new Batman, Damian Wayne became the new Robin and DC was launching a new title devoted to this bold new direction.

It was actually the first of two times Morrison's twisting and turning six-year Batman mega-plot birthed a new Batman title. When Bruce Wayne returned, Morrison left Batman and Robin, which had outlived its usefulness to his story, and DC launched Batman, Inc. for Morrison, a new book devoted to chronicling Wayne's attempts to build a global army of crime-fighting Batmen.

So what to do with Batman and Robin...? Cancel it? A successful title starring Batman? Of course not.

Instead, DC would keep it going, although their plan for doing so looks like it must have been more than a little confused, looking back on what the post-Morrison version of the title looked like: Ten issues by four different creative teams, three three-issue arcs by three different teams (the third of which suffered some pretty bad production problems, based on the number of artists involved with it), plus a one-off, schedule-filling issue by the fourth team.

This collection includes all of the post-Morrison issues of the first volume of Batman and Robin save for the final issue, a done-in-one written by David Hine and 2/3 drawn by Greg Tocchini, with artist Andrei Bressan drawing the final third. (What, exactly, happened during this period of the title's life is likely explained by the then-imminent launch of DC's "New 52"; at one point, Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason were announced as the new creative team for the book, but after one arc another creative team came in and, when the second, "New 52" volume of the series was announced, it was with Tomasi and Gleason as its creative team).

All of the apparent chaos behind the scenes obviously wasn't conducive to producing great comics, but there's surprisingly good work in this volume, some of it from creators who haven't produced much of note over the course of the last few years (artist Scott McDaniel and writer Judd Winick, for example) who nevertheless make rather strong showings within these stories.

The first story is very good, the second a little less so and the third even less so. Due to the fill-in nature of all three arcs, and the fact that the de facto Batman showrunner Morrison had already turned his attention away from the Grayson/Wayne Batman and Robin team means there's only so much any writer can do with the characters or characterization. All three writers managed to carry on Morrison's surface-level characterizations, however, and have fun with the inverted light-hearted, quipping Batman and dark, tight-ass Robin relationship, the Dynamic Duo as multi-generational buddy cops with Alfred as referee premise.

All three stories also manage to introduce new villains of varying degrees of stature and creativity, and boast some pretty decent art—at least until the very end of the collection.

Let's look at them one at a time, shall we?

"The Sum of Her Parts" by Paul Cornell, Scott McDaniel, Christopher Jones, Rob Hunter, Art Thibert and Andy Owen

The arc opens in medias res with Batman and Robin busting up a mysterious wedding ceremony of some sort, while Damian bickers with Dick over the fact that they both had an entrance line (That is, traditionally, Robin's job, but ur-Robin Grayson hasn't kicked the habit yet).

From there we flash back a few nights to a grave robbery of one Una Nemo, a brilliant, beautiful billionaire that Bruce Wayne was once semi-courting as part of his weird playboy act; he disappeared on her when Darkseid shot him backwards in time (although she didn't know why he suddenly stopped calling) and then she got shot through the forehead during a yacht robbery gone bad and, thanks to some barely alluded to comic book science about pollution in the water, she survived:
That's McDaniel's drawing of her. Here's Guillem March's, from one of the covers to Batman and Robin #18:
While the comically large hole in her head might beggar belief, this is a Batman comic, and it sort of works; she may look like she was shot with the sort of revolver that Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam might menace Bugs Bunny with, but it gives her that striking, gruesome Dick Tracy-villain look that so many of Batman's best enemies has. It also helps her meet the requirements of a good Batman villain: A striking visual that matches her modus operandi and her unbalanced mental state.

Now calling herself Absence, Nemo launches an extremely strange crime spree revolving around what's missing and what's not there. Her plan seems straightforward, and involves whipping up a cult following and a series of death traps for Batman and Robin, her stated plan being to kill enough of Bruce Wayne's new army of Batmen to regain his attention. More is going on.

It's a extremely well-scripted Batman story, working on the two levels the character's devious plotting is working on, while providing all the surface thrills that Morrison's conception of the all-new Batman and Robin team (and comic) had provided in previous issues, while also mining the fertile psychological territory that is inherent in the Batman experience (It's somewhat neat how Cornell manages to explore Bruce Wayne's behavior and state of mind in a story that he barely appears in at all, while also doing the same with Damian, Dick and the new villainess, and making it all relate.

Based on this story arc alone, Cornell might have been an ideal writer to follow Morrison on the title.

Given all the help McDaniel had in crafting the artwork—Jones gets a "with" credit for pencil art, while all those other names above inked these 60 pages—it's hard to tell exactly what's his and what's some one else's contribution, but it all looks like McDaniel's art. The figures have his signature design, they contort into thrusting, frozen poses when leaping or fighting, they are usually drawn leaping or fighting.

There's a lot of black in the art and it is, in general, richer, deeper, fuller than a lot of McDaniel's work in the recent past (Trinity, Arena, etc). There's a lot more detail to it, but it retains the semi-abstracted look of much of McDaniel's work, in which dynamic angles and figures propel the action as well as the story.

"Tree of Blood: Dark Knight Vs. White Knight" by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray, Keith Champagne and Tom Ngueyn

It sure takes a lot of guys to ink DC comics these days, doesn't it? The last three names above were the guys who inked Gleason's pencil art on this story. To everyone's credit, it's not incredibly obvious when a new inker comes in, and even with that many cooks in the kitchen, they produce much better than average 21st century Batman comics art.

I wish I could remember which blogger it was that called out how incredibly fucked-up the first scene in this story actually is (It was Tucker Stone, yes, but maybe someone else too...? Maybe everyone else? Tucker's take is, as usual, pretty funny. So you should probably go listen to it). In the book's first three pages, we see the three Robins—Dick Grayson, Tim Drake and Damien Wayne—hanging out in the kitchen with Alfred, making popcorn and smoothies and chatting. Then they gather in Wayne Manor's home theater with their dad/mentor and Alpha Bat Bruce Wayne to watch a movie.

It's a pretty cool, just-some-guys hanging-out, superheroes-behind-the-scenes sort of sequence, the kind that is more rare in Batman comics than in super-team comics. Sure, it's a little weird that none of the Batgirls were invited, and that Tomasi makes a point of this being the important part of the Batman family by having Wayne literally refer to them as "the whole family." But what's fucked-up is the movie they're watching: The Mark of Zorro, aka the movie young Bruce Wayne just got done watching with his parents before they were gunned down in an alley, an event that so traumatized him that he spent the rest of his life and most of his fortune dressing up as a bat to beat people up...and convince dozens of others to do the same!

After that, it is a pretty straightforward Batman comic, in which the Dick Grayson/Damian Wayne versions of the characters (Bruce and Tim apparently go off to their own comics after the movie), investigate the work of a new serial killer with a bizarre and presumably very expensive, pain-staking method of choosing and killing victims.

He's covered in something that renders him a glowing silhouette, with his eyeballs being the only normal detail one an see, and he has some kind of weird gun that paints things similarly glow-y (this detail reminded me quite a bit of the 2003 miniseries Batman: City of Light). To kill victims, he dresses them up as angels, pumps 'em full of drugs, and talks them into jumping off of skyscrapers.
The victims he chooses are what is perhaps the most interesting thing about the character—aside from the rather striking visual, which gets even more striking in the last scene, which leads me to believe Tomasi intends for him to be a repeat villain. This probably constitutes a spoiler: All of his victims are the relatives of Batman villains who are or have been incarcerated in Arkham Asylum, and his plan is to not only kill all of those killers, but wipe out their families and thus their bloodlines as well.

The downside of this is, of course, that it makes this one more story about all of Batman's old villains, instead of doing or saying much of anything new. There are welcome aspects to that strategy, like getting to see Gleason draw a large swathe of the rogues gallery—there's a pretty great scene where you turn a page and suddenly Man-Bat* appears out of nowhere flying tackling Batman—but it also simply covers the same old ground in a slightly different way. This is probably me as much as it is them, but I've read soooooo many stories about Arkham Asylum and its inmates at this point, I find stories dwelling on them rather tiresome now.

"The Streets Run Red" by Judd Winick, Guillem March, Andrie Bressan, Greg Tocchini and Andy Smith

Finally, there's a Winick-written Jason Todd story, which I think is the first one since Morrison sort of took over the character for an arc and offered his take on the long-dead Robin that Winick had quite clumsily resurrected and made into the new Red Hood.

Winick's version was a guy in a vaguely Spider-Man-shaped red helmet and street clothes, savagely gunning down villains like The Punisher (as to how he survived being blown up by a bomb and buried, it apparently had something to do with Superboy-punching, but let's not dwell on that).

Morrison reinvented Todd's Red Hood, giving him a cool new superhero costume (which I assume was designed by Frank Quitely rather than Batman and Robin #4-#6 artist Philip Tan, but I don't know for sure), a pair of signature crimson pistols and a sidekick of his own, Scarlet. Just as Dick Grasyon graduated to Batman, Todd made his own Red Hood persona more Batman-like. (That arc also revealed some rather weird details, like the fact that Todd was actually a redhead, but Bruce made him dye his hair black to look more like Dick).

So Winick returns to Todd after Morrison, and essentially writes him as he was writing him before, while acknowledging the cosmetic changes.

Aside from a flashback to Todd's days as Robin during the first ten pages of the book, drawn by cover artist March, and a visit from Dick Grayson's Batman to Todd's jail cell, the entire first issue is devoted to Todd in jail. Apparently, after the events of the previous Red Hood arc, he was being housed anonymously at Arkham Asylum, but is now being transferred to a regular prison.

There he regularly kills criminals—he's up to 95 before they think to transfer him back to Arkham.

Couple of things: 1) Yes, the lethal vigilante in jail killing his fellow convicts left and right is a Punisher story that's been written over and over 2) the Bat-guys want Todd in Arkham Asylum due to its greater security for his own safety, but Todd wants to be in a regular prison since he's not crazy—Arkham Asylum has terrible security, with folks escaping and murdering other people in there constantly, and wouldn't Todd rather be incarcerated somewhere he is able to kill folks like The Joker than somewhere he has to simply content himself with killing gangsters and "regular" criminals...?

Anyway, when Todd is being transferred again, he's "rescued" by The Menagerie, a team of mercenaries who are half-animal—the artists draw them as basically human with animal heads on top. They look kinda silly but, hey, new characters! That's something.

They are working at the behest of...Some Lady. Winick doesn't really explain who she is, or why she wants to free Jason Todd. She does know he's Jason Todd, though, so she somehow knows more about him than anyone at Arkham Asylum or the Regular Prison (Blackgate...?).
When Todd, with an assist from Batman and Robin, defeat The Menagerie, she calls him on the phone to tell him that she has Scarlet kidnapped, so The Red Hood (now wearing a compromise costume incorporating bits from his superhero-style costume and his Punisher-Lite costume) must form an uneasy alliance with Batman and Robin to rescue Scarlet by fighting...people. That work for that lady.

And, um, that's pretty much it. The story simply finds Jason Todd, follows him around, and then sets him free to fly off into an indeterminate future (I'm not certain; is this his last appearance before The New52boot, in which he would be reintroduced in the title Red Hood and The Outlaws...?).

The story isn't terribly ambitious, and lacks even a pretense of characterization of the antagonists, who are maguffins without so much as a veneer of non-maguffinosity. Where it really falls down, however, is the art. Which, as I mentioned, is by several artists, none of whose styles mesh in the least.

Any one of them would have probably done a decent enough job, but all together on a single story? It's a mess, and they're not even doled out, like, one per issue.

Here, for example, are three images by the three artists from the same story:
This, apparently, is where things really started to break down behind the scenes, and preparation for the New 52 relauch got underway and began interfering with the pre-New 52 comics-making.

Recently, Grant Morrison has announced that he's winding down all of his DC writing, which currently includes Action Comics and the recently relaunched Batman, Inc.

It will be curious to see what DC decides to do with that created-for-Morrison title when his run wraps up. Will they allow that book to retire with Morrison, or will they keep it going as they kept Batman and Robin going...?

If the latter, perhaps they'll let Cornell take it over. Based on the stories in this volume, he's the best they've got at following Morrison.

*Was Man-Bat an inmate of Arkham at any point in the comics...? This is the first I've heard of it, and I can't really remember an instance of him being shown as an inmate. I thought he wasn't criminally insane so much as sometimes he would turn into a giant bat, which is more of a chemical problem than a mental one..


Bram said...

Absence's hole in her head had, IIRC, less to do with pollution and more with some sort of genetic abnormality that … meant there was empty space … oh, I dunno. It was a clever take on a scientific phenomenon that … I really like Cornell, but this arc just fell short.

Aki Alaraatikka said...

Funny. White Knight was the arc I actually wanted to read, of all these stories, and now I find out it`s nothing new, after all. Damn it.

I`m more interested in the Absence-story now, though.

As far as I know, Red hood didn`t appear after this story. Maybe he had a few cameos, though. They don`t count as a story, though.

Also, what about the fill-in ish? Did you forget to review that?