Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Review: Batman and Robin Vol. 1: Born To Kill

This turned out to be a rather interesting book, looked at in the context of DC's "New 52" initiative, of which it was apart (this particular book collects the first eight issues of the relaunched Batman and Robin). And, more welcomely, it turned out to be a pretty damn good Batman comic, when simply read cover to cover for entertainment.

Let's start with that context, though.

As discussed in the previous post on the previous Batman and Robin collection, Batman and Robin was originally launched in 2009 as part of Grant Morrison's ongoing Batman mega-plot, and its focus was on the pairing of the new Batman Dick Grayson and the new Robin Damian Wayne. That Dynamic Duo stepped up to try and fill the void their mentor (in Dick's case) and biological father (in Damian's case) left when he "died" in Final Crisis.

After a few fits and starts following Morrison's departure, it was relaunched in September 2011 as part of the rebooted New 52-iverse, with Bruce Wayne once again Batman and his son Damian staying on as Robin.

I thought it significant that DC decided to retain Damian during their big slate-cleaning move, as he's exactly the sort of bold, daring storytelling choice that can warp the franchise. Batman has a 10-year-old son, conceived with on-again, off-again villain Talia al Ghul? It aged the character, obviously—to make that possible, Batman would have to have been Batmanning for at least 14 years, no ifs ands or buts, and kind of makes him look like a dope. The World's Greatest Detective didn't know he had a son with a lady he routinely runs into while trying to stop her own father from destroying much of Earth's population? That doesn't look good on the old World's Greatest Detective resume, does it? (Other thing I'm surprised they didn't reboot away? Jason Todd's resurrection).

As it turns out, based on the contents of this book alone, the Batman franchise doesn't really seem to have been rebooted at all. Batman's costume has a few excess lines it didn't have before. His gloves, belt and Bat-symbol are slightly tweaked. Robin has a new, serrated cape. But that's about it in terms of cosmetic changes.

The story explicitly retains the events of Morrison's run, up to and including Batman Inc, as the story opens with a scene of the villain of this story arc hunting a Russian member of Bruce Wayne's franchising program. And a few flashbacks reveal at least highlights of Morrison's run and work on the Damian character (how this squares with Final Crisis and New 52 Justice League, which contradict one another so strongly, naturally isn't discussed and, in fact, even thinking about it should probably be discouraged).

In fact, the only things rebooted in Batman continuity, at least evident in this book, are a) Commissioner James Gordon has started dying his hair and mustache a rusty color and b) details from Bruce Wayne training period abroad, specifically under the tutelage of Henri Ducard, have changed rather drastically (but to be fair, the pre-New 52 DCU had its continuity reset multiple times since we last heard anything at all regarding Ducard, so this hardly seems a big deal like, say, erasing the Teen Titans, removing the JSA from history, making it so Clark Kent and Lois Lane were never married or un-paralyzing Barbara Gordon).

That's only significant if you much care about the integrity of the DC Universe and its continuity, of course, or how the publisher has been leading various story camels through various editorial needle-eyes during their once-in-a-lifetime chance to completely remake the DCU (and get people to care about their doing so). As I said, as a reading experience, this book provides a fine one.
Artist Patrick Gleason, who pencils the entire contents of the book, with Mick Gray and Guy Major inking, has designed a visually striking new villain in Nobody. He's a sometimes-invisible assassin in a high-tech, light-bending stealth suit*, although Gleason and company give it a sleek, shiny texture and, most prominently, a spider-like set of multiple red eye-balls. As a design, it functions as both "realistic" and functional, but also just so happens to make the villain look like an insect-like humanoid monster. Not bad.

The man in the suit, we learn after a bit of suspense (so, you know, spoiler warning on this), is Morgan Ducard, son and protegee of Henri Ducard, one of the four (just four?) men that Wayne had train him during his wandering-the-world-and-learning-shit years. Bruce and Morgan learned at Herni's side for a while, until they had a massive falling out. Morgan has embraced his father's lethal methods, while Bruce Wayne kinda sorta shuns violence (at least of the permanent sort).

Upon learning that Bruce Wayne is spreading his pacifist version of his father's teaching through Batman Inc and that Bruce now his own son who just so happens to be struggling against the killing urges he was raised with, Morgan/Nobody visits Gotham, intent on stealing Bruce's son (by convincing him to come over to the dark side) just as he felt Bruce once stole his father.

Pretty good conflict, right? You've got all the physical fight and action stuff—gadgets, guns, kung fu, etc—and the potent familial melodrama. Tomasi really focuses on that melodrama stuff, and it doesn't necessarily center on Morgan. Even before he and the heroes cross paths, Tomasi spends a great deal of time on Bruce's struggle to be an actual father to Damian, and not just superhero to his sidekick**. This is, of course, challenging, because of the whole trained-by-the-League-of-Assassins-to-be-a-killing-machine thing (see the sub-title)***.

I liked it. It was a little cheesy and predictable here and there, but it doesn't have to be brilliant, does it? It's (one of) the Batman C-title(s), so if it manages to be smart, entertaining and competently crafted, well that's probably good enough. And this is better than good enough—it's good.

I really liked Gleason's art, and was impressed he was able to draw all eight issues of this book (I don't know—did any other New 52 books go eight straight issues without a fill-in? I imagine some did, but I also imagine they were in the minority). He does a fine job making Damian look like a little boy, which was really a must with this particular storyline. He also does a hell of a Batman—big, bulky, imposing—that contrasts sharply with the little, brighter Robin.
If anything, this particular Batman and Robin pairing is perhaps the most dramatic of any previous one in terms of visual contrast (maybe Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns iteration being the next closest), and Gleason really makes that contrast sing.

The action is all elegantly communicated, as is the acting. He even does a pretty good dog (Bruce buys Damian a great Dane in this story; the boy names him Titus, rather than the more obvious Ace).

I wasn't crazy about all of the design work—Batman's costume is a bit too fussy, and I didn't care for the Batmobile or a very sci fi-looking, orb-shaped version of the Bat-subway car Chuck Dixon and company created in the 1990s—but over all it's a very nice looking Batman comic, with cool little touches to balance out the stuff I didn't like as much (Like, for example, Robin's red batarangs, which look just like the normal batarangs, save for their color; they used to give Robin Tim Drake goofy bird-shaped birdarangs or Robinarangs that seemed like a little too much in the way of brand distinction).

If I knew how good this book was going to turn out in fall of 2011, I probably would have started reading it serially back then.

*Not to be confused with Nimrod, another Batman villain with a high-tech, light-bending stealth suit whose name begins with the letter "N". In one way, I think Batman is probably the easiest superhero to write, given how clearly defined his personality and voice are that it doesn't take much experience with the character nor skill or imagine to be able to think of what he might say or do in any given situation. On the other hand, plotting stories for him must be hard as hell, given how damn many there are at this point. It's gotta be harder to come up with a Batman villain unlike any previous Batman villain after 70+ years of Batman fighting dudes in 2-to-14 comics a month

**Pre-New 52, Bruce legally adopted both Dick Grayson and Tim Drake relatively recently (Grayson would have been well into his late twenties, and Tim probably still a juvenile, although perhaps nearing the end of his teen years). I don't know if that's still the case in the New 52 or not though. Do any of you guys know?

***Damian Wayne's background and characterization are almost identical to Batgirl II Cassandra Cain's; there are several sequences in this story that seem especially close to scenes I've already seen starring the other Batman sidekick raised since birth by a master assassin to become an unstoppable killing machine that is now struggling against killer tendencies in order to please hero Batman.


jrp001 said...

these last 1/2 dozen or so reviews have been a great read! I want more of them...

A Hero said...

"It aged the character, obviously—to make that possible, Batman would have to have been Batmanning for at least 14 years, no ifs ands or buts"

I could be wrong on this, as I am actually more behind on the "nu52" than you are at this point, but I thought it was implied that Damian was artificially aged at some point.

Even so, I agree that fitting Damian into the nu52 timeline is problematic. Heck, even fitting in four Robins is an issue unless you assume a very high turnover rate.