After a lengthy break (both in the publishing world and in me bringing you these write-ups), Grant Morrison’s Batman saga has returned with a new hero in the costume and an all-new series: Batman & Robin. Now Dick Grayson, along with Bruce Wayne’s recently rediscovered son Damian, fill the title roles, bringing their own brand of justice to a Gotham City whose previous savior is presumed dead at the hands of an evil god.
Batman & Robin‘s a fascinating read in that it starts out seemingly only tangentially connected to Morrison’s previous Batman issues. As the series progresses the issue of Bruce’s disappearance moves in from the book’s edges to become its central focus, climaxing in one of the finest comic books to see release in 2010. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How does it all start off?
Because the first few arcs of Batman & Robin mostly stand alone, I’m going to deal with issues one through nine (three complete stories) in this first post. At that point, things really start to get crazy and the series dovetails with The Return of Bruce Wayne, but again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Batman & Robin #1-3: Batman Reborn
Dick and Damian’s first Gotham adventure sees them taking on the wicked Professor Pyg and his Circus of the Strange. All the while Dick treads lightly into Bruce’s imposing shoes and Damian only barely makes an effort at not being a rebellious little brat. Eagle-eyed readers will remember that we previously met Pyg in Batman #666, though at that point he was maskless and murdered. That issue made him out to be a pretty bad guy, and now we get to see that in action.
Though “Batman Reborn” has more to say about Dick and Damian as characters than about any of the overarching themes of Morrison’s epic, there’s a fascinating running thread here about what it means to be Batman. In surely one of the most insightful speeches ever delivered about the character, Alfred councils Dick that he ought to view being Batman as a performance, akin to that of Hamlet, Willie Loman, or James Bond. Not for the first time dose Morrison employ Hamlet imagery (check out the weird “what ifs” in issues #682-683). It’s a sharp, kind of metafictional commentary on what it means to succeed Bruce Wayne, and we ought to remember as this series progresses that the idea of Batman exists regardless of whoever’s in the costume.
- Carrying on a running theme, we see our new Batman and Robin team hooked up with a spiffy fresh Batmobile. Interestingly, this one only works because Damian had fixed a problem Bruce had with it, alluded to way back in “RIP” and even “Batman & Son.”
- As unsure as he is of the whole thing, Dick quickly picks up at least some of Bruce’s techniques, especially those involving tormenting the villains. Of course, he’s had a long time to study.
- The mystery of the Domino Killer, a crucial aspect of Batman & Robin, begins here.
- Dick admits that he’s always known he’d take over for Bruce, though it’s his worst nightmare.
- If you couldn’t tell, Alfred carries his sagacious nature into this new series. On the redemption of Damian, a key through-line for Morrison: “Damian is the inheritor of his father’s courage, his determination, his desire to do what is right. If anyone can bring out the best in the boy, it will be you (Dick).”
- Alfred to Dick again: “Master Bruce was always proud of you, sir. I know he’d be especially proud now.”
- Interesting note on setting: for the time being, Dick and Damian now work out of a penthouse, not unlike Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight film.
- Damian tells Dick he wants to be Batman solo. Presciently, Dick replies “maybe one day.”
- Note that although acting as Batman Dick apes Bruce’s techniques, he couldn’t be more different in his interaction with Alfred, nor in how he investigates crimes, which is much more tentative. Though he’s sharp, he’s not the “world’s greatest detective.”
- Neat exchange — Damian: “You can have my respect if you earn it.” Dick: “I can still offer Tim Drake his old job back.” Which brings up a good question: where is Tim? He’ll be absent from the book for some time.
- If you try to figure out who the villains work for in this story, good luck. Some parts make you think it’s Pyg; others, that Pyg himself’s merely another part of a larger scheme. Of course, we’ll learn later that this is all still Dr. Hurt at work.
- Speaking of Hurt, he’s teased at the end of the first issue, in a “coming up next year” panel, with the keys to Wayne Manor. Hmmm….
- Dick takes it as his mission to save Damian.
- Check out Pyg’s terminology when he talks about his plot against the city. He keeps saying he’s going to make Gotham sick. The notion that Gotham is physically ill has come up several times before, most notably in Jim Gordon’s speech to Bruce back in “Three Ghosts of Batman.” There, we’d later learn Jim was unknowingly talking about Darkseid. Turns out that’s what Pyg means too, but again, we don’t know it yet.
- In fact, when Pyg has his Buffalo Bill moment, he actually quotes Darkseid somehow. “The box… the box, the ‘despair pit,’ he said… in the corner… the inside went on forever.” This is basically how Darkseid referred to his trap for Bruce that we learned about in Batman #702. How would Pyg know that? It’s obvious even here he’s connected somehow, though the specifics are obscured. There’s even a few lines, where he talks about his tortured childhood, that it seems he may have grown up on Apokolips, but can that be right? Even Pyg’s weapon — an “identity-destroying drug in the form of a virus” — sounds Apokalyptan.
- Pyg’s secret lair is the carnival where Joker tortured Gordon in Killing Joke. Again we see another instance of the Joker’s presence looming over Morrison’s run, even if he’s not directly involved.
- Though Gordon knows, or at least strongly suspects, it’s a different guy in the Bat-suit, he’s quick to ally with him. Gordon, like Alfred, seems to be one of Morrison’s favorite good guys.
- Pyg on his disfigurement and torture: “What happened to me has happened to Gotham.” Again, sickness.
- The issue’s second-to-last scene is the final scene from “RIP,” where we see a new Batman and Robin stopping routine crime in Gotham. A nice full-circle moment for Morrison there.
- At the very end of this issue, the new Red Hood appears, and he, too, uses language relating to curing Gotham of what ails it.
Batman & Robin #4-6: Revenge of the Red Hood
“Revenge of the Red Hood” is easily the most tangential arc in Morrison’s opus. I suppose that’s necessary — we have to see how Dick and Damian will handle business as usual — but it also suffers from less-than-stellar art by Philip Tan, who unfortunately has to compete with Frank Quitely and Cameron Stewart. As the title suggests, this arc features the return of Jason Todd in a spiffy new Red Hood suit. He’s pissed that he couldn’t wrestle the Bat-mantle from Dick, and to prove it he’s gonna go around the city killing bad people. It’s the kind of story that’s been done a ton in comics and other superhero stories before, probably finding its best iteration in Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke’s Action Comics #775. I’m not sure how much novetly Morrison brings to that basic tale here.
That said, the interesting thing about this arc is that it forces Dick and Damian to confront their dark opposites in Jason and Scarlet, Hood’s new partner. It seems fitting that, early in his career, Dick’s forced to fight a twisted version of what Batman — or he himself — might have become. It’s a way to show that Dick stays true to Bruce’s teachings and will remain as morally steadfast as his mentor wished, despite previous brothers-in-arms arguing for an easier, supposedly better way. I’m not saying that makes this story great, but it’s kind of a cool angle.
- This arc provides the first time we see Dick in Bruce’s social setting. It doesn’t suit him well.
- Introduction: Oberon Sexton, the Gravedigger! The identity of this character will remain a mystery for many more issues, though once you know, early hints make themselves pretty apparent.
- Dick advises Damian to study Gotham City’s routines, its clockwork. The metaphor that Gotham equates to machinery has been brought up before, notably in “RIP” by Bruce.
- El Penitente, an old death-trap building fiend from “RIP,” returns. It’s implied that Pyg works for him, though that’s only part of the truth.
- Weirdly, the Domino Killer leaves his calling cards even at the scene of the Red Hood’s violence. Is he shadowing Jason and Scarlet? Of course, knowing who the Domino Killer is, he probably has some vested interest in the Red Hood identity.
- Speaking of the Red Hood, Oberon talks about how the Hood’s historically had more than one secret identity. That seems like something not too many people would know…
- In a great reversal, Damian the child genius takes over the business aspect of Bruce’s life.
- Dick notes that Bruce thought he could save Jason. That’s the same terminology Dick applies to his own relationship with Damian.
- In a great in-joke, the comic mentions a phone poll of Gotham’s citizens that supports Jason’s violent methods. Of course, back in the ’80s comics readers voted to kill Jason in a different phone poll.
- In this arc, we finally get to see the menacing Flamingo. We’ve been hearing about him as far back as Batman #666.
- Jason refers to Batman as a brand. Contrast that with Alfred’s notion that Batman is a role. That also has an interesting connection to the future; Bruce Wayne literally establishes Batman as a global franchise when he returns.
- Flamingo eats his victim’s faces. There are a lot of villains with face obsessions in these stories.
- Jason cocksurely asserts that he’ll never stay dead. Is that a joke relating to his previous return, or a hint at something more sinister?
- Jason again: “Tonight I did something even Batman couldn’t do. I beat my arch-enemy.” Putting aside that Jason’s wrong, does he know something we don’t? Who does he think Batman’s arch-enemy is?
- Jason’s tragedy sheds some interesting light on Bruce’s relationships. That notion will come back at the end of Return of Bruce Wayne.
- Jason gives Dick the idea to put Bruce’s dead body in a Lazarus Pit. Weirdly, Dick will go through with that.
- The end of the arc features a reappearance by Dr. Hurt, now with a giant “W” scar on his back. For now, we might only guess at what the W means. We see Hurt on the phone with Sexton, claiming he knows Oberon’s secret and trying to bribe a favor out of him. We’ll see where that goes, but remember that Hurt has a notoriously bad time striking bargains with people in Batman’s life.
- To access the chamber where Bruce’s body is stored, Dick utters the password “Zurr-En-Arrh.”
Batman & Robin #7-9: Blackest Knight
Almost unbelievably, Dick takes Jason’s advice from the end of the “Red Hood” arc and decides to revive Bruce in a Lazarus Pit. This story marks the end of the “I wish Bruce was back” period on the book and brings us fully into the “let’s bring Bruce back!” segment. It’s a really creepy, cool story with interesting ties to DC’s major crossover event Blackest Night. It also features one of my favorite recent additions to the Bat-universe, Batwoman, and art by Cameron Stewart, who I wish would draw more of these silly superhero tales. Additionally, we get the return of Knight and Squire, England’s Batman and Robin, currently starring in an excellent miniseries by Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton.
- Dick goes to prison to visit the Pearly King of Crime, a British criminal with a penchant for dominoes. While interrogating him (in a scene reminiscent of Bruce grilling the Joker in “RIP”), Dick references a “game of cards played using real people.” That sounds like something the game-loving Black Glove would be a part of.
- Damian got pretty messed up at the end of the “Red Hood” arc, and so is back in his mother’s care for rehabilitation. Says Talia of her son: “Damian will stride across the 21st century like a new Alexander.” She’s got high aspirations for the boy, not really in keeping with Bruce’s or Dick’s.
- Remember the Religion of Crime guys we saw all the way back in 52 #30? They make their return here, again fighting Batwoman, who’s trying to stop them from bringing about an age of darkness on Earth. If you remember Final Crisis, you’ll know they were working for Darkseid. It seems strange that they’re still operating, but I guess most religions don’t ever totally die out. Their plan now involves Bruce’s body, which they call the “Knight of the Beast.” That connection to Darkseid is crucial here.
- Dick on why Bruce should return: “He’s always cheated death.” In a way, Dick is more right than he realizes.
- British villain King Cole, caught up with the Religion of Crime, notes “there’s a hole in everything.” Again, another blatant callback to Darkseid (that was Hurt’s favorite way to describe the dark lord).
- When we learn that Bruce’s dead body is actually one of Darkseid’s failed clones from Batman #682-683, Darkseid comes crashing back into the story, and it is awesome. All of a sudden we know for sure that the after-effects of Final Crisis are still with us.
- Check out Darkseid’s dialog in the flashback: “A perfect copy of Batman, dead? I can use that.” Is this all part of Darkseid’s plan?
- Dick finally realizes the resurrected clone isn’t Bruce because Bruce would never fight to kill — but isn’t Bruce killing someone what starts this whole mess?
- Dick on the off nature of Darkseid’s clone: “like a good song in the hands of a really bad singer.”
- When we glimpse inside the clone Batman’s head, its fractured thoughts are really reminiscent of “RIP.” I also can’t help but think there’s something noteworthy about where Stewart places the bullet image in this montage scene.
- The clone’s ramblings are really interesting. On Damian: “They sent u 2 taint the bloodline.” Is there anything to this?
- More to the point, the clone on his current situation: “I sez wot wot duz it take 2 stop the gunshots n city’s bug blak voice reply… the sacrifice of a sun!” There’s a lot to unpack there. The “bug black voice” — that sounds like that creepy thing hanging over Bat-Mite’s shoulders in “RIP.” “Stop the gunshots” — does the clone mean the gunshots that killed Bruce’s parents, or the gun he fired on Darkseid, catapulting him into his life-trap?
- Creepily, the clone refers to Batwoman as “Kathy.”
- Count the number of times someone gets knocked out by tandem punches in Batman & Robin. It’s a nice little nod to the corniness of the Adam West television series.
- The arc ends with a promise to find Bruce, which is more prophetic than any of the characters know.
Up next: Some combination of Return of Bruce Wayne and Batman & Robin. I’m not sure where a good stopping point will be, because those issues are dense, but expect me to cover at least the next few installments of each.
My Best of 2012 Playlist by Eric Garneau
After being inspired by some friends, for the past few years I’ve been really into documenting my musical exploration with year-end mixes. I realize this is not a particularly novel thing to do, but hey, who has original ideas any more? Anyway, this has gotten even easier to do thanks to new technology like Spotify. read more