My biggest take-away from Week 1 of DC Comics’s New 52 “soft reboot” was that I had more appreciation for the books that took the opportunity of a relaunch to take some chances and put a new spin on a character, or at least portray the character in a fresh way that could act as a jumping-on point for a new (or returning) reader.
It’s probably fitting, then, that the first book on the Week 2 pile, Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Batman and Robin, tries to split the difference. I can’t say whether they succeeded or not until the story plays out, but after one issue, I’m skeptical they can pull it off.
Here’s the problem. Batman works. He’s currently DC’s most recognizable media property, with a highly successful film franchise based off a pretty literal take on the character’s comic origins. Batman in the new movies is pretty much Batman as he has been for years in the comics, so nothing really needs to be changed or updated.
Unlike Superman, whose love story with Lois Lane begs for some sort of resolution and thus pulls writers into marrying the two of them and thus triggering a Crisis-level event to undo that a few years later to return to the roots of the character, Batman’s supporting players don’t need much updating.
The costume. The car. The cave. Alfred. Commissioner Gordon. Go. The formula has worked for decades, and it doesn’t really need significant updating or eventual rejuvenation. Sure, the New 52 DCU has a Jim Gordon with red hair instead of gray, but for virtually all purposes it’s the same character with no real changes necessary.
The one thing that has changed over the years in the Bataverse, of course, is Robin. And with a title like Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder is front and center. If sales dictate that we must have multiple Batman comics every week, I think it’s a neat compromise to dedicate each book to a slightly different take on the mythos. Detective Comics, for example, should focus on mystery and crime stories. The Dark Knight should focus on a dark and moody sort of Batman story.
And Batman and Robin should be about Batman and Robin swinging above the streets, beating up thugs, and protecting Gotham City. It should be informed by the 60s Batman series, at least in its adherence to the main continuity points, and it should be fun.
For the most part, the first issue of this series delivers on the promises I invented for it, except perhaps for the “fun” part. I don’t mean to say it isn’t a well-crafted story that makes for an enjoyable read. It certainly is that. It’s just pretty broody and violent for a comic about hanging out with a little kid, but I guess that’s par for the course in the New 52 universe.
Here’s what we’ve seen so far this month:
• Violent home invasion.
• Woman shot in spine.
• Police officer shot in face.
• Police officer shot in gut, killed.
• Hospital patient thrown out window.
• Pile of dismembered corpses.
• Pile of dismembered and beheaded police officers.
• Brutal strangulation/knife murder.
• Human face freshly cut from head and nailed to a wall.
• Two guys dipped into acid and melted.
• Dudes burned and melted alive by radiation as Robin smiles.
All of those examples are from Batgirl, Batwing, Detective Comics, and (in the case of the last two) this issue of Batman and Robin.
So it’s not exactly BANG, POW, BOFF in Batusi-ville these days. This comic isn’t “fun”.
Other than that, all of the main Batman story beats are there. There’s a cool car (in this case the Bat-Gyro), the cave, Alfred, etc. There’s even a nice shot of the Bat-Pole that I consider a nod to the old TV show.
What’s interesting is that Batman and Robin #1 does actually try to do something interesting with Batman. The opening scene featuring Bruce Wayne has him seated in darkness in the study of Wayne Manor, brooding under an old family portrait of himself as a child posed with his parents.
“Tonight is the night, father. It’s time for a change.”
That change becomes apparent as he wakes his new Robin for a night on the town, leading him on a tour of the Gotham sewers that leads right below the Crime Alley light where his mother and father were gunned down, the moment vengeance became a part of Bruce Wayne’s life. This new Robin, you see, is Damien, Bruce Wayne’s son.
What? You say. He has a son? It’s a long story and I only know part of it and it happened when we weren’t paying attention, ok? Just go with it. No answers about what’s up with that are offered in the issue, but it doesn’t really matter. Just assume that Robin is Batman’s son now, and the story works fine without getting into all of the little details.
Those of us who have been reading comics for a while are familiar with the Batman & Robin routine. Robin is a newbie superhero who needs training. Dick/Jason/Tim/Damien makes some youthful mistakes, gets chided by Batman, and they solve a crime. Robin learns a little lesson and becomes a better hero, or he doesn’t, and gets beaten to death with a crowbar.
Here we have Batman taking his son to Crime Alley for one more trip down Origin Lane. “I thought it was important for you to honor my parents’ memory here in Crime Alley for the first and last time on the anniversary of their deaths, before this street’s bulldozed and brought back to life for working people with dreams.” Today is the last day Batman will brood over the death of his parents. Instead he will remember their life, and mark their memory by honoring the anniversary of their marriage.
Tomasi’s script suggests that Batman is, at least in some sense, ready to move on from the obsession with his parents’ death. But in this case the death of Batman’s parents is critical to his origin story, and to his motivation to battle crime. Even though Tomasi is telling us (and Batman is telling Robin) that there won’t be any more fetishizing the deaths, the comic itself revels in it one last time.
Here are Martha Wayne’s pearls from her broken necklace falling slow motion through the gutter as Batman looks on, lost in reverie. Here is Batman folding up an origami boat from the Mark of Zorro poster. Here’s the familiar lamp, and the familiar illumination, on the familiar street.
This is the repetition of formula that gets Bat-fans thumping their feet and adjusting their crotches. This is the Bat-mythos in its purest form. Is DC really ready to move on from these motifs? Are they ready to take Batman’s character, his motivation, in a new direction?
I doubt it.
For starters, there are the other Bat-books. Is a Batman who is ready to move on, at least in this way, from the murder of his parents going to be the same brooding Batman in Detective Comics? If they actually pull through and bulldoze Crime Alley I’ll be impressed. Having Batman return to the scene of the crime is such an often-used plot point in Batman comics by now that removing it from the Bat-Bag of Bat-Tricks is like getting rid of Kryptonite. Will it last? Will it have repurcussions beyond this book? Beyond this issue, even?
If yes, then I’m impressed. If no, then I’m not sure what the point is, really.
The new Robin is a bit of a prick. At least he was trained by a league of assassins and smiles while he causes suffering and pain, which makes him kind of almost a villain. That’s new and interesting, but I’m hoping new issues try to make Damien a little bit more likable.
There’s a framing story about a villain called Nobody who kills people (including the Russian Batman, Inc. franchisee) and dissolves them in vats of acid. And he seems to know that Batman is Bruce Wayne, which could lead to problems.
All in all this was a pretty good story, well told and well drawn. It attempts to walk away from certain elements of Batman’s backstory while simultaneously reveling in those elements. If it’s truly for the last time, then we may be heading toward something interesting, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
Status: We’ll See.