Reviews of BATMAN & ROBIN VOL. 1: BORN TO KILL and BATMAN: EARTH ONE
Here we have portraits of the Batman in two phases of his life: a young, inexperienced Bruce Wayne in his earliest years as Batman, little more than a sack of vengeance with a costume; to a modern, self-assured Wayne in his mid-…thirties? forties? fifties?…mid-forfties, a father growing tired of his hardboiled, paranoid past, looking forward to carving a brighter, safer future for his son and city.
Batman & Robin Vol. 1: Born to Kill
Now we come to the third of Batman’s four headlining titles. The first was spectacular, the second a dud, so how will Batman and Robin fair against the respective ceiling and floor established by those books? Well, spoilers, this is no Detective Comics — far from it in fact, and thank Zod for it. So the question remains: how does this book stack up against Scott Snyder’s Batman? Well, let’s dive in.
The current Batman and Robin is the successor to Grant Morrison’s pre-relaunch Batman and Robin which featured Dick Grayson as Batman and Damian Wayne as Robin, a pairing that seems at first odd but in actuality created a new, fun dynamic for the duo. A fun loving, positive Batman and a hard-as-nails, moody Robin. Their growing mutual respect for one another became the backbone of the book’s emotional core, along with Dick’s quest to equal Bruce’s legacy and Damian’s fight against his violent upbringing. Their relationship worked so well that I was honestly sad to see them broken up with the return of Bruce Wayne and the reboot in September 2011. Now, Dick Grayson’s back to being Nightwing, Bruce Wayne’s back in the role as Batman, but Damian Wayne remains the current Robin. The worry then becomes how will Peter J. Tomasi create a unique dynamic for two characters seemingly so alike yet so at odds? At odds, in essence, the same way Batman and Jason Todd were at odds (i.e. Jason continually moaning and disobeying orders like an insufferable prick).
Batman and Robin opens with something completely audacious to Batman purists: Bruce Wayne deciding to put his parents’ deaths behind him, to move on, to honor who they were in life rather than live in the shadow of their demise. Bringing son Damian along, he even casts the playbill from that fateful night’s show adrift in the sewer below Crime Alley which is soon to be demolished to make way for a new housing, part of Wayne’s urban revitalization.
Yes, while the rest of the DC universe has turned back the clock, Batman seems to be moving forward with his life regardless of whatever timestream bullshit tries to unweave past developments. No, it’s onward and upward for Batman and Bruce Wayne, but the path uphill is fraught with perils. As Batman pits nurture against nature in bringing up Damian as both son and sidekick, a mysterious figure from Bruce Wayne’s past emerges to tear the two apart. (For a nice change of pace, why not a mysterious figure from Batman’s past who just wants to give him pie instead of the usual revenge plot?) And here we see how Tomasi changes up the dynamic between the two, focusing on their familial ties to define who they are and how they interact with one another. Batman struggles to be a father while Damian struggles to be a son. Neither character descends into being insufferable even when they do something wrong or betray one another’s trust because each step of the way we understand their mindset and motives. The books strikes at some universal themes here and will no doubt resonate with any father or any son with a troubled bond to their parent or child. (Insert “Cat’s in the Cradle” joke here.)
Along with Scott Snyder’s Batman, Peter J. Tomasi’s interpretation of the Dark Knight also marks a decisive move away from portrayals of Bruce Wayne as an ever brooding, ever moody sack of neuroses and paranoia, unable to trust anyone outside his insular adoptive family. A decidedly positive change for the character who was growing quite boring and lacking in development (as well as devolving closer and closer into Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin character assassination). While Batman brings the character back to his roots as a detective confronting the horrors of a city consumed by monsters, Batman and Robin introduces a new angle to the character we haven’t seen before. Mainly, Bruce’s new role as a father. Arguably, one could say Bruce Wayne always had a fatherly aspect to his character in his upbringing of Dick Grayson and Tim Drake, but those two always viewed him as a mentor more than a father (especially Tim with his living father still active in his life…well, pre-Identity Crisis, anyway). Damian, however, very much looks up to Bruce as a father and Bruce doesn’t really know how to respond in kind. In a particularly poignant scene, Alfred tells Bruce he should pay more attention to how he praises the boy, stressing the importance of demonstrating pride over simple approval. Bruce has trouble grasping the distinction and his actions shape Damian’s own.
Meanwhile, the development of Nobody, the latest addition to Batman’s rogues gallery, parallels our duo’s dilemma in both life and theme. Unlike Tony S. Daniel’s Dollmaker, who was just another dime-a-dozen psychopath, Nobody has an interesting past and motivation (building upon established Batman mythos, in fact). A vigilante operating outside the law, not unlike so many other of Gotham’s heroes, Nobody crosses that line Bruce promised never to breach, killing criminals to end their wrongdoings for good. Nobody is a foil in both practice and philosophy to Batman, making him the perfect alternative role model for Damian given his past among the League of Assassins.
Batman and Robin avoids all the pitfalls Detective Comics succumbed to. The eight issues collected here actually build on a singular story with a coherent sense of rising action and falling action. The characters are well crafted, their dialogue honed and meaningful, and the villain compelling, threatening, and the perfect foil for Batman in his current state. The only arena where Detective Comics may have the upper hand is in the art. And even then, Patrick Gleason’s pencils suit the book perfectly, lacking only in technical ability of Daniel’s penciling but perfectly capturing the mood and spirit of the book.
The strong emotional core of this book cannot be overstated. The relationship Tomasi builds between Bruce and Damian strikes some truly heartwarming chords while at the same time driving much of the action, leading to some intense, knuckle-biting scrapes and confrontations. Hearts will be racing one moment and tears welling in the next. Along with Scott Snyder’s book, this is a must-read for old and new generations of Batman fans.
Batman: Earth One
The ontology of Earth One is comparatively simple against our own universe. It exists as a playground for writers to explore the early days of a DC hero’s career, beginning, naturally enough, with Superman in J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One. Therein, Straczynski recounts Superman’s first arrival to Metropolis and his transformation into the hero we know, exploring the various motives past and present driving humble Clark Kent to don the tights and do battle with forces cosmic. Ironically, Straczynski better captured Superman’s heart in this alternate universe tale than in his mainstream run on Superman: Grounded. The same cannot be said for Geoff Johns, however, who has perhaps proven more talent for crafting ongoing plotlines than short, closed stories.
Given the nature of the book, there’s little point in providing a plot synopsis save to note certain important changes made to Batman’s continuity. First, Bruce’s parents were killed on the eve a mayoral election wherein Thomas Wayne was a candidate, leading Bruce to believe his parents were assassinated as part of a political conspiracy. Second, Martha Wayne, Bruce’s mother, is no longer Martha Wayne née Kane but Martha Wayne née Arkham. What dramatic shifts does this turnabout offer? Surprisingly little. In fact, it’s mostly just setup for a needlessly contrived coincidence.
This book fails primarily because it telegraphs plot points in the worst possible way. Basically, every character begins at a place contrary to how we know them from mainstream continuity. Commissioner Gordon is cowardly, having bought into the Gotham’s corruption after the death of his wife, so obviously he’s going to go through a dramatic experience that brings him back to being the hero cop we know from every piece of Batman fiction ever. Harvey Bullock starts out as a thin, straight-laced, sober detective looking to do good in Gotham (while still harboring selfish ulterior motives), so you know he’s going to devolve into the grizzly, drunken “bad cop” famed to stalk the streets of Gotham.
Oswald Cobblepot, alias Penguin, in a surprising “twist” reveals himself as Gotham’s mayor, Thomas Wayne’s rival from all those years ago but, surprise, surprise, he’s just as corrupt and evil as he’s always been. That reveal pretty much spoils whatever “mystery” the book had to offer as Penguin’s villainy is played painfully straight. Moreover, rather than rely on a villain’s cunning and wit to make them a compelling threat, Johns falls back on shock value with implications of child molestation and murder. Johns deprives Penguin of the noteworthy traits that make him a named supercriminal in Batman’s mythos. (Seriously, the Penguin’s role here had more dramatic tension when he was running for mayor in the Adam West TV series.)
Alfred Pennyworth is the only character who begins with an altered backstory and doesn’t transmogrify into a mainstream version of his character by the book’s climax. And even then, his character amounts to an older, grizzled version of Dr. John Watson, complete with a cane, a limp, and history as a soldier. Ironically, the character to get the least amount of development is Bruce Wayne. You know, BATMAN. The character the damned book is named for. He goes through the exact same character arc depicted in vastly superior Batman: Year One and Batman Begins, only without the attention to detail and character that made those stories interesting. Johns does very little to get us into Bruce’s head, to make us understand his mindset and his drive.
Apparently, Geoff Johns simply found Batman the least interesting character to focus on in a Batman book as every other focal character — Gordon, Bullock, and Alfred — gets more time devoted to fleshing out their personality and backstory than Bruce Wayne. But, you know what? Fair enough. Batman’s origin has been told and retold a thousand times; it’s a tall order expecting Johns to bring a new spin to this old yarn, so focusing on the characters around Batman seems like an promising avenue for new stories, new developments, and a new perspective on an old character. The problem here being that every other character’s development comes at the cost of making Batman look like a fucking putz.
Ultimately, Bruce Wayne plays the least role of all the characters responsible for resolving what passes for a plot in this book. The sum total of Batman’s actions here amount to crashing through a window by accident, correctly identifying the presence of rust in a footprint, and beating up a big guy in a birthday hat. Gordon and Bullock end up being more decisive and effective in their actions and neither of them are the brightest bulb here. Gordon’s a coward, Harvey’s a douche, and neither of them should be outgunning the “world’s greatest detective”, inexperienced as he may be or otherwise. He did train with ninjas, after all. Though, for all we know, Johns may have omitted that part of Batman’s history. How else to explain a cop getting the drop on Bats and the fact that he gets physically bested by nearly every opponent he faces save the ultimate villain.
(SPOILERS: Scratch that. While Bats does indeed best the Birthday Boy, Alfred ultimately has to bail him out by gunning down the Penguin after Cobblepot managed to stab Batman through the gut with his trick umbrella.)
It’s one thing for Batman to be inexperienced, it’s another for him to be completely useless within his own story. The book purports to be about Bruce’s investigation into his parents’ murders, but that turns out to be a red herring in the end. A red herring Johns wishes were wrought with symbolism and irony but it feels more like an insult. One last contrivance to give Bruce motive to keep being Batman, proving that the forces of plot inevitably override individual volition. For this reason, the moment when Bruce truly “becomes” Batman, the defining moment of any Batman origin story, here given the typical full page spread treatment, feels hollow and unearned. The character hadn’t done enough to earn that moment because Johns’ writing sure as hell hadn’t earned it. It’s a shallow imitation of those same moments from Year One and Begins.
Moreover, a lot of the changes from mainstream continuity in this book end up arbitrary and pointless when all they do is place the character outside their comfort zone just long enough to throw the reader off till Johns feels comfortable putting them back where they belong. That shot of Bullock gazing longingly up at an imposing wall of liquor should hold a great deal of dramatic weight but all it really signifies is a return to status quo. The character hasn’t changed. Rather, he is now unchanged, relieved of those new and different aspects to his character Johns introduced in the beginning.
As a last parting shot at the reader, Johns teases us with a look at the Riddler studying Batman from a control room but I couldn’t care less at this point. The book utterly fails to achieve what Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One reached by that book’s end: a compelling story of a hero’s early days struggling to become more than the sum of their parts — more than their tragedies, their origins, their joys, and their fears — to become superheroic, an idea, a value given form. Straczynski put you in Clark’s head with every exchange of dialogue and internal monologue. Here, Johns completely forgoes narration while dialogue primarily moves the plot forward, developing character only as necessary. Given a playground of ideas and possibilities, Johns only musters a modest variation on an old story. One certainly not worth exploring unless one is truly desperate for Batman stories.
Attention campers: Leave a comment below, or post on our new community forums!