Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Holy Relaunch! The Batman And Robin #1 Review.

Batman And Robin #1
DC Comics
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Frank Quitely

Most comicbook fans hate change. It's a well-known fact. Much like our brethren in the mainstream who enjoy their melodramas in the medium of soap operas, the majority of comicbook aficionados prefer things to remain relatively static, or at least as close to their own personal vision of their favorite characters as possible. As long as certain patterns hold true and the applecart isn't rocked or upset overmuch, you'll keep the wolves at bay. Change things too much too fast and you may find yourself staring down an angry mob rumbling that things aren't the way they used to be and that things have been done to 'their' characters that meet with their passionate and vocal displeasure. Add to this the fact that company-owned properties like to keep things status quo and you'll find a medium that tends to be more conservative creatively than anything else.

So when words like 'a bold new direction' or 'a brand new era' begin trickling down the pike in regards to a pair of beloved characters, it can be understood how deflector screens might go up and immediately one becomes extremely nervous. Particularly when it comes to what might easily be viewed as a particular comicbook company's most popular brand. I speak of course of the new Batman And Robin comic recently released by DC Comics. Now in my previous post I was a bit on the facetious side in terms of my anticipation for the book, but now that I've had a chance to read it I'm ready to share my thoughts.

Batman is DC's hottest property right now. In the wake of the cinematic epic that was The Dark Knight, you can't deny that the caped crusader has taken the medium of the superhero in film to a higher plateau. Indeed, it could be argued that a lot of the mainstream acceptance of the superhero film can be traced to The Dark Knight (with perhaps Iron Man and Watchmen as significant influences as well, but those merit their own posts). With that kind of success involving the classic character himself, you'd think DC Comics--a subsidiary of Time Warner and producer of the comics the film was based upon--would stick to the tried and true and not rock the boat in terms of the character and his world. You'd be wrong. While Bruce Wayne may still be pondering his black and white perspective in a world replete with shades of gray in the cinema, in comicbooks that's no longer a concern of his. Well, it may well be, but the dead don't tend to share their thoughts about the state of morality with the living.

As TDK was blowing away moviegoers, in the comics Batman was undergoing some massive changes of his own. The storyline Batman: RIP saw Bruce Wayne endure a series of events that ultimately lead to his apparent death(well, either within this storyline or the company-wide crossover Final Crisis depending on your point of view, but that's for others to go into depth with. It just gives me a headache). A brief power struggle within the surviving members of the Bat-Family followed, but ultimately a new Batman rose to take the place of the old, with a new sidekick donning the red, green, and yellow of Robin the Boy Wonder. Much of this was chronicled in the 3-part Battle for the Cowl mini-series, but longtime Batman fans saw the writing on the wall: Dick Grayson took up the cowl and became the second Batman, with Bruce Wayne's son Damien becoming the fifth Robin.

Some backstory here to help those lost at sea; Dick Grayson was the original Robin, who as he grew out of the role became his own hero under the nom de plume of Nightwing. He adventured on his own for a time(and as part of the Teen Titans, a group of former sidekicks and other assorted young heroes) as he matured from Boy to Teen Wonder and then into his own heroic identity. He's been a staple of the Batman universe and when most people think 'and Robin', they're thinking Dick Grayson.

Damien Wayne is a bit of a new development, and to explain him I must invoke the dreaded spectre of--you guessed it--continuity! In a nutshell, Damien is the son of Bruce by Talia Al Ghul, daughter of evil mastermind and Bat-villain Ra's Al Ghul (memorable to most as the character portrayed by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins). An adventure left the mastermind's daughter and the heroic adventurer getting really, really close, with Talia ultimately having Bruce's child(chronicled in the excellent Son of the Demon trade paperback). Bruce was never told he had offspring until recently, leaving the boy's rearing to the tender mercies of Ra's Al Ghul's league of assassins. He's arrogant, distant, and driven. . .definitely a chip off the old block in some respects, though he's got a lot to learn.

If nothing else, I have to give DC credit. To change the entire status quo of your most popular and beloved pair of characters at a time when the 'classic' interpretation is so popular is one hell of a gutsy move. Granted we know beyond certainty that death is anything but permanent in the medium of comicbooks, but to alter things to such a degree takes a certain degree of pure chutzpah. But how does the actual book hold up? Is it a grand-slam home run? Does it change the nature of everything you've ever known about Batman and Robin? Is it actually any good?

Yeah, actually. Batman and Robin beat up some bad guys, banter back and forth, and make their 'debut' in Gotham City. It's a self-contained story that has some great art by Quitely and the the Morrison dialogue is short but sweet. A lot of guns are being hung on the wall with this new incarnation of the dynamic duo that I think will be a lot of fun to explore as the series goes on.

Particular strengths were seeing Dick Grayson come into his own as Batman. Yes, there will be some who maintain that Dick is stronger as his own man (the character included) but there's no doubt in my mind that his taking on the cape and cowl is long past due. He's the heir, the one that should rightly take the mantle as his own. His Batman is a warmer character, though still able to be just as badass as his predecessor should circumstances call for it. I like how Quitely gave him a slightly leaner, more acrobatic look that the previous Batman I've seen him draw. Dick has his doubts about his new role but I've no doubt that we'll be looking back on the Dick Grayson Batman with serious fondness in the years to come.

Ever-faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth doesn't get all that much to do here, but what he does makes him a linchpin to the entire series. In the absence of Bruce Wayne, Alfred is the paternal glue that keeps the two new heroes from breaking down into bickering and dissension. He's great to see and I look forward to his wisdom and wit as the series goes forward.

Damien I'm a bit cool toward. Some of his smart remarks and his overall attitude within the story make me want to give him a smack in the mouth, particularly his continued digs at Dick and his blustering arrogance make me more than a little exasperated, but I'm guessing that's the point. The kid has skill and he has potential, but he's trying to live up to the memory of a father he never knew and has to work with the man his father did actually raise as his son. That'd make anyone touchy, and boys who've grown up in the League of Assassins? Yeah, he's probably going to be a little jerk for more than a few issues at this rate. Still, it makes for an intriguing twist to have Batman be light-hearted and Robin be the dour one.

There's a scene in the book that I absolutely loved, namely the little cut-away view of the new Batcave beneath the Wayne Foundation building in the heart of Gotham. Long-time Batman nerds like myself have to recognize and respect that little nod to previous Batman stories(at one point Bruce operated in the city in a second underground lair built from an abandoned subway station. It was awesome).

I respect the decision to have new villains to challenge our new dynamic duo, but I'm not too sure how I feel about the seeming master villain of Mr. Pyg and his Circus of the Strange. They're creepy enough, but I feel they're a little more Saw than the usual Batman villain. I did like his henchman Toad though, whose antics attempting to escape the flying batmobile (it makes me smile even when I type it) amused me.

The flying batmobile was just bliss. Okay, so it's not the end-all be-all of the book, but it's just so hokey and Silver Age of comics by way of Back to the Future that I couldn't not love it.

Overall, this was a nice way to get back into the Batman books after a long hiatus. You don't need any foreknowledge of previous stories to get into this adventure(though consulting the hardcore fanboys is always an option) and it's a neat little romp. If anything, you can treat it as an alternate future from the Batman films where Bruce has died and Dick Grayson's taken over. It's a self-contained debut issue that looks like it'll be leading to some interesting storylines (if the preview of the year's storylines are any indicator). If you want to read a comic that's just plain fun, you could do worse than Batman And Robin. Change can be good.

Just don't kill Superman. Again.


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