Thursday, June 4, 2009

"Crime Is Doomed." - Review: Batman And Robin #1

Batman and Robin #1

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Frank Quitely
Released: June 3, 2009

For two years writer Grant Morrison helmed a run on Batman, one of its main goals seemingly being to show that no one man was more uniquely qualified, destined, determined, indefatigable, or mentally unswerving for the job of Gotham City's crime-fighting caped crusader than the one and only millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. Born of tragedy, with a single-mindedness that bordered on psychotic and resiliency that bordered on super-human, Wayne prepared for every contingency, readied for every eventuality, and proved that nothing was insurmountable for a man who knew no limits. Morrison pushed his Batman beyond the suspension of disbelief in what one human man could do, but in doing so, did not invalidate our hero, but proved beyond any shadow of doubt just how awesome Bruce Wayne had truly been all these years. His run climaxed in the only place it could, with the ultimate showdown of Man versus Evil God, leaving both parties vanquished, but only Batman triumphant. When Batman had already proved he could do anything, the only thing left was to prove he would do anything, to save a city, a planet, a multiverse. Death was always the final act in Bruce Wayne's drama as Batman. 

Superhero deaths are never permanent and within the plastic borders of comic books resurrection is only a creative plot point away. Any savvy fan would have to know that this death would prove to be a temporary experiment. After all, not only can Bruce Wayne be the only true Batman as evidenced within the paneled pages, but in the greater consciousness of the general public there has only ever been one Batman. Any character stepping in to take up the mantle would never be a true replacement, only a substitute, the back-up quarterback filling in while the stud with the rocket arm heals from injury. So who could possibly step into this thankless position to don the cowl and utility belt of a man already so definitively established as irreplaceable? Why, only a character with nearly as much pedigree in the Batman mythos would do: the original Robin, the original boy sidekick, the circus acrobat boy wonder, Richard Grayson. 

Batman and Robin is the new book taking up the adventures of Dick Grayson as the new Caped Crusader with Damien Wayne as the new Robin, and it is shaping up to not simply be the same old Batman formulae with new characters plugged in, but a truly brand new book that takes its cue from the lead characters and grabs hold of the opportunity to present a new vision of what a Batman comic can be.

The utter joy of this book is the sheer exuberance with which Morrison and artist Frank Quitely approach the material. Batman and Robin is brash and colorful but not out of control, focused with a determination to strike out of tired molds. Gotham City feels full and robust, crowded with neon billboards, teeming with traffic-clogged streets; but whereas previous creators made it feel claustrophobic, here the city feels bustling and energetic, pulsating with urban passion. Gotham City is alive, reaching towards the light of the heavens with its glass and steel tendrils. This is not a cliched Gotham City of shadows and decay, besieged under a blanket of gangland violence and moral atrophy, but a city that is a beautiful dreamer surviving against all odds. 

The new Batmobile is sleeker and more organic in shape, and when it takes flight with wings fully spread, it appears like a bulbous black and red orchid gracefully careening through the plate glass jungle of the city landscape. That the Batmobile now flies is a brilliant metaphor for the whole book itself. It will not be contented to stay grounded, and it will not be fettered by old mores. 

Morrison is not content, himself, to rely on the old standard villains, either, and we get our first glimpse of the Toad and Pyg, gruesome men with ambiguous agendas, part of the larger crime syndicate known as The Circus of Strange. These villains are grotesque amalgams, bits of faery-tale cuteness warped into sideshow fright.

Here we see the boldness of Morrison to not fall back on the tried and true, especially for the launch of a new team and new book, when such a tactic could have been excused. All of this hearkens back to a bygone age of experimentation when these superheroes and their worlds were still being forged on the desks and drawing boards of underpaid freelancers in suits and ties, and it creates a sense of free-wheeling retro fun but with a very modern sensibility. 

It is not all bold new strokes, however, and Morrison makes room for the parts of the mythology that can never die. Commissioner Gordon still takes up nightly watch on the GCPD rooftop to shine the Bat-signal up against the murky blue-black clouds of the twilight sky. Faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth still serves up fatherly support to the boys in tights in capes, who've been orphaned by cruelty or by duty. It is not all gaudy action, either, as subtle emotional dramas are being played out between the three men left to carry on Bruce Wayne's mission. Alfred may still be playing his father-figure role to full reception by Dick Grayson, but Damien, Bruce's biological son, appears unyielding, referring to Alfred by last name, treating him more akin to hired-help than family member. 

The dynamic between this new Dynamic Duo also roils with potential for drama the foundation of which is shown here. As Bruce's biological son, Damien feels very much entitled to the throne of Batman. He demonstrates a steely determination to carry on the mission of his father and to protect the ideals his father stood for. He outwardly believes himself ready for the mantle now, more so than the adopted son Dick Grayson, and yet, he acquiesces to Dick, putting on the Robin costume and dutifully fulfilling the role of boy sidekick. Damien may profess to not respect Dick, but he seems to also be very aware that this is the man who served and trained with his father for many years and shared moments with him that Damien never did and now, never will. When told in slightly scolding tone by Dick to "get in the car", Damien does so with slight harrumph, but he does so.  

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's greatest accomplishment here is in presenting a new crime-fighting duo of Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder with such conviction and guile that in one issue, it already makes it possible for a reader to conceive of this as a long-term coupling and not just a short-term marriage of convenience. The key is that Bruce Wayne is not really absent at all. Those left behind are all men shaped by Bruce Wayne, all men born of him in one way or another. They are on a mission started by one man sent reeling into a painful and lonely spiral by the murder of his parents, and who bond at intersecting points of their own personal losses. For all the newness of this book, Morrison grounds it with a deep understanding of the underlying structure that has formed the soul of the Batman mythos since the origin story was penned by Bill Finger for Detective Comics #33 in 1939: the power of pain felt by fatherless men to transform them into something greater. 

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