Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review: Batman and Robin #4

Batman and Robin #4

Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciller: Philip Tan
Inker: Jonathan Glapion
Released: September 16, 2009

Before yours truly, the writer of this particular column you are reading at this very moment, was the writer of this particular column; before I was so harshly cast aside by cruel economic forces and crueler corporate moles, I had a somewhat fruitless and uninspiring career (for lack of a better word) in the retail industry. I was no mere cashier or sales associate, mind you, but worked behind-the-scenes, as it were, in departments variously umbrellaed under the moniker of "Visual Merchandising". What this loosely means is that in some capacity or another I worked with those whose sole job was to present the product of a particular store or vendor in such a way as to make it most appealing to the most customers. Everything, the layout of the racks on the floor, the placement of logos and signage, the way mannequins were styled, the positioning of props, furniture, accessories, was planned out, structured, and presented so as to maximize the product's selling potential. It was all designed to present the merchandise as one cohesive entity, an entity known in retail as a brand.

In our modern world, I believe we have come to recognize and treat everything as a brand. As employees we are advised to sell ourselves, accentuate our positive attributes, extrapolate on our upside potential, position ourselves as unique candidates in the high-stakes job marketplace. In regards to our personal lives, we are advised to treat first dates as job interviews, to sell ourselves as compatible mates. One's style of dress, the car they drive, where they chose to live, how they chose to furnish their homes, tell us about who they are as people, and we categorize them thusly, knitting it all together to form one cohesive and representational product in the form of a human being. In some instances, we have even become the very products we use. ("I'm a PC." "I'm a Mac.") There are Urban Professionals, Hipsters, Soccer Moms, and endless other demographic brand labels that immediately bring to mind a specific type of person. We know what a "hipster" looks like just from the sound of that word, even though it may take differing forms in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Brooklyn. The core concept remains essential.

Batman is a brand. So is Robin. The core concepts of the icons remain essential regardless of which characters wear the capes and masks. As long as the cowl still has pointy ears and the mission statement of instilling fear into the criminal element and protecting the citizens of Gotham remains unchanged, then the specifics of the man behind the cowl become less important. As long as the bat-symbol shines against the city sky line and the populace feel they have their protector working for them, then the brand is servicing it's clientele. This is the theme being played with by Grant Morrison in Batman and Robin. Everything in our modern world is a product in need of the right marketing strategy, the right brand positioning. Even superheroes and villains, crime-fighters and mobsters alike, understand this. The new world order is viral.

We are shown how this plays out in our world through many angles in issue #4. New vigilantes The Red Hood and his teen girl partner Scarlet begin their campaign against crime in Gotham, and it is decidedly more violent, twisted, and deadly than that of the dynamic duo. The Red Hood positions himself as the "next level" of masked crime-fighter, one "more in tune with changing times and changing crimes." He leaves business cards behind with slogans and logos. He dispenses with criminals whilst dramatically spouting off catchphrases, referring to himself in the third-person, as in "The Red Hood says, 'Let the punishment fit the crime'." He has his partner Scarlet, herself a fractured mirror reflection on the Robin archetype, photograph and film their exploits on her camera phone to be posted online, the references to iPhones and Twitter made obvious by artist Philip Tan. The Red Hood is knowingly creating a brand, spending his time writing press releases and thinking very consciously about the positioning of himself and his scarred protégé in the Capes-and-Masks marketplace of Gotham City. He is designing and smart, and he has created a dynamic duo formed for a world drowning in reality TV, social media, and ultimate fighting. Each night out on patrol, each exploit in costume, is a calculated step in the roll-out of themselves as product.

In Morrison's version of the DCU, it goes beyond mere capes and catchphrases. Exploiting the new world is about understanding life in terms of marketing strategy, breaking down philosophy into Profit & Loss statements. The organized crime bosses and super-villains meet in boardrooms, clad in their own masks and costumes, to discuss new business models and restructuring for the future. They use terms such as "viral", "grass roots", "testing ground", and "unprotected systems" while deliberating over how best to position a new product into a crumbling market in recessionary times. They are modern businessmen exploiting the very systems of legitimate commerce and supply-and-demand in order to maximize profits from illegal activities. Nothing new here, really, as mobsters have always masked their dealings under legitimate business wrappings. What separates these new world mobsters is that they are not just using legitimate business as a cover. It is their new way of life. I half expected the Penguin to bust out a PowerPoint presentation.

The term "brand" is used by Morrison in several story points, notably by The Red Hood when discussing his plans for Gotham, and also by Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox when talking with Richard Grayson about the current state of the company; how it's faring in the tumultuous market, how rumors spread in the media regarding the Wayne family past are effecting public relations, and how Bruce Wayne's absence is hurting recovery. This scene near the beginning of the issue parallels the criminal boardroom scene at issue's end, and they, in turn, bookend the scene in which Red Hood shares his own business plan with Scarlet. Through these scenes, Morrison brings elements to Batman and Robin that are generally sorely lacking from most superhero comics, and that's a sense of the real world context in which the medium is operating. He does this all, though, without imposing a superficial reality on the comic, without losing his grasp on what the medium is and what is asked of him as the writer by the genre he is working in. We recognize the social and political texture of Gotham City even while we revel in the bright and colorful world of neon-splashed costumed heroes and villains. The boardrooms and jargon look and sound familiar to us but their surroundings are heightened and pushed to bursting, using our everyday reality as a springboard not as shackles.

As a brand, Batman and Robin are themselves striving to survive recent upheavals. With Bruce Wayne's death and Tim Drake's seeming mental collapse, one-time Robin Richard Grayson and boy-assassin Damian Wayne step into the costumes of the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder, respectively, looking to continue the legacy started by one man years before. They are the CFO's and middle-managers stepping in to fulfill the duties of a retired or fallen company founder, brought in to inject new life into a ubiquitous property. When Batman and Robin sit atop a rooftop in classic stake-out posture, spying on the gathered criminal element in an opposite building, Batman uses the time to impart lessons on the new, fledgling Robin on how best to make use of this time. It is commanding and zen advice, familiar to those of us who know the Batman brand well, and he sounds very much like Bruce when speaking it. This is a moment in which Richard Grayson begins to show his abilities as a teacher and mentor to the young and bull-headed upstart child in his charge. It can also be seen through the lens of the overall themes of the story, Batman orientating Robin to the ways of Batman and Robin, INC.

It is not all metaphor and business speak, and Morrison's gift for humor and humanity always shine through. In this same rooftop scene, our heroes share a quiet moment of solitude as they wait with absolute stillness in the pouring rain, blending in with the spires and architectural detail of the building. Robin turns to Batman and with a calm and satisfied smile comments, "Nice night." Batman responds with a most contented smile of his own. It is a truly touching moment of togetherness for the newly formed duo and a rare moment of genuine heartfelt connection for them, rendered with grace and subtlety by artists Tan and his inker Jonathan Glapion.

The art in this issue is powerful, throughout. Philip Tan takes on the daunting task of following up Frank Quitely, who penciled the first three issues of this title. Tan succeeds brilliantly and I find his work here to be his strongest to date. His previous work on the "Agent Orange" arc in Green Lantern was solid, but I found the storytelling to be slightly incomprehensible at times. In Batman and Robin #4, his sense of panel composition and page layout is commanding and the storytelling flow is focused, paced with keen rhythm. He understands the world created by Morrison and Quitely and builds his Gotham to their blueprint, beefing it up even more. It is a manic world popping with bright colors and glossy surfaces, a powerful city designed and built by architects out of their minds.

Their is also a sturdiness and consistency with Tan's characters and this plays out nicely in the final scene where Morrison has our heroes calmly enter the boardroom to put an end to The Red Hood's seemingly wholesale massacre. As they stand in the doorway, backlit from the outer hall, Tan's Batman feels like a solid mass of powerful masculinity while his Robin shows all his bemused disdain and guarded vulnerability in his smirk and furrowed brow. Here, the once jovial Richard Grayson becomes the stoic anti-hero whilst donning the Bat-ears, and the seriously melodramatic Damian Wayne becomes the sarcastic sidekick foil whilst in the red and yellow colors of Robin. It is a nice visual point for Morrison's statement about our perceptions of ourselves as brand identities. Despite their real-world individuality, upon donning the costumes of the brand of Batman and Robin, Richard and Damian cannot help but take on some of the preconceived tics of the roles. While this could be seen as cynical, it must also be seen as deeply comforting. Whether we like to admit to it, brands make us comfortable. There is a comfort in consistency, in categorization. To many, Batman and Robin stand for strength, nobility, sacrifice, and justice. Regardless of who wears the masks, these elements are ingrained and seemingly indestructible. Truly, Batman and Robin will never die.

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