Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review: Batman and Robin #6

Batman and Robin #6

Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciller: Philip Tan
Inker: Jonathan Glapion
Released: November 11, 2009

Should there be a time for me to start a piece with such a harsh straightforward statement as I will begin this one, this is that time, and here is that statement: the art in this issue is an absolute mess. How utterly heartbreaking it was for me to turn each page and see another class-act Grant Morrison script turned into a collection of incongruous inking, confusing compositions, and befuddling characterization. To ponder a time when this title will find itself in a nicely bound hardcover collected edition, and to know that this atrocity of 22 pages will sit smack in the middle of such, makes me ludicrously angry, but mostly, unbelievably sad. It also makes me sincerely question if the editors and publishers truly care about putting out a great "book" or just serviceable "product". This issue is barely the latter, and only saved by the grace of the story.

This issue begins to bring many disparate pieces from the last few years of Morrison's Batman into a clearer focus, and we start to see that all of them will eventually converge, though how and to what effect are left tantalizingly broadly open. We are once again reminded of Morrison's inventive nature. There is no need for the endless revolving door of the old rogues gallery, not when Grant can give us new characters and concepts such as El Penitente, the flamboyant and seemingly indestructible matador assassin The Flamingo, and the mysteriously sensual enigma of Oberon Sexton. He even manages to make Jason Todd, a character killed years ago who should have stayed dead, matter in a way that resonates more deeply than him just being the one failed Robin in Bruce Wayne's past.

We also see how divergent Morrison can be from the status quo continuity of the greater DC Universe. This issue ends with the reveal that Bruce Wayne's body, believed to have been buried in an unmarked grave near his parents, is actually in secreted storage in the depths of Wayne Tower. This flies in the face of the current mega-event Blackest Night, which uses the desecration of Bruce's grave as the jumping off point for the story, the Black Hand using Bruce's skull as some talisman from which the Black Lantern rings are birthed. Are we to now understand that the body buried there is NOT Bruce's and that Dick Grayson fooled everyone? If so, Dick has done a masterful job of concealing this from every single hero in the DCU, including his own Robin. The issue ends with this teaser for next issue: "Next in Batman and Robin: Blackest Knight" Will this be where these seeming incongruities will start to be explained? Is this just Morrison's clever jab at a mega-event, one that seems to be supplanting his own Final Crisis of last year in importance in DC mythology? Is it both of these things and more??? Most likely, the answer to all of these questions is YES! with exclamation point. This is why people read his work. This is what makes Morrison a stand out writer in a murky superhero genre. He is fearless and the best thing for all involved is to get out of his way.

All of this richness of story is what makes the terrible failings of the art that much more unbearable. From one page to the next, and even from panel to panel on the same page, the art appears amorphous. Certain pages appear to be inked by nib, as they show clearly defined edges and fine line detail, whilst other pages seem a rushed mash-up of brushed ink and digital wash. Only one inker is credited, that being Jonathan Glapion, but the hodge-podge on display seems the work of multiple people working on several different sections madly scrambling against impending deadline. Blame should be shared by Philip Tan, as well, as often, bad inking is the result of poor pencils, as inkers attempt to cover up gaffes in proportion and perspective, or to fill-in areas not completed. That seems the case in many panels where the backgrounds appear to be inked in loosely, as though there were only the barest of pencil to define the space. The climactic fight scene appears to take place in a rock quarry or condemned construction zone, but it is never clearly defined and spatial relations are murky. Many panels deteriorate into blobs of thickly applied swathes and hashmarks. It seems much shading on many pages was left to colorist Alex Sinclair to suss out and provide, further solidifying the pretense of multiple hands on rickety deck. This is a thankless task, indeed, for the normally top-notch colorist, and I free him from all blame. Doubtless, he did what he could with the mess he was given.

What has become apparent to me over the course of the last two years is that Philip Tan is a talented penciller who is incapable of consistency, especially, it would seem, when the task at hand is a monthly book. This three issue arc is yet another example of Tan starting out strong, but then ending in a blurred mess. His first issue, if not perfect, was solid and muscular with a clear focus. The same can be said of his first issue of Final Crisis: Revelations and Green Lantern: Agent Orange. Like those works, by the end of his run, the issues had broken down, characters had become disproportioned, perspective unbalanced, the inking taken on the air of being rushed. The shocking thing to try and understand is that this should not have been an issue, considering the short nature of this arc. If over the course of only THREE issues his work breaks down this much, then perhaps his talent is best suited for one-shots and limited projects. The ability to pump out consistently solid work on a monthly basis seems to elude Tan. No shame there, as speed is not every artist's forte. The powers that be need to assign him more properly, is all.

As a reader and a fan of this title, of Grant Morrison's work, and of the characters of Batman and Robin, I would have gladly waited another month to see this issue hit stands in a far cleaner and coherent form than what made it to store shelves. Hitting shipping deadlines is, of course, of utmost importance, and no one wants late books, especially if the story beats involved are important to other books and story lines going on at the same time. This, of course, is the inherent problem with the over-reliance on continuity. It becomes more important that the books are released on time than that they be released when they are ready. This one, unfortunately, just doesn't feel ready.

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