Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Travis' Book Review: Batman and Robin by Grant Morrison

After reading Batman and Robin, it’s easy to see why DC Comics decided to relaunch its entire 52 publication roster. The universe that DC comics created over the past decade had become a convoluted mess of storytelling, with each writer trying to write his or her own take on different characters, while trying to connect their stories to stories that other writers had written. See? A mess! Who, except for the most die-hard comic book fans, can keep up with all of this? That said, I am a huge fan of Morrison’s All-Star Superman and his other major works like Batman: R.I.P and Final Crisis. Unlike Morrison’s take on Superman, a stand-alone work that exhibited Morrison’s creative writing talents and understanding of his subject, Batman and Robin ties in previous DC Universe events – specifically, the events of Morrison’s previous work with Batman in Final Crisis, which ended with the death of Bruce Wayne. 


Well, not really, as it turns out. Just to show how complicated the DC universe had become, another Batman series showed that he was actually just sent through time, where he fought cavemen, pirates, and solved crimes during the time of the Salem witch trials. Yes, all of that happened. All the while, in another series, the relationship of Bruce Wayne and Talia Al Ghul is explored, revealing that the two have a son name Damian, who is trained in the same assassin arts as Batman. In yet another series, the classic character Dick Grayson, formerly Robin and Nightwing, kills an evil imposter Batman and decides to take on the role of the dark knight, himself.  Now, finally, with each of those story arcs taken into account, comes Morrison’s Batman and Robin.


In this 3 volume collaboration, Dick Grayson is working under the mask as the new Batman and Bruce Wayne’s son, Damian, is working as Robin. The two caped crusaders must stop a murderous new villain known Professor Pyg, face one of Morrison’s villains from a previous series, Dr. Hurt, and learn to work together to save Gotham.  All the while, the two must investigate a mysterious new vigilante that is willing to kill criminals. To make matters worse, Grayson and Damian start uncovering clues that suggest Bruce Wayne may actually still be alive. Unlike Bruce Wayne, however, Grayson isn’t the “world’s greatest detective,” and unlike Grayson, the new Boy Wonder is showing signs that he, too, is willing to kill – especially when the infamous villain, the Joker,  reveals his own twisted plans.


Unlike his work with “man of steel” in All-Star Superman, Morrison isn’t trying to recapture the glory of the silver age of comics with the new version of Batman and Robin.  He is writing a continuation of current storylines. Since much of the foundation for this work is his own contributions to the DC universe, Morrison has a firm grasp of the world he is working with, and still adds the kind of storytelling elements that make him one of the best modern comic writers.  The problem is that even though the writer has a grasp on the current characters, the readers might not. In the classic conception of the dynamic duo, Robin is perceived as the fun loving, fast-talking, “Holy particle board, Batman” sidekick. It’s that Robin who now wears the mask of Morrison’s Batman. The new Robin, however, is a trained killer with a superiority complex and the serious demeanor of his father. The role-reversal allows Morrison the freedom to write complex characterizations and conflict between the two main subjects. The conflicting personalities between leader and sidekick often lead to tension between the heroes, and bad decisions are made. Fortunately for the reader, bad decisions create plot points, climaxes, and require resolutions – and these two heroes make a lot of bad decisions. At one point, for example, Damian decides to tackle an entire gang of villains by himself, but ends up with a broken spine. At another point, Grayson tries to reanimate Bruce Wayne’s dead body, but it turns out to be an evil clone that wants to kill him, instead.


The two do learn to work together, eventually, but the events that lead up to that point are so complex and reliant on source material, that I can’t recommend it to a casual reader. The murderous clone was from Final Crisis, one villain is from R.I.P, and another villain is from Death in the Family, written nearly 25 years ago. Morrison is a serious writer, and his comic storylines read under the assumption that the readers are familiar with these past works, among many others. The beauty of All-Star Superman is that it reimagines and recaptures the magnificence of a classic character, while making him accessible to everyone. The most disappointing thing about Batman and Robin is that it does not. Yes, the series is still a new take on an old franchise, but without prior knowledge of the complex universe of DC comics and the events leading up to the creation of the series, it is easy to get lost. Overall, I personally enjoyed the series and appreciate what Morrison did with his characters, but the series is a small piece in a much larger puzzle. Serious comic book fans will enjoy it, but casual readers will be left confused.  


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