06 September 2012

Review: Batman and Robin, Vol. 1: Born to Kill

Batman and Robin, Volume 1: Born to Kill
Peter J. Tomasi - writer
Patrick Gleason - penciller
Mick Gray & Guy Major - inkers
John Kalisz - colorist
Patrick Brosseau - letterer
Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray & John Kalisz - collection & original series cover artists
Batman created by Bob Kane
Date of Publication (Collected Edition): 1 May 2012
Cover Price: $24.99, 192 pages
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Caution: There are some spoilers throughout this review.

When DC Comics relaunched with their New 52 line and I was lured back into reading new monthlies for the first time in a decade, I paid close attention to Batman because he's always been my favorite. I couldn't afford to keep up with more than a couple comics a month, though, and I had no strong inclination between the four primary Batman titles (Batman, Batman and Robin, Batman: The Dark Knight and Detective Comics) so I initially passed on all of them. I didn't want to find myself caught up in endless crossovers again, so I figured the surest safeguard would be to abstain entirely. (Then, of course, I wound up picking up Detective Comics #1 and got sucked into that book anyway.)

I've read the monthly solicits for all the Bat-books throughout this past year, and of course I've heard chatter from other readers. What I'd heard about Batman and Robin was that its primary appeal was the relationship between Bruce Wayne and his son, Damian. I've owned the graphic novel, Batman: Bride of the Demon (a Christmas gift the year it was published) and it was retroactively established that it was during the events of that story that Bruce and Talia al Ghul conceived their son. So in that respect, I've felt some kind of tangential connection to Damian but truthfully, I view him as a character from someone else's era of comics. My Robin will always be Tim Drake.

Anyway, I discovered that they had this among the new books at the Oldham County Public Library yesterday so I snagged it. It's a bit challenging to rate. One thing I appreciate is that the opening arc of the book was formatted for eight issues, so there is a sense of finality to this collected edition. The three New 52 books I've read were already onto their second, even third, story arcs by their issue #8s.

In the story proposal reprinted in the back of this collected edition, writer Peter J. Tomasi states that, "Our 'A' story, the emotional and psychological backbone of the book will be laser-focused on the relationship between Bruce and Damian." The 'B' story is the conflict between Batman and NoBody, whom we learn is the embittered son of Bruce's former mentor, Henri Ducard. NoBody is an extremist who takes a hard line on criminals and combines that philosophy with his years-long rivalry with Bruce, deciding that Batman has to go because he's too "weak."

Just about all of the chatter I heard about Batman and Robin centered on the 'A' story, and having now read this collected edition I can understand why that aspect has engaged readers. I don't know how instantly accessible Damian Wayne is for new or casual readers, just because I suspect most readers are even now entirely oblivious to the kid's existence. There's a sense, I'm sure, that a lot of readers will want to know about Damian's back story. Writer Tomasi does a surprisingly nice job of revealing the gist of Damian's parentage throughout the story, peppering in discussions primarily between Bruce and Alfred. I give Tomasi credit; the exposition is pretty much obligatory, but it reads fairly organically - unlike, say, a lot of comparable information that has been presented to us throughout Batwoman.

Damian is abrasive from the very beginning, popping off with some really insulting remarks to Bruce about his father's views about the murder of his parents. It reminded me very much of the reaction I had this summer to seeing grown-up John Ross in the new Dallas series, really. When that first episode aired, all I really wanted was to see someone put John Ross in his place. Over the course of the season, though, he really grew on me and I became invested in the guy. I can't quite say I reached that same level with Damian, but I do see a lot of potential for the character and his role in the Batman mythology.

That said, I'm also wary that he's pretty much headed directly for yet another fallen hero arc, and frankly I lost my interest in those a very long time ago. This kid kills a lightning bug and a bat, just 'cause. I can read the writing on the wall, and it says "Psycho!" That sense of inevitability permeates the book, and while I confess I enjoyed Born to Kill enough that I'd like to read some more Batman and Robin, I've also got pretty low expectations that this will wind up going somewhere I'll want to go.

The 'B' story, meanwhile, feels very heavily recycled and didn't engage me at all. I just didn't care about NoBody. I accepted his motivation without ever connecting to it. Moreover, the tete a tete between Batman and NoBody added nothing to the discussion that we've seen, read and/or heard ad infinitum over the years of Batman defending his policy of not killing. Bruce's rage over NoBody torturing Damian in issue #7 is plausible, but I never got a sense that Bruce was actually so lit up that he might have actually killed NoBody. Typically, these stories end with Batman claiming the moral high ground and sparing his adversary. This time, it really just seemed that Batman beat the snot out of NoBody and the fight ended because there was no energy left to continue.

Logistically, I have to question Bruce's plan to drop off NoBody - who knows his identity - and turn him over to the police. As Mace Windu reasoned when he wanted to kill Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith, "He's too dangerous to leave alive!" Bruce never even contemplates that potential threat. It's as though he takes for granted that the guy who is obsessed with destroying him will just keep that dirty little secret to himself. Sure. I mean, he was in the process of torturing 10 year old Damian after dipping some dude in a bath of acid to eliminate the guy's entire physical being. Seems like the kind of chap you'd entrust with your secret identity.

And that's the thing about the end of this that doesn't set right with me. If NoBody escapes, Bruce doesn't have a choice but to hope for the best about future encounters. But here, he's defeated and Bruce doesn't even seem to think about the ways that it could blow up in his face to turn over that kind of enemy to the police. Tomasi has to extricate Bruce from the obvious entanglements, and even that conflict resolution clearly only comes about so that Damian can indulge his murderous side and kill NoBody. But, you know, Bruce takes that sanctity of life thing so seriously that to punish Damian for committing homicide, they play fetch with the dog.

It strikes me that if the 'B' story's thesis is to explore Batman's views on killing, then it's fair to scrutinize what conclusions the book reaches and unfortunately, no one seems to have learned anything. NoBody certainly didn't learn any admiration or respect for Batman's values, 'cause he's, y'know, dead. Damian killed NoBody and basically got a "Don't let it happen again" warning. Batman witnessed his son commit murder, and he actively decides to just cover it up and take an attitude of "We'll do better next time!" That doesn't set right with me, partly because I'm so steeped in Batman mythology anyway, but partly because even within just the rules and tropes established in Born to Kill, it seems incongruous and a lazy way out.

I will say, I loved the artwork here by Patrick Gleason (pencils), Mick Gray and Guy Major (inks) and John Kalisz (colors). Batman and Robin is a very kinetic book, which is somewhat surprising given how sparse many panels and even whole pages actually are. I contrast this with, say, Detective Comics, where there has often been an overload of visuals. Batman and Robin eschews intricate backgrounds in every shot in favor of keeping the focus on the people. It helps humanize the story by putting our visual attention squarely on Bruce and Damian, rather than making us tune out other content to focus on them. There is a sense at times that the art is a bit too mindful of hewing closely to some of the artwork from previous, iconic Batman stories but that's hardly a bad thing. I just didn't get a sense that I saw anything here that really defined Batman and Robin as having a specific, recognizable aesthetic identity of its own. That is, if someone said to me that they read a comic and it reminded them of Batman and Robin, I'm not sure that would actually tell me anything or that I would know what they meant. This is not a terribly important matter in any event, though.

I've decided that issue #11 is to be my last Batwoman and with Tony S. Daniel exiting Detective Comics after this month's issue #0, I may have that one on the chopping block, too. I can't say that I'm strongly inclined to replace either with Batman and Robin but I'm definitely going to keep a watchful eye on the collected edition release schedule and hope my library branch keeps up with this book.

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