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Peter Tomasi’s Run on Batman & Robin – Blackest Night: Batman (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

Okay, so it’s not technically a Batman & Robin book, only featuring Batman in the title, and it doesn’t feature Peter Tomasi’s Batman & Robin collaborator Patrick Gleason on the artwork. Still, Blackest Night: Batman feels very much like a trial run for the hand-picked successor to Grant Morrison’s acclaimed Batman & Robin run. (Arguably much like Blackest Night: Flash led into Geoff Johns’ second on-going Flash series.) While it’s hardly an exceptional three-issue tie-in to Geoff Johns’ massive Blackest Night event, it does show some hint of promise for the author’s forthcoming run on the main title.

Freeze, mofo!

Peter Tomasi has an excellent reputation as a “supporting” writer on popular franchises. After all, he succeeded Dave Gibbons writing Green Lantern Corps and remains the right-hand-man to Geoff Johns on that franchise that has grown from one book to four books. His character work is solid, and he tends to work well developing ideas forged or introduced by other writers, those driving the franchise in question. So it’s not really a massive surprise that Tomasi would have been chosen to write Batman & Robin after Morrison moved on to write Batman Inc. There was, after all, no way that DC was going to cancel the well-loved and (more importantly) well-selling title simply because its creator had moved on.

In many ways, Blackest Night: Batman feels like a sort of trial run, with Tomasi given the freedom to play with the toys and find the right voice for each of the characters involved. He has, of course, experience writing Dick Grayson in the Nightwing title, but that isn’t the toughest part of the equation. The toughest part of Batman & Robin for any incoming writer is handling Morrison’s cult creation, Damian Wayne. The pint-sized psychopathic son of Batman has caught on with fans since Morrison introduced him during his Batman run, but there’s no denying that he’s pretty hard to write. Anybody hoping to use Damian must get the tone pitch perfect – arrogant and condescending enough to retain the core character, but in such a way as to keep him interesting.

Gritty Batman...

As such, the whole Blackest Night tie-in feels almost incidental. After all, Blackest Night is one of relatively few major events that doesn’t devote a significant role to Batman. The action takes place over one night in Coast City, so simply geography limits Batman’s involvement in Geoff Johns’ central miniseries. This poses an interesting problem for a tie-in miniseries: Tomasi has pretty much complete freedom to do what he will, but none of it really “matters” in the grand scheme of the event. So a tie-in seems especially cynical.

I’ll concede that, while I’m not too disappointed with the execution, Blackest Night: Batman feels like a missed opportunity. Removed from a need to rigidly conform to an event’s continuity, Tomasi had free range with the characters and their world. In an event focused around death and loss, you imagine that there’s fertile thematic ground for any writer of Batman to tap. After all, Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake and Damian Wayne are all effectively orphans. (Though Damian’s mother still lives.) All those characters, and the entire Batman mythos, was born from death and loss, so this sort of event provides the perfect opportunity to revisit and explore that theme.

Signalling trouble...

Indeed, the event itself seems to provide a perfect opportunity to explore Dick Grayson’s time in the cowl. This is, after all, the first major world-threatening event since Dick assumed his mentor’s mantle. Bruce is used to stuff like Final Crisis, and I can’t help but wonder if Tomasi missed a nice storybeat by exploring how Dick responded to his first big crisis as Batman. of course Dick has been through this before, but the role of Batman probably carries so much weight on occasions like this. In fact, this would be the only major event that occurred while Bruce was gone.

More than that, though, there’s powerful thematic ground to be covered. After all, this closely follows the death of Batman. Batman’s death was probably the biggest death that occurred shortly before the event. A tie-in focusing around three young men who have recently lost their father figure and are forced to survive together should feel more powerful and more thematically resonant with the over-arching story. After all, Johns’ main event is at its strongest tackling the idea of grief and loss as motivations for modern superheroes.

Grayson soars...

The third issue in this three-issue series broaches the idea, but it does so almost gingerly – and far too late. Tomasi allows Tim Drake and Dick Grayson to play out the losses that created them, and suggests that these zombies or phantoms might offer some therapeutic purpose. “They’re not attacking — they look vulnerable –like they need our help — like they want our help,” Tim suggests. “Maybe if we save them this time… maybe this is our second chance and we don’t even know it.” That’s guilt and grief and angst, the type of things arguably holding the Batman books down during the earlier part of the decades.

Comic books were arguably too focused on death and dying, labouring under the false assumption that they gave a story pathos or meaning. This morbid fascination with the cycle of loss was arguably toxic, and I think that Blackest Night as a whole represents an attempt to exorcise that demon. “You have to let them go,” Dick advises his colleague, but could be talking to writers and editors latching on to death as a cheap dramatic tool. “You have to keep moving forward.” Bruce needs to be more than just a crazy young kid using aggression to cope with a bitter loss. Superhero comics as a whole need to move past that notion – embracing the bright and colourful side of superhero life. Putting the “fun” back into the “funny books.”

Grave danger...

That message is particularly relevant for the Batman books, which were among the darkest mainstream books published. Audiences were, after all, treated to the scene of a young female Robin being tortured to death with a drill. However, while Tomasi’s Blackest Night: Batman broaches this idea, it’s actually Grant Morrison’s “unofficial and thematic” tie-in in the real Batman & Robin book that dealt with it better. Blackest Knight saw Batman confronting an insane zombie of Frank Miller’s Batman, the perfect representation of excessively dark Batman comic books. For all its resurrected second-tier Bat-villains (because the good ones never stay dead), Tomasi’s Blackest Night: Batman feels like a pale imitation.

It’s a shame, because Tomasi is quite faithful to Morrison’s vision otherwise. Despite being about heart-eating zombies, the book is surprisingly bright, with Robin and Red Robin shining especially red. One can also sense that Tomasi shares Morrison’s affection for Neal Adams’ era “hairy-chested love-god” Batman, making a point to include Deadman in the story. Morrison, after all, would enjoy featuring all manner of Adams-related homages in his own Batmanrun, including Talia Al-Ghul and lots of Man-Bats.

Dead excited...

The covers to the collection even sort-of tease the “super-dickery” element of misleading covers that Morrison sought to return to comics with his Batman & Robin run. Indeed, one cover treats us to the image of Batman, Robin and Red Robin wielding flamethrowers. Sadly there’s nothing inside quite as brilliantly ridiculous, and DC eschewed the bold primary-colour scheme Morrison had going for him. Still, you can’t win them all, I suppose.

Still outside of doing a middling job of dealing with the event and a reasonable job of channelling Morrison’s take on the Bat-verse, what else is there to talk about Tomasi’s three-issue miniseries? I think he writes Dick and Damian remarkably well.  Tomasi’s Damian feels like a more realistic take on the character, which immediately moves him away from Morrison. Morrison’s character is a pint-sized killing-machine, while Tomasi’s feels more like a psychologically-scarred child soldier. I imagine that his Batman & Robinrun will likely approach Damian from a more psychological perspective, as opposed to Morrison’s high-concept madness.

Bringing out the dead...

Tomasi handles the relationship just right, though. I’m reluctant about teaming Damian with Bruce – the pair are too similar in sentiment – but Tomasi writes a Dick who understands his mentor’s son. When Damian is uncomfortable with his grandparents’ bodies, Dick knows to stop winding the kid up, and shows remarkably emotional awareness. “Go get the Batmobile,” he tells Damian, “I’ll handle the rest.” It seems that Tomasi’s Dick has a greater empathy than Bruce could manage – and I think he understands how write the pair well.

Blackest Night: Batman isn’t the worst Blackest Night tie-in, but it’s not nearly the strongest either. It does provide a nice prelude to Tomasi’s run on Batman & Robin, suggesting the writer will do a decent job with the pair – even if this first set of issues doesn’t necessarily rise to meet that potential.

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