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Paul Cornell’s Run on Batman & Robin – The Sum of Her Parts (Review)

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.

Today we’re taking a look at three of the authors who followed Grant Morrison’s groundbreaking Batman & Robin run. We’ll start with Paul Cornell.

I’m going to be entirely honest here. I am very disappointed that Paul Cornell hasn’t really got a shot at an on-going Batman book. The author has been something of a rising star at DC comics for what seems like years, and recently provided the best Superman run in recent memory with his wonderful Lex Luthor story in Action Comics. He’s a writer who is astutely aware of the genre conventions, while being shrewd enough to exploit them to his advantage. He writes distinctly “comic book!” comic books, but without following the standard plot patterns just for the sake of adhering to formula. His three-issue Batman & Robin fill-in arc might not be his best work, or the best work on the title, but I do admire Cornell’s willingness to provide a compelling criticism of the Batman mythos instead of merely offering a generic paint-by-numbers treading-water adventure. Even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing, Cornell’s story is certainly ambitious.

Drilling it into them…

The Sum of Her Parts is a three-issue storyline on a very particular Batman book that Grant Morrison created and defined. It must have been incredibly daunting to be the first writer to tackle the book after Morrison moved on, and one can sense the very slightest hint of uncertainty in how Cornell tackles the book. After all, all of Morrison’s story threads will continue in Morrison’s Batman Inc., so it isn’t exactly like Cornell can hope to pick up where Morrison left off. Nor, with only three issues to write, can Cornell really make the series his own. It seems impossible to craft an identity in three issues, let alone to differentiate it from what came before.

It would have been easy to regurgitate the formula Morrison had established during his run of short three-issue arcs. You come up with a zany new villain, add in some decidedly Silver Age vibes reworked for the modern day, and you embrace the chaotic madness that ensues. Of course, each and every Morrison story arc was a building block on a road leading to a destination that Morrison had charted years in advance. Cornell could attempt to emulate that sort of zany high-concept idea-a-minute fun, but he’s smart enough to know that there isn’t an outside context to help give that light approach the necessary weight.

Dick needs a lecture like he needs a hole in the head…

So I give Paul Cornell considerable credit for daring to actually try something in his short three-issue run. More than that, the author actually dares to cast a critical eye over a seventy-year-old mythology, with his own observations and his own controversial twists, all within a relative handful of pages. There’s no shortage of ambition to be found in the relatively short The Sum of Her Parts, and I think that’s a testament to Cornell as a writer. It makes me a little bit sad that these three issues are all we’re likely to get from him for quite a while.

Before we jump into the substantive subject matter, it’s worth noting that Cornell is quite mindful of Morrison’s re-jigging of the Batman mythos. However, this take is distinctly his, although you can see some shared core ideas with the Scottish writer, much like there’s conceptual overlap between Cornell’s Action Comics and Morrison’s All-Star Superman, with a few key and intriguing distinctions to define them. Like Morrison, Cornell puts a bit of an emphasis on the Bruce Wayne persona, and its importance to the great equation of Batman.

Bats in the belfry…

Alfred discusses the numerous romantic entanglements that Bruce would find himself engaged him. Always a canny observer, the butler remarks, “Sometimes he felt he could be a real person, allowing himself to love and be loved… and sometimes he felt that ‘Bruce Wayne’ was a… cover story… which required the presence of ‘girls.’ Needless to say… he was as careful to do no harm in that aspect of his life — as in all others. Now, I can only hope — that this latest recognition that he has friends and allies — leads him once more to the former lifestyle.”

Alfred effectively concedes the case that Morrison made – that the borderline sociopathic take on Batman that dominate the nineties ignored the distinctly human side to the character, as personified by Bruce. Morrison has re-prioritised Bruce as part of the Batman mythos, and Cornell respects that. In a sly way, this is actually more a story about Bruce than it is about Batman. Bruce has, after all, finally ejected the Batman persona from himself, much as the grim!dark! nineties Batman seemed to eject Bruce. (That conflict is covered quite well by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, where the Batman persona shaves Bruce’s moustache. Jerk.) Now Batman can be in Gotham and can fight crime while Bruce is in Japan having the time of his life.

Forever hold their peace…

That said, it does feel like Cornell is still channelling a bit of that infamous Batjerk persona. While he makes the point that old!Bruce was dismissive of his lady companions by failing to commit to them in anyway, we’re treated to only a single page of Bruce dealing with the failout of his questionable decisions. And he seems to dodge the issue quite deftly, tied up in the events of Morrison’s Batman Inc. Apparently neither Una nor Vicki Vale merit his own intervention – his own priorities are more important, even when he believes that he psychologically damaged Una and made Vicki a target. The fact that things aren’t quite what they appear doesn’t excuse his inaction or passive attitude – he believes this to be the case, and all he offers are patronising words from halfway around the globe. “Tell her I know what happened now. That I’m… desperately sorry.”

Bruce doesn’t come out of this looking very good. This being a Batman & Robin comic featuring Dick Grayson under the cowl, Cornell was never going to be able to heavily feature Bruce, even while crafting the story around him. This is an adventure about Bruce, even while he only appears for a page. I can’t help but feel like the effect is entirely intentional, giving us a withdrawn and isolated Bruce who doesn’t seem too far removed from the excesses of the nineties. In a way, it seems like Cornell is ignoring a lot of the character rehabilitation that Morrison engineered, giving us an emotionally withdrawn Bruce rather than a more sensitive iteration of the character.

Numbro Una…

There are other faint touches of Morrison’s Batman & Robin to be found here, as Cornell gleefully embraces the “sixties Batman! by way of Salvador Dali” aesthetic that Morrison gave the series. There’s a very retro villain with a high concept gimmick – in this case missing items. Recalling Morrison’s Black Glove, the bad guys show cult-like devotion to their master, and Cornell is sure to include churches and other gothic imagery, just rendered in a surreal and bright style.

Asked to explain her weird transformation, the villain observes, “Now I think that the pollution from the river did something to the wound.” It feels more than a little bit like a Silver Age villain origin, where “radioactive” material inevitably gives the bad guy some strange power. Cornell is wryly aware of this, and makes it clear that this is the same pollution that dissolves another body, making the origin outlandish even in story. (Although, like Morrison, he carefully researches his gimmick and bases in some very obscure science that might work, but not necessarily like that.) Hell, his villain even has the same sort of nostalgic affection for booby traps that Morrison’s bad guys seem to have. “It’ll take about three minutes for the drills to reach your foreheads,” she points out.

Knife to see you too…

However, what’s most notable about The Sum of Her Parts is the fact that Cornell picks an exceptionally thorny area of the Batman mythos to explore, and yet one perfectly in keeping with the distinctively retro vibe of Batman & Robin. Specifically, he looks at the role that women have traditionally played in stories featuring the Caped Crusader, and explores the sad fact that so many female characters seem to exist to be disposable within the context of the story, rather than existing as characters in their own right. It’s a fairly hefty subject to tackle in three issues, and Cornell does a decent job of it – even if I’m not convinced he makes a decisive argument one way or the other.

The role of women in Batman is… interesting. There’s a noticeably different attitude towards female characters to be found in the Batman books as against any other major comic book. Superman has pretty much always had Lois Lane as a major love interest. Barry Allen is practically incompletely without Iris West. Hal Jordan has an on-again, off-again long-term romantic entanglement with Carol Ferris. Bruce Wayne has… nobody, really. Sure, you might pick up some of the same names repeating over the years (Jill Madison, Silver St. Cloud, Vicki Vale), but there’s no real love interest for Bruce.

Sh’s a knock out…

In fact, Bruce is defined by his relationship to male characters – his father-figure in Alfred and his surrogate son in Robin. Catwoman was the most prominent early female character, and her sexuality was dangerous and corrupting. (To the point where it’s implied Batman allowed her to escape because he liked her.) Indeed, the major female supporting players were only introduced to the mythos relatively late, after the publication of Seduction of the Innocent had made the argument that Bruce was some kind of gay sexual predator. Batwoman and Batgirl were introduced after that point in order to make Batman easier to consume for children and families.

“I’ll be your friend,” Una, Cornell’s smart girl-of-the-week, observes, “but I won’t be your beard.” It’s a very clever line, dripping with meaning and depth. It acknowledges that many of the love interests writers provided for Bruce existed merely to insist that the character wasn’t gay. That’s a fairly troubling fact of itself, to be fair. It seems like Batman is the ultimate “boys own” narrative, with women only grudgingly admitted by insecure men when somebody pointed out the homoerotic undertones. That’s not anything to recommend the series.

Meanwhile, back at the Batbunker…

Cornell has the character pretty much dead-to-rights in his criticism, constructing a story based around a love interest of Bruce who exists as a character in her own right. It’s fascinating that Una adopts the codename “The Absence”, because she is a figure very clearly absent from the mythos – a strong female love interest who exists as more than just eye-candy for Bruce Wayne, to be forgotten about the very next issue. It’s a very valid point Cornell makes, and he even cleverly takes his criticism one level further.

You see, if Una refuses to fit the stereotype of the girl-of-the-week love interest, then there’s really only one female archetype she could represent. Within the Batman mythos, there are only so many roles that a woman can play, and the narrative tries to box her in. A square peg in a round hole. If she isn’t a hapless victim, she must be a femme fatale, a representation of female sexuality as inherently poisonous and dangerous, like Poison Ivy or Catwoman.

Getting carried away…

When she makes her presence known, Dick and Damian immediately rush to protect Vicki Vale, as if expecting Una to lash out. “Bruce said I’d hurt her, didn’t he?!” she yells. “He’s still missing the point! He thinks this is about jealousy! Like I’d attack innocent women!” Similarly, Cornell is smart enough to know that having a female character fixate on Bruce automatically makes them seem less complete, and more dependent. “He hasn’t noticed,” Una remarks, “he hasn’t missed me.” If Una is a villain who is lashing back at a lover for failing to mourn her, then she falls right into the sort of troubling gender stereotypes that Cornell sought to avoid. She’s still a disposable girl-of-the-week who counts on Bruce’s attention to validate her existence.

Cornell tries to dodge this issue somewhat shrewdly by making all of the three-issue arc a ruse and a ploy by Una to exploit the genre conventions of a standard Batman narrative. Instead, she’s actually doing something completely unexpected (yet logical and in character) and is merely staging this routine to keep Batman occupied, cleverly turning the character’s own preconceptions against him. “You looked for a typical super villain,” she remarks, “you found the absence of one.”

Damian falls for her…

Part of me gives Cornell a lot of credit for that final twist, as it manages to allow him to tell what seems like a conventional Batman story while criticising conventional Batman plot devices, without the entire story collapsing under its own weight. It’s quite an accomplishment, and Cornell executes it quite deftly. However, it also feels just a little bit like cheating. While Una might not have played all the stereotypes one associates with a scorned lover, she did executed some of them – the fact that she did so ironically doesn’t make them any less clichéd.

She still traps hired goons inside a burning church, leaving them to die like any other bad supervillain boss. While she claims to be insulted that Bruce thinks she’d hurt Vicki Vale, she still ties the reporter up and bundles her in a cupboard after scaring her half to death. It does seem just a tiny bit hypocritical to include a last-minute twist that insists that Una isn’t a conventional supervillain – even if she was going through the motions in a gleefully post-modern sort of way, it still jumbles the story’s themes just a little bit.

I can see a hole in her plans…

After all, while Bruce and Dick might predict that she’s going to attack Vicki Vale to play into the stereotype of a scorned lover, she does attack Vicki Vale. They misunderstand the motives, but recognise the pathology. The very fact that they find her in Vicki’s apartment, even if she’s only there to play into the expected behaviour of a psychotic ex-lover, vindicates them somewhat. She even shows up carrying a giant scissors and a bag labelled “girl friend body parts.” It’s hard to blame them for applying Occam’s Razor to the situation. Surely it as safer to intercept her there rather than to guess it was a double-bluff and leave Vicki Vale open to serious harm.

It might have been more effective for Una to completely avoid Vicki all together, and to prove Bruce and Dick completely wrong, rather than to be right for the wrong reasons. In that case, however, Cornell wouldn’t really have a third act for his story, but it wouldn’t seem so inherently contradictory. Una rants and raves like a lover scorned, ties Batman and Robin to a chair with drills coming at their heads and acts like a psychotic supervillain. It’s hard to blame Dick and Bruce for hearing hoofbeats and not immediately jumping to “zebra.”

The hole plan…

Still, it’s a minor complaint. Cornell is clearly enjoying himself writing Dick as “a worryingly jolly Batman.” The story doesn’t really give us a lot of Damian, which is a bit of a disappointment – Damian is a difficult character to write, so I wonder what Cornell might have made of the little brat. Still, I couldn’t help but smile at the writer’s coy use of sexual metaphor, without getting too burdened down. If you are going to do a bright and colourful version of the Bat mythos, you have to acknowledge the kinks of dressing up like a giant Bat, and Cornell’s subject matter lends itself to those sorts of thinly-veiled references as Una muses, “You don’t lack ego — entering my world, time after time. Unprotected.”

Cornell is ably assisted by artist Scott McDaniel, who provides some nice cartoony art. McDaniel isn’t quite in the same league as the cartoonists who worked on Morrison’s tenure, but is style fits. He draws a very exaggerated world, and one that lends itself to colourful personas and neon colours. There aren’t too many artists who can make a church look so damn cheerful. He might not be as good as the artists who surround him, but I think his work gels with Cornell’s writing and the pair fit together well in context.

Hope this reception has some punch!

It’s a shame that Cornell’s Batman & Robin stint is so short. I honestly would have loved for him to take over the title full-time. Whatever the flaws with his story here, there’s no denying that he has ambition and a very astute understanding of the Batman mythos. The execution might not be quite as clever as the concept, but there’s enough intriguing material here to make it worth a look, and proving Cornell a worthy successor to Morrison.

Following Grant Morrison was always going to be tough, and I think it’s unfair to expect a groundbreaking three-issue arc. Instead, Cornell offers a clever, astute and thought-provoking fill-in story. It’s hard not to consider that a win.

You might be interested in our reviews of other writers’ work on the first volume of Batman & Robin:

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