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Peter Tomasi & Patrick Gleeson’s Run on Batman & Robin – Born to Kill (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.

DC’s “new 52” was a fairly massive success. Hoping to re-energise their line, the company launched a massive retooling following their crossover Flashpoint. Some characters had their history radically reworked and altered – Morrison’s work on Action Comics standing as perhaps the most obvious example. However, some characters transitioned through the change with relative ease. Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern pretty much continued from where War of the Green Lanterns left off, and the entire Batman line was pretty much business as usual, save for the return of Bruce Wayne to the centre of the stage and Dick Grayson’s return to the role of Nightwing.

Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason took over as the regular creative team on Batman & Robin, a book that had been launched by Grant Morrison only two or three years earlier. The book originally focused on the dynamic between Dick Grayson as Batman and Damian Wayne as Robin, so there’s a fairly fundamental shift in the tone of the book as Bruce Wayne is teamed up with his own son. While the set-up might seem to take a while to find its feet, there’s certainly no shortage of intriguing ideas here.

A Boy Wonder…

It’s worth noting that, under Morrison, the dynamic between Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne was one of the book’s unique selling points. Following Bruce Wayne’s “death” in Final Crisis, Dick Grayson had assumed the iconic cowl, and he was an altogether different sort of Batman. He was light, cheeky and flippant – dressing in the bright blue cowl as opposed to Bruce’s traditionally darker colours. In contrast, Morrison introduced Damian Wayne as Robin, Bruce’s son and would-be heir. Damian was ten years of age, but trained to be an assassin. He was dour, serious and self-important.

This bizarre inversion of the traditional dynamic (a hard-ass Robin with a laid-back Batman) was a large part of the novelty and thrill of the title. (Though a relatively light atmosphere and some of the best artists in the business also helped.) The team-up was so efficient that DC decided to continue it after Morrison brought Bruce back to the present. Morrison even suggested that Dick had bonded with Damian in a way that Bruce simply couldn’t – allowing the pair to continue working together under a number of authors.

An acid test…

However, the reboot changed that. Hoping to refocus the line, DC decided that there could be only one Batman, and it would be Bruce Wayne. Since Nightwing & Robin doesn’t have the same mass-market appeal of Batman & Robin, Damian would be teamed up with his father. However, the dynamic is remarkably different. Bruce Wayne is a serious character. Even after attempts to pull him back from his “paranoid loner” personality during the nineties, the character is fairly hardcore. Damian is just like his father. So there’s no longer the same cheeky interplay between light and dark. There’s two remarkably dark characters trying to relate to one another.

It takes some getting used to. Bruce and Damian don’t share the same easy chemistry as Dick and Damian. To be fair, Tomasi concedes this right out of the gate. It’s a rather astute take – to make that awkwardness and lack of chemistry a vital element of the book. However, it means that there’s no immediately engaging dynamic at the core. That’s not necessarily a criticism of itself. In fact, it puts Tomasi and Gleason’s Batman & Robinin a very interesting place. It just means that it takes a bit more work to get the book established. This is a decidedly different iteration of the book, and it takes a while to find its feet.

Let sleeping assassins lie…

I actually greatly respect the decision by DC to allow the writers to set the length of their introductory arcs. On a line-wide relaunch like this, it might be tempting to enforce a six-issue opening story so that it can be neatly packaged for the inevitable collection. Instead, it seems like writers have been allowed a great deal of freedom. Scott Snyder’s Batman run opened with an eleven-issue Court of Owls story. Batwoman opened with a five-issue Hydrology arc. Here, Tomasi opens with an eight-issue story arc setting up the new dynamic and laying out his mission statement.

I wonder how the book read in the original issues. I think it’s pretty much perfectly paced as a trade collection. I have a couple of story-related issues that I’ll come to in a moment, but it reads fluidly enough that it never becomes boring and it never feels overly long. I suspect this might have wreaked havoc with the monthly schedule, as some issues are little more than conversations, while others are protracted action sequences. Regardless, I think that Born to Killreads well as a collection, and it does a pretty good job of laying out what Tomasi seems to want to do with the title.

Bloody murder…

After all, there are a lot of Batman books. That’s not a complaint. Batman sells, so it makes sense for DC to sell as many books featuring the character as the market supports. Some are great. Some are not so great. While Tomasi’s Batman & Robin is as gripping or as riveting as Snyder’s Batman or Morrison’s Batman Incorporated, it is a good book. More than that, it’s a good book with a carefully crafted place in the line, one that distinguishes it from the large number of similarly-themed Batman books.

The unique factor is Damian. Damian is perhaps the most interesting addition to the DC comics mythology in the past decade. The son of Bruce Wayne and Talia Al Ghul, the character is a ten-year-old master assassin. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds, and Grant Morrison generated a fair bit of controversy in reintroducing the character (fleetingly seen in Son of the Demon) into DC continuity. However, he’s a character who is just ridiculous enough to work in mainstream comics. I’m not a big fan of the character of Robin, but Morrison seems to have crafted the most perfectly over-the-top iteration of the character to date.

Father-son bonding…

I don’t like Robin as a concept because I feel that conscripting a child soldier into Batman’s war on crime weakens Batman. Even if you steer clear of the military tone that Frank Miller grafted on to Batman’s one-man campaign, it still seems reckless and irresponsible to pull a child into a world populated with mass murdering pyschopaths and other ne’er-do-wells. You can argue that it doesn’t matter – it is, after all, a comic. Just draft it into suspension of disbelief. After all, this is a guy who dresses up as a bat.

However, I’m not talking about the possibility that Robin could get hurt. He’s a fictional character after all. He doesn’t get hurt (or killed) unless the writers want him to. I am, on the contrary, talking about Batman’s attitude to Robin getting hurt. Any portrayal of the character who encourages Robin must – logically – be a character who acknowledges the possibility that Robin will die doing something Batman asked him to do. We know that’s unlikely to happen unless the editors want a quick sales boost, but Batman doesn’t.

Jumping through hoops…

The moment Batman sends a kid into the line of fire is the night he doesn’t believe there’s a chance that things could go badly. It’s either that, or Batman simply doesn’t care – which is a character I would have difficulty caring about. Let’s assume that Batman does care about Robin. He’d never send a kid out into that situation if there were a serious chance of death or something like it. And if Batman doesn’t believe that there are any stakes in this narrative, why should I?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like the concept of Robin, but I’ll concede the character can be well-written and can serve an important purpose. I’m just not fond of the idea of the character, and what it says about Batman. Which is strange, because I actually really like Damian Wayne. I love the obnoxious little jerk, because he’s really a rather brilliant stealth parody of the concept of Robin. He’s a bad-ass little ninja who is the master of countless deadly arts, despite still being too young to buy alcohol.

Sinister reflections…

The character of Damian doesn’t pretend that the concept is absurd. Instead it grabs that absurdness and runs with it. After all, being used by your mentor as a child soldier in his one-man war on crime is highly unlikely to produce a rounded and functioning individual like Tim Drake or Dick Grayson. Damian is already messed up, through some thoroughly insane ninja training from his mother. Somehow, this makes Bruce’s decision to let him do all this incredibly risky stuff seem less irresponsible that drafting in his young wards. Damian is so ridiculously messed up that this is probably the closest thing to a healthy childhood for the kid.

That said, I like what Tomasi is doing with the character. Morrison introduced Damian as this stereotypical ten-year-old who just happened to be a martial arts master. So he’s just as innocent and naive as your average kid, only his temper tantrums are lethal. Tomasi instead suggests that Damian isn’t even thatwell-adjusted. After all, being turned into a weapon by your own mother is bound to leave you messed up. Tomasi actually takes that admittedly gleefully ridiculous premise and tries to apply something approaching a plausible psychology to it.

A batty brat…

Damian here is messed up – and not in the same way that regular ten-year-olds are messed up. Morrison’s Damian has a pathological need to prove himself worthy of his father’s love, something that most kids that age might go through – Damian just demonstrates that he’s “worthy” by trying to murder and replace his predecessor. In many ways, Morrison’s Damian feels like a kid with typical growing pains, just amplified by years of ninja training and entitlement. Tomasi’s Damian is a lot more fundamentally damaged, show to hurt animals and to draw disturbing and grotesque pictures. He has issues.

Now, it might seem a little ridiculous to try to apply something resembling a realistic psychological profile to a pint-sized killing machine, but I think that this bizarre combination of the absurd and the more grounded creates a unique intersection. By attempting to apply something close to reality to this admittedly outlandish premise, the whole thing becomes simultaneously more absurd and also more engaging. Tomasi writes perhaps the most compelling take on Damian Wayne outside of Morrison, and perhaps the take most dedicated to Damian as a character in his own right.

Feeling the burn!

That’s the unique hook here. It’s the idea of Batman teaming up with a version of Robin who happens to be his son, who also happens to be a killing machine. While Morrison introduced Damian, he actually wrote relatively little of the pair interacting, and so the dynamic between Bruce and Damian is left to Tomasi to develop. And I think he does a wonderful job. The best part of this run on Batman & Robin is seeing Bruce trying to be a father, and Damian trying to be a son – two people singularly unsuited to the roles in question.

“I realize there’s a lot of things I haven’t shared with you,” Bruce confesses to his son in the first issue. Damian, never one for sensitivity, fires back, “That’s because you don’t trust me, father.” Later on, even perpetual bachelor Alfred can tell that Bruce is struggling. When Bruce describes his son’s performance as ‘commendable’, Alfred asks, “The words ‘great job’ or ‘I’m proud of you’ never crossed your mind?” Bruce doesn’t see the difference. “What’s wrong with ‘commendable’?”

“The apple has fallen very far from the tree, Mr. Wayne.”

One gets the sense that Bruce would have enough trouble with a normal child, but is ill-equipped to deal with a kid who harbours as many problems as Damian. He makes the mistake of confusing attention for affection, at one point even buying Damian a dog, and somehow hoping that the dog by itself will be enough to help set Damian straight. “I got him for you, Damian,” Bruce tells his son. “You bought him to be a distraction,” Damian responds. Damian doesn’t want gifts or anything material – he wants his father to be affectionate, to be proud, to trust him. Unfortunately, Damian is too closed off to tell Bruce this, and Bruce is too closed off to realise it.

Both try, in their separate ways. Damian makes fun of Bruce’s attempts to teach him about family history, but he does pay a (solo) visit to the graves of Thomas and Martha Wayne later on, as if making a sincere attempt to follow-up on what Bruce taught him. For his part, Bruce feels responsible. He doesn’t shrug off his responsibility for Damian’s issues. After all, Damian was raised by assassins, but would life as the son of a dude who dresses as a bat be that much healthier?

Adrift…

“I’m also to blame,” he confesses – even if he can’t seem to express the sentiment directly to Damian. When he does finally engage with Damian, Bruce can’t even bring himself to do it face-to-face. He does it via a recording, admitting that he wouldn’t have the courage to do it in person. Bruce is more comfortable talking to his dead parents about Damian’s misdeeds, admitting to their portrait, “I failed my son, father…”

(Tomasi’s Bruce seems heavily focused on his father. In fact, his first line is directed to his father, in a Frank Miller homage. It’s not a unique take – Frank Miller’s Batman and Jeph Loeb’s Batman are primarily fixated on Thomas rather than Martha. It just seems a little weird given recent attempts to characterise Martha as just as important in stories like Paul Dini’s Streets of Gotham and Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?It’s not related to the plot, but something I noticed on reading through.)

“If you’re not careful young man, you’re going to get a Bat-spanking!”

While it’s the dynamic between Bruce and Damien that is the most interesting, the plot of the issues in question can’t help but feel a little mundane. In the notes included in this hardcover, Tomasi explains that the villain Nobody is very much intended to serve as the B-plot to the main attraction. Still, it feels just a little bit similar to Tomasi and Gleason’s earlier Batman & Robin arc, Tree of Blood. Once again, Batman is confronted by a foe who challenges his decision not to kill, describing it as “self-serving moral code that isn’t viable!”

This does provide an interesting framework to explore Damian’s conflict – torn between his training as an assassin and his father’s vow not to kill – there’s a sense that we’ve been here before, and recently too.It is nice to hear Bruce articulate his reason and logic in such a way that doesn’t rely on an easy “slippery slope”argument, instead suggesting that this simply isn’t the way that he does things. I think that’s really all the justification you need.

The Dark Knight…

That said, Tomasi does broach some interesting ideas, particularly when the villain decides to mercy-kill some foes that Damian had crippled. “That’s cold-blooded murder!” Damian insists. Nobody responds, “It’s semantics.” Batman can be incredibly indifferent to the consequences of his actions – after all, is the distinction that great between killing and maiming? It seems statistically unlikely that Batman has been able to doll out so much punishment without causing any permanent injuries, including possibly brain damage.

The Nobody plot, however, runs into a bit of bother with its “big revelation” towards the end of the arc. Bruce reveals to Damian that he almostkilled Morgan Ducard, thus prompting the character to return as the villain Nobody. However, we’ve seen Bruce almost kill before – especially with the Joker after he’s done something especially villainous. In contrast with that understandable rage, the threat here seems almost mundane.

Kickin’ it up a notch…

It’s hard to believe that an attempt to kill Bruce Wayne, even a young and reckless Bruce Wayne, could provoke him to a murderous rage. It seems a little out of character. Instead, it would seem more logical that Bruce might be willing to kill to protect loved ones, especially given the personal nature of the loss that motivates him. (As he seems to come close to doing towards the end of the arc.) It feels like a beat Tomasi hit because he needed Bruce to almost kill somebody. The execution, however, feels more than a little forced.

Still, Tomasi and Gleason set up an interesting dynamic in Batman & Robin. Interestingly, Tomasi seems to suggest that Bruce is trying to lighten up a bit, to pull back from excessive darkness. “Tonight’s the night, father,” he says in his first line. “It’s time for a change.” I’ve always been a fan of what might be termed “thematic”continuity, rather than rigid literal continuity – the notion that ideas and concepts can be shared across titles rather than a forced overlap of events.

Who says Bruce is an irresponsible father?

Here, Tomasi even manages to tie into Scott Snyder’s Batman, suggesting that his plan to refurbish Gotham in that book is anchored by a decision to move forward in this book. Taking Damian to visit the site of the murder, Bruce explains that his morbid fixation needs to change – certainly if he wants to become a better father himself. “It’s not how they dies that should be remembered, it’s how they lived. That’s why, from here on out, I’ll be honouring their wedding anniversary and not their final night on this planet.” It’s a nice idea, even if I think the image of a brooding Bruce dwelling on their death is too tempting for later writers to resist.

Indeed, despite the continuity reboot, I’m impressed at just how much continuity that Tomasi and Gleason work in. Batman is one of those characters who has an almost ubiquitous pop culture presence, so his history and continuity is not quite as esoteric as other heroes. That’s not to suggest that this book is inaccessible. Indeed, Tomasi does an exceptional job clarifying continuity and introducing new readers to the status quo. While he does extensively reference the character’s history, he does so in a manner that is open and inclusive, rather than closed and exclusive.

Good talk.

After all, with several movies and television shows, there are several Batman images and ideas that are iconic. While Tomasi and Gleason heavily reference Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, they are just as comfortable drawing from material outside comics, and better known to casual audiences. We get the image of the Batwing forming the bat-symbol against the moon, referencing perhaps the best shot of Tim Burton’s Batman. We also get a device that looks like it might have been borrowed from The Dark Knight, with Bruce surveilling Gotham. “Are we tapped into all of them?” Bruce asks as he studies the monitors. Alfred answers, “Each and every security camera in Gotham is now running through our mainframe.”

Tomasi draws on Batman’s history for the villain here, but in a way that seems to reference Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. After all, the idea that Batman travelled the world to become the Caped Crusader is a widely-acknowledged aspect of the character, and the inclusion of Henri Ducard feels like more of a shout out to Nolan’s film than Sam Hamm’s creation of the character for Blind Justiceall those years ago. I think that’s something unique about Batman – his core attributes are so well known that it’s easy to ground a story in his history. Most people accept the broad strokes. (As compared to Superman, who has had quite  a few origin stories.)

Pearls of wisdom…

Gleason does a superb job. Strictly discussing the affectionate references to early stories, I love how he takes Frank Miller’s pearl motif from The Dark Knight Returns and works it into the story. There’s that great shot of Batman seeing the pearls fall like rain drops, but Nobody’s design seems to incorporated blood-red pearls on the front of his visor as well, as a visual reference back to that key moment in Batman history. I also like how Gleason inserts a shot of Bruce studying DaVinci’s “The Bat”, the device that helped inspire Bob Kane to create Batman.

Outside of these clever references, Gleason continues to be a superb choice for the book. He has a vaguely cartoonish style that suits the sort of bright colours and exaggerated nature of the book. Much like Morrison originally intended, Batman & Robin continues to owe a massive debt to the visual design of the Adam West television show, albeit focused through a slightly more sinister lens. Like his work with Tomasi on Green Lantern Corps, Gleason has this wonderful ability to draw expressive faces while offering some wonderfully strange images – a combination that serves the book reallywell.

A very Dark Knight indeed…

In fact, although he’s a much more realistic and grounded artist, I can sense a bit of Kelley Jones in the stylised way that Gleason draws Batman in his cape. Batman wrapped in his cape looks slightly exaggerated, rough and almost monstrous, evoking the stylistic approach that Kelley Jones adopted to the character in the nineties. I mean that as a sincere compliment – I love Jones’ Batman work, and would love to see that artist get a Legends of the Dark Knight collection like Marshall Rogers or Jim Aparo.

Tomasi and Gleason have a pretty solid basis for their Batman & Robin run. The plot itself and the villain might be a tad generic, but the Bruce and Damian dynamic is interesting enough to give the book its own hook. It’s not as immediately compelling as the fun interaction between Damian and Dick, but it’s pretty intriguing to watch Batman grow into the role of a father. I can genuinely say that it’s not something that I’ve really seen anywhere else. Batman & Robin might not be quite as strong as Batman out of the gate, but it’s still a book with a premise interesting enough to keep me reading.

You might be interested in our reviews of Tomasi’s other Batman work:

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