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Peter Tomasi & Patrick Gleason’s Run on Batman & Robin – Pearl & Death of the Family (Review)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Peter Tomasi is one of the best supporting writers in comics. Writing a supporting title in a shared superhero universe is a very daunting task. It requires a unique ability to weave into (and out of) events and storylines dictated by more high-profile writers on more popular books. Due to the structuring of superhero publishing, the direction for an entirely line is typically dictated by one (or maybe two) books, with the rest of the line alternating between supporting those books and trying not to make waves.

Tomasi is very good at this. His Green Lantern Corps book provided a suitably solid support for Geoff Johns’ more high-profile Green Lantern comic. He was the logical choice to take over Batman & Robin after Grant Morrison departed, even if the book did cycle through a variety of creators including Paul Cornell and Judd Winick. Tomasi is a writer with a lot of experience as an editor, and – as such – has a knack for picking up on themes and core values of particular writers.

He shall become a bat...

He shall become a bat…

Following the “new 52” relaunch, Batman & Robin was very much a satellite book in DC’s Batman line. It was a holding pattern, a book designed to feature Damian Wayne while Grant Morrison prepared to launch into Batman Incorporated. It was part of a line that was largely being driven by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s work on Batman. There was no sense writer Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason would be doing anything particularly bold or daunting with the book at this moment in time.

Dutifully, following an eight-issue introductory arc, Born to Kill, Batman & Robin found itself bouncing around between various high-profile crossovers in the Batman line and in the wider context of DC’s publishing schedule. In the spate of issues between Born to Kill and the end of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated run, Tomasi and Gleason find themselves navigating a veritable minefield of DC continuity and crossovers.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

Outside of the obvious tie-in to Death of the Family that lends its name to the third collection of Tomasi and Gleason’s Batman & Robin run, this stretch of the run is dominated by the editorial demands of books outside Batman & Robin. The first two issues published in Pearl are the #0 issue written as part of DC’s “Zero Month” initiative and the Night of the Owls tie-in issue. The book concludes with a two-issue prelude to the two-issue tie-in to Death of the Family event.

These crossovers and tie-ins and schedule disruptions put considerable pressure on the writers and artists trying to tell consistent stories featuring these characters. John Layman produced an enjoyable run on Detective Comics, but it always felt like the run was just picking up momentum as another crossover or event intruded into the narrative and distracted Layman from the story that he was trying to tell. Trying to weave a story between these tie-in issues is very tough.

Everything's upside down...

Everything’s upside down…

It is worth pausing to note that Tomasi and Gleason are among the longest-serving creative teams put in place by DC’s “new 52” relaunch. They are still writing Batman & Robin three years after the book first appeared, which is a remarkable accomplishment in this market place. Although they garner less attention than Scott Snyder or Greg Capullo on Batman or Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang on Wonder Woman, Tomasi and Gleason are exceptionally capable craftsmen.

Writing a comic book tie-in is a tough task – particularly when there are so many of them so close together. A writer and artist have to balance the needs of their own book against the needs of the event, and find a way to satisfy both. Doing that requires a very particular set of skills. Used well, a tie-in to a big event can tell you something insightful or intriguing about the book itself. Used poorly, it feels like a book is just spinning its wheels as a cheap cash-in.

Bratman...

Bratman…

Tomasi is very good at balancing the needs of an individual book with the needs of the larger event. His Green Lantern Corps tie-in to Blackest Night is a text-book example of how to do that sort of storytelling. Batman & Robin suffers because so many of these tie-ins happen so quickly, but Tomasi is shrewd enough to ensure that the book never loses its sense of self. Damian Wayne is the focal point of Batman & Robin, and its central character for its first two years. So the crossovers wisely focus on him.

(After all, the Batman line is full of books that tell us what Batman is doing during any crossover. It can be very difficult to figure out why a crossover needs tie-in issues across Batman, Detective Comics and The Dark Knight, when all three are Batman comics that focus on Batman himself. That puts the author in a weird position of having Batman do something central enough to require his own attention during a crossover, but tangential enough that it is not essential to the main book driving the crossover.)

Pearls of wisdom...

Pearls of wisdom…

Of course, Tomasi and Gleason do branch off and go their own direction after the end of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated. Once the character of Damian is exclusive to them, rather than simply “on loan” from a more high-profile book, Tomasi and Gleason manage to instil a stronger sense of direction in Batman & Robin. Once the comic gets past the Requiem event, Tomasi and Gleason have a freer hand to set a long-term goal for their story.

In many ways, the crossovers populating this phase of Batman & Robin‘s life cycle could be seen as the book spinning its metaphorical wheels, biding its time. While Grant Morrison was writing Batman Incorporated, the forward momentum of Damian’s story would come from that book. Batman & Robin existed primarily to flesh out the character. So putting the character through a whole cycle of Batman crossovers, allowing him to react to the craziness of Gotham, is as good a tool as any, in theory.

Hoo?

Hoo?

Tomasi does good work with the material, even if he can’t entirely counter the sense of stalled momentum. There are number of nice recurring motifs and themes that tie the book together, even as it seems that the plot threads and story beats are mostly in service of larger editorial whims. The most obvious is the recurring image of Damian searching through the sewers of Gotham, which is an oft-repeated image through the first year of Batman & Robin.

Not much is made of it, but the book keeps coming back to the image of Damian wandering the sewers of Gotham. He is there when Batman calls on his allies to fight the Court of Owls, and he returns back there during the Joker’s return to Gotham. It is only later that the comic reveals what exactly Damian was doing down there. He was searching for Martha Wayne’s pearls, those that were scattered in her murder and sent down a random storm drain. It’s an absolutely lovely scene, one that pays of issues of work.

I got you, babe...

I got you, babe…

Tomasi also tries to turn the crossovers and events to his advantage. In particular, he finds a way to make these crossovers and tie-ins flesh out Damian’s character. For example, the Night of the Owls crossover hits on themes quite close to Damian’s heart – the idea of bloodlines and families. Benjamin Burrows is a target by virtue of his family history. “You have no children,” the Talon warns Burrows, “your bloodline finally ends here.”

Given how Damian’s character arc eventually (and inevitably) plays out, this makes for a rather uncomfortable piece of foreshadowing. It is a nice touch that the design of Talon seems quite similar to that Heretic. (Both designs seem to be riffing on Batman’s iconic design, so the similarities are not entirely coincidental, even if the link is indirect.) Damian is the last link in the Wayne family bloodline, the youngest descendent of the family.

Batman and son...

Batman and son…

These similarities are reinforced by the Talon itself. At the climax of the story, Damian explicitly compares himself to the assassins trained and employed by the Court of Owls. “You’re a born killer used by the Court of Owls to do their bidding,” Damian reflects. “Just like my mother once used me to do hers.” Given that Damian is ready and willing to decapitate the Talon, as if accepting that the Talon cannot change, the scene plays out as a minor tragedy – an example of the themes and conflicts that define Damian.

Family is a recurring theme through Tomasi and Gleason’s Batman & Robin. The Terminus story arc explores the idea of the four former Robins as a prodigal family – brothers competing with one another for the affections of a distant father. Alfred is not just a close friend or a faithful servant. He is a grandfather to this dysfunctional family. At the start of Terminus, he seems uncomfortable posing for a painter with Bruce and the Robins. “This is a family portrait, Alfred, so stand still and be quiet,” Bruce clarifies.

The last laugh...

The last laugh…

It is quite clear that Tomasi was aware of Grant Morrison’s plans for Damian ahead of time. His Batman & Robin run is populated with acknowledgements and hints. “Everyone’s clock is ticking down,” the villain Terminus remarks at one point, a metaphor given form. Terminus is a living time bomb, a counter constantly ticking down towards an explosion that could destroy countless lives. Time is running out, just as it is always running out.

Mortality is on everybody’s mind. Batman & Robin repeatedly stresses that Bruce and Damian Wayne cannot have a happy ending. In the Death of the Family crossover, the Joker forces Batman and Robin into direct competition with one another. Batman must kill Robin, or Robin must kill Batman. At another point, Bruce tries to teach Damian how to maintain the satellites, just in case. “Just in case of what?” Damian asks. “In case anything ever happens to me,” Bruce replies. A bitter twist indeed.

Family portraits...

Family portraits…

Much is made of Damian’s desire to replace Bruce as Batman, with Terminus stressing that Damian is unwilling to coexist with anybody in an existing niche of the Bat-family. Tomasi’s superb first annual, Batman Impossible, allows Damian Wayne to play at being Batman for what is both the first and the last time. The comic teases Damian Wayne’s potential future, if only to emphasise how it may be cut short. At one point, a young Damian puts on his father’s cowl to show his mother.

Perhaps Tomasi’s foreshadowing reaches fever pitch with Eclipsed and Devoured, the lead-in to the Death of the Family crossover. There, the Joker has taken command of “the Saturn Club”, an underground cult dedicated to “the primal desire of every human being”“immortality.” However, this being the Joker, the Saturn Club claim immortality through cannibalism – they feast on those weaker than they are in order to live longer. This creates a horde of mindless all-consuming and devouring zombies.

Batman vs. Robin...

Batman vs. Robin…

In some respects, this could be read as a metaphor for mainstream American comic books, where existing characters achieve immortality by maintaining the status quo. This inevitably means that anything challenging that status quo must be destroyed and removed. Anything resembling growth and change and development is food for the story mill, but cannot make a truly lasting impression. Dick Grayson can be Batman for a while, but he will inevitably be reset back to Nightwing to preserve Bruce Wayne.

After all, Damian is perhaps the most significant piece of character development for Bruce in quite some time. The character is now a father. Realising that he is setting up a tragic twist, Tomasi emphasises this rather heavily. Damian is a character who is serving to bring Batman out of the darkness a little. When Damian arranges a treasure hunt for his father, Alfred remarks, “And I am impressed with your willingness to play along. It shows growth.”

Like father...

Like father…

After all, in the red outfit and with the yellow cape, Robin is inevitably a much brighter character than Batman. As the Joker reflects, “What I always found funny – not in that ‘ha ha’ kinda way — but funny in that ‘oh, isn’t that interesting’ kinda way, is that Roins are most active in the day and bats of course at night… so it always seemed that your partnership was doomed from the start in such a simple and obvious way, didn’t it?”

While the Joker has a point – inevitably foreshadowing one of the key themes of Morrison’s conclusion to Batman Incorporated – it does seem like Damian might actually be making a difference. He may be doing a little something to pull Batman out of the darkness. At the end of Terminus, Gordon is astounded to catch Batman taking flight during the daylight hours. “And here I thought Bats were only creatures of the night,” he reflects.

... like son...

… like son…

The idea and the imagery of the eclipse recurs – the interaction between light and dark. It’s a strange and complicated relationship. Damian is clad in bright colours, but he is more of an anti-hero than Bruce. And yet, despite Damian’s cynicism and violence, he also serves to pull Bruce out of his own darkness and lighten up his life a little bit. When the Joker accuses Damian of “blocking his light”, he actually means curbing his darkness. The Joker has things so upside down his face is on the wrong way.

Inversions and distortions recur quite frequently over the course of Tomasi and Gleason’s Batman and Robin. Over the course of Terminus, the villains conspire to use Batman’s iconography to inflict terror upon the city of Gotham. Of course, Batman had intended to harness terror as a weapon. “Not exactly a comforting image at the moment, is it?” Gordon asks Batman as they converse near the bat signal. “I didn’t conceive it as one,” Batman replies.

Pass the popcorn...

Pass the popcorn…

The villains of Terminus turn Batman’s iconography against him. They burn the bat shape into the skyscrapers of Gotham, evoking the poster for The Dark Knight. They are doing their own form of image management, evoking the technique used by Bruce to run Batman Incorporated. They taunt, “You’re the master at spreading terror, Batman. We’ve all learned by watching you.” Everything is skewed and perverse and distorted, perhaps reflecting the world of Batman.

While the issues collected in Pearl and Death of the Family suffer from a lack of central narrative and forward progress, it does seem that Tomasi views the first seventeen issues of the book as just one section of a larger whole – aware of the implications of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated on his run. As such, Tomasi and Gleason position the final issue before Requiem, Life is But a Dream, as a bookend to the first seventeen issues of the run.

Quality time with mother...

Quality time with mother…

Although inevitably overshadowed by Undone, the fantastic silent issue that opens the next chapter of Batman & Robin, Life is But a Dream provides a suitable close to the first act of Tomasi and Gleason’s run. Drawing on imagery and themes from the series so far – right back to Bruce’s boat from the very first issue – Tomasi and Gleason provide some small sense of closure to Damian’s character arc.

There are lots of delightful touches in Life is But a Dream, but perhaps the the most affecting is the panel of Damian catching a robin… and releasing it. This sequence exists as a reflection of a sequence in Born to Kill were Damian casually and off-handedly murdered one of the bats living in the Batcave. It’s an illustration of how far Damian has come since Grant Morrison reintroduced him during his Batman run, and the dynamic that Tomasi and Gleason have built over the first year-and-a-half of Batman & Robin.

Ride along...

Ride along…

Batman & Robin arguably works best in these quieter character and personal moments. Tomasi seems to acknowledge that Batman & Robin cannot be a plot-drive book at this stage of its life-cycle, because the arcs of its characters are being driven by two larger books. So, instead, Batman & Robin is free to explore the characters themselves. It is hard to imagine Batman or Batman Incorporated devoting an entire issue to the dreams of the three main characters sleeping in Wayne Manor after a long week.

Patrick Gleason’s artwork compliments Tomasi’s style. Gleason is an artist who works very much counter to the DC house style, with his artwork allowing for a more cartoonish and stylised version of Gotham. This works very well at giving Batman & Robin a distinct visual flavour when compared to the other books in the line. For example, Gleason comes up with the best artistic twist on the Joker outside of Capullo’s work on Batman, featuring the clown wearing his face upside down.

No Joker...

No Joker…

Batman & Robin is a consistent and reliable book, even if it isn’t a trailblazing or radical one. It is never going to be the jewel in the publishing crown, instead existing as one of a number of Batman books published by DC comics. This is never more obvious than when the series spends so much of its time bouncing from one crossover to the next, as if trapped in some sort of infernal pinball machine.

That said, Tomasi is very adept at writing with those constraints, and Batman & Robin benefits from his experience and skill. However, it’s hard not to feel a little excited at the prospect that Batman & Robin might step out from beneath the shadow of the more high-profile Batman books and start charting its own course.

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