Thursday, 10 December 2015

Batman and Robin: Batman Reborn Review (Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely)

The Dynamic Duo are back – Batman and Robin? No, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely - ‘ray! 

Batman’s “dead”! I know, I know, le sigh, cue eye-rolling, etc. But after his “death” in Final Crisis, a lot of great comics followed: The Return of Bruce Wayne, this great series as well as Scott Snyder’s The Black Mirror, culminating with Batman Incorporated. While Bruce is temporarily away, Dick Grayson steps up to don the cowl and become the new Batman with surly sidekick Damian Wayne as his Robin.

Grant Morrison gives Dick a suitable first adventure as Batman by sending him against a disturbing new adversary: Professor Pyg and his Circus of Strange. Remember Dick grew up in the circus? Nice touch. It’s like a circle, reminding the man he is now (Batman) of the boy he once was (Robin). 

Pyg is a very sinister villain. Morrison warps the traditionally campy nature of Batman’s villains – an overweight guy in a pig mask calling himself Professor Pyg - with some dark twists. Pyg fuses plastic masks onto peoples’ faces, wiping out their identity and turning them into his Dollotrons, mindless slaves to do his bidding. Morrison has him do this horrible (and kinda funny) striptease with power drills to sexy disco music as he worships his “mummy made of nails” (who only he can hear). When the GCPD catch up with him, he starts screaming for them to hit him some more – very fucked up and creepy!

Identity is the theme of this book. Dick is wary about stepping into Bruce’s boots, not least because he never wanted to be Batman anyway (“The cape was the first thing I ditched when I got out on my own. I’m way off balance!”). But he does his duty because he’s the right choice and to honour Bruce’s memory. Morrison wrote a great Bruce and an even better Damian – who’s difficult towards Dick at first but gradually respects him as Batman (“Did you just save my life?”) – but he also wrote a terrific Dick Grayson. 

Despite all the shit Damian gives him, he says to a sympathetic Alfred in the cave, “Who’s gonna save him if we don’t?” What a great guy – that’s why he was the best Robin! Also, after being partnered to Damian’s stoic father for so many years, he’s bound to be more patient than most to the standoffish brat. 

Morrison’s Alfred continues to be the best. Not only does he rustle up some amazing snacks (chicken and jalapeno sandwiches - recipe, now!) for his boys but the scenes between him and Dick were brilliant. He’s there to dispel Dick’s doubts about Damian (“If anyone can bring out the best in the boy, it will be you, I have no doubt,”) and the pep talk he gives Dick to help make him feel better about his new role as Batman is wonderful. 

A new character called Sasha continues the identity theme. She’s one of Pyg’s victims who has a Dollotron mask put on her – Damian is unable to save her when he attempts stopping Pyg solo, another sign that he needs Batman, Robin’s other half – and she ends up adopting the new name of Scarlet. Like Dick and Batman’s cowl, a mask is forced upon her and she must deal with this unwanted new identity. 

Scarlet is one of the few parts of the book that aren’t great. Sure she underlines the book’s theme but, when she becomes Red Hood’s new sidekick, she too quickly becomes a capable fighter. She’s just an ordinary Russian girl but suddenly she can hold her own against the likes of Damian, a kid who’s been trained to be a ninja from birth?! 

Speaking of Red Hood, Morrison’s Jason Todd (aka the second Robin) is far more vicious than the less intense character he is these days. Back then he was still pretty much an evil bastard, guns blazing, knives out, killing criminals – he’s a bit jarring here if you’re used to the more mellow guy he is now. 

But he’s a fine inclusion, not just because this is a book about the Robins but because Jason serves as a counterpoint to Dick, showing Damian what happens when you step over the line and begin taking lives. Jason’s a cautionary tale of Batman gone wrong.

Frank Quitely is one of my favourite artists so of course I loved his work on this title. Besides drawing the brilliant covers, he draws the first arc of the series, the Pyg storyline, and everything looks perfect. The new Batmobile is an amazing design, switching from road driving to flying, oh, why can’t these exist in real life?! I love his Damian’s tight-lipped scowl when he’s talking with Dick (a smiling Batman, I love it!), who’s kind of forced into the role of stepfather trying to get his stepson to like him. It’s all very cute, especially when you see Dick acting like Bruce as Batman in the Gordon scenes (who immediately knows it’s not the usual Batman). 

It’s a shame Quitely doesn’t draw the whole book. Philip Tan takes over in the second half and it’s a little too much, a bit too busy – the pages look especially crazy frenetic compared to the Zen-like space of Quitely’s layouts – but it’s superficial flashiness sort of fits Jason Todd’s trying-too-hard approach to a T. 

Flamingo is a bit of a crap villain. He’s the obligatory unifying one-note bad guy that Dick, Jason and Damian have to beat at the end of the book. He wears pink, he doesn’t talk, and he’s apparently super-tough. Hmm. He was a quirky addition in Batman #666 but proves to be just as insubstantial in a longer story as a short.

Despite Scarlet/Flamingo/Philip Tan’s art, I really enjoyed re-reading this book of Dick Grayson Batman stories – he was an outstanding Batman. He’s a perfect fit with Damian too, a younger man than Bruce, closer in age to Damian, a surrogate big brother, and you can see they’ve got great chemistry together. Even though I knew it wouldn’t last, I still found it disappointing when Bruce returned to become Batman again – that’s how well Morrison writes Grayson’s Batman! 

Batman & Robin Reborn is a fantastic book – a fresh, exciting, modern take on a classic title full of great stories and fully-realised memorable characters.

Batman and Robin: Batman Reborn

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