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Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic Part 3: Batman & Robin

Grant Morrison began spinning an epic Batman story, back in 2006, one that is only now, in mid-2013, wrapping up.

You can follow these links to read my previous reviews of the last several years of Batman continuity: Part 1 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, part 2 of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, Batman: The Animated series’ Paul Dini’s run on Detective Comics, the post-death-of-Bruce-Wayne stories that culminated in Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, and the re-launch of the Bat-books under the Batman: Reborn banner.

Now, after some digressions reading the various other Batman series of the time, written by other authors, it is time at last to return to Grant Morrison’s story.

Following Batman: R.I.P. and his killing-off of Batman in Final Crisis, Mr. Morrison launched a brand-new Batman book: Batman and Robin.  This book would follow the new Batman, former Robin and former Nightwing Dick Grayson, partnered up with the new Robin, Damian Wayne (the son of Bruce Wayne from the 1987 graphic novel Son of the Demon, a story long-considered to be out of continuity until Mr. Morrison included the character in his run on Batman).

Batman Reborn (Batman and Robin #1-3) — The new series launched in fantastic style as Mr. Morrison was reunited with his frequent collaborator, Frank Quitely.  Mr. Quitely is an artistic genius, and he is able to draw some of the most fantastic super-hero comics that I have ever seen.  His super-detailed but slightly off-kilter design work is the perfect complement to Mr. Morrison’s stories. Together they are able to create a book filled to the brim with almost unparalleled weirdness, but also one that is fiercely compelling.  I love Mr. Quitely’s redesigned flying Batmobile (introduced in spectacular style in the double-page splash at the start of issue #1).  I love the way he incorporated his sound effects into his artwork.  I love the “Next in Batman and Robin” panels on the last page of each issue that preview the following issue.

Grant Morrison’s story is at once more fun than any of the other stories being told in the Bat-books of the time, and also far more serious.  I have often commented on Mr. Morrison’s ability to bring a true sense of danger into his super-hero comics.  He is able to create a world in which terrible things can and do happen, and that gives his stories a sense of tension that most other super-hero comics lack.  The last two pages of issue #1 are a great example of this.  In this terrifying two-page sequence, we see the horrific Mr. Pyg burn a pig-mask onto the face of a two-bit hood who crossed him, as well as that hood’s teenaged daughter, Sasha.  It’s a terrifying scene not only for the violence of something being burnt onto one’s face, but because we also learn that these masks rob an individual of his/her sense of self and free-will, turning people into mindless slaves of Mr. Pyg.  The combination of physical violence and a complete loss of identity is incredibly powerful, and made me just die with anticipation of the next issue, back when these were originally published.

Revenge of the Red Hood (Batman and Robin #4-6) — Unfortunately, Mr. Quitely only illustrated the first three issues of the new series.  He was replaced by Philip Tan, who was no where near the level of Mr. Quitely.  I will repeat the comment I made about Batman: R.I.P.: I am surprised that DC wasn’t able to find Mr. Morrison higher-level artistic collaborators.  Mr. Tan’s work is OK, but doesn’t very well serve Mr. Morrison’s complex story-telling.

In this story, Mr. Morrison reprised the character of The Red Hood — the former Robin, Jason Todd, who was brutally murdered by the Joker before being resurrected in the “Under the Hood” story-line, written by Judd Winick back in 2005.  Jason has recruited himself a new side-kick, Scarlet (the young girl, Sasha, who survived Mr. Pyg’s assault on her in issue #1), and set the two of them up as violent alternatives to the Batman and Robin pairing.  The Red Hood and Scarlet are also fighting crime, except that they murder the criminals they find.  I wasn’t hugely taken by this story.  It’s a perfectly fine tale, it’s just that I’m not sure the story really added anything to the Jason Todd/Red Hood character.  I felt like I had already read this Batman-versus-Jason story back in Mr. Winick’s “Under the Hood.”  This was a surprisingly mediocre effort from Mr. Morrison.

I was more intrigued by the plot threads introduced at the end of the story: Robin is shot and potentially crippled; the mysterious, masked detective Oberon Sexton is revealed to have ties to the villain El Penitente, who wears a mask that resembles that of Dr. Hurt from Batman: R.I.P. and has carved a “W” (for Wayne?) into his back; and Dick Grayson has a secret locker, unlocked by the password “Zur en arrh,” in which he has been keeping the corpse of Bruce Wayne.

Blackest Night (Batman and Robin #7-9)— Things pick up significantly in the next story, in which Dick Grayson attempts to do what any DC Comics reader would have expected him to do the moment Superman brought back Bruce Wayne’s corpse following the events of Final Crisis: that is, he attempts to resurrect Wayne by dipping his body into a Lazarus Pit (the mysterious pools that have kept the villain Ra’s al Ghul alive for centuries).  Of course, things go awry, but whereas I was expecting there to be an unconvincing reason for Dick to be convinced that it’s “wrong” somehow to use the pit to resurrect Bruce Wayne, or for there to be some silly plot twist in which either the body or the pit was destroyed or lost somehow, preventing the resurrection, Mr. Morrison came up with a far more interesting way out.  Dick Grayson does succeed in returning Wayne’s corpse to life in the Lazarus Pit, but once they do, they discover that the corpse was not really that of Bruce Wayne, but rather one of the duplicates created by Darkseid (seen in Batman # 682-683).  I liked that twist, and it’s a nice way to move the ball forward on the mystery of what really happened to Bruce Wayne during Final Crisis, and when will he return.

I really loved the artwork by Cameron Stewart.  Mr. Stewart has a simple style a little reminiscent of that of Bruce Timm and a knack for capturing distinct faces and body-types.  He also possesses an extraordinary eye for detail, and a skill to convincingly draw pretty much anything, from a chase through the streets of London to a fist-fight underground near the Lazarus Pit.

I also enjoyed the inclusion of Batwoman in this story.

Batman vs. Robin (Batman and Robin #10-12) — Things really start to come to a head in this three-parter, in which Mr. Morrison weaves a story filled with mounting tension that builds to an incredible “I can’t wait to see what happens NEXT!” page-turning intensity.  Alfred and Dick Grayson begin investigating the history of Wayne Manor itself, and they discover a series of mysteries and clues to the past of the Wayne family that might in fact hint at the fate of Bruce Wayne following Final Crisis.  Dick, and the reader, digs deeply into the various Waynes who came before Bruce, and we discover clues built into Wayne Manor itself, including a secret Batcave.  Mr. Morrison drenches every new discovery with import, and I always feel, when re-reading these issues, that the full secret to understanding everything that is going on lies on the very next page.  It doesn’t, of course, which is the blessing and the curse of Mr. Morrison’s writing.

Meanwhile, Talia’s plan to strike at Dick through her son Damian moves forward, and the mystery of Oberon Sexton deepens.

I should talk for a moment about Sexton, an intriguing masked character introduced by Mr. Morrison at the beginning of the Batman and Robin series.  On the last page of issue #12, we learn his true identity, and it’s a moment that rung very false to me when I first read it.  (I am going to try to avoid any out-and-out-spoilers, here, but if you haven’t yet read these issues, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs.)  First of all, it felt like a total retread of the revelation at the end of Mr. Morrison’s run on X-Men, in which the masked hero Xorn is revealed to in fact be the X-Men’s greatest enemy, Magneto.  The reveal of Sexton feels like almost exactly the same thing, and it doesn’t work for me any more here in Batman than it did in X-Men.  

In comics, when we’re just reading word balloons, it is easier for a reader to be unaware of the identity of a disguised character.  But are you telling me that Dick Grayson wouldn’t have recognized the voice of the villain that Sexton is revealed to have been?  Also, Sexton’s actions just don’t track with what we know of that villain.  El Penitente chastises Sexton in issue #10 for standing right next to Batman and not attacking him, and once we learn who Sexton is beneath the mask, I am similarly confused as to why Sexton let Batman go unharmed.  What was his goal?  What was the purpose of the whole charade?

Lastly, in that same scene in issue #10, in which Sexton is able to escape an attack by El Penitente’s men, Sexton comments “I have… exceptional hearing” and, indeed, it seems that Sexton is able to hear the words spoken by the men outside his room.  How does this apparent super-hearing square with the revelation of Sexton’s true identity?  I am left confused.  It will be interesting to see if I feel that subsequent issues answer these questions in a satisfying way.

This three-parter is beautifully illustrated by Andy Clarke and Scott Hanna.  I really like their style and all of their detailed, meticulous linework.  It’s a great fit for this particular story, which seems to be all about the importance of paying attention to all of the tiny details in the history and structure of Wayne Manor and also in the character of Oberon Sexton.

With the cliffhanger at the end of issue #12, the villain stands revealed and things are very much unresolved.  I can’t wait to see where this story goes next!  While most of the Batman comics I have written about so far I have read before (many of them several times!), we are getting to a point in the story that I didn’t follow at the time.  It’s a long story as to why, but suffice it to say some of these issues have been sitting in my to-read stack for years!  I can’t wait to finally read these issues and see where Mr. Morrison takes his story.  I will be back soon with my thoughts on the next installments of Grant Morrison’s Batman epic!

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