by James Fleming
In the 1980s, graphic novels such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke offered a radical reformulation of Batman that transformed the character from pop icon into a gothic, existential, disturbed crusader for vengeance, more spiritually and intellectually akin to Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Lord Byron’s Manfred than to Superman or Captain America. Miller and Moore’s characterization of Batman as decidedly dark and tortured came to dominate virtually every depiction of the character over the next two decades. While plenty of good Batman stories appeared after Miller and Moore’s books, the character nevertheless did not develop again in any meaningful way until Grant Morrison began writing the monthly Batman comic in 2005. Through storylines such as “Batman and Son,” “The Black Glove,” and “RIP,” Morrison has taken the Batman mythos in entirely new directions by absorbing forgotten and erased aspects of Batman’s comic book continuity, offering a potential destiny for him, and establishing new relationships and dynamics within his world.
Morrison’s latest graphic novel, Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn, collects the first two storylines from Morrison’s ongoing Batman & Robin comic: “Batman Reborn” and “Revenge of the Red Hood.” Morrison, who deconstructed the character of Bruce Wayne and seemingly killed him off in his recent “RIP” and “Last Rites” storylines, opens “Batman Reborn” with Dick Grayson, the original Robin, reluctantly wearing the guise of Batman. Wayne’s long-lost son Damian Wayne is cast as a violent, impulsive, brilliant and pre-pubescent Robin. Morrison uses this change in the characters’ identities to shift the standard Batman and Robin paradigm. Grayson is depicted as being less disciplined, assured, and intellectual than Bruce Wayne, but also as a far more daring, fun-loving, emotionally balanced and self-conscious Batman. Damian Wayne is presented as an arrogant, slightly sadistic, and deadpan Robin who possesses all of his father’s mental prowess and courage but little of his humanity. By taking the bold leap of changing the very essence of the long-standing Batman and Robin dynamic, Morrison has made the most famous superhero team in pop culture fresh and relevant once again.
The storylines collected in this volume—which represent only two parts of the much larger Batman epic that Morrison has been working on for the past five years—establishes the new status quo in Batman’s world and sets Batman and Robin up against the new enemies and challenges that have arisen in the wake of Bruce Wayne’s apparent death. In the first storyline, Batman and Robin investigate an army of bizarre circus freaks undertaking a twisted master plan which involves an insane professor conducting face transplants, human sex traffickers, and an identity-destroying street drug. In the second storyline, a new vigilante duo with a gift for multimedia self-promotion, as well as ties to the pasts of both Batman and Robin, surfaces in Gotham City and embarks on a particularly excessive and amoral solution to criminality. Thematically, Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn is about a lot of things: the complicated relationship between fathers and sons, the burdens of legacy, the temptations and dangers of vengeance, the ways in which a family copes with grief, and the relevance of the superhero in a late postmodernist world of moral relativity, ultra-violence, and constant media surveillance.
While Morrison’s characterizations are pitch-perfect and his plots are engaging and entertaining, he also provides his stories with a measure of levity largely lacking in contemporary superhero comics. Not only do his characters fight, crusade, and investigate, they also eat, joke around with each other, worry, and reflect upon their actions. The seemingly off-hand details that populate the story serve to provide the characters with a measure of humanity and realism that helps us to identify with them more closely and suspend our disbelief against the absurdities and impossibilities we encounter over the course of the narrative.
Given his playfulness, intelligence, and creativity, as well as his love of intertextuality, Morrison—at least in terms of his work on Batman & Robin—is more akin to Thomas Pynchon than Stan Lee. Like Pynchon, Morrison has a tendency to overwhelm his stories with plot, characters, and references to histories both real and imagined, to such a measure that the reader’s head spins under the accumulation of details the story presents. Morrison’s love of mystery, trickery, and postmodern literary tropes is also reminiscent of Paul Auster’s early work, City of Glass in particular. And his characters’ subversive self-awareness and humor, as well as Morrison’s distinctly English fascination with hyperactive American culture, recalls Martin Amis at his very best.
Morrison might even be inventing a new genre of comic book here: the flashy, self-conscious, and socially, politically, and aesthetically subversive superhero comic. In his afterword to Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn, Morrison states that his intention was for the book to be “fast-moving, twisty and physical, like paint being flung around a room by chimps in a gabba gabba frenzy of violence without consequence—as garish, sensationalist and flippant as we could make it.” While Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn is certainly fast and garish, thanks in large part to the outstanding, lively art by Frank Quitely and Philip Tan, the book itself is hardly sensationalist and flippant. If anything, Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn serves to counter the sort of sensationalism that has been in vogue in popular superhero comics for the past twenty-five years by offering a story that is timely, subversive, and intelligent and moralistic above all.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010