Review: Batman and Robin: Dark Knight vs. White Knight hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Thursday, March 01, 2012

Batman and Robin: Dark Knight vs. White Knight, the final pre-Flashpoint volume of the title, offers three three-part stories by three different writers, mostly in a classic Batman style. That is, Peter Tomasi's titular story and Paul Cornell's contribution both introduce Batman Dick Grayson and Robin Damian Wayne to weird new rogues, with considerable space given over to their origins, reminiscent of old Shadow of the Bat stories. In the third story, Judd Winick returns to pen Red Hood Jason Todd, bringing some tie to Winick and Grant Morrison's versions of the character.

They are none of them poor stories, but neither do they much move forward this Batman and Robin. In the space between the return of Bruce Wayne and the DC New 52 universe, Batman and Robin bides its time, enjoyably but not ground-breakingly.

[Contains spoilers]

Peter Tomasi and artist Patrick Gleason's "Dark Knight vs. White Knight" story (also simultaneously called "Tree of Blood" for some reason) is the best of the bunch, which heralds good things given that they're the New 52 team on the title. That "White Knight" is good also shouldn't be surprising given the bang-up work that the two have done on Green Lantern Corps, often surpassing the other Green Lantern titles.

"White Knight," as I mentioned, doesn't reinvent the wheel in terms of Batman stories; like Cornell's "Sum of Her Parts," villains emerge and Batman and Robin stop their schemes in three acts (though Tomasi's depiction of the entire Bat-family watching "The Mark of Zorro" is a startlingly emotional moment that I'm amazed no one broached before). Tomasi's script is more serious than Cornell's, with a serial killer stalking innocent relatives of Arkham inmates. Gleason's art is what really sells it, however, depicting both the gore and tragic beauty of victims falling out of the sky with equal aplomb. His simple design for the glowing White Knight is especially compelling.

Cornell's piece has art by Scott McDaniel, and that instantly gives the story an older air, a la McDaniel's Batman: Murder/Fugitive-era work. McDaniel's art is not necessarily "less modern" than Gleason's (though it wouldn't be hard to convince me on this point), but it conveys a certain agedness that makes Cornell's story also seem older and less relevant.

"Sum of Her Parts" involves a scorned ex-girlfriend of Bruce Wayne's, which is interesting enough, and Cornell conveys good emotion both in Bruce's guilt, and in Dick Grayson's irrational impulse to try to protect Bruce from that guilt. Even with her origin based in actual science, however, Cornell's villain Absence seems wholly unbelievable (if not the gaping hole in her head, then how she just so happened to have access to Batman-level technology) and her over-long eleven-page origin in the second chapter gives too much time to a character who's just not that interesting. My reaction to the story might entirely have been different were Gleason drawing it, but again I couldn't help but feel McDaniel's art takes some of the seriousness from the story.

Both Cornell and Tomasi do succeed in tying their stories to the Batman/Robin relationship. Cornell picks at the knotty issue of whether Batman considers his allies (Robins, but now surrogate Batmen as well) expendable (a deranged Batgirl Cassandra Cain floated a similar theory to Robin Tim Drake); intuitively we know the answer is "no," but Cornell draws a good parallel with how Bruce discards girlfriends, and again he presents equally well Dick's slavish devotion to Bruce. Tomasi's issue is nature versus nurture, and whether the relatives of Arkham inmates might become villains just like Damian might or might not follow in his mother Talia al Ghul's footsteps; Alfred gives Damian a touching speech on heroism that's just right for this story.

I have been a fan of Judd Winick, and of Judd Winick's depiction of Red Arrow (then Speedy) Roy Harper and Starfire in Outsiders, so there seems to me something criminal that Winick isn't writing his signature Red Hood and the others in the DC New 52 Red Hood and the Outlaws. Winick's "The Streets Run Red" here, then, seems to be Winick's swan song to the Red Hood at the end of the old DC Universe, not quite a lead-in to Outlaws but maybe something to whet your appetite.

Red Hood Jason Todd is delightfully bloodthirsty in these pages, more so than I remembered, and there's more room for him to interact with Dick and Damian than there was in Grant Morrison's Batman Reborn. To whit, we get a greater sense of the differences between Robins Dick, Jason, and Damian, and Jason even gets under Dick's skin a little bit. When Dick calls Jason a "tool," it's significant because Dick is reacting to Jason as a Bat-sidekick, not as Batman.

Morrison included the Red Hood in his story, but we can all agree Morrison's flamboyant Red Hood was not Winick's leather-jacketed anti-hero; Winick combines both approaches in his story, and to great effect. "Streets Run Red" is at times low on content, with protracted action sequences and guest artists fitting just one or two panels on a page, but when it works "Streets" is an engaging and insightful Jason Todd tale -- even if the end, the last collected Batman Dick Grayson and Robin Damian Wayne story, unfortunately offers no closure for the new Dynamic Duo.

To have called Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin a "series" was to give charity to a marketing gimmick; Batman and Robin was really just a sixteen-part miniseries in which Morrison chronicled Dick and Damian's fight against the Black Glove in the absence of Bruce Wayne. Batman and Robin: Dark Knight vs. White Knight is simply an exercise in extending this "series" through to the end of Flashpoint rather than cancel it. It's not a complete waste necessarily, but given that the new Batman and Robin contrasts from the old in that it's Bruce and Damian rather than Dick and Damian, I'm not entirely sure why DC kept this series going in the interim (except, of course, the almighty dollar).

What White Knight does offer is a glimpse at Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason's Batman and Robin, which is as adroit as we already expected it would be. Dedicated fans or those curious about what's coming might want to pop in, though part of me would just as soon have passed on this in favor of getting on with the New 52 Batman and Robin already.

[Includes original covers; printed on glossy paper. Excludes the actual end of Batman and Robin, David Hine's issue #26.]

Next week -- a little more Batman, with the Collected Editions review of the deluxe Dark Knight: Golden Dawn by David Finch.
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6 comments:

  1. I dropped B&R in single issues after Morrison left, mostly because of a tight budget, but in hindsight I'm glad I did. While the Tomasi/Gleason New 52 B&R is really hitting it, I wasn't as interested in the "villain of the week" mode your review describes - and I think I'm suffering from Jason Todd overload. The Hine issue was quite good albeit extremely compressed; I'm hoping he gets a chance to expand it into a longer miniseries, since the idea of a breakout at the French version of Arkham is truly interesting. (Does Nightrunner exist post-Flashpoint?)

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  2. Read this and didn't find it that great, but in retrospect after several months of the New 52, it does provide an interesting lead-in to the current Batman and Robin and Red Hood and the Outlaws. Maybe it's an unpopular opinion, but I'm enjoying the latter series far more than the former so far... Batman and Robin has been pretty slow-building, but I'd argue Scott Lobdell (despite the mess about the first issue) almost writes a more compelling Jason Todd than Judd Winick did. Or maybe just a less-whiny Jason Todd. I don't know I'd read a Red Hood and the Outlaws series that was written in the style of the Jason Todd story here.

    The villain with the hole in her head was... bizarre, I have to say. Maybe I'm tired of female villains who are all about men.

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  3. Is #26 included? I could have sworn it wasn't.
    Some one, please, un-confuse me.

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  4. Like the review says, the last issue wasn't included in this hardcover. Zach must have bought it separately.

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  5. Yep, I bought #26 as a single issue because of good reviews and an irresistible Chris Burnham cover. Sorry for any confusion!

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  6. I will miss Dick and Damian's dynamic, both evolved alongside in this oh-so short run.

    Nice final collection!

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