Review: Batman and Robin Vol. 1: Born to Kill hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

The powerhouse Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason team that made Green Lantern Corps a can't-miss series was sure to succeed in the DC Comics New 52 relaunch of Batman and Robin. Indeed, Batman and Robin: Born to Kill is eminently readable, action-packed and emotional, exactly what a new reader would expect from the Batman and Robin title.

Vested Batman fans, however, may find elements of the story repetitious -- Tomasi perfectly imagines how the father and son Batman and Robin team of Bruce and Damian Wayne would interact, but it is exactly the way Bruce and Damian have interacted so far. Conversely, when Bruce and Damian begin to grow -- when they get along instead of spar -- it is somewhat unbelievable; the emotion Tomasi writes is moving, but not necessarily earned in the whole of Bruce and Damian's interactions outside this book.

In essence, the New 52 relaunch "jump" is significantly noticeable here. Tomasi uses it to place Bruce and Damian on the different emotional ground that forms the basis of this story, but for established readers this may feel a bit of a cheat.

[Review contains spoilers]

Over the first eight issues of Batman and Robin, Tomasi pits the Waynes against new enemy NoBody, disgruntled son of Bruce's mentor Henri Ducard, even as Bruce and Damian struggle with their own father-and-son issues. The use of Henri Ducard is a great touch by Tomasi; Ducard is not only a much-beloved figure from both Batman and Robin Tim Drake's lore, but also recently played a role in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. NoBody starts out as a stock villain, but the story takes off when Tomasi reveals that Bruce and NoBody Morgan Ducard know each other, even including Batman's identity.

Over in Batman, Incorporated, Batman wars on the side of good against Talia al Ghul on the side of evil for Damian Wayne's soul; in Born to Kill, Tomasi suggests the sides are not so clear-cut. Bruce tries to protect Damian from NoBody, ham-fistedly, because NoBody represents a period of murderous rage in Bruce's life, a time when young Bruce was exactly how he does not want Damian to turn out. Tomasi's Bruce Wayne is far away from the often-cool, always-collected Batman of Grant Morrison's stories, far closer to the Bruce who recently decked Nightwing Dick Grayson in Scott Snyder's Batman: Court of Owls.

The power of Tomasi and Gleason's Green Lantern Corps was in its plot twists, strong emotion, and its considerable, often graphic-but-necessary violence. Born to Kill's emotion is intense enough to make up for a mostly predictable story, and its violence is bar none -- not just the perfect small character moments, as when Damian plucks a bat out of thin air and kills it with his hands, and also when Batman fights NoBody in the conclusion, each of them literally dripping with blood. Far from a "gross-out," Tomasi is a master of using violence to forward the story, and Gleason's semi-cartoonish art makes it all shocking but not repulsive.

Tomasi's plot turns, however, on Bruce keeping secrets from Damian, causing Damian to disobey Bruce. "Secretive Bruce" was a character trait done away with around the early 2000s Bruce Wayne: Murdered/Fugitive crossover, recently making a comeback in stories like Court of Owls -- it was overused back then and feels no fresher now. As smart as Bruce Wayne is meant to be, it's inconceivable the character can't understand that keeping secrets always foments rebellion in his Robins. Bruce shuts out Damian, and then it's hard to sympathize with Bruce later when he has to go rescue Damian from danger.

Further, from the beginning Tomasi imbues Bruce with a kind of paternalism for Damian that's equally hard to believe. Bruce saw Damian only in passing before Bruce's "death" in Final Crisis; once resurrected, Bruce and Damian only had one adventure before Bruce left Damian again in Dick Grayson's care. That Bruce would care about Damian's well-being is understandable, but when Bruce says he's training Damian not because Damian is his partner, but because he's Bruce's son; or when Bruce shouts at NoBody, "You tried to murder my son and expect to live," there's an ownership here that doesn't seem earned. Why is Bruce so concerned about Damian now, and why does Bruce want to take a personal hand in raising Damian now, when he did not feel the need to do so before?

For a new reader, Tomasi sells all of this -- Bruce feels Damian is his responsibility, he's worried about Talia's influence on Damian, and he fears what will happen to Damian without his own influence. Tomasi and Gleason present this especially well in an opening two-page spread, and if one posits the DC New 52 as the real beginning of the DC Universe, this is as much as a new reader would need. For established readers, however, Bruce's concerns have no basis -- the reader neither knows why Bruce decided to raise Damian nor even why Bruce returned to Gotham and replaced Dick Grayson as Batman -- and so some of his avowals of care for Damian ring hollow.

Born to Kill, like Paul Cornell's Demon Knights: Seven Against the Dark, is almost a graphic novel, and Batman and Robin even moreso. With no individual issue titles, nor splash pages beginning and ending each chapter necessarily, Born to Kill's eight issues could be read as one long story, if it were not for the cover images breaking up the flow. Born to Kill would have been an even more superb read were these cover images shunted to the back, and it's a shame DC keeps interspersing them this way.

Batman and Robin: Born to Kill ends almost too conclusively -- Bruce and Damian come to such a perfect understanding that it's hard to figure where the familial drama will continue to come from. At eight issues, Born to Kill is longer than many of the other DC New 52 Batman debut collections, ending just before the "Night of the Owls" crossover, and right after that comes the "Death of the Family" crossover. Often this kind of continual interruption spells trouble for a title, Tomasi and Gleason still appear to be continuing on Batman and Robin, and hopefully they will for a while, but it'll be interesting to see where they take this title next.

[Includes original and uncolored covers, sketchbook pages, proposal and script pages by Tomasi]

Next week, we enter a new month of DC New 52 collections, with the now-cancelled OMAC and the also now-cancelled Hawk and Dove. Join us, and tell your friends!
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  1. Spot on CE re: the father-son relationship for long term readers. I enjoyed the story but was looking forward to some loose ends being tied up at the end of Dick and Damian's Batman & Robin, including why Dick stopped being the great Batman he was. I guess those ends will never be tied up. :(

    P.S. I do read your non-Batman reviews, I'm just less obsessed and have less to say XD

  2. But isn't the whole idea of the New 52 to attract new readers and offer a good jumping on point for them? I do agree that for established readers there are still unanswered questions. Maybe these will be addressed in the zero moth issues or hopefully in the next volume? But I loved to see Batman so brutal again :)

  3. Absolutely; I don't begrudge Tomasi for doing his own thing here since this is indeed the first volume of Batman and Robin ever as far as the new universe is concerned; I just personally found it jarring. I'm skeptical that this will be answered in the zero issue (from what I hear, these are more origins than "fill in the five year gap"), but maybe.

    Agreed, too, that Tomasi and Gleason have the brutality down pat. As I said in the review, they're good at using extreme violence tastefully -- read their Green Lantern Corps: Sins of the Star Sapphire or Emerald Eclipse for more of the same.

  4. It's really like a "re-start" of the title, with Bruce in the place of Dick.

  5. Yes, there where some brutal fights in those trades. But Batman being a mere human makes the battle nicely raw :)

  6. All I could think of while reading this in single issues was how melodramatic Bruce's characterization was. The plot itself flows better when I read the entire arc at once, but it did feel like five issues of Bruce being amazingly dense and then suddenly becoming the Parent He Was Always Meant To Be. Damian fared much better, I think. And though I don't want to compare this run with Morrison's, I can't really blame him for missing Dick.

    I've been enjoying the next arc a lot more, though. I think the title is more fun to read now the characters have settled down a bit, though there's nothing wrong with a gritty, intense and violent arc once in a while either!

  7. I'm curious to read the next volume -- seemed to me Tomasi didn't have many issues to himself with the back-to-back Night of the Owls and Death of the Family crossovers; glad you hear your positive review.

  8. I really enjoyed reading this book, as a mostly new reader (I have been getting Morrison's Batman & Robin run though, as well as some other books featuring the Grayson Batman). In fact, surprisingly it has actually been my favourite of the new 52 that I've read so far.

    I see how the relationship could come as jarring but I think it hits a lot of good points, enough to overlook that (especially since, as you pointed out, this is meant to be the new beginning of the series and so most of the old books are out of continuity ... maybe ... comics are weird). I actually especially enjoyed seeing the proposal at the back of the book in which it was stated that the father-son relationship would be the A story, while crimefighting and all that would be the B. It definitely clearly defines what this run is going to be and nicely shows where it stands in relation to the other Batfamily books.

  9. I liked that proposal page, too -- I'd be happy to see more of those included in collections. I've never been one to really go back between script and art when they include scripts in the book, but I find the proposals fascinating -- there's one in Green Lantern: Rebirth, I recall.