Review: Batman and Robin Vol. 2: Pearl hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Peter Tomasi's first Batman and Robin volume was one of the best debuts of the New 52, a sweeping eight-issue saga that frankly deserved to have been published as a graphic novel. I therefore picked up Tomasi and artist Patrick Gleason's Batman and Robin Vol. 2: Pearl with much eagerness, expecting indeed to find a pearl between the pages.

Unfortunately, Batman and Robin Vol. 2 is lesser than Batman and Robin Vol. 1. Of the seven issues collected in this book, Tomasi has to give up four to various crossovers and events; though Tomasi attempts to tell his own story around these, the result is disjointed. There's good ideas here, but the pieces don't come together especially in the emotional way that they did in the first book.

[Review contains spoilers]

The centerpiece of Pearl is Tomasi's three-part "Terminus" story, and again, the set-up offers a lot of potential. Dying villain Terminus gathers an army of thugs with legitimate grievances against Batman, to try to prove Batman to be a menace to Gotham. Separately, Robin Damian Wayne offers to challenge and best each of the other former Robins. The new bad guys Tomasi creates are all well thought out and each offers an intriguing backstory as to how Batman and Robin mistreated them, either through excessive force or negligence; and I think we've all been waiting to see Damian square off with the Bat-family. Damian swears he'll beat each other Robin at something they're "unbeatable" at, and then steal a memento from each of them; what these might turn out to be is an engaging mystery.

Unfortunately, neither of these stories ultimately manifest. Terminus is an appropriately creepy villain, depicted in often gory detail by Gleason, but we never do find out who he is or the nature of his grudge against Batman. I grant Tomasi might hold this back for another day, but it kept the "Terminus" story from feeling complete; at the end, I'd witnessed an epic battle between Batman and Terminus (and it is epic, with Tomasi's trademark violence and Batman in a robot suit, with shades of Dark Knight Returns), but I didn't feel I understood what was at stake in the fight. The Bat-family dispatches Terminus's henchmen easily, and never did Batman come to understand his role in creating them.

In the same way, the Robin story seems unfinished. Damian confronts Red Robin and the Red Hood, each time with a red-toned image of one of each characters' significant failures in the background as Damian attacks, but we never get the same with Nightwing; Nightwing simply makes a truce of sorts. Also, Damian lives up to his promise to take a memento from Red Hood and Nightwing, but doesn't take one from Red Robin, an omission that's never explained in-story. The tale would seem to suggest a sort of parallel structure in the red backgrounds and the fights, but with Nightwing in the end, that just fizzles out. The set-up creates expectations that the story doesn't fulfill.

The "Terminus" story falls between a Zero Month issue, a "Night of the Owls" tie-in issue, and then a "Death of the Family" tie-in two-parter. Tomasi would seem to try to go his own way in this story of Gotham overrun with zombies, simply referencing Joker's return in the beginning. As with Terminus, however, the villains' motivations were never quite clear -- who are these zombies? How were they resurrected? -- and then Tomasi explains it all away at the end as a ruse by the Joker. That the end is so pat, and so significantly fails to explain what came before, suggests to me perhaps we have two stories here, with a Joker frame tacked on to what Tomasi originally planned.

The end was touching in the way Batman and Robin should be, but even here I wasn't completely convinced. Eagle-eyed readers will see Damian searching the sewers for something throughout the book, and in the end he reveals it to Batman: one of Martha Wayne's pearls, referenced by Batman at the beginning of Batman and Robin Vol. 1: Born to Kill. Batman is touched, he finally tells Damian he's proud of him, and the book ends with a father-son hug, especially poignant in light of what we know is coming next. But -- not to be hard-hearted -- that Damian recovered one of Martha Wayne's pearls does negate what Batman was just lecturing Damian about, which was not listening to Batman's orders; if anything, the pearl is another symbol of Damian keeping secrets and going off on his own. It's a nice gesture from a young son trying unsuccessfully to connect with his father, but the way it seemed to assuage all of Batman's concerns felt like what Tomasi knew the end of this story needed, and not necessarily something the story had earned.

Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason still make a stellar team; Pearl is gruesome but never in a way that's gratuitous, due to strong plotting and art. One odd quibble, however, is that Gleason draws some panels here with the characters moving from right to left, whereas the audience reads from left to right, so for instance in issue #10 we see Damian crashing into a glass case before we see Red Robin's gesture of throwing him. The Joker story has a good-fill in artist with Tomas Giorello, splitting the pages with Gleason; Giorello's zombies evoke Kelley Jones with great effect, though one wonders again if the Gleason/Giorello switch-off suggests two different stories taped together.

As an ardent fan of the first New 52 volume of Batman and Robin, I'd venture Batman and Robin Vol. 2: Pearl's biggest sin is simply that the story does not revolve enough around Batman Bruce Wayne and his son Damian. Born to Kill was all about fathers and sons and unachieved expectations; Pearl has undertones of Damian trying to live up to both his father and the other Robin's legacies, but it's disconnected from the main story whereas in the last volume the A and B plots spoke to one another. Hardly do I fault Peter Tomasi here, who has a stellar body of work in Green Lantern Corps well before Batman and Robin; rather my suspicion is that giving over so much space to Bat-crossovers is what got this one.

[Includes original covers, Tomasi's script pages, Patrick Gleason's sketches]

Coming up for your Thanksgiving reading, a review of Batman and Robin Vol. 3: Death of the Family, the book's actual crossover volume Adventures of Superman: Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez (B&R Vol. 3 coming next week). See you then!
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  1. Funny that you don't think the zero issue is all that notable when I thought it was to that point the best issue of the series, and arguably still holds that distinction.

    1. Tony -- To each their own, of course, but indeed the Zero Month issue didn't move me. In general I'm tired of origin stories (and this is just my personal hangup); too many movies especially are bogged down with relating a character's origin instead of just proceeding to tell a good story. Origins have begun to bore me because there's a distinct lack of suspense in them -- however it is Kal-El came to Earth and whether Jonathan and Martha Kent are alive, etc., we still know he's eventually going to become Superman and fly over Metropolis, so let's get on with that, you know?

      And the Batman and Robin Zero Month issue fell in that sore spot for me. *We know* Talia grew Damian in a laboratory. *We know* she trained him to be a warrior. *We know,* even, how Damian met Batman for the first time. So for me it was very predictable, up to and including the structure of Talia fights Damian on his birthday, defeats him, fights him again on his birthday, defeats him, and so of course the reader knows, it's coming to the end of the story, they're going to fight, and yup, Damian beats Talia for once. For me, no suspense.

      But I take seriously your naming the issue the best of the series (right now for me it's the "dream issue," #17). Tell me what you liked about this issue; maybe you saw something I missed.

    2. For me, it's the resonance of a story. Retelling any story ultimately proves its real strengths, not the bits you really liked that first time you saw it, but the elements that make it work as a whole. It's why we like superheroes at all, because they're repeating the same good vs. evil fight time and time again, only in slightly different ways. Repeating an origin is to explore what makes the character you love so much so special. For comics characters especially, the origin is everything. It's far harder to come up with a second let alone third or fourth truly memorable, iconic moment in their overall story. And in this case specifically, this meditation on Damian and how he came to be spoke to the incredible poetry that is at the heart of the Tomasi/Gleason dynamic, especially on Batman and Robin. And perhaps it takes on greater resonance for me because we know how the story ends now. And as you pointed out, that first arc of theirs was dynamite. These two really understand Damian, so their take on his origins is especially crucial to their whole run. If this issue didn't work it probably would have invalidated everything. And yet, for me, it absolutely worked. We know he ends up sacrificing himself, that his mother thinks nothing of ending him, and the only way she can is because she cheats. Because in order to earn his stripes, he had to prove he was better than her. That says a heck of a lot. And that's what this issue is all about.

      Sometimes it's not what you know but how it's told. That's the very essence of the best storytelling.

    3. Appreciate the additional insights. We're agreed these creators understand Damian (I think this really came out, even more than it already had, in the third volume) -- possibly Tomasi gets him even more than his creator Grant Morrison does.

  2. Yes, I completely agree with this review. I buy the issues monthly, and I found the zombies thing, and the forced crossovers to be particularly disorienting with this book every month. I just never knew what kind of book I was buying, and it seemed like it kept being a bunch of random stories that kept getting interupted. The book is still kind of like that now...

    Unfortunately those first several issues are easily the best the series has been, and now that Damian is gone it's really been struggling to find a purpose.