Review: Batman and Robin Vol. 4: Requiem for Damian hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, June 09, 2014

If I'm reading this Comic Book Resources interview correctly, it would seem like writer Peter Tomasi knew about the impending death of Robin Damian Wayne at least since the beginning of the New 52, which is rather what I hoped was the case. For Tomasi to have known about Damian's death for a while is to suggest that plans for the Batman and Robin book didn't drastically change, and so the stories readers have enjoyed so far are thematically tied to what comes next without any backstage rearranging.

Tomasi is one of my favorite DC writers and the stories in Batman and Robin Vol. 4: Requiem for Damian are generally enjoyable. But even given Tomasi's knowledge of Damian's fate, his depiction of Batman's emotional arc didn't feel quite earned to me. To an extent, I felt Tomasi took the path of least resistance here, turning Batman almost instantaneously into a hulking rage monster, a story I think we've seen already a number of times before. Put another way, Tomasi wrote exactly the story I might have expected for Batman-in-mourning, and I was disappointed that I wasn't more surprised.

[Review contains spoilers]

The basic difficulty with this story is that Tomasi resurrects "jerk Batman." I rather ardently believe that "jerk Batman" wasn't always Batman's default personality, but rather that "jerk Batman" is an invention of the 1990s "angst" trend and that couldn't quite be shaken going into the 2000s. I had thought we left "jerk Batman" behind after Infinite Crisis (see my "kinder, gentler Batman" theory), but that didn't last very long, and "jerk Batman" is back now.

I grant the character has just lost his son and we expect Batman to be emotionally devastated. But when we posit that Batman is the world's greatest detective, someone who ought understand others' emotional responses even to a preternatural level, it does not make sense to me that the same person should be so emotionally stunted that he reacts to the death of his son by pushing all of his other family away. This irrationally emotional stuntedness is the essence of "jerk Batman," and Requiem for Damian is essentially a "jerk Batman" collection -- in somewhat repetitive chapters, he pushes Red Robin away, and then he pushes Red Hood away, and then he pushes Batgirl away.

That's not even to mention that in the first chapter following Tomasi's silent issue, Batman kidnaps and disassembles Frankenstein. First, this shows no regard for Frankenstein's "life," which we might expect Batman to respect; second, for Batman to be trying to resurrect his son (into the bodies of corpses Batman has stolen) smacks enough of the evils of Ra's al Ghul that one would reasonably expect Batman would know better.

I'm reminded of the first issues of Geoff Johns's Superman: New Krypton storyline, where Superman mourned his father killed by Braniac even as he had to deal with the returned Kandorians. Superman did not fly into a rage at his friends and family, he did not embark on a mad plot to bring his father back, he simply went about his heroic activities. Yes, Pa Kent's death influenced Superman in the storyline and factored into the book, but it was nothing so unsubtle as Superman crashing through every wall he could find. The take-away was that Superman was in mourning, but Superman is a hero, and heroes do what they have to do; here, I think Tomasi focuses too much on the "dark" and not enough on the "knight."

Even as I might disagree with Tomasi's portrayal of Batman, however, it's undeniable that the new "Batman and ..." focus of this title (for however long it lasts) is a lot of fun. Solely the fact that Tomasi constructs a Batman/Frankenstein story is worth the price of admission, and given that we really haven't see all that many New 52 Bat-family team ups, having individual issues with Batman and Red Robin, Red Hood, Batgirl, Catwoman, and Nightwing are all interesting reads. And I know the best is yet to come, including Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and more Frankenstein.

I'm also always impressed, as a continuity wonk, at how much heavy lifting Tomasi does in terms of utilizing other stories. Batman and Robin Vol. 3 referenced a gamut of stories from Killing Joke to Grant Morrison's Batman books; here, Tomasi gives a nod to the Death of Superman, Death in the Family, Final Crisis, and specific current events in the Red Hood, Nightwing, Batgirl, Catwoman, and Justice League of America titles. It gives a nice sense that this book, as opposed to the Wonder Woman title for instance, does not exist in a bubble and that what happens in other titles matters to this one and vice versa. (Even if, again, Tomasi's acknowledgment that Batman has been through all of this before with the death of Jason Todd makes Batman's reactions this time around all the more over-the-top.)

And lest you think I'm terribly hard-hearted, Tomasi did succeed in a couple of scenes that made tangible the characters' feelings of loss. I wasn't quite so moved as some by the silent issue, which functioned well but maybe I'd heard too much about how moving it was to be actually affected. When Batman has to play back all the recordings he has of Damian's voice such to cobble together a faux voicemail for Damian's friend Carrie Kelly, that was wrenching (and while I understand the reasons for Batman needing to fake Damian's existence, I'm curious to see at what point Carrie discerns the truth). Also the final pages, where Batman comes to understand that Alfred blames himself for Damian's death just as much as Batman does, got to me, though I did wish Tomasi had given the moment a bit more room to breathe.

Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason (who's missed on the pages he doesn't draw in this volume) are one of my favorite current DC creative teams, and this has kept me looking forward to this title even though Batman and Robin Vol. 4: Requiem for Damian isn't the first time I didn't buy Tomasi's characterization of the Dark Knight. My own hope is that Tomasi is ultimately moving Batman toward acceptance of Damian's death (or, at least, some recognition of the value of his own family) prior to whatever comic book resurrections may be on the horizon. Where Tomasi takes Batman to will go a long way toward my final estimation of where Tomasi started Batman in this book.
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9 comments:

  1. I share your dislike of jerk Batman, Snyder's new52 version has had tinges of that, but this really took the cake. I felt the end of Batman Inc was Morrison's way of putting up his arms in defeat that despite his efforts all his great work on a Batman at peace with himself and others, and how that actually makes him far cooler, couldn't stop the pendulum swinging back the other way.

    That said, I did like the stages of grief and the team ups in the Tomasi issues (which I read monthly).

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  2. Jerk Batman. Heh. Guess that's why so many people reacted violently against All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder. To a certain extent, that's kind of the whole story of Bruce Wayne, though, a guy who has sometimes verged on the side of homicidal maniac. As far as Tomasi's psychological exploration of the character (and company) and as you point out the whole continuity, this sounds like a much-needed piece of the tapestry he's been working on. It's as good a time as any to becoming Jerk Batman after losing his only son ("A Lonely Place of Dying" saw that, too, which was how we originally got Tim Drake). I haven't read most of these issues, and in fact had even heard about the silent issue. I love this series so much. Despite your soft sell, this sounds like an awesome volume.

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    1. Clearly that should read "hadn't heard about the silent issue."

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  3. I have a Batman-related question about an older book. Greg Burgas' review of "Batman: Death of the Family" talked about some of the "gay panic" in the fan base after the Joker was written to have feelings for Batman. Apparently some of this dialogue was removed for the trade. I personally don't mind the idea of the Joker having some sort of attachment to Batman--Luthor taunting him about not being Batman's prom date in the first volume of "Outsiders" was hysterical--but did you see any of that characterization?

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    1. In my review of Death of the Family, I mention a "romantic tinge" to the approach of Snyder's Joker to the Batman; I definitely did see that characterization in the book. And of course neither Snyder nor Winick are the first ones to suggest that. I think Snyder plays it pretty subtle, but it's there for the interpreting.

      Got a link to the Burgas review? I couldn't find it.

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    2. It's about halfway through his "What I Bought: May 2014" post. http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2014/06/01/what-i-bought-may-2014-selections/#more-163805

      Spoiler: He reeeeeally didn't like it.

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    3. It's a shame if they really did remove that interaction. Personally, I thought it was Romantic with a capital 'R' (as in the Romantic artistic movement); the Joker's love towards Batman wasn't sexual, it was love for the idea behind Batman, the Dark Knight against his Joker caught in an eternal and mythic struggle. That's why he refers to the Court of Owls showing Batman needing help and why he doesn't want Batman to tell him his former identity: both instances make them both human, which the Joker doesn't want.

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  4. Do you have any idea as to why Robin's death is not explained in the Batman & Robin titles? I mean after vol 3 we have no idea he has died, and then suddenly in vol 4 we are having to deal with his death with no knowledge as to how it happened. And it is only after Googling it that I found out he died in Batman Incorporated issue 8.

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    1. The nature of comics, for better or worse. In a shared comics universe, oftentimes events will happen in one title and then the other titles will react to it. Sometimes it's mid-storyline, like the various books that tied into Batman's Death of the Family storyline; sometimes books react after the fact, like Damian's death in Batman, Inc. and then the reactions in Batman & Robin and elsewhere. You can read just one title and get a fairly solid reading experience, but for characters like Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern with "lines" of titles, or characters with their own titles that also appear in Justice League and elsewhere, like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, your most complete reading experience will probably necessarily require following some events into other titles.

      Another explanation: keep in mind that for all these comics to be released at the same time, they all have to be written at the same time. It's possible Peter Tomasi in Batman & Robin didn't even know *how* Damian was going to die in Grant Morrison's Batman, Inc. because it wasn't fully written yet; he might have only known that it was going to happen. Sometimes I think the details of various events are vague in other titles because the affected writers might not even know the details. A reference to Damian's death was pretty well shoehorned into a Batgirl issue, too, where the details were kept vague.

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