Review: Damian, Son of Batman deluxe hardcover (DC Comics)

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

For fifth Robin Damian Wayne to get his own miniseries, especially while currently deceased, says significant things about that character's popularity. Though I think the "new Robin" storyline trope lost its cache after the Stephanie Brown debacle, Damian had settled in to being a serviceable Robin character prior to his death (if one sidekick among many now instead of the leader of the pack, as when Tim Drake debuted as Robin).

Even given that Andy Kubert's Damian, Son of Batman is set in an alternate future and was no doubt released mainly to coincide with the animated Son of Batman movie, I still looked forward to seeing what a Damian-focused miniseries might look like, different than the character's co-starring role in Peter Tomasi's Batman and Robin.

To my ear, however, the biggest problem with Son of Batman is that Kubert doesn't have Damian Wayne's voice and character quite right. This might be the story of a character with the same name and history as Damian, but the personality is off. In addition, Son of Batman feels on one hand unfinished and on the other hand half-baked; storylines are started that are never resolved, and the fit to the Grant Morrison-penned stories also included here is poor. In general I am not one for alternate-reality stories such as this, and ultimately I felt this was one I could have skipped.

[Review contains spoilers]

I thought what arc Kubert has here for Damian was interesting. Following the death of Batman Dick Grayson, Damian begins killing rather than apprehending Batman's rogues; if we grant that Tomasi's Batman and Robin isn't canon for this miniseries, then Damian's actions here aren't completely out of the ordinary. After an altercation with Bruce Wayne, however, and some stern advice from Alfred and a priest that Damian sees, Damian decides to honor his predecessors by letting his enemies live.

But whereas this might be where the arc stops for most writers, Kubert pits Damian against an army of mutated villains plus a new Joker, and Damian ultimately reverts to killing; moreover, Damian seems to most completely come into his own when he resumes killing. Granted this coincides with the Morrison material, but I thought it was brave of Kubert not to try to moralize to Damian in the end and change him, but rather to recognize Damian's true nature and let that be where the story ended up. This, I found refreshing.

Kubert's Damian, however, feels off right from the start. On the first page, Damian shouts "Holy crap!" at he and Batman's discovery of a pile of corpses, but anyone who "knows" Damian, in my opinion, knows Damian would neither use such pedestrian language nor be so visibly shaken by carnage. Later when Batman chides Damian to "stay sharp," Damian retorts "Aye, aye, Captain!" and when Batman argues further, Damian asks whether "the cowl and melodramatic rhetoric go hand in hand," calling Batman an "ass."

Kubert's got a Robin here, but to me it seems more like Jason Todd than Damian Wayne. Damian is disrespectful, sure, but in a way that suggests he sees himself as superior to others, not in a way that's flip toward the actual work of crimefighting. Jason might have described the victims as "just a bunch of dead people"; I don't think that Damian would.

Even if Damian's character is arguable, the book is also terribly, strangely fragmented throughout. Damian initially identifies one of the victims as Tim Drake, making a joke, which is weird but understandable except that Tim never appears nor is he mentioned in all the rest of the book. This priest Damian sees has supposedly served the Bat-family for years, but then later he has special knowledge of the Joker that makes him seem to be a villain -- and then he's never seen or mentioned in the story again (possibly the priest is Commissioner Gordon, but the how and why remain muddy).

There's a bizarre page in which a comatose Bruce Wayne is treated by an obese nurse with an exceptionally cliched Southern accent; maybe the nurse is meant to be a disguised Joker, but again, there's no callbacks or revelations such to make this even mildly explicit. Damian plays chess with some mysterious opponent; is this supposed to be the Joker, too?

The book ends with Damian saving Bruce Wayne from the Joker, and having to kill to do so even though Bruce warned Damian against killing. I got through the final pages and into the Morrison material before I realized, the last time we see Bruce is when Damian is dragging him out, and then not again even as Damian embraces the Batman mantle. Given that the story turns on how Damian does or doesn't live up to the Batman legacy, one would think a final statement from Bruce Wayne might be relevant, but Kubert leaves this, too, unresolved.

Also, for a book meant to tie into Grant Morrison's Batman-flash forward issues, there's numerous crossed-wires. The Alfred cat speaks in Son of Batman, which is doubly weird since he doesn't in Morrison's material, so Kubert has electively added in a talking cat. Morrison's issues foreshadowed (past-shadowed?) Damian making a deal with Dr. Hurt (aka the Devil) upon becoming the Batman, but no such thing happens in Kubert's issues (and it's equally incongruous to have all these scenes with a priest for a character who's supposed to have made a deal with the Devil). Neither does Kubert approach why, by the time of Morrison's issues, the world has completely gone to hell with ecological disasters, rampant crime, and so on.

Kubert and Morrison seem to be writing different stories -- they are, even -- and I imagine this would be most confusing for an uninitiated reader picking up this volume as a "graphic novel" where the beginning and end don't mesh.

There are a variety of splash and two-page spreads in the book, especially of characters about to fight one another in what seems to be to be "the Marvel style," which are quite attractive and representative of what you'd want from Andy Kubert's work. Taken as an artist spotlight book only, there's probably less to complain about in this volume. However, from a story perspective, Damian, Son of Batman delivers less than it sets up, and I don't think it benefits the Damian character while he bides his time in limbo.
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