Review: Batman and Robin Vol. 5: The Big Burn hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, April 06, 2015

Batman and Robin Vol. 5: The Big Burn is a masterwork by Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason, second only to their inaugural Born to Kill (and not discounting the final two Batman and Robin volumes yet to come). It is the first -- and last, I guess -- great Two-Face story of the New 52, and what pangs the purist in me felt over the changes Tomasi made to Two-Face's origins were mitigated, surely, by the strength of the writing and story here. It's only a shame this story came in the midst of Damian Wayne's absence, making it something of a great Batman and Robin-team book sans the "Robin," but Tomasi even works that in unexpectedly to demonstrate Damian is absent but not forgotten.

[Review contains spoilers]

Tomasi and Gleason are much in their element in Big Burn. Since their Green Lantern Corps days, the two have specialized in harrowing, violent, sometimes gory stories that transcend these categories because Tomasi's characterizations are so strong, and Gleason's art is so detailed and gruesome, but also controlled; in all things, Gleason takes it as far as necessary but never farther. Batman and Robin Vol. 1: Born to Kill, which I can't say enough good things about, starkly demonstrated the emotional conflicts between Batman Bruce Wayne and his son Damian, with any number of moments where I just did not know what was going to happen next.

Big Burn, at five issues to Born's eight, didn't have quite as many surprising moments, though certainly some smart shoot-'em-ups and plenty of grotesque depictions of Two-Face Harvey Dent. (The general lack of Damian Wayne, even if by no fault of the creative team, also has to rank this one just behind Born.) Even as Two-Face is sharply rendered here, I did notice a shift in Gleason's work, especially around the faces as relates to mobster du jour Erin McKillen; Gleason's work takes on a smoothness that suggests not modernity but a 1920s gangsters-type piece, which Big Burn almost is (even the title of the story suggests a Dashiell Hammett novel). Not dissimilarly, Gleason's cover to the second chapter, Batman and Robin #25, evokes Batman: The Animated Series's neoclassic style. Inasmuch as Big Burn erodes the last great Two-Face story, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Batman: The Long Halloween, the art choices of this book make the two stories of a piece.

Whereas Long Halloween fleshed out Two-Face's origin, offering to an extent some "between the pages" material, Big Burn revises the origin entirely. District Attorney Harvey Dent still gets splashed with acid, but now it takes place when McKillen attacks Dent within his own home, rather than a Don Maroni/Don Falcone/what have you courtroom incident. Two-Face's "birth" within a courtroom is symbolic for the character, I think, and with Falcone returning to prominence elsewhere in the Bat-books, it seems a shame not to tie him in to Harvey Dent's plight. Still, Tomasi preserves the tragic friendship between Batman/Bruce Wayne, Dent, and Commissioner Gordon, and even goes so far as to deepen the tragedy by making Bruce, Dent, McKillen, and Gilda (Gold) Dent all old school friends. In this way Dent's transformation to Two-Face is not just a professional loss for Batman, but also the loss of a number of different friends for Bruce.

Tomasi spends a little time on Damian's loss in the book's beginning, but Batman then makes a conscious decision to turn his attention to Gotham's crime families, and Damian essentially disappears from the story. This felt troublesome to me; whereas the last volume, Requiem for Damian, was perhaps so tied up in Damian's death as to not really move the story forward, Burn began to feel like (well-conceived) filler, not really related to Batman and Robin but rather just biding time to line up with Batman Eternal or such.

But, as should come as no great surprise, Tomasi has a handle on his story. Just when the story really seemed to have gone too long without mentioning Damian, Tomasi and Gleason bring it all up again in the fourth chapter, issue #27. Batman doesn't suffer a full-on breakdown (this time), but rather as Batman, McKillen, and Two-Face must hide out from a rival gang in a mausoleum, Gleason borders the page with the dark events of the previous volume's issues. In scene, Batman never mentions Damian, but rather snipes at Two-Face, "I've never considered myself a hero, Harvey, especially lately. We've all got two sides, and we're always waging war against ourselves." By keeping it subtle, and demonstrating to the reader that Batman's mind is on Damian even if he's not outwardly speaking of him, Tomasi lets us know that Damian is part and parcel of every page despite that the story's focus is elsewhere.

Given the last volume, I did expect the newly-introduced Carrie Kelly would make an appearance here, and especially given Kelly's general resemblance to McKillen, I figured Tomasi would reveal a family connection before the end. Kelly, however, is never mentioned, even as the sketch variant for the first chapter suggests she might have originally been intended for this book. I don't know if Kelly appears again before this series' end (no spoilers, please), but if not, the one-and-done use of such a notable character won't feel quite satisfying to me.

The book concludes with the second Batman and Robin annual. Kind of like the recent Flash annual that revealed the first time Flash and Green Lantern met, I'm happy for this story because it fills in the still somewhat murky history of the New 52 DC Universe. At the same time, though Dick Grayson's original Robin costume is implausibly dated, his new Robin costume looks too modern to me; I equate it visually with Tim Drake's costume, two Robins hence, not an "original." The story is fine if of an oft-told Robin genre (and Batman's lack of patience with his Robins gets hard to believe); also the end doesn't quite make sense when the villain Tusk is shown to have the very "tusk" that Damian is supposed to have stolen for Dick.

Batman and Robin Vol. 5: The Big Burn does not quite have the sheer number of "wow" moments that I've seen elsewhere in Peter Tomasi's work, though the climactic blue-and-red colored fight between Two-Face and Gordon, and then Two-Face's nail-biting game of Russian roulette, certainly ended the book on a high note. Tomasi leaves the next writer to use Two-Face in a quandary, having to write their way out of both Two-Face's apparent suicide and also that he knows Batman's identity. Like the Riddler knowing the secret or Lex Luthor knowing Superman's, this is an interesting development in theory but I can't imagine future writers or DC management letting it stick (though Two-Face, with his personal connection to Batman/Bruce, is probably the least likely to be altered by this knowledge).

Tomasi himself is off the Bat-books after Convergence, though Patrick Gleason will be writing the Damian title and could, perhaps, use Two-Face next himself. One way or another, wherever Two-Face appears next, that creative team will have big shoes to fill.

[Includes original and variant covers; Peter Tomasi script for Batman and Robin #28]
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  1. I didn't enjoy this story at all. Dead ends and ruins Two-Face's classic origin from Long Halloween and etc. Killing Joke is sacred in New 52 continuity and Long Halloween isn't?

    Very disappointing story from Tomasi that makes one feel good about his exit from the Batbooks.

    1. I appreciate your comment. I was dismayed at first about the deviation from Two-Face's classic origin, but ultimately I felt Tomasi's take had some additive value. I think you raise a good point about Killing Joke remaining in canon while Long Halloween doesn't, though Killing Joke precedes Long Halloween by about ten years (if that matters) and while Killing Joke was largely in-continuity post-Crisis, Long Halloween really wasn't until right up close to Flashpoint. And arguably Long Halloween was itself a revision of Two-Face's origin (which is to say, revision is ongoing and somewhat inevitable). But I definitely get where you're coming from.

    2. I enjoyed this story, but I wish Tomasi could have found a way to tell it without changing Two-Face's origin yet again. Then again, this is what fans of Andrew Helfer's Batman Annual #14 must have felt when The Long Halloween wrote it out of continuity.

      About Carrie Kelley, issue #25 was originally solicited as "Batman and Carrie Kelley #25", but instead the series kept the "Batman and Two-Face" title until this arc ended. Tomasi must have changed his original plans, hopefully not due to editorial interference.

    3. >> Then again, this is what fans of Andrew Helfer's Batman Annual #14 must have felt when The Long Halloween wrote it out of continuity.

      True that. Remains for me the definitive Two-Face story.

  2. I say Long Halloween to avoid outright referencing Detective Comics #66 from the Golden Age. But the broad strokes of Harvey's origin are classic and Long Halloween (which I think was first referenced in Hush in the comics) is classic and doesn't totally violate Batman Ann #14.

    Courtroom, Maroni, acid....and Tomasi didn't do that. And I find that a shame for such an unbroken doesn't need fixing character like Two-Face. There's change and there is added minor things and then there is what Tomasi did here.

  3. Maybe they can reach a point in another 75 years where they settle on origin stories and stop changing them.

  4. The Annual was probably the best part. The Two-Face story was kind of take-it-or-leave-it, but the Robin story had a lot of heart to it. And it's always fun to see a modern story with Dick as Robin. It makes for more light-hearted flashbacks.

  5. I didn't like this that much. It felt strange compared with things that came before and what's to come. The only part I genuinely liked was the ending where it's a flashback to Dick's first outing as Robin and bonding with Damian.That was touching.