Review: Batman and Robin Eternal Vol. 1 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, March 27, 2017

Batman and Robin Eternal Vol. 1 clearly takes place before the events of Robin War, though I'm glad I read Robin War first. The two books involve many of the same characters and there's similarity at least in the character pairings, but Eternal's scope is much larger and its mystery deeper, and it feels in grandeur like Robin War's follow-up even though it's really the predecessor. Moreover Eternal is clearly the forerunner to James Tynion's Rebirth Detective Comics, given the large role of Red Robin Tim Drake and Spoiler Stephanie Brown, among a variety of the other young members of the Bat-family.

In much the same way Rebirth and the new Detective Comics seem to be mining the 1990s and 2000s Bat-universe, so too does Eternal cover some wonderfully nostalgic territory; there's a particular hero/villain match-up here I never thought I'd see again. At the same time Eternal offers a touch of the modern pop irreverence of Batgirl of Burnside (this being squarely in the DC You, of course) and also the Grayson-inspired penchant for not taking itself too seriously; a character joking about "three beefy Robin boys" isn't something we would've seen back in Contagion.

In all, the first volume of Batman and Robin Eternal is great comics fun. I don't really believe that Batman's guilty of the crime this book suggests he might be, but nonetheless the mystery has me absolutely hooked.

[Review contains spoilers]

Here at the end of the New 52, it seems fitting to me, planned or not, that some of what's been left hanging in the New 52 be wrapped up. One of these is that we have Dick Grayson, aged rather impossibly in New 52's "untold" five years, who wore a different costume than the one we're familiar with as Robin and whose adventures as Robin are mostly unremarked upon. Another is that Red Robin Tim Drake isn't even really Tim "Drake," but rather that he created an entirely new identity for himself to protect himself and his absent parents.

Eternal takes on both of these, and with aplomb; the New 52 Robin Dick Grayson is impressively mature, especially when he opines to Batman that he's his partner and not his son or employee (as scripted by Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly). By the end of the book unfortunately Tim Drake comes off snotty, as he's been wont to be in the New 52, but Tynion's early writing of him is solid (and Tynion's really who matters here), and Tony Daniel even makes the over-busy Red Robin suit look good. Moreover the story actually brings Tim's parents Jack and Janet Drake on scene, taking the first steps toward clarifying what hasn't been clear before.

If the fact that Jack and Janet Drake are actually on the page here (last seen alive in 2004 and 1990 respectively) gets your blood pumping (or if you find the fact that Dick introduces himself as "Lyle Dixon" funny), then Batman and Robin Eternal is the book for you. And that's not even mentioning, alongside Spoiler, the New 52 debuts of Cassandra "former Batgirl" Cain and Jean-Paul "Azrael" Valley, and that late issue by Lanzing and Kelly even has Azrael facing off against Bane, as if it's "Knightfall" all over again. I'm one of those who thought the Bat-family had grown too bloated and didn't mind so much the New 52's contraction (though in regards to Bat-sidekicks, not that much contraction anyway), but it is certainly gigantic fun to see Azrael waving that flaming sword around and Cassandra pantomiming her intentions. In both cases, Tynion and company have done well preserving the larger architecture -- David Cain and the Order of St. Dumas, respectively -- while still modifying both characters' origins to fit the New 52's revisionism.

The story strongly implies that Batman might have purchased one of the villainous Mother's "designer humans" and made him or her a sidekick; we know it's not Dick and it's hinted heavily that it's Tim, which makes me think maybe it's Jason. But more likely is that Batman didn't do this at all and he's simply leading Mother on in order to learn more about her schemes, and I kind of wish the characters would go there first instead of what seem like some melodramatic angst in their certainty that Batman's done wrong. Tim's irrational anger at Dick also feels off, one because I'm not used to these two being mad at one another and two because Tim has just one more volume in which to forgive Dick before Robin War (and then get mad at him again). Rather, Batman's own concern that he's "using" his Robins to his own ends is guilt enough, and thematically that itself is one of the most interesting parts of the story.

Though Robin War is a Gotham-set story about vigilante laws and the Court of Owls and this is a book about the Robins foiling a child-trafficking syndicate, there's stark similarity at least in Dick Grayson alone in one storyline while Red Robin and Red Hood team up in another. Eternal must take place before Robin War because, among a variety of reasons, Dick is meeting We Are Robin's Duke Thomas for the first time here whereas he gets to know him later in Robin War. At the same time it's wholly illogical that all of Robin War could go down without anyone saying, "Remember last week when we fought Mother?" but of course we understand these are two books written independently and by some (but not all) different people, and it's perhaps a credit to the latter crossover that one needn't have read this whole miniseries to understand that one.

One danger of a weekly series is that invariably the art gets rushed and the quality dips, especially the longer the story goes on. Eternal has a number of bright spots, however, the aforementioned Tony Daniel for one, and also Paul Pelletier making Dick Grayson's anachronistic Robin costume palatable (as Pelletier also did in Titans Hunt). Scot Eaton has some trouble drawing Tim as young as he should be, but Alvaro Martinez shows great class and circumspection drawing Cassandra Cain in a pitched battle wearing a dress, without any sexualized poses that wouldn't be true to the character herself.

Batman and Robin Eternal Vol. 1 is a guilty pleasure. I'm not sure it's the best thing for the goal of moving the DC Universe forward to be bringing back Spoiler, Cassandra Cain, and Azrael all in one lump sum, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel like going home again. This is what I understand James Tynion's Rebirth Detective Comics to be about too, and let's not kid ourselves -- I'm in.

[Includes original covers and one variant cover]
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17 comments:

  1. Cool, I've been meaning to read this, but I wanted to get my hands on all of the volumes before I start reading it.

    Since you're coming to a close on New 52 are you going to make an article on what worked or not?

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    1. No plans for that, at least, though now you've got me thinking about it. I'm enjoying the microcosm that is DC You and I've already made some forays into Rebirth, so looking back isn't wholly where my head's at.

      And I don't know the usefulness of what I have to say necessarily; I think I take a more sanguine view of the New 52 than most. It was a relaunch, there've been relaunches before, there'll be relaunches again, I didn't really think it was all that permanent at the time, and it turns out it wasn't. I never quite felt I had a right to the hand-wringing or teeth-gnashing that we lost the JSA or Superman was rebooted, for instance, because that's all just as true of the post-Crisis continuity after Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the world didn't end and some books were good and some weren't, and we all got used to that continuity but it too got rebooted by the New 52.

      The other day someone said the New 52 was a failure, and I challenged the validity of that given Snyder's Batman, Azzarello's Wonder Woman, Batgirl of Burnside, Grayson, Omega Men, etc., etc., and they said, "Well, if it wasn't a failure then it wouldn't have ended." I'm not sure what to do with that thinking, which ignores the nuance of individual books and also the inherent cyclical nature and one-upmanship of the comics industry in favor of defining an entire era solely by the fact that it ended.

      Maybe, then, I do have something to say, but I think it would boil down to this book was good and that one wasn't, which isn't much different than any particular Wednesday. Clearly DC didn't do enough to establish their internal continuity before the New 52 launch, and then additionally something obviously went wrong in the implosion of the Daemonite storyline and how Trinity War had to be entirely rejiggered (taking with it the much ballyhooed Pandora cameos). But all of that, it seems, are lessons learned and now being done right in Rebirth, so seemingly all's well that ends well.

      I've said before that I think DC would actually do well with an un-married Superman and jettisoning the sidekicks for a while. But even the earliest days of the New 52 couldn't fully do the latter, and given that Rebirth turns on a married Superman with a child and the return of married father Wally West as the epitome of sidekicks (what a strange world we live in), then clearly I'm on the wrong side of history. (I think these are short-term gains doing long-term damage, but on the up-side at least they didn't un-do Cyborg being a charter member of the Justice League.) But again, the teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing isn't for me; give me a good Superman story and I'm happy, married or unmarried and with family or not.

      So I don't know. I have a sense that if I tried to evaluate the New 52 as a thing, I'd end up deconstructing whether the New 52 actually was a thing, and I'm not sure that's what the reader wants necessarily. Maybe? Anyway, I appreciate that you asked.

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    2. "Well, if it wasn't a failure then it wouldn't have ended."

      Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.

      But in all seriousness, I appreciate that you describe those attitudes as "hand-wringing" and "teeth-gnashing" because really - how many of us are new enough to comics that we think any of this is permanent -- that we think we are *entitled* to a sense of permanence? How many people really believed Jane Foster would forever be the wielder of Mjolnir? How many people think Tony Stark is permanently ceding the mantle (and the flagship title) to Riri Williams? How many people thought Superman's 2011 continuity-divorce from Lois would stick? (Though, kudos to Peter & MJ for not reuniting yet!) The only thing permanent in superhero comics is "to be continued." Readers who are that jaded about "nothing matters" or "But the canon!" are almost certainly upset about something else in their lives and are taking it out on the reading material. As Grant Morrison says, we have a real world and it behaves like it does - why would you want a fictional world to behave like that, too? As long as the stories are good, I am increasingly disinterested in whether they "matter." Is "Red Son" a meaningless story because it didn't really happen? Is Jean Grey's death meaningless because of all the times she's come back? Are the countless Batman movies meaningless because they reboot every ten years?

      As for Pandora, I can't help feeling that her story isn't done. Her appearance in the "DC Universe Rebirth" special felt on the one hand like clearing her off the table to make way for another cosmic power pulling the strings, but at the same time it suggests that Pandora and maybe-Manhattan go back quite a ways.

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    3. "I think these are short-term gains doing long-term damage"

      I haven't read the New 52 Super books yet, but this is how I feel about the Rebirth Birds of Prey. Batgirl of Burnside and Black Canary were doing cool things with the Bat-verse's female characters, and were clearly building them into a team-- and then Rebirth comes along and makes it Barbara, Dinah, and Helena again, even though this is a completely different Helena, just because that's how it was in the 2000s. This isn't the right lesson to learn from the failed parts of The New 52. (The new Birds of Prey wasn't bad because it wasn't the classic Simone team; it was bad because it was badly written and worsely drawn.)

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    4. @Zach - I agree the only permanent thing is "to be continued." When we talk about Jane Foster as Thor or Riri Williams as Iron Man, surely we must all understand (if we didn't when Superman died) that nothing is ever permanent -- and Thor, Iron Man, and the Death of Superman all specifically had endgames! Captain America is no more an agent of Hydra than he was dead nor was Jim Gordon always going to be Batman in a robot suit.

      Those are intentionally impermanent story changes, however, whereas the flip side of that is story changes that are intended to be permanent but couldn't possibly be. In retrospect, Kyle Rayner was never going to be the one and only Green Lantern forever, nor Connor Hawke Green Arrow (nor Stephanie Brown Batgirl, alas). And about the time Hal came back as Green Lantern was probably when the dominoes starting falling for Barry Allen to return as Flash, when the great cosmic pinball machine said "Tilt!" because everything had swung a little too far from center.

      But I wouldn't put the cessation of Clark's marriage to Lois in there. Don't get me wrong, "Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite" is one of my favorite Superman stories; engaged Lois and Clark is some good stuff. But marry Clark and Lois and there's an entire avenue of "Superman crash lands on alien planet and falls in love with alien princess" stories that you can't write, and that's problematic; equally there's a lot of "Superman spends a lot of time with Wonder Woman and Lois Lane gets irrationally jealous" that you can write, and that's super-problematic. The marriage is great when written well, terrible when written terribly, and ultimately stifles the Superman character's ability to grow in a fictional universe (nothing against real, nonfictional marriage).

      The problem for me, and maybe you and I differ on this point, is that things like Superman being married to Lois and Wally West being this everybody's friend Titans guy have become a permanent part of the zeitgeist when I don't think they were intended to; these are impermanent changes become permanent. And clearing all of that out is something I thought the New 52 did positively, and bringing it back in Rebirth I think is unwise, except for the fact that the stories are being written well. The New 52 was necessary because Superman had grown stagnant, let's remember; I hope Rebirth can hold that off but ten years down the road I'm not so sure.

      Good on Johns if he brings Pandora back (Ray Fawkes actually did some nice things with that character) but I'm very, very skeptical that he will.

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    5. @Steve - Agreed. Wow, I really liked Birds of Prey Vol. 1: Trouble in Mind by Duane Swierczynski, with art by Jesus Saiz and Javier Pina. Black Canary, Katana, Poison Ivy, and newcomer Starling on the team, in this paranoid mind control story? Perfection. I don't know what happened there but it sure slipped away from them.

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    6. Yeah, I really dug volume 1 of BOP too. But that book went downhill fast and never recovered.

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    7. @Steve - the first few trades of BOP were among the best of the New 52, and I cannot believe DC dropped the ball as hard as it did on Starling, easily the best new character (barring the Court of Owls) to come out of the N52 experiment.

      @CE - Maybe this is not the place for this discussion, but a super-wedding always felt like the endgame for me. I started reading comics in the early 90s, after they had already been engaged (portrait of the reader as a young man: "Reign of the Supermen" was among my first floppies, "Death" my second trade - Byrne's "Man of Steel" my first...). I never got into the "Superman loves a princess" stories you mention, though I liked the quaintness of Lori Lemaris and the first love with Lana, which was never better than in Loeb/Sale's "Superman for All Seasons."

      But I'm intrigued by the distinction you make when you say "except for the fact that the stories are being written well." You're right on target - I hated the *idea* of Damian Wayne, but the execution cemented him as an all-time favorite; ditto for Jon Kent, who's been one of the more interesting characters in Rebirth. I don't want to spoil any of "Superman Reborn" but they get into some of these questions by contrasting the differences between N52 Superman and Rebirth Superman. Very eager to read your review when that comes around!

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    8. I don't think the New 52 was a failure at all. It brought a wide range of excellent titles, and really revitalized the comic industry temporarily. DC's mistakes in later years (Convergence, sticking with poor creative teams on flagship titles, etc) resulting in its decline that necessitated Rebirth. In a few years, sales will drop again, and DC will find a new initiative to bring back readers. It's a cyclical process.

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    9. @Zach - I look forward to talking about "Superman Reborn" when the time comes. By "Superman loves a princess" story, I basically mean any romantic entanglement, albeit Maxima or Cat Grant or what have you; the permanence of marrying off a decades-old fictional character is that it closes off an avenue of stories to tell, and moreover tempts writers to tell reductive stories of "faux romance" that never end well for anyone.

      But what I am finding in my limited knowledge of Rebirth so far is that it seems DC is taking the lessons of New 52 to heart. Moreover, my early sense is that DC's got another Infinite Crisis-sized hit on their hands with Rebirth, and that when all is said and done Dan DiDio and company will have finally pulled off the Infinite-Crisis-plus cohesive all-universe storytelling project that they've been trying to do unsuccessfully since Infinite Crisis (with Countdown to Final Crisis, with New 52, etc.). Ultimately nothing works as well as good story.

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  2. How essential are this and the previous Eternal series to Snyder's Batman run? I picked up the first six trades and I'm looking forward to read more.

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    1. Inessential from a continuity standpoint. I'd definitely read at least this series before Tynion's Detective run, but I don't think anything that happens herein affects the stories Snyder has told and is telling. That's not to say they're boring or anything. Just not a prerequisite

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    2. I've read all the Snyder books and I had no indication reading them that Batman and Robin Eternal ever took place, so definitely the latter Eternal series could be skipped. That said, in my review of Batman and Robin Eternal Vol. 2 I'll mention that there's something there that recasts almost the entirety of Snyder's run; again, you'd never know it to read Snyder's books themselves, but as a footnote, Batman and Robin Eternal takes a dozen scenes from Snyder's Batman and turns them on their head.

      Now, on the other hand, characters and locations from Batman Eternal (the first series, sans "and Robin") do appear in Snyder's Batman run -- without introduction, frankly -- and there's even a one-issue "flash-forward" to Eternal within Snyder's run. Obviously fifty-two issues of Batman Eternal is a whole lot to ask a person to add into Snyder's run if they weren't intending to, and at no point does someone say "Hey, remember when we fought [this Eternal villain?" but definitely the effects of Batman Eternal are noticeable in Snyder's run, whereas the effects of Batman and Robin Eternal are not.

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    3. Thanks for the reply! Would you say that it'd be best to read the first Eternal series before Endgame? Zero Year is a long-year flashback, and something has to happen between Endgame and Death of the Family for the Joker's return to have some impact, I think.

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    4. I would say it's imperative to read Eternal before Endgame. Your results may vary on where to read Eternal vis a vis Batman Vol. 6: Graveyard Shift (and also Detective Comics Vol. 4: The Wrath); I have it as Batman Vol. 6, Detective Vol. 4, Batman Eternal Vol. 1 on the DC TPB Timeline, but with lots of notes about how those books effect one another. But when you start Batman Vol. 7: Endgame, there is a very, very clear time/circumstances jump from the end of Batman Vol. 3: Death of the Family, which is made up of the events in Batman Vol. 6 and Batman Eternal Vols. 1-3.

      Put another way, your results may vary as to when you read Eternal around Batman Vol. 6, but I would definitely, definitely read Eternal before Batman Vol. 7: Endgame. (And read Arkham Manor after Batman Vol. 7: Endgame.)

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    5. Thanks, that helps a lot! I had forgotten about Arkham Manor. Another one to the to-buy list!

      Last question(s) and I'll stop bugging you:

      What about Batman and Robin Eternal? Is it a sequel to the first Eternal series? I noticed that Tynion IV is listed before Snyder, which makes me think that Snyder was less involved in this second weekly series.

      And, are all of Snyder's Batman books available in tpb? I'm waiting for his All-Star series and the just-announced Dark Nights: Metal event to wrap, and see how connected they are between themselves and the New 52 run.

      Keep up the great work. This blog is amazing!

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    6. Talking comics (and comics reading orders)? Never a bother!

      Batman and Robin Eternal is really not a sequel to Batman Eternal. It's weekly and yes it does have some of the same Bat-family characters, but not any of the same villains and the conflicts are not related; one really doesn't have to have read Batman Eternal to understand B&R Eternal. It is much more a prequel to Tynion's Detective Comics than a sequel to the first weekly; Batman and Robin Eternal does have implications for Snyder's Batman run, but they're behind-the-scenes implications on B&R Eternal's end, not overt implications like Batman Eternal and Snyder's Batman.

      The final book of Snyder's run, Batman Vol. 10: Epilogue, comes out in paperback later this month (HC already released). All the rest are available in hardcover and paperback.

      Thanks!

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