Review: Batman and Robin Eternal Vol. 2 trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

There's a secret at the center of Batman and Robin Eternal Vol. 2 that reaches back to affect Scott Snyder's entire Batman run from the beginning all the way to the very end. Whether this was always Snyder's intention isn't clear: either Snyder showed so much foresight as to sow the seeds of a character's secret origin nearly five years back and then sat on it until now, or else Snyder was willing to entirely alter one of his signature characters solely for the purpose of this story. It's astounding either way, and insofar as Batman and Robin Eternal is somewhat removed from Bat-continuity proper (at least until Rebirth), equally it proves itself in the end to be just as integral to Snyder's Bat-saga as the main books themselves.

Whereas Eternal Vol. 2 is fairly shocking in the middle, in comparison it does pale slightly in comparison to the first volume, if only because the first volume was about reintroducing some classic characters and setting up the mystery, and the second volume offers mostly denouement. As sometimes happens with weekly series, the second volume begins to fill its pages with action sequences, and this book gets long when the first volume seemed more brisk. Also as often befalls the end of a series, the art here overall isn't as strong as in the first volume either.

That said, the finale of Batman and Robin Eternal makes me eager for James Tynion's Rebirth Detective Comics, by design. Assuredly if co-writer Tynion has a hand in some of the Bat-psychology dished out in this book, then I'm optimistic for how he'll write Batman in that title. This volume of Batman and Robin Eternal simultaneously upholds and knocks down some of the age-old tropes surrounding Bruce Wayne and his partners, and surely in pop debates about this kind of thing, Batman and Robin Eternal has earned itself a place going forward.

[Review contains spoilers]

I took a cursory look back at the Snyder-penned first appearances of Harper Row, and I didn't see anything in those scenes (specifically Batman #7 and Batman #12 from Court of Owls and City of Owls) that would negate the idea that Batman already knew Harper when they "first" met. Again, Snyder is either brilliant or crazy. Arguably Eternal villain Mother's role in "creating" Harper doesn't really change the character all that much, as the point is that she made her own choices sans Batman from the moment Cassandra Cain killed Harper's mother on Mother's orders, and so it's not as though Harper has had secret powers all this time. At the same time, what a feat for Snyder to essentially go back and give all the Harper/Batman scenes subtext right at the point where Snyder's initial Batman run is very nearly ended.

The morality of Batman indoctrinating children into his life of violence has been subject of some modern debate, and Eternal offers that even Batman himself has some doubts about it. I don't think anyone reading Eternal actually thought Batman had murdered a child's parents for Mother, but we come to find that in his hubris, trying to trick Mother, Harper's mother was killed anyway. Controversially, in the wake of his own doubts about Robin Dick Grayson's apprenticeship, Batman chooses to mostly abandon Harper rather than train her.

On one hand, Eternal reinforces the darker implications of Batman taking on Robins through demonstrating that even Batman himself has misgivings. On the other hand, in a particularly poignant scene (and perhaps an exercise in some slightly revisionist history), Batman attests to Damian that he's not training Robins to make soldiers, but rather to look out for them until they can become fully-realized heroes on their own. There's a suggestion here that Dick, Red Hood Jason Todd, Red Robin Tim Drake, Damian, and Harper are all "naturally" Robins with or without Batman (as Harper's trajectory upholds), only happening to benefit from Batman's training.

Indeed, there's a vein in this book that rejects in some respects the 1990s/2000s conception of the Bat-family, where here Dick and the rest recognize Batman's flaws but love him anyway, acting much more independently of him and unfazed by suggestions that he's made mistakes. (Among a number of good scenes, this is especially well done when Spoiler Stephanie Brown laughs off Scarecrow's attempts to play on her insecurities, a strength previous-continuity Spoilers might not have possessed.)

In my review of Batman and Robin Eternal Vol. 1 I remarked on a certain welcome glibness, especially in Stephanie and Harper's scenes, that I think is reflective of the effect of the Burnside Batgirl and Grayson titles on the Bat-universe, a hip irreverence that we see carry over to Rebirth. Though Eternal curiously uses Spoiler very little (though well when it does), we get the same sort of sentiment when Spoiler, Harper, Harper's brother Cullen, and Cassandra have "family time" in the book's conclusion. Pointedly, that scene excludes "the Robins," who have their own "family" moment next; it's an indication of the new "big tent" Bat-family (if not the Rebirth DC Universe as a whole) that embraces rather than rejects tertiary characters outside the best known (and welcomes, implicitly, those characters' fandom, who might've felt excluded by the New 52).

It's an odd, and I don't think wholly comfortable, construction that Harper Row, Cassandra Cain, and Azrael Jean Paul Valley's origins are now tied -- Cassandra and Azrael especially, having previously emerged in such disparate stories (though do I remember the two getting along rather well?). Batman and Robin Eternal is of itself a weird story, a lump-sum shoehorning of the last continuity's Bat-family on to this one, which would be rife for failure were it not so nostalgic to see these characters and did Scott Snyder and James Tynion not handle it so well (and have continued to do so into Rebirth).

For all the work done here on Harper Row, I'm surprised Batman and Robin Eternal Vol. 2 writes her out (at least temporarily) -- though at this point, revealing Harper to essentially to be "the ultimate Robin" seems to my mind to limit rather than enhance her storytelling potential. Irrespective, fans of all of these characters will be pleased, and I don't imagine many will want to skip this on the way to Tynion's Rebirth Detective Comics

[Includes original covers]
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7 comments:

  1. All in all, I thought this started and ended well. I do wish we got more Batfamily banter, as I think the group of the Robins + the girls in the Batcave really split up too quickly. My main problem (other than the fill-in art) is that when Tynion wants to get a point across, he gets the biggest hammer he can find. He doesn't know subtlety, and it often ends up being unintentionally campy. For example, the notion that Harper would make the perfect sidekick because she had good grades in school was a bit much. And it's the reason why I'm not as hot on Tynion's Detective Comics as much as other people. I enjoyed the issues written by Seeley, Valentine, and Orlando more.

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    1. As I suggested in my closing, I was a little wary of this idea that relatively-brand-new character Harper Row is apparently the best ever Robin ever, though I wasn't sure if that was coming from Tynion or from Snyder. I actually like the Harper character quite a bit; my feeling was that making her just so good at everything she ever does ever rather limits what stories can now be told with her.

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  2. So I'm getting the sense that this should be mandatory reading when it comes to the Batman books, specifically Snyder's run.

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    1. Not really. Every important story beat is resolved and ended.

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    2. I agree -- not so much. Batman Eternal (the first one) feels to me pretty integral to Snyder's run because it specifically affects Snyder's story. But one can read all ten of Snyder's volumes and never know Batman and Robin Eternal happened. What changes are made are all contained within Batman and Robin Eternal, though you may find you want to read this before Tynion's Detective Comics.

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  3. Flipping back to volume 1, I noticed two things that didn't make sense. At one point Tim has a little holographic phone that pops up and he answers "Hello Mother"? What was that about? Also how did Orphan get his arm back Cassandra cut it off. Were these points addressed and did I miss them or were they just dropped?

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    1. I wondered about the first part -- I initially thought this meant Tim was Mother's "ultimate Robin," but in the end I think we understood that Mother had technology to control just about anyone (or anyone young), so that's what that was. I don't think Orphan (the senior) did get his arm back; I thought it was a prosthetic or etc.

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