Review: Batman vs. Robin hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

May 29, 2024


Batman vs. Robin

I mistakenly, and not without good reason, thought Mark Waid’s Batman vs. Robin was a lead-in to the subsequent Lazarus Planet. Turns out that’s not entirely true; Batman vs. Robin starts before Lazarus Planet, but then the entirety of that event takes place between the latter issues of Batman vs. Robin. The book makes sure to tell you when to switch over, but if you thought like I did that you were supposed to read one in its entirety before starting the other, that’s incorrect.

Given among other things this sharp break toward the end, Batman vs. Robin is an unusual book. Comics thrive on being episodic, but Batman vs. Robin feels specifically at times that it’s more showcase than story. This is particularly true with the early issues, perhaps to mark time for linking up with Lazarus Planet. Waid pulls off a surprisingly strong finale, but when the middle of the book flounders and after Lazarus Planet interrupts, the final issue almost feels like part of a different miniseries entirely.

[Review contains spoilers]

Among unexpected aspects of Batman vs. Robin are a possessed Tim Hunter hanging around the Batcave and the truly creepy image of Zatanna hanging by a noose with a broken neck, all in the first issue. There’s a sense of this being Waid’s Batman-magic-horror tale, which continues into a second issue that sees Batman entering the House of Secrets and encountering 1970s DC horror stalwarts Abel, Cain, and Cynthia of Witching Hour fame. The spookiness stops there, however — fights with the book’s villainous demons being more sci-fi than horrific — such that in final total the appearance of these characters seems fun but gratuitous.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

As it turns out, there is really no “versus” in the book, a chance to see the bright minds of Batman and Robin Damian Wayne facing off; rather, Batman fights a Robin possessed by World’s Finest Vol. 1’s demon Nezha and Robin fights a Batman possessed by the same. Indeed a lot of the book is “virtual” — Batman also battles a possessed Bat-family and teams with an Alfred Pennyworth simulcrum.1 Like the appearance of the horror characters, a lot happens here, but little of it is built to have lasting implication.

For all of Waid’s past experience at DC, this seems the first time he’s written a Bat-family book that’s positioned, at least, to address some major plots from the past few years. That shows in some stilted dialogue — Alfred referring to Batman simply as “Master” and Batman calling Alfred “old friend” in a dated way (just short of “chum”) and Batman’s use of “incommunicado.” As the book transitions from horror to more standard superheroics, Batman fights Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, Red Hood, and Nightwing, and Waid falls back on outdated tropes — Stephanie as annoying and incompetent, Jason as a loose cannon, and so on. It’s very surface-level, suggesting again not so much anything meant to affect Batman’s relationship with his family so much as just to pad out the third chapter.

(Even Waid’s esoterica feels slightly out of step. Nightwing is armed by Nehza with Azrael’s Sword of Sin, which belonged not to Azrael Jean Paul but rather Azrael Michael Lane, a character that it would be hard to reasonably place in modern continuity.)

All of that said, given the dubious wisdom of an Alfred Pennyworth resurrection fake-out, I was impressed Waid managed to eke something touching out of it. Batman’s absence is the dramatic heart of Alfred’s death in City of Bane, but that fact also makes the death all the more unsatisfactory. In this book, even if it all comes together strangely, I did like the firm talking to that Waid has Alfred give Bruce before Alfred's ghost dissipates. It capped Alfred’s death off well enough, though I do hope (after Joker War and etc.) that’s the end of bandying the poor man’s corpse around.

In much of my reading of Batman vs. Robin, through to stopping after the fourth chapter and moving over to Lazarus Planet, I felt we were missing something trademark Waid-esque. That is, I have seen a number of times on Flash et al. Waid pull off nail-biting sequences even despite our knowing the heroes would prevail in the end, and Batman vs. Robin lacked for that.

I thrilled then to find the last chapter went a long way toward redeeming the book as a whole, as Damian worries over his possessed father and the increasing chance Batman won’t live long enough to be saved. Damian tries to sacrifice his own “life force” for his father, and when that’s not enough, he reaches out to all of Gotham to share a fraction of their life forces for Batman. It’s a humanist, “we’re all in this together” kind of ending of the sort we’ve seen from Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder, and brings some grandiosity to the finale right where it counts.

Mark Waid’s Lazarus Planet on its own is a structurally interesting event, with two bookends and then anthologies largely unrelated to the main story. That construction is all the more unusual given that Lazarus Planet is a side story of Batman vs. Robin; Lazarus gets official “Dawn of DC” event status, but Batman vs. Robin really has the greater claim. I’d very much like to think some of this book’s early awkwardness is due to all the moving pieces, and that hopefully by the time we get to Absolute Power that’s all worked out.

[Includes original and variant covers]

  1. There’s some precedent here, as Waid came to fame with a similar faux Barry Allen!  ↩︎

Rating 2.25

Comments ( 2 )

  1. AnonymousMay 30, 2024

    I'm trying to find the interview, but IIRC, Waid's said the Jason Todd sequence was his venting longtime frustrations with Under the Hood and how Jason's resurrection and reactions was (mis)handled. These were criticisms he never got to tackle at the time because that was around the point relations between Waid and DC imploded (and led to his 10+ year estrangement until after COVID and the collapse of the old managerial guard).

    So, yeah, it was honestly boring for me too. If this has been 10 or even 15 years ago, it might've worked -- but Waid was too late to the game and it's retreading roads both Bruce and Jason have already be

    The Dick Grayson sequence, on the other hand, was nice, because it touched on something I remember Jeph Loeb observed way back in Hush -- of how Dick, because of his upbringing, in many ways is a performer at his core and was always meant to be on the center stage/ring.

    So the way Waid revisited and re-framed it -- that deep down, there may be a part of Dick, however, unconsciously, resents Bruce for stealing that from a grieving young boy -- I never would've thought of it like that. But once Waid suggested it, it makes sense and was a really interesting character beat for Dick.

    Anyway all in all, I have mixed feelings about this mini-series too. I think Waid did good work merging threads from Joshua Williamson's Robin and his own first arc on World's Finest (and tying in Gene Yang's Monkey Prince). And of course, this gave us the springboard for Williamson's current Batman and Robin run.

    But it's not Waid's strongest work since coming back to DC.

    1. All of that, well said. Of course, I'm a sucker for disparate threads from various comics coming together in an event. I think the Monkey Prince demons in Lazarus Planet come off a bit wooden, but Waid does a great job with Marcus himself.


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