Dick Grayson, formerly Nightwing, formerly Robin, has had a strong fan following for years, especially since he grew up and stepped out of the red-and-green costume (and his mentor’s shadow) a quarter-century ago. Now the character has done what in one sense always seemed inevitable and yet in another seemed unlikely ever to see print… he’s become Batman. And it’s exciting.
Three years ago DC’s executive editor Dan DiDio wanted to kill off Dick Grayson as a superfluous character; he backed down in the face of an overwhelming reaction from both creators and fans, and now Dick is at the very center of the Bat-universe.
I’ve written before with (ahem) less than wholehearted approval of Grant Morrison’s writing on Batman and, for that matter, on Final Crisis… but as erratic as the path may have been getting to this point, I have to give DC Comics credit for taking a fairly bold move. If the overall execution hasn’t been as dramatically compelling as Ed Brubaker’s death of Captain America over at Marvel a couple of years back, still… shuffling Bruce Wayne offstage and having his onetime sidekick take over the cape and cowl is certainly a departure from formula, and it creates the potential for some really fresh perspectives on familiar characters.
Still, as the first “relaunched” Bat-books saw print this past week, I couldn’t help approaching them with some trepidation.
For one thing, there are the writers involved. The new title Batman & Robin is scribed by Morrison, and his recent writing has been characterized by a greater concern with elaborate (read “disjointed”) story structure than with motivation, by more emphasis on symbolic impact than on emotional affect.
Moreover, one of my biggest complaints about his previous run was the introduction of Batman’s long-lost preadolescent son Damian (born without Bruce’s knowledge to Talia, daughter of his old nemesis Ra’s al Ghul), a character seemingly designed from the outset to be not merely obnoxiously grating but downright irredeemable. He’s not merely a brat who insults everyone around him; he’s a killer who willfully murders criminals, and even forced an ambulance off a bridge once while driving recklessly (and underage).
Yet Damian is now cast as the new Robin (the fifth to bear the name) to Dick’s Batman. If one of the long-term goals here is a redemption arc for the character, that’s going to be a real uphill battle.
Meanwhile, taking over the reigns of the ongoing Batman title is Judd Winick, whose writing has always been hit-or-miss… and his previous run on Batman (leading up to 2005’s Infinite Crisis, shortly before Morrison’s tenure) was definitely a miss. Among a slew of pointless and meandering storylines and off-note characterization, possibly his worst mistake was the resurrection of Jason Todd—the second and previously least-redeemable Robin, who famously died at the hands of the Joker back in 1988. Since his return the now-grown Jason has been (mis) handled by Winick and a wide range of other writers, portrayed with varying levels of misanthropy and anger management issues, but absolutely nothing to date has provided any dramatic justification for bringing him back.
(Mentioning Jason touches on another area of concern. He was the main foil in Battle for the Cowl, the recent mini-series that set the stage for this relaunch. And quite aside from the abovementioned problems with Bruce’s departure, BFTC—both written and drawn by Tony Daniel—was executed with all the elegance of chess pieces being moved around a board. It got Dick into a position to take on the costume and responsibilities of Batman, which is exactly the outcome everyone had expected, but it did none of the characters any favors along the way.)
Then there’s the fact that, y’know, it’s kind of been done before. Back in 1993-’94, Bruce was crippled (he got better) in the protracted Knightfall/Knightquest/Knight at the Opera (it was very protracted) storyline, and for a short time Dick donned the pointy cowl and protected Gotham in his place in a sub-arc called “Prodigal.” Dick’s tenure in the role was much shorter than what seems to be in store for him here, but still the parallels are fairly clear, so the writers’ challenge is to avoid having all this feel like a retread.
So I’m happy to say that despite all these concerns, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with the relaunched books so far. Morrison’s B&R seems to be taking a far more linear approach to storytelling, judging by the first issue, with more panache and wit than any part of his previous run (save perhaps the high-water-mark “Club of Heroes” story). Artist Frank Quitely has never been one of my favorites (his characters tend to appear either chunky or spindly, and his design sense is decidedly unusual), but he’s apparently a better creative match for Morrison’s sensibilities than Daniel was, his art serving the writing rather than clashing with it. The story moves with an organic feeling, vivid, dramatic, and suspenseful. I should also offer a word of praise for Alex Sinclair’s breathtaking color work.
There’s some inconsistency in tone, as the somewhat lighthearted all-ages dynamic Morrison sets up between Dick and Damian gives way to the introduction of a gruesomely creepy new villiain, Professor Pyg, who would seem more at home in a horror story. I would rather have seen the new Dynamic Duo’s first meeting with Commissioner Gordon at that point in the story. Still, perhaps a little of Morrison’s trademark weirdness is just what it’ll take to keep the book suspenseful. All told, it seems to be off to a good start.
I was even more pleasantly surprised with Winick’s debut issue, Batman #687. He seems consciously to have stepped up his writing to a more sophisticated level; it’s more attentive to detail, not as slapdash as most of his previous work. Rather than jumping into events in media res like Morrison, he offers a smoother transition from the events of BFTC, exploring the impact of Bruce’s loss on Gotham and its protectors with more emotional impact than that mini-series managed. The story is full of effective, genuinely moving character moments, better than I expected from him and certainly better than anything I expect from Morrison. In particular, he’s established a new and very insightful dynamic between Dick and Alfred, appreciably and appropriately different than the one that used to exist between Alfred and Bruce. I look forward with anticipation to similarly insightful handling of the new Batman’s relationship with Gordon.
Morrison’s work is anything but character-driven. He tends just to throw events at the reader, as if to say “make sense of it for yourself, because I’m not going to do it for you.” It can be exciting, but not always satisfying. (And it’s downright quixotic the way he references details from stories told decades ago, yet ignores what other current writers are doing in the stories going on all around him right now; hopefully that tendency will be reigned in for a while.) What Winick’s offering here, by contrast, is a methodically told, emotionally genuine, very character-driven story, and it’s thoroughly satisfying. Relying on familiarity with the characters’ history, it may not be as effective a jumping-on point for new readers… but I certainly don’t quality as one of those (who does, in comics these days?), so that’s not a complaint. (And best of all, there’s no sign of Jason Todd.)
The art by Ed Benes was strong, too, toning down his tendency to sensationalize and capturing the emotional tone well (except perhaps in the opening flashback). I have similarly high hopes for Mark Bagley’s future work on the title, after his strong handling of DC characters in the recent Trinity.
Of course, all this isn’t just a matter of creative changes; DC is treating it as a major marketing event. Before the recent interregnum there were four “Bat-family” titles; after some cancellations and reshuffling, there will now be seven. All are hitting the shelves this month under a “Batman: Reborn” banner. It might seem like a bit much… except that the creative teams on the other books look ready to live up to the publicity.
In particular, the stalwart Detective Comics title will now feature Greg Rucka, a master of urban noir and political suspense, finally getting a long-delayed chance to write his new Batwoman character. The art will be by J.H. Williams III, the incredibly diverse stylist who illustrated the abovementioned “Club of Heroes” story. Enough said: I’m sold.
The new title Streets of Gotham will be the new home of Paul Dini, who in recent years provided a slew of entertaining, self-contained, human-level stories in Detective while Morrison was painting his big expansive tapestry in Batman. Dini’s not so great at big sprawling plots (see Countdown), but this format seems perfect for him.
Dini will also write the new title Gotham City Sirens, featuring the distaff trio of Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy. It sounds like a weird combination of characters, yes, but from all available evidence it really works.
The first “secondary” title to hit the stands was actually Red Robin, this week, featuring Tim Drake, who until recently was the third Robin. The creative team here’s more of an unknown quantity (writer Chris Yost, artist Ramon Bachs), but the first issue is definitely on the right track. It deals realistically and convincingly with Tim’s reaction to being displaced by Damian, as well as his ongoing difficulty processing Bruce’s loss, and takes Tim out of the long-exhausted high school setting in favor of a globe-trotting new direction that looks intriguing. I’m not thrilled about the character name, but OTOH the new costume isn’t bad at all. (Not surprising, since it was originally an Alex Ross design way back in Kingdom Come.)
The real wild card will be the new Batgirl title. The creative team (Bryan Miller and Lee Garbett) is as unfamiliar as the one on Red Robin, and in this case even the title character remains a mystery. Rumors are still circulating that the book might heal Barbara Gordon’s paraplegia and put her back in the costume; I fervently hope that’s not so, since she’s become a far more interesting character as Oracle than she ever was when she worse spandex. Still, for the moment all bets are off.
Bruce Wayne as Batman is a classic character, in comics and beyond, and a longtime personal favorite. But while he’s missing and presumed dead, both to readers and to his fellow characters, the changed character dynamics his departure has introduced make Gotham City a far more interesting place than it has been in quite some time.
Of course, no one doubts that Bruce will eventually be back (as will Captain America, for that matter). Given the exigencies of monthly serial publishing, almost no one in comics stays dead permanently, and the major pop-culture icons never do. But he can use a rest… and given the way the new titles have kicked off so far, I’m happy to see this new status quo stick around for a good long while.Tags: Batman, Dan DiDio, DC Comics, Dick Grayson, Grant Morrison, Judd Winick, Robin, super-heroes, writers