Just shy of exactly eight years ago this month, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely introduced their landmark reinvention of one of the most significant pop culture artifacts in comics with the release of “New X-Men” #114 in July 2001. The artist and writer (who some might argue are the best of their respective specialties working in the industry today) have had other collaborations since then, including the instantly definitive “All Star Superman,” but nothing has come close to recapturing that sense of relentless ambition and upheaval until now, with the release of “Batman and Robin” #1.
It’s impossible for anyone that anxiously picked up that issue on a long ago Wednesday to not feel the same thrill here. Behind a similarly iconic and swagger-drenched cover, we are treated in the opening sequence to a double page spread of Batman and Robin in the cockpit of the all new Batmobile, in the light of the same red windshield that Cyclops and Wolverine sat behind in an all new X-Wing of their own eight years ago; practically in the same position. The resemblance could be completely coincidental, the product of two sensibilities that simple like the same things they’ve always liked, but it’s a fitting parallel, because the books end up doing very similar things.
Once again, there’s been some set up for this relaunch. “Battle For The Cowl” ended with Dick Grayson as Batman and Bruce Wayne’s biological son Damien taking the mantle of Robin. Far from just a cosmetic change in these icons (indeed, Quitely has made only the most minor adjustments to their costumes), Morrison has given them a new lair (stories below the towering skyscraper that appears to house Dick’s new penthouse Gotham apartment [all shown in a delightful cut out diagram]), a new Batmobile (it flies), new villains, and a fresh sense of unease that never seemed to plague Morrison’s unflappable Bruce Wayne.
Quitely is, as always, a masterful storyteller. There’s a moment, completely silent, in which Batman and Robin thwart the escape of a criminal who thinks he’s scott free that is almost literally breathtaking in its adeptness of narrative. His talent has always been in coordinating exacting and dimensional detail with an almost superhuman command of panel-to-panel transitioning, and this brief and charming scenario is the perfect example. He’s crafted a book that can (and will) be pored over again and again to catch new details, like the henchman who packs almost nothing but loose bullets in his getaway luggage. Quitely also adds a new item to his toolkit here, where at key moments he draws certain sound effects himself, integrating them fully into the three dimensional space of the panel (ably assisted by the color work of Alex Sinclair). It’s a fantastic display of the unique qualities and opportunities of the medium.
Just as “New X-Men” introduced a new, creepy, and diabolical adversary, “Batman and Robin” #1’s Circus of Strange is a genuinely frightening collection of antagonists. The introduction of their leader, Pyg, and his doll-faced minions at the close of the issue is about as vicious and unsettling a sequence as I’ve ever seen in a Batman book. His Rogue’s Gallery, even Joker most of the time, has always played at menace but usually just traded on diamond heists and broken windows. Pyg’s revenge on a henchman trying to escape with his family reads like something out of a Japanese horror film and Quitely’s rendition of his brutally disfigured victims/assistants is authentically chilling stuff.
So our heroes clearly have their work cut out for them. Morrison always wrote Bruce Wayne as a man never without the perfect solution, a detective who always stayed one step ahead (even in “death”). That Batman is casting a long shadow over Dick Grayson here, even as Alfred tries to assuage his concerns (and Damien broadcasts his readiness to do the job himself at any opportunity). And, frankly, Bruce Wayne never had to deal with anything this messed up. (Seriously, best of luck guys. Yikes.)
While fans are already jittery about the necessary concessions being made to keep “Batman and Robin” an ostensibly monthly and firmly in continuity book (Quitely will only be drawing the first three issues), Morrison and Quitely have laid some thrilling and invigorating groundwork that anyone should be able to follow easily. There is a sense of dark wonder throughout the book, a mood that is a perfect summation of the character, and a tone that is perfectly suited to a new Batman. Dick Grayson is committed but unconvinced; with a wild and unstable ward; both of them plunging head first into a Gotham City that has never looked this good, felt this strange, or been this deadly.