Grant Morrison wrapped up his run on “Batman” by taking the same approach he used in his first major Batman work, “Arkham Asylum.” In “Batman R.I.P.” and “Last Rites,” Morrison presented a story that explored Batman from the inside. Those deeply internal stories of madness, instability, and redemption have been replaced, in the new “Batman and Robin” series, with stories focused on the external. We aren’t on the outside looking in, we’re on the outside looking around.
And that fits, because this Dick Grayson version of Batman is far more about action than introspection. What’s important in this series, at least so far, is the physical relationship between Batman and Robin with their Gotham surroundings. It’s been a more accessible series because of that, with symbolism and metaphor being replaced by cutting words and decisive action. Morrison’s allusions still permeate the series, the David Bowie reference in the Joker stories accompanied by the George Bernard Shaw references of the Professor Pyg tales.
But with issue #4, “Batman and Robin” loses Frank Quitely, and the physical dynamic of the series changes. The “Revenge of the Red Hood” arc begins here, and so does the three-issue stint of penciller Philip Tan and inker Jonathan Glapion. Where Quietly had created a deranged, airy, pop-art Gotham, Tan and Glapion present a near-future Armageddon of a city, dark and oppressive. We rarely see the tops of any buildings in “Batman and Robin” #4, no matter how high the heroes ascend.
The Tan-pencilled backgrounds present a suitably harsh and dangerous mood for this story about the violent deeds of the Red Hood and Scarlet, but when it comes to actually drawing Batman and Robin, or actually telling a coherent panel-to-panel story, Tan is a significant step down from Quitely. With Cameron Stewart and Frazer Irving on tap to draw arcs three and four, it looks like this series will rebound artistically, but if this issue is any indication, the “Revenge of the Red Hood” three-parter will be the odd arc out, visually speaking.
The problem with Tan’s art are obvious in the cocktail party scene, as his characters either remain stiffly posed or strangely over-dramatic (what is with Commissioner Gordon’s Michael Jeter expression when Dick Grayson calls to him?) and the brooding Batman he draws on the rooftops is not the Dick Grayson Batman we’ve seen established in the previous three issues. Tan’s much better with the Red Hood and the bestial Penguin, but it’s not enough to make up for the artistic damage done elsewhere in the issue.
The mystery of the Red Hood’s identity isn’t resolved by the end of this issue, even though Batman whispers a guess when he says, “Jason?” And the Red Hood’s constant refrain of “Let the punishment fit the crime” may or may not be anything more than an allusion to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” but there’s something deeply conflicted about this new Red Hood’s vigilantism and his obsession with Batman and Robin.
Maybe he’s the id to Dick Grayson’s ego and the Batman super-ego. Maybe things will get a whole lot more internal before “Batman and Robin” reaches its conclusion. Or maybe Morrison will just continue to tell engaging, off-kilter stories about the Batman family, regardless of whether or not he has an artist who brings out the best in him.