Is anyone paying attention to this comic?
Five issues into its relaunch, Peter Tomasi and Pat Gleason's "Batman and Robin" wins the coveted Better-Than-I-Expected award out of the crop of the new 52. And I expected to enjoy it from the beginning, but it has catapulted into my arbitrarily constructed meta-list of Top 5 ongoing superhero comics over the winter mostly because it looks great and it zings along nicely. But also because it's a weirdly layered comic, not in a particularly literary or preeningly sophisticated manner, but in a way that makes me wonder, "wait, is the iconography really supposed to imply that? And is this an allusion to that other thing? Huh!"
Part of me is trying to get a handle on exactly what this series is -- even though it's not obviously complex or seemingly difficult to parse -- and another part of me just wants to enjoy the ride. So I'm grappling with it, conflicted in my responses to each issue, and yet it always rises back up to my list of favorites when I think back to the question of what I'm really enjoying in mainstream superhero comics these days.
"Batman and Robin" tends to get drowned out in the discussions of whatever is new and cool and interesting. It's not "Prophet" or "Glory" or "Daredevil" or "Uncanny X-Force." It even gets ignored when people are talking about Batman comics. It's not Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham coming back to tell their "Batman, Inc." tale -- that won't happen until April. It's not Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's extended Court of Owls mystery/epic that's currently running in "Batman." It's not the wonky atrocities of David Finch or Tony Daniel in "Batman: The Dark Knight" or "Detective Comics."
No, the Tomasi/Gleason "Batman and Robin" series is like that neighbor of yours who you don't really know at all. He seems pleasant enough, likable even, but you just assume you don't have much in common with him. But it turns out he's actually pretty weird, and has some strange obsessions that are kind of fascinating, and his collection of 1970s diner placemats sparks a whole discussion that intersects with your passion for Filmation superhero cartoons from your youth. You hit it off, you and your odd but fun neighbor, even if you aren't best pals for life. Oh, and he dresses really well, but you don't hold that against him.
One of the secret weapons of "Batman and Robin" is inker Mick Gray. Here's what Mick Gray has done in the past: make J. H. Williams's work on "Promethea" look even more amazing, make Ryan Sook's "Seven Soldiers: Zatanna" look even more amazing, make Marco Rudy's "The Shield" look more like J. H. Williams and Ryan Sook's work and therefore amazing. And though he's inked Pat Gleason in the past, their collaboration here looks, you guessed it, amazing.
It's a goofy, dark, rubbery, grungy, serious, dynamic, playful look to the art, from issue #1 through issue #5. I don't know if they had extra lead time before the relaunch (it's likely they did, since this opening arc could very well have been planned to follow up their pre-relaunch "Batman and Robin" arc) or if Gleason and Gray are just fast (which may be true as well, given their history of regular production), but there's a comforting sense of continuity with this art team, even as they draw some pretty horrible stuff happening on the page.
As impressed as I've been with Greg Capullo's visuals on "Batman" -- particularly the most recent, topsy-turvy issue-- the Gleason/Gray "Batman and Robin" is the best-looking of all the Bat-books since the relaunch. So it's worth a look even if just for that, though the art works best when actually read as part of the story. Gleason is a strong storyteller, and Gray nails the mood, so they're constantly in service of what needs to be told, but, yeah, there are some great single images as well, like the establishing shot of the rusty old clunker at the abandoned drive in theater or the final scene of Damian at the Wayne cemetery.
And Peter Tomasi's story? It goes something like this:
A masked killer, going by the name "Nobody," murders the Batman-of-Russia, and declares himself to be a monster hunter of sorts -- beginning the process of erasing Batman's global army of franchisees. Meanwhile, the Damian Wayne/Bruce Wayne dynamic deepens, and the father/son theme bounces through several permutations within the Wayne household, as the presence of the wise and fatherly Alfred provides a third perspective. And, to emphasize the theme even more, it turns out that Nobody is anything but anonymous. He's Morgan Ducard, the son of Henri Ducard, the detective-mentor of Bruce Wayne right before he assumed the Batman mantle.
So when Nobody makes it his mission to destroy Batman's global reach by eliminating the Bat-men of other lands, it's a personal vendetta, as the young Ducard attempts to cripple the influence of Batman -- the man who stole his father away from him.
And to amplify it even more, Ducard/Nobody lures the already criminally-inclined Damian over to his side, becoming a father figure (on secret patrol -- ultra-violent secret patrol) to Bruce Wayne's child. The spurned son (Nobody) replaces the father (Batman) to corrupt a son (Robin) as a way of hurting Bruce Wayne (who, of course, he knows is Batman).
It's a clear conflict, rich in meaning and personal relationships, but Tomasi weaves it through a story that has incredible action and potentially tragic consequence.
But if it were just that, "Batman and Robin" would be merely good. And while merely good would make it readable and possibly entertaining and better than half of the other superhero comics available on a weekly basis, it wouldn't get it stuck in my brain the way this Tomasi/Gleason/Gray series ends up getting lodged up there, along with the "Drive" soundtrack and the late Golden Age work of Basil Wolverton.
First, let's address the cover imagery. Issues #1 and #3 are standard superhero covers with action poses or fighting freeze-frames, but the other three covers are compellingly odd. Of the three remaining, the cover for #5 is the most generic, at first glance, but it's really a masterful image, even if understated. It shows Nobody and Robin, crouching atop the Bat-signal, but besides the solid poses and clean rendering, what makes it work is that Robin's cape sways back around Nobody and curls upward, giving the villainous pseudo-father a hint of a scalloped Bat-cape all his own. And then there's the most important touch -- the outstretched arm and poised hand of Nobody, who is either balancing himself or preparing to clutch Robin in a protective grasp. Or he may be getting ready to wrap his arm around Robin's neck, like a maniac holding a hostage. The pose implies all of those possibilities, and that's what gives it its power.
The cover of "Batman and Robin" #2 is a radically-foreshortened Batmobile racing toward the reader, looking like a snout and eyes and the tail fins seem to be ears. It looks shockingly like Cerebus the aardvark from Dave Sim's controversial opus. Or some bizarre twist on Nemesis the Warlock from "2000 AD." I don't know what to make of any of that, but there's certainly plenty to say about masculine roles and hubris if it's a "Cerebus" allusion, and plenty of say about dynamic oddness if it's "Nemesis," and yet it might have nothing to do with either. Sure is a strange-looking cover for a Batman comic, though.
But then there's the cover of issue #4. Bats. A city-scape. A reflection in the watery abyss, but what is that image in the center. Is that Robin screaming and clawing his way out of...a Bat-gina? What the heck? A violent birth image of Damian Wayne squeezing himself out of a virtual Batman-head cervix and out through the nether regions of Gotham? I can't see that cover and interpret it any differently, mostly because that's exactly what it looks like, and because it is the ultimate metaphor for the themes within this series. But, yes, what a shockingly unconventional cover image for a DC superhero comic of any era.
The covers only give you a hint at the kinds of storytelling choices inside each issue, but there are gems on the interior pages as well, from the Pat Gleason/Mick Gray depiction of the Batman-of-Russia as some unholy visual combination of Batman, Bane, and the KGBeast to the physicality of Morgan Ducard in the Nobody role. Nobody is like a high-tech superspy/ninja/assassin, but his helmet is dotted with sensors, giving him a spider-like appearance. While purely a visual motif, the look underscores that Nobody is snaring his prey in this web he has constructed, even if he's not literally shooting anything out of his wrist bands.
There's the scene at the abandoned drive in, and then the murderous secret between Nobody and Robin. There's the battle of determinism vs. free will and nature vs. nurture and the moral dilemma around what to do to finally put an end the most sickening kind of evil. Shadows of Bruce Wayne's past coming to haunt him in the present without any kind of radical revamp of what has already occurred.
And then there's the master villain -- Nobody, himself. An Odysseus allusion, perhaps? After all, Odysseus called himself "NoMan" or "Nobody" when confronting Polyphemus the Cyclops, only to reveal his true identity so he could brag about how he, Odysseus, was the smartest man alive. Nobody, in "Batman and Robin" immediately reveals his true identity to his rival, seemingly to revel in his ability to outsmart the legendary Batman.
But in the very first issue of the series, it's not Odysseus, or Homer, who comes to mind, it's Emily Dickinson, as an incapacitated victim grunts, "...who are you...?" and gets the reply, "I'm Nobody. And so are you."
Dickinson famously wrote the following eight lines:
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us - don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Is that the origin of the Nobody name in this "Batman and Robin" series? It seems unlikely, mostly because Dickinson feels like a strange choice for the inspiration for anything Batman-related. And this meek poem of isolation and retreat is hardly the fodder for super-villainy. And yet...doesn't Batman himself keep his identity a secret from his "admiring bog" of Gotham? Is Tomasi mocking the relationship between Batman and the people he protects? Or is Tomasi ironically using a Dickinson poem to subvert the manly manliness of the Batman archetype, even as he brings in Nobody, who is seemingly even better than Batman at doing manly stuff. Like acting as a father-figure to Damian. And teaching the boy how to really get rid of criminals for good. In the manliest way possible.
I know that it's likely that Dickinson's poem was not in Tomasi's mind at all when he added the Nobody character to the story, and I know that these allusions are more like coincidental reminders. But the convergences exist, coincidental or not, and there is something repeatedly off-kilter about this "Batman and Robin." Something that opens up the possibility for more pockets of meaning, more dank corners of insight, than you might normally expect to see in a superhero series from the DC Entertainment conglomerate.
A suggested advertising slogan: "'Batman and Robin,' More Than Just a Friendly, Slightly Creepy Neighbor You Don't Know Very Well!"
Anyway, check it out, and let me know what you think.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.