I eat the McRib each year when it is released. I understand that it doesn’t taste great, that it’s bad for me, and that the process behind its creation is absolutely disgusting. Nothing about the McRib is actually all that good (or good at all), but for some reason I and a bunch of other people in America feel compelled to seek out this product. It’s rare! It’s fun! It’s a guilty pleasure! We tell ourselves these excuses in order to more easily accept the bizarre relationship we can’t quit with this odd little sub-section of fast food.
That leads me back to comics and why I even chose to read Batman & Robin Eternal #1.
How we discuss mainstream comics speaks to a relationship between publisher and reader that has shifted so far beyond simple antagonism that it has created the biggest case of mass Stockholm Syndrome that I can recall since I began to eat the McRib. You need look no further than last week’s heavily marketed and widely praised debut of the new weekly Batman series Batman & Robin Eternal. It is a comic so devoid of value that it’s hard to believe the 30-page issue is being purchased for $3.99 rather than being given away as cheap promotional fare.
Batman & Robin Eternal #1 at least has the decency of clarifying its value (or lack thereof) at the very start of the issue. The opening page hits a Batman trope so tired and worn out that it has begun to induce laughter (see: Gotham, “Pilot”) rather than the drama it ought to. I’m speaking of the murder of the Waynes, of course. This time it’s not Bruce who walks out of the theater only to see his parents shot down, but a non-descript Egyptian boy. That’s not to say that interesting things can’t still be done with this origin, but the repetition of a scene known to anyone who has ever touched a comic and played with the same basic beats is everything a comic shouldn’t be: boring. Nothing about this one-page flashback serves an additive or creative purpose; it’s simply pounding the first of many nails into this stillborn series coffin.
While it’s clear from page one of James Tynion IV’s script that Batman & Robin Eternal is as empty-headed and unmotivated as the current blank slate version of Bruce Wayne, there’s nothing stopping this series from still being a fun, action romp with lots of slick heroes and maddening villains. The action sequences that immediately follows the “mysterious” introduction clarifies that any hope for this bathroom reading option is best ignored.
Tony Daniel breaks the superhero aspects of this story open with a spread that alternates between two time periods with “Then” above and “Now” below. It’s an unnecessary break that adds nothing to the story except for the added confusion of three distinct timelines occurring within the first three pages of a new story. That’s far from the most confusing element though. What turns the introduction of this series from monotonous to mystifying is Daniel’s layouts.
The vertical axis of movement is placed horizontally across the top panel of the page with Batman and Robin swinging across Gotham. This encourages readers to flip the comic sideways, but lettering by Tom Napolitano continue to read normally. That inconsistency creates confusion not only within the panel, but throughout the page. In the lower panels Dick Grayson is engaged with a criminal in a motorcycle chase on the side of a skyscraper. This is almost impossible to comprehend until after the spread though because only one of five panels reveals any background at all. Even this shot only shows the streakiest outline of towers. There are so many motions lines in this sequence that one suspects it might be a digital fill effect, creating the illusion of completed space where only fast forms have been drawn.
If you are able to discern what is actually happening in this action sequence, then the shock of seeing glass explode beneath the wheels of a motorcycle on the following page will not be quite as disconcerting. Even here the panels are cropped so tightly and backgrounds are so sparse that it is almost impossible to tell what exactly is happening except for in panel three. The appearance of a giant lit sign comes literally from nowhere (excluding the slightest hint in panel three, it being the only one to communicate setting). There might be an urge to call this sequence fast or exciting, but what it actually is is lazy. Providing an establishing shot for a big chase sequence and subsequent showdown is fundamental storytelling, the kind of thing that any competent comics artist shouldn’t think twice about. It is non-existent here and the resulting pages are enough of an incomprehensible mess that any wise reader would drop the comic to the floor if they were just flipping through.
It’s possible to go through every page of Batman & Robin Eternal #1 like this, dissecting script, pencils, colors, and lettering in order to discover the lessons aspiring creators ought to take away, that massive list of DON’Ts. It’s not nitpicking either. The flaws charge forward and smack you about the face and neck. Tynion’s scripting is consistently hackneyed and Daniel’s storytelling never aspires to be more than workmanlike (when it achieves even that). The first four pages may be the worst that the issue has to offer, but there’s nothing to be found that rises above the level of mediocrity.
Daniel takes plenty of time to call out what ought to be the dramatic highlights of the issue by throwing each of them on a splash. There are four here and they all fall flat. The return of Cassandra Cain makes for a competent action sequence, but there’s nothing noteworthy about the character if you remove the marketing hype that this is “The Return of Cassandra Cain OMG”. She’s a cypher whose combat abilities are displayed using a less-effective form of something being done by ACO in Midnighter.
The introduction of new bad guy Orphan is even more disappointing. He shows up to spout the most generic menacing line in superhero comics this week (that’s a very high or low bar, depending on how you look at it), but that’s it. The real let down is his design, a mix of Immortan Joe and 90s Image nostalgia. This is a guy that somehow manages to be both over- and under-designed with plenty of elements and linework incorporated into his big page, but nothing that leaves any sort of distinctive impression.
When Batman & Robin #1 Eternal wraps up, it gives readers two more big reveals. The first is a plot device so worn out that if it were a pair of jeans, they’d be translucent. It’s laughable because it is designed purely to present the mystery to the reader and fails to function on any level within the rules of the Bat-verse as established by Tynion (like Batman having an IQ greater than Forrest Gump). The final page goes even further and is such a “shocker” that it ought to instigate laughter.
The best thing that can be said about Batman & Robin Eternal #1 is that it could have been fun. Ignoring the specifics of dialogue, pacing, and design, it’s possible to squint at the broad strokes of plot. There’s a conspiracy that runs to the core of a Batman who no longer exists and will draw all of his protégés into a tangled web. It includes globetrotting, mind washing, and Scarecrow. As a few hundred or thousand words in a .doc, it’s possible to imagine this as something good.
The finished product does not communicate any of that potential though. Batman & Robin Eternal #1 is a finely tuned piece of marketing. There is at least one respectable name (i.e. Scott Snyder) attached under the title of “plotter”, one fan favorite character returning, some art that makes for a fine advertisement (but fails to work sequentially), and loads of hype that sounds fantastic on paper. This has all of the elements needed for DC Comics to sell it, but none of what is required to actually function as an enjoyable or even readable comic. The approach to a weekly comic here is comparable to that of factory farming the gross production of a McRib. Get the meat from bone to table as quickly and cheaply as possible, and spend money to make it look good on the menu.