Sunday Slugfest: Batman and Robin #15A comic review article by: Thom Young
The threads of the "Batman and Robin Must Die" arc all start culminating in this latest issue, and while in some cases the results are underwhelming, it's also an exciting issue full of action from all our major players.
I'm not sure if we still know enough about Thomas Wayne (or his impersonator), or maybe I'm just not detective enough myself to suss it all out. We get pretty strong confirmation that Thomas is dead; we seem to see Martha's body (well, at least a stand-in for the female/mother/bride archetype, in a macabre sequence with the macabre-defining Joker), the only glimpse of a female presence in this boy's greatest adventure tale.
From the character standpoint, the most important realization is that Robin seems to have finally grown into his role based on his own observance of what Dick and Bruce are about and what they're capable of. He doesn't let Joker throw him off his game, and when he's manipulated into being Hurt's latest victim, there's little chance he'll play along.
Why Hurt hates the Waynes so much is still to be revealed, but the threads tying this title with the Return of Bruce Wayne are stronger than ever, and both works have been of great quality while updating and celebrating the Batman mythos.
Frazer Irving turns in another wonderful issue with great details like coloring the shadows on the bride corpse in lurid green, exaggerating anatomical perspective to make the fisticuffs more exciting, and providing fun little bits such as when the Joker seems to throw a spade-full of dirt right at the "camera."
Irving's fight sequences, while intriguing, seem to fragment the action into bits and pieces, but that's part of his truly unique style, which is forgivable since the whole package is so coherent and entertaining. This entire arc is reading like a terse, elegantly choreographed stage play, and it's about time to get your bravos ready.
Batman and Robin has been a consistently strong top-of-the-stack title that has made its case for being the best Batman book. The current "Batman and Robin Must Die" storyline only serves to drive home that point as Grant Morrison neatly ties in his work on The Return of Bruce Wayne to Batman and Robin. As a result, there is a seamless transition between each title.
There are so many key things that Morrison hits on thoroughly throughout the issue that he tends to make his contemporaries look amateurish in comparison. Foremost on that list is Morrison’s presentation of the Joker as much more than a zany clown with absurd little nuances. Under Morrison’s hand he is a seriously disturbed maniac who manages to come across as terrifying rather than a total joke. Morrison’s Joker is deeply dark and macabre, and it creates a much more sinister threat than we are used to.
The thing I love about Morrison, when he is on his game, is how confident he is in his talents to push forward with the ideas he conjures up. When you settle back and try to wrap your head around some of his plots they seem ridiculous, yet he manages to make them work in ways that they shouldn’t. In fact you can pretty much say that as a summation of his entire run on Batman to this point.
The scenarios that the writer places his characters into are all extremely intelligent and enjoyable--such as the tension-filled reunion between Alfred and “Thomas Wayne,” the bullet that Dick takes in the back of the head, and the choice that is then placed on Robin. Of course the real jaw dropper is the cliffhanger that entices the reader to believe that Bruce is really back!
The Frazer Irving art is a “must buy” all on its own, as the artist creates a masterful environment of lush and vivid scenes that are breathtakingly beautiful and poignant. Irving relies on colors to play a major role in his storytelling, and it is apparent that this reliance pays off in a major way as there are many scenes where the palette leaves you marveling at its brilliance.
I said it in the opening and it bears repeating, Batman and Robin is the essential comic book to be reading for anyone with a bat fancy.
This latest issue is exactly what the penultimate chapter of Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin needed to be.
As with every issue of a Batman book that Morrison has written, there’s a lot of ground to cover in this installment. So much of what happens here comes from bits and pieces that Morrison laid out as far back as “Batman RIP,” and possibly as far back as Peter Milligan’s “Dark Knight, Dark City” run on Batman in the early 90s.
This issue gives us the culmination of Dr. Hurt’s plans in perverting everything that the Waynes and Batman stood for. The pace is brisk and the tension is high, and Morrison does an excellent job of covering all the events without sacrificing any sense of importance.
Stepping away from all of the Wayne family drama, though, there are two things about this issue that really stood out to me: the Joker and the art.
I’m sure most comic book writers have a Joker story they’d like to tell.
However, the problem with that fact is that most comic book writers have a Joker story they’d like to tell. With the thousands of issue of the dozens of titles Batman has had over the years, his arch nemesis has been overused in the DC universe. As much faith as I have in Morrison as a writer, I was wary when he first brought the Joker into his epic Batman story, as the character has a tendency to take over a story.
I shouldn’t have worried. The Joker has fit into the Dr. Hurt storyline perfectly, to the point that I can’t see how this story could have been told without him. While Dr. Hurt’s story is rooted in Bruce’s life before he became Batman--Dr. Hurt is, ostensibly, the arch nemesis Bruce Wayne already had before his parents died, but didn’t know it--the Joker is the epitome of Bruce’s life after he put on the cape and cowl.
While Hurt’s origins lie in the mystical, the Joker is, essentially, a victim of science. The Joker is the perfect parallel to Hurt, prepared to battle the enemy of his enemy in an effort to maintain the status quo.
The Clown Prince of Crime has also never looked better. Frazer Irving has made his distinctive mark on the Dark Knight. Irving has a bold, contrasting style, and I will give it the highest compliment I can: if Frazer Irving signs on to draw a Robin comic starring Damian, I will buy it.
It's getting to the point where it's difficult to review one of Grant Morrison's Batman books in isolation. Everything that has been occurring in the pages of Batman and Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne--and until recently, Batman, too--has been part of a single, multi-faceted story about Bruce Wayne fighting evil forces as he battles his way through time whilst Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne fend off the Joker and Dr Hurt in the present.
Batman and Robin #15 is no different, and whilst somebody reading the book outside of the wider context of Morrison's run might wonder what all the fuss is about, people who have been following his run since the start will likely be excited by just how comprehensively the writer is drawing together story strands from his previous issues into a climax that pays off so many elements set up several story arcs ago.
The mysterious Dr. Hurt is at the centre of many of these story strands, and as we've been learning more about him--both in this book, and in Return of Bruce Wayne--he's become a far more rounded and fully realised character than he seemed during the “Batman RIP” arc. Here, we pick up a few more intriguing tidbits, including the fact that he was apparently taken in by Thomas and Martha many years ago (thus putting to rest the theories that Hurt really is Bruce Wayne’s father).
Other scenes bolster themes introduced elsewhere in Morrison's run. The Joker's reference to the banana as representative of the “primal gag, the fall” is reminiscent of Morrison's recent issues of Batman that explored ideas surrounding the New Gods as representative of the essence of various concepts in their purest form. In this way, Morrison seems to be suggesting that despite its complications and its superhero trappings, his wide-ranging story can be boiled down to a handful of universal themes and fairly straightforward ideas.
That idea seems particularly apposite here, as the writer pares down the chaotic craziness of the previous issue into a story that seems far more focused on far fewer players. By the end of this issue, there are really only a few characters playing a key role in the narrative--and it sets the stage elegantly for Morrison's swansong on the title next issue.
In addition to reducing his story to a few key ideas and characters, Morrison uses this issue to remind us that these elements have been present in his run since the beginning. In particular, “Batman and Robin Must Die!” shares many similarities with “Batman RIP,” particularly when it comes to its use of symbolism involving death and the devil. However, the present story has a far more absurd and exaggerated tone. Despite the high stakes, there's a strong sense of farce to Morrison's decision to gift the ultra-serious Robin with an incongruous red clown’s nose--or his choice to show Commisioner Gordon going through extreme withdrawal symptoms whilst sporting a ridiculous afro hairstyle.
Morrison makes reference back to other stories, too--such as Damian's “deal with the devil” that was alluded to way back in Batman #666 or the hints that Dick and Damian know a lot more about the events of the Return of Bruce Wayne miniseries than has so far been revealed.
There's also a supremely satisfying moment in which Morrison echoes Batman's final words to Darkseid in Final Crisis, with a reprisal of “Gotcha!” that's followed by the delightful double-punch from the dynamic duo that has become Batman and Robin's trademark.
However, all these allusions to previous Morrison bat-stories shouldn't be taken as an indication that “Batman and Robin Must Die!” hasn't been an enjoyable arc in its own right. I'm still finding the basic story involving Gotham's fall to Professor Pyg's airborne addiction to be very compelling, and I'm intrigued by how Alfred's preparation of Wayne Manor and the Batcave in accordance with Dick's wishes (as alluded to in issue #14) is going to play into the defeat of Dr. Hurt. In particular, I can't work out the reason for Alfred setting a clock at 10:47, but Morrison keeps reminding us of this detail, so I'm sure it'll become significant at some point.
I've also been very interested by the artistic allusions that Morrison has snuck into this arc. The titles of all three chapters have been taken from famous paintings dealing with the notion of death, and this issue even sees one of those artworks make an explicit appearance with the use of detail from Bruegel's The Triumph of Death foreshadowing a scene in which Dr. Hurt hangs this very painting above the fireplace of Wayne Manor--thus symbolising his belief that he has bested Batman and Robin.
(However, “The Triumph of death” was actually the title of the previous issue—and, now that I think of it, “The Knight, Death and the Devil” might have actually been a more fitting title for that issue whereas “The Triumph of Death” would have been incredibly apt title for the present one, both in terms of Hurt's hubris and the Joker's plan apparently playing out exactly as he intends).
Morrison's character work also continues to be very pleasing, with the Joker's “super-sanity” manifesting itself in the form of a metaphorical chess game with Dr Hurt. Let's not forget that both Dick and Damian were manoeuvred into the positions they find themselves in at the end of the issue by the Joker, and I have to wonder whether he has further tricks up his sleeve that we're not aware of yet (in particular, I can't wait to see whether that dropped banana skin makes a reappearance next issue, and the Joker gets to finish the gag he started).
Even smaller characters are deftly handled by Morrison, with Pyg's apparently nonsensical ramblings continuing to make some kind of sense if you look at them from a certain angle. References to “Doctor Ha-ha and Doctor Johnny B. Damned” seem to give us some idea of how he sees the Joker and Dr. Hurt, whilst a reference to a snail with horns being the devil could be interpreted as a reference to the unusually long-lived Hurt slowly dragging himself through time whilst Bruce Wayne makes more rapid hops into the future, which will presumably culminate in the two characters meeting in a climactic present-day confrontation.
Frazer Irving's art continues to be a perfect fit for the story, with the neon colouring seen in previous issues downplayed here to create a more sombre mood. The angular, often ugly characters help create an unpleasant atmosphere (perhaps nowhere more so than on the issue's Joker-focused twisted variant cover) and there's an occasional virtuoso blast of something conspicuously inventive--such as a Frank Quitely-esque action sequence that sees Damian fight his way through 19 panels in one page--which reminds us just how controlled Irving is being in the rest of the issue
With so many elements coming together so effectively, there's a strong sense that Morrison is finally building up to the blowout of a climax that people have been anticipating since “RIP,” but which has never quite manifested in the conclusive and satisfying way that readers have hoped for. In conjunction with the parallel story running in Return of Bruce Wayne, there's a real sense that the “event” of Bruce's reappearance in the present is going to carry the weight that it deserves--especially considering this issue's cliffhanger (though, given the absence of the Joker for the latter half of this issue, and the focus on the human eyes behind the bat-mask in the book's final panel, I think it might a safe bet that it might not be who we think it is on the last page).