For a Batman title in today's Bat-saturated comics market to at least have the facade of not being another shameless ploy at cashing in on an easy sell (although, let's face it, it does work…), it really needs to have some kind of slant or focus that sets it apart from the rest. And I'm not talking "this is the one with the same name as the movie" or "this is the one where people's faces get cut off," but rather a comprehensive angle and approach to the character that gives it a distinct identity from the other seven or so on the shelf in any given month. It's a tall order for sure, but — if nothing else — Batman has proven to be a versatile enough commodity over the decades to make such an endeavor achievable.
While, at best, only half of the numerous Batman-headlined books released since the onset of DC's New 52 have made the grade in this regard, the relaunched Batman and Robin by Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason is one that most assuredly has. As the title plainly suggests, this is the monthly that most explicitly focuses on the relationship between the Dark Knight and his kid sidekick, a dynamic in comics that has always been interesting but one that is now even more so thanks to Grant Morrison's pre-52 additions to the mythos. The Robin of the current era is Damian Wayne, none other than Bruce's biological son and the product of a tryst with the daughter of one of his deadliest enemies. In other words, it's a situation rife with possibilities and built-in meaty conflict.
Tomasi deserves credit for sticking the landing, nonetheless, taking full advantage of everything the matchless G-Mos left for him. In contrast to the archetype built in our brains by 70 years of comics history, this Robin isn't a cheerful, wisecracking daredevil who brightens the blackest corners of Bruce Wayne's soul, but rather it is Batman himself who must act as the light to shine upon his junior partner's darkness. Having spent the first ten years of his life in the care of a ruthless league of assassins (known as, uh, the League of Assassins), Damian harbors a thirst for violence and vengeance, one that isn't exactly discouraged by daddy's nightly ventures into Gotham alleyways to beat up muggers.
That already volatile situation is exacerbated in the series' eight-part opening arc (Yes, eight. More on that later.) by the arrival of Nobody, a mercenary with a vendetta against Bruce Wayne and a desire to coax Damian away from his father's Comics Code-friendly ethic. Tomasi sells us Damian's potential conversion to the dark side as a very real possibility, showing the boy taking out his frustrations on innocent chiropterans and gangbangers alike whenever his father isn't looking. Meanwhile, Bruce himself remains stereotypically distant, refusing to open up the parts of his life that might help his son cope with all those inner demons. If you aren't at least somewhat agitated by that familial tension, then you've likely never had either children or parents.
While the implications for Bruce's kept secrets ring true throughout the arc, the manner in which Tomasi decides to unveil them is the one major way in which the book errs. Such weight is assigned to the shared history between Batman and Nobody that when the story is finally told — stretched rather unnecessarily over the course of two issues — it disappoints in its ordinariness. If you've read any significant measure of Batman comics in the past, odds are you've already seen one or two that closely resemble the flashbacks here. Of course, this being the New 52, the publisher's goal was to put these comics in the hands of those who hadn't nursed themselves on Batman comics for an entire lifetime, so maybe Tomasi gets a pass.
Either way, the feature attraction here isn't the specific nature of the villain or his scheme but the way in which a father/son relationship can be stretched to the breaking point yet ultimately endure. Even as Damian does ultimately betray Bruce in a sense, the elder Wayne is able to look past that sin out of love for his child. Rarely has forgiveness or humility been a hallmark of Batman's repertoire, but Tomasi wields them as natural and necessary.
A big pat on the back goes to artist Patrick Gleason for not missing a page of the entire eight-issue run and for being on schedule to draw issues 9 and 10 to boot! Gleason's style carries shades of onetime Batman artists Paul Gulacy and Dustin Nguyen, favoring a liberal use of deep black shadow. That's a fine way to illustrate a Batman story, but sometimes it oddly distorts the perceived shape of Gleason's figures. There's more than one panel throughout the arc where a character looks downright weird. Still, this is ultimately a tale centered on emotion, and the art more than delivers there. Bruce and Damian both harbor wounded spirits, and with Gleason at the helm, you can see it plainly whenever the story calls.
Chalk up Batman and Robin as a real surprise amongst the DC relaunch, insofar as a book with "Batman" or "Robin" in the title can surprise anyone. It is Tomasi's greatest accomplishment to date as a writer, and in the grand scheme of the thousands of Bat-stories out there, it occupies a relatively unique position. A septuagenarian superhero icon is growing and developing in remarkably new ways, infusing this comic with heart without becoming saccharine or overwrought.
Raised on a steady diet of Super Powers action figures and Adam West Batman reruns, Chris Kiser now writes for Comics Bulletin. He once reviewed every tie-in to a major DC Comics summer event and survived to tell the tale. Ask him about it on Twitter, where he can be found at @Chris_Kiser!