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Sunday Slugfest: Batman and Robin #3

Posted: Sunday, August 30, 2009
By: Thom Young

Grant Morrison
Frank Quitely (with Alex Sinclair, colors)
DC Comics
"Batman Reborn" concludes with "Mommy Made of Nails" as Batman and Robin have their final showdown with Professor Pyg and the Circus of the Strange! The future looks bright for the new Dynamic Duo as they prove themselves in battle, but lurking in the shadows is a red-hooded antihero.

Charles Webb:
Dave Wallace:
Kyle Garret:
Paul Brian McCoy:




Charles Webb:

Why must our comic heroes and villains be bedeviled by their pasts? How many can you name whose existence isn't defined by some past tragedy or whose villains aren't the reaction to an accident or incident? It's seldom a proactive act for our comic book heroes to take on the capes and tights and fling themselves into the night. It's the other side of thing--usually bad, rarely fortuitous--that makes these mystery men join the freak set.

All of which is a protracted way of saying Morrison's first arc on Batman and Robin has inadvertently served as an origin arc for a character whose current tragedy will define his future villainy. So, there's that in this issue--along with a lot of punching, running, kicking, singing (or at least lyrical villainy), and portentous imagery.

Damian easily works his way free of the pickle in which he found himself last issue in order to confront Professor Pyg, who, in the tradition of Morrison's villains, is up to more than his M.O. would otherwise indicate.

Pyg is of course part of the Chinese box of mysteries, missions, and motivations that are sure to plague the new dynamic duo in the coming months. Where before Morrison used the Black Glove to move in around Bruce Wayne's life--and, by the way, we get a callback to that storyline here--the threat underneath and behind the threat of the rambling Pyg remains to be seen. (Although it's possible we are dealing with some new iteration of the Black Glove given the domino toppling imagery in the final panels at the end of this issue.)

As for our title characters, Morrison gives them some room to grow. Already we see Dick shaping up to be a different sort of mentor than Bruce--focusing on positive reinforcement instead of cold correction when his ward breaks script. Damian, too, has unexpectedly gained a degree of much-needed empathy (perhaps too late given the solicitations for the coming months).

I appreciate that the leads have been given a chance to grow into their roles and make them their own--not quite yet revolutionizing the concept of Batman and Robin (yet), but not remaining static either. Batman leads and Robin follows, but there is a playfulness and joy to the proceedings that has been absent during my time as a reader of the franchise.

On art, Quitely delivers a smashing issue before Phillip Tan takes over next month. If I could sum of the visuals of this book in one word (and I will) it would be balletic. Characters twirl, move, leap, and literally dance in this issue. At one point, Pyg says he loves hot disco. However, I would say this issue was more dance rock that keeps you moving (from left to right, top to bottom).

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of the author's work at Monster In Your Veins




Dave Wallace:

Issue #3 of Batman and Robin concludes the initial "Batman Reborn" arc by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, cementing Dick Grayson's position as Gotham City's new Batman and bringing some closure to the story of one of his first major super-villain attacks since donning the cape and cowl.

Kicking off with a surprisingly brutal interrogation scene, we immediately get the sense that Dick has overcome the insecurities that he voiced last issue. This is a Batman who seems confident in his abilities and comfortable in his role--and tellingly, we don't see any scenes featuring an out-of-costume Dick throughout the entire issue. However, Morrison's dialogue and Quitely's command of body language both manage to clearly distinguish him from Bruce Wayne (although it will be interesting to see how well the book fares at this task when Morrison is paired with a different illustrator, next issue).

Dick's investigation leads him to discover Professor Pyg's plans to cause chaos in Gotham by infecting it with a virus. In all honesty, it's slightly too straightforward of a plot to be really compelling, and Dick even makes a joke about the fact that finding the antidote to Pyg's plan was so surprisingly easy--all with a certain amount of after-the-fact exposition that feels like something of an afterthought. The plot also shares quite a few similarities with the Scarecrow's plan to spread his fear gas through Gotham in the Batman Begins movie, so it doesn't feel particularly original either.

That said, it may be that there's more to this story than meets the eye. The imprisoned Pyg's monologue towards the end of the issue suggests that he has infected Gotham by virtue of his very presence--so it's possible that this character's story is far from over at this point. It's also hinted that a third party specifically positioned Dick to thwart Pyg's plans in order to lead his investigation onwards--presumably into a larger trap. With this possibility in mind, perhaps the plot isn't as simplistic as it seems.

Characterisation is strong throughout the issue. We spend more time with Pyg here than we have in previous issues, and Morrison's convincing stream-of-consciousness dialogue for the character does a good job of establishing him as unhinged and self-obsessed (with psychological issues that seem to stem from his relationship with his mother, whose titular effigy dominates his lair). There's also a truly creepy musical sequence in which Quitely's renderings of Pyg's "sexy disco hot" dancing compete with Morrison's dialogue to see which can come off as weirder.

Dick also gets some nice character moments, even if we don't spend quite as much time inside his head as we did in the previous issue. He seems to be settling into his new role comfortably, building a relationship with Commissioner Gordon--albeit an uneasy one--and gaining a certain amount of confidence from his defeat of Pyg.

However, it's Damian who gets the best lines of the issue, with "So . . . whose neck do I break first?" and "So we're agreed. It's 'Robin and Batman' from now on" both raising a smile.

There's also an amusing moment that sees the young Master Wayne experience a certain amount of shock that he has had his life saved by Dick, which is perhaps an early indicator that Morrison intends to evolve Damian's character in a slightly more humble and less arrogant direction. I'm already enjoying reading about his exploits as Robin a lot more than I did his initial appearances, and I look forward to seeing how he develops under Morrison's pen.

Quitely's artwork continues to serve Morrison's story well, with the artist continuing to adopt a slightly rougher and looser inking style than previous projects--utilising many more incidental lines that create textures that are less smooth than we've seen in his previous work.

On a purely aesthetic level, I can't say that I prefer the look of this art to his work on the likes of All-Star Superman and New X-Men, but it's perhaps a more fitting finish to apply to a book that places a greater emphasis on its grotesque and disturbing elements than those books did. For example, the cameo of Le Bossu towards the end of the issue makes the character look far more unsettling than he did in the "Batman: R.I.P." story.

Quitely's action sequences are dynamic and clearly choreographed, with slanting panels that create a sense of chaos and disorder without ever making the action difficult to follow. There are occasional moments of sheer exuberance, too. I enjoyed the bloody sound effects just as much as the integrated sound effects from previous issues--and one panel sees the artist reprise the double-punch panel from issue #1 with an equally satisfying double-kick. I wonder if this is going to become the standard way in which Dick and Damian take out all of their villains?

A neat touch towards the end of the issue sees Morrison fold his story into one of the last scenes of "Batman R.I.P."--which itself leads back into the very first page of that story (the "You're Wrong! Batman and Robin will never die!" splashpage). It's a typically Morrison piece of non-linear storytelling that might not add a huge amount to this issue specifically, but which helps to reinforce the idea that the writer's entire run on the Batbooks since Batman #655 has been one single long-form story.

It also makes for a triumphant moment of revenge for Dick, given that Le Bossu was the character who imprisoned him during the "R.I.P." storyline.

Finally, the closing pages of the issue set up the threat of a new (?) Red Hood for the next arc, and who takes one of Pyg's victims from earlier in the issue as his sidekick. It will be interesting to see whether Morrison digs a little deeper into Damian's characterisation via the character of Sasha, as she's tangible proof that the overconfident youngster isn't as infallible as he might like to think.

This issue is a solid finale to a strong opening arc, which wraps up many plot strands whilst also setting up some mysteries to be explored in future issues. For example, what is the significance of the dominoes found by Dick? Is Dick being led into a larger trap by another villain? And who is watching Alfred from a nearby rooftop?

I look forward to seeing how Morrison addresses these questions, and whether the book can maintain a consistent level of quality when Philip Tan comes onto the series as illustrator of the next arc.




Kyle Garret:

I love this Batman.

As near as I can tell, there are people out there who are rather aghast at this Batman--and not just because he's Dick Grayson and not Bruce Wayne. They're upset because it's all brightly colored and poppy. There's quite a bit less skulking in the shadows with this Batman, quite a bit more over-the-top action.

This series is the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory of Batman titles, complete with creepy circus characters and dark underpinnings. It's impossible for me to take my eyes off it, and I want it to continue forever.

I almost regret reading the interview with Morrison where he explains Professor Pyg's origin, because he drops a few clues as to his literary influences in this issue. I wish I could have read those passages blind, to see if I would have caught the references and pieced it together for myself.

Still, even knowing what I did, Pyg's soliloquy on who he is and what he does was perfect, both in action and words. Pyg's dancing is like something out of Flashdance, and his ranting is equal parts inspired artist and raving lunatic.

While I can often be critical of Morrison's dialogue, he's created a very particular cadence with this incarnation of Batman. Robin gets the best moment, a reaction scene that Morrison breaks into two word balloons where most writers would have just used one. The break up between the two makes the dialogue far more affective--and far funnier. It's also a great indication of the level of detail Morrison has put into the script; everything has meaning.

I'm still not entirely sold on Quitely's scratchier style on this book, but it's a minor complaint given how fluid his work is. Damian actually looks like a young boy should look, which is a rarity in comics. There are times--such as when Batman is speaking with Commissioner Gordon--when Quitely's work is almost too fluid, when the scratchiness overwhelms the substance in favor of style. I appreciate that he's changing his style to match the subject matter, but I just don't know that such a move plays to his strengths--or that it is even entirely necessary.

I could probably go on and on about the pure entertainment value of this comic, but I think Morrison is doing something even more important than telling a great story here; he's telling a great episodic story. There is a flow to everything he's done with Batman since he first took over the writing chores.

This issue ends with the hint of the next arc, but it's connected to a dangling thread from Morrison's very first arc. Obviously, the new Batman and Robin team came from Morrison's earlier stories, but he doesn't wrap himself up in his own continuity (like other DC writers I could mention). Instead, he embraces as much as he can of what came before. Pyg's hideout, Dick Grayson's background, even Damian's existence, all come from Batman stories from years and years ago. For a writer who gets a reputation for having a large ego, Morrison is incredibly respectful of what came before.

I love this Batman. I have no doubt that we're only going to get him for a limited time, but thank god we got him at all.




Paul Brian McCoy:

Greetings. Welcome to the most F**KED UP ISSUE OF BATMAN AND ROBIN I'VE EVER READ.

Ahem.

Sorry about that.

If you're writing a Batman title and you want to introduce a crazy villain to Batman's already pretty crazy Rouges Gallery, you're going to be hard pressed to top Professor Pyg. Alice, over in Detective Comics seems silly and absurd in comparison. Of course, she seems kind of silly and absurd to begin with.

Pyg's name is, of course, a shortening of Pygmalion. However, while the quotes and references to the musical My Fair Lady and its source, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, are to be expected, we discover in this issue that his name is also referring directly to the source of inspiration for those works: the Greek myth of the sculptor who falls in love with his statue.

The statue in question is the "Mommy Made of Nails" of this chapter's title--a wood and barbed-wire contraption with a doll's face on top and nails jutting out at all angles. In a horrifying monologue that leads up to the revealing of the statue, Pyg conflates the Greek child-biting vampire-spirit, Mormo (a creature often invoked to frighten children into behaving) with the "formless chaos" representing the condition of reality before the Biblical invocation of Light and Form. Mormo is also traditionally seen as a consort of Hecate, goddess of the moon--which explains the order of her introduction with "On Monday she's Mormo."

"On Tuesday it's all Tiamat this and Tiamat that," Pyg continues.

Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of the sea was a dragon slain by the storm-god Marduk from whose corpse the heavens and earth are formed. She is also a mother of monsters.

Pyg's later statement of "Tohu va Bohu" is a Hebrew phrase found in Genesis 1:2 that translates to "formless and empty" and references that same formless chaos mentioned earlier--as well as being a French idiom for "confusion."

Wednesday's Gorgon Queen reference is most likely Medusa, another chthonic monster emerging into Pyg's newly created world. According to Sigmund Freud in Das Medusenhaupt, Medusa represents "the supreme talisman who provides the image of castration--associated in the child's mind with the discovery of maternal sexuality--and its denial."

All of these literary, mythological, and psychological elements bring us back around to Pyg's love of the Mommy Made of Nails that stands in for his primordial Mother goddess--as well as his use of genital mutilation to perfect his creations.

And if all of that's not insane enough for you, the "sexy disco hot" song-and-dance sequence that follows (which may be inspired by the character Micky Disco from the British sketch comedy series, The Fast Show) should be enough to give one nightmares--especially his final, panting fixation on "perfect little trotters" (pigs' feet) as he gets ready to begin his hideous operation on a bound-to-a-chair Robin.

Just take a look at pigs' feet that are ready for cooking and tell me what you think Pyg is imagining here.

Yes, I did just shudder.

However, the issue isn't all about Professor Pyg. It opens with Dick Grayson finally settling into the role of Batman and putting fear into the heart of the flame-faced Phosphorus Rex in a classic Batman style. Robin also puts on a clinic in beating henchmen halfway to death as he fights his way through Professor Pyg's Dollotrons.

I liked the "bait and switch" threat to Gotham in which the suicide bombings that began in the last panels of issue #2 were only to warm things up for the release of "an addictive identity-destroying drug in the form of a virus." It's a nice way of ratcheting up the danger and excitement while avoiding a traditional "by the numbers" approach to the storytelling.

Then, with the adventure concluded, Morrison and Quitely give us four denouements--each striking a different tonal chord. First, there's the lingering, subtle horror of Professor Pyg being locked away in his cell paired up with the graphic, gut-wrenching scene of Dollotrons moaning and wailing as their faces are peeled off along with their masks in a hospital emergency room.

Second we get more heroic action following Batman and Robin as they begin tying up loose-ends from "Batman R.I.P." by hunting down Le Bossu just as he's about to begin torturing and murdering a captured police officer under the mistaken impression that "even Batman and Robin are dead!"

Third comes a sense of mystery and restrained menace as an unknown someone stands on a gargoyle statue across from Wayne Foundation Tower and watches Alfred as he straightens up the penthouse.

Finally, we get the unnervingly violent resolution to Sasha's part of this first story as she is caught killing her own father in his hospital bed. However, she is then rescued by The Red Hood who recruits her to help him "wipe the vomit off the face of Gotham once and for all."

This is just bravura storytelling all around as Morrison juggles a number of plot threads without once letting anything drop--and Quitely's work here is second only to his work on We3.

The action sequences are smoothly orchestrated without the confusion of the previous issue. Subtleties of characterization are on display with every single panel, and we get the return of not just one but two signature Batman and Robin moves with their simultaneous take-down of Pyg and their dramatic entrance to the lair of Le Bossu. Additionally, Quitely continues to work the sound effects into the scenes--culminating in the bloody "bangs" as The Red Hood shoots two police officers in the final pages as he rescues Sasha.

This is one of the best books I've read this year, period.



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