Sunday Slugfest: Batman and Robin #16

A comic review article by: Thom Young
Grant Morrison’s work on Batman and Robin concludes as he brings a resolution to many of the plot points that have been running through his work on this title and his previous work on Batman, but new plot elements join those that have been left unresolved as he prepares to move on to his new series, Batman, Inc..

Ross Haralson:
Kyle Garret:
Chris Kiser:
Dave Wallace:




Ross Haralson:

This latest issue was another excellent, though occasionally confusing, installment of Batman and Robin.

Early hype suggested that writer Grant Morrison would use the issue to wrap up many of the plot threads he first wove into Batman and then into Batman and Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne, and I’m happy to declare that Morrison meets that expectation, as Bruce is successfully returned to the present era (not that anyone doubted he would be), Dr. Hurt’s identity is finally revealed, and the Joker’s odd era of crime fighting comes to an end--though not without one final victory by which he reestablishes himself as Batman’s greatest foe.

It’s extremely difficult to discuss any specific events from this issue without venturing into spoiler territory, so let me simply state that Morrison’s characterization is top-notch throughout. There are almost too many “standout” moments to count--Bruce’s first words in the present (“Is that Damian in a Robin costume?”), Alfred’s plea to Bruce (“Can that please be the last time I have to grieve needlessly?”) and Damian’s expression of loyalty to Dick (“Never mind all that . . . what happens to us?”) all being fine examples--and each of them cement Morrison’s reputation as modern master of the Batman.

Regarding the events at the end of the issue, some might question the logic of such a move, as well as the inherent danger it brings, but I would argue that this directions is a calculated and progressive step that will provide distinct benefits to Bruce in both of his identities. I actually welcome the start of Batman, Inc., as Batman and Robin’s return to the heavily ciphered style of “Batman R.I.P.”--while admittedly necessary given the conclusive nature of the story--was somewhat costly in that it deprived the series of its unique identity during the latter portion of its (Morrison-penned) run. Hopefully Batman, Inc. will bring a fresh style to the third leg of Morrison’s meta-narrative that will complement the unique attributes of his Batman run and the first several arcs of Batman and Robin.

The art for this issue was split amongst three distinct illustrators, and while Cameron Stewart, Chris Burnham, and Frazier Irving employ drastically different styles, there does seem to be a certain logic behind the issue’s visual structure.

Stewart seems the most appropriate choice to illustrate the first half of the issue. The artist’s last work on this title was during the “Blackest Knight” arc wherein a false Bruce was raised from the dead, so it seems fitting that he is Morrison’s choice to first illustrate the returned Wayne in the pages here.

The illustrator is in top form--using crisp, clean lines to tell his portion of the story. The occult leanings of the opening sequence are appropriately shadowed and deeply chilling, while the transition to the present carries a contrastingly bright and hopeful tone. Scenes in which Bruce and Dick both appear in costume aren’t the least bit confusing thanks to Stewart’s distinct character renderings, which is most effectively proven during an extended battle sequence with the 99 Fiends that both highlights Stewart’s brilliance with panel layouts and seemingly tips its hat to the similar work of Frank Quitely from Batman #700. I hope Stewart returns to these characters soon, as he is easily among the strongest talents to appear in this series.

The second illustrator to appear is Chris Burnham, and I can scarcely imagine that any reader could look at his pages without comparing his style to that of Quitely. However, having seen his work in other books--such as The Amory Wars and Officer Downe, it would appear that Burnham’s style has been deliberately adjusted for the sake of this specific material. Even so, the similarities are welcome (and even comforting) given the unfortunate nature of Quitely’s absence.

In fact, I now wish DC had tapped Burnham to supplement Quitely in the pages of the aforementioned Batman #700, as a transition to Burnham would have been much less jarring than that to the supremely talented Scott Kolins. Burnham is not without his unique contributions, however, as his work with shadows, silhouettes, and reflective surfaces is uniformly outstanding.

The third and final illustrator is Frazier Irving, who also illustrated the preceding arc of this title--as well as the second issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne (to which this issue’s story unquestionably ties). Irving’s style is extremely unique, but his work is probably not for everyone. Yet, I never cease to be amazed by his style.

Irving is probably the only artist who could match Quitely’s chilling design of Professor Pyg, and his Joker is perhaps the best I’ve seen in the past decade (even better than that of Lee Bermejo, my second favorite). Irving positively excels at conveying emotion, perhaps most easily noted on pages 28 and 29 in (from left to right) Bruce’s desperate gasp for air, Damian’s determined grimace as he diffuses a bomb, and Alfred’s haggard expression of relief. It is also noteworthy that the preceding sequence involving a banana peel--which would have been silly and incongruent with the tone of this issue as illustrated by a lesser artist--is an example of why Irving makes a perfect match for Morrison, and I greatly anticipate future partnerships between these creators.

Let me finally point out that any seeming disparity in the division of this issue between these three artists is actually dispelled by close observation of the content. Stewart’s opening speaks for itself, for the reason I outlined above, and covers scenes involving Bruce, Dick, and Damian in costume. The second half of the issue is split sensibly between sequences involving Bruce’s solo mission to save Alfred (illustrated by Burnham) and those tying into the larger plot involving Professor Pyg and the Joker (by Irving).

At any rate, the use of multiple artists in no way detracts from the overall quality of the issue and, in many ways, helps to unify the many threads of Morrison’s plot that converge in this concluding story.

All in all, Morrison’s work with these characters will stand the test of time as some of the most consistently engaging Batman material ever published, and Batman and Robin #16 functions splendidly in its dual role as both the conclusion of one era and the birth of another.




Kyle Garret:

And with this latest issue, Grant Morrison has guaranteed that I won’t get anything done this weekend.

Batman and Robin #16 is a fantastic conclusion to Morrison’s epic Batman story, and it feels like it. While the transition to Batman, Inc. looks like it will be a smooth one, there’s no doubt that this issue represents an ending--the culmination of, at the very least, the Dr. Hurt storyline.

For those keeping track, this book opens with a scene pulled from Peter Milligan’s as-yet-uncollected “Dark Knight, Dark City” from Batman #452-454 then barrels head long into the return of Bruce Wayne (the details of which have yet to be revealed in the final issue of the limited series of the same name), followed by the conclusion of the battle with Dr. Hurt--and even a showdown with the Joker. Alfred needs rescuing, Hurt tells us what “R.I.P.” meant to him, and Commissioner Gordon wears a dress; it’s just another Grant Morrison comic.

The unsung hero of this issue is editor Mike Marts. I’ll admit I was skeptical about the idea of there being three artists on this issue, as jam issues rarely go well. However, instead of just divvying up the issue in thirds, Marts gave each artist a story-defined section to work on. While each artist has a distinct style, the change from section to section never feels jarring.

This issue is made by two scenes. The first is the return of Bruce Wayne. Morrison’s handle on the relationship between Bruce, Dick, and Damian is without peer. I love that Bruce’s first line in this issue is “Is that Damian in a Robin costume?” Dick gets his own chance to be funny, too, when explaining the situation at hand: “Oh . . . and the Joker. He’s on our side, kinda.” Morrison also throws in a nod to The Dark Knight Returns when Bruce calls Dick “soldier.”

The humor in that scene comes from theoretically sane people pointing out the ridiculousness of their situation--a stark contrast to the final showdown between Dr. Hurt and the Joker. In just two pages, we see exactly why the Joker is Batman’s arch-nemesis, as he takes down Hurt in typical Joker fashion. This is the Joker re-establishing the natural order of things, appropriately sending Hurt to the grave he has managed to avoid for so long.

I realize that it would be something of a writing faux pas to make such a large change to a character’s status quo and then walk away, leaving it to other writers to deal with, but there’s a part of me that wishes Morrison had done just that. Batman and Robin #16 is such a satisfying conclusion to Morrison’s ultimate Batman story that anything from here on out is going to feel disconnected.

Then again, maybe we’re going to see Morrison’s other ultimate Batman story.




Chris Kiser:

As the finale of the most recent leg of Grant Morrison’s critically acclaimed and best-selling run on the Bat-books, Batman and Robin #16 debuted this week to intense levels of anticipation on the part of many fans. Yet, in spite of all the inherent hype, the finished product turns out to be something short of the greatest issue this title has ever produced.

Does that make it a disappointment?

Well, it’s true that within these pages you won’t find the series’ most shocking revelation (that would be Oberon Sexton’s unmasking in issue 12), its most emotionally stirring character moment (Damian’s confrontation with his mother, also in 12), its finest art (Frank Quitely’s work on the premier, of course), or even its most frightening threat by a villain (Professor Pyg’s striptease, anyone?).

What Morrison and company give us instead, though, is an issue that’s the perfect tribute to all of the wonderful elements that came before. Forsaking the goal of adding yet another superlative moment to this book’s ledger, Batman and Robin #16 serves to simply confirm that everything you loved about this series was, in fact, as great as you remember.

A lot has transpired since the original Dark Knight put on the cape and cowl, and his long-awaited homecoming gives readers a chance to reflect upon everything Morrison has cooked up in Bruce’s absence. With Gotham City in the throes of chaos and a deadly archenemy waging war within the wall of Wayne Manor itself, the road leading us to this point has been quite the wild and windy one.

“Is that Damian in a Robin costume?” the elder Batman asks, referring to the greatest thing to happen to the Bat-universe since Alfred the Butler. It is indeed, Bruce, and your bratty little boy has grown up right before our very eyes.

So, too, has Dick Grayson answered the call for heroism in his mentor’s stead, further proven by the return of the original Caped Crusader. Bruce Wayne has not come back to save the day from some inadequate successor; rather, he’s here to finally join in on a fight against crime that was always in good hands.

Just as Morrison’s fine-tuned wrap-up facilitates a reader retrospective, so does the trio of artists who help round out the telling of this final chapter. Cameron Stewart and Frazer Irving reprise their earlier roles as visual geniuses, while newcomer Chris Burnham does a great impression of Frank Quitely who, sadly, couldn’t be with us this month beyond the front cover. Thankfully, none of the three does anything to remind us of Philip Tan.

All in all, this issue could have ushered the perfect exit for Morrison, but everyone knows that goodbyes in comics only last until the next new Number One comes around. And with Batman, Inc. just around the corner, our favorite Scotsman manages to slip in a rousing lead-in to where he’s headed for the next phase of Bat-awesomeness.

If you’ve been reading Batman and Robin, you’d be a fool not to join him in Batman, Inc.. The many cherished memories from this series are a guarantee that your pal, Grant, has a whole new round of them already conjured up in that imagination of his.




Dave Wallace:

Not for the first time, an issue of Grant Morrison's Batman run has been something of a disappointment to me on a first reading only to reveal unexpected depths of dense, subtly layered storytelling on subsequent re-readings.

Had I written this review after reading Batman and Robin #16 just once, I would have probably given it 3.5 bullets and criticised it for being too convenient and pat a conclusion for a storyline that had hitherto been fairly unpredictable and unconventional. This issue was built up as the one in which Morrison finally brings his long-running storyline involving Bruce Wayne's latest arch-nemesis, Dr. Hurt, to a climax--tying together elements of the writer's recent work on Return of Bruce Wayne and Batman (and, of course, previous issues of Batman and Robin too). However, at face value, this issue seemed too straightforward and anticlimactic to be a worthy conclusion. Several things left me underwhelmed the first time I read it.

The return of Bruce Wayne suggested by last issue's cliffhanger turns out to be just that, with no real explanation given for how this issue connects with his time-traveling journey seen in the pages of Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne.

Dr. Hurt's origins are clarified slightly, but still remain somewhat ambiguous and inconclusive, and his showdown with Bruce feels a little clichéd and conventional. Most of the secondary plot strands that Morrison has been developing over the recent arc (such as Professor Pyg's addictive viral infection, the Joker's nuclear device, and Dick Grayson's looming brain haemorrhage) are brought to an abrupt and convenient halt without much time being spent on resolving any of them.

Finally, the developments of the final pages--which lead into Morrison's Batman, Inc.--feel as though they come out of nowhere, with little explanation as to why Bruce Wayne would have such a sudden change of heart.

However, after reading the issue a second and third time, Morrison's reasons for handling these elements in this way became clearer--and new subtleties to the story revealed themselves.

First, the prologue of the opening pages sheds a lot more light on Morrison's story than might at first appear. Referring back to Peter Milligan's “Dark Knight, Dark City” from Batman #452-454 (where the demon Barbatos was introduced, under the name “Barbathos”), Morrison retcons in some new details that tie his more recent take on the demonic legend into the story in which the concept first appeared.

We see that Hurt stayed behind in the aftermath of the demonic ritual that summoned Barbatos, and we become privy to some new details that cast the demon in a whole new light, revealing him to be linked closely to the Omega Sanction placed on Bruce Wayne by Darkseid at the end of Final Crisis.

This scene gives us some of the strongest hints yet that Dr. Hurt is an avatar of Darkseid, and that he is either possessed by or is a physical manifestation of the evil god's “hyper-adapter” (as seen in Batman #702). Hurt also calls himself “Omega Adeptus”--again linking himself to Darkseid's Omega Sanction at the end of Final Crisis. He then goes on to compare himself to the mythical religious figure Simon Magus, whose thematic connections to Morrison's overarching story are also very revealing about Hurt's true nature (and if you've never heard his name, go and look him up).

Interestingly, the scene between Darkseid and Hurt is also a dark reflection of the opening pages of Final Crisis #1. The demonic voice of Darkseid addresses Hurt with the words “Omega Adapter. Dark Side. Knowledge”, which mirror the words of Metron that open Final Crisis: “Man. I am Metron. Have no fear. Here is knowledge”. It's little links like this that make Morrison's work so much fun to read and re-read--and when the writer has the Joker regularly mention his creepy and obsessive attention to detail, it's easy to imagine that Morrison might empathise with the villain a little.

However, it's when you start to think about what Morrison is implying with his ret-con that the story becomes really interesting--on both a literal and thematic level. Essentially, the writer has created a circular loop that makes Darkseid responsible for Barbatos, a demon that (according to “Dark Knight, Dark City”) is at least partially responsible for Bruce's transformation into Batman.

However, the apparent reason for Barbatos being created in the first place is Darkseid's reaction to his fatal injury at the hands of Batman, which means that the evil god inadvertently created the means of his own defeat (just like he did by creating the god-killing bullet, which was also used against him by Batman in Final Crisis). And that's not to mention the time-travel twist from Return of Bruce Wayne #1, which revealed that Batman himself may have been responsible for the Miagani tribe's bat-oriented mythology that eventually inspired Darkseid to inadvertently inspire Bruce to become Batman.

Phew!

Anyway, all of this ties into the idea of Batman as a superhero who subverts the imagery and conventions of dark forces and scary demons to use it to do good in the world. It also provides a mind-bending web of complex plot developments that fit together to form a wonderful self-repeating cycle in which good inevitably triumphs over evil.

Admittedly, when I read back over the last few paragraphs of this review, I realise that these elements are probably going to be nigh-on indecipherable for anyone who hasn't been following Morrison's Batman run closely (and I've only dealt with the opening few pages of this issue!). However, to be frank, Morrison isn't writing this climactic issue for the casual reader. Instead, he's using it to bring his full body of work on the bat-books to a crescendo, and in that respect it's very successful.

Another successful element is one that I originally found to be forced and too convenient: Morrison's transition between the end of this story and the beginning of the next phase of his plans for Batman in Batman Inc.. Initially, Bruce's press conference confession felt like an overly familiar twist, and one that was slightly derivative of recent developments like Robert Downey Jr.'s “I am Iron Man” or Peter Parker's admission to being Spider-Man at the end of Civil War #2. However, unlike that latter example, Morrison actually gives us some very good reasons as to why Bruce might be inspired to kick off a worldwide Batman franchise.

Firstly, early on in the issue we see Bruce note the existence of “two Batmen,” and recognise how effective they can be as a fighting force against Hurt's army of villains. Secondly, we later see Bruce put in a position in which several different threats (Hurt's kidnapping of Alfred, the Joker's bomb, and Professor Pyg's twisted parade) all need to be taken care of at the same time, and the skill of one man--even Batman--simply isn't enough to handle everything at once.

There are also more subtle pointers to the issue's eventual destination--like the infinite reflections of Batman in the Batcave's secret room (in another typically Morrisonian touch, this location is a reprise of the “truth chamber” idea--an interrogation room used by Batman way back in Detective Comics #134), as well as the inclusion earlier on in Morrison's run of the “International League of Batmen” idea that cropped up in more than one Silver Age Batman comic.

Other winning scenes include the payoff from last issue's scene involving the Joker and a banana skin, a deftly employed quotation from Edgar Allan Poe, a belated reveal of exactly what “R.I.P.” stood for in the title of Morrison's previous Batman story, and a secret coded message from the Joker using dominoes that spell out “HAHAHAHAHAHA” (just like his cards did in the prologue to “Batman RIP” from DC Universe #0).

I won't continue to list at length all of the many clever touches I noticed whilst rereading the comic, because I could be here all day. Instead, I'll turn to the artwork.

Initially, I was wary of the book using several different artists in a direct continuation of the story of issues #13-15, which had such a strong visual style under Frazer Irving. However, Cameron Stewart and Chris Burnham turn in some great work here, with a dynamic and atmospheric style that tells Morrison's story clearly and effectively.

In fact, Stewart and Burnham's work was so good that I was initially convinced that some panels--such as the shot of Jim Gordon in a dress, the image of Batman shoving Hurt's face through glass, the panel-packed fight scene involving the two Batmen and Robin taking out Hurt's goons, and the image of Batman poised for action in his secret room--had been drawn by Frank Quitely.

Frazer Irving also returns for several pages to illustrate plot strands dealing with the Joker and Professor Pyg, two characters whom he has really made his own over the course of the “Batman and Robin Must Die!” arc.

Ultimately, however, I can't give this book a full five-bullet rating because there are still a few lingering plot points that need to be resolved before we can get the full picture of how Morrison is bringing his epic Batman run to a climax. Happily, however, in just a few days time we'll be able to read Return of Bruce Wayne #6, which will, hopefully, not only give us a few more answers about Hurt (whose origins might be given extra definition here, but who still feels like he deserves a little more attention) but also directly acknowledge Darkseid's involvement in the creation of Barbatos--as well as showing us exactly how and why Bruce returned when he did.

I can't wait.

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