This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
The first storyline in scriptwriter Grant Morrison's reworking of the Dynamic Duo is probably the most enjoyable superhero tale of the last couple of years, and this includes movies as well as comics.
Given a choice between the current crop of costumed-superhero comics and the movies that feature the characters, one is probably better off going with the movies. As bad as the films have increasingly gotten, they’re still designed to entertain a general audience. Contemporary superhero comics cater to their cult. The narratives are often so bogged down in references to previous storylines that they’re all but incomprehensible. The art is generally impersonal and hideously over-rendered. Taken as cartooning, it is often astonishingly inept. If the narrative baggage from prior episodes hasn’t hopelessly confused the reader, the unfathomable visual storytelling is usually able to finish the job. And don’t get me started on the creepy sexual attitudes that inform most of the writing and drawing.
Batman & Robin, Book One: Batman Reborn, scripted by Grant Morrison, with art by Frank Quitely and Philip Tan, is quite a pleasant surprise. (Quitely illustrates the first of the book's two stories; Tan draws the second.) The book is not only readable, it’s actually entertaining, particularly in Quitely’s half. Morrison starts with a solid premise: Bruce Wayne is dead, and the adult Dick Grayson--better known to most of us as Robin--assumes Batman’s cape and cowl. He is joined by a new Robin, who is Wayne’s 10-year-old son. The basic concept is developed well. Grayson’s conflicts are not only with the criminals the two fight. He also has to deal with his insecurities about living up to the crime-fighting standard set by the elder Wayne. His challenge is not only to prove himself to his own satisfaction, he also has to earn the respect of the police department, who quickly realize he’s not the same Batman, as well as that of Wayne’s son, who constantly complains that his father would have done this or that differently. Frank Quitely's cartooning has a refreshing clarity, and the plot in his storyline is an enjoyably lurid pulp story. The villain creates female accomplices by addicting them to an identity-destroying narcotic. Further, he gets his sadistic jollies by grafting doll-like masks to their faces. It’s up to the heroes to stop him before he holds Gotham City hostage with an aerosol version of the drug. As far as Batman stories go, this is pretty good.
The second story unfortunately isn’t as successful. Philip Tan’s work is a good deal better than that of most superhero cartoonists these days, but his efforts lack the clarity and flow of Quitely’s pages. Morrison’s story also gets bogged down in the problems that undercut the work of most contemporary superhero-comics writers. The new Batman and Robin have to contend with a rival costumed vigilante who isn’t just content to capture criminals; his preference is to kill them as well. It turns out this new vigilante isn’t exactly a new character. He apparently was Robin at some point in between Grayson’s tenure and that of Wayne’s son, which I gather fits in with some Batman stories that go back a couple of decades. Unfotrunately, the more Morrison weaves this older material together with the new, the less one cares. This old-new character is an unpleasant bore, and one wishes it didn’t take so long for him to be sidelined. The villain everyone’s chasing isn’t very inspired, either. He’s called the Flamingo, and he’s such a tired knock-off of the Joker that one sits there wondering why Morrison and Tan didn’t just go with the original.
I have no idea if this series regains its footing with the storylines that appear after the two collected here. Chances are it doesn’t; superhero comics have an even worse record for diminishing returns than series television. But if one has a hankering for contemporary costumed-superhero fare, one isn’t going to do much better than this collection’s first half. If nothing else, it’s an improvement over what the movie people have been doing with the genre over the last couple of years.