20 January 2013

Reading the Memo on Damian Wayne

One of the most interesting elements of Batman and Robin: Born to Kill, by Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason with Mick Gray, is the “story proposal” printed at the end of the book. Of its fourteen paragraphs, all but three are an analysis of the relationship between Bruce and Damian Wayne.

The other paragraphs introduce the story’s villain and his motivation, rooted in his history with Bruce Wayne, but not his powers or working methods. Also missing from the proposal is a storyline with plot points, emotional moments, rising action, and so on. It mentions only one corner of the plot, the climax at the end of what turned out to be issue #7.

Instead, Tomasi’s memo is all about Batman and Robin’s differing symbolism, motives, and approaches to attacking crime. All very important in the superhero genre, but I doubt such a memo would have been enough for DC Comics’s editorial team if it hadn’t come from Tomasi. He was a DC editor himself until a few years ago and a successful utility player since. As the company planned its “New 52” reboot, its honchos probably wanted to keep working with Tomasi. The question was how to make this Batman book different from half a dozen others. His proposal supplied an answer:
Our “A” story, the emotional and psychological backbone of the book[,] will be laser-focused on the relationship between Bruce and Damian.
Eventually the story reaches a common point in superhero comics: the hero appears to face dire consequences unless he compromises his values—in this case, Bruce Wayne’s commitment not to kill. Of course, Damian Wayne has a different approach to that dilemma.

Indeed, Damian is quite the troubled ten-year-old in this volume. He sits at a drawing board sketching gory pictures—a hobby that could lead only to the horror of being a comic-book artist. He crushes small animals. (The story proposal says he kills “a sick bat that’s fallen to the cave floor,” but that’s not how the scene plays out.)

I’ve seen some readers complain that this volume doesn’t show Damian having learned and grown from his training with Dick Grayson. In fact, some of the story’s noteworthy moments echo similar moments from earlier months: Damian insists on going out by himself, the R symbol gets ripped from his chest, another crime-fighter tempts him to change mentor, etc. And at the end, he can’t match his father’s commitment.

But if Damian changes greatly, there would be no story. The difference between the two Waynes isn’t simply the subject of this volume. It’s also the Unresolvable Foundational Conflict of this series. In issue #8 the villain is gone and there’s no trouble for the heroes after page 6—except the trouble they pose for each other. And that’s one of the most compelling chapters of the volume. The relationship really is the “A” story.

Tomasi expresses his theme as “nature versus nurture.” At least as Bruce sees it in issue #2, “I have to find a way to push him past the obscene indoctrination of his early years and hope nurture wins out over nature.” That seems like a misunderstanding of what “nature versus nurture” means, however. The conflict is between the two ways Damian has been nurtured by his two parents. We don’t know how he would have developed normally. We don’t know what his innate qualities are.

Another notable element of Tomasi’s proposal is how he linked his new villain with Grant Morrison’s Batman, Inc. narrative, about a worldwide crime-fighting enterprise led by Bruce Wayne and a worldwide criminal enterprise led by Damian’s mother. The villain had a personal reason to attack Batman, but Tomasi had him resent Batman, Inc. I think Tomasi is still loyal to the pitch he heard from Morrison as an editor years ago. The other main Batman comics seem to be working independently of Morrison’s storyline, but Tomasi is still trying to keep the continuity together.

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