24 May 2009

Competing Portrayals of Batman and Robin

In September 2005, DC Comics launched a magazine called All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, written by Frank Miller and drawn by Jim Lee--two of the very biggest names in American comics. Its first story arc retold the origin of the Batman and Robin team: vengeance-driven billionaire Bruce Wayne takes suddenly orphaned young acrobat Dick Grayson under his webbed wing.

Two months later, the companion magazine All-Star Superman took off, featuring words by Grant Morrison and art by Frank Quitely. The first six issues were collected in a book in 2007, the next six earlier this year. They're just a whole lot of fun.

Meanwhile, Miller and Lee's All-Star Batman and Robin trundled on in fits and starts. It became notorious for production delays; after three years, there were just enough issues to fill one book. And Miller's script became even more notorious for its portrayal of Batman as a borderline psychopath.
Both All-Star titles sold big, but All-Star Superman got universally good reviews while All-Star Batman and Robin has been lambasted. Some people love it, to be sure, but part of what they enjoy is how much it ticks so many other people off. DC assured readers that these stories weren't in "regular continuity"--i.e., readers could treat them as imaginary. (As opposed to other Batman and Superman stories, which are real.)

For weekly Robin purposes, all that matters is that at the center of All-Star Batman and Robin is the relationship between the Boy Wonder and the Caped Crusader. At the end of the first story arc, "the goddamn Batman" finally realizes that he's pushed Robin too far toward his own madness.

This year, DC Comics will launch a new magazine called Batman and Robin, by Morrison and Quitely. (Last week we learned about a variant cover by J. G. Jones.) This story is "in continuity" as a follow-up to the "Batman RIP" arc in which Bruce Wayne died, sort of. To the surprise of few, the Batman in these stories will be Dick Grayson, grown up. (He took on that role in 1994 as well.) And the Robin of this magazine will be Damian Wayne.

Who? Back in 2006--i.e., soon after Miller's All-Star Batman and Robin started--Morrison introduced this character into issues of Batman magazine that have been collected as Batman and Son. Damian was supposedly Bruce Wayne's child by Talia al Ghul, an old nemesis. He fights well above his weight, having been raised in the League of Assassins, but has no moral sense and a big chip on his little shoulder.

A new interview at IGN confirms implicitly that Morrison was planning to make Damian Wayne a new Robin ever since he invented the character. And from that start, Damian has insisted that he--not Tim Drake--was Bruce Wayne's rightful partner and heir.

Morrison has said he was inspired by the Son of the Demon graphic novel, written by 1987 in Mike W. Barr. Bruce and Talia's child in that story has a different fate, but it was always "out of continuity."

I wonder if an unacknowledged source of inspiration for Morrison was Miller's concurrent take on the Batman and Robin team. This new Batman and Robin magazine seems to reverse the All-Star premise. Instead of a humorless, violent "goddamn Batman" finding Robin as his inspiration to remain sane, we'll see a more solidly grounded Batman trying to rein in and teach "the goddamn Robin."

This wouldn't the first time that Morrison drew inspiration from Miller, and perhaps tried to outdo him. Back in early 1986, Miller published The Dark Knight Returns, arguably the most important Batman story since 1940. Months later, Morrison pitched DC the idea that in 1989 became Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. It took the notion that Batman was as crazy as his enemies about as far as it could go. In a reissue of that book Morrison wrote:

The repressed, armoured, uncertain and sexually frozen man in ARKHAM ASYLUM was intended as a critique of the '80s interpretation of Batman as violent, driven and borderline psychotic.
What "’80s interpretation of Batman as violent, driven and borderline psychotic" could that be? None other than Miller's depiction in The Dark Knight Returns, of course.

How will the response to Morrison's Batman and Robin compare to the response to Miller's? Fans will hate Damian as Robin, at least for a while, because Robin's supposed to be the good cop. (That's coming up in my "Reasons for Robin" series.) DC tried to shake up the Dynamic Duo's dynamic the same way in the late 1980s, and it ended with the reader-voted death of the second Jason Todd. Whose costume, I can't help but note, Damian Wayne put on in Batman and Son.

(This analogy between the Miller and Morrison Batman and Robin magazines has been discussed elsewhere, such as The Big Smoke and the new scans_daily, but not to my knowledge at this verbose length. Batman and Son must not be confused with the delightful parody webcomic "Batman and Sons.")

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