25 April 2010

Grant Morrison on His Robin

DC Comics has just published the first hardcover collection of Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin comic book, with art penciled by Frank Quitely and Philip Tan, and is also promoting the simultaneous climax of that sixteen-issue magazine and the Return of Bruce Wayne miniseries. So naturally Morrison’s been doing interviews with comic-book and pop-culture websites.

Even more than many other storytelling forms, adventure comics depend on unexpected plot twists. In promotional interviews, therefore, creators and publishers have to conceal most of what’s coming up while piquing readers’ interest. This game is fairly transparent, yet so many fans don’t seem to see through it—nor to acknowledge that if we actually did know all about what will happen next, reading those stories wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

The value in such interviews for me is their review of the recent past, the storylines that have been played out and are safe to talk about. Creators can discuss their thinking, working methods, abandoned paths, and serendipitous ideas. In Morrison’s recent interviews, he opened up more about his creation Damian Wayne. For example, he told Comics Alliance:

one of the first ideas I had was “Batman R.I.P.” when I got the “Batman” job back in 2005... all that stuff was there to begin with, the whole Dr. Hurt plotline and Black Glove plotline were there. And as it progressed, as with most of these things, when you get into the work and you start to understand the things that you’re doing, it takes on a life of its own and starts to expand. There are certain things that seem to make sense at the time like making Damian a little bastard and killing him off…
Morrison thus originally planned Damian Wayne as a short-term character, not a permanent addition to the bat-cave. He told Topless Robot of the source for that inspiration:
I always liked those old “Bat-Boy” stories where you would see another kid coming in and taking Robin’s place and Robin would sob in the background, that kind of thing. I wanted to do that story where suddenly Robin was confronted with a very real threat to what he was. So it was the idea of taking the various kind of versions of Batman’s child that we’d seen before, and doing a new one, a real one. . . .
I found that we were able to give him a son and that doesn't really mess up his mythology too much; it seemed like something Batman could have done and still stay true to the integrity of the character. I was quite surprised it worked, because we planned to kill Damian off in the first four issues, and then he seemed too full of potential. . . .

I knew I’d be doing RIP, but I kind of figured that was the end of the line for my story, and then the idea for Batman and Robin came along and the team just seemed such a great dynamic that I had to keep on with it. So no, it wasn’t planned. As I mentioned, we originally intended to kill Damian and do a poignant four-part storyline where he starts out as a really bad kid and ends up as a good kid but dies tragically.
In other words, Morrison intended to write his version of “Punish Not My Evil Son,” a Batman/Teen Titans crossover from 1969 written by Bob Haney and illustrated by Neal Adams.

In that tale, Bruce Wayne gains a new foster son, Lance Bruner, who’s, well, evil. He does things like fake his own kidnapping. Dick Grayson takes some of the blame for the kid’s misdeeds, to the disgust of his superpowered buddies. In the end, Lance is inspired by Robin’s heroism, puts on the red and green costume to help Batman, and gets fatally shot. And that’s all in one issue!

Despite that initial plan, Morrison and DC quickly saw enough potential in Damian Wayne to make him survive that first story arc (Batman and Son), reappear in another (The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul), and finally take over the role of Robin.

As I discussed back when the Batman and Robin series began, it reverses the usual dynamic of the Dynamic Duo, especially as exaggerated in Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. Morrison spelled out that reversal once again in an MTV web interview:
It’s the opposite of the traditional Batman and Robin, because in this case, Batman is a little more happy-go-lucky, a bit more of a lighthearted, upbeat guy, and Robin’s a little bad-ass, scowling monster. We kind of reversed the dynamic, which makes it quite interesting.

I didn’t expect to be doing it, but once I got into it, it became so much fun. It’s really fresh, because these two characters can get involved in stories that might not suit Bruce Wayne, or had a lighter touch, a stranger touch, or some psychedelia. . . .

Dick Grayson makes a great Batman because he’s been developed over the years as this consummate superhero. He was Batman’s original partner, so he’s been trained by the best. So we kind of knew what he would be like, but to throw Damian into the mix and suddenly have Batman’s evil 10-year-old son as the new Robin really created the dynamic that makes the bit work.
It’s notable that Morrison continues to use the term “evil” for Damian, but no surprise. That given name has one overwhelming connotation for us guys who grew up in the 1970s: the devil-spawn in The Omen. All along Morrison’s character has been a test of what the Robin role can accommodate, and conversely whether this boy, even with all his physical talents and training, is up to the job. Because, as I’ve been exploring, Robin isn’t evil.


Anonymous said...

See, I'd buy into this a lot more if Morrison had bothered to have ANY in story explanation of how Damian got the role of Robin, and how Dick expected that to fly when he hadn't had the courtesy to talk it through with the then current Robin, who had no reason to believe he wouldn't continue to be Robin. Tim seems to have just walked in to be told, by Damian, that he was the new Robin so get lost. Damian making that claim I can believe, but Dick allowing that scene to happen, and AFTER accepting him as Robin but before telling Tim just plain doesn't work. Well, that and Damian's plot-power level of supertalent in too many areas to be either interesting or plausible, even by sidekick standards.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m not sure what the “this” is that you’re not buying, but it appears to be how Morrison’s new Batman and Robin team has no place for Tim Drake.

I think there are a couple of factors there. First, as I wrote while analyzing the behind-the-scenes interviews about Battle for the Cowl, Morrison seems to have gotten interested in the different dynamic of a new Batman and Robin, but not in the transition into that situation from what came before. His Batman RIP issues set down a timeline, and other writers filled in that gap.

Secondly, I don’t see Morrison as being deeply interested in Tim Drake as a personality, though he’s interested in Robin as a role. Morrison grew up with Dick Grayson, and respects that character, and he’s clearly tickled with Damian’s storytelling potential. He used Tim in some of his Batman issues, particularly the “League of Heroes” arc, but there wasn’t much distinctive about his characterization. Even in Batman and Son, Tim’s feeling of displacement seemed to be symbolic rather than heartfelt. Other writers handled Tim’s big moments in that arc and Resurrection of Ra’s al-Ghul.

Most of your comment seems to address how Dick Grayson managed the personnel shift from Tim to Damian. Which, of course, Morrison didn’t address at all. As with Battle for the Cowl, that transition got assigned to another writer: in this case, Chris Yost in Red Robin, #1.

I suspect that Yost’s brief from DC was to get Tim fighting assassins on his own in Eurasia, trying to unravel a mystery of the past—the company’s own Jason Bourne. To do that, he had to move Tim out of the Robin costume (which Fabian Nicieza had already accomplished in Robin, #182, and then dialed back), out of the Batman team, out of Gotham, and so on, all as soon as possible. So Yost scripted a series of rushed flashbacks.

Many readers (myself among them) thought some of those scenes were out of character. There were lukewarm reviews, complaints on discussion boards, and fanfiction alternatives.

That said, it seems clear to me that Yost was looking ahead to the scenes we’re seeing in Red Robin now: Tim back in Gotham, in a better place emotionally, adjusted to no longer being Robin, and commanding Dick’s trust and respect. Would Tim’s recent reunion with Dick and Damian (setting aside Blackest Night) have been as effective if their parting hadn’t been so nasty? Does Yost’s yearlong Red Robin arc work as a whole? I want to sit down with all the chapters and assess them.

Similarly, I’m reserving judgment on whether Damian is really a successful Robin, or just an irritant to stir things around. Morrison’s plan for the character may yet go the “Punish Not My Evil Son” route in the next few issues, or Damian might survive to fight another day.