Grant Morrison, in Batman Reborn, has brought us the next generation of — well, of Batman and Robin. In this case, Batman is Dick Grayson, the former Robin, the former Nightwing. Robin is Bruce Wayne’s son Damian, ten years old, raised by his mother and her league of assassins, returned home to undertake his part of his father’s legacy. It’s not an ideal mix, as far as personalities go.
Morrison’s first story arc involves a rather bizarre circus, Le Cirque d’Etrange; a mind-control drug; Professor Pyg, who has a thing about replacing people’s faces with something rather more generic; and your basic drug-and-prostitution industry. It segues into the second series, in which Batman and Robin are confronted by a vigilante who styles himself “The Red Hood” (who, as it happens, is Jason Todd, another former Robin). The problem with the Red Hood is that he knows no limits. The stories are bridged by Sasha, the daughter of one of Toad’s henchmen from the first story arc, converted by Professor Pyg into one of his “dolls,” complete with replacement face. She becomes the Hood’s sidekick, taking the name “Scarlet.”
It’s a little over the top. The basic set-up is just barely credible, even for superhero comics, and the story seems to focus on grotesquerie for the sake of grotesquerie. Professor Pyg’s character — well, there’s an attempt to give him some psychological reality, in a bastard Freudian sort of way, that just doesn’t ring true. He’s about as sympathetic as a Wall Street banker. The conflicts between Grayson and Damian are awkward enough to be painful — but not by intent, as nearly as I could figure out. Grayson spends enough time wondering if he can ever be a worthy successor to Batman that we begin to wonder, too. Damian is a ten-year-old shrimp with a Napoleon complex as big as his head. Good martial arts skills, though. There could have been some real good psychology between these two, but the presentation is so blatant and heavy handed that I just didn’t care and wanted them to drop the self-examination and get back to the chop-socky. The one sympathetic character is Sasha/Scarlet, who in spite of adopting the role of evil sidekick in the Red Hood series, manages to come off as basically good, if somewhat weak-willed. Maybe that’s because she’s the only one allowed any sort of redemption. Red Hood could have gotten there, but he’s obviously a nut case, and my sympathy in that situation has limits — I’m sorry you turned out this way, but the solution is to get you sedated and off the street before anyone can hope to help you — not really material for a comic book.
And maybe that’s the problem here, for me at least — it’s like the characters — Grayson, Damien, Todd, Professor Pyg, even the Penguin (who shows up in the second series) — are on treadmills, marking time and not going anywhere. I realize there are limits to how far you can take a character in an ongoing serial, but if the only progression is that Damian decides to cooperate with Grayson — well, it’s not really enough. (And that’s about the only part that I believed.)
The graphic work focuses on the grotesque as much as the story does — some of these characters are downright repellent, which they’re supposed to be, I guess, but it’s a little bit of overkill. Both Quitely, in the Professor Pyg story arc, and Tan, in the Red Hood arc, take some liberties with layouts to good effect. There’s not a lot of narrative that happens outside the dialogue, however, which is missed opportunity — both artists are, I think, capable of doing more.
Frankly, Batman Reborn is not going to be on my list of favorites. It’s OK, which in the face of so much exceptional work being done in graphic literature is not really enough to put it in the first rank.
(DC Comics, 2010)