Having shuffled Bruce Wayne out of the mainstream continuity and stranding him far in the past at the close of Final Crisis, Grant Morrison offers a bit of reboot to the Batman franchise with the opening volume of his new series, Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn.
With two new, but very familiar, crusaders under the masks of the titular characters, Morrison is off to a fresh start, introducing new villains, while also nipping a tiny bit at the various plot threads left behind from his "Black Glove" story-arc during his run on Batman.
As the finale of R.I.P. indicated, Dick Grayson, a former Robin to Wayne's Batman, has taken over the mantle of the bat. Damian, Bruce's son, takes on the role of Robin after having been introduced in Morrison's Batman & Son. It's been two months since Batman was last seen in Gotham, and their sudden reappearance has both confused and reassured the police. In their inaugural run as the latest Dynamic Duo, the two uncover a scheme to unleash a viral infection upon the city in order to create drug addicts. They also have to contend with the return of the Red Hood, a violent vigilante hellbent on murdering Gotham's criminal element.
Both Grayson and Damian have spent time living in Bruce's shadow, although their stories couldn't be more different, and each are eager to prove their own worth as crime-fighters. Grayson, having spent time as Robin before striking out on his own as Nightwing, is the more seasoned of the two and sets about training Damian as Bruce once taught him. Damian, meanwhile, is a ten-year-old with a massive chip on his shoulder. Arrogant and raised by assassin's, he has a foolhardy streak and an ego to check. As a team, they have a few kinks to work out--the boy has a bit too much independence coupled with too much inexperience in the field, whereas Grayson feels as if he is merely playing at being Batman rather than taking on the role fully as his own. He's playing dress-up in the emperor's clothes. Being that each, in their own ways, are children of the Batman the two have a brotherly relationship as the older man tries to impart lessons learned on the younger, while also having a friendly, antagonistic rivalry. Grayson, as the older brother, has a sense of responsibility for Damian that really shines through, particularly at the close of the book when Robin is left wounded.
Family has always been an important part of the Batman mythos, and Morrison handles that aspect well. There are strong bonds between Grayson and the Wayne's family butler Alfred, who Dick uses as a sounding board for his fears and frustration, seeking counsel and support. While Damian is largely dismissive of those around him, there is a nicely subtle craving of approval. He is a perceptive child who is emotionally and physically tough, but being introduced to his father has changed him dramatically in a short amount of time. With his adopted family he sees the potential for what he could become, but find himself trapped between them and the guild of assassin's that raised him. Torn between his natural self and the self he aspires to become, the boy is wearing an awful lot of masks and struggling to find his own identity.
Equally important to the mythos of Batman are his villains. Deranged, disfigured, and psychotic, Batman has encountered numerous baddies inspired by childhood fears, crisis' of identity, urban legends, and wicked interpretations of classic literature, like the Alice in Wonderland inspired Mad Hatter. Morrison is quite at ease in crafting new villains to challenge his new heroes, drawing on other well-known fables and pop culture and twisting them into garish, horrific archetypes. Professor Pyg is unnervingly crazy, dressed in a pig's mask and surgical gown, and his crew of Dollotrons are an interesting testament to his own twisted psyche. There is an instance in the book where, in preparation for a torture session, he breaks out into a song and strip-tease dance while waving around power-tools. It's a wicked scene that's both funny and alarming in its depravity. Obsessed with perfection, his victims are forced to wear masks laced with an adhesive acid that eats away their face, replacing them with the perfect blank slate of a doll's visage. It's creepy stuff, and the sheer level of derangement, obsession, and high ideals makes Pyg a compelling adversary. Less interesting is Morrison's Prince-inspired assassin, Flamingo. A lobotomized nutjob (is there any other kind?), Flamingo is a Spanish killer clad in a pink matador's outfit with a penchant for eating the faces of call-girls. He's an absurd addition that provides a few chuckles, and once again proves that Morrison is perfectly at home in crafting the crazies, but ultimately lacks the depth of Professor Pyg, or other classic villains like Joker or Two-Face.
Throughout his run with Batman, Morrison has reached back into the character's rich but largely neglected history. Drawing a degree of inspiration from the 1960s, Batman & Robin is a more colorful book, making using of a wider color palette. There's plenty of pinks, red, oranges, yellows, and greens on display. Frank Quitely does a great job with the pencils, drawing fluid action scenes and putting some fun visual twists on the sound f/x, such as drafting explosions that read "boom!" His cover art, which is presented between chapters, is instantly iconic and memorable, sometimes paying homage to Batman covers of decades past. His cover art for issue 6, which introduces Flamingo, is a terrific realization of Prince's "Purple Rain." Coupled with colors by Philip Tan, this is one fun book to look at and the dynamic color palette adds a unique dimension to the sick, twisted tales being crafted, filtering the moments of camp through a perverted kaleidoscope.
The most important aspect of Batman & Robin is that it feels fresh, and it's just a damn fun book. There's a very interesting dynamic developing between Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne, and witnessing the interplay between them is entertaining. Grayson is a far cry from Bruce Wayne, and his Batman is less grim and dour. Equally telling, he is less impervious than Wayne was under Morrison's guiding hand. The largest problem with Morrison's run on Batman was that the title character was never truly in danger. He was too much the larger-than-life superhero, always one step ahead, always fully prepared for any eventuality. Nothing could touch him, nothing could destroy him, no matter how serious the threat. He overpowered everybody around him simply through sheer force of will and determination. He was too much of a Superman. With Grayson under the cape and cowl of Batman now, there's a degree of danger and excitement--he can be hurt, he can make mistakes and learn how to deal with them. Although it is a continuation of the work Morrison started way back in Batman & Son, what he delivers here is a new spin on an old tale. Batman & Robin feels relevant in a way that R.I.P. didn't, and in many ways, its perfect in all the ways Morrison's earlier Batman story arcs were imperfect.