Despite being a huge Batman fan, I don't think I've read any of the comics since around the time of the Knightfall saga back in the '90s. Although I have several of the collected trades from the years following KnightsEnd, including No Man's Land and Hush, I've yet to read them. No doubt I'm missing out on some great material in the Batman lore, but leave it to the recent hype machine surrounding Grant Morrison's work to drag me back in, even if I'm a year or two late. After finding out DC was slated to soon release the trade collection of The Return of Bruce Wayne and learning that it wasn't such a huge investment to gather up the graphic novels of Morrison's run on Batman and then Batman & Robin to get all caught up, I figured there was no point in holding off any longer. I was hankering for a great Batman story, and all signs indicated it would begin with Batman & Son, Morrison's opening volley on more than 70 years of the Dark Knight's legacy. Morrison has been a bit of a "fixer" in the comic-book world. He's the go-to guy for titles that are flagging, either in readership or creativity. If a publisher wants a title to get a bit of a twist, to take on a makeover and become unique once again, Morrison is the man. He came to my attention during his run on New X-Men, where he cut through all the crap that had been building up in that world for a decade or two and gave the characters a fresh start. I had always been a X-fan going back to my childhood days, and Morrison made them feel special again. While House of M may have helped recharge the creativity of various X-writers and brought about the great Messiah saga, the overall creative renaissance that gave the X-Men books a new life can be traced back to Morrison. He also helped to revamp the Justice League of America and reminded readers of how great Superman could be with the critically acclaimed All Star Superman. Now he was going to tackle my number-one, all-time favorite character.
I had the faintest of glimmers of what Morrison was attempting to do with the Batman mythos, having followed the Internet rumblings and comic book reviews from various sites, so I knew this all kind of led into his work on Final Crisis, which saw Batman shot back into the very far-distant past. Somewhere prior to that, he would confront a new villain called The Black Glove, who would launch all-out psychological warfare against the Bat, culminating in the R.I.P. saga. After R.I.P. and Final Crisis ended Bruce Wayne's run as Batman, Morrison would go on to launch Batman & Robin, casting the once-upon-a-time Robin, the Boy Wonder, Dick Grayson as the new Batman, and Bruce's son Damian as the new Robin. But to get there, I had to start way back at the beginning. Considering the acclaim Morrison has racked up for his tenure with Batman & Robin, and my own enjoyment with his run on New X-Men, coupled with being a Bat-fanatic, I had very high hopes.
Which, I suspect, is but one reason I was disappointed with Batman & Son.
Batman & Son
The book gets off to an incredible start with a violent confrontation between Joker and Batman, laying the hook immediately and instantly changing the dynamic between the two (or at least the perception of their dynamic depending on each character's own point of view). The only problem is that the succeeding pages do not quite have the momentum promised as the book wears on, and Morrison actually gets in the way of himself by presenting one too many ideas in somewhat fractured order.
There are a few general problems I had with the organization and the conceit of the story. The first has to do with expectations, and the second is due to the nature of Morrison's work itself. Morrison came onto Batman with a very large story in mind, namely the R.I.P. arc, but he had to work backwards in order to get to that point, requiring the seeding of ideas and story elements through earlier chapters. As such, it is impossible to view Batman & Son as a single book with a cohesive narrative, because it is part of a much larger tapestry that is still unfolding. It's an introduction, and in some ways, a means to an end. Although the second volume, The Black Glove, labels itself as the prequel to R.I.P., Batman & Son is truly where it all begins and is an indispensable part of the overarching narrative. However, to approach it singly is to rile up a lot of disappointment.
It is very much not a stand-alone volume, as much of the status quo regarding the characters--particularly the Joker--are altered almost immediately. Plot threads and story-line elements are introduced here, but their significance within the greater story is not immediately clear and are not expounded upon until later volumes. The biggest of these is the concept of Zur 'En Arrh, first noticed as graffiti littering the alleyways of Gotham within the first half-dozen pages but which becomes the focal point of R.I.P. To say there is a lot going on here seems almost modest.
Morrison is building his own world within Batman, using the rich history of the character itself as plot. Unfortunately, for all the stage-setting Morrison does in this initial entry, there is very little payoff. Judging simply by the title alone, I had expected the work to have significantly more content involving Damian, Bruce Wayne's son. Instead, he is just kind of dropped after the first four chapters and relegated to more-or-less background information throughout the duration of the trilogy, popping up in brief reminders to let readers know that the writer has not actually forgotten about him.
I suppose knowing that Damian is destined to be a lead in Batman & Robin, I figured he would be more central to the developing mythology Morrison is building here and that he would have greater usage within the exposition. It is a bit of a shame that he doesn't have a greater presence within the book that introduces him, because he is actually a fun character. Typically, the surprise reveal of a hero's child comes off as cliché--it's a worn-out, cheesy, unwelcome staple of pop fiction, usually handled carelessly and as nothing more than a cheap gimmick. With Damian, though, Morrison overcomes this by making the child not only rude and off-putting, but also psychotic and intelligent. He treats Alfred with belligerence and dismissal, tries to kill Robin, breaks out of Wayne Manor, and dispatches a low-rent villain in gruesome fashion all in an attempt to win-over his father, then seems honestly shocked when it doesn't work out as he had envisioned. You can see the twisted psychosis at work here, and considering his father dresses up like a bat and he was raised by a troupe of ninja assassins, it's really no wonder he's a little fucked-up. It's an oddly charming, endearing method of getting us to Damian's side, without overdoing it. Unfortunately, he's just not around enough after his initial pot-stirring introduction and, despite a few brief asides, is largely written out of Morrison's overture until the closing moments of R.I.P.
Furthermore, the narrative flow is interrupted with a prose interlude that, while eerie and fascinating, is simply misplaced and disruptive to the continuity and pacing of the overarching story. "The Clown at Midnight" is a short-story centering around Joker's latest plot to poison Gothamites, supplemented with gorgeous visuals from John Van Fleet. It really is a great piece of fiction, but would have served the book better as an addendum given the shocking opening pages of this volume, which sees the Joker forever altered. As it stands, we have the first half of the story ending in Gibraltar, then Batman is back in Gotham for "The Clown at Midnight," and then immediately back in Gibraltar on the heels of the first act. It's a jarring interruption to the continuity, although the short story itself is certainly the strongest aspect of the book. Morrison has a wonderful grasp on the Joker, imbuing him with a fanatic insanity that is scary, entertaining, and compelling.
But again, I must reiterate that this is simply the first part of a much larger story. If I hadn't realized that by the time I had finished Batman & Son, it was quickly reinforced in the successive volumes. Morrison introduces plot elements here, such as a trio of Batmen--rogue police officers who have taken on their own twisted ideals of crime-fighting--that do not receive a satisfying payoff until much later in his run . He also pens a story set in the future, where Damian has inherited the role of Batman, which closes out the book on another odd note of disruptive continuity, prompting questions on whether or not Morrison intends to return to this subject at a later date, or if he was simply seeking an interesting detour to introduce another villain.
While overall interesting and entertaining, there is little in the way of actual resolution within this trade volume, and so it is by equal measures both rewarding and disappointing. It's an offering of bait, setting the trap for the bigger stories told across the next two books, but readers may find themselves (hopefully) rewarded during a re-read once Morrison has played out all of his cards.