Sunday, 9 June 2013

Batman and Robin

Even though I grew up in the 80s I still watched the Adam West Batman TV show when I was young. It was repeated regularly, on Channel 4 I think. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t something I was desperate to watch. It was mainly on so that my mum could have some peace I think. Not that this matters, of course. I was only young but even then I knew it was a faintly ridiculous show. I didn’t know words like camp or kitsch (or faintly ridiculous) but there was an air to it that you didn’t get with other shows.

As an adult it’s easy to identify what’s peculiar about the show (beyond it being camp, kitsch and faintly ridiculous). It presents Batman differently to every other major (and minor for that matter) depiction the character’s ever had. He’s not the grizzled renegade stalking the streets of Gotham City by night, he’s a deliberately overly dramatic fop who only comes out during the day to battle the most ineffective bunch of hoodlums you’re ever likely to stumble across. You can’t imagine Adam West’s Batman stalking anywhere.

Despite being about as far removed from the modern and popular presentations of The Batman as you can get the show worked and still holds up pretty well today. It takes its inspiration from the comics but it’s not of that world. It plays by its own set of rules and has no interest in trying to make Batman look serious, something the comics have increasingly become obsessed with over the decades.

It’s this incarnation of Batman that Grant Morrison says he drew inspiration from for his 2009 ongoing title Batman and Robin. By the time the first issue came around Morrison had essentially been the head writer of the Bat-franchise for three years and had taken the character and his supporting cast in a variety of surprising directions. He’d reintroduced elements of canon most had assumed had been quietly dropped and revived the forgotten spirits of Batman through the ages, such as his brushes with science fiction and his detective roots.

Prior to the launch of Batman and Robin Morrison had produced an arc that saw original Batman Bruce Wayne die. Damien Wayne, Bruce’s estranged son whose mother was Talia al Ghul and grandfather was Ra’s, had been brought back to the various Bat titles after a fleeting appearance in the eighties, and Dick Grayson had been established as the obvious successor to Bruce should anything unfortunate happen.

The book focused on the new pairing of Dick and Damien as Batman and Robin. Despite having come about as the result of a death the emphasis for the new book was on fun. Which is where the citing of the Adam West TV show as a source of inspiration presumably stems from. Because no interpretation of Batman has ever been more fun than West’s.

Part of the appeal was in the role reversal that initially took place between the new Dynamic Duo. Dick proved a calmer, more thoughtful Batman than Bruce had, embodying his finer attributes with a warmer approach to dealing with people. Damien was written as a hothead keen to mete out justice to wrongdoers and was very vocal on the subject of wanting to be Batman, his feeling being that as Bruce’s son he was the natural heir. It’s an interesting subversion and one that Morrison writes well without careening into overkill.

Sadly the book never really amounts to much, despite having a lot going for it. The opening three issue arc sees Batman and Robin tangling with Professor Pyg, a man who enjoys nothing more than kidnapping people and mutilating their faces. It’s arguably the highlight of the title’s run. Later arcs would feature tie-ins to other Bat titles and the DC-wide Blackest Night crossover event, which put a serious dent in the direction the book could take.

It doesn’t hurt that those opening issues are pencilled by Morrison’s pal and frequent collaborator Frank Quitely. He’s given the chance to draw circus freaks and a villain called Mr Toad, who seems to be based strongly on the version of the character seen in Wind in the Willows animated series from Cosgrove Hall. It’s right up his alley and he produces striking visuals that help to set the book apart from most of the other comics DC (or anyone else) were putting out at the time.

Quitely was replaced by Philip Tan and a number of other artists. While nobody who worked on the series alongside Morrison could be considered bad nobody produced anything as captivating as Quitely did. It didn’t help that stories became more generic. In addition to tying into crossovers they seemed to be turning towards the standard dark stories that we’d been explicitly told would be avoided.

The book essentially became a standard, and skippable, Batman book when Morrison left. He was replaced for three issues by Paul Cornell before Peter Tomasi as the regular scripter. Tomasi has his strengths as a writer but taking Batman in bold new directions while invoking a TV show that goes against the way the modern character is presented, and telling fun, frothy stories to boot, is not among them.

I’d highly recommend buying the first collected edition of Batman and Robin. Disappointingly anything after issue seven (the comic ran for over twenty issues before getting renumbered during DC’s New 52 event which is remarkably still trundling on) is instantly forgettable but that opening stretch is definitely worth a look thanks to the great art and Morrison bothering to deliver hat he originally promised.

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