Batman and Robin 18

Damian Wayne is dead.

This week we get two contrasting looks at how a father is dealing with the loss of his son. Batman #18 looks at the legacy of Batman from the perspective of an outsider, but Batman and Robin #18 looks at the man from the perspective of his legacy.

I don’t think that the experience of this book can be translated into words and so I’m going to be a little freer with spoilers than I might otherwise be. Read at your own peril, and remember that especially here, the context really is everything.  

This book is entirely silent. There’s not a single spoken word. There aren’t even sound effects. Excepting one panel, the only words in the issue are the credits. This naturally draws attention to the title, and it’s a simple one, but one that can echo in your mind as you read: Undone.

It’s not hard to read it as Batman and Robin: Undone, or even a Shakespearean cry of I am Undone. My work is undone. My house is undone. Undone. Undone. Undone. Like a bell tolling the death of a young boy.

In fact, the very title of the book is interestingly chosen. DC has revealed that next month this series will ship as Batman and Red Robin #19, to be followed by Batman and Red Hood #20, and so on through his closest allies. So to see this issue labeled Batman and Robin leads me to consider how it would have been different if it had just been Batman or Batman and  ____. Is this the final knell for Batman and Robin, or just a representation of Bruce’s inability to deal with the truth?

The silence of the book makes it hard to discuss the writing and art separately, so you’ll forgive me if I talk less about Tomasi and Gleason and more about the issue itself.

One thing that I always appreciated about this run was Tomasi’s ability to make Damian human. In the hands of less capable writers, and often times even his creator, Damian was defined by his obnoxious personality and frustrating level of skill, either getting in way over his head without coming out humbled or succeeding so easily that you couldn’t help but hate him. The writers who made me connect most with Damian showed me his flaws. Brian Q. Miller gave us a Damian whose seriousness could not stand Stephanie Brown’s optimism and, resultantly, revealed the depths of his issues. Paul Dini saw the comedy in Damian’s genius and the ways in which his age escaped through the gaps of his persona. But Peter Tomasi made Damian an individual.

Traits like Damian’s propensity towards classic literature and his love of sketching are put on display here and allows any reader, no matter their familiarity with the character, an instant connection with him. We learn much about who Damian really was through what he chose to draw. He was an old soul, pressured to be many things that he was not. In a better life he could have easily grown up to be a brilliant philanthropist at the head of Wayne Enterprises, but that’s the tragedy of Batman, isn’t it?

Bruce’s visions of what should be are well executed, if somewhat lacking without their context and the book does an excellent job of conveying his anger through the world around him. The subtleties of angles looking over the Bat-Signal and the blood pooling into Bruce’s costume tell a story seen only in flashes.

The very first panel sets the stage in an interesting way. Staring into the fireplace, Bruce’s eyes are filled with flame. It’s an appropriate image to represent the surging anger that permeates this issue’s Batman, but I admit that it seems slightly off target. For all the anger in this issue, it seems to me that it is hollow compared to the depth of Bruce’s grief. In truth, they’re really the same emotion, and Damian and Bruce seem all the more father and son when the later is pushed beyond what his socialization can mask.

The way that Bruce jumps from tears to rage is well done, but as in all cases of grand emotion, you’re opinion of it will likely be based more on you than on the work of the artists. I can’t lie and say that some of these panels don’t boarder on the laughable. Particularly without context, some of them just seem hokey and excessive. Whether you think that Batman’s struggle with a lamppost is as silly as it must sound here will largely depend on your experience with these characters, this book, and with loss itself.

I will say that that moment worked for me, but largely because, at the time, I was convinced that it might be a lamppost on Crime Alley. Particularly after seeing how Dick mourned Bruce after his ‘death’ in Nightwing, it’s rather moving.

Some people will read this issue and feel that its silence is a played and simple way of drawing out emotion. I won’t lie and say that there aren’t plenty of examples of supposedly ‘moving’ issues that are really just sales stunts. What gets this issue a passing grade in my book is the sense that Tomasi really threw himself into the emotions of the story. I feel like he wrote this in mourning of a character he cared about, and, whether he did or didn’t, that’s good writing (especially since I didn’t care that much about Damian).

The book has its ups and downs. Many panels fall flat, worst of all when they’re big and moody, but there are some that really do get me in my heart. There’s one panel of Titus that I just keep going back to.

Patrick Gleason’s work is, as ever, a mixed bag. He really does excel at a number of images, but just as often they look truly ugly to me. His Alfred looks more like Vito Corleone than ever and I wouldn’t argue too hard against someone who wanted to make the point that this issue is kind of a mix-and-match of previous images from the series (for better or for worse). Still, it works for me. The man can draw something dark and shadowy without losing a shred of emotion. Batman under the water is a fantastic image, and the Damian we see here seems more alive here than when that was true.

Truly the final page of this issue is the highlight. It’s iconic and tragic and entirely unlike the rest of Gleason’s work in the best of ways.  It actually reminds me strongly of Himoru Arakawa’s work on Fullmetal Alchemist, which is a compliment both for the strength of the art in that series and the emotion present in both works. Having been through this once before, this page makes the argument to the fans that Batman is not mourning a Robin, Bruce Wayne is mourning his son.

But perhaps the most interesting and most intelligent choice of the page is the decision to leave it without words, not even a hint at what is to come next month. I applaud DC for allowing this, even with the fan-drawing crossover the will be the focus next month; it makes the image that much more powerful and leaves us with a lingering feeling of loss as we turn the page and find that we too are left without closure.