Batman! Batman! Batman! Nanananananananananana – BAT-MAN!
Morrison and Quitely’s Batman & Robin #1 is – until the disturbing last couple of pages – the most fun Batman comic I’ve read in years. The feeling of it is summed up in the very first panel, where the explosions form the words “BOOM BOOM” in fire – the incorporation of the sound effects into the physical action of the panel (like the ‘splash’ made up of water shapes a few pages later) puts us into kids’ comic-book territory, somewhere closer to Dick Sprang (although with a big dollop of Keith Giffen) than to Frank Miller.
This is Quitely’s comic all the way. It’s a cliche to say it, but more than any other writer in comics, Morrison depends on his artists, and much of the reason for the underwhelming response his Batman run so far has had has been his pairing for the bulk of that run with the decidedly… competent… Tony Daniel. Morrison plants clues in the action, in the visual look of the comic, and to have that come off requires first that the artists draw what he tells them (at least where that matters to the rest of the story) and also that the pages be enjoyable enough to look at that one is willing to drink in all the little details, rather than just skim over the pictures looking at ‘what happens’.
It’s no coincidence that prior to this the only part of Morrison’s run on Batman that has been universally admired is the three-issue Black Glove story, drawn by J.H. Williams III, who is for my money the single best artist working in comics today. And as an artist Quitely is almost as good as Williams, while he’s someone with whom Morrison seems to have an incredibly strong working relationship, so it’s unsurprising that on the evidence of this issue, the first storyline of Batman & Robin is going to be at least up to those heights.
Quitely’s storytelling here is almost uncanny – so much of the information here is conveyed by things like character expressions and body language that even I, who have no visual aesthetic sense and a near-autistic inability to pick up on non-verbal signals, am able to figure out these characters from single panels. Even if I knew nothing about Dick Grayson or Damian Wayne – and this being a first issue one would hope (though that hope is no doubt in vain) that it would be appealing to new readers – I could tell literally everything about them from the first panel in which they appear:
Here Damien looks stern, determined, and over-confident – at least in his face. His expression actually looks like what he is – a snotty little kid who wants everyone to think he’s a grown up. But then look at his posture – tensed up, arms crossed – he’s trying to look casual but instead he’s desperately insecure. Meanwhile Dick Grayson, the new Batman, is truly self-confident. He’s utterly relaxed precisely because he knows he’s in complete control. That’s the posture and expression of someone who’s trained in something like acrobatics, martial arts or Yoga (and of course Grayson is supposed to have trained in all these and more) – someone who knows all the time what every single muscle in his body is doing, and so can relax completely because he’s in complete control of the situation. This is shown again and again in their respective postures and expressions.
Look, for example, at that big splash page with Batman and Robin jumping down from the sky in front of the Bat-signal. Damien has his arms pressed close to his body – he’s completely straight and rigid and plunging down head-first. Dick on the other hand is arcing gracefully, with his arms wide open.
And Quitely being so bloody good (and there are a myriad examples of this throughout the comic – look at the second panel of the burning man, with the evil grin on his face that the cops don’t notice) allows Morrison to just let him tell the story with the pictures and get on with writing realistic dialogue, rather than expositional.
In particular, I found it amusing that Dick Grayson recognises Mr Toad’s (and what a perfect Batman villain he is – I can’t believe that no-one thought to use him as one before now) speech patterns as “European Circus Slang”. It is – but only a character who grew up in a circus would make that association first. Mr Toad is actually speaking Polari – a slang that, while apparently originating among Romany circus-people, spread later to theatres and thence to the pre-legalisation British gay subculture, and certainly to any British person over the age of forty the first association would be Julian and Sandy rather than circus people (an association Morrison is certainly aware of, as Danny The Street in Doom Patrol also spoke in Polari.
But we also have touches like Damien telling Alfred “you can leave it by my toolkit, Pennyworth” when offered some supper, while Dick says “These chicken and jalapeño sandwiches are ferocious – I could eat them by the ton” – Damien (much like a caricature of his father) trying too hard to have self-control and self-discipline in an almost anorexic way, while the much more well-rounded Dick Grayson manages to take pleasure in the sensual world, rather than the purely intellectual. (Incidentally, is this the first display we’ve seen from Morrison of a sympathetic character actually eating meat? )
At the moment there appears to me relatively little to say about this comic as far as subtext or clever allusions or any of that stuff goes (though I’m betting the Mindless Ones will find more stuff to say about it when they all take turns in writing about it). It’s just a really good, fun, Batman comic, of a kind anyone can enjoy. I can’t wait for the next one.
Seaguy review either tonight or tomorrow.