One accusation thrown at DC is that their comics are very stern, and there’s little room for silliness and fun jokes in their Universe. And it’s an accusation which does tend to hit the Batman books hardest, given that arguably one of the themes of the franchise is “stern hero punches joke-tellers”. Batman’s villains are hilarious and good fun in a way which the Dark Knight himself rarely responds to, leaving the franchise often looking for a little lightness in the form of Nightwing, or Batgirl. Or, in the past few years, Robin.
Damian Wayne has leapt in popularity over time (and he HAS leapt in popularity, even though I’m aware he has his detractors) because he offers a lightness (although, again, I’m aware he is a little murderer with a superiority complex) which directly opposes Batman. And the very best thing about him is that this lightness has slowly come to infect Bruce Wayne himself, and make him more fun too.
This week’s Batman & Robin Annual #1 is a brilliant example of this, and also happens to be the best single Batman issue I’ve read in years. Written by Peter Tomasi, it’s a one-off story which lets Bruce Wayne relax and be ‘himself’ for a while, spending time doing detective work for fun and sport, rather than because some people have gotten all murdered up in Crime Alley AGAIN. But it also has an interesting level of subtext to it, commenting on both Bruce and Damian Wayne in different ways – which add to their character and give them some forward momentum for future stories.
The premise is a delight. The basic idea here is that Damian sends Bruce off on a scavenger hunt around the world, so he can reconnect with his past. But while Bruce (and Alfred) are off looking for clues and discussing old flames, Damian steals his father’s Batman costume and goes off to find a mission for himself. We get to see both sides of this, with neither weighing the other down. Damian’s hunt for a villain is hilariously written as a parody of the Christian Bale Batman movies, complete with gruff voice and melodramatic metaphor. But Bruce’s scavenger hunt is a surprisingly heartfelt piece of work which gives the character added weight and balance. He became Batman for a very specific reason, and Tomasi paints it very clearly, here.
Artist Ardian Syaf has some fun experimenting with page layout, with an artistic style which is very close to Greg Capullo’s; albeit with a stronger sense of splash. The fight scenes here are somewhat incoherent, but laid out with a blistering sense of motion. And he nails the jokes he’s given by Tomasi, which is the important thing to know. The sight of little Damian in the full-size Batman suit is a funny one, but it works because Syaf knows when to stop accentuating it too much and get down to proper action. He’s backed by sharp inks from Vicente Cifuentes which really adds a sense of impact to the characters, while John Kalisz’s colouring is spectacular.
The subtext I mentioned earlier is mainly centred around Damian. Whilst this could be called a ‘merry jape’ (I am ENGLISH so this isn’t a strange phrase to use), the reality is that Damian’s attempts to be Batman are furious and somewhat alarming. He comes across as a far more violent Batman, who still sees this as a game for approval rather than any kind of real fight for justice and fairness. But then, the last few pages of the issue gives the reader hope that the character will be ultimately in safe hands with Bruce, and there’s a real sense of chemistry between the two leads. The dialogue is heartfelt whilst never getting overly emotional, and even Alfred gets a chance to be a personality rather than simply a filter for exposition.
Batman and Robin sees a creative team firing all on cylinders. Tomasi’s story is sweet and charming, filled with whimsy but also with some cracking jokes, while he’s backed by an excellent creative team who know how best to support the script. And the jokes only work because of the work of letter Carlos M. Mangual, whose timing is spot-on every time. It may be a one-and-done issue, but Batman and Robin Annual #1 is a tremendously enjoyable piece of work.