Saturday, August 29, 2009

Batman and Robin 3

Well, well.

The Bat-Craft is banging on all cylinders now. Morrison distilled the fuel. Quitely lit the engine. Sinclair... painted the exterior? I can only stretch my metaphors so far before I get procrustean, you know?* Anyhow, BatRob #3. It's quite a good'n. Morrison here sort of skates the edge between hellish and hilarious, Professor Pyg giving form to the Adam West / David Lynch collision promised in interviews. Also to this end, the creative team treats the reader to a dance number from Hell, which in spite of its sheer nastiness, displays an impressive command of body language on Quitely's end. When Pyg presses his snout into Damian's face, buzzsaw in hand, you as the reader can breath a sigh of relief that in this cabaret, you're perched comfortably, or perhaps uncomfortably, in the audience.

Now what else did I like? Ah, the panels. I neglected to mention this in the last one, but the way Quitely jags the panels when the crazy ratchets up creates the effect of watching the action through a funhouse mirror, and this, of course, comports quite nicely with the circus motif. It would've been interesting to see if Quitely would continue this flourish now that the troupe has all been jailed or killed, but alas, we won't know till 2010.** The action itself too, Quitely unfolds with a characteristic flair for storytelling. One of his biggest strengths as an artist lies in the fact that he never swaps out story for fighting. To show what I mean, I've scanned in some pages from another recent Bat pamphlet, Batman Confidential #32 with pencils by Andy Clarke.

Looking at the above, it seems that there's one style of wide shots that indicates things happening and a very different style entirely which is reserved for people fighting. Compare this with the following BatRob #3 free-for-all.

In contrast to Clarke's extreme close-ups***, Quitely keeps the shot wide and apprises us of each character's movements. One listless Dollotron lumbers to deface a victim who is no longer there. Professor Pyg, rising from the ground, struggles to throw Robin off balance. More Dolls swarm in from all sides. Here we see that both "things happen" AND "people fight."

Nowhere is that formula more manifest than in the "dual punch," Professor Pyg knockout sequence. It's an iconic scene to be sure that hearkens back to the first issue, but Quitely doesn't use that as an excuse to arrest the story. If you scan to the far right of the panel, you'll see two gloved hands reaching out towards Batman and Robin, signaling another attack from the dolls. In some sense, Quitely's rendition of the scene is much more honest than a typical rendering (sans the hands) because it shows that the world outside the centered action of the panel did not, in fact, freeze for Batman and Robin to do something awesome. It simply progressed as natural, and when you think about it, in comics, that is a rare thing.

All of this highlights the reasons why Frank Quitely is an artist tailor-made for Morrison's writing. Both are concerned, preoccupied even, with expressing the greatest amount of story in the smallest amount of space. And yes, believe it or not, this comic was written as well as drawn, so I suppose I ought to make some effort to address that too, eh?

Way way back in 2008, I denounced with much vim and vigor a certain snarky little cock knocker who was out masquerading as the son of Bruce Wayne. This impostor hooligan-child accosted Alfred the Butler, raped my childhood, and roughed up MY Robin, the REAL Robin! How could DC reward this vandal with a starring role in his own comic book when they have yet to publish my Continuing Tales of AnnoMan which I submitted to their doorstep one rainy night two summers ago?! It's utter fucking brigandage, I tell you. It redefines wrong.

While I don't regret anything I've said about him in the past (Damian, not Morrison), it certainly seems that over the past few months, Morrison has come a long way in finding this character's voice. Damian has gone from a petulant, unlikable dipshit in Batman and Son to a bright and brutal wit with emerging shades of nobility. His pitch perfect characterization in this issue - "So we're agreed. It's Robin and Batman from now on." - has endeared the Damian character greatly to me, so much so, in fact, that now I'd be sad to see him go.

Another pleasant surprise in Batman and Robin #3 arrives in the form of a proper conclusion. For the first time in... God knows how many months since the Black Glove storyline began, Morrison delivers a complete arc that imparts a sense of much-needed closure on the reader, even fulfilling a long-hanging plot point introduced as early as Batman 676 over one year ago. It's comic book closure, of course, "to be continued," Morrison wouldn't be fool enough to tie all his loose ends just as Batman and Robin's big draw departs (see "jumping-off points"). Still, by the issue's final page, Damian and Dick ("Robin and Batman") have discovered a mutual respect for one another, Commissioner Gordon has eased into the new status quo, and Professor Pyg is tucked safely away in... some kind of oversized filing cabinet, I'm not so sure about that, actually.

Unfortunately, the issue just ducks under perfection in that it suffers a bit from Morrison's shorthanding techniques. While it may seem strange, my faulting Morrison on the very thing for which Quitely bagged my recognition, that is, economic storytelling, but with the artist, as I mentioned before, the efficiency is in service of the story, specifically its emotional weight. There is a certain emotional impact left when one absorbs the whole scope and spectacle of a battle in one single glance, which ceases to be left when the battle is broken into discrete packets.

However, with Morrison, his efficiency borders on impatience and seems almost tuned against the visceral resonance of his story. One really unsettling scene transition guarantees to disorient the reader, filling his mind with questions that distract from the core plot and, what's worse, may never be answered. Whose shop is this that Batman's breaking into? How did he find this Dollotron? For what purpose do the bad guys call attention to themselves? In fact, the whole disease sideplot seems shoehorned in to dial up the drama and sell Professor Pyg as something more than just the psycho of the week. By and large, it comes across as too little and too late.

That said though, these minor complaints don't ultimately add up to much against the otherwise phenomenal launch for this series. Quitely's leaving, yeah, but don't jump ship just yet. I get the feeling that we're thrusting toward even cooler shit ahead.


* Actually, if you want to witness this phenomenon in action, refer yourself to the Cobblepot scene in the latest issue of Batman: SoG. Therein, you'll find the Penguin pairing each insignificant ongoing of his life to a unique species of bird. It's very funny in a sad sort of way.

** As I'm sure you're well aware by now, Frank Quitely will be replaced this coming month by the early Image stylings of Philip Tan (seriously, his pencils could interleave seamlessly with Jim Lee's, no one would notice), continuing DC's trend of following up an A-list artist with C-list counterparts. Now, I have nothing against Mr. Tan. I found his work adequate if a little muddy (I think that the coloring didn't help) on Final Crisis: Revelations. It's just that, could you imagine a visual approach farther removed from the aesthetic of Frank Quitely? Tits and biceps are great and all that, but this seems comparable to Frank Miller filling in for, let's say, Scott Adams on Dilbert. The transition will be fucking jarring. And a rough transition just seems so unnecessary when DC has a slew of artists available to them whose styles would be infinitely better suited to follow Quitely's visuals. Then again, Patrick Zircher used to make pictures like THIS, until he worked with Fraction and started making pictures like THIS, so... hope springs eternal for Philip Tan I guess. Actually, bump that, let's just get Patrick Zircher to pencil this book.

*** I realized after scanning that I wasn't playing entirely fair making an example of this Andy Clarke sequence, as Milligan's script most likely calls for the face of KGBeast to be obscured. Working under a constraint like this would obviously make the scene-encompassing wideshots we're discussing difficult to pull off, but nonetheless, I think it's fairly endemic of superhero comics to stage fight scenes in a close-up, one-action-per-panel format. In other words, you'd usually have something like this -- Panel 1: Spider-Man kicks the Goblin (Norman) in the face, Panel 2: Harry picks up a pumpkin bomb from the floor, Panel 3: Mary Jane yells from the doorway "Harry, no!" -- whereas in the Quitely approach, all three of these actions might be consolidated into a single, wide-screen panel.

UPDATE 2: Check out the comments in that link for an expounding of the Alan Moore connection in BatRob #3. Cliff Notes: Pyg = Joker, Kidnapped Damian = Kidnapped Gordon, Cabaret = "Looney, like a lighbulb battered bug!," and the Red Hood shows up! Brilliant!

Page 1: After the unveiling of the new Quad-Bat last issue, Batman, we see, has piloted the monstrosity back over to police HQ, where he has hogtied the villain Phosphorous Rex. Each member of the Circus of the Strange so far has been subject to Batman's hardcore interrogation techniques. I wonder if this is to prove that the new Batman's "still got it," or if it will become a recurring theme.

Page 2: Notice the taxi top light Rex plows into and how the Quad-Bat races into oncoming traffic. Evidently, Dick-Bat doesn't dick around.

Page 3: "They'll kill us all." It's true. They bumped off Toad last issue and he didn't say nanti. How do you think the squealers will fare?

I hope I'm not the only one whose head this shot over in the first two issues, but basically, Professor Pyg has been peddling some strange drugs to Russian people traffickers that, once ingested, erase the user's identity (making his or her mind like that of the dolls). Vials of this drug, I believe, constitute the mysterious contents of Niko's sports bag at the end of the first issue. Now, Pyg is positioning his dolls to unleash this poison on the city, and it falls to Batman and Robin to save the day (awesome). I might be grasping at straws, but I don't think it's a coincidence, Morrison phrasing the effect of the compound as "identity-destroying" and the drift of the arc being Damian and Dick's defining themselves as Batman and Robin.

Page 4: Professor Pyg's ramblings may be a nod to the "Tearoom of Despair" or the "Delirium Box" from Doom Patrol.

Mormo, at least according to Wikipedia, is not a goddess of formless chaos.

Page 5: Tiamat, on the other hand... In Babylonian cosmology, the goddess Tiamat embodies what would later be called the ether, a circumambient substance without form. She is slain by a great storm and splits into sea and firmament (the sea above) which is bolstered by a pillar of divine craftsmanship. If the story sounds familiar, its probably because the same thing happens in Genesis, except with God taking on the role of the storm.

"Tohu va bohu" translates from Hebrew to "formless and empty" (maybe). Sigh. I get discouraged when the annotations turn into me acting as a mouthpiece for Wikipedia.

As you might have guessed by Pyg's description, Medusa is a gorgon queen. The visage of a gorgon was thought by the Greeks to possess apotropaic powers and as such appeared in statues, vases, and coats of armor, safeguarding their owners against the touch of evil. Two panels down we see Professor Pyg's modern incarnation of a gorgon sculpture.

But before that, the professor makes some eerily premonitory comments which preambulate the circumstances of his undoing in 666.


Being a vulgar prole beyond the hope of rescue, I'm probably way off-base here, but would Pyg's effigy of the evil goddess be an example of Dadaist sculpture?

Page 9: Pyg has synthesized the drug into a contagion that spreads through the air in the Dollotron's immediate vicinity. (i.e. "like a flu").

Also, look closely at the detritus flying through the window and you can make out the word "crash."

Page 10: We met Sasha before in issue #1. Here in issue #3, she's undergone the exterior changes of the Dollotron procedure, though her mind remains to be wiped. The comely young lass being manhandled in the second-to-last strip is none other than Sasha's father Niko. We've met him before too, when he was rolling on spinners with Mr. Toad in the first wild ride of Batman and Robin.

Page 14: The free-for-all on this page recalls the 60s television series, what with the symmetric knockout punch and the set of matching henchmen.

"Big Top's choice of weapons led you here, right?" Oh, I see, it was Big Top's choice weapons that led him to the circus. So not the fact that they spoke in circus slang, not the fact that the bad guys pulled up to police headquarters in a clown car, not the fact that Dick calls them "Le Cirque D'etrange," not the fact that one of the group was a bearded lady who went by the name "Big Top," no, none of these things tipped him off. It was, in fact, the particular brand of cane-shaped pike that betrayed to him the true whereabouts of Professor's Pyg's super secret hideout at the circus. Well, who am I to question the all-knowing Batman? Moving on...

Page 16: In the first panel, Morrison is taking a shot at his favorite authorial punching bag, formalist, anarchist, and woman's suffragist Alan Moore (okay, not the last one). The panel satirizes the closing sequence of the Killing Joke, scanned in below for reference.

From past annotations, you'll recall that this abandoned circus is the one at which Commissioner Gordon was famously held captive in the 1988 graphic novel. This explains why he's so eager to see it burnt to the ground.

Page 18: What the hell is this bottom panel?

Pages 19-20: I've gone through the effort of arranging these in chronological order (so you better damn well be appreciative!)

Page 21: This photograph was brought from Wayne Manor during the move in BatRob #1. I think it's fairly obvious from the panel that Morrison and co are ramping up to the triumphant return of Ace the Bathound. I mean, who else could they be bringing back? Young Dick Grayson? Impossible. Young Dick Grayson's stuck in the past, and people, once stuck in the past, become irretrievable to the present! This is true science, my friend. All know it, and all abide by its rules!

Who left his boots on that gargoyle? Whoever he was, he's gonna have a tough go of getting them back. In all seriousness though, this seems to be a bit of a continuity error as BatRob #1 depicts the Wayne tower as easily the tallest building in the area.

Page 22: The Doll person that Sasha is suffocating is her own father.

Page 24: Now, I'm a bit confused. Generally, when one says he's "the scourge of the underworld," he, much like this guy, "administers punishment" to various malefactors, rogues, brigands, and societal ne'er-do-wells. While Mr. Hood here has done nothing which runs explicitly contrary to this definition, it does strike me as odd that a self-professed combater of ills would see fit to introduce himself by blowing away a pair of apparently blameless beat officers. I guess we'll have to wait and see.