When Bruce Wayne returned from the “grave” late last year, DC took the opportunity to revamp its Bat-family of titles. The idea was to give each title its own tone and feel. With two Batmans (Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne), it was necessary to distinguish which character would appear where. Batman and Robin became a title that would feature Dick Grayson’s Batman and Damian Wayne’s Robin – just as it had prior. The real difference, though, was the change in creative team. For the majority of its run, writer Grant Morrison has been the singular voice defining the title. Can the title continue with a new voice and vision in a very crowded Bat-marketplace?
Each Bat title seems to have its own niche. Batman has more fantastic elements; Detective Comics is taking a cue from its name and has a more mystery appeal; Batman Incorporated is global in scale; The Dark Knight has a mystical approach; but where does that leave Batman and Robin? The opening pages of Batman and Robin #20 indicated it would be about the family. Bruce, Dick, Tim and Damian are a family; a father and his three sons, bonded by blood, tragedy, desire and outlook. This is fairly fertile ground to base a comic series. Yet the first story arc under this premise, while owing itself to the theme, certainly doesn’t merit the shelf life the publisher may have envisioned.
On the surface, “Tree of Blood – Dark Knight vs. White Knight” playing out over Batman and Robin 20-22 is not terrible, though it is something of a rudimentary storyline. It certainly is not a storyline that embodies the apparent title direction, as it could easily fit within several of the other Bat titles.
A new villain vows revenge. That’s familiar. What makes it even more familiar is that the so-called “White Knight” is not particularly distinctive or striking outside of his overwrought visual presentation. He’s a safe new villain, one that can have significance in this storyarc, but can be easily cast aside should reviews of his villainy be less than stellar.
The White Knight’s point is that villains must be stopped before they can manifest. The family members of Arkham Asylum’s inmates are his target. They are as much right for the trappings of vileness and crime as their more notorious kin. A pre-emptive strike to curb the potential for murder, destruction and chaos must be launched. Make them angels before they become demons. The visual theme of his crimes aside, the White Knight is as a dark a rogue as any in Gotham City, targeting innocents whose only crime is familial links with criminals.
This is a striking parallel to the political climate since 2001. A climate that has debated the United States attempts to weed out terrorism before it happens, to use military power preventatively, which in political circles has come to be known as the “Bush Doctrine”.
The Bush Doctrine, somewhat surprisingly, is not completely agreed upon. One school of thought holds that it justifies preventative war, whereas the United States should depose foreign regimes that represented a potential or perceived threat to the security of the United States, even if that threat is not immediate. For the purposes of our understanding of Batman and Robin 20-22, this is the track we are lead down.
The White Knight certainly sees the use of might to fell potential criminals as justification for his crimes. President George W. Bush was certainly enamored by that perspective; however the legality of his policy was less in question.
This is not the first time that a Batman piece has been drawn into the political world of George W. Bush, so it is certainly not a stretch to compare a comic storyline with the political understanding of foreign policy.
July 25, 2008, The Wall Street Journal publishes an editorial by Andrew Klavan that declares the recently released The Dark Knight movie to be a pro-Bush film. “There seems to me no question that the Batman film The Dark Knight, currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war (Klavan, The Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2008).”
The merit of Klavan’s op-ed piece is certainly debatable, perhaps in keeping with the tenets of propaganda rather than demonstrating the allegory the author alleges. The premise is like an ill-fitting suit. The sleeves, the lapels and the buttons are there, but the jacket doesn’t close and the silhouette is lumpy rather than clean. That is in keeping with an unspoken rule: serialized superhero comics and stories have great potential for social commentary, but political commentary is more difficult and often falls flatter than the pages it’s conceived on.
Writer Peter J. Tomasi, through his dialogue (especially in issue 22), tries to draw a nature versus nurture parallel. This may speak to the ongoing saga of Damian Wayne becoming a righteous vigilante, but it is something of a dodge to what the “Tree of Blood” storyline is allegorically related to.
The thematic underpinning for this short arc is something more. Perhaps unintentionally, Tomasi has written a retort to the Klavan editorial, showing that Batman (whether in the guise of Dick Grayson or Bruce Wayne) is more reactionary than proactive. The moral courage that Klavan writes about is not inherit in preventative policing, but rather in the righting of the scales of justice after a crime is committed. The full extent of Tomasi’s narrative is better left unsaid, war crimes trials are messy business, but the flavor of his allegory is rather potent.
Though it’s questionable as to whether Tomasi’s intent was to criticize the fundamentals of the Bush Doctrine, there is certainly enough evidence to suggest so. And that is the major problem with this Batman and Robin storyarc: it is trying to force one theme when another is a much better fit. Almost like the narrative is fighting against itself. Picture a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The nature versus nurture theme is stated, but the title does a better job exploring the tenets of preventative war than anything else. This leads to the type of underwhelming feel that these last three issues have had on every page.
That is not the fault of the art team. Patrick Gleason delivers his reliable pencil work as always. The standout on every page is the color work of Alex Sinclair. When working with a villain whose aesthetic differential is white, the colorist has his or her work cut out for them. Sinclair unifies the pencils and inks with stark color choices, allowing the White Knight to be distinctive. Nothing in the artwork holds this villain back; in fact the artwork is what makes the villain all together. No, the problem is at the very core of this creation, and it speaks to how an uneven and non-level plot can throw off the most elementary of storylines.
For all its intended or unintended narrative themes, the earlier question as to Batman and Robin’s place is still left unanswered. Batman and Robin since the end of Grant Morrison’s run has been left without a direction, inhabiting the most generic of Batman storylines while the other titles have developed their own sense of themselves. The quality of these titles is still very questionable.
Batman and Robin may be seemingly without a tone, but this opening arc in this new era of Batman comics is not a bad one. It has problems, but Tomasi and Gleason’s talent pull it through. “Tree of Blood” was a safe storyline on the surface, and the underside was at war with itself. If there is a lesson from Batman and Robin 20-22 it is this: don’t play it so safe and don’t ignore the theme staring you in the face.