So, Battle for the Cowl is over, Dick Grayson is wearing the mask, and Grant Morrison took us into an inventive and exciting new era last week with the first issue of Batman & Robin. Time for Judd Winick’s run on the main title to take account of the new status quo, right?
Er, not quite. Because Winick’s first issue is, in fact, basically the missing fourth chapter of Battle for the Cowl. Or not even that, really. If Morrison’s B&R rendered Battle pointless by breezing into the new status quo with a couple of panels’ explanation, Winick goes one further and flat-out replaces it. We all knew Dick was going to end up as Batman, so the path to that point given here is far more straightforward, without all that needless faffing about with Jason Todd – it’s just about the contingency plan that Bruce put in place, and Dick wrestling with the decision of whether or not to accept it. And the thing is, I can’t really argue with Winick deciding to replace Tony Daniel’s story – although an easier way might have been simply to write the thing himself – because whereas that was bloody rotten, this is at least only mildly rubbish.
I mean, it at least has a point. It at least attempts to do something with the various characters and their facing up to a world without Bruce – it’s true that the overwrought, borderline-emo Dick is a regression from the character we read about last week (and that’s endemic, really, of the fact that this issue really should have come out first – purely chronologically it’s much earlier, even setting up Dick’s residence in the penthouse), and that what is a nice moment with Alfred (“My son has died”) is a bit of a rip of something Tomasi did better in Outsiders – and there’s actually a progression, development towards Dick’s decision to take on the role, something that Battle singularly lacked. It suffers from coming out a week after Morrison showed how to do a great Batman comic simply by being fun – because it’s not fun in the slightest, it’s moody and angsty – but at least it doesn’t suffer from being moronically stupid, so it’s genuinely an improvement on Winick’s recent work.
There is one way in which it’s weaker than Battle, though, and that’s in the work of “superstar” artist Ed Benes. Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of his style anyway, but there’s usually some level of technical proficiency there – sadly, there’s none of it on display in this issue. Figures are sketchy, awkward and inconsistent, storytelling is basic and workmanlike, and Dick’s hairstyle changes by the panel. The overall look isn’t helped by a muggy colouring job, but it’s clear from two panels in particular that Benes is far from on his top form – firstly an utterly wretched version of Alfred as he looks folornly at the Batman and Robin costumes in glass cases, and then a final-page splash that should be exciting and inspirational, but which just leaves you wondering where the traditionally lithe, former acrobat Grayson got his Liefeld-esque arms and legs from.
I suppose we should be grateful that Winick has rolled up on the main Batbook again, and it’s not an unmitigated disaster. It’s not particularly great, and nor does it give a compelling reason to exist when we’ve got Batman & Robin out there, along with Paul Dini doing what will presumably be a continuation of his Detective run under any other name. But at least it’s not Titans, and that’s about as close to a compliment for Winick as you’re going to hear from me.