To misquote a line from an earlier Grant Morrison epic, we didn’t know how much we’d been missing Batman & Robin until it came back. The book took a hiatus in December, for the rather flimsy reason of not spoiling the “Bruce Wayne’s Skull” fake-out, but in truth, the title had been missing in action since the middle of last year, when Philip Tan took on the rotating art duties. Such weak art is now a distant memory though, with Cameron Stewart’s pages of sufficient quality to merit an “As Good As Frank Quietly, Or Your Money Back” tag on the cover.
After being blind sided by Jason Todd, Dick Grayson is in the mood for taking the initiative. Recognising that the madness he presides over will continue until the steadying presence of Bruce Wayne returns, he ropes in a familiar pair of allies to help his desperate attempt to restore the usual status quo. There’s something of a departure from the first two arcs of the series, where Grayson wore his emotions on his sleeve. Here, unusually never emerging from the cowl, his desperation and recklessness are conveyed in the plot of the story, rather than the usual soliloquies. Morrison’s decision to jump right into the action, following Grayson as he saves London from a not-fully-explained threat, adds to the mood, with the feeling growing that the new Batman is merely spinning plates. While the light-hearted caped crusader is now a comfortable mask for the former acrobat, his doubts about his ability to take charge of the situation provide a compelling narrative drive.
Despite the publicity for the appearance of Batwoman in the pages, with Morrison making a pointed comment on the frequency with which the modern character ends up fulfilling her 1950s narrative role of a damsel in distress, it’s Britain’s resident crime fighters which steal the show. The writer has commented on his policy of adding something new to the world of the Knight and the Squire every time he uses them, but here he excels himself, providing a complete rogues’ gallery for the duo. Taking English folk traditions in the same way that the Batman franchise draws upon American, the book gives a glimpse into a scenario that feels instantly right. There’s even time for an extremely obscure Spike Miligan reference in the dialogue attributed to old King Coal’s henchmen. It’s a dazzling display.