Batman and Robin #3

Be warned, here be spoilers.

I’ve been hearing recommendations for this series from all quarters; it’s been recommended to me as both all kinds of fun and all kinds of disturbing. This issue, at least, was both of these.

I haven’t read issues #1 and #2, and the reading experience suffers a bit for me as a result of that. It’s not entirely the book’s fault, but I would have appreciated a Marvel-style text-recap on the first page or inside cover. A really deft writer will bring the reader up to speed within the issue; Morrison, however, has a tendency to lose even the reader who has been reading since the beginning. (It’s sort of what he does.)

The opening page is arresting, a good attention-grabber. It’s a full-page spread of Batman, riding some tremendous bat-ATV, with cartoonishly huge wheels, dragging some sort of perp beside him such that the perp’s face is dragging on the road. Said perp’s head is on fire.

I’m not sure who this perp is, or why his head is on fire, Ghost Rider style, rather than simply being ground to a bloody pulp, but it’s a cool image.

By page two, though, I’m already questioning Quitely’s art. Batman’s cowl has this bird-monster look to it, with low-anchored ears (about where his real ears are) and this tremendous beak-like nose. At first I was reminded of the look Kelley Jones gave him in Batman & Dracula: Red Rain, but when I dug out the latter, I saw that no, Jones made the cowl look very cool – and very Batman, even if the proportions on it are extreme. By the end of the issue, the Batman cowl settles down a bit, but in those first few panels, my heart sinks.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Frank Quitely’s art. It worked well in We3, and he kept it mostly under control in All Star Superman, but usually it’s this ugly, drifting mess, especially on people’s faces and hands. Quitely uses a really thin line, and lots of it; the art looks scribbly, sketchy. Sometimes it looks a bit like characters are melting. If I stop and look at any one panel, and take it all in, it’s actually really cool. And yet if I’m reading the comic, which relies on a different set of instinctive mental motions, it comes off as ugly and un-human.

This book does nothing to alter that opinion. In a story that involves victims having doll-masks permanently affixed to their faces, both the doll-masks and people’s regular faces look pretty monstrous, which kind of lessens the impact.

And speaking of the story: Oh man, am I ever going to have to track down the first two issues. Though I am a touch lost – picking up on plot threads only when their resolution is given – I’m fascinated and disturbed in just the right proportions. The villain, Professor Pyg, is one Morrison created in some earlier work with the Bat-family, and he’s a revelation. He’s genuinely disturbing in a fashion I like to see in villains, and he gives Morrison a pressure valve for his innate weirdness. (You can’t read a Grant Morrison comic and entirely escape his innate weirdness.) A lot of Pyg’s rants, clearly meant to signify “insane”, smell a bit of the sort of cryptic universe-questioning monologues you see in pretentious plays put on by high school drama clubs. At one point Pyg breaks into what appears to be song:

Did I tell you on Monday she’s Mormo, formless chaos? On Tuesday it’s all Tiamat this and Tiamat that. Tohu va bohu and boo-hoo-hoo. Wednesdays, the Gorgon Queen comes in on tiptoes with a million forked tongues for hair.

I’ve known real people whose mental ill-health drove them to mutter to themselves. It was never this flashy or this artful. But this particular sort of artful pseudo-crazy is the stock-in-trade of both Morrison and, I guess, comic books in general.

I do get the sense, now and then, that Morrison bounces around in the air so much he forgets where the ground is. There’s a scene of doctors trying to remove the doll-masks from some of Pyg’s victims, and few panels of Pyg peering out of his cell at Arkham Asylum. The page’s composition implies that he’s watching the surgeries – but if that’s the case, why on earth are the surgeries being done at Arkham? I’m ill-informed on the point, but I’d be surprised to learn that mental hospitals keep surgeons on staff.

The other point of weirdness is the surgery itself – there’s a panel of a patient shrieking, blood pooling around his head, his face half-covered by a towel, while a nurse cries out, “Their faces are coming off with the masks!” What, did the doctors just grab the edge of the mask and yank? I would expect the doctor to notice at the very beginning of the surgery, and notice it with a tiny patch of skin. The comment shouldn’t be the horrified exclamation we get, but a calm, “Hmmm. Nope, it’s going to pull the skin off with it. We’ll have to find another way to do this.” That, and why is the patient conscious?

Quibbles aside, I actually really, really enjoyed this issue. I’m sensing shades of the ‘90s anti-hero in both Batman and Robin, which I hope doesn’t develop too terribly far, but which in its early stages is a lot of fun. I’ll definitely pick up the next issue.