Meanwhile, back at stately Wayne Manor…
With Bruce Wayne unstuck in time and presumed dead, the task of being Batman falls to Dick Grayson. Grayson, the original Robin, sets aside his Nightwing alter ego to don the Batsuit and drags Damian into the family business as the new Robin. Before long, they’re fighting a disgusting new villain who sews mind-altering masks of flesh to his victims’ faces, as well as former Robin Jason Todd, who now terrorizes villains and heroes alike as murderous vigilante the Red Hood.
Grant Morrison’s cavalcade of characters with dual and triple identities continues, but the story is less complicated than the above summary might imply. Originally published over the course of 16 issues, Batman & Robin is the only series in Morrison’s run which is given room to breathe. All you need to know is explained up front, and since the antagonists are mostly original creations, the panels aren’t mired in the excessive, imaginary back story that made previous books like The Black Glove so difficult to follow. It’s also the best-illustrated arc of the series, with Frank Quietly’s interpretation of Professor Pyg just disturbing enough that you can still look at it, and Frazer Irving bringing his signature creepy style to the Joker and Dr. Hurt in the final chapters.
But what I find most fascinating about Batman & Robin is how Morrison really digs into the idea that every character wears many masks. It’s a motif at its most literal at the beginning of Batman Reborn. As Grayson relinquishes his identity as a former Robin to become Batman, he ends up training a new Robin, only to find himself at cross purposes against another former Robin. At the same time, the primary villain of the story is a demented doctor in a pig mask who alters his victims into hideous identical man-dolls. When he gets taken out of the picture, the bad guys call in a hitman who literally eats faces.
The thread continues, albeit less successfully, in Batman Vs. Robin, when Damian finds his body under the control of Grayson’s arch-nemesis. Meanwhile, Dick attempts to deduce the identity of their mysterious ally The Gravedigger, who’s wrapped his head up like the Invisible Man. The story’s almost undone by an unfortunate detour to England and an illogical mystery– for all his strengths, Grant Morrison’s terrible at depicting any incarnation of Batman as an actual detective– but returns to form in the final volume, which brings back both Professor Pyg and Dr. Hurt, who again assumes the identity of Bruce’s long-dead father Thomas Wayne. It culminates in the return of Bruce Wayne and the inception of Batman Incorporated, an initiative designed to create a world where not only can Batman be anywhere, anyone might be wearing his cowl.
I really love what Morrison’s done here. Despite his missteps in book two, the story of Batman & Robin seems as natural and immutable as anything else considered canon, from The Dark Knight Returns to The Killing Joke. Grayson and Damian are a natural pair, and their growing rogues gallery manages to feel contemporary without overshadowing the series’ long history. That’s probably due to the decadent elegance of mastermind Dr. Hurt, easily Grant Morrison’s strongest contribution to Batman lore. It’s rare to read a superhero comic that has a theme, and Morrison’s pattern of developing characters with multiple identities helps present Gotham as a world that seems adult even at its most ridiculous.