There’s a touch of silver in the solicitations for the next few months’ superhero comics–a hint that both DC and Marvel are trying to recapture the tone of the so-called Silver Age, the era from the late ’50s to the early ’70s when both franchises laid the groundwork for what they’ve been doing ever since. Nobody’s let anything substantive slip about either Marvel’s “Heroic Age” or DC’s Brightest Day, but both names hint at back-to-basics moves, a return to the long-gone era when bad guys would end up muttering something like “curses, foiled again,” and nobody’s superpower was vomiting blood.
In the meantime, one of the most entertaining (and most successful) superhero comics of the moment is a Silver Age homage of a very different kind: the Grant Morrison-written Batman and Robin. The premise of the series, for those who haven’t been keeping up, is simple but very clever. Bruce Wayne is… not dead, exactly, but out of the picture; the new Batman is Dick Grayson, the original Robin; the new Robin is Damian Wayne, Bruce’s arrogant, entitled ten-year-old son, who’s been trained since birth by master assassins. Do the two of them have a difficult power dynamic? Why, yes.
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“Batman and Robin”: the phrase suggests, more than anything else, the ’60s Batman TV show, the campy bam-pow routine that comics have spent four decades trying to wave away with “realism” of one kind or another. Morrison doesn’t have a lot of use for realism in general. There are plenty of media and genres that can reflect their audience’s reality in a more-or-less literal way; only superhero comics can offer an insane demonic zombie clone of Batman revived from a charred skeleton by a magical resurrection cauldron in a collapsed British coal mine, and use that to address various father-child relationships, which is what happens in this week’s Batman and Robin #9.
It’s the conclusion of the three-part “Blackest Knight” story, wittily and elegantly drawn by Cameron Stewart–a riff on “Blackest Night,” of course, but also a giddy, sugar-rush variation on mid-century “Batman goes overseas” stories. Morrison’s Batman and Batman and Robin work from the premise that every Batman story ever published is something that happened to the character, even the over-the-top supernatural and science-fiction one-offs from the Silver Age. Instead of trying to recapture the low-stakes simplicity of those old stories, though, Morrison’s been raiding elements from them that are still potent in 2010.
There are a few winking callbacks, like the double-team knockout punch from the Batman TV show that resurfaces here (twice!), or the zombie Batman calling Robin “old chum.” More importantly, though, Morrison’s reclaimed the gaudy, unsettling craziness of Silver Age Batman comics. His plots careen by at rubber-burning speed. When his Batman goes to London, it’s not just a cool setting, it’s concentrated essence of Britishness, complete with a Pearly King as a villain, nonstop references to working-class British culture, and a landscape that’s wall-to-wall bridges and department stores and tube stops (although Morrison reportedly requested that Stewart leave Big Ben and Parliament off-panel). And, of course, there’s an appearance by the Knight and the Squire, the British Batman and Robin. (Back in the Silver Age, it was established that they were part of a club of Batmen of many nations, an idea that was conveniently ignored for the next few decades.)