There are days when I admire people who don’t have a serious, unkickable superhero-comics habit, and there are other days when I feel a little sorry for people who don’t get to enjoy things like Batman and Robin #13. It’s the best episode thus far of Grant Morrison’s ongoing Batman project: the one in which the dominoes he’s been lining up for the past year and more are actually starting to fall.
Morrison’s called the current “Batman and Robin Must Die!” storyline “‘Batman R.I.P.’ as farce”–not the door-slamming Lend Me a Tenor kind but the “first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” kind. When I interviewed him for Techland a while ago, he also mentioned that it was a “black mass” for Batman, and indeed it is: a deliberately degraded inversion of all the classic elements of a Batman story. That ritual is signaled by the religious invocation in its opening sequence, which is immediately followed by the filthy communion of the one-panel de Sadean orgy scene and the Satanic “high priest,” Doctor Hurt, descending Wayne Manor’s stairs to approach his (sacrificial) altar, and an inside-out version of the flash-forward from the beginning of “R.I.P.”
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Even more than Morrison’s writing, though, the aspect of this issue that’s knocking me flat is Frazer Irving’s artwork. Irving has worked with Morrison before (on Seven Soldiers: Klarion the Witch Boy and the second issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne), but he really gives this issue a look of its own, carving out silhouetted shapes in space against backgrounds that dissolve into garishly toned fog. The first page is a restaging of David Mazzucchelli’s classic cover for Batman #404, of course, but Irving turns it into a sort of decadent Gustav Klimt image–Martha Wayne’s body angled just so against the delicate but consistent white texture of her coat, the blood running along the sidewalk at neat right angles, the blackness out of which Thomas emerges at the top of the page becoming a streak effect at the bottom.
The rest of the issue continues to slice every panel into areas of form and void. Irving’s Batman is a sharp black shape with the lower half of a face just visible within it (there’s one fantastic panel that’s just a little cut-out shape of Batman’s eye surrounded by the black mass of his mask). His Commissioner Gordon is a bundle of grey worry lines, with a skin tone only slightly different from his hair and moustache. And his Joker is a terrific piece of character-acting: straight lines for shiny hair, white skin a mottled horror of scars and wrinkles, features contorting around his permanent, permanently inappropriate grin.
The way Irving stages the action owes a bit to the bold, spacious tone Frank Quitely established in the first three issues–except that a lot of Quitely’s open spaces have now turned black. Have a look, for example, at page 9, over on DC’s blog. The first panel is from the Joker’s point of view, more or less (and the way it’s skewed and foreshortened to hint at his cracked perspective could be a Quitely trick). Batman’s hand, tossing the domino in the air, is a bit of character work–this is something Dick Grayson would do that Bruce Wayne wouldn’t, underscored by what he’s saying–but his hand also blends into the silhouette of his shape, and the gradual left-to-right darkening of the background color scheme duplicates the first image of the Joker from the scene a couple of pages earlier.
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In the next panel, the reader’s perspective shifts: now we’re roughly where Robin is, watching the forms of Batman and the Joker melt together, except for the salient forms of the handcuffs and the domino. Then Irving goes so tight in on Batman that he becomes a semi-abstract shape dominating a diagonal half of the third panel, which shifts the reader’s focus onto Robin, then lets it slide it onto Batman’s wrist-phone as a transition to the bottom tier’s setting in England. The Knight is just barely more legible than a silhouette against the black silhouettes of the tombstones and the gray silhouettes behind them, as a setup for the little looking-up-from-an-open-grave perspective that follows it (and the cutaway shot of the inside of a coffin–another callback to “R.I.P.”–on the next page).
Apparently, Irving is now working entirely digitally, and does his own coloring. (Here, he nods to Alex Sinclair’s coloring on earlier issues with a halation effect around light sources.) In fact, beyond the pure-black forms that appear in almost every panel, most of the “linework” here is actually in colors other than black: the contour-based technique cartooning’s had as its basis for the last hundred years, expanded beyond the possibilities of ink-on-paper drawing. It wouldn’t have been possible for a comic book to look like this even ten years ago, and for all its allusions to old Batman comics, Irving’s visual approach here feels like a potential starting point for the future.
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