(Welcome to Comics Rewind, a weekly column devoted to discovering – or re-discovering – great comics published some time in the past. Here you will find looks back at comics published in every era, from the Golden Age to the Modern Age, as well as retrospectives on the work of important comics writers, lists of “essential” comics, and evaluations of important works, as well as works worthy of a second look or a wider audience. Enjoy!)
Like most of his work, Grant Morrison’s lengthy run on Batman has its fair share of detractors. Some of it was just too radical for longtime fans of the Dark Knight, particularly when Morrison decided to place a gun in the Bat’s hands for the final act of Final Crisis (something I, as a Batfreak, still defend, but that’s another column). Even with his very first issues on the book, he was challenging us to accept new truths of the Bat-verse, by giving Batman a true son.
Even before introducing Damian Wayne to us in the arc that would become Batman and Son, Morrison is challenging the Batman’s identity. It seems a lot of hard work has paid off, and Gotham City is suddenly free of super crime. After encountering and getting rid of a Batman impostor who’s not afraid to use a gun (which is in itself a jarring sight for the real Caped Crusader), Batman finds himself with free time. Alfred suggests he use it to cultivate more of his Bruce Wayne persona, which has been getting very little love lately, by attending an art event in London. Bruce agrees, and it’s there that he learns Talia al Ghul – who’s leading the League of Assassins in her father’s absence – is the mother of his son Damian.
That’s honestly enough meat for an intriguing Batman story right there. You need nothing else. Batman’s an orphan who is in many ways forever fighting to bring his father back, or to at least preserve the lives of Gotham’s other good fathers. Over years of battling crime he’s even adopted the city as his surrogate child. It’s the thing he tends to late at night, while others are asleep. He comforts Gotham in its time of nightmares. But that wasn’t enough. He adopted surrogate sons in the form of sidekicks. He shepherded Dick Grayson until he became a superhero in his own right, then lost Jason Todd and gained even more eternal guilt. Now a real son, his own flesh and blood, is on his doorstep. Someone who’s spent most of his adult life raging against orphans of all kinds – be they cities or people – now has a real family member for the first time decades.
Except things can never be that easy for Bruce Wayne. Damian isn’t just his son. Damian is also the son of one of his greatest enemies, a ruthless criminal mastermind who – while Bruce is getting to know his boy – is busy building an army of ninja Man-Bats. He’s also been trained to be a killer who can survive anything, exploit anything as a weapon, and treat everyone ruthlessly, be they criminals or Batman’s current surrogate family: Alfred and the third Robin, Tim Drake.
And that’s where Morrison really hits a nerve. Bruce Wayne lost something at a young age that made him what he is. He’s spent his life becoming hardened and dangerous, all in the service of preventing such things from happening to others. Damian’s never known the kind of loss Bruce has, but he’s twice as ruthless, because his mother trained him that way from birth. He’s never known the other side of the Batman coin, the compassion that the Dark Knight has always included as an essential part of his personal code. Damian is just a no-frills warrior, and now Bruce Wayne – who’s spent his life fighting others who pack the same kind of cold-bloodedness – must invite this boy into his home. It’s the Batman and Robin relationship gone more hostile than ever before, and it never stops being intriguing.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the brilliance of Andy Kubert in this equation. Morrison provides the meat of this story, the part of this that we keep talking about, but it would surely be a good deal less compelling without Kubert’s stellar art. He’s one of the best in the business, and to my mind one of the best Batman artists ever.
Even if you don’t like the places where Morrison took the Bat-books in the latter part of his run (particularly the madness of RIP, which is, once again, another column), it’s hard not to appreciate the daring in a story like Batman and Son. It’s easy to paint this as a sensationalistic tool to sell more comics, but Morrison makes it so much more. It’s a journey into an entirely new part of Batman’s psyche, and it’s one of the best Bat-stories of the last decade.