Artisanal Killers And Bruce Wayne’s Kids: Why ‘Batman & Robin Eternal’ Was So Darn Great
This week marked the final issue of Batman & Robin Eternal, and while we're still close enough to it that the honeymoon has barely even started, let alone ended, I'm pretty sure that I can declare it to be my all-time favorite weekly DC project.
Admittedly, part of that has to do with the length. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but with only 26 issues instead of the usual year-long commitment, the creative teams behind this one were allowed to keep up a pace that never felt like it lagged. Instead of overstaying their welcome with the grind of an event that hit stands every week, they were able to focus on a single overarching story, viewing it through the lens of a cast of characters who were all affected a little differently.
But while the pacing made a pretty huge difference, it was the story that made this comic great. It weaved its way through Batman's long history of sidekicks --- a history that pretty much introduced the very concept of sidekicks to the world of superhero comics --- and ended up looking at Batman, Robin, and what those characters mean, in a way that I'm not sure any other story has.
In a way, Eternal is as notable for what it lacks as what it has. Despite his name coming first on the cover of every single issue, this is a Batman story without Batman, an interesting luxury afforded by the weirdness going on in the rest of Gotham City. This was, after all, a book that took place almost entirely in an era when Batman was Jim Gordon in a suit of robot armor, and while Bruce Wayne shows up in flashbacks --- and in a coda at the end of the final issue that takes place after his return in Batman #50 --- it's his absence that drives the story.
Since Batman's not Batman for this story --- and, in fact, is a version of Bruce Wayne who has no memories of his time as the Caped Crusader and no intention of ever returning to superheroics --- that means that his extended family of sidekicks can't just go to him with their questions about what's going on. Normally, that's not a huge problem, but it certainly becomes one when the Robins discover that once, long ago, he was involved with a supervillain called Mother who deals in conditioning people --- including engineering the exact kind of tragedies that created Batman in order to create what she refers to as "artisanal killers."
It goes beyond just the big reveal of an all-new, all-different league of teenage assassins, and raises the question of how far Batman is willing to go to in order to gain an advantage in his war on crime. And on top of that, considering that there have been a lot of Robins --- and Batgirls, and Spoilers, and Bluebirds, and all the other roles that make up the Batman Family --- they have to ask whether or not they're failed experiments, and whether Batman has just been tinkering with fate until he finally gets someone he likes.
He hasn't been, of course, but in the context of this story, which has featured a roster of creators that includes Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Tony Daniel, Tim Seeley, Steve Orlando, Genevieve Valentine, Ed Brisson, Paul Pelletier, Marcio Takara, Javi Piña, Jackson Lanzing, Collin Kelly, Carlo Pagulayan, and more, that's barely even the point. Instead, it becomes the question of what makes a sidekick, and whether or not it would be better to just make a world where everyone was Batman.
That, in the end, is Mother's plan: Creating a world full of orphans who have all seen their parents die in front of them, who have been driven by a custom-made trauma --- delivered in the form of the Scarecrow's fear toxin, of course, because why wouldn't this story use a pretty major Batman villain as a miniboss rather than the main event --- so that she can train an endless army of soldiers who have the same motivation as Batman. They're meant to be exactly as driven and exactly as well trained, with the only difference being that they'll be devoted to significantly more murderous pursuits than he is.
And, hilariously, amazingly enough, Batman & Robin Eternal represents this idea by giving us Azrael. Full-on, '90s-as-hell, flaming sword and claws snikting out of his fists Azrael.
It is truly a beautiful thing.
The thing is, that's not how Batman and Robin work. As great as Batman might be, and as tempting as it is to imagine tearing down this fallen world and replacing it with one that's full of Dark Knights who are singularly devoted to a higher calling --- a world where the global economy would be based entirely on the gargoyle and rocket car manufacturing industries, I imagine --- Batman exists not to create Batman. He exists to create Robin.
That's the trick to the whole set of relationships that define the Batman family, the idea that even if Batman can't prevent every tragedy, he can prevent that loneliness and loss that drove him to become what he is. It's what proves that what he's doing works, that he can inspire others, that he can save them from his own fate and in doing so, save himself by creating a new family that fills the hole left when his parents were taken from him.
And, if you listen to folks like Glen Weldon, it's the final element that separates Batman from his direct ancestors in the world of pulp novels and Shadow-inspired ripoffs. It's what makes Batman Batman, and it's what I love about the very idea of "Batman and Robin." He makes them better than they would be without him, and that, ultimately, makes them better than even Batman himself.
That's the idea at the core of Batman & Robin Eternal, but the best thing about this series is that while it's all there - occasionally even spelled out explicitly on the page, like it is in the image above --- it's a book that never gets bogged down in its own sweeping philosophy. Instead, it goes all out with action-movie storytelling that's so far over the top that it would be ridiculous if it wasn't so darn entertaining.
Honestly, I don't want to spoil any more than I already have, but the last issue takes place in an ice palace built over an active volcano that explodes as soon as the story's major villain is defeated. It's bananas.
But then, it has to be. This is a book that celebrates Batman's family, and that means that it's a book that has five Robins, Bluebird, Spoiler and Cassandra Cain at the core of its cast, with Batgirl, Batwoman, the Birds of Prey, a couple of Outsiders, Spyral, and the Midnighter thrown in for good measure. When that's your cast, you need a story that's big enough to match.
That they managed to make a story that big without ever losing the plot is one of the most remarkable things about this book; that they did it without ever relying on Batman showing up to fix things himself is as incredible; and the fact that they did it every week with a consistency that even most monthly books lack is darn near unbelievable. But it worked, and it worked well, and the end result is one of my favorite Batman and Robin stories in a good long while.