So far, Batman and Robin Eternal has an intriguing plot wrapped in an unfortunate hodgepodge of creators, with multiple names attached to each separate issue. As a whole package, it comes off as an excellent broth recipe which has far, far too many cooks contributing to it. There’s plenty of potential for good in here, but the inability of the book to maintain a continuous creative team from issue to issue prevents the series from coming together as a cohesive whole.
The general plot is good, other than the fact that it raises serious questions about whether Batman is as morally pure a character as he’s traditionally been portrayed. The plot concerns the “dark secret from the mentor’s past” plotline which has been raised countless times with Professor X in so many X-Men comics. In Batman & Robin Eternal, Dick Grayson and the other Robins learn of a human trafficker named “Mother” who kills the parents of children and uses their trauma to shape them into ideal human beings, often as killers. Mother’s children are now sleeper agents around the world, and now they’re coming out to attack the Robins and even the currently-amnesiac Bruce Wayne himself. Worse, a series of flashbacks to Dick’s first year as Robin indicates that Batman himself sought out Mother to build him an ideal heir. Whether Batman really did commit this sin remains to be seen, but Dick and the rest of the vast family of Robins (Jason Todd, Tim Drake) and even some of the non-Robins (Bluebird, Spoiler, and Batgirl) are getting involved in the hunt to find Bruce’s potential heir.
Whereas the prior Batman Eternal was a little more “timeless” in its storytelling (not locked into any specific Batman events), Batman and Robin Eternal is very dependent on Bruce Wayne’s current amnesiac status. This works both to the story’s advantage and disadvantage. On the negative side, readers who check out this story years from now will be reminded that this is very much a Nu52 series, with firm appearances by Mecha-Bat Jim Gordon, a non-Nightwing Dick Grayson, and a happy pauper Bruce Wayne. On the positive, Bruce’s relative absence means that Batman isn’t capable of accounting for whether he really did ally himself with mother at the cost of another child’s parents. While the amnesiac Bruce does appear in issues #3 and #4, he’s a clean slate who can’t account for what happened. (Batman and Robin Eternal concludes in March around the same time that Bruce recovers his memory in the upcoming Batman #50, so I’m betting Bruce will be back as Batman to explain himself in the final issue.)
The caped crusader’s absence allows Snyder and Tynion to tell a Batman story without Batman by incorporating him into a series of flashbacks set in Dick Grayson’s first year as Robin. This is another added bonus, as it’s relatively rare that we get stories about Bruce and Dick’s early years anymore (even in the fresher rebooted continuity), with Dick having not been Robin in any present-tense stories for over 30 years now. Batman and Robin Eternal isn’t just giving us a Bruce-and-Dick story, but also showing what Robin means to Batman in terms of both his ability and his capacity to fill the role. Some early failures and recklessness on Dick’s part were the apparent impetus for Bruce seeking out Mother for a “better” heir, and it’s serving to shatter Dick’s faith in Bruce when it’s discovered years later.
The other interesting feature of Batman and Robin Eternal is that it’s continued the re-90s-ification of the Bat-books by reintroducing Cassandra Cain (the Batgirl of the late 90s), her father David Cain, and one-time replacement-Batman Jean Paul Valley, better known as Azrael. It seems to be part of an interesting trend, refilling the holes in the bat-universe that were stripped out by the Nu52 reboot. The previous Batman Eternal seemingly started this trend by bringing back Stephanie Brown (the Spoiler) and including guest appearances by a number of long-lost Bat-rogues. Now the trend continues by bringing back two more of the biggest losses of the reboot. Rest assured, the rebooted Cassandra and Azrael are relatively true to their roots. Not only do they resemble their classic selves, but their origins are fairly unchanged. Cassandra is still a teenage mute assassin who “speaks” in body language, and Azrael is an assassin with a flaming sword who works for the religious order of St. Dumas. The only twist is that both characters are now explicitly tied to Mother and her program of traumatizing children and then reconditioning them to be deadly killers. This may not full satisfy fans who wanted a wholesale restoration of the Flashpoint losses, but it’s close enough for a pass.
There’s a few downsides to Batman and Robin Eternal as it exists so far. First is that the plot is a little all over the place right now, with two main concurrent stories (Dick and Cassandra’s efforts to find Mother in Prague, and Tim Drake and Jason Todd hunting for the order of St. Dumas in Santa Prisca). Combined with both of those are the flashback portions regarding Bruce and Dick’s original mission to Prague years earlier. There’s a lot to keep track of in this story, and the fact that it’s jumping around every few issues means that readers will need to refresh themselves every few weeks to remember where each portion of the plot was last.
Second is Mother herself. For now, she’s something of a blank slate of a villain. We know only that she’s an old lady who’s motivation is to make a better world by traumatizing and re-educating children into tougher, “designer” people. After 13 issues, we haven’t gotten much of her motivations. She almost comes off as a more European, female version of Ra’s Al Ghul, and it’d be interesting to learn if there’s a connection between the two villains. For now, she seems to be limited to a catty, moustache-twirling villainess (if she had a moustache to twirl).
Lastly, from a creative perspective, this comic is all over the place. Scott Snyder and James Tynion are on each issue as co-writers, of course, but various scripters have been brought in for each issue as well. Worse, we typically don’t get an art team that lasts longer than two issues so far. Tony Daniel started the series off with a great first issue, but since then the art chores have shifted among a variety of pencilers. Issue-per-issue, this isn’t too noticeable, but reading the series as a whole is difficult with shifting art styles every issue.
Maybe the showcase of various art styles was intentional, but with the increase of trade-readers, DC should have thought this through a little better. Granted, it can be difficult for a good artist to keep up with a monthly schedule, let alone a weekly one. The solution with past weekly series was to at least try to have one “staple” artist for the main part of the story and some fill-in artists for logical break parts. Surely it wouldn’t have been that hard for DC to find one artist for the main story and a separate artist for the flashback portions? Regardless, it’s not going to be very pretty when this story is eventually collected and the reader finds the tone of the story shifting from chapter to chapter.
Those flaws aside, Batman and Robin Eternal presents a nice alternative for the reader who wants a “classic” Batman story over the current Bat-Gordon saga. Batman is there–albeit in flashbacks–but his presence is strong enough that his present-tense absence won’t be missed. Plus, we get a complete survey of the rest of the Bat-cast, with plenty of appearances by Dick, Jason, Tim, Stephanie, Barbara, Harper, the “We Are Robin” kids, and now the “new” additions of Cassandra and Jean-Paul. And the unresolved mystery of the series is that there may be one more Robin out there. It does cast a dark pall over the Bat-mythos–that Batman may have murdered at one point in order to generate the perfect Robin–but hopefully that’s a massive fake out which will resolve happily by March.
Rating: Three boy wonders out of five.