Don't fix it if it ain't broke. Change for the sake of change is never a good thing. These wise adages prove to be true more often than not. Issue #4 of the incredibly successful Batman and Robin monthly marks the title's artistic debut of Philip Tan. In my opinion, Frank Quitely's unique style and cinematic pacing have made every page of B&R a visually stunning work of art. His mastery of creating emotion and action without the need for narration has even pushed Grant Morrison's writing to new heights. So I naturally had some trepidation as to how this week's issue would turn out.
The result……. well it's mixed. Visually the look is more traditional, but I liked it. The homage to the 60's show is gone and replaced by a much darker tone. On first glance I loved Tan's imposing take on Batman. It almost reminded me of Jim Lee. Then I thought about it for a minute, and realized that one of the most refreshing elements of Quitley's Batman and to a lesser degree Dustin Nguyen's was that the character is drawn to be uniquely Dick Grayson. Philip Tan's Batman is spectacular, don't get me wrong. It just looks like Bruce Wayne in the suit. Maybe that was intentional, especially as it relates to my favorite scene in the issue. Dick and Damian are on a rooftop staking out a crime boss meeting. Dick is looking as menacingly Batman-esque as he ever has, and starts lecturing Damian about the art of surveillance. Dick is definitely revelling in mentoring his Robin the way Bruce educated him. Unfortunately for Dick, Damian isn't your typical rookie Boy Wonder. When he tries to teach Robin a lesson about the danger of wearing a hood, Damian quickly gets the upper hand on Dick and gets in the line of the book; "I can hear you breathing and beat you senseless in pitch darkness. Your point is?" You can almost see Dick pouting through his cowl.
Tan's pencils are very detailed and really accentuate the violence and intense action. His drawing of the Penguin's beaten face is gorgeously horrific. I also really admire how he is able to exude emotion from a faceless villain using body shape and movement.
The main focus of this issue is to introduce Red Hood and Scarlett as violent psychopaths, hell bent on taking out the criminal element in a much more literal way than Batman and Robin. This isn't original in its premise, as we have seen vigilante characters self-create in the past because of Batman's refusal to kill. The briefly mentioned Abuse character from Streets of Gotham comes to mind, as does Lock-Down from BTAS, and Andrea Beaumont from Mask of the Phantasm. What makes this different is the team-up with Scarlett to create an antithesis dynamic duo, but with an even greater influx of irony because it is Red Hood, and the assumption that he is Jason Todd. The pin-up of Red Hood and Scarlett in a very Caped Crusaders on the move pose is very well done. Now I used the word "assumption" when mentioning Jason as Red Hood. Morrison plants the seed of doubt by introducing us to Oberon Sexton, aka Gravedigger as an obvious candidate to be Red Hood. But I suspect that this is a red herring. "Oberon" is actually a reference to the King in Shakespeare’s Midsummer's Nights Dream who sets the stage for the play’s misunderstandings that have become a staple plot device in modern literature. This could be a clue to Sexton’s actual purpose in this story arc.
I found Morrison's style to be a little more akin to his work in RIP as compared to the first three issues; somewhat muddled and a bit too wordy. Red Hood's quoting of Milton's Paradise Lost didn't work for me the way the Shaw citations did for Pyg in the last arc. I also didn't quite get the reason for the Flintstones reference. Maybe someone can explain it to me in the comments. There were some nicely written scenes though. The aforementioned hood scene, as well the over the top massacre of the crime bosses, reminiscent of Heath Ledger in TDK but a lot more violent. Morrison earns novelty pop culture points too for having Scarlett post on Twitter. The Batman-Red Hood meeting is predicable, but still creates anticipation for next month.
So, is Philip Tan a change for the better? Most certainly not. Is he a worthy successor? Absolutely. Can this creative team continue the high quality we have come to expect from B&R? I think they can. And if things go down hill, we always have Seaguy coming to the rescue in issue #7!
Batman and Robin #4:
Reviewed by Tiggerbrown