Shiny Shelf

Batman Annual #27

By Mark Clapham on 16 October 2009

When writing my big Batman love letter the other day, I deliberately skipped over the fact that, in the comics at least, Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman at the moment. Presumed dead, but probably lost somewhere in time, or the multiverse, or something, Wayne is gone. In his place, former Robin Dick Grayson has stepped up as Batman, and Bruce’s snotty son Damian is the new Robin.

I didn’t mention this in the 70 years article because when you’re talking in terms of decades, a story arc like this, even if it runs for a year or two, isn’t that relevant. Bruce Wayne will be back, and be Batman again, sooner or later. In terms of the films, the cartoons, the games, the general culture, Bruce Wayne will always be Batman.

Which doesn’t mean that the current storyline isn’t a lot of fun. Grant Morrison is telling a big, epic story which started with the introduction of Damian in ‘Batman and Son’, saw Bruce ‘die’ in both ‘Batman RIP’ and ‘Final Crisis’, and is now running with the Dick and Damian story in ‘Batman and Robin’, in which Morrison tells punchy three issue stories that flow into each other as a larger narrative.

It’s great stuff. When Morrison does something like replace Batman, he does so with purpose and has a story to tell beyond the usual comics ‘things will never be the same again!!!’ nonsense.

However, this is where the reality of DC Comics’ publishing plan comes into play – there are a lot more Batman titles being published than just the one-a-month that Morrison has time and/or inclination to write. So, that means other writers have to run with the status quo, and we get issues like this – an annual for the monthly ‘Batman’ title (a series that’s currently written by the variable Judd Winick) with a lead story that continues into next week’s ‘Detective Comics’ annual (‘Tec currently being a Batwoman/The Question duel feature comic written by Greg Rucka) but is written by neither Winick nor Rucka, because it’s actually a lead in to the new ‘Azrael’ series and as such is written by that series’ writer, Fabian Nicieza. Phew!

And that’s just the lead story. There are some back-ups in here too, but let’s not even go there.

The result is a messy compromise, a story that plays within the status quo Morrison has created, then veers off into setting up Nicieza’s new show. Now, Dick Grayson is a character created within a year of Bruce Wayne, and as such he’s not a Morrison creation that other writers’ shouldn’t be able to deal with. However, the Dick/Damian team is fairly freshly minted, and there’s a tone to ‘Batman and Robin’ that’s hard to get a handle on – it’s poppy, bold, with splashes of horror and gaudy violence. Morrison’s scenes cut straight to the point, and he writes all sorts of visual tricks into his scripts, expecting the artists to keep up.

What I’m saying is this – I’m used to seeing these characters in ‘Batman and Robin’, and that book is a bit special. This annual, however, isn’t – it’s a fairly generic Batman story, but with the new Batman and Robin in it. It doesn’t break the tone set by Morrison, but it does seem very, very much in the shadow of his work.

Then there’s the new Azrael who turns up midway through the story and does little other than be a ranty obstructive dick. I quite liked the ‘Azrael’ mini-series that this series picks up from, and religious fervour is definitely a part of the Azrael concept – but with a villain who dresses up in a (rather silly) demon costume, a murdered priest, and a lot of cobblers about the seven deadly sins, Nicieza does seem to be over-egging the religious theme a bit here. Hopefully the ongoing will have broader subject matter, or Azrael will be fighting villains based on St Paul’s letters to the Corinthians by issue #10.

God stuff aside, I’m also a little dubious to what extent this first half (and we still have the ‘Detective’ annual to finish the story) actually sells the appeal of an ‘Azrael’ title. On this evidence, he’s a bit of a tosser – blowing up a car, ranting about ‘man’s law’, and generally being a nuisance. We see him through Dick Grayson’s eyes – and Dick’s a more reasonable, less judgmental individual than Bruce Wayne ever was – and Dick doesn’t like what he sees, so why the hell should we?

Bear in mind here, I’m a sucker for Azrael. If they get me worrying about whether an ongoing ‘Azrael’ comic is a good idea or not, what chance do they have with the casuals.

This is far from a bad comic. Nicieza is one of those writers who on a good day I like a lot, and while this isn’t the best story he’s ever done, it’s solid and there’s nothing notably bad about it. Jim Calafiore’s pencils have a pleasingly sharp line, and he does a good line in Damian’s imperious mannerisms, although I have some reservations about how he treats bodies in motion – at some points people are clearly supposed to be leaping, but they look like they’re just floating instead.

The back-ups, to round them up while we’re here, are a fun two page comedy strip (which made me laugh for its cutesy Bane), and a back-up horror strip featuring Barbara Gordon which is disposable but features suitably sinister art by Kelley Jones.

This is the kind of comic that DC puts out a lot of – it’s competently done, but it feels like it’s dropped between the cracks of other, more important, more ‘A’ list comics. On one side, it’s in the shadow of the company’s flagship Batbook, and on the other it’s failing to sell me on the spin-off title it’s supposed to lead in to.

I don’t hate it at all, but in a market where comics this size cost $4.99 (£3.80 in the comic shop I bought it in), it needs to inspire a lot more love to justify the price tag.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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