‘Batman and Robin: Requiem for Damian’ Review: Writer Peter J. Tomasi Explores The Nature Of Sadness
Batman and Robin: Requiem for Damian covers the fallout from Robin’s death. While this isn’t the first time a member of the family has died, Robin was Damian Wayne, Bruce Wayne’s biological son. He was also a ten-year-old boy. What follows, as written by Peter J. Tomasi and drawn by Patrick Gleason, is a somber tale of failure, regret and desperation that defines why Batman is who he is and why this path may have always been the wrong one.
Batman doesn’t have a strong coping mechanism. He wears leather and Kevlar for God’s sake. When tragedy strikes, he tends to recede even further into himself, pushing his immediate family as far from him as possible. He feels he’s toxic, that the pain is only his to bear; it’s both selfish and selfless in its way. He also tends towards greater violence.
Tomasi’s writing is a fairly unique in comics. His style has always chosen character over action (though when you do get to the action, it’s as bombastic and exciting as you get), and when you have a character that has been around as long as Batman it’s hard to find a new layer in the character to explore. Tomasi handled Batman like he had created him, redefining his identity and the impulses that fire through his mind.
Damian, the fifth Robin — how old does that make you feel? — was the scary one. He was trained from birth by a psychotic Talia al Ghul, his mother, to be a living weapon. By the time he was ten he killed scores of people. In his first appearance he beheaded one of Batman’s villains and presented it to him like a loyal cat with a mouse in his teeth. He once, for the sake of irony, beat Joker half to death with a crowbar. He swore and was arrogant. Bruce, Alfred and Dick Grayson — the first Robin, the eldest son — nurtured him into something more than a weapon, to a flesh and blood person, complex and tragic, and his death sent waves throughout the fandom.
The twenty pages making up the first issue, “Undone,” are entirely silent. This is a gimmick that comic companies employ at times. I can’t remember ever liking one until now. It was grown organically, not meant to be a gimmick. As Tomasi wrote the issue, breaking down the images, he noticed he was more than halfway through without having written a word of dialogue. Tomasi based much of Damian’s characterization on his own son, which made this story more heartbreaking as he explored his own feelings on how the death of his son might affect him as well. It grounds the story in true emotion, brought to life by long-time collaborator Patrick Gleason.
Gleason’s art and Cliff Richards’ colors do the talking, thinning the line between comic panels and painting. The color palate is simple, using only primary colors, though the main ones used are blue and black. The only true colors come from the reminiscences of Damian as Robin, the little bit of light in a dark life. Batman sees him everywhere, his mind playing tricks on him as he recalls better times. The Batman in these issues, as rendered by Gleason and Richards, is ever more dark and disheveled. As Bruce Wayne he’s unshaven and his eyes, when not opaque, are pools of non-reflective black.
As he struggles with trying to find out who the boy really was — they only knew each other about a year despite their relation. He found a sketchbook of Damian’s; he was drawing the figures in his life and the manor that was their home. Alfred finds the portrait being made of himself, Damian and the rest of the family. A shaken Alfred looks at the boy and tearfully places the portrait into storage. Batman finds Robin’s glove, holding it in his hand; such a tiny hand. He braces back a sob as he puts his mask on.
Batman goes on patrol and in between tricks of the brain, lays a wrath upon the bad guys that would have been barbaric even for him just a short time ago. Commissioner Gordon finds the GCPD’s rooftop littered in bloodied, broken and crippled criminals with nothing so much as a note.
Finally, Bruce finds a letter Damian wrote him before undertaking the mission he knew would result in his death. The words, while admittedly a bit on the nose, serve as proof of his success as a father, but in Damian’s loss, his failure as well. Bruce lets out a silent wail before destroying much of the Batcave with his bare hands until they’re as broken and bloody as the criminals on Gordon’s roof. He clutches Robin’s costume with more affection in death than he ever had in life.
The following issues are titled in the stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Thematically, he encounters one of the members of his family in each issue, reflecting what he’s going through. These are successful for the most part, though a few of these beats fall flat. Batman’s attempt at resurrecting Damian is as natural as it is psychotic though the appearance of Red Robin (ugh, that name) doesn’t add up to much. While the character of Jason Todd — the second Robin — was the one should have remained dead, he, for once, actually adds to the story as one of the few people willing to stand up to Batman for his increasingly violent and vaguely suicidal tendencies. Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) shows up during the bargaining phase and does what she usually does: makes it about herself (Stephanie Brown was the superior Batgirl). Catwoman visits for the depression, and while her relationship with Batman has always been a maudlin soap opera at best, her team-up with Batman in this issue ties in well, along with their success in saving a hostage child. Batman shows the kid the warmth he wanted to show Damian, saying the words he wishes could change everything: “You’re safe now.”
In between all of this is a subplot of Bruce’s meetings with Carrie Kelly (long story), who was Damian’s tutor. Through her he learns of Damian’s secret hobbies, interests, hopes and talents — an entire section of his life no one knew existed, not even his own father. It is through these sessions that Bruce realizes he had failed in many ways as a father not only to Damian, but also to the wards he’s taken in before. So obsessed with his mission that he’s missed the people in his own life.
The final issue, “Acceptance,” is the only one that comes close to reaching the heights of the opener. It deals with Bruce, Grayson and Alfred, the three who had been the closest to Damian, as the former two use a VR/holodeck type machine to playback the day Damian died. Alfred uses it for a simple, ultimately sadder task that leads Bruce to a greater understand of the man who had been a surrogate father to himself and everyone else who has lived in the manor.
Batman and Nightwing (Dick Grayson) use the program as a kind of Kobayashi Maru test, to see if there was any way to have saved Damian that day. There was. It would have taken murder. It’s here that Tomasi adds something particularly controversial, but utterly human to the Batman franchise. Batman and Nightwing admit that they would have killed to save Damian. Batman never condones murder, but for the sake of family over all, he would resort to it without hesitation or guilt. It’s something that may fly in the face of 75 years of stories, but it is such an identifiable trait, an ugly ignoble, but inherently true emotion that has naturally developed inside the character. Tomasi managed to graft something real onto an iconic character known for his stoicism and implacability. Bill Finger would be proud.
Despite the serialized nature of comics, this is a mostly self-contained story that casual or even non-readers can appreciate. The contextual backstory is deep and circuitous but Tomasi sums it up simply in a few panels and a couple of lines of dialogue. The edition is more about emotion than story so it’s easier to climb aboard and not feel lost.
The issues in this collection all live in the shadow of the first and last stories (particularly that first one), and though by themselves they can’t match that level of quality and wallowing sadness, as a whole, they add to the greater tableau of a father’s grief at losing a child. They say there isn’t a word for it — that could encapsulate the feeling a parent has at the loss of a child — and it’s that way too in Requiem for Damian. The look here is both complex and unflinching; there really is no resolution. Tomasi and company stripped the characters of the whole bat angle and presented everyone simply as humans, effectively rendering a story that breathes of a loss lived by real people.
Batman and Robin: Requiem for Damian is available now in hardcover.
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