Reviewed in the United States on November 16, 2011
First off, as a general rule of thumb, when looking at a star rating for work by Grant Morrison it's probably a good idea to go ahead and knock off a star to keep your expectations realistic. Morrison has a rabid fanbase who have epileptic seizures over absolutely everything he does, and I wouldn't recommend basing your purchase on their opinions. Personally, I find his work to be hit-and-miss, more miss than hit, and he often misses in spectacular fashion. But don't tell him or any of his hardcore fans that, because they don't want to hear it. It'll just be our little secret...
On to the work itself: This volume has a little bit of the hit and a lot of the miss. As you'll often hear, much of Morrison's best work comes when he collaborates with Frank Quitely, and the contrast between the first and second halves of this book (drawn by Quitely and Philip Tan, respectively) demonstrates this nicely. I'll spare you any plot summary that would be redundant to previous reviews and deal with the book's successes and failures.
The first half of this book is a perfectly readable and enjoyable, and Quitely's storytelling is always worth a look. But as far as Morrison/Quitely collaborations go, this might be their weakest effort by a wide margin. Quitely tries something interesting by incorporating sound effects into his illustrations, but I'm not sure it's entirely successful. If the alternative is that a letterer slap words like BOOM and SPLASH over the art, I prefer Quitely's alternative, but I don't think having the word BOOM spelled out in an explosion has more impact than a cool, convincing illustration of an explosion. Quitely is one of those cinematic storytellers who doesn't need things like motion lines or sound effects to convey movement or sound, but I can't fault the experiment. Everything Quitely ever did is worth looking at, but this is one of his weaker efforts. Sort of a shame too, since it seems like a dream come true to see the guy cut loose on Batman and Robin. The cover is iconic and great, and the action sequences are perfect, but the book's two splash pages of the title characters descending from above were both disappointing. I've come to expect an admittedly unfair degree of meticulousness from Quitely, and he's understandably fallen just short here. Even at his worst, Quitely is better than almost anybody, but this is pretty much his worst.
There's nothing remotely groundbreaking (or even all that interesting) in the writing here, but Quitely's figure work and choreography make it a joy to read. You may as well credit him with every star in this review, because he's the real draw here (pun not intended). We get the standard junk you'd expect about the original Robin trying to fill Batman's shoes and Batman's son causing friction as the petulant new Robin, and Morrison adds little beyond that summary. To be honest, all of this might have had more impact if there was ever a sense that this status quo would last, and some will argue that the dramatic tension comes from the fact that the characters don't know Bruce Wayne will be back in a few months, but it rang hollow to me. This is due, in part, to Morrison's writing style and his bothersome signature tics.
The first tic is that he moves the players around in his story, seemingly with no reason other than to get them where they need to be to serve the story he wants to tell. This effectively removes their motivations and any sense that they are real, operate based on any logic, or behave like actual people. There's something vaguely artistic about it in a way, but it destroys any sense of drama and tension, and I doubt it's intentional. His characters just behave randomly so Morrison can tell the story he wants to tell. Many of his stories throw all internal logic out the window, but this wouldn't be nearly the problem it is if his characters felt remotely human. If you're looking for comics where the characters make any sense at all, look elsewhere.
The second tic is that he loves telling only a part of the story. He's stated in interviews that he likes to write 40 pages per issue and boil each script down to its most essential 22 pages. I can tell you from having read a fair amount of his work that the final product badly misses those 18 lost pages. There's nothing wrong with making a reader use his imagination to fill in some blanks, and stories are more fun when they unfold a certain way, instead of being handed to you on a silver platter (for a good example of this, see Steampunk by Joe Kelly and Chris Bachalo), but Morrison has a bad habit of leaving all the stuff I'd most like to see on the cutting room floor. The end result is that the reader needs to give Morrison a freight train worth of credit to fully appreciate the story. Fortunately for Morrison, he has no shortage of fans who jump at every chance to give it to him.
The third tic is that he falls in love with a "big idea" and either works in into an existing story or builds a story around it, but he never bothers to develop the potential of these ideas. Emphasis on "never," because it just doesn't happen. Ever. The idea gets floated out there and dies on the page. Again, fortunately for the guy, his readers routinely ignore all that wasted story potential and use their imaginations to flesh out the ideas in their heads and give all the credit to Morrison. This problem is particularly evident in the second half of this volume.
The "high concept" here is that the second Robin wants to take Batman's place and fight crime his way, as The Red Hood. Naturally, this means a more brutal approach. There was a ton of story potential here, but it was all wasted. The Red Hood's mission statement, "the fight against crime grows up," would be faintly interesting if you're willing, as Morrison was, to completely ignore that it's been done a thousand times before. And done better. The age-old conflict between savage vigilantism and the kinder, gentler, old-fashioned brand of costumed crime fighting never had a better slogan, but as usual, all Morrison has contributed is a slogan. I would have really liked a meaningful physical and psychological confrontation between former Robins in Batman's absence, but that's not what we get here. This was a chore to read, and the art did it no favors. Once again, in the absence of a true A-list artist Morrison is left looking downright incompetent. I've found this to be a running theme in his work.
The book design is sharp, and the supplemental material is great. Not only do you get a chance to see some of Frank Quitely's process and character sketches, but you also get an eye-opening glimpse into just how in love with himself Grant Morrison really is. It's almost embarrassing if not for the fact that he is so beloved by so many very charitable fans. If it sounds like I'm being too hard on him, it's like this: He gets the benefit of the doubt from his fanbase more than any writer in the history of things being written; he can afford to have a handful of fair, honest detractors who err on the side of denying him the benefit of the doubt. I certainly enjoy some of his work... most of which was drawn by Frank Quitely. Hm.