A weekly series is a lot to ask from the comic reading public, especially one like Batman and Robin Eternal,
digs deep into the Batman mythos along with the histories of Robin. All the Robins. It is a series that rewards a good amount of foreknowledge of Bat-backstory or at least a willingness to scour the Internet for answers to where certain characters came from or when he or she encountered various adversaries before.
So is Batman and Robin Eternal worth your time and energy? Without a doubt, it is. It is a title I look forward to diving into every week, both for its ability to go to challenging places with familiar characters (while keeping them grounded in who they are and what makes them unique), as well as for asking the very hard questions about the relationship between Batman and Robin.
Batman and Robin Eternal acknowledges the terrible depths crime can go in the real world, a world in which detestable cruelties like child slavery, abuse, forced prostitution, and armies filled with child soldiers exist. The reality that Bruce Wayne finds himself in also harbors such horrors. He has been witness to inhumanity ever since he was a young boy, subject to pain and suffering that are so pervasive in his world that even his immense wealth and loving family could not shield him. So a man born from pain, a man unable to move beyond the great tragedies of his life; what makes him want or need to recruit these orphan teenage boys to fight crime with him? What does that say about him as a man? After all the sadness that his experiences with Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and especially Jason Todd have wrought, what keeps him going, especially with his own son Damian Wayne? What separates his recruitment of these boys into his mission from a warlord enlisting a child soldier? Even a child slave?
Batman and Robin Eternal confronts this fraught question head-on with the villain known as "Mother" and her assassin-offspring, the formidable heavy known as Orphan (real name David Cain). Mother has, for years, been genetically engineering and training young brides to order for wealthy male "clients," draining them of their humanity and molding them to fit her clients' needs before shipping them off to a life none of us would like to imagine. Orphan is there to enforce her mad mission and her philosophy upon "Mother's children," killing anyone who might stand in her way. The comic frequently flashes back to an early international mission with Batman and Robin in which they encountered the fear-obsessed villain Scarecrow as he developed a trauma-inducing serum that would make Mother's children more easily malleable to her wishes.
All of this is nightmarish, but it is all the more horrible knowing that it has parallels in the real world. The addition of Scarecrow as a side villain also enables the comic to explore what are the deepest, darkest nightmares of the various Robins and of Bruce Wayne himself. What could possibly make Jason Todd quake with fear? After all, he endured "death" at the hands of the Joker only to be brought back to life. What could frighten someone who conquered death? Well, it turns out, a whole bunch. Todd's psyche is penetrated and dissected in ways that are rare for such a wisecracking, cynical, and physically formidable individual. It's easy to take his surface witticisms and violence at face value, but Batman and Robin Eternal forces the character to confront what is a very deep and damaging post-traumatic stress disorder, one he has spent his life since his "resurrection" avoiding. With the help of the other Robins, he is able to find strength in the truth of his experience, he is able to know that there are people who care about him, even love him. He has his brothers; Tim, Damian, and Dick; and his adopted father in Bruce Wayne. It is a depth to Jason Todd never before experienced nor expected, which makes it all the more enthralling.
This gets to the heart of why Batman's recruitment of his "wards" is fundamentally different from what Mother does, despite her villainous speechifying to the contrary. Batman has created an environment where these "lost boys," these orphans (whether literal or figurative), find meaning in their lives and find attachment to other people beyond what Bruce Wayne himself has ever been able to experience. Dick Grayson, the first Robin, might be the greatest thing Batman has ever done. Wayne took a boy who, like himself, saw his parents murdered before his eyes and instead of letting him wander, to try and find his destiny alone, Bruce Wayne took young Grayson and gave him guidance and companionship and purpose. This goes beyond the purpose Bruce gave himself when he decided to make it his mission to rid Gotham City of crime, a purpose that left him perpetually unfulfilled and on an unending quest for revenge on the ineffable concept of evil. Grayson, on the other hand, was able to forge an identity of his own that is optimistic as well as full of light and depth. From the time Dick was a young boy to his maturity to Nightwing and beyond, he has been able to provide a counterbalance to Batman's perpetual grimness; a powerful source of light so the Dark Knight can at least find his way out of his cave.
And with the Scarecrow researching his fear serum, exploring the different dimensions of what fear and trauma can trigger in a person, the reader is offered a glimpse into Dick Grayson's greatest fear: being a disappointment to Batman. Which characters know this fear, and whether the heroes know if the villains know, become variables in the mind games each side plays against one another, and this allows the plot itself to provide ways of exploring the psyches of the characters. When Batman is confronted with his greatest fear, it is actually not having fear because he fears having no one to disappoint or care for. So of course he goes out of his way to adopt these orphan boys; he is terrified of having no reason to feel anymore and does not want people like Grayson, who have such potential for goodness and strength, to have nothing to fear for.
Even more relevant to the plot itself is the character of Cassandra Cain, who is a teenage girl molded to be the perfect child-assassin in the service of Mother. In her creation, she was given over to the tutelage of her "father," Orphan (David Cain), and subjected to nauseating emotional abuse, experimentation, and physical trials. Her emotions were systematically erased from her psyche, replaced only with pain, anger, and fear; tools with which Orphan and Mother could use to manipulate Cassandra to their own ends. This is anathema to Batman's training and upbringing of Grayson, Todd, Drake, and Damian, who were all imbued with life-affirming emotions and purpose. They became better able to adjust to their lives through their upbringing, while Cassandra was broken down and almost shattered. Cassandra was trained to abhor the mere act of speech and physical contact, that is, until she meets the Bat Family, including characters with their own families like the young Harper Row. Through the help, sympathy, and love of these people, Cassandra is able to actualize herself, then literally and metaphorically find her voice again. Instead of her backstory being a cliche motivator of villainy, Cassadra conquers her past and emerges whole. It is through the care and affection of others, as well as her own steadfast determination, that she is able to become a fully realized individual. Love brings strength, not weakness, which is a lesson Mother learns the hard way. It is a pleasantly surprising lesson to come from Batman, who even Dick Grayson has jokingly described as, "Batman: obsessed, insane, wears a batsuit, doesn't believe in danger or pain Batman."
Sure, there are occasional subplots that go off the rails, wacky set pieces, weird cults, secret underground cities, and Bane shows up for no reason, but Batman and Robin Eternal is a captivating symphony of everything human about Batman. Through various thrilling plot machinations, it travels across time periods of Batman's history as it travels across the globe as it travels the emotional spectrum. Tragedy in Cairo, triumph in Prague, and angst in the Batcave. Some issues are entirely action-packed, some are dialogue-heavy philosophizing, but everything fits into the grand canvas the Bat writing team of James Tynion IV, Tim Seeley, and Scott Snyder are weaving. If you like comics or any of the Bat Family characters, this is a series that deserves your attention. The art is consistently engaging and beautiful and the writing brilliant. If you are behind, then you owe it to yourself to catch up. If you have not taken the deep dive, there is a collection of the first twelve issues coming in March so I implore you to take advantage. With stories this well-told, Batman will be eternal, indeed.