November is the month of the big Batman-line revamp, and coming in at the end of the month was supposed to be "Batman and Robin" featuring the new creative team of Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason. Except that due to some scheduling issues, their debut's now pushed back until February 2011, and stepping into the breach are Paul Cornell and Scott McDaniel. And while I'm sure everyone at DC appreciates that the book didn't need to shut down for three months, it's a slightly awkward moment for the title even as all of its friends show up in their fancy new dresses, while "Batman and Robin" is just in a rental.
There are some good core ideas in Cornell's script, but it's a little apt that a comic about a villain called the Absence asking Batman what's missing from the scene, it feels like something is missing from the comic itself. There's a certain level of flow from one scene to the next that isn't quite there, but even more so is the problem that Dick and Damian don't quite sound like themselves. Damian Wayne is probably the hardest voice in the Bat-books to get quite right, although the longer he's around the more people are mastering his mix of arrogance, superiority, and snide comments. Here, Damian is far more jokey and feels almost like a generic Robin. But there are other seeming holes in the script that don't quite work. Some are clearly a slight problem with the setup of "Batman and Robin" in general, with Cornell having to hand wave away the fact that no one's bothered to tell Bruce Wayne about his ex-girlfriend's death (because the character is confined to "Batman, Inc." and "Batman: The Dark Knight" for now). There are also some slightly strange leaps of logic that felt like we were one caption or word balloon away from feeling more seamless. It's a disjointed overall feel, which to be fair is almost perfect for Cornell's villain.
That said, I do love the idea of the Absence, even though it's a presence that is barely seen this issue. The Absence fits into the classic mold that created characters like the Riddler, but being forced to solve the question of "what's missing?" is almost the reverse of the typical villain. It helps that McDaniel has created an unsettling look for the character, too, one that asks more questions than provides answers, and that's a good thing for a first appearance. Now that the Absence is fully present, Cornell has me excited to see where he goes with this idea next.
McDaniel's blocky art works well for characters like the Absence, because it's a character design that can't look too realistic. McDaniel's stylized, iconic characters let the laws of biology get stretched a bit (in more ways than one) and get to run free into crazy down. On the other hand, there's also some big inconsistencies in the art this month, primarily centered around Robin. Like with the script, it feels like McDaniel is drawing a generic Robin, or at least more specifically not Damian Wayne. When they burst into the church, Robin is now a good foot (if not more) taller than all of his past appearances, looking to be the same height as Batman. It's a problem that continues throughout the comic; standing in the grave he's the same height as Batman, then three pages later he's a full head shorter at the top of the page, only to suddenly be the same height at the bottom of the page. It's a shame because some of the other images in the book look great, like the Absence removing a black hat, or any drawing of Alfred, but every time there's a strange "this isn't quite right" moment (it took me a minute or two to figure out Batman is picking up a fingernail with that pair of pliers) it throws you out of the book.
"Batman and Robin" #17 is a book that doesn't quite match up to the strengths of its creative personnel. There's a lot of promise here, and it's understandably a fill-in on short notice, but in a month of some top-notch Bat-books, it doesn't quite hit the target. The first page's repeated chant of, "What are we missing?" was eerily prophetic. Here's hoping those missing pieces are found next month.