DC's solicitations for "Batman and Robin Annual" #1 by Peter J. Tomasi, Ardian Syaf and Vicente Cifuentes tease, "Robin leads Batman on an unrelenting hunt across the globe for family secrets that promise to change them both forever." This description is melodramatic and also a little misleading, because Tomasi's story is most accurately classified as an upbeat comedy. Readers who fear retcons or ominous game-changing revelations can relax. Although "Batman and Robin Annual" #1 won't change anyone forever, it's a lot of fun.
In contrast to the grim events in the "Death of the Family" event dominating the Batman books recently, "Batman and Robin Annual" #1 is so happy and light that the characters don't seem quite their usual selves. Alfred, in particular, is a surprise. It is disconcerting to be reminded that Alfred wasn't always part of the package of Wayne Manor. Here, his manner is less deferential than usual to his employer and friend, and his dialogue mixes in reminiscing about Bruce crying "over [his] lost Binky" with puns about Shakespeare.
Although Bruce and Alfred get a lot of panel time, Damian is the real star of the story. Despite his terrifying precociousness and efficacy as a crime-fighter, Tomasi skillfully characterizes Damian as a typical kid who looks up to Dad and wants to play dress-up. The reactions of Gotham police and civilians to "Batman Junior" are hilarious, and the unique lettering that letterer Carlos Mangual provides for Damian's "Batman voice" heightens the humor of these scenes.
Tomasi's script is weaker for the mechanics of the sub-plot. The crime in Gotham is a straw man for the plot, created to provide a big-enough task for Damian to tackle and serve as a punchline. The identity of the second villain is a neat, symmetrical foil to the Waynes, and while the joke is satisfying, Tomasi's knowing wink doesn't erase the high-handedness of his magician-like trick. Also, Damian's dog Titus is a convenient audience and excuse for Damian to speak directly to the reader about his thoughts, but Titus doesn't entirely disguise the info-dump nature of these lines.
The Gotham sequences are further weakened by Syaf's fight scenes. He plays with unusual panel layouts that end up being more disorienting and distracting than exciting. The first page of "Batman and Robin Annual" #1 and the climactic double-page spread feature a lot of flawed anatomy and foreshortening in the rendering of bodies. Limbs and heads aren't in proportion, and in the double-page spread, it seems that Syaf indiscriminately has every single limb popping out beyond panel borders. The two pages are an indecipherable clutter of jaws and legs instead of a series of movements, and these problems aren't limited to just the pivotal fight scenes. Throughout "Batman and Robin Annual" #1, Damian's movements look posed or clumsy rather than natural.
However, Syaf's art handles shifts in setting remarkably smoothly, making things clear for the reader even when there isn't a caption. He has a flair for background detail, particularly in architecture. Also, Syaf is able to draw Damian so that he looks an accurate ten years old. Most importantly, Syaf's artwork is great is cute for comic character moments, like a panel with Titus and Damian yawning in unison, or the delightful panel in which Damian needs to shift the seat of the Batmobile forward several inches.
The heart of the story is there, just not in the fight scenes, so it's fortunate that these panels and moments are the ones where Tomasi's dialogue and Syaf's art are at their best and in perfect sync. The joyful tone of "Batman and Robin Annual" #1 strikes an unusual but welcome note in Gotham. It is a successful, out-of-season Father's Day story that doesn't take itself too seriously, and that alone makes it a worthwhile read.