A great deal has been made, amongst fandom and critics, about the big death in this issue. Most of it related to how superheroes always come back from death, or the even more odd belief that said death is not “gruesome enough” (classy!). Both statements represent the comic industry’s failure, numbing readers to the mythic connotations of death/rebirth while stirring up more and more bloodlust. What ends up taking a far backseat in these discussions, if there at all, are the comics themselves, and Batman Incorporated is a comic worth talking about.
It’s more than a love for shoutouts and morbid irony this issue is subtitled The Boy Wonder Returns. Grant Morrison’s tenure on Batman — flawed and often lost in its own navel though it was — has been about Robin’s importance to the overall narrative, made explicit in Damian Wayne’s explanation of the plot the previous issue. More than just a hanger-on, another mask to punch things in the background, the Robin role is a humanist one keeping Batman’s hubris in check. Since Damian’s introduction in Batman and Son, his father’s been quick to keep him at a distance. This theme is reinforced throughout Batman Incorporated by a repeated sidelining of Damian out of some fear he’ll return to his mother, Talia al Ghul. The creation of Batman, Inc. is an attempt to expand the Bat-Family with none of the willful defiance of Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and Damian.
The result is a failure, Batman trapped by Talia as her own Bat-servant Leviathan (a hulk who resembles the Mutant Leader and Bane) battles Damian. Talia mocks Bruce as he attempts to escape (“This is how I get your attention?”), exposing his hubris as boyish as she obliterates everything he built (there’s a broken glass motif in Chris Burnham’s layouts and images pairing Damian with shattered windows). What’s also telling is Ellie, a Wayne Enterprises receptionist, being the one who deals with a detonator during the fight, making Morrison’s depiction of heroism both populist and individual (as opposed to his elitist JLA or Batman, Inc. itself). Burnham and guest artist Jason Masters bring a lot of personality to their pages, whether it’s the grins shared between Damian and Dick before they take down Leviathan’s henchmen, Ellie’s wide-eyed anxiety, or Tim’s blasé attitude towards an ambush by brainwashed Wayne employees (“I got this.”). The three Robins show confidence but not arrogance (each placing protection above punching), harnessing Batman’s ennobling qualities without the brooding, overbearing ego that would lead to Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Bruce striking Nightwing.
It bears noting the brilliance of the whole Leviathan arc has been in how completely ordinary many of its agents look–schoolchildren, clerks, security guards, bureaucrats–a disarming mechanism that makes Leviathan’s infiltration and sabotage of government institutions so much more unsettling than Court of Owls or Death of the Family’s operatics (rather than some mysterious other, it’s our neighbors, our friends, and our families taken hold by religious mania). Talia hijacks populist rage to settle a personal vendetta, and it is Damian and the other Robins who set about reclaiming it. Damian has gone from self-centered culture warrior to considerate defender (his admiration for adopted brother Dick, previously a rival, being equal parts camaraderie and a portent: “We were the best, Richard.”), fulfilling his role as Robin. The fight between him and Leviathan is as one-sided as Robert Shaw vs. the shark in Jaws (Damian’s youth makes it more horrific), but Damian is as defiant in the face of certain death. Burnham lends a ferocious, if sometimes disjointed, choreography as Damian punches, kicks, insults, and even orders Leviathan (when the monster tries to pull off Bane’s signature move, Damian’s retort is unexpectedly funny) just to avoid giving him any satisfaction. Even when Burnham and Morrison give in to superhero death cliche, as in the use of murder to humble the Batman (a reference to Michelangelo’s Pietà), it’s in the larger context of an issue that celebrates adventure and existence rather than sulking and annihilation.
Whether or not Damian comes back isn’t important, and neither is the gruesomeness of his death: all that matters is he lived.