What Came Before:
Part 1: Batman & Son
Part 2: Club of Heroes/Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul
Part 2.1: Devil-Bats & The Bridge to RIP
Part 3: RIP
Part 4: The Missing Chapter/Last Rites/Final Crisis
Part 5: Batman Reborn
Part 6:Blackest Knight/Batman vs. Robin
Part 7: Batman & Robin Must Die!!!
Part 8: Return of Bruce Wayne Part 1
Part 9: Return of Bruce Wayne Part 2
Part 10: Batman Inc. Part 1
Part 11: Batman Inc. Part 2
New 52 Part 1
New 52 Part 2
New 52 Part 3
New 52 Part 4
New 52 Part 5
This is it...the issue that DC comics elected to spoil in advance in the NY Post after rampant speculation that the story was building to this point. Hell even if they hadn't spoiled in in the Post, the cover alone was as spoilerific as it gets anyway. With an image like the one above emblazoned on the cover, THIS was an issue that should have been black polybagged, not Age of Ultron #10. I'll save my tangent on spoilers until after this overview though...ON TO THE STORY!!!
First up, the cover is a great homage from Chris Burnham to the Alex Ross painting for R.I.P:
Then we jump onto the very first page with this image that I just found incredibly cool:
It's the green tint, Damian's words as he sees Grayson, the visual of Dick and Commissioner Gordon battling an army of children, it just stands out to me as quite memorable. The following page's visual of Damian, in his Robin armor, blasting over the scene and knocking a kid out just adds to the punch of this scene. The choice of story title, The Boy Wonder Returns, is both sad and triumphant though. It is quite a logical choice given that Damian has been benched from being Robin since the first issue (hence the Redbird stint a couple issues back) and he's hopping back into his proper tights for this issue. Yet, because of the choice to go full-on spoiler for this one and knowing his ultimate fate, it is also a title packed with sorrow knowing it is a short term situation.
Damian rockets off towards Midtown where Wayne Tower is located and his father was left sinking to the bottom of a pool while locked inside a safe.
I can't help but use as much of Burnham's art as possible because I do love it so, particularly the last two panels and the way he depicts the raindrops hitting the pool water with the safe visible under the surface. That love for the art continues with the next page below with the fashion in which Batman is shown trapped inside the safe:
The pool water used as the background, the awkward paneling reflecting the uncomfortable position in which Bruce finds himself trapped, the raw and bloody knuckles, the close shot of his white lensed eyes and bared teeth, plus the safe sitting in the empty corner of the page...it creates a claustrophobic scene.
As for the trap itself, it is a positively "Bond villain" style situation but that is something in no way coincidental. Talia is taunting Bruce, putting him in a trap she knows he will escape eventually but doing so just to keep him occupied.
Jason Masters steps up for some fill-in work as Red Robin (Tim Drake) arrives at the Leviathan controlled Wayne Tower. It's Tim's attention to detail (noticing another woman is wearing Ellie's name tag), combined with Ellie screaming, that saves him from an assault but the save is short-lived. Turns out the entire upper balcony of the lobby is ringed with assassins of both the gun-toting as well as arrow-shooting variety and while some fancy footwork on the giant quarter takes some out of the equation, Tim still finds himself at the mercy of Leviathan's members until...
Once again Damian saves the day, gets away with the child abuse since it's kid-on-kid violence, and shows just why he quite the little badass as he takes down kids & adults alike with his fancy armored suit. Still, Dick gets the chance to throw Damian's opening line of this issue back in his face as he saves him from a volley of gunfire. This gets followed up with a page that, given the spoiler-context with which most everyone entered this issue, while the page is given an entirely different gravity than if it was being read without knowing how the story would end:
Dick Grayson, though generally known as Nightwing, was the Batman that Damian fought beside. He was the partner that allowed Damian to grow, not Bruce Wayne. In some ways, although they would probably think of themselves more like brothers, Dick Grayson was the true father to Damian Wayne. Well, both he and Alfred I suppose, since it was their joint efforts during Dick's run under the cape and cowl that allowed Damian to become something more than a child of the League of Assassins. Under the tutelage of Dick and Alfie, Damian became the hero we are seeing showcased in this specific issue. He is still a bit abrasive but the manner in which Damian talks to Dick is a far cry from what it was back in the Morrison's volume of Batman & Robin. There is respect there now, an admiration for fighting at each other's side, and dare I say it...a genuine love for his father/brother. Damian sums it up the best in the fifth panel, "So far I'd say you've been my favorite partner". Sadly, since we know how this story ends, we also know that the "so far" isn't really necessary...there isn't going to be anyone else added to that partner list.
Burnham, in his ever-growing awesomeness, even throws in a few visual callbacks to the Batman and Robin team with the next page:
Compare that first panel to Frank Quitely's work from Batman & Robin (Vol. 1) #1:
The only thing missing from the Burnham page of Batman '66 sound effects is the double punch that was used so frequently during Morrison's B&R work:
Guess I spoke to soon because enter The Heretic with Oroboros machine in hand:
Damian, as he said to Dick before their leap into battle, continues to push that if he can see his mother than he can settle this situation. He firmly believes, even with this monster in front of him, that if he can just talk to her then the problems can be resolved. That is the BOY aspect of this Boy Wonder I suppose...a surprising fout of hope is Damian. Even as the onslaught continues, he pleads for her to stop this. It's truly heartbreaking to see this child essentially begging for his life to his own mother. After everything she put him through, after raising him in the League of Assassins, after nearly becoming a vessel for his grandfather Ra's Al Ghul, after using technology to take over his body, even after all of that, Damian somehow still believes his mother loves him. Maybe she does somewhere inside, but as she allows Heretic to assault her true son, with violence like this...
...it is hard to believe that there is one ounce of love left in her heart. Her desire for vengeance against Damian's father has utterly consumed her, more completely than even Bruce's desire that caused him to become Batman in the first and continue to push him to don the cape & cowl each night.
The detail in the above page is also brilliant. Whether it be artist's choice or script, any backbreaking image used in a Batman comic holds resonance for long-term readers (or anyone who watched Dark Knight Rises I suppose) but the beauty of that scene is that, unlike his father, it doesn't stop Damian. Why not? Likely because of that same surgically repaired spine that Talia and Deathstroke used to co-opt Damian's body back in Batman & Robin.
I also get the sense that, if not for the involvement of the gun & arrow wielding assassins, Damian would have had a fair chance of taking down his clone brother. Even as he is riddled with arrows and bullets, the only biological son of Bruce Wayne remains defiant to his killer, spitting blood in the face (his own face really since this is a clone) of Heretic, but sadly...weakly...begging for his mother to call it off.
The violence and blood of the page are almost uncomfortable, something at a level we rarely see in a Batman comic but one that has been the norm for this leg of the journey. Right from the get-go, with the fight through the slaughterhouse in the first issue, this has been a particularly violent and blood-soaked run.
This is why Talia kept Bruce occupied, this is why she figured out how long it would take him to escape the trap, so that Bruce would know he was absolutely powerless to get their in time and save their son from being murdered. I suppose the same way he was absolutely powerless to save his parents from being executed by Joe Chill (or whoever in the New 52) or to save Jason Todd from his death at The Joker's hands. I suppose the torture of the moment goes two ways as it's also so Damian dies knowing that NEITHER of his parents helped him. His father was not there to stop it and the only way his mother could have been more responsible was if she was the one holding the sword.
Visually speaking this is another impressive page from Burnham, somewhat like the shattered glass page from a couple issues back. It's extra disturbing to me that Talia is just a mouth and words in this entire sequence but those words are as painful, in their own way, as the stab wound. Damian has a physical sword through his heart while Talia is driving verbal daggers into that of his father. The fact that she still refers to this as a game is just so...horrid.
If I recall correctly, that image of Damian's death drew heavy criticism for it's level of gore, violence, and I know some were disturbed by how absent Damian's face was from the scene. Well, after some searching, I tracked down the original image on Bleeding Cool:
Picture that image colored and tell me it wouldn't have been far more disturbing. The sword has penetrated THROUGH Damian and we see his face, his little terrified face, as life slowly slips away and Damian dies knowing his parents were not there for him. That is horror...
...and in the midst of the horror, as this stage of her plan finally comes to fruition, Talia shatters like the glass framing the last two pages. For one brief second she allows herself to feel something for her son's death but it is, as she states, just "..a moment of weakness..."; she really is dead inside isn't she?
And poor Ellie, the former prostitute now Wayne Tower receptionist, the girl that Batman saved from near-certain death on the streets, she sits as observer to the entire tableau. It's not the first Robin we have seen die but given the condition of Damian's body versus that of Jason Todd's...
...it's a violently powerful image of death, brutal. I think it is a moment that, had I not had it spoiled, would have made me cry. It brought tears to my eyes, that's no lie, but nothing flowing down my face as was the case with Nightcrawler or Magik when they died in the X-Books. Another fashion in which the NY Post article, and the comic book media blitz that followed, may have ruined some of the experience for this humble reader.
Now in the midst of that heartbreaking image to close the issue there is also fear. Fear of what's to come as represented by the fade-to-black panels of Batman's face. Does that represent the death? Does it represent Bruce losing himself to the darkness within? We only know by picking up the next part of Batman Incorporated!
In the meantime, you can check out my Damian Wayne memorial blog entry here! Or check out my work on Sequart right here!
As for that spoilery stuff, my quick take is that, as I understand the comic book market, while ruining such a monumental plot point as Damian's death will boost your publicity in the moment, it wouldn't do ANYTHING for sales of that issue. By the time they spoiled it, orders had long been placed by the shops so they've already got the money from the first printing. I suppose then the desire is to generate revenue from the inevitable reprints? I truly don't know. Perhaps publicity is the only goal in doing such a thing, such is the world of the corporation...