Past a gorgeously psychedelic cover from Guillem March, the revelations come fast and furious this issue as Dick and Harper, believing they’ve tracked down David Cain, instead come face to face with The Sculptor, the woman Mother utilized to psychologically mold her children. Lucky for them however, she put herself in their path to ask for their help. After exposing Mother in Prague, she’s begun uprooting her operation and eliminating all traces of it, up to and including murdering the subjects of her work. She tells them she can’t bear to go through it again, implying that Mother had gone to ground like this once before and as a gesture of good faith, she offers to use her psychic powers to reveal Cassandra Cain’s real history.
Thanks to Dick’s hypnos implants installed by Spyral, it’s up to Harper, who does it without hesitation, citing the debt she owes Cassandra for saving her from Orphan at the outset of the series. What we learn as The Sculptor guides Harper through Cassandra’s memories is that the broad strokes of her pre-Flashpoint origin remain intact. Orphan is in fact David Cain, her father. Cain is Mother’s most loyal follower and greatest success to date, who sought to offer her a tribute by raising and training Cassandra using even more disturbing methods than Mother. Much like he did pre-Flashpoint, Cain raised Cassandra without teaching her to speak, expecting her to learn body language as her language and means of communicating with the world. As we saw in issues 7-8, he certainly succeeded in that goal, but it works far beyond just violence to extend to her newfound appreciation for ballet.
The Sculptor, as we learn, uses a combination of her psychic abilities and a specially synthesized version of Scarecrow’s fear gas to push the children Mother brings her through their worst fears to condition them into the fearless, pliant warriors that are sold off to the highest bidders. Cain instead did things the hard way with Cassandra, exposing her to repeated murders to desensitize her to violence before proceeding to her fight training, more or less consistent with her previous origin. Beyond this point The Sculptor pulls Harper back from Cassandra’s memory of a brutal murder, the one that caused her to pull away from Harper and flee in Prague. Based on the recent confrontation between Harper and Dick about the murder of her mother, The Sculptor likely pulled Harper back from the memory not just because Cassandra wouldn’t want her to see it, but because it the victim, which we know was in Gotham, was most likely Harper’s mother.
If true, it’s an anvil hovering over their budding relationship, which only seems to get more intimate as the series progresses. While Cassandra herself is absent from the issue, we see Harper trying to reach out to touch her cheek as she experiences her memories. While the overall interactions are the biggest highlight of the series, Harper and Cassandra have rapidly emerged as the emotional core of the series. Dealing with a character that has a traumatic past and troubled publication history like Cassandra’s requires careful handling, and holding back these revelations until we got a kinder and more intimate interpretation of her abilities is a key part of how the Batman and Robin Eternal team are doing right by her in her reintroduction, but the true test will come with her return to the series and how the likely revelation of her being compelled to murder Harper’s mother is handled.
The strain of the cascading revelations and the knowledge that one of his fellow Robins was likely subjected to Mother’s programming gets the best of Dick this issue as he takes the extraordinary step of tazing Harper to shock her out of the psychic link established with The Sculptor when she starts mumbling about Batman just as she’s about to learn the identity of the Robin that Mother programmed for Bruce. Dick’s characterization feels like the one note played off key this issue as he seesaws from flat out refusing to engage psychically with The Scupltor, citing his concern that his hypnos would play poorly with her abilities, and demanding she link with him after forcibly breaking it up with Harper heedless of the context of her muttering about Bruce. Dick is certainly rattled by the recent revelations about Bruce’s interactions with Mother, but there just plain does not seem like there’s proper context for his reaction. Hopefully forcing a connection between him and The Sculptor at the issue’s close is the vehicle for something that will cap off the year in spectacular style.
Artwise Fernando Blanco executes a solid effort this issue that keeps the focus on Cassandra as the story weaves through her past, but it doesn’t particularly stand out against the preceding issues. Christian Duce’s pages, however, do stand out as some of the weakest art we’ve seen on the series so far, with deep black inks that clash badly against the colors, especially on Harper. John Rauch’s colors seem to work much better with Blanco’s inks, which use much smaller spot blacks, but Rauch also works over top of those inks on Harper and The Sculptor in scenes projecting them into Cassandra’s past, using an overall blue hue for their figures that may cover some of the issues that made Harper appear so far off model in the early ages.
This is an absolutely critical story issue that keeps the focus where it needs to be, but it lacks some of the polish and bold character voices that have elevated the best issues into individual greatness so far. None the less, Batman & Robin Eternal has lost none of it’s momentum, continuing to rely on the characters to drive engagement instead of the overly precious set pieces that typically define event comics. Nearly three months in and Batman & Robin Eternal remains the most engaging and rewarding event comic in recent history.
Written by James Tynion IV from a story by Tynion and Scott Snyder
Drawn by Fernando Blanco and Christian Duce with colors by John Rauch
Lettered by A Larger World Studio
Cover by Guillem March
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Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She is a two time IWC Women’s World Champion and has written about comics for the web since 2005 for sites including Playboy, Bitch Media, and Graphic Policy.