Batman and Robin Eternal Vol. 1 clearly takes place before the events of Robin War, though I'm glad I read Robin War first. The two books involve many of the same characters and there's similarity at least in the character pairings, but Eternal's scope is much larger and its mystery deeper, and it feels in grandeur like Robin War's follow-up even though it's really the predecessor. Moreover Eternal is clearly the forerunner to James Tynion's Rebirth Detective Comics, given the large role of Red Robin Tim Drake and Spoiler Stephanie Brown, among a variety of the other young members of the Bat-family.
In much the same way Rebirth and the new Detective Comics seem to be mining the 1990s and 2000s Bat-universe, so too does Eternal cover some wonderfully nostalgic territory; there's a particular hero/villain match-up here I never thought I'd see again. At the same time Eternal offers a touch of the modern pop irreverence of Batgirl of Burnside (this being squarely in the DC You, of course) and also the Grayson-inspired penchant for not taking itself too seriously; a character joking about "three beefy Robin boys" isn't something we would've seen back in Contagion.
In all, the first volume of Batman and Robin Eternal is great comics fun. I don't really believe that Batman's guilty of the crime this book suggests he might be, but nonetheless the mystery has me absolutely hooked.
[Review contains spoilers]
Here at the end of the New 52, it seems fitting to me, planned or not, that some of what's been left hanging in the New 52 be wrapped up. One of these is that we have Dick Grayson, aged rather impossibly in New 52's "untold" five years, who wore a different costume than the one we're familiar with as Robin and whose adventures as Robin are mostly unremarked upon. Another is that Red Robin Tim Drake isn't even really Tim "Drake," but rather that he created an entirely new identity for himself to protect himself and his absent parents.
Eternal takes on both of these, and with aplomb; the New 52 Robin Dick Grayson is impressively mature, especially when he opines to Batman that he's his partner and not his son or employee (as scripted by Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly). By the end of the book unfortunately Tim Drake comes off snotty, as he's been wont to be in the New 52, but Tynion's early writing of him is solid (and Tynion's really who matters here), and Tony Daniel even makes the over-busy Red Robin suit look good. Moreover the story actually brings Tim's parents Jack and Janet Drake on scene, taking the first steps toward clarifying what hasn't been clear before.
If the fact that Jack and Janet Drake are actually on the page here (last seen alive in 2004 and 1990 respectively) gets your blood pumping (or if you find the fact that Dick introduces himself as "Lyle Dixon" funny), then Batman and Robin Eternal is the book for you. And that's not even mentioning, alongside Spoiler, the New 52 debuts of Cassandra "former Batgirl" Cain and Jean-Paul "Azrael" Valley, and that late issue by Lanzing and Kelly even has Azrael facing off against Bane, as if it's "Knightfall" all over again. I'm one of those who thought the Bat-family had grown too bloated and didn't mind so much the New 52's contraction (though in regards to Bat-sidekicks, not that much contraction anyway), but it is certainly gigantic fun to see Azrael waving that flaming sword around and Cassandra pantomiming her intentions. In both cases, Tynion and company have done well preserving the larger architecture -- David Cain and the Order of St. Dumas, respectively -- while still modifying both characters' origins to fit the New 52's revisionism.
The story strongly implies that Batman might have purchased one of the villainous Mother's "designer humans" and made him or her a sidekick; we know it's not Dick and it's hinted heavily that it's Tim, which makes me think maybe it's Jason. But more likely is that Batman didn't do this at all and he's simply leading Mother on in order to learn more about her schemes, and I kind of wish the characters would go there first instead of what seem like some melodramatic angst in their certainty that Batman's done wrong. Tim's irrational anger at Dick also feels off, one because I'm not used to these two being mad at one another and two because Tim has just one more volume in which to forgive Dick before Robin War (and then get mad at him again). Rather, Batman's own concern that he's "using" his Robins to his own ends is guilt enough, and thematically that itself is one of the most interesting parts of the story.
Though Robin War is a Gotham-set story about vigilante laws and the Court of Owls and this is a book about the Robins foiling a child-trafficking syndicate, there's stark similarity at least in Dick Grayson alone in one storyline while Red Robin and Red Hood team up in another. Eternal must take place before Robin War because, among a variety of reasons, Dick is meeting We Are Robin's Duke Thomas for the first time here whereas he gets to know him later in Robin War. At the same time it's wholly illogical that all of Robin War could go down without anyone saying, "Remember last week when we fought Mother?" but of course we understand these are two books written independently and by some (but not all) different people, and it's perhaps a credit to the latter crossover that one needn't have read this whole miniseries to understand that one.
One danger of a weekly series is that invariably the art gets rushed and the quality dips, especially the longer the story goes on. Eternal has a number of bright spots, however, the aforementioned Tony Daniel for one, and also Paul Pelletier making Dick Grayson's anachronistic Robin costume palatable (as Pelletier also did in Titans Hunt). Scot Eaton has some trouble drawing Tim as young as he should be, but Alvaro Martinez shows great class and circumspection drawing Cassandra Cain in a pitched battle wearing a dress, without any sexualized poses that wouldn't be true to the character herself.
Batman and Robin Eternal Vol. 1 is a guilty pleasure. I'm not sure it's the best thing for the goal of moving the DC Universe forward to be bringing back Spoiler, Cassandra Cain, and Azrael all in one lump sum, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel like going home again. This is what I understand James Tynion's Rebirth Detective Comics to be about too, and let's not kid ourselves -- I'm in.
[Includes original covers and one variant cover]