"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
First I’d like to thank DC Comics for plastering its latest spoiler unavoidably across the Internet bright and early Monday morning. It did confirm something I’d suspected since before Christmas, but being surprised still has a certain appeal, you know?
(That assumes this isn’t reversed in an issue or two. Kyle Rayner was killed one issue and revived the next during a Blackest Night crossover, and something similar is eminently possible, albeit unlikely, in this case.)
Anyway, Caleb has done a great job covering the event’s immediate impact, and Corey and Michael have also talked about significant aspects of you-know-what, so for my part I’ll be taking a closer look at the “position” itself. Some people study the presidency, some the papacy, and some of us have spent most of our lives reading about … well, you know.
SPOILERS FOLLOW, I suppose.
Robin the Boy Wonder was created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. He debuted in April 1940’s Detective Comics #38 as part of the “Batman” feature, which itself was only 12 issues old. Subsequently, Batman and Robin appeared together on the cover of Spring 1940’s Batman #1; and for the next 24 years, the Dynamic Duo didn’t change a whole lot. Dick Grayson/Robin didn’t age appreciably, and although his relationship with Bruce Wayne/Batman was occasionally threatened by outside forces, the two were inseparable.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest post-origin change visited on the Boy Wonder was Carmine Infantino’s “New Look” redesign. Bob Kane, Dick Sprang and others had drawn a stocky, apple-cheeked acrobat, but Infantino made Robin older, leaner and more like a teenager. That redesign may have made it easier (at least unconsciously) to have Dick move out of Wayne Manor a little more than five years later, in Batman #217’s “One Bullet Too Many!” (December 1969). Even so, Dick remained Robin for the next 15 years, occasionally teaming up with Batman, Batgirl and/or the Teen Titans, until finally establishing his own identity as Nightwing in 1984’s Tales of the Teen Titans #44.
I mention all that in order to highlight those long stretches of stability. Most of Dick’s 44 years as Robin weren’t spent on some long-term emotional journey to adulthood. In fact, I would argue that the real story of Dick’s “graduation” began in 1980, when Marv Wolfman started writing Batman and the then-new New Teen Titans.* In both books Dick was eager to establish his independence from Bruce, including dropping out of college and operating out of New York City with the Titans. This estrangement challenged the nature of “Robin” even more than Dick’s physical separation from Bruce, because it forced readers to evaluate whether “Robin” meant anything apart from Batman. Moreover, Batman’s post-Adam West gothic makeover had long since gotten readers used to the idea of Batman without Robin.
If Wolfman and George Pérez were making Dick independent in Titans, and if the Bat-books didn’t mind, where did that leave the Dynamic Duo? The solution, of course, was Jason Todd, another orphaned circus acrobat who Dick introduced to Bruce.** Jason was designed to roll back the clock on Robin, so the Bat-books could have a reliable (and reliably young) sidekick while Nightwing gave the Titans his undivided attention. This grounded Jason/Robin firmly in the Bat-office, where he could be a full-time supporting character. The mid-‘80s Bat-books were “biweekly” at that point, with Batman and Detective sharing writers and plots, so the cast expanded past Commissioner Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth to include Harvey Bullock, Vicki Vale and Alfred’s daughter Julia.
However, not long after Jason’s debut as Robin, Frank Miller made his death a plot point in the alt-future dystopia of The Dark Knight Returns. I’m not sure how much this influenced fans two years later, when DC’s infamous 900-number stunt killed Jason “for real,” but it can’t have helped. Neither, obviously, did Jason’s own makeover, which turned him from a relatively bright character into a more sullen, violent figure. In any event, Batman reacted to Jason’s death by becoming more of an avenger and less of a detective, at least until Wolfman and Pérez (again!) could set things straight.
In 1989’s four-issue “Batman: Year Three” (Batman #436-39), Nightwing returned to help his old mentor tie up some loose ends involving the Flying Graysons’ killer Tony Zucco; and in the follow-up “A Lonely Place of Dying,” Nightwing and a kid named Tim Drake helped bring the Darknight Detective back to some semblance of normalcy. Tim was clearly meant to combine Dick and Jason’s best qualities, although perhaps not how you’d expect. Tim was a smart, relatively sunny character, even after his mom was killed and his dad paralyzed during an adventure in the Caribbean. He spent a year training in the Batcave, honing his physical and mental skills before being deemed worthy to wear a Robin costume. However, he also got a certain degree of independence, starting with a trio of high-profile miniseries (1990-92) and followed by his own ongoing title in 1993. It worked out pretty well. Except for the few months in 2004 when Stephanie Brown was Robin — and we’ll talk more about Steph, don’t worry — Tim wore the red vest for almost 20 years, from the fall of 1989*** to the spring of 2009.
Of course, Damian Wayne succeeded Tim as Robin, while Tim became “Red Robin,” Dick became Batman, and Jason (who was revived in early 2006) got a new Red Hood costume. That makes five Robins in 69 years — or, more to the point, four successors to Dick Grayson over the course of 25 years — each distinct from the others, but each connected somehow to Batman.
So what does “Robin” mean, exactly?
Well, on the most basic level, Robin is Batman’s assistant. In the New 52, it’s been described as an “internship” for Batman to train promising young crimefighters. This fits better with the relaunch’s truncated timeline, but downplays severely the emotional component of the Batman/Robin relationship. From the beginning, Batman has been a father-figure for each of the Robins, even though most of them knew their biological dads pretty well. To be sure, the texts themselves haven’t exactly embraced the “internship” model, using it mostly to justify having four Robins in five years. Nevertheless, the shortened timeline contrasts sharply with each Robin’s pre-relaunch career. More time in the suit means more time to bond with Batman, which is clearly part of the character’s appeal to readers.
Naturally, Robin’s reader-identification aspect was a fundamental part of the character’s first few decades. That’s what makes Dick’s 1969 move such a landmark, because the reader identification there is of a significantly different sort. Simply by growing up, Dick is doing something completely mundane — he doesn’t appear in costume at all — but also completely relatable. At the same time, though, the Bat-books (via writer Frank Robbins, penciler Irv Novick and inker Dick Giordano) are acknowledging that Robin doesn’t need Batman (anymore?) and vice versa. Moreover, Dick’s departure is the first in a series of format changes, as “One Bullet Too Many!” shows Bruce and Alfred moving from Wayne Manor (and the Batcave) into the downtown Wayne Foundation. After Bruce hangs up his Bat-suit in a penthouse closet (no sub-basement Batcave yet), he opens a new charitable agency to help victims of crime, which naturally leads Batman into a somewhat-unremarkable murder mystery.
In short, “OBTM’s” priorities are totally on the Batman end, and Dick — who predated Alfred in the Bat-mythology, remember; and who played arguably a bigger role in early Bat-stories than even Commissioner Gordon — becomes just a “sometimes player,” not without tears, but with fairly little effort. Although it’s a big deal, the story doesn’t treat it as the biggest deal. Still, in hindsight it’s an indication of the way continuity was handled in the late Silver Age. As far as I know, there hadn’t been any dedicated subplot building to Dick leaving. For 24 years he’d been fairly static; in 1964 he was redesigned visually into an older teen; and in 1969 he was ready for college. These leaps in status weren’t so much character developments as structural updates to the feature itself. As mentioned above, I think the real movement in Dick and Bruce’s relationship started in 1980 with New Teen Titans, and that in turn laid the groundwork for Dick’s successors.
Thus, we can consider each subsequent Robin as a response to his predecessor. Jason was younger, less independent, and eventually “edgier” than Dick. Tim didn’t have Jason’s troubled past, and (although he argued initially that Batman needs Robin) eventually became more independent. Stephanie Brown temporarily traded in her Spoiler duds when Tim’s family life took precedence. Finally, Damian was a counterpoint to a better-adjusted Batman, whether it was Dick Grayson or a new-lease-on-life Bruce Wayne.
That alone made Damian different. One of Grant Morrison’s overarching Batman themes is the notion that “Batman” can be franchised out. The “Batman Incorporated” concept (including its predecessor, the Club of Heroes) is the most obvious example, but Morrison has also introduced Dick’s time under the cowl and Damian’s apocalyptic future adventures. Thus, Damian-as-Robin isn’t entirely about Bruce training a new sidekick, because it treats “Robin” as a prelude to becoming “Batman.” While this (and the “Batman and Robin will never die!” motto of earlier arcs) implies a potentially perpetual transition from Robin to Batman, Morrison notes that Bruce’s iconic status is in the way: “what son could ever hope to replace a father like Batman, who never dies?” Therefore, if Bruce is always Batman, and Robin is always maturing, what does that mean for the next Boy (or Girl) Wonder?
To date, every Robin except Stephanie has had some sort of familial relationship with Bruce. He adopted Jason early on, adopted Tim after Jack Drake’s murder, and adopted Dick when the latter had been Nightwing for a while, perhaps for the hat trick. Similarly, every one except Damian has lost (or ended up losing) both parents, thus facilitating Bruce as father-figure. That’s fine for character interaction, but after four like-a-son sidekicks, it may be time for a Robin who actually is more like an intern. This argues for the next Robin being someone like Stephanie or The Dark Knight Returns’ Carrie Kelley: a raw talent not necessarily bonded to Batman by shared tragedy.****
One obvious candidate is Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s creation Harper Row, who first appeared briefly in Batman Vol. 2 #7, with a later spotlight (drawn by Becky Cloonan) in issue #12. She’s capable, she’s proved herself to Batman, and she gave off the “future cast member” vibe right away. Although Batman and Robin will feature team-ups with other Bat-folk in the coming months, I don’t see one of the previous Robins taking back the title, mostly because that would involve renaming either Red Hood or Nightwing, and because it would make Tim’s “always Red Robin” status even more confusing. Back when Stephanie first became Robin, I thought there was great potential in a sidekick who treated it as the next step in her crimefighting career, as opposed to coping with grief like Dick or Jason, or as the best fantasy-camp ever (as it was for Tim initially). Harper’s certainly the front-runner, but bringing Stephanie back would make a lot of fans very, very happy.
All this assumes that “Robin” will continue, regardless of who’s under the mask. I think that’s a pretty safe assumption. The role of Robin has turned out to be fairly portable — more Robins than Flashes, for example — especially considering its age. Still, it’s hard to get right. The Bruce/Dick relationship rivals Clark/Lois in terms of both age and influence, but I think a lot of its modern conception comes out of fan (and creator) inference. The steady progression of that relationship only began in earnest 40 years after Dick’s debut. Since then, various creative teams have tried to live up to Bruce/Dick by tweaking “Robin” in various ways, and — somewhat surprisingly, all things considered — each was pretty successful. Even Jim Starlin’s take on Jason Todd, which pointed the character directly toward some violent comeuppance, could have ended well if the phone-poll had gone differently.
Indeed, today’s fans seem to expect, and perhaps be invested in, a Dynamic Duo which isn’t just master and apprentice. Robin must be more than Batman’s intern. Besides the basic athlete-plus-detective qualifications, she or he must be committed to Batman, available for the occasional solo adventure, and in a pinch able to lead the Teen Titans. (When Dick went AWOL early in 1986, Donna Troy turned to Jason in a memorably disastrous issue.) That practically ensures an emotional component. I’m not saying it can’t happen again, but I don’t think it can continue much longer. Does Bruce Wayne really have that much love to give? Is that the cheesy center of the Darknight Detective? And more importantly, can the New-52 timeline take the strain? I’d almost be more inclined to believe that Bruce had been married four or five times in five or six years.
As a practical matter, though, I think Damian was a special case, both in terms of that emotional bond and his place in Robin history. Put simply, he belongs more to Grant Morrison than to DC’s shared universe. Damian was a great Robin who nevertheless worked better as a metatextual tool for examining the nature of “Batman.” Still, unlike his predecessors, he didn’t have any New-52 niche beyond his father’s side. His own successor should likewise be a Robin who doesn’t have to worry about Titans, Outlaws, or growing up too quickly. It’s just a shame Damian didn’t get to grow old.
* * *
And on that note, I thought Batman Incorporated #8 was a fine sendoff. Damian died defending innocent people from his mother’s minions. It was a fitting end of a journey which began with him at his mother’s side, confident that he’d inherit his father’s mantle. Along the way, Morrison and his collaborators (including artists Andy Kubert, Tony Daniel, Frank Quitely, Philip Tan, Frazer Irving and Chris Burnham, and the current B&R team of writer Peter Tomasi and artist Patrick Gleason) developed Damian into a complex bundle of energy. Fueled by an aloof attitude and a tendency towards violence beyond his years, Damian played off the relatively-traditional Bat-clan extremely well. He wasn’t a Mary Sue, but he never gave up, whether it was against his grandfather, Professor Pyg, Doctor Hurt, or the Joker. He might only have been a part of the Bat-books for seven years, but his influence will be felt for a long time to come.
* [Wolfman’s first issues of both were cover-dated October 1980, namely Batman #328 and the Titans preview in DC Comics Presents #26.]
** [In case you were unaware, Crisis on Infinite Earths erased Jason’s circus background, replacing it with a street-urchin/school of hard knocks origin.]
*** [If you want an historical marker, Tim first put on the Robin costume not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall.]
**** [I can’t say for sure, but Stephanie might have been looking for a different father-figure since her dad was the C-list villain Cluemaster, and Carrie’s parents were definitely not in the heroic mold.]
ADDITIONAL CREATOR CREDITS
Writer Gerry Conway and artist Don Newton created Jason Todd, whose first full appearance was in March 1983’s Detective Comics #524, and who first appeared as Robin in December 1983’s Batman #366 (written by Doug Moench, penciled by Newton, inked by Alfredo Alcala).
Tim Drake first appeared in August 1989’s Batman #436 (written by Marv Wolfman, penciled by Pat Broderick, inked by John Beatty). He first donned the Robin costume in Winter 1989’s Batman #442 (written by Wolfman and George Pérez, pencilled by Jim Aparo, inked by Mike DeCarlo), but he wasn’t “official” until the final page of December 1990’s Batman #457 (written by Alan Grant, penciled by Norm Breyfogle, inked by Steve Mitchell). Neal Adams designed Tim’s first official costume.
Writer Chuck Dixon and artist Tom Lyle created Stephanie Brown/Spoiler for Early August 1992’s Detective Comics #647. Stephanie’s first appearance as Robin was in July 2004’s Robin #126 (written by Bill Willingham, drawn by Damion Scott).
Damian Wayne was based on the child of Bruce Wayne and Talia al-Ghūl from the 1987 graphic novel Batman: Son of the Demon, written by Mike W. Barr and drawn by Jerry Bingham. His first appearance was in September 2006’s Batman #655, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Andy Kubert. He first appeared as Robin in July 2009’s Batman: Battle for the Cowl #3 (written and pencilled by Tony S. Daniel, inked by Sandu Florea).