Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Robin Problems, Part Two

Having taken care of Dick, Batman's caretakers wouldn't let the Robin identity retire. They had already created the young Jason Todd to take over as Robin. At first Jason was a fairly upbeat character, even written as a self-referential, pun-spouting echo of TV's "Holy Underwear!" Robin. A few years later, though, he had become a sullen teen, with one story implying pretty heavily he'd disobeyed Batman and let a criminal fall to his death. In 1988, when DC let readers call a 1-900 number to determine Robin's survival, a slim margin doomed Jason. (The fact that he was already dead in the bleak alternate future of the popular Dark Knight miniseries probably didn't help.)

Following a few months of Batman venting his rage on the underworld, readers met the third Robin, Tim Drake. Tim was at Haly's Circus when the Flying Graysons were killed, and from that experience deduced Batman and Robin's secret identities. When he saw Batman becoming more violent without Robin, he wanted to help. Unlike his predecessors, Tim's parents both survived for several months after he began his training (although eventually his mother was killed and his father crippled), and he soon had his own series. Tim was also not as integrated into Batman's world as Dick or Jason had been. Although he spent months training in the Batcave before earning his costume, he and his dad lived in the mansion next door to Wayne Manor. This didn't mean he told his dad about it -- in fact, he spent the next 14 years fighting crime solo, with Batman, and with his own group of teens called Young Justice, without his dad being any the wiser.

Tim was not the first Robin to have solo adventures, but I believe he was the first one created to separate the Robin identity from Batman. Tim received his unique Robin costume in November 1990, and almost immediately had his own 5-issue series spotlighting his martial-arts training in Europe. Tim had two more Batman-free miniseries under his belt by the time his ongoing series began in 1993. To reinforce expressly Robin's independence, in that issue the new Batman (filling in for an injured Bruce Wayne) locked Tim out of the Batcave. All of these developments are especially ironic considering Tim's initial pitch to Batman that he "needed" a Robin to keep him balanced. Instead, Tim became arguably the most independent Robin in 50 years.

Herein lies the second problem -- that Tim's Robin career took on a life of its own. Honestly, I don't want to advocate any kind of involuntary servitude, even for a fictional character, but for me Robin is a character who should always be connected to Batman. Having Dick literally mature into Nightwing was at the time a stroke of genius, but since then readers have seen Robin, and other heroes, replaced as marketing stunts. It would be possible in dramatic terms for Tim to craft his own Nightwing-type adult identity, or even take over as Batman, but it might be better dramatically for Tim to declare that his days of youthful crimefighting were over.

(This assumes that being Robin has an age limit. In the current comics, Batman first appeared at an indeterminate "10-12 years ago." On the alternate world of Earth-2, when Dick's adventures began in 1940, his Robin career lasted the rest of his life, some 45 years. I don't rule out such a fate for Tim, but it would have to acknowledge at leats that Tim was entering his 20s.)

In fact, when his dad learned this spring that Tim was Robin, it compelled Tim to quit. However, for some mysterious reason, Batman already had a contingency plan in place. Some years before, Tim had met Stephanie Brown, the daughter of an old Batman villain (a Riddler knockoff called Cluemaster). Stephanie wanted to atone for her dad's criminal ways and became a masked vigilante called Spoiler. She was never very good at it, and was invariably told by most masked adventurers she encountered to go home before she hurt herself. Nevertheless, she persisted, and received more advanced training from Batman and his cohorts. Accordingly, upon Tim's resignation earlier this year, Stephanie was tapped as his replacement.

Readers could be forgiven for any cynicism at this development. After all, this was the third Robin in twenty years. Besides, DC would never let Robin stay a girl -- they'd have to crank out a whole new set of action figures, for one thing. (Female Robins had shown up in The Dark Knight and other alternate-history stories, but never before in the "real" books.) For 64 years, in the comics, on TV, and in the movies, Robin has been a dark-haired boy, not a blonde. Changing the costume, as DC did with Tim in 1990, was one thing, but changing gender was something entirely different. Furthermore, DC is cranking up for a major storyline involving Gotham City gang wars, and promising carnage -- and Stephanie would be a bigger casualty as Robin than as Spoiler. The whole thing smelled of marketing.

On the other hand, if handled properly, Stephanie could strengthen Robin's ties to Batman. While her training continues, she's not likely to stray far from his side. Batman is not encouraging her to strike out on her own. She already wants to prove herself to him, and so seems very eager to learn.

Unfortunately, the role of Robin may have evolved past simply being Batman's assistant. Dick and Jason were both motivated by family tragedies. Tim wanted to help Batman cope with Jason's death. Now Stephanie considers herself "promoted" to Robin, like a Triple-A outfielder putting on a major-league uniform.

From here Robin's fate has three basic tracks: staying with Stephanie, returning to Tim, or becoming a sort of "rotating office" for Batman to train aspiring crimefighters. Personally, the last option is the least appealing, because it devalues the character. I don't hate Stephanie, but I can't see her staying Robin for very long; so it looks like the wait is on for Tim's comeback.

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