Eighty years ago, that dread creature of the night, Batman, finally smiled. He met ‘a laughing, fighting young daredevil who scoffs at danger’, and comics were never the same. Soon, the ‘funnies’ were full of kid sidekicks, all capable in their own way, but not one of them stood up to the original Robin, Dick Grayson.
Dick made such an impression on the superhero scene that when he outgrew the role of Robin, another emerged. And another. And another… So, while it’s the 80th anniversary of Dick’s first appearance, in 1940’s Detective Comics #38, he shares this celebration with those who came after him.
We begin with a tale by a writer who put such a mark on Dick that he gets a creator credit on this issue, even though he wasn’t born when Robin made the scene. Marv Wolfman, with artist and writing partner George Perez, transitioned Dick into his new identity of Nightwing. So it’s a shame that this is my least favourite tale in the issue. It’s a pretty depressing retelling of how the original Batman and Robin team broke up for good. While Dick and Bruce were always meant to be contrasts in crimefighting, I can’t believe Bob Kane and Bill Finger ever intended Bruce Wayne to be so emotionally constipated, so ignorant of how to talk to his de facto son, that this story could occur. It’s not all bad – Dick looking after a frightened kid, as Batman once looked after him, is spot on for the character. And the storytelling by penciller Tom Grummett and inker Scott Hanna is lovely, the people subtly drawn and sharply rendered. It’s just a shame Wolfman didn’t take the opportunity to ignore the Eighties melodrama and instead give us a tale of peak Robin, not the angsty New Teen Titan who only shines when he’s next to the Dark Knight, but the original, and best, Boy Wonder.
Nightwing rescues – and teams up with – the brave residents of Gotham City in another flashback tale, its detail all-new. The classic creative team of Chuck Dixon and Scott McDaniel gave me the smile I needed after the gloomy opener, showing a hero who plays second fiddle to no one.
Next, a tale of the Titans vs the forces of Hive, with know-all leader Damian Dahrk getting more than he bargained for as he debriefs some rather rubbish lackeys. And while they’re awful, they’re pretty amusing as writer Devon Grayson shows once more why, even when he’s not on many panels, Dick will always be the Titans’ top leader.
A few years ago Dick spent time as espionage operative, Spyral’s Agent #37, and we get a rip-roaring look back at that time courtesy of returning writers Tim Seeley and Tom King, and artist Mikel Janín. Dick’s helps train a younger agent by sharing the lessons Batman taught him. The script is very clever, pointing out, with a soufflé-light hand, the differences in approach between the two men who formed the Dynamic Duo. Also, Dick in a loincloth… This is my favourite story in an issue that’s not short of good-looking, enjoyable reads.
The second Robin, Jason Todd, gives Batman a very special present in a story by Judd Winick – like Dixon and Grayson, a name we’ve not seen at DC in far too long – and Dustin Nguyen. I never thought I’d ever use them word ‘adorable’ to describe a tale starring the Red Hood, but yeah, this is a delight as Winick adds a believable layer of character to Jason and remembers that Batman is supposed to be a pretty nice guy. As for the art by Nguyen and colourist John Kalisz, it’s beautiful.
Robin number three, Tim Drake, features in a story that reminds us that he used to have a life outside his Bat-activities. His out-of-school hours exploits, though, heavily inform an encounter with the new, ultra-keen, guidance counsellor. Like Winick, writer Adam Beechen exploits the ability of comics to shed light on character via a visual interior narrative. Said images are here provided by another old Robin pro, Freddie Williams III, who’s using a grittier style these days, one which works very well for this urban fable.
The next story features Tim again, in his short lived Red Robin role, flitting around Gotham seeking advice from Robins past and present as to what to do with his life. OK, the idea of a smart kid like Tim soliciting life advice from the likes of Red Hood and Damian Wayne is nonsensical, but author James Tynion IV uses Tim’s quest to point out the personality differences between Batman’s best-known sidekicks. And he gives us a lovely phrase to describe how Tim sees Damian, ‘the horrible gremlin’. Javier Fernandez brings a scrappy energy to the art, while colourist David Baron cleverly ensures the Robin outfits pop by making the backgrounds super-subdued.
Stephanie Brown has graduated from being Spoiler to the role of Robin. She’s terribly excited. But her hand-me-down uniform is just soooo annoying, totally unsuited to a growing girl… oh, sorry, it seems I posted an image from a story in which a kick-ass superheroine worthy of hanging out with Batman was made to look like a daft wee lassie due to costume-related issues. Hang on, I think I have a page of the proper strip over here…
…there you go. Ah well, maybe writer Amy Wolfram is too young to know the Babs Gordon story – or perhaps she does, because the villains of that piece were the Sports Spoiler Gang, and what was Steph’s original vigilante name again? It’s not a bad script for what it is, there’s a nice brightness to it, it’s just a surprising throwback. The art comes from Damion Scott, whose work is… not my favourite; I can get behind cartoonish distortion, but would you just look at, for instance, that second panel? Has someone smashed Bruce Wayne’s head in with a hammer before inflating his body with helium?
Next up, a glorious surprise, a Super Sons tale giving us Jon Kent’s take on Damian Wayne. There are no new insights or revelations for anyone who followed their series of the last few years; there is a wonderful two-hander which emphasises what a loss the Super Sons team is to the DC line. Peter Tomasi is, once more, the scripting hero, Jorge Jimenez the artistic genius.
One of my least favourite devices from the Big Book of Comic Tricks is back and forth internal narration, with two heroes commenting on a situation and/or each other. I find it far too cute, often obvious, generally contrived and rhythmically annoying. Jeph Loeb popularised it with his work on Batman/Superman – or maybe it was Superman/Batman, can’t they just go for the old ‘World’s Finest’ title and have done with it? – and the talented Joshua Wlliamson is keeping that annoying flame lit in the current version of the book. And here it is again, as Batman follows the current, Damian Wayne, version of Robin, suspecting that he’s up to something shady (obviously – he’s Damian). The technique is as annoying as ever, in a strip that’s a blatant plug for the current Teen Titans series. The big shocker is that Batman is revealed to be even more of a deadbeat dad than we thought – it’s literally months since he’s seen his 13-year-old son, who’s supposed to be in his charge. Robbie Thompson provides a pretty fun tale – well, there’s a robot villain in there, so of course it’s fun – while Ramon Villalobos evokes the work of Frank Quitely and Chris Burnham, but somehow makes the figures look even more porridgey. I rather like it! And there’s a nice visual nod to a classic Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson illo.
The issue also features a bunch of pin-ups, some of them repurposed covers, all of them pretty darn good. The celebration is rounded out with mini-profiles of all the Robins herein, somewhat marred by a couple of typos.
One question, though – where’s this guy, the original legacy Robin? Huh? HUH?!
As I said earlier, a representative story of Dick’s early days would have been great, but this remains a very solid tribute to the Robin legacy. Inviting back classic creators to showcase the varied kids who’ve donned the red and green was a sharp move by editors Dave Wielgosz and Paul Kaminsky. Kudos, too, to all the excellent colourists and letterers.
And a big ‘well done’ to Kenny Lopez and Darren Robinson for the vibrant production design – I grinned like a loon when I noticed the original Robin tunic’s fastenings are part of the contents page design. And the cover by Lee Weeks and Brad Anderson is beyond stunning.
So, who’s next?