14 November 2010

The Return of Red Robin Reviewed

The great strength of scripter Christopher Yost’s twelve issues of Red Robin, as I discussed in the last weekly Robin, arises from how they fit into DC’s larger story for Tim Drake over the last several years.

That integration into the larger DC Universe also creates the biggest hole in Yost’s story, now collected in volumes subtitled The Grail and Collision.

As usual, there were crossovers between this magazine and others. Collision includes a necessary issue of Batgirl, and reads better if you also know the Superboy tale in Adventure Comics, #3. Between the two Red Robin volumes came DC’s “Blackest Night” saga, which doesn’t affect Tim’s story, despite all the times he refers to it.

But the big hole opened up because of a non-crossover. Red Robin has to fit into DC’s main storyline for Batman. For the last several years the person driving that bus has been scripter Grant Morrison. He came up with the ideas for Damian Wayne as a new Robin, Bruce Wayne being cast back in time, Dick Grayson taking over as Batman, Bruce coming back, and more. And it’s only fair that Morrison’s gotten to tell that big story.

Morrison doesn’t show much of a feel or feeling for Tim Drake, however. He’s been drawing inspiration from pre-1971 Batman stories and from friendly rivalry with highly touted tales by Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Mike W. Barr, and others. As for Tim, introduced in 1989 and not appearing in those graphic novels, Morrison has hardly used him at all.

Certain traits set Tim off from other Robins: computer savvy, detective skills, earnestness, particular friends. Some Batman stories feature Tim without showing any of those characteristics. Batman: City of Crime, for example, is a thought-provoking story of Gotham with a generic Robin in Tim’s costume. (The artist Ramon Bachs worked both on that book and some issues of Red Robin.)

The few times Grant Morrison has used Tim in his Batman tales fit that pattern. Morrison’s character fulfills several of the “Reasons for Robin” storytelling needs—sounding board, boy hostage, emotionally open contrast—but he’s not individuated. It’s been up to other writers to carry Tim Drake’s story along.

In Red Robin, #1, Yost shows Tim becoming convinced that Bruce Wayne isn’t dead, but the magazine doesn’t—can’t—show us why. We readers have to trust that Tim’s relying on clues, not wishful thinking. In issue #4, he comes across hard physical evidence that Bruce has been cast back in time. Those tidbits provide a motivation for Tim’s quest in Eurasia, and provided DC’s readers timely hints about how Bruce would return.

That beginning sets up Red Robin as a quest to find Bruce Wayne through detective work and rooftop combat, but Yost couldn’t follow through. Morrison was writing the main story of solving the mystery and retrieving the victim over in Batman and Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne.

The result includes some awkward storytelling. Throughout Collision Tim’s narrative voice talks about not telling Dick of the evidence he’s found in the Mesopotamian desert, about how the knowledge that Bruce is stuck in time might die with him. Tim’s illogical silence was necessary to keep the mystery going in Batman and Robin.

In Red Robin, #12, on reuniting with Dick for the third time, Tim finally announces: “Bruce is alive. He’s lost in time, and I can prove it.” To which Dick answers, “...Okay. We’ve got a lot to talk about.” Because he’s already made the same discoveries, just a few months after Tim. One page at the end of that magazine confirms that back in issue #1 Tim saw the same clue Dick spotted in Batman and Robin, #10.

And by then the hole is wide open. Tim sets out on a quest, and never gets to fulfill it. Instead, he’s knocked off course by a collision with villain Ra’s al Ghul. In this twelve-issue saga, Tim succeeds in saving the lives of the people closest to Bruce, and Bruce’s fortune, but he doesn’t save Bruce, or even play a major role in doing so. There’s a gap between the story’s satisfying internal arc of character growth and change and its more constricted external arc.

That said, in follow-up magazines Tim plays a more important role in Bruce Wayne’s actual return, marshaling fellow heroes to help. And after taking over Red Robin, scripter Fabian Nicieza and artist Marcus To were free to show the moment when Tim welcomed back his adopted father.

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