30 July 2012

Robin Controversies, part 2

This extended version of the weekly Robin is brought to us by the letters B, I, and N.

Best Robin. GrayHaven Comics asked fans to vote on who was the best Robin. This question comes up often in fan forums, and perhaps we should consider what the Robins themselves might say.

I imagine that the second Jason Todd would refuse to participate, and the final results would therefore be four votes for Dick Grayson, one for Damian Wayne (his own), and one for Tim Drake (Dick’s vote).

Iconic Robin. TV Guide ran a preview of the Smallville comic book being scripted by Bryan Q. Miller, which will introduce Batman into that quirky version of the Superman myth. It showed a young woman as Batman’s partner, Nightwing. The article made clear that in that character Miller was writing a new version of Stephanie Brown.

At some point, however, DC’s top editors asked Miller to change plans, and that Nightwing is now Barbara Gordon, elsewhere known as Batgirl or Oracle. Fans of Stephanie Brown were upset, and a great deal of energy has gone into parsing the back-and-forth on DC’s extempore statements and excuses that the company wanted to use the most “iconic” or widely recognized versions of its characters.

This kerfuffle wouldn’t even be a kerfuffle if the comics industry and fan culture hadn’t come to depend on seeing “previews” of works in progress. If this issue of Smallville had simply hit the newsstands (not that there are those anymore, a major factor in the current marketing methods), then people could just have gotten excited at a new use of the Nightwing trademark and the Barbara Gordon name.

As it is, the only source of Milller’s writing about Stephanie Brown is the three volumes of his Batgirl series. And the last volume includes one striking page of Stephanie as Nightwing. It’s very satisfying work.

New Robin. In the national effort to dissect the enjoyable, impressive mess of The Dark Knight Rises, even Time, Forbes, and of course MTV have weighed in on possible futures for the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

I don’t think it gives away too much about The Dark Knight Rises to say that Gordon-Levitt plays a beat cop who’s figured out that Bruce Wayne was the Batman. He reveals that early in the movie. Did Officer John Blake observe the Batman in action when he was a child, as Tim Drake did? Did he stumble across important information in his work? Is he an especially brilliant investigator? The movie never says.

But in a series that digs into the compromises made by Wayne, his butler Alfred, his comrade Commissioner Jim Gordon, his love interest Selina Kyle, and many others, one thing stands out about Gordon-Levitt’s character: John Blake isn’t evil. He’s the voice of uncompromising integrity and perseverance. Along with his relative youth, that makes him the movie’s stand-in for Robin, and the final minutes explore that possibility further, with the symbolic message clear but the details ambiguous.

Perhaps lost in the shuffle is how the coming-of-age figure in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films isn’t any version of Robin but is Bruce Wayne himself. Batman Begins is of course an origin story. The Dark Knight Rises, more closely tied to that first movie than to The Dark Knight, returns to the question of how Bruce Wayne can become a successful adult. What part does being the Batman play in his growth? Is the Dark Knight a stage, a dead end (literally), or all that an adult man can be?

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