13 January 2013

A Duo with an Unhealthy Dynamic

This month Mark Waid, Peter Krause, and team finished the first storyline of their superhero adventure Insufferable on Waid's digital comics site Thrillbent. Since the concept is obviously inspired by the Dynamic Duo, it's an appropriate topic for the weekly Robin.

For BOOM! comics, Waid wrote two linked series called Irredeemable (drawn primarily by Krause) and Incorruptible, which explored what could happen if one of the cornerstones of the Superman mythos was kicked away. What if the alien with powers beyond anyone else on Earth suddenly turned hateful and destructive? And, conversely, what if one of his worst nemeses decides that it’s now up to him to turn his life around and save the planet?

Insufferable starts by remixing some basic ingredients of the Batman and Robin mythos. Nocturnus is a dark, unemotional, technology-driven crusader against crime. Kid Galahad was his young sidekick. But there are two major differences:
  • Nocturnus is Kid Galahad's real father, not a father figure.
  • Kid Galahad is not Dick Grayson; he's just a dick.
In other words, what if Robin is, if not evil, far from a good role model?

Years before this story begins, Kid Galahad broke with his father and blew their secret identity. Since then he’s built a lucrative business around his persona, and Nocturnus has retreated further into the shadows. But a new threat from an old villain forces them to work together again. There are, of course, layers within layers, betrayals, unforeseen allies, and so on. Waid knows how to write superhero stories.

Some aspects of the original Batman and Robin’s relationship are replicated here: Kid Galahad is more emotive, Nocturnus a better planner. As Waid has acknowledged in a summer 2012 interview, the opening chapters were designed to show Galahad’s perspective: “Nocturnus doesn’t seem to get as much play, but that’s only because we’ve made a conscious choice to not look too deeply at his thoughts and to veil him in mystery.” Meanwhile, Galahad just can’t keep his feelings to himself.

Yet the story’s sell line invites readers into Nocturnus’s point of view: “What happens when you’re a crimefighter and your sidekick grows up to be an arrogant, ungrateful douchebag? What on Earth could draw the two of you back together again?” Despite (or because of) his vociferousness, the story strongly implies that Kid Galahad’s big problem is Kid Galahad, and Nocturnus’s big problem is…Kid Galahad. If the kid sidekick is bad, the whole universe goes to pot.

Another theme that Waid explores in Insufferable is the power of social media. Kid Galahad has a big online following. His fans tweet about his latest appearances and exploits. (The Twitter handles of some of those fans match those of real comics fans.) Cameras are everywhere to catch Galahad’s mistakes and boasting. His smartphone plays a role in several scenes. To some extent that reflects the way we live today. But it’s in part also a commentary on online comics discussion, where vitriol goes well beyond what’s merited by fiction about people kicking each other in the face.

TOMORROW: The Thrillbent format.


Icon_UK said...

One of the things I do like about Insufferable has been the showing that, yes, Kid Galahad is a dick, but Nocturnus isn't exactly free of guilt either, he's lousy at empathy and was a rather high handed, distant father. Pretty close to "What if Bruce Wayne was the emotionally damaged person more modern comics have made him, and not the idealised father for Dick that the original stories had, and the modern comics seem slightly embarrassed by."

J. L. Bell said...

I don't think the Batman comics originally depicted Bruce Wayne as an idealized father. Rather, he was an idealized big brother.

When the 1940-1970 Bruce tried to be paternal, he usually caused a crisis: ordering Dick Grayson to stay home and improve his grades, breaking off the partnership because he thought Dick was in danger, preparing for marriage and an evil stepson in that weird Bob Haney tale. And those problems arose from the same traits of secrecy and emotional withholding that writers have emphasized since 1985 or so.

For a relatively short time, I agree, the comics presented Bruce as an idealized father. That was the period of Dick’s maturing and the first Jason Todd's arrival. Threats to the father-son relationships between Batman and Robin tended to come from outside, like Nocturna or Talia. Why did DC change gears to emphasize familial conflict over family unity? Probably because it provided more fuel for stories.

Bringing this back to Insufferable, I think the comic does suggest there’s a bigger difference between Dick and Kid Galahad than between Bruce and Nocturnus. Part of that has to do with circumstance: Galahad never had another family, and he links his mother's loss to his father. But there's also the suggestion that Galahad himself just isn't up to being as good as Dick Grayson.