03 March 2013

The Death of Damian Wayne

The big Boy Wonder news of the week is, of course, the death of Damian Wayne in Batman, Incorporated, #8. Comics fans lamented his loss, even if they couldn’t all spell his name right. Just a fortnight ago the “Death of a Family” crossover climaxed with no actual deaths, leaving some fans disappointed. One hopes it’s not the same fans.

Of course, Damian Wayne’s death has no more correlation to death in the real world than his short life has to real lives. He was created in a milieu of artificial insemination, incubators, and genetic hybrids (which should give pause to those trying to calculate the timing of the DC Universe based on assumptions that he was conceived and raised naturally). Similarly, Damian died in a storyline that includes clones, resurrection pools, and time travel. The “Robin RIP” issue came at the beginning of a four-issue arc, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see hints of the character’s return in some form by the end.

What interests me most about this development is what it says about collaborative storytelling. Grant Morrison pitched the idea of Bruce Wayne and Talia al-Ghul having a son back in 2005, thinking he'd kill off the child right away if he proved interesting only as a plot point. But Damian’s extreme personality proved fun to write, not just for Morrison but for other Batman scripters.

Morrison told the adventures of a new Dynamic Duo—Batman the Boy Wonder and the goddamn Robin. Among DC’s other writers, Bryan Q. Miller might have been most successful with Damian in Batgirl because his personality made such a contrast with Stephanie Brown’s, but there were also fine stories from Paul Dini in Streets of Gotham and J. T. Krul in Teen Titans.

The result is a six-year storyline played out over multiple crossovers and two continuities. At heart, Morrison was expanding “Punish Not My Evil Son!” from The Brave and the Bold, #83, written by Bob Haney (and reprinted in the first volume of Neal Adams’s Batman work). As in that single-issue story, Bruce Wayne is surprised to become the father of a nasty brat, causing trouble for his household and everyone else. But eventually the moral example of Dick Grayson turns the kid around, and he dies heroically in the Robin costume.
Of course, the story of Damian Wayne is more complex, layered, and successful. It became intertwined with Batman seeming to die and with Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and Stephanie Brown taking on new coming-of-age identities. Damian was a prize in a worldwide war between his parents. The one glitch: I don’t think anyone could have engineered a satisfying story about Dick Grayson’s return to being Nightwing. Instead, DC rebooted its whole universe.

Morrison’s fellow writers were privy to his ultimate plan for Damian Wayne, at least to the extent of being warned off storylines that might ruin that virgin territory. Scott Snyder, present writer of Batman and current primary plotter for the rest of the line, has tweeted that he learned about Morrison’s plan when he got the assignment to write about the Caped Crusader.

Even more interesting is the work of Peter J. Tomasi, who was the editor who first heard Morrison’s pitch. In 2008 he left the editorial desk to become a scripter, taking over Nightwing even though he knew that magazine would soon end. In 2011 he took over Batman and Robin while knowing that eventually that partnership would be ripped apart. Tomasi just gave interviews to Comic Book Resources and Newsarama about how he’d laced the latter magazine with intimations of Damian’s death. The immediate plan is to continue it with a focus on ex-Robins, but, like Batman, Incorporated, it might be in for more profound changes or retirement.

Damian’s death resets the life of Bruce Wayne in more ways than one. Not only does he no longer have a young boy to keep out of trouble, but he has a dead partner to mourn. From 1989 to 2004 the late Jason Todd filled that role. But it’s awfully hard to mourn a Robin who’s alive and well. (“The Joker killed me! And, um, I got better.”) Now Damian can haunt the family as Jason did. There’s even a trophy case waiting.

Robin has always been the littlest guy in the fight—that’s part of the character’s identity and appeal. In some previous DC Universes Dick Grayson took up the role at the age of eight, and artists have enjoyed depicting the contrast between the spindly little kid and the tall, muscular Dark Knight. In the rebooted universe, however, Dick didn’t meet Bruce Wayne until his teens, making Damian the youngest boy ever to have become Robin—thus the littlest guy of all. And yet, the only foe to take that Robin down turned out to be his own genetic twin, grown to fearsome size, assisted by other members of the League of Assassins.

What’s next among Robins? The odds favor a young woman whom Snyder has introduced in Batman named Harper Row. While it would be good to see a female Robin again (the first in the current continuity), I’m old enough to remember the obvious inspiration for that name: the venerable American publisher Harper & Row, now subsumed into the HarperCollins division of Newscorp. I keep wondering if the new Robin will carry a torch, as on the old Harper & Row colophon, and peddle Maurice Sendak books. >tt<


Anonymous said...

While you're on the subject, I'd really like to hear your take on Jason Todd's resurrection - and whether that proved to be a good idea. (I don't hate Jason, but I think bringing him back proved to be "a sleazy stunt".)

J. L. Bell said...

Back in 2010 I wrote a series of essays on Jason Todd, including one that argued that his death was the best thing that ever happened to that character, in the sense that it solidified the character's symbolic meaning and importance in the Batman mythos at last.

I think Judd Winick's initial story of Jason's return was quite good. However, after that the company struggled to find ways to use the character. Once his symbolic value as the dead Robin was erased (and Stephanie Brown briefly became the dead Robin), what did Jason represent? I don't think the company found a satisfactory answer before the New 52 reboot.

Icon_UK said...

I think my problem with the killing off of Damian is caused by the whole DC reboot. Thanks to this we now have two dead Robin's in Batman's five year career, which is just... lousy mentoring if nothing else.

J. L. Bell said...

Well, on one of those dead Robins the Batman got a do-over. But it's notable that this DC Universe has far fewer kid sidekicks than the previous ones. The only hero who seems to have tried to follow Batman's example is, of course, Green Arrow.

J. L. Bell said...

To clarify the conclusion of the last comment, perhaps in this universe people realize that teenagers shouldn't be putting on costumes and fighting crime like the Batman. Even he took on each of the lads as a rescue, though he didn't know all that he was rescuing Dick from.

Katelyn Guzan said...

It is not OK to kill of Damian. He added the danger factor that Jason Todd had. He also had an awesome rivalry with Tim Drake that added more dynamics to Tim (and was also kinda funny to see). Damian tied the story line together after the previous Robins made the plot. Damian was the glue.