16 February 2014

Robin Black and White

The last issue of DC Comics’s second Batman Black and White series offers a fine short story about Dick Grayson as Robin, written and drawn beautifully by Cliff Chiang.

In only eight pages, Chiang’s “Clay” addresses both the inherent tension in any story of a kid sidekick and one of the biggest challenges of adolescence: feeling you need to prove yourself with everybody watching.

He also manages to touch on all four major male characters at the dawn of the Dynamic Duo mythos: Bruce Wayne/Batman, Dick Grayson/Robin, Commissioner Gordon, and (unseen) Alfred.

In contrast with the New 52 revamp in the recent Batman and Robin Annual, this Robin is clearly the littlest guy in the fight. Chiang draws him to look about half Batman’s size. The Gotham police think he’s a joke. As usual, he’s worried that Batman doesn’t trust him to keep up. And there’s a supervillain marauding in Crime Alley.

Though this Robin wears the 1940-1990 costume, this story isn’t an old-fashioned throwback. Dick describes Batman’s mission as “scaring the crap” out of criminals. Bullies at his school make fun of his name and how he lives with Bruce Wayne, and he puts them in the hospital. Redevelopment in central Gotham involves “chain restaurants.” But the overall feeling is timeless.

The villain Basil Karlo/Clayface, appeared in the June 1940 issue of Detective Comics and was thus among the first villains that Robin tangled with. Karlo was just a murderous Lon Chaney. Later writers reused the name Clayface for villains who could remold their bodies and manipulate the earth like clay, becoming a much bigger threat.

By page four, Chiang’s story establishes that this Karlo has those superpowers, too. That’s important not only for the well-drawn fight scene that follows but also because it links this Clayface to the Boy Wonder. Both are natural performers, and Dick has to figure out if he wants to let himself be driven by audience approval and remold himself like Karlo.


Anonymous said...

Missing verb in next-to-last pp, 1st sentence. Interesting post -- I like it when writers pay attention to Robin and remember that he's a kid, not just a foil. No need to publish this.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the sharp eyes; I've tossed some verbs into that sentence.

Dick Grayson/Robin was a kid in the comics for thirty years before going off to college, and was in a transitional state—still Robin but no longer a boy—for another fifteen. Now it's been almost thirty years and at least two reboots since he became Nightwing, so these stories to him as a kid always have to be flashbacks from the current continuity. That makes them particularly nostalgic, I think.