11 May 2014

Not-So-Secret Origin

Before DC published Secret Origins, #1, with the origin stories of Dick Grayson as Robin as well as Superman and Supergirl, scripter Kyle Higgins said in an interview that his final issue of Nightwing actually “says everything I have to say about the character.”

Unfortunately, he was right. The twelve-page story in Secret Origins goes over old ground. The art, penciled by Doug Mahnke, is pretty, just as in the recent Batman and Robin Annual. The story confirms some things already established in DC’s “New 52” continuity, such as Dick already being in his mid-teens when he meets Bruce Wayne. The title “The Long Year” provides another temporal fact for readers who care deeply about such things.

But the problem is that the first Robin’s origin just isn’t secret anymore. In fact, it’s so well known among superhero fans that storytellers can evoke it with just partial images, such as a Flying Graysons poster or the broken trapeze rope swinging into the frame in the TV cartoon episode “Robin’s Reckoning.”

While the stories of how Jason Todd and Tim Drake became Robin have been significantly reworked, Dick Grayson’s has remained basically the same since 1940. The only changes have been at the margins: whether the authorities sent Dick to an orphanage instead of apparently straight to Wayne Manor, whether Tony Zucco or his family are still around.

The radical changes have been Frank Miller’s story of Bruce kidnapping Dick over several long issues of alternative-continuity All-Star Batman and Robin and Scott Snyder’s decision to make the Haly Circus a training ground for athletic assassins—which plays no role in Higgins’s new story.

So Higgins’s origin story has almost no place original to go. We see the robin bracelet he already established in Robin, #0. We see Tony Zucco threatening the circus. We see the death of Dick’s parents as Bruce Wayne watches, and an orphanage. Dick tries hunting his parents’ killer and has to be rescued by Batman, but we’ve seen that before, too.

Higgins said the one idea he had left to explore was the origin of the Robin name, mostly because DC’s new editors had nixed the idea of inspiration from Robin Hood movies. (Apparently Kevin Costner’s and Russell Crowe’s versions don’t have the cultural resonance of Errol Flynn’s.) So we have a page of Dick thinking about what his crime-fighting identity should be and seeing a robin fly by—the same scene we saw with Bruce Wayne and a bat back in 1939.

The last panel on that page drives home the symbolism with Bruce speaking of the robin as a symbol of “growing up,” which is what Robin/Dick Grayson has meant in the DC mythos since the following year. But we already knew that.

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