30 August 2009

Robin: Search for an Ending

As I mentioned last week, the magazines collected in Robin: Search for a Hero show the end of Tim Drake’s career as Robin, which started in 1989. The character has aged about five years in those two decades, and is now ready to move on to a new crime-fighting identity: Red Robin. (Okay, he’s not moving on that far.)

The final issues of Robin are therefore a self-conscious wrap-up of the magazine’s main threads. We can see that in the cover art, especially the first and last issues. The cover of the book (also of Robin, #183) is an homage to the art on the first issue of the Robin miniseries, back in 1991. (Though I don’t actually like that cover, shown below, thinking that it makes Tim look much older than fourteen.)

Likewise, the cover of Robin, #175, shows Tim cradling the wounded body of Bruce Wayne during the “Batman: RIP” arc, just as Bruce had cradled the body of the previous Robin, Jason Todd, on the cover of Batman: A Death in the Family from 1989.

Fabian Nicieza’s task as scripter was made more challenging by some circumstances:

  • He was hired suddenly to replace the magazine’s founding writer, Chuck Dixon--so late that some covers had already been shown to the world.
  • The Robin storyline had to fit alongside the momentous events of Batman: RIP and Final Crisis, in which Bruce Wayne goes crazy and dies (kind of).
  • The story had to lead into DC’s plans to give Tim his new identity as Red Robin--something I suspect the company was working toward since it dropped the green from his costume in 2006.
And of course those issues would also have to tell an entertaining story.

In this arc, therefore, Tim faces versions of three of the teenaged antagonists who showed up early in the magazine’s run: Lynx, Anarky, and the General, having all grown up badly in different ways. He confronts, bests, and eventually reaches an understanding of sorts with his predecessor as Robin, the bitter and recently dead Jason Todd. Robin defeats the villains and brings some peace to Gotham after Batman's disappearance--but at a cost.

Most important for the future, Robin, #181, motivates Tim to put on the Red Robin costume for the first time: he needs its increased cranial protection, having burned the back of his scalp.

In the next issue, the end of the arc, Tim has a falling-out with Stephanie Brown--his ally, occasional girlfriend, and brief-lived replacement as Robin. He tells Stephanie that he doesn’t want to see her Spoiler costume again, opening the door for her choice this month to become Batgirl.

The final page of Robin, #182, shows Tim swinging through the city, a Robin signal having replaced the Bat-signal. The last captions (which serve as Tim’s narrative voice) read:
No guarantees for tomorrow...but come what may--

--the possibilities are endless.
This sentiment matches Nicieza’s perceptive understanding of what the medium’s oldest kid sidekick represents in the DC Universe: “The concept of Robin defines the nature of the legacy in the DCU and with that, implies hope for the future, stability coming from the next generation of hero...”

(Ominously, the early issues of Red Robin suggest that Tim Drake has become rather unstable. We’ll see how that turns out.)

But DC decided it needed another issue of Robin. So #183 shows Tim back in his previous costume facing Lady Shiva, his deadly martial-arts trainer in the Robin miniseries of 1991.

That month DC also mandated that all its magazines have a six-page “Origins & Omens” backup story. In Robin, Tim defeats the Haitian villain who poisoned his mother even earlier in Detective, #621, bringing his adolescence full circle.

I appreciate how DC and its talent approached these issues with a sense of their character’s history. Nonetheless, to my taste this story arc seems frenetic and shallow, with vague villains and lots of unresolved issues. The deaths of two children at the climax are supposed to be tremendously significant for Tim, but it’s barely established that they’re on the scene, much less that they’re characters we should care about. And of course the final chapter/issue steps back from the developments of the preceding story arc.

I also wish DC took advantage of today’s digital production to make their collected editions better than the magazines. In Robin: Search for a Hero no one bothered to fix the misdirected word balloons on page 32 that fuddle up a conversation between Tim and Dick Grayson. And on page 173 three out of the six panels show the same image of Red Robin and Spoiler on a rooftop, copied and pasted like a Wondermark strip. (Andy Schmidt tells me the technical term for this is a “stat panel.”) A monthly magazine deadline makes such shortcuts necessary, but the paperback edition offers the chance to give readers something better.


collectededitions said...

I appreciate your comparison here of the two iconic Robin covers, both Death in the Family and that of the first Robin miniseries. It reminds me of what Mark Guggenheim did at the end of the Bart Allen Flash series, hearkening back to deaths of Flash past in order to give it all more resonance.

Both comics, I think we'd agree, had their problems (and I actually think Guggenheim handled that ending better than Nicieza did here), but I appreciate especially writers thrust into difficult "pick-up writing" circumstances who still try to pay homage to what came before.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, one of the clear strengths of Robin: Search for a Hero was Nicieza’s clear fondness and respect for the character, his attempt to wrap up some of the threads of Tim Drake’s adolescence. (Of course, I’m especially interested in the long history of the Robin and Tim Drake roles.)

I suspect Nicieza’s scripts would have avoided some of the problems I saw in pacing and emphasis if he’d been working under other circumstances.