29 May 2011

The Universe Needs a Robin

The last weekly Robin quoted several reader letters from 1989 because I was struck by how closely those fans’ analyses of the Dynamic Duo’s relationship matched young Tim Drake’s rationale for a new Boy Wonder in the storyline mysteriously titled A Lonely Place of Dying.

The preceding story, “Year Three,” had shown how Dick Grayson’s parents died at a circus, and how Batman swooped down to offer comfort (or as much comfort as a man dressed as a giant bat can offer). Those issues also introduced a little dark-haired boy in the audience named Timmy. As at least one reader surmised, that wasn’t his last appearance.

A Lonely Place of Dying begins with Batman acting unusually violent and reckless. Actually, he’s not acting much differently from his appearances in many other stories, but both Alfred and an unseen observer tell us he’s acting unusually violent and reckless. That observer, who’s kind of short, is trying to track down Dick Grayson.

The next installment is a somewhat strained murder mystery at Dick’s old circus. Its real revelation is that the short tracker is Timmy Drake, now thirteen. He explains how years before he’d seen surveillance footage of Robin doing a quadruple somersault, and realized that only Dick could pull off that move. (Especially since, as pictured, it wouldn’t work.)

That realization has let Tim deduce the identities of Batman, Nightwing, and the second Robin, and to realize what’s making Batman crazy (again, relatively speaking for a man dressed as a giant bat).

“Batman has to have a Robin,” Tim declares. Caring about a kid sidekick actually keeps him careful and sane. Lest we miss that idea, Tim repeats it twice more. His first plan is for Dick to squeeze back into the multicolored suit, an idea that Nightwing’s fans were already writing in to protest. There was only one solution, the final act of the story makes clear: Tim has to become the Boy Wonder himself, at least long enough to save Batman and Nightwing.

Marv Wolfman’s story thus avoided a trap that had made the second Jason Todd unpopular with fans: looking as if he’d pushed Dick Grayson aside. Tim is Dick’s biggest admirer. He respects the original team. His prodigious detective skills are clearly different from Dick’s acrobatics. And in contrast to what Jason came to stand for, Tim’s trying to make Batman less violent, and he promises to follow instructions.

At another level, Tim’s character offered Wolfman help with his own psychological trouble, a crippling writer’s block. After creating some of DC’s most popular new heroes in the early 1980s, Wolfman was suffering through a creative dry spell. He also needed a Robin.

And DC Comics needed a Robin to provide a counterpoint to the violent, dark, and grim period that The Dark Knight Returns and A Death in the Family had set off. Tim Drake couldn’t stop the trends of the early 1990s, but he ensured that what Robin had traditionally meant in the DC Universe would endure.

COMING UP: And there was one more thing Tim Drake stood for.

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