08 April 2012

The Quick End of Red Robin

Now that DC has published the two Red Robin volumes largely scripted by Fabian Nicieza, The Hit List and Seven Days of Death, I thought it would be interesting to review comments he made when he took over that series from Christopher Yost.

Nicieza had written Tim Drake’s transition from Robin to Red Robin in the issues of Robin collected in Search for a Hero. I felt that volume suffered from being forced to squeeze into the schedule dictated by Grant Morrison’s “Batman RIP” storyline. In interviews Nicieza clearly liked the Tim Drake character; in the magazines, he didn’t have enough pages to demonstrate that.

Taking over Red Robin in 2010 gave Nicieza a second chance with Tim Drake, this time with no end in sight. At that time, he told Newsarama:
He is “the smart one” of the Bat-family, the thinker and planner. I mean, of course Bruce Wayne/Batman is what he is, and Tim isn’t quite there yet, but Tim at 17 has a more developed intellect than Bruce at 17 did. That’s not to say Dick Grayson or Barbara Gordon are dumb, of course they’re not, but Tim’s level of thinking is a bit... thicker... than theirs. For me, Dick is about superior reflexive thinking, Barbara about superior operational thinking and Tim is about superior comprehensive, or all-encompassing, thinking.
What I love about Tim is that he shares some of the strongest traits of various Bat-family members. The intellect and detective skills of Bruce, the ability to lead others and be a friend to others like Dick has and even the ability to make cold, harsh decisions like Jason does.
Those qualities are certainly on display in Nicieza’s Red Robin stories as Tim maneuvers and manipulates, planning ways to take down villains and threats proactively. That created the storytelling challenge of a first-person narrator who’s been planning several steps ahead of the action being shown—but of course can’t spoil the story for us readers.

Within the DC Universe, Tim got the cyberspace beat. Several of Nicieza’s stories involve an evil digital network called the Ünternet, with his old rival Anarky as a touchy ally in that virtual world. Another couple of issues bring on the Mad Men, electronically fueled tricksters who challenge Tim’s logical thinking.

At the end of that interview, Nicieza threw out some teaser questions that referred to a plot thread that Yost had left hanging for him:
“Who[m] has Ra’s al Ghul ordered to take away Tim’s v-card – and will she succeed?”
“And if she doesn’t succeed, who else is on that ever-growing line looking to draw that card?”
As calculated, that talk of sex caught fans’ attention. But Nicieza soon stated: “I only drew the V-card gag answer as a direct result of a thread running that day on the Robin DC Boards. . . . I hadn’t even THOUGHT of [it] much until that thread.”

As Nicieza noted, over the years DC’s storytellers established several young women as romantic interests, and thus potential first sexual partners, for Tim Drake. Nicieza spun out some of those threads. He created a notable cliffhanger with Ra’s al Ghul’s half-sister trying to get pregnant by Tim whether he wants to or not, only to show him saved by another possible partner.

But contrary to some readings of those issues I’ve seen, Nicieza wasn’t trying to turn Tim into a suave playboy. He recently told Comic Book Resources:
Any relationship with a woman is one where Tim is never fully in control. Maybe that’s one reason he doesn’t have any successful ones under his belt—then again, how many 17-year-olds do? I like how Tim is so competent in so many other aspects of his life, but he is still an awkward doof when it comes to dealing with girls.
Tim’s anxious face when he sees what al Ghul is up to fits into the line of anxious faces he’s made when he thought Lady Shiva might sexually initiate him (first Robin miniseries, #4); when his first girlfriend, Ariana, suggested sex (Robin, #40); when he had to face Stephanie Brown’s pregnancy (Robin, #58); and even when Rose Wilson of the Titans made a play for him (Teen Titans: All Around the World). This DC Universe ends with Tim still awkward, still a virgin, and unattached. Nicieza really does know the character’s history.

Back in 2010, Nicieza was looking ahead to another Red Robin storyline based in Tim’s past:
Nrama: It seems Tim would have quite the reaction to Digger Harkness being brought back from the dead but not his own father [since Harkness, better known as Captain Boomerang, killed his father in Identity Crisis]...

Nicieza: …we will certainly touch on Digger’s return very early in my run—with a face to face meeting that will brew and percolate into a larger storyline down the road.
However, that larger storyline never came to pass. DC’s management chose to revamp its entire line for a simpler “New 52” continuity, in which Tim Drake has a new Red Robin costume and a new mission of forming the new Teen Titans. And there was a strict timetable for launching that.

Nicieza therefore had to wrap up his storylines very quickly. He squeezed a visit to Hong Kong and a big fight with a new young villain into a single page in order to leave the series’ final issue for the face-off with Captain Boomerang. What Nicieza planned as “a larger storyline” depended on Tim’s careful, extended planning—indeed, such planning is crucial to the story’s theme.

Logically, the result is an appropriate culmination for this Tim Drake’s character development from 1989 to 2011. Unfortunately, because the action had to be compressed into a single issue, it didn’t pack the emotional punch that Nicieza had no doubt initially hoped for. In addition, the last issues of Red Robin and nearly every other DC series were swamped by fan interest in what the publisher planned next. This saga ended not with a bang but with an “eep.”


Kristen said...

Thanks for the informative post. I didn't really read Red Robin, so I didn't know all the ins-and-outs of Tim's virginity. I really can't decide how I feel about sex and the Batman comics. On one hand, I feel like the writers have made Dick Grayson too sexual (especially that weird bit with the older woman when he was still a teenager; near the end of the Nightwing run); on the other, I feel like they are reifying Tim's virginity, treating it like some treasured jewel, and that also annoys me. A thought: does Robin need to be sexually pure? I realize that Dick had sex as Robin, but only with Starfire (in a committed relationship); the rest was invented later and first presented only after he had become Nightwing.

Is sexual activity becoming an easy way for writers to differentiate between Dick and Tim, who are similar (and yet so different)? I am alternately annoyed by and sorrowful for Tim. I get annoyed when Dick has to be made dumber (in some situations)in order to showcase Tim's smarts, but I also feel bad that Tim's character is described as the sum of everyone else's parts. Does that make him too perfect or just suggest the writers are too lazy to develop his character in other directions? And I pity that he has been saddled with the name Red Robin; it's lame, makes me think of hamburgers, and is derivative. I thought I read once that Dick used the name Red Robin in some Elseworlds or Earth-2 (or something) storyline, which makes Tim seem even more like Dick 2.0 or that the writers weren't trying.

Sorry to post so much, but you are so wise about the Robins I would love to hear your thoughts!

J. L. Bell said...

I’ll start with the easy stuff. The Red Robin costume and name for a grown-up Robin appeared first in Kingdom Come, by Alex Ross and Mark Waid, a possible-future saga for the DC Universe. It was successful enough to generate its own sequels and spin-offs, and the company may have wanted to get more out of that potential trademark.

The costume reappeared in the Countdown series worn by another world’s version of Jason Todd, and the man Earth’s Jason brought it back home. It was then picked up in the Robin series, ending up in Tim Drake’s hands.

I suspect DC was moving Tim Drake toward being Red Robin since it removed the green from his costume after Infinite Crisis. Around that time the Batman desk approved Grant Morrison’s proposal to create a new Robin. at least temporarily. And it’s not a poor idea to see Tim Drake come of age after twenty years. I do wish he could have done it in a better-looking costume.

J. L. Bell said...

On the question of sexuality, since the 1980s DC has portrayed Dick Grayson as the most sexually successful of his clan—not because he beds hot babes but because he’s not hung up and conflicted. In Marv Wolfman’s characterization, Dick was deeply in love with Koriand’r, and sex was a natural part of that. The sight of them in bed was said to be a milestone in his and the comics industry’s growing up.

That appears to have evolved into a simple pattern where as long as anyone in the Batfamily is having sex, Dick is having more. In the last decade, as the comics readership has grown older and talk of sex has become more open in our culture, I think DC has let Dick’s ease with sexual relationships trump his commitment to monogamous love.

The Nightwing: The Lost Year storyline that you refer to (also scripted by Marv Wolfman); the two-timing in Nightwing Annual, #2; the emotionless sex with Kory in early issues of Judd Winick’s Outsiders and Titans; and the casual girlfriend in Nightwing: Brothers in Blood are all part of that trend. Some of those episodes I found out of character while others can be read as signs of trouble in his life at the time. (I count the Nightwing/Huntress and Tarantula storylines in a separate category since at those times Dick actually seemed to be seeking longer-term commitments.)

I think Dick’s active sex life reflects the character’s physicality and emotional openness. Superhero comics are after all about acting out ideas and relationships through physical interaction. Plus, Nightwing has become a fan emblem for sexiness, so those stories give readers what they want.

J. L. Bell said...

As for Tim Drake’s sexual life, DC has been dangling that possibility for over twenty years now, always keeping it out of reach. That partly reflects the company’s playing-it-safe approach to American sexual mores. Tim was still seventeen years old in Red Robin, and still a symbol of youth. A publisher of mass-market entertainment wouldn’t push boundaries too hard.

Even when the company does depict sexuality, its implications are usually cautionary. Tim’s Young Justice friends Kon, Bart, and Cassie all had sex in the last decade. But Kon was always a physical lad, Bart had grown up to his early twenties, and both guys died shortly afterward, sending Cassie into a psychological tailspin. The implicit message: sex is dangerous.

Delaying sex for Tim reflects how such intimacy was one of the few markers of maturing that he did not already have when the Robin series began. He had a job, a car, a girlfriend, and an Oedipally-vanquished father. Sex was a meaningful milestone that still separated him from adulthood and thus gained more symbolic weight.

Finally, anxiety about sex seems in character for Tim, and a natural part of his awkwardness about romantic relationships. Dick Grayson has often been at ease with girlfriends, but Tim has been either fretting or gaga. (And as for whether Tim’s anxiety is actually a sign of unrecognized homosexuality, DC really isn’t going to push that boundary.)

Kristen said...

Thanks for the information. I knew you would have an excellent response.

I am glad to see Tim come of age. I was just disappointed that he was dubbed Red Robin because that had already been used before. I guess I just felt he should have received a name that hadn't been done before. He's a great, important character, and he deserved something cooler. Of course, Nightwing was used before, too (right?), so maybe DC just doesn't want to reinvent the wheel.

Anyway, thanks for explaining!

J. L. Bell said...

Within the context of the Red Robin series, Tim’s crime-fighting moniker make sense: it reflects the tension of him being part-sidekick, part independent actor, part boy, part adult. Still, I agree that “Red Robin” sounds like he should serve up fries with every solved case.

I sense that superhero naming depends as much on trademarks that a publisher wants to keep alive as on the creative side. Nightwing was indeed what the Silver-Age Superman called himself when he visited the bottle city of Kandor and lost his powers; he was that city's equivalent of Batman. I don't think DC made an explicit link between those stories and Dick Grayson's choice until Nightwing: Year One, but the “Nightwing” name was already in their files.

At least Dick wasn't stuck with “Flamebird.” That was the name for Superman's Robin-like sidekick in Kandor, who was really Jimmy Olsen. Post-Crisis, DC dusted off that identity and gave it to Bette (née Betty) Kane, formerly the early-1960s Bat-Girl.

Bob Buethe said...

"I don't think DC made an explicit link between those stories and Dick Grayson's choice until Nightwing: Year One."

Not quite. Dick acknowledged that he picked the name as a tribute to Superman back when he first became Nightwing in Tales of the Teen Titans #44. See http://tinypic.com/r/24y0m76/5

Icon_UK said...

I'd hesitate to consider the Dick/Tarantula relationship even AS a relationship.

She raped him whilst he was having a nervous breakdown, and that has to sour every aspect of it. The relationship was never truly free and committed from both sides (or even either side).

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the link, Bob! I should have looked back on that page. What I remembered was Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon’s new post-Crisis explanation for the Nightwing name in Year One after Superman's Bottle City adventures had been wiped away.

I agree that Dick’s relationship with Tarantula is fraught, Ike, to put it very mildly, but it was still a relationship in my eyes. Unlike the other examples I listed (most of which came later), Dick appears to me to have been looking for a lasting partnership at the time. He didn’t get it. That was another way Tarantula took advantage of him.

I didn’t mention Nightwing Annual, #1, because I can’t figure that one out. Presumably Dick was working undercover in all ways, but that would mean he was seeking neither a long, committed relationship nor a hot night—he was just working a case.

J. L. Bell said...

Here this was supposed to be a post about Timmy becoming a man, and all we’re talking about is Dick’s sex life. Typical!

Erienne said...

I'm actually a big fan of Tim's virginity, for a couple of reasons.

I'm 18 and a virgin, and it's nice to have that connection to at least one member of my favorite superhero family - the Bats. And Damian doesn't count because he's ten, and you know he's going to lose his virginity way earlier than Tim (assuming he actually gets aged up and doesn't stay Bruce's prepubescent son forever).

I agree with what you said; keeping him "young" by keeping him a virgin is a good move. I also agree that anxiety about sex is really in character for him, and it gives him an extra dimension in character. Plus, it makes his romantic relationships that much more interesting, and my favorite thing about Bat characters is their interesting relationships with other characters...

J. L. Bell said...

I guess it no longer matters since that DC Universe is in stasis, but to keep Tim Drake interesting I think the company’s writers would have had to choose a different path from Dick’s. Either continued fumbling and fussing, or marriage, or coming out as gay, or coming out as gay and marriage. But not floating through life as a most eligible bachelor, as Vicki Vale would have it. That’s just not Tim’s style.

collectededitions said...

Enjoyed your post. It is unfortunate that Nicieza's final issues of Red Robin had to be so truncated; I just finished Seven Days of Death, and it is dizzying how quickly Nicieza goes from Lynx to the Council of Spiders to the Daughter of Acheron and finally to the mysterious Voice -- whew! The final issue with Captain Boomerang sends Tim off on something of a low note, not a high one, but taken as a whole I think we see Tim "becoming his own man" through Yost and Nicieza's runs, and Nicieza's final two collections overall were a good reminder of what I liked about the Tim Drake character.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment. I read your review of Seven Days of Death this morning, and saw that we agree on many points. The pacing's more like Two or Three Days of Death!