Last December (and one week in January) it was a war on the streets between two bird-themed factions: The Robins and The Court of Owls. The conflict was called "Robin War," a six-part storyline that ran through two bookend Robin War specials and four issues of ancillary Bat-family titles, plus three inessential tie-ins in three other ancillary Bat-family titles.
Before we plunge into the storyline proper, let's review where Gotham City and many of the storyline's players were in December.
In the wake of perhaps The Joker's most ambitious attack on the city ever (in Batman story arc "Endgame"), Batman was presumed dead...and he kinda was. Bruce Wayne survived his fight with The Joker, but under still-unrevealed circumstances that resulted in Wayne not only having no memory of his time as Batman, but somehow having an entirely different brain. Also, he had a beard. And you can't trust anyone with a beard.
To replace Batman, a private/public partnership between The Powers Corporation and The Gotham City Police Department stuck former police commissioner James Gordon in a silly-looking mechanical battle-suit and deputized him (Mostly in Batman story arc "Superheavy," but Batman III has also been in Detective, Batman/Superman and elsewhere).
Meanwhile, inspired by Batman's sacrifice, a movement of Gotham-based teenagers took up the name of the original Batman's sidekicks, calling themselves Robins, and they began fighting crime on a vigilante basis (in We Are Robin).
And as for the original Robin, Dick Grayson, he was outted by The Crime Syndicate of Earth-3 on worldwide television (in Final Crisis), which resulted in his abandoning the Nightwing name and costume, faking his own death and joining the super-secret spy agency Spyral, from the pages of Grant Morrison's run on Batman, Inc. Everyone except for Batman and, I don't know, maybe Lex Luthor, thought Grayson was dead, but he had just recently returned to Gotham City to give Alfred Pennyworth, Batgirl Barbara Gordon, Red Hood Jason Todd, Red Robin Tim Drake and (Just) Robin Damian Wayne the heads-up that he was actually totally alive and a spy now.
And that's what the board and the players looked like when DC started shipping issues of "Robin War," which we'll look at chapter by chapter.
Throughout the first, over-sized chapter, writer Tom King uses characters declaring "I am Robin!" upon introduction as a motif, beginning with a young member of the Robin movement on the first page. This self-declared, amateur Robin, Travis, attempts to foil a liquor store robbery. It goes horribly wrong, with the perpetrator and a police officer both dead, and the inexperienced crime-fighter bleeding from a gunshot wound of his own and kneeling next to the bodies, arranged to suggest the image of young Bruce Wayne kneeling next to his dead parents.
King then engages in the laziest, most dated type of comic book exposition, the medium's equivalent of the spinning newspaper headline from old movies: Pages of TV talking heads. That's followed by Gotham City Councilwoman Noctua, eating a fancy dinner consisting of a small game bird (symbolism!) telling those seated around her fancy dinner table about the council's "Robin Laws."
These inherently unconstitutional laws basically outlaw all Robin paraphernalia, including masks, R's, Batman: The Animated Series posters on your walls and even the wearing of Robin's colors (which must be rough, as red, yellow and green aren't exactly unusual colors). Any kids with any of that stuff are subject to arrest (The outlawing of the letter R struck me as similar to the premise of a Sesame Street sketch, but the comics never go there; everyone continues to use the letter R in their speech, and we don't learn a valuable lesson about the R sound in the English language or anything).
From there, we start to meet the Robins who were given their Rs by Batman himself, in rapid succession. Jason Todd is drinking in a bar when he sees Councilwoman Noctua on the news, and punches out some scrawny loudmouth next to him for talking shit on Batman. Tim Drake radios Todd to tell him that not only is the Robin movement hosting a big meeting at a high school gym, but that Damian Wayne is there and ready to crash the party.
Damian tosses calls them all frauds, tosses Duke around and tells them to all go home before he makes them. When they refuse, he starts beating them all up.
Luckily for Damian, who is outnumbered like 100 to 1 or something–or maybe luckily for the Robins, actually?–Councilwoman Noctua sends in the new Batman to arrest them all.
This is Damian's first encounter with the new Batman, whose suit Guinaldo draws as unusually small and man-sized, and it's a pretty awesome moment.
|Guinaldo and Wong|
All of the Robins scatter save Damian, who stays to fight the new Batman, and he takes that new Batman down (unfortunately for Gordon, this issue shipped the same month that Bluebird Harper Row also took him down in Batman & Robin Eternal, putting him at 0-2 when it comes to apprehending Batman's teen sidekicks).
But wait, there are still more Robins! Red Hood and Red Robin arrive, and they are soon followed by Dick Grayson. They reconvene a meeting with the Robin movement, so all 104 Robins can figure out how to respond to Gotham City declaring war on Robins.
But of course it wasn't really Gotham City, or Councilwoman Noctua, it was The Court of Owls. They have a Talon assassin kill off the Robin who started everything in the first scene, and convene their own meaning. They are apparently happy that Grayson is back in Gotham, and they say something about Nightwing rising again because...they wanted Dick Grayson to be an assassin or something back during "The Court of Owls" and "City of Owls" story arcs in Batman back in 2011-2012.
And that's how the first chapter ends, with meetings! But don't worry, these are just meetings that are about to begin. You won't have to actually sit through the meetings. At least not all of them.
Grayson sticks out like a sore thumb among the other Robins now. Since joining Spyral, he's worn a spandex, short-sleeved gray shirt with light blue piping and a pair of cargo pants, with random straps all over. He also wears a big, blue letter "G" badge for, um, reasons. The change in colors does draw a distinction between him and every other character in the opening scene, as all of the Robins wear red, yellow, green and black.
After a long inspirational speech, Grayson tells the members of the Robin movement that he and his "brothers" (Jason, Tim and Damian) are going to try and teach them the skills they need to survive the war declared against them, and ends his speech with the words "WELCOME TO ROBIN SCHOOL."
Dick! What are you doing? This is not what Batman would want!
From there they break into smaller groups, with each of the "official" Robins training a small party in a different skill, and each finding one among those groups that excels (Not coincidentally, those that excel all happen to be from the cast of We Are Robin). In each of these scenes, there are little FLashbacks of Dick, Jason, Tim and Damian strategizing about why they're doing this.
So Tim teaches blind-folded staff-fighting, Jason teaches tire-boosting, Damian teaches kicking-the-shit-kicked-out-of-you, and Dick tries to meet with as many of them one-on-one as he can. King, Seeley and Janin dramatize his meeting with Duke which, this being a super-comic, happens while they spar. Duke uses Dick's real name, and Dick sound surprised, as if figuring out that the original Robin was Dick Grayson was all that hard after Nightwing was unmasked and named on international television.
Dick takes these stand-outs–Duke, Dre, Dax and Isabella–and pairs them up with himself and the other three, giving them all missions relating to the Robin War. He takes Duke with him, and they strike gargoyle poses atop a high building and wait "in reserve."
But! Things go wrong! The police and/or Batman were waiting for each of the teams, and there's a massive raid at "The Robin School," in which those not on the missions are all arrested.
What the hell is going on? Dick explains to Duke just before he jumps off a building to escape the police, leaving Duke to get arrested: All this while Dick was feeding intel to the new Batman, so that he could get everyone arrested, the idea being to keep all the Robins safely tucked away in jail, along with his "best men," who could keep an eye out for them. He didn't tell Jason, Tim or Damian this plan.
This almost makes a small amount of sense–it's certainly one way of keeping all the self-declared Robins from getting killed by police officers on the streets–but it's also kind of insane, as it would mean Jason, Tim and Damian would all have their secret identities revealed, which would likely mean to getting Bruce Wayne and Alfred in pretty horrible legal trouble (and/or siccing supervillains on them).
The plan is also kind of insane as it means Dick figured Jason, Tim and Damian wouldn't be able to elude a Gotham City Police Department trap, and each of them should be able to do so pretty easily, even if they were saddled with an amateur Robin to protect.
Damian, for example, is captured by Batman James Gordon–who he took out pretty easily solo in the previous chapter.
The whys of Dick's plan will make a little more sense in the next issue, but only because the GCPD behave in incredibly unlikely ways.
This chapter had particularly strong art and, being an issue of Grayson, time was made for a joke about Dick's awesome butt:
The first Tom King-free issue of the crossover kicks off with Batman Jim Gordon, wearing his under-armor Batman suit and narrating old man thoughts about playing cops and robbers as a kid, while he fights with Dick Grayson for a few panels. On the third page, the narrative jumps back "one hour earlier," where things are just plain...goofy.
So it turns out that having his peers get arrested by the GCPD didn't actually compromise anyone's secret identity or anything, because once the GCPD arrested the Robins, they decided not to take off their masks. Tim and Damian have their little domino masks on, Red Hood has his helmet/mask that covers his entire head. This is, for me, the point in the story where I lost my suspension of disbelief, and while I enjoyed moments of the narrative that occurred after this point, I just couldn't get it back. This was just silly.
Based on Pugh's art, it doesn't seem like the police so much as searched the Robins either; I mean, Red Robin's still wearing his utility belt, utility harness and utility armbands, even if he never pulls out any hidden weapons...as Damian will at one point.
That's not the only weird thing about the Robin arrests, though. Not only did the police not, like, take any of their stuff, or apparently finger-print them, but they tossed them into these weird, elevated cages in pairs, with high-tech cannons pointed at them.
Harvey Bullock and Batman cluck about how fucked-up the situation is, and, yeah, it's pretty crazy that the city had put together this superhero super-max prison for a youth gang (Arkham, Blackgate, Belle Reeve...none of those places have this kind of security).
Damian pulls a stunt to get them to lower the cages, and just as the police begin to search them one by one, a guy in an owl mask comes in and dismisses them all. Behind him? A small army of Talons.
Owls versus Robins! The bird war is on now...! And by now, I mean, next issue, as that was the cliffhanger ending.
As for Grayson and Gordon, they fight for a while, with Grayson getting the best of Gordon (who is still outside his battle-suit; throughout this issue he mostly uses it as a vehicle to get from place to place), before they take a breath and decide to figure out who benefits from all this.
What's really weird about this scene is that Gordon knows exactly who Grayson is, and that Grayson used to be Robin. That should mean Gordon also knows who Batman really is, but as far as I can tell, Batman writer Scott Snyder has been pretty coy with whether or not Gordon knows Bruce Wayne and Batman are one in the same or not, never explicitly saying that Gordon does know.
Of course, that's one weird aspect of the post-Final Crisis DC Universe. Everybody knows that Dick Grayson was Batman's ally Nightwing, but no one has been able to make the leap to even suspect that Grayson's amazingly physically fit, billionaire guardian whose parents were the victims of violent crime and who was the public face of Batman, Incorporated might also be Batman (except, of course, for Lex Luthor).
Really great art from Di Giandomenico on this chapter; it's detailed but not weighted down by detail, and, as colored by Mat Lopes, the individual panels often have the look and feel of animation cels. That said, Di Giandomenico seemed to have different reference material than the other artists when it came to drawing Damian, whose costume is a little off throughout. He also draws Damian as more of a teen, which looks fine here, but undercuts the basic appeal of the character, the contrast between his age and size and his imperious attitude (and incredible fighting ability).
Bermejo has Grayson narrate the issue, which will likely grate more when these are read in trade (with narrators coming and going, and the P.O.V. constantly shifting). This means it opens with a a scene of The Flying Graysons, who, at least in this comic, wear blue, white and green, their costumes looking closer to Grayson's Grayson get-up than his Robin costume.
As for the plot, Grayson and Gordon continue their investigation of Noctua, stumbling upon her plans for "The Cage," where the Robins are being kept, and a big-ass owl statue in her apartment.
Speaking of owls, they drag Tim and Jason from their cells, and tell them they must fight to the death, with the winner becoming their new "Gray Son." They do for a while, and Di Giandomenico does a pretty great job drawing their combat.
It may shock you to learn that despite playing along for a few pages, Tim and Jason do not actually fight to the death, but at one point Tim breaks away from the fight, opens all the cages and the Robins and they rain down en masse on their Court of Owls guards. They then all escape to the roof...where some Talons are waiting for them.
It was a pleasant surprise to crack open the cover of this issue and see Scott McDaniel's artwork; he pencils this issue, while his frequent collaborator Andy Owens inks. McDaniel has done a lot of work for DC, but is probably still best known for his work as a Batman artist and what I have to imagine is the longest-running Nightwing artist, so it was a treat to see him drawing Dick Grayson again, along with so many of Dick's peers.
The Robins vs. Talons battle occupies the first seven pages, with the cast of We Are Robin joining forces with the three captured official Robins to fight the undead assassins. Damian ends the battle by setting off a pretty huge explosion.
From there, the Robins follow Riko's lead to Gotham Academy, where she had previously discovered (in the tie-in, discussed below) that the Court was "hatching" undead super-Talons. They're joined by Batman Jim Gordon, who helps them shut the operation down.
Meanwhile, Grayson has fought his way through the Court of Owls for a face-to-face with Lincoln March, who reveals that the Court is no longer interested in Grayson, as they've found a new "Gray Son," the one character Dick feels most responsible for:
|McDaniel and Owens|
I really like the way McDaniel draws Damian, especially in "owl mode." I kind of wish Damian had a special Court of Owls costume though, to go with that mask.
The next official chapter is the final one, but let's here pause to look at the three tie-in issues.
This seems to be the only of the three tie-ins that is necessary, or at least necessary-ish; it's mentioned or alluded to in just about all of the official chapters, albeit sometimes obliquely. Behind regular interior artist Karl Kerschl's excellent cover, featuring Maps turning in her GA badge for a Robin R, is the work of occasional guest-artist Adam Archer, inked by Sandra Hope.
The story, "Robins Vs. Zombies," opens with a Gotham Academy answer to the Robin movement–appropriately, preppily attired in a costume that includes a red, button-down vest and a tie–pursuing a criminal...into a greenhouse, where a zombie has just climbed out of the ground.
During a school assembly in which the kids are told about the Robin Laws and the school's zero-tolerance policy towards Robin-ing (which should help catch-up regular Gotham Academy readers), We Are Robin's Riko Sheridan is introduced to the regular gang: Olive, Maps, Kyle, Pomeline and Colton. Together with Riko, they investigate the recent zombie sightings and, it turns out, the zombie isn't just any undead creature shambling around campus, but is a Talon assassin for the Court of Owls...albeit a befuddled one.
Dr. Kirk Langstrom, one of the school's sometime supervillain faculty members, keeps the Talon in his lab. Riko gets arrested, in order to rejoin the rest of the Robins in the main crossover. Maps is about to rush off to help her, when Damian makes a return appearance to the title, if only briefly, in order to warn Maps to stay out of it for now.
I really dig the interplay between those two characters. I hope Maps asks Damian to Gotham Academy prom or something some time.
Fletcher does a pretty great job on this issue, as it functions pretty perfectly as just another issue of Gotham Academy, where this sort of extremely weird thing happens on a fairly regular basis, but it also ties-in to the "Robin War" storyline and, as I said, it does so more strongly than the other two tie-ins manage.
Lobdell's tie-in, "All's Fair in Love and Robin War!", is strange in that he rather evenly divides the space allotment to the title characters, one of whom is heavily involved in "Robin War" and the other of whom has nothing to do with it. The result? Half of the comic kinda sorta has something to do with the crossover, the other half has nothing to do with it.
Set during the events of Robin War #1, the relevant portion merely involves Tim and Jason meeting up with one another, just before they called in Dick Grayson to help them stop Damian from doing anything stupid when he learned of the Robin movement and the Robin laws.
The two tell one another their origin stories, which is weird; they're explaining them for readers, of course, but Lobdell doesn't have them play out all that organically. The scene ends with the two giving one another a fist-bump.
I've never taken to this title, or the Red Hood and The Outlaws title that preceded it, mainly because of the poor craft usually involved in its creation, but also because of the fact that the characters were rebooted into unrecognizability. I loved Roy Harper, but don't know him post-New 52. I loved Tim Drake even more, but ditto. It's weird to see Roy and Tim both now being played as Jason's best friends in the whole world.
The Robin-less pages of this issue, which are many, basically involve Jason telling Roy to stay out of the Robin Wars and to keep an eye on their new partner, The Joker's Daughter (Hey, how come that face she's wearing hasn't rotted yet? It was getting pretty ripe before the end of "Death of the Family," and that was long before she even found it). So instead they go off to fight
Then some lava men capture them.
Much like the issue of Red Hood/Arsenal, this one is divided between scenes featuring the involved character (Teen Titans's Red Robin) and what the rest of the team is up to while that member of the cast is busy participating in a crossover.
It's actually divided a little more neatly, as there are two art teams involved: Churchill and Rapmund handle the Teen Titans scenes, while Mendonca and Vines draw the "Robin War" scenes.
The relevant portions are set, according to the editorial boxes, between the events of Robin: Son of Batman and Robin War #2, but they actually seem to occur during the pages of Robin. Tim and Jason lead the We Are Robin Robins through the streets of Gotham to Gotham Academy. That takes up...let's see... three pages. Yes, just three pages. That is how much of this issue ties-in to "Robin War."
The rest? The current Titans line-up–Beast Boy, Bunker, Raven, Wonder Girl and Power Girl–are hanging out in a mansion that Wonder Girl rented for them in Kane County, outside of Gotham. They eventually venture into the city, where they run across a Gotham villain, Professor Pyg, who is secretly in league with a Titans villain, Brother Blood.
It's much like all of the other New 52 Titans comics I've read–nigh unreadable.
Much like the over-sized first issue, this one has a single writer but a whole mess of artists. They are all good artists, but the changes in style make this a far from smooth read, particularly since those styles vary so much, as do the designs. Remember what I said about Di Giandomenico's Damian? Well, here his Damian is separated by just the turn of the page from the more on-model drawings of the character offered by other artists (Actually, Pugh's Damian is even more off-model, as he seems to be using early issues of Batman and Robin for reference, rather than current issues of Robin: Son of Batman, where Damian sports a new, slightly different costume).
Just as King used various formulations of "I am Robin!" throughout the first issue, here he uses formulations of "I am not Robin," beginning with an overweight member of the movement who decided to sit this one out, and stay home and play videogames instead.
Having accepted the mantle of The Gray Son, Damian orders Red Robin, Red Hood and the We Are Robin Robins to all go home, telling them he's fixed the problem for them. They, naturally, refuse, and so Damian fights them. All. He takes Red Hood down in the space of a few panels. He takes Tim, who puts his hands up and doesn't fight back, with a single punch. Two more panels take out four more Robins, until it's only Duke left standing.
Back in Owl-ville, March explains to Grayson that Damian beat him to there and, when told about the new super-Talons–a sort of Court contingency plan, should they ever lose complete control, to raze the city of Gotham–agreed to accept the mantle of The Gray Son in order to save the city.
Just as Damian debates and fights with the Robins, Dick talks and fights with March.
Remarkably, Duke holds his own against Damian for a really long time...at least compared to, like, all of the others. Using a pair of nunchucks, he fights the owled-up Damian while psychoanalyzing him, telling him that he's figured out that he's really Damian Wayne and that his father, Bruce Wayne, was really Batman, and that by sacrificing himself to the Court like this, Robin's just trying to emulate his father and, essentially, to be Batman instead of Robin.
It's actually a pretty great bit, getting to the heart of the Robin character, and tying this in rather nicely to the Batman mega-story. It works, and Damian stops fighting Duke and turns his attention to the marauding Talons, along with the rest of the Robin movement.
March's sales-pitch to Grayson also worked. Explaining that there was some kinda nano-poison something-or-other in the owl mask he gave to Damian, he tells Grayson if he doesn't become the Gray Son, he'll kill Damian. So Dick does what Batman would do, and what Damian tried to do: He agrees, sacrificing himself for everyone else.
There's a series of little epilogues after these dual climaxes, including one where everyone yells at Dick in the Batcave, and he's basically like, "Yeah, whatever, I'm just doing what Batman would do." (He does not look down at the WWBD? bracelet on his wrist at this point, although that woulda been awesome). There's another where Duke and the We Are Robin Robins gather around the grave of Travis, the Robin who kicked off the Robin War during the liquor store robbery gone wrong, and Duke essentially says that he's out, and that they're not ready to be Robins. There's a two-page sequence in which we're introduced to the international Parliament of Owls, and see Dick in an owl mask (this seems like simply a new version of what's been going on in Grayson; Dick infiltrating a sinister, international organization).
And then there's what may be my favorite part of the whole damn crossover:
Overall, I think "Robin War" was a pretty successful crossover. If you look at the numbers, it definitely seems as if DC convinced retailers to up their orders on several of the lower-selling titles involved (like Gotham Academy, for example), although whether or not those extra issues actually sold to readers, and if many or any of them decided they liked what they saw enough to want to add Gotham Academy or Teen Titans or We Are Robin to their pull-lists will remain to be seen.
Creatively, I liked the structure, which designated the essential (the ones with "Part Something-or-Other" on the cover) from the inessential (the "tie-ins,") and how quickly it all played out...it was essentially a weekly story that all went down in a month or so, with the conclusion following the month after.
As a comic? Well, there was some pretty great art in it. I particularly liked that of Randolph, Janin, Di Giandomenico, Mauricet and, to my surprise, McDaniel.
The story, as I mentioned, had a few too many jumps in logic to be taken too seriously, even by the standards of a Batman comic. Jason, Tim and Damian all being captured by the police, the police not processing anyone, the high-tech, Marvel Universe-style super-prison...it required too many leaps of faith in the writers, which were never rewarded. I understand how King and company got there, as they likely wanted to include all of the Robins as quickly as possible, but I think a scene here or there or tweaks to the script could have achieved the same goals, without making readers have to do any cognitive gymnastics, like the fact that Damian could take out Batman James Gordon in one issue, and then get taken down by him in another.
It certainly seemed to set up plotlines for Grayson and We Are Robin, and while neither strike me as particularly promising, I don't regularly read those books anyway. Maybe the best things the story accomplished are two in number.
First, it offered a series of meetings between characters in roles that are temporary. Gordon's time as Batman is almost certainly coming to an end, so we get to see him meet Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne before he takes off his Batman suit for good, for example. We Are Robin seems to have an expiration date on it, with either sales or a change in the Batman line's status quo providing reasons to cancel it, so it was nice to see those kids interact with the other Robins. And, of course, it was interesting to see a big Batman line crossover sans Batman. I believe Lincoln March mentioned Bruce Wayne at one point, but the "real" Batman was otherwise absent, aside from, perhaps, as an abstract, inspirational force only occasionally alluded to.
Second, I thought the series went a long way toward establishing Duke Thomas as a character in the Batman universe. Diversity is an admirable goal in comics, and the Batman corner of the DC Universe has been whiter than most, having a great deal of trouble establishing any credible, cool black characters who have gained traction, despite several attempts, including Orpheus, Onyx, Azrael II and Batwings I and II. The Bat-office hasn't even created any memorable black villains, and so for a long time the most prominent black characters in the line have been Lucius Fox (who started appearing more often in The New 52, thanks in large part to the prominent role he played in Christopher Nolan's trilogy of live-action Batman films, I think) and pre-New 52 police officer Crispus Allen who was briefly The Spectre).
Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have done a fine job of gradually integrating Duke into the cast of the Bat-family, with a brief but memorable appearance as a little kid in the "Zero Year" storyline, before appearing as a teenager in Batman (his appearances in the Futures End as a young adult, officially-sanctioned Robin partnered to Batman was cool). He's become the closest thing to a lead in the ensemble We Are Robin, and here we get to see his smarts (he figures out Dick's secret ID...as well as Damian's and Bruce Wayne's), his fighting skills and his leadership skills. His one-on-one moments with Dick and Damian were both pretty great, and could prove quite key to the character moving forward.
I'm not sure what Snyder, We Are Robin writer Lee Bermejo or DC's editors have in store for Duke. There are already too many Robins–I'm still a little annoyed that Tim isn't Robin, as much as I've grown to love Damian–and only so many good bat/bird codenames out there (Harper Row took "Bluebird;" "Blackbird" sounds cool, but probably isn't a good choice for the only black sidekick..."Redbird" is maybe a possibility, though it sounds kinda lame). Besides, given that there's never been a Robin who wasn't a black-haired white dude–with the exception of one brief stint by a blonde, white girl that's no longer continuity/canon–having a black Robin would be a greater achievement. But, again, how is Duke supposed to shoulder Damian and Tim out of the way?
I guess we'll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, that character's development is probably the most interesting and important aspect of this event, and, depending on where he goes in the future, could make "Robin War" a relevant story going forward.