Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Actually Essential Storylines: Robin

This week’s issue of 52 featured the origin of Robin Tim Drake, written by Mark Waid and illustrared by Freddie E. Williams III, the current artist of the Robin series. As far as Robin artists go, he’s probably not the definitive one, but he's otherwise a perfect choice. Sure, he hasn't drawn as many panels of Robin's adventures as Mike Weiringo, Tom Lyle or Norm Breyfogle (who drew the above image), but he may yet. Williams does do a nice Robin, one that manages to look like a teenager, something so many artist drawing him fail to capture.

The origin is fleetly told and leaves a lot out, as they almost all have so far, which is understandable—Waid's only got six panels to work with, not counting the title panel—and the narration jumps from the original Robin miniseries to Tim’s “One Year Later” adoption by Wayne.

But let’s turn our attention to the “Essential Storylines” bit of the origin, shall we?

Here’s what DC suggests…

BATMAN: YEAR THREE: I didn’t expect to see this storyline on this particular list. While it’s certainly an essential Robin storyline, it’s about the original Robin, Dick Grayson, and Tim Drake has next to nothing to do with it. Written by Marv Wolfman, the story featured Grayson returning to Gotham to face an increasingly obsessed and dark Dark Knight, while his origin is retold, rounding out the “Year” trilogy of Batman’s early years. The art is courtesy of Pat Broderick and John Beatty, with George Perez handling the covers. It was never collected, but ran from Batman #436-#439. I wonder if they actually meant to suggest Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying, which was collected into a trade (though it’s since gone out of print) and which dealt with the origin of Tim Drake.

ROBIN: A HERO REBORN: If you only read one Robin storyline, this is it. This trade collects two story arcs. The first is by Alan Grant, with art by Norm Breyfogle and Steve Mitchell, and it’s entitled—get this—“Identity Crisis.” It’s pulled from Batman #455-#457, and tells the tale of young Tim Drake, Robin-in-waiting, who is temporarily staying with Bruce Wayne and trying to earn the right to become Robin. When Batman and Vicki Vale fall into the clutches of the Scarecrow, Tim has to half-break his vow not to become Robin until Batman says he’s ready, going into action against the villain as Tim Drake rather than Robin (This is the story Waid and Williams reference in panel four, although they get pretty much all the details wrong).

Its followed by the five-part 1991 Robin miniseries, by Chuck Dixon, Tom Lyle and Bob Smith, a team that would become the Robin creators over the next few years (and Dixon would become the definitive Tim Drake writer, writing more stories of him than anyone else). To sharpen his skills, Tim travels to Paris to train under a Tibetan martial artist, but quickly gets sidetracked and involved in international espionage. He meets Lynx and blind martial arts master King Snake, as well as Lady Shiva, who helps train him. In addition to picking up his signature weapon, the collapsible staff, Robin picks up a sling, but it never quite catches on in future stories the way the staff does. Snake and Lynx will be back for several more battles, but, oddly, neither of them really catch on as Robin rogues. Lynx is even killed off—twice.

ROBIN: TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPH: This long out-of-print graphic novel actually contains two storylines, one by the Grant and Breyfogle team about Tim Drake’s parents falling prey to the Obeah Man (which is set before the “Identity Crisis” story in A Hero Reborn, and another by Dixon and Lyle that made up Robin II, which featured this Robin’s first fight against the man who killed the last Robin, the Joker. We’ll get to them below.

IDENTITY CRISIS: Tim’s father was killed by Captain Boomerang as part of an elaborate plan by Jean Loring to cover up the fact that she’d kinda sorta accidentally killed Sue Dibny (How she knew who Tim Drake was in order to target his father for assassination is one of several unexplained and unexplainable aspects of the series).

And here’s what they missed…

ENTER TIM DRAKE: Tim Drake made his first appearances in the Marv Wolfman-written story “A Lonely Place of Dying,” which ran in Batman #440-#442 and The New Titans #60 and #61. In it, Batman reaches his lowest point up until then, driven to the edge of sanity by the simmering anger and guilt over what happened to Barbara Gordon and Jason Todd. One young boy thinks the answer to his problem is simple—Dick Grayson needs to return to Gotham and become Robin again, because Batman always seemed happiest and effective when Robin was at his side. The young boy is Tim Drake, who had figured out the dynamic duo’s secret identity, and hunts Grayson down to sell him on his big idea. George Perez provided the cover art, and the interiors are by Perez, Jim Aparo and Tom Grummet. Though it marks the first introduction of Tim Drake, DC has allowed the trade to go out of print for some reason. (This is the storyline the first three panels of Waid and Williams’ six-panel origin refer to).

Batman and Alfred had something of a problem on their hands with young Tim Drake knowing the secret. No one was sold on the idea of him becoming the next Robin at this point, but the thought crossed all of their minds—Nightwing and even Alfred seemed much more open to the idea then Batman. Fortunately, Tim’s parents were out of town, as they usually were, and he started spending his time in the Batcave, using his nascent detective skills and computer know-how to help Batman out.

He would take his next big step toward Robin-hood in “Rite of Passage,” a four-part story arc running through Detective #618-621, by the Grant, Breyfogle, Mitchell team. While Tim helps Batman catch a cyber-thief by the handle “Moneyspider” (actually a recently introduced Batman rogue who was essentially the anti-Robin), his parents’ jet crash lands in Haiti, where they are captured by The Obeah Man, a nefarious voodoo-working corporate kidnapper. Batman swoops to the rescue, but arrives too late, and the Drakes are poisoned: Tim’s mother dies instantly, and his father is plunged into a coma (this is the story that made up the first half of the above-mentioned Tragedy and Triumph trade).

“Maybe it’s something we all have to though…before we put on the suit!” Tim thinks aloud to Alfred, but DC did something a lot different (and more dramatic) with this Robin, as Jack Drake eventually revived, making Tim the first Robin who had to actively lie to a parent about his nightlife and why he came home from hanging out with Bruce Wayne with bruises so often. Oddly, no writers to follow Grant ever put the Obeah Man to use, though you’d think he’d be a perfect villain for Robin, since he’s essentially his Joe Chill.

ENTER ROBIN: Following the “Identity Crisis” arc and his miniseries, Robin would make his official Gotham debut in Batman #465 by Grant, Breyfogle and Mitchell. The logo was temporarily altered to read Batman with Robin for this issue, and the story, entitled “Debut,” was a pretty busy done-in-one in which Robin takes to the streets solo, helps out Batman and Bruce Wayne and meets Commissioner Gordon, who has just proposed to Sgt. Sarah Essen.

In Batman #467-#469, the Dixon and Lyle team brought King Snake and Lynx to Gotham for a rematch with Robin, but the bad guys hardly stood a chance—This time, Robin has Batman in tow. Dixon and Lyle also handled the dynamic duo on Detective #644-#646 in a story called “Electric City,” and then in #647-#649, they introduced Robin to Cluemaster, who would essentially become his archnemesis, and vigilante her The Spoiler, who would become his girlfriend (and, later, his replacement).

The original Robin miniseries did well enough to generate two sequels by the same creative team. In Robin II: The Joker’s Wild, Batman leaves town just as Joker returns, and Robin must break his word to Batman to never engage the Joker in order to save Gotham. That was followed by Robin III: Cry of the Huntress, which returned the Huntress to Gotham in a big way. In a sign that these were books of the ‘90s, the first sequel miniseries had multiple variant covers for every single issue, each with a holographic sticker weaved into the artwork somewhere, while the second sequel miniseries had some sort of stupid slide cover that would morph the characters on the cover into one another, a gimmick which I never really understood. It also came pre-polybagged. (Man, I haven’t heard the word “polybagged” in a long time).

UNMASKED AND REPLACED: Having proven himself as Robin writer extraordinaire, Dixon oversaw the launching of the ongoing Robin miniseries, which saved us from any more crazy covers. He would pit Tim against villains like Cluemaster, Maxie Zeus and the General; team him up with Spoiler, Huntress and Green Arrow II; and introduce supporting characters and Robin’s car, the Redbird (Which was extremely lame, I thought). Robin and Spoiler would date off and on, and she would eventually have a kid (not Tim’s), and be welcomed into the Bat-family fold, training with Batman and learning Tim’s secret identity. While the monthly has had its moments, few if any of the stories have been great ones, and none really qualify as “essential” reading. Most of the big events in Tim’s fictional life occurred in the other Bat-books, or, more recently, outside of them completely.

After Dixon left, pretty much every new writer meant a new school and new supporting cast for Robin (although Dixon himself changed this up quite a bit too). Perhaps the most promising was Fables writer Bill Willingham, who oversaw the outing of Tim’s double-life to his father. Needless to say, it didn’t sit well with Jack Drake, who ends up pointing a gun at Bruce Wayne and ultimately forbidding Robin to keep being Robin. It’s been collected into the trade Robin: Unmasked!. Willingham also created a new villain for Robin, but whatever the writer had planned for Tim was ultimately sidetracked by the abysmal “War Games” event/story. While Tim was forced into retirement, former Spoiler Stephanie Brown temporarily took up the mantle as “The Girl Wonder,” and some of her stories are collected in trade Batman: War Drums.

ROBIN IN CRISIS: Robin would play a part in pretty much every big Bat-event and DCU crisis story from the moment he put his suit on. In Gotham, he helped Batman and Jean-Paul “Azrael” Valley fight off Bane and the Arkham escapees in “Knightfall,” and, when the crippled Batman went off to search for the kidnapped Shondra Kinsolving, he left Robin and Azrael in charge of Gotham during “Knightquest.” That didn’t go so great, and in “Knightsend,” Robin joined Nightwing, Catwoman and a freshly healed and re-trained Batman in reclaiming the cape and cowl from a bat-shit insane Azrael.

During the plague outbreak of “Contagion,” Robin was infected and very nearly died. After the “Cataclysm,” when Gotham was plunged into “No Man’s Land,” Batman forbid Robin from operating in Gotham, which was just as well, as the Drakes moved to Keystone City for a time. He snuck in once with the help of Superboy, Impulse and Lagoon Boy, and was later summoned by Batman to help him retake the city along with their other allies Nightwing, Azrael, Oracle and the New Batgirl.

During “War Games,” Tim was in retirement while a citywide gang war broke out for absolutely no reason, but he still fought off the gangsters who invaded his high school in plain clothes and helped out at Dr. Leslie Thompkins’ clinic for a while. Ultimately he suited back up, but couldn’t save his ex-girlfriend Stephanie from being tortured to death by the Black Mask (But wait, this dumb-ass story says it wasn’t Mask who killed her after all, it was Dr. Thompkins…man, if there’s one story I’d like to see Infinite Crisis wipe out of continuity, it’s this one).

On the national stage, Robin crossed staffs with Anarky in Robin Annual #1, part of the “Eclipso: The Darkness Within” summer event. The following year, when aliens known as Parasites invaded our dimension to feast on spinal fluid (and accidentally create new meta-humans known as “New Bloods”), Robin teamed up with Gotham thief-turned-New Blood Razorsharp (who, despite a few promising appearances since, was burned to ashes by Superboy-Prime in Infinite Crisis) in Robin Annual #2. Later, he joined other superheroes in a frontal assault on the Parasites’ lair in Bloodstorm #1.

During “Zero Hour,” Tim briefly met a young version of Dick Grayson as part of the chaotic chronal effect stemming from Parallax and Extant’s attack on the timestream in Robin #10. He played a fairly central role in the battle against the Joker and his Joker-ized hordes in Joker’s Last Laugh, and was even presumed dead for a while. In Identity Crisis, his dad was killed, part of an extremely crappy year for our hero. Identity Crisis followed right on the heels of “War Games,” so his ex-girlfriend and father were both murdered within a few weeks of each other, and to get him out of town post-“War Games,” Batman sent him to defend the city of Bludhaven, which was ultimately obliterated by the Brotherhood of Evil in Infinite Crisis. That’s not the only thing Tim lost in IC, of course; his best best friend Superboy was killed fighting Superboy-Prime.

TEAM PLAYER: After meeting Superboy in Superboy/Robin: WF3: World’s Finest Three and Impulse in Robin + Impulse #1, Robin would join the pair for the poorly named team endeavor Young Justice. After a few poorly-written appearances and a bad start, their monthly series would eventually hit its stride under writer Peter David and artists Todd Nauck and Larry Stucker. Originally they teamed with Wonder Girl, Arrowette and Secret, and operated out of the Justice League’s old Happy Harbor base, with Red Tornado serving as their chaperone, but their base would move around a bit and they’d add several new members over the years, including Empress, The Ray, Lil’ Lobo, Slobo and Snapper Carr. Only two books of the series have ever been traded, Young Justice: A League of Their Own (which collects the worst issues of the series) and Young Justice: Sins of Youth (which collected their incredibly fun crossover with the rest of the DCU). Robin was the team’s defacto leader, up until Wonder Girl was elected leader as the series drew to a close.

The team dissolvde during lame-ass Geoff Johns/Judd Winick collaboration The Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day, during which a renegade Superman robot went on the fritz and killed Lilith and Donna Troy.

Robin, Superboy, Impulse and Wonder Girl would reform under the guidance of B-Listers Cyborg, Starfire, Beast Boy and the just-reincarnated again Raven to form the latest version of the Titans in Teen Titans. The series has so far been collected into no less than six trades, all written by Geoff Johns and drawn by a variety of artists. The book was rather formless and directionless, and a lot of the character development extremely forced (Robin and Superboy became best friends over night, Superboy and Wonder Girl became boyfriend and girlfriend in even less time, Impulse became “dark” and mature as Kid Flash), but Johns turned the series around post-Infinite Crisis, and Robin is now the team’s leader with a new line-up.

ONE YEAR LATER: The most interesting aspect of this week’s “Essential Storylines” was the notably absent four-part “One Year Later” arc from Robin, which was collected with another story in Robin: Wanted. Written by the current Robin scribe Adam Beechen, with pencils by Karl Kerschel and Williams, this is the story that introduced Robin’s new costume (Click here to see how old some prominent elements of the “new” design actually are), turned Robin’s fellow sidekick Cassandra Cain into a stereotypical Dragon Lady villain (contradicting every single Cassandra Cain story ever written in the process), announced Bruce Wayne’s intention to adopt Tim Drake and chronicled Robin’s first meeting with Captain Boomerang Jr. I agree with DC; don’t bother reading this story. The first issue had a lot of promise, but it’s hard to care much about a story written and edited by folks who have apparently never read a single Batman story from the past ten years (In addition to making Cassandra Cain into a villain, Beechen also manages to make Oracle, Batman, Nightwing and Robin all look like idiots, and re-kill the already dead Lynx). You’re much better off checking out Batman: Face the Face, the “One Year Later” story from the pages of Batman and Detective, which similarly breaks the news of Bruce’s decision to adopt Tim. In the pages of Batman Tim met Bruce Wayne's alleged son with Talia al Ghul, and the two "brothers" didn't get along well at all. In this week's Detective #826, Robin gets a rematch with the Joker. And in Teen Titans, Tim's apparently been taking Superboy's death pretty hard, and has been devoting himself to clone him back to life.


Anonymous said...

This a reply to your Nov. 30th comments...

I live in Athens, but I have family in Columbus, so I frequent the Comictown on Morse Rd and Laughing Ogre about every other week. My brother does his poll at Laughing Ogre.

I've never heard of Discount Paperbacks. Do they have a lot of trades? Are they mostly used or new?

Caleb said...

Discount Paperbacks is on Chittenden near High on campus. It used to right on High Street and underground and feel like an NYC shop, piled high with old paperbacks, stacks of comic books and adult magazines. Construction moved them around the corner into a newer location. They offer 10% off just about everything--hence the name--and usually have boxes of 25-cent or 50-cent boxes to mine on the porch, plus stacks of graphic novels for 50% off. I used to live a block away, so that's where I'd go for non-Wednesday purchases. Definietly worth checking out, particularly in the summer when there are more back issues on the porch to delve through.

Anonymous said...

Sounds cool. I'll have to check them out after the holidays when I have some leisure money again.