Sunday, May 22, 2022

On DC's 2009-2011 Red Robin

DC Comics launched a Robin ongoing series starring the third Robin Tim Drake in 1993, following a trio of successful miniseries, and it ran for 183 issues over 16 years, plus sundry annuals, spin-offs and specials. That meant the character was strong enough, and the narrative momentum intense enough, that the Tim Drake was able to survive the introduction of a fourth Robin, Damian Wayne, in 2006, his title surviving another three years before cancellation, when it became clear that Damian-as-Robin wasn't going to be a temporary state of affairs after all; indeed, when Batman "died" in 2008's Final Crisis (and/or during Grant Morrison's occasionally quite messy Batman run, depending on whether one read both books or one or the other), and Damian became the official Robin to Dick Grayson's new Batman, the move seemed as permanent as anything in super-comics.

 DC would have to find something else to do with Tim Drake.

They settled on making Tim take the Nightwing path of "graduating" from the role of Robin and taking on a new superhero identity of his own...sort of. Though the "Nightwing" name and costume were then  up for grabs, with Dick becoming Batman, they went with "Red Robin," a somewhat fraught name (it is the name of a fast food restaurant chain, after all) that came with a pretty cool grown-up version of the Robin-costume designed by Alex Ross in 1996's Kingdom Come (In that story, which, in DC Comics tradition, became a "world" in the reemergent Multiverse, Red Robin was the name Dick Grayson took on as an adult, donning a red and black costume that seemed to be a compromise between the original Robin costume and a Batman costume).

I remembered thinking this was a terrible idea. 

First, I'm more than okay with their being more than one character with the same name, something the two Green Arrows of Oliver Queen and Connor Hawke normalized for me (not to mention the 7200 Green Lanterns, including a bunch of Earthlings who could all wear rings and use the name at the same time). There's no reason that Tim Drake couldn't be a solo Robin and/or appear with the Teen Titans as Robin while Damian was Robin to Grayson's Batman, I thought at the time.

But if Tim had to take a new name, "Red Robin" seemed a lame one (I was and remain in favor of "Redwing" or "Redbird"). In addition to the fast food thing, the name and costume appeared in the comics before they became Tim's. 

First, resurrected second Robin Jason Todd wore the suit in the pages of Countdown and, in pre-New 52 continuity, Todd and Tim weren't exactly friends. Todd attacked him (wearing and Earth-2 Robin suit, for some reason) in the pages of Teen Titans, and later tried to kill him in the pages of 2009's Battle For The Cowl; Todd was at this time depicted as an unrepentant murderer, more of a Punisher-type vigilante than the tie-'em-up-and-leave-'em-for-the-cops sort represented by Batman and his family of followers.

The costume was also briefly adopted by Ulysses Hadrian Armstrong, AKA The General, a Chuck Dixon and Michael Netzer-created Batman villain that writer Fabian Nicieza used as Tim's archenemy during his run on Robin

So by the time Tim picked it up, it made about as much sense as him going by The Red Hood, Anarky or Blue Beetle, 2009 Caleb thought. 

It turns out, writer Christopher Yost, who launched the new Tim-starring Red Robin series in 2009, had an answer for that. "'Red Robin' isn't a hero," Tim narrates while fighting a trio of League of Assassins assassins on a Paris rooftop in the opening story arc, "The Grail." "I can cross lines that Robin can't." The identity, like the suit, came to him pre-sullied, providing some distance from the Batman brand (although not that much, I'd say, given that it just adds an adjective to "Robin") and the connotations of bad guy-ishness that Todd and Armstrong brought to the identity. 

I of course skipped the series when it was originally published, despite my affection for the Tim Drake character (I was only ever a sporadic reader of the Robin ongoing, something I'd rectify now if I could do so easily; I was awfully bummed when DC stopped reprinting Robin after just five volumes). The Batman line outside of Morrison's own titles—Batman, followed by Batman and Robin, followed by Batman Inc—at the time was a mess, with Morrison apparently telling the "official" Batman story, while all the other titles reacted to it the best they could, seemingly not knowing what exactly Morrison had planned more than a few issues ahead of what readers knew. 

Also, the Red Robin character in the DCU spun out of  the events of Countdown, and who on Earth wanted to read that

A decade and change later though, I was curious about my old friend Tim Drake, and it seemed like an okay time to revisit the era of Batman comics. Following Robin, which was canceled in April of 2009, Red Robin was launched in August of that year, with Yost attached as writer, Ramon Bachs as pencil artist, and Bachs, Art Thibert and Guy Major inking the first arc. The run lasted just two years and 26 issues, with one major creative overhaul about halfway through, when Fabian Nicieza returned to the Tim Drake character. 

Having now read the entire series in rapid succession, it's hard to guess what exactly went wrong, although it's pretty clear the DC Universe was quite messy throughout the book's publication, and much of its plotting seemed  captive to the events in other books. Even read in isolation like this, the series' four collections—The Grail, Collison, Hit List and 7 Days of Death—read like a tertiary title in a publishing line, rather than an ongoing concern with a star in some command of his own destiny.

While reading, I was constantly reminded of other stories and series—Infinite Crisis, "War Games",  Batman: RIP, Battle For The Cowl, Final Crisis, Darkest Night, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, Nicieza's own Robin run—and though these were usually alluded to in dialogue or narration in a way that was meant to ground the book in the overall, overarching narrative of the DC Universe, it simply reminded me of how much was happening at once and how much I had forgotten. Like Superboy and Bart Allen being dead, for example, or presumed dead, and then coming back to life. 

Yost begins the series with an arc entitled "The Grail," a five-part story that fills the first collection. Tim is separated from all of the now late Batman's other allies in his belief that Batman Bruce Wayne is really still alive somewhere. This is not an unreasonable belief in the DC Universe, although it's treated as such. 

"But this time...this time is different," Dick-as-Batman explains midway through the arc. "We're not like the others. We're not gods, or aliens, we don't have special powers. Bruce was just a man, Tim. Superman brought Bruce's body to us. We buried him. And now we have to let him go." 

It's one of the reasons given for why Tim takes off on his own, pointedly turning his back on allies like Dick, Alfred, Wonder Girl Cassandra Sandsmark and Spoiler Stephanie Brown, all of whom he meets with in one way or another before he leaves town. He's convinced he's right, and seeks proof, with an obsession that leads him to be darker and more violent than usual...that, or maybe it was hearing the Anti-Life Equation during Final Crisis, as he explains to Cassandra at one point. 

"But you know what? Before the equation took hold, I remember thinking..." he explained, "...I remember thinking that there wasn't much of it I disagreed with."

So yeah, whichever of the multiple reasons Yost gives, he wants us to know his Tim is in a dark place. 

For the first arc, Tim is travelling through Europe in his new Red Robin costume, fighting crimes as they are presented to him, while looking for something...vague. Proof that Batman's still alive, although we won't see that proof manifested until Tim finds it, and even then its never explained why Tim thought to look for it, why he thought to look there, or why he was convinced Batman was still alive (There's a retcon answer given in Red Robin #12, which flashes back to a scene in Red Robin #1 and fills in a blank: apparently while trashing a room in Wayne Manor in frustration, Tim came across a picture of one of Bruce Wayne's pilgrim ancestors, which looked so exactly like Bruce that he became convinced Bruce was lost in time. The evidence he finds to further support this is a cave painting of a bat apparently made by Bruce; this would all be in the pages of The Return of Bruce Wayne. Life would have been a lot easier for Tim if he just showed everyone that pilgrim picture and explained, but it seems like Yost didn't know about it at the time he wrote the earlier issues of the series. One gets the sense Yost didn't know to use this bit of evidence in the earlier issues of the series though, as perhaps he didn't yet know about the plot of Return of Bruce Wayne). 

Meanwhile, Lucius Fox's daughter Tam Fox is in Europe, trying to find Tim and bring him back to the United States for some ill-defined reasons (Tommy Elliot, AKA Hush is currently masquerading as Bruce Wayne, and everyone seems to be going along with it to protect Batman's dual identity), Vicki Vale is looking for Tim as she tries to put together the fact that Bruce and his sons may all be superheroes, and members of the League of Assassins are being hunted and killed on jobs by various other assassins with spider motifs.

The payoff to all of this occurs in the second trade, Collision, penciled by Marcus To and Talent Caldwell, the latter of whom draws the issue of Batgirl included (which is written by Bryan Q. Miller), and four inkers. The League of Assassins is being hunted by a superior group of assassins, the Council of Spiders, who regard fighting and killing as a game, and the League as the very best prey (As to why they are all named after and have various spider-themes and powers, that's a coincidence that Yost never explains). 

Ra's al Ghul takes Tim into his confidence, and gives him carte blanche to lead the League against the Council. The arch-fiend's interest in Tim began with his shared belief that Batman might still be alive, but it transformed into an alliance thanks to the pressure of the Spiders.

Tim, naturally, betrays Ra's and cripples the League through their computer systems, which he was given complete access to. This leads into a an immediate retaliatory plan by Ra's, in which he seeks to simultaneously assassinate everyone Bruce Wayne cared about while also going after the Wayne fortune. It's up to Tim to protect everyone and save the day, which he does by proving one way in which he is superior to even Batman.

This first half of the series is a bit shaggy, but is overall a pretty nice portrait of Tim as Batman's successor, coming into his own and proving himself worthy by taking on and defeating one of Batman's greatest enemies—twice. It also gets Tim out of Gotham and globe-hopping for the first half of it, keeping him out of the way of the Batman/Batman and Robin narrative, until ultimately bringing him back to Gotham to save everyone and best Ra's a second time there.

This leads to a pretty squicky ending, where Ra's reveals to Talia that this was all a test to prove Tim's worth, and now that he is sure of it, "He will produce a worthy heir." I...don't know. Not only is Tim a little young for Talia, but the whole use-my-archrival-to-produce-an-heir plan didn't really work out with Damian, so one might think Ra's would have abandoned it after Damian joined Batman's side in their ongoing war. 

This collection, and Yost's run, ends with Tim wearing a newly modified version of the Red Robin costume, one that brings it a little bit closer in line with his previous Robin costume. For all it's faults, this wouldn't have been a bad place to end the series but, it turns out, this is only the halfway point.

Nicieza takes over the title with The Hit List, and, to a degree, he seems to pick up plot-points where he left them during his Robin run, including the presence of a second character named Lynx, former Anarky Lonnie Manchin being in a coma but hooked up to computers to make him something of a living computer entity that can help Tim by acting as his own personal Oracle, and Armstrong acting as the new Anarky, one with a renewed obsession with killing Tim Drake based on events from Robin

There's an element to the record-scratching about this, mostly because these issues seem to follow older Robin issues more closely than they do the preceding Red Robin issues (and Nicieza doesn't seem to be entirely sure what to do with some plot points, like Tim's blossoming almost kinda sorta romance with Tam, which develops into a close working relationship, but never gets defined romantically, to the frustration of the characters seemingly as much as the readers). 

Nicieza's seeming uncertainty with what to do with the character and the book is mirrored in the story, the first arc or so of which has Tim settling uncomfortably into a working relationship with the new Batman and Robin, where Damian makes it quite clear he's not welcome (in fact, the two will come to blows overs Tim's keeping of a secret file on Damian). Tim makes a list of things he needs to figure out, including where to live, who to work with, what to do and so on, and then Nicieza has him answering that slowly through the course of his two volumes (it's not until the penultimate issue of the series that Tim gets a new headquarters of his own, in the theater that Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered outside of).

It's difficult to blame Nicieza too much for the uncertain nature of the back half of the book's run, however, as he doesn't seem to have a lot of control. Big moments that seem like they should be bigger in the book—the eventual return of Bruce Wayne to life, for example—are acknowledged, but not the focus. It reads weirdly now, given the book was set-up with Tim's search for Bruce being a major part of its original premise, but, when Tim finds the proof he's looking for, he simply turns it over to other heroes (off-panel) and has nothing to do with the search itself; Bruce just shows up alive in an issue of Red Robin and the pair take off their cowls and hug (To be fair, there was a Bruce Wayne: The Road Home: Red Robin #1 one-shot special by Nicieza and Bachs, which perhaps gives Tim a more central role in the story of Bruce fighting his way through time against the Omega Sanction to return to his life in the present, but it's not collected here and I haven't read it yet; it's collected with a whole suite of similar one-shots in Batman: Bruce Wayne—The Road Home).

Here too the feeling that this is a less-important title in a line of comics is evident; what seems like it should be a central part of the story, narratively, actually occurs elsewhere, and is only reacted to second- or third-hand here. 

Nicieza has Tim engaging in rematches with Scarab and Anarky, beginning a Batman/Catwoman-like dalliance with Lynx, fighting Damian, approaching Cassandra Cain, tackling a Russian oligarch referred to as a Lex Luthor wannabe and his interest in an evil version of the Internet and teaming up with the Teen Titans, with whom Damian is a current member. He also teams up with Red Star and Batgirl, and meets a mysterious immortal that's not Ra's al Ghul that seems to have some designs for him. 

Marcus To handles the pencils for Nicieza's run, while Ray McCarthy and MarkMcKenna ink it. 

The series ends with an issue that seems like it was written a long time ago to be used as a final issue, in which Tim orchestrates the death of Captain Boomerang, the man who killed his father in Identity Crisis. He sets up an elaborate plan in which Boomerang would escape from jail, find what he thinks is an incredible power source, and follow a bunch of predictable steps that will ultimately lead to his death, which Tim watches but doesn't actively cause, just passively sets up, allowing Boomerang multiple chances to make the right rather than the wrong choice, and thus sparing himself.

Tim ultimately doesn't go through with it, and ends up having to intervene to save Boomerang's life repeatedly. While Dick-as-Batman praises him, Bruce-as-Batman doesn't, as he figured out what Tim did. "You saved him tonight, Tim," Batman says, "But what about tomorrow...?"

The series ends with a panel of Tim staring off over the Gotham skyline and narrating dramatically:

It's my city now if I want it to be. 

Not Dick's. Not Bruce's. Mine. 

But to make it that way make it right...what will I have to become? 

So many choices...

...but what will be my decision...? 
We'll never find out, that being the final panel of the series. 

Red Robin ended the same month that all DC comics being published in summer of 2011 ended, in order to make way for the new New 52 line of comics...and the new continuity that accompanied them. 

In that continuity,  ad hoc as it was, Tim would fare particularly poorly, as the timelineof the DC Universe was officially compressed down to just five years, in which time Batman still had four Robins, including Tim (Stephanie Brown was, at least initially, never a Robin in the new continuity). The result was that his time with each would have been extremely short, a year at the most, and that's if the time was divided evenly, as it probably wasn't, Dick's career as Robin lasting so much longer than those of Jason, Tim and Damian. 

In the new continuity—since abandoned, with Death Metal leading to a "new" continuity that seems to be the old one minus much of The New 52—Tim never went by just "Robin", but was always "Red Robin," a name he chose to distinguish himself from the late (but later resurrected) Jason Todd. Tim would have a new Red Robin costume and appear mostly in the pages of Teen Titans, with occasional appearances in the Batman books.

Eventually he got a new version of his original Robin costume back and played a central role in Detective Comics, where he spearheaded Batman's "Gotham Knights" initiative. Eventually, Tim got his old, original, pre-New 52 origin story back, as well as the name "Robin." 

As with most of the other characters, it seems like we're now pretending much of the New 52 continuity didn't happen, but it's, as ever, unclear how much of what we've read really "happened" or not; now, for example, I couldn't tell you if Tim was ever meant to have gone by the name "Red Robin" or not, and in the 2009-2011 series is now canon or if it's been excised. 

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