Friday, August 24, 2012

First Impressions: Robin

A couple years back I did a post about the history of the Robin character(s) and how more than most in comics he’s always represented providing different generations of fans with what they both want and need; here’s how I found my way with the Boy/Teen Wonder.

My first remembrance of Robin is Burt Ward hamming it up on the 1960’s Batman live action series which I saw via syndication, which truth be told is how I came to know Batman period, as I watched that before I was a regular comics reader and don’t think I saw any of the movies in the theaters until “Batman Forever.” However, while a general cultural awareness probably fueled as much by Tim Burton as anything else clued me in that Batman himself was a far darker and more serious character than Adam West portrayed him at a fairly young age, Dick Grayson remained to me the smiling kid who made the ridiculous quips, as opposed to the emerging adult Marv Wolfman and George Perez were evolving him into in New Teen Titans at the time I was growing up.

The first Batman comic I consciously remember reading was Batman #425 (I think this is either Chris Sims’ first or favorite Batman comic if I recall correctly). I got it randomly as I did all comics when I was young (six in this case), so I was experiencing it pretty much in a vacuum, not knowing until years later that it was the last issue before “Death in the Family” (or what “Death in the Family” was). All I knew was that in this story, decisively darker than the TV show Batman I knew or any other I’d experienced, Robin was kind of a nutjob, having apparently let a bad guy fall to his death in the previous issue (shown in flashback) and having to be essentially pulled off another one here by Batman. This Robin was angry, didn’t make jokes, and seemed on a hair trigger to say the least.

Now I of course know this was Jason Todd, originally a Dick Grayson clone but by this point a soon-to-be-aborted attempt at creating a more edgy Robin for the post-Frank Miller Batman. However, at the time, given that visually he looked identical to the comic book interpretation of Robin I’d always been familiar with, I just assumed they were the same character, and over time something had made him snap (I don’t think I even knew then that Robin was an orphan, as his and Batman’s origins were never really addressed on the kid-friendly TV show, for obvious reasons).

I was the rare comic book-reading kid who had no real interest in Batman. I honestly never bought a run of any of his titles regularly until Grant Morrison came onboard. I checked in for stuff like Knightfall and whatnot, but never stuck around. I’ve since gone back and read a lot of the classics in trade, but to this day, I don’t really consider Batman one of “my” characters, for whatever that’s worth (not much, I’d presume).

The point being that I didn’t try to untangle the knot of how Burt Ward/Dick Grayson Robin became Jason Todd Robin in my mind and really never gave it much thought until one of the covers from the Robin II: The Joker’s Wild series (the first issue, I think) caught my eye at the shop and I grabbed it. I was intrigued enough to snap up Robin III: Cry of the Huntress as it came out and then go back to collect what I’d missed of Joker’s Wild, along the way getting to know Tim Drake, who would become very much my Robin of choice.

I think I’m cribbing a bit from my own aforementioned history of Robin here, but while Dick Grayson was created for the rough and tumble young men of the Golden Age and Jason Todd was meant to reflect the hardening youth of the 80’s, Tim Drake was less and imposing physical specimen and more of a thinking lad’s Robin, intended to appeal to a generation increasingly captivated by video games over athletics and a society where brains had gained value over brawn. I was definitely one of those kids who was ok at sports but better at being clever, so Tim Drake was a Robin I could get behind.

Indeed, Tim Drake seemed very much like a wish fulfillment character to me and likely many other slightly nerdy boys in Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle’s excellent Robin III. This kid, not the biggest or baddest dude on the block by any means, uses his wits to take down the guy who essentially is just that—KGBeast—and along the way gets the nice teen girl, spends time with and outwits to a degree a hot adult lady (The Huntress), and kicks butt, all while both his birth father and adopted mentor are “out of town” or otherwise occupied; he’s Ferris Bueller with hacking skills!

I followed Tim Drake into Dixon and Tom Grummett’s Robin ongoing series, where I really started to understand for the first time the chronology of the character as I was also broadening my grasp of overall DC mythology at the time. The Zero Hour crossover issue of Robin gave me the chance to actually see Tim team with young Dick with even a mention of Jason thrown in to really drive it all home. From there, I swung over to Zero Hour proper for my first significant exposure to Dick as Nightwing with an actual awareness that this was the original Robin all grown up.

While Tim Drake was the Robin I could most relate to as being like me (still is), I developed a separate kind of affection for Dick Grayson both in his original incarnation and more over as Nightwing in a way that emphasized my aspiration. He actually reminded me of my cousins.

My aunt on my mother’s side has six kids who were all born at least 10-15 years before me, so as a result, when I was young and went to holidays, I was surrounded by these teenagers and twentysomethings who were the coolest and almost most intimidating people in the world to me. In particular, my male cousins, two of whom were (and remain) twins, were the guys I dreamed of growing up to be; while I was still nerdy and awkward, they were all athletic, wise cracking and popular. All three of my aunt’s sons wrestled in high school, which played no small part in leading me to do the same.

Anyhow, I saw the relationship and dynamic between Tim and Dick as being very much how I idealized the one I had with my cousins: the smart and eager younger kid learning from but remaining fairly in awe and the shadow of his impossibly cool “big brother.” Like Tim, I was (and still am) pretty satisfied with the person I’ve grown into, but I’d be lying if there wasn’t some small part that still wanted to be Nightwing someday.

Following my hiatus from and return to comics, Robin wasn’t a going concern for me anymore as a solo character. I followed Tim Drake via Young Justice and Dick Grayson via back issues of New Teen Titans and both grew to be among my favorite characters—Dick more than Tim, probably due to Superboy fandom—I had no interest in either of their solo books.

By the time Damian Wayne came into the picture, I was pretty far past my period of Robin being a point of view character for me and more into appreciating the concept over whoever was behind the domino mask (worth noting, I was not paying any attention during Stephanie Brown’s stint, so I’m not omitting her out of disrespect so much as ignorance; please don’t come to my house crazy Stephanie Brown fans, I dug her as Spoiler and Batgirl). Robin has come very much to be the tail end of “Batman and” for me, even not being an avid Batman guy. I suppose just as I’ve never been attached to Bruce Wayne but as a fan of comics am intrigued by Batman as a concept and archetype, I’m interested in what Robin adds to the mythos as a counterbalance, whether Dick as the light to the darkness, Jason as the rededication to the stagnation, Tim as the deliberate thinker to the ask-questions-later figure of vengeance, and even Damian as the unruly child to the reluctant adult.

Robin has always forced Batman to do or be something he’s not naturally (lighten up, hold back, stop and think, be a father) and thus made him a more interesting character. I rather like that every few decades we get a new one and indeed look forward to seeing who we get next.

I also wonder if some kid is confused that Damian doesn’t look or act like the guy from the Teen Titans cartoon.