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Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Grayson,’ Robin and fates worse than death

by  in Comic News Comment

This has turned out to be an eventful week for fans of the first Robin (and of the role in general), thanks to a Robin Rises one-shot, leading into the unveiling of … well, whoever’s going to wear the red vest for the foreseeable future, and Dick Grayson’s latest relaunch, a July-debuting ongoing series called simply Grayson, wherein the former Boy Wonder will start a new life as a super-spy.

With each of ‘em about three months away, obviously I’m not equipped to pass judgment on the merits of either. However, I can tell you what I think about Dick and Robin, how those impressions affect my snap judgments, and why you should — and shouldn’t — listen to someone like me.

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Created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, Dick Grayson debuted in Detective Comics Vol. 1 #38 (April 1940). As we all know, he and his parents were circus performers, but John and Mary Grayson were murdered by gangsters because the owner of the circus refused to pay protection money. (When my 5-year-old daughter learned about Robin’s origin, she wanted to know how exactly the Graysons were killed. She may never get to go to the circus.) Because Bruce “Batman” Wayne happened to be in the audience when the elder Graysons fell to their deaths, the adolescent Dick soon became the crime-fighter’s young partner, Robin the Boy Wonder.

Over the next few decades, superhero comics came and went, but Batman and Robin were among a select few that rolled on, stylistically unaltered despite all manner of adventures, societal upheavals and assorted innuendos. That started to change in May 1964’s Detective #327, when artist Carmine Infantino’s redesign involved drawing Dick/Robin as being slightly, but appreciably, older. Indeed, younger writers began writing Dick/Robin as a more conflicted teenager, especially as the 1960s wound down. The first Batman story, May 1939’s “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” started off with a young man finding his businessman-father dead. When writer Mike Friedrich reworked the tale for its 30th anniversary, in May 1969’s “The Cry of the Night Is Sudden Death” (’Tec #387), the son became an angry young man to whom Robin was sympathetic.

Not long afterward, Dick left Wayne Manor to go to college (in December 1969’s Batman #217), which kicked off an occasional series of Robin solo stories — although he continued to team up with Batman from time to time, and was a regular member of the Teen Titans. More importantly, however, that milestone aged Dick irrevocably. He might stay in school well into the 1980s, but he’d never be that apple-cheeked kid again. Indeed, the opening pages of New Teen Titans Vol. 1 #1 (November 1980) revealed that Dick had dropped out of Hudson University after only a few semesters. Over the next three-plus years, that seed grew into Dick’s eventual “graduation” to Nightwing, which happened in August 1984’s Tales of the Teen Titans #44. I’ve written before (and at length, of course) about how this made “Robin” into a legacy identity.

However, over the past 20 years, the character of Dick Grayson has sometimes struggled to find direction apart from either Batman or the Titans. Nightwing stayed with the Titans for 10 more years, until New Titans shuffled its lineup in summer 1994. That allowed him to return to the Bat-books for a couple of extended internecine crossovers before getting his own series in 1996. While Nightwing ran for more than 12 years — stopping only when Dick became Batman semi-permanently — it endured a handful of relaunches. Under writer Chuck Dixon, Dick was a policeman, but writer Marv Wolfman made him a gymnastics instructor and writer Peter Tomasi made him a museum curator. Upon becoming Batman, Dick stepped into his mentor’s civilian shoes as the face of Wayne Enterprises; but when Nightwing was relaunched in September 2011 as part of the New 52, Dick (under writer Kyle Higgins) was once again in the circus business. Accordingly, throughout its creative-team changes, Nightwing was perpetually trying to establish the character’s independence while simultaneously reminding readers that he was once Batman’s best pal.

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Now, whether you read all of that or just skimmed it — because let’s be honest, most of you know the history pretty well already — at some point you have to take a step back and think, what, really, is Dick Grayson supposed to do? He was Robin for just about 44 years. He’s been Nightwing for almost 30 years, which in terms of today’s fandom is practically longer. That sets up a real distinction between the Dick who was Batman’s sidekick — the kid who lost his parents and gained a world-beating big-brother mentor who made him his heir — and the Dick who’s struck out on his own.

See, for most of his existence, “on his own” has been a relative term. Until 1994, Dick was in some sort of well-defined relationship, whether it was giving Batman someone to talk to or leading the Titans. Tomasi expanded on this during his Nightwing run by establishing that Dick knew just about all the superheroes, from Titans and Justice Leaguers to various Green Lanterns and the members of the Justice Society. It was something of a counterpoint to the misanthropic Batman, who also knew everybody but didn’t necessarily invite them over for museum-warming parties. Maybe Grayson’s globetrotting setup will echo that, as Nightwing distanced itself from Dick’s superhero connections at its peril.

Indeed, DC has already undercut Dick’s grounding by fiddling with its overall superhero timeline. By pruning his Robin career (and the corresponding emotional attachment) dramatically, and possibly throwing out all of his Titans adventures, DC has left Dick with a set of skills and not a lot more. No wonder he’s turning to espionage. At this point, for the first time in 30 years, Dick is a character in search of a definitive identity. He’s Hal Jordan as The Spectre — because in 1999 there was absolutely no guarantee Hal would ever be a Green Lantern again, just like DC has next-to-no incentive to make Dick Nightwing again. It arguably has too many Robins, and it can’t kill Dick; but it can ship him off to various out-of-the-way corners of the DCU.

And the question remains: Who is Dick Grayson? Sadly, the answer seems not to matter. After 1969, the role of “Batman’s best pal” was divided between Alfred Pennyworth and James Gordon; and today we consider both to be indispensable. The reverse was true when Dick/Robin was a regular part of the Bat-books.

The problem is that Dick’s history can be split pretty neatly in two. Before New Teen Titans, Dick was on track to grow old as Robin. (The imaginary future of June 1978’s Batman #300 predicted this, and it was already the case in the alternate universe of Earth-Two.) There was no real issue with Dick growing uncomfortable in Batman’s shadow, because the two had been separated rather amicably for more than a decade. However, the NTT subplot changed all of that, and nowadays we might well compress all of that pre-Nightwing history into simply being “trained by Batman.”

These days it also means Dick is only one of many crimefighters trained by Batman. In the New 52, that includes Helena “Robin/Huntress” Wayne, daughter of Earth-2’s original Batman, who might have more of an emotional connection to her own father/mentor than any of her counterparts did with theirs. For a long time Dick’s relationship to Bruce was a unique combination of friendship, companionship and familial love, forged in tragedy and able to endure the trials of pain and loss. If he no longer has that, or if it’s been surpassed, Dick is starting to look more superfluous all the time. He’s getting a spotlight in the first issue of the newest Secret Origins series, coming out next month. I hope that’ll shed some light on his (revised) time as Robin, because after all of this he sure could use it.

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As for the next Robin, we might find some clues in this week’s issues of Batman (hey, what’s that Duke kid doing today?) and the once-and-future Batman and Robin. At this point the odds probably favor Damian returning, despite Tomasi’s attempts at deflection. It’s also possible that Damian could come back, albeit not as Robin, and live out his life peacefully, away from any endangering influences. That would honor his place in Bat-history (i.e., as a character conceived largely as part of Grant Morrison’s mega-story) while allowing everyone to move on from the violent end of his Robin career.

Still, part of me wonders if Grayson is just a feint, like the “Bart Allen Flash” smokescreen of 2007 that abruptly became the return of Wally West. After all, why put Batman through the five stages of grief if Damian’s just going to be revived? Instead, DC could actually make Dick Robin again, returning him to Batman’s side full-time. It’s a million-to-one shot, but I’m not discounting it entirely. It would definitely plug whatever Bat-sized hole the character’s had to deal with over the past 30 years — and there’s a New 52 precedent already, with Barbara Gordon going back to Batgirl after 20-plus years as Oracle.

Of the existing candidates, it’s more likely that Tim Drake would come back to the role. We know Harper Row is going to be Bluebird in Batman Eternal, but the New 52 version of Carrie Kelley is still out there, and I’d enjoy seeing a female Robin. Here are the odds I’d lay (for entertainment purposes only, of course):

  • Damian Wayne: 2-1
  • Tim Drake: 10-1
  • Carrie Kelley: 12-1
  • Harper Row: 20-1
  • Stephanie Brown: 25-1
  • Dick Grayson: 1,000-1
  • Someone entirely new: 50-1

Whoever it is, though, let’s hope this is the last round of Robin-recruiting. The Robin identity is special, thanks in no small part to the character who made it famous. For most of his existence, Dick Grayson was the guy who helped humanize the Batman; and as he grew up, Robin/Nightwing became one of the people who knew Batman best. Taking him away from all of that requires replacing it with something equally compelling, and I’m not sure Grayson’s setup will be sufficient.

Still, I come to this discussion as someone who’s seen a lot of that development firsthand, and therefore may be prejudiced by that experience. Younger fans no doubt have their own preferences about Nightwing and Robin, and they may be just as happy with DC moving Dick out of the immediate Bat-orbit. (In that regard it’s funny to think that with Nightwing and Teen Titans canceled and relaunched, and Damian killed, Jason’s been the most stable ex-Robin of the New 52.) Heck, there’s probably a significant portion of fans who think Batman works best without a Robin, and are content to ignore this whole process. If it were up to me — and this is the point I mentioned earlier, where you don’t have to listen to me — I’d have rolled everything back forty-some years, to a point where Dick was still years away from even considering a Nightwing identity, and no one had even heard of Jason Todd or Tim Drake.

Again, because Robin’s going to be coming back, whoever he or she is needs to be considered pretty carefully, because I’m not sure fans are going to put up with another death-and-revival cycle. Specifically, the next Robin needs to be around for the long haul, and needs the sort of close relationship with Batman that will enrich both characters. (Before the New 52 relaunch, Dick could call Batman out on his foolishness and have the experience to back it up. In the current Batman Beyond comics, the Dick of the future acts similarly.) The next Robin also needs to demonstrate the potential to grow into the next Batman — but the attitude to recognize that Batman’s going to be around for a while, and will need the support of a dedicated partner. Notwithstanding Tim Drake’s solo series (launched after Azrael/Batman kicked him out of the Batcave), “Robin” is by nature a supporting character who works best in conjunction with Batman. That was the default setup from 1940 to 1969, it informed the 1984 Robin-to-Nightwing transition, and it’s undoubtedly part of the upcoming Robin revival.

Finally, the next Robin needs to be someone who can grow old in the role. This is probably implicit in all of the above, but it’s worth repeating. Sure, Batman can trade pointed quips with Alfred in the Batcave, and can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Jim Gordon against the evils of Gotham — but only the youngster in the red-and-yellow costume personifies the fun of being Batman. Without Robin, Batman might be a grim, gothic avenger, meting out two-fisted justice in various shades of gray and black, scaring the bejeezus out of criminals, and looking very cool indeed; but with Robin, Batman is unquestionably a hero. That’s what Dick Grayson did for Batman for all those years; that’s what DC would do well to remember when it considers Dick’s future; and that’s what the next Robin needs to live up to, for as long as he or she needs to.