Although "Super Sons" doesn't debut until mid-February, the budding friendship -- and rivalry -- between Damian Wayne and Jonathan Kent is already emerging as one of the most important relationships in the DC Universe.
Sure, a reader might've been tempted to make a similar claim a decade ago about a different Robin (Tim Drake) and a different Superboy (Conner Kent), but this isn't hyperbole. This is a unique look at not only the slowly developing origins of the next generation of superheroes but also, and perhaps just as importantly, a new window into the friendship that in many ways binds the current generation: the one between Batman and Superman.
Theirs is a relationship that stretches back 65 years (or longer, if you count the "Adventures of Superman" radio show), forming part of the foundation of DC Comics' ever-changing, but not really changing, fictional world. They are, time and again, the World's Finest, no matter the plot demands of "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" or the insistence of Will Arnett's LEGO Batman. It's a friendship that has withstood the tests of time, their own "deaths" and, most trying of all, continuity reboots, from "Crisis on Infinite Earths" to the New 52.
With 2016's mid-summer launch of Rebirth, which reintroduced many elements absent since 2011's "Flashpoint," DC itself acknowledged something significant was missing from the New 52. High on that list is the bond between the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel, which is being reforged, and cast in a different light, in part by the shared trials of fatherhood and the combustible dynamic between their two sons.
That becomes fully (and humorously, and movingly) apparent in the recent "Superman" #10-11 and "DC Rebirth Holiday Special."
The two-part "In the Name of the Father: World's Smallest," by Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason, brings together the Boy Wonder and the Boy of Steel for the first time, providing a stark yet delightful study in contrasts. On one hand, there's Jonathan Kent (or "Smith," if you prefer), the earnest son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, who's as unsure of himself as he is of his burgeoning superhuman abilities. On the other, there's Damian Wayne, the calculating offspring of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul, who's as confident as he is petulant -- and as dangerous in his scheming (to say nothing of his fighting skills) as Jon is with his ill-timed bursts of heat vision or freeze breath.
After all, it's Damian's plan to "monitor the alien spawn's threat when absent from his father's restraint" that inadvertently brings the two into contact. Assigned by Robin to surveil Superboy, Nobody is forced to instead rescue him when a startled Jon accidentally starts a forest fire with his heat vision while searching for a Christmas tree. A desire for control collides with a lack of control, resulting in the abduction and sedation of the Boy of Steel. It's an alarming escalation, to be sure, but this is Damian Wayne we're talking about.
Confronted by Batman, who was tipped off by Nobody's hacking of the Justice League computer, Damian has a perfectly logical rationale for his activities: "Superman did spy on you for months before his sickening victory lap of hope to the world. ..." Robin is his father's son, after all. But so is Jon, who leaps to his dad's defense even while sedated and restrained. "My dad would never--," he insists before being interrupted by Damian, who responds, "No? My dad would."
Despite the always-looming shadow of his al Ghul heritage, Damian is his father's son. However, his dad would've known what inevitably follows the abduction of Jon Kent: the arrival of a very angry Superman. It's not often, if ever, we think of the Man of Steel as frightening; he's wholesome, compassionate, even a little dull. But at least twice in the relaunched "Superman," Tomasi and Gleason have tapped into the hero's anger -- a father's anger -- when someone endangered his son. It's something an immature Robin, and perhaps even the readers, hadn't taken into account.
"My love for him is more powerful than you!" Clark said in "Superman" #5, as the Eradicator sought to purge the human DNA from Jonathan and absorb him. In Issue 10, it's quite literally a burning rage, with Superman's eyes glowing red and flaming from his heat vision as he bellows a single, earth-shaking question: "What have you done with my son?!" This is a fire that can't be quenched with Batman's feeble attempt at reason, or the more pointed threat of a kryptonite Batarang. It's only the pleas, and an accidental (and newly developed) blast of freeze breath, from his child that cools the Last Son of Krypton, and brings him to common ground with the Dark Knight.
While the two fathers quickly see eye to eye over missed "first steps," and concerns about Jonathan's rapidly changing physiology -- "Do you think when we were kids ... our dads had this many questions ... raising us?" Clark asks -- the boys fail to bond, even over a shared love for animals. Or, rather, Damian's respect for "their ability to adapt." No, bonding will require something more than Titus, Alfred the cat or even Bat-Cow; it requires "boot camp," which may not be the most dad-like solution, but it is the most Batman-like.
Stripped of their superhero attire, the boys are left in a secluded mountaintop bunker, which they promptly escape, setting into motion a series of obstacles that, at least in theory, they're supposed to employ teamwork to overcome to find their "super-stuff" and then their way back home: the weather, an invisible Nobody, a game of tag involving Damian's man-bat --
-- or whatever Goliath is, a runaway train, a Superman-generated hurricane, and, well, you get the picture. Although the exercise doesn't go quite as Batman envisioned, it does bring Damian and Jon to a sort of mutual understanding, even if you don't believe it for minute. Just as his barely contained outrage over the accidental death of Goldie, the Kent family pet, betrayed his deep affection for animals, Damian's bristling at Jon's choices for topics of conversation in a rare quiet moment -- goodness, his father and friendship -- exposes the Boy Wonder's sensitivities.
We've seen that Damian's steely, occasionally homicidal, exterior is sometimes only thin armor to protect the boy beneath. While Jonathan wears his heart, and his insecurities, on his red-and-blue sleeve, Damian works fiercely to hide his. Despite his best efforts, he sometimes fails, such as when the boys finally return to the Batcave to discover their fathers the apparent captives of a shape-shifting soup made from the combined DNA of Mister Freeze, Killer Croc, Joker and Clayface. Tellingly, perhaps, Damian's chief concern is for Alfred (the butler, not the cat) rather than for his biological father.
And in the end it's Alfred, surrogate father to not only Bruce Wayne but to his wards, who -- over the protests of Batman -- praises the boys for finally coming together as a team to rescue them; he rewards them with their return of their capes. That's not to say Bruce and Clark don't bask in the warmth of their sons' accomplishment, or their own -- no matter how short-lived it may be.
Although Damian and Jonathan's first meeting ends as it began, with a fight -- this time over who gets to chop down which Christmas tree -- their next is far more cordial but every bit as revealing.
"The Last Minute," a short story by Tim Seeley and Ian Churchill in the "DC Rebirth Holiday Special," is fairly straightforward holiday fare, in which Superman realizes he hadn't purchased Jon's Christmas present. However, in just 10 pages it adds new facets to the relationships between Robin and Superboy and Batman and Superman. For instance, we learn that Damian and Jon have continued to talk by phone, with the latter longing to be like a "normal kid and, like ... play."
As Superman rushes from store to store in search of the in-demand Monk-E-Monsters Interactive System, we also learn that the Man of Steel is no match for the Boy Wonder, at least when it comes to last-minute shopping. Just as Clark thinks he's found the last Monk-E-Monsters in Gotham City, it's plucked from his grasp.
"Faster than a speeding bullet," Damian taunts, "but not faster than Damian Wayne. I've been taught to let nothing get in the way of that which I desire. In other words ... You snooze, you lose, Mr. 'Smith.'" It's hardly a dose of the holiday spirit, but it is Damian Wayne, after all. What comes next, following Christmas Eve dinner at the Kents, isn't completely surprising -- hey, it's a Christmas story -- but it's a little touching nonetheless. As Clark prepares to break the news to Jon that he wasn't able to find Monk-E-Monsters, the boy opens his gift from Damian to find that very video game system. Because Damian thought Jon "could benefit from some strategic training." Of course.
We can certainly wonder whether a holiday short story is in continuity, and just where (and why) Clark, Lois and Jon got those hideous matching Christmas sweaters. But the answer really doesn't matter, as it gives us a terrific moment, with Bruce apologizing to Clark for Damian stealing his thunder. "Actually, Damian gave Jon something I couldn't," Clark responds. "A friend. And a chance to feel like a normal kid."
It's an exchange stripped of suspicion and posturing; it's warm and genuine. It passes faster than a speeding bullet, however, as Clark invites Bruce to stay a little longer, which results in some good-natured ribbing. Y'know, like between two old friends.
It's unlikely the gift-giving and game-playing of "The Last Minute" will spill over into "Super Sons." By then Damian will have undoubtedly subdued and sedated the Christmas spirit. Besides, a holiday short story aside, Tomasi and Gleason have demonstrated that the pairing of Damian and Jon is at its most entertaining, and perhaps its most illuminating, when it's wrapped in tension and competition.
Beneath the fighting and the insults of "hayseed" and "twerp-zilla" is an intense rivalry like that so often seen between brothers (with Damian, at 13 years old, the older if shorter sibling). But instead of blood ties, they're bound by the expectations, and the burden, of legacy and the hopes for the next generation of superheroes. As Robin and Superboy begin to peel away their current layers of distrust and jealousy, they'll slowly become a little more like their fathers, and in the process are certain to reflect other facets of Batman and Superman's enduring relationship.
Of course, as we've already seen, Damian and Jon already have at least one aspect of that classic dynamic down pat.
"Super Sons," by Peter J. Tomasi and Jorge Jimenez, debuts Feb. 15 from DC Comics. Robin and Superboy's first meetings in "Superman" #10-11 and the "DC Rebirth Holiday Special" are all available now, in stores or via digital download.