Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Robin: Lotta Tragedy, Little Triumph

The penultimate issue of Robin, number 182, is about as disappointing and destructive to the character of Tim Drake as it possibly could be. I have expressed my favoritism to Tim before now, and continue to be of the opinion that he is not only the best Robin to have worn the costume, but one of the most decent, solid and promising superheroes in the whole DC universe. And that opinion is very much in spite of the year Tim's had, and the twenty-some-odd pages written by the usually superior Fabien Nicieza.

As a Faces of Evil tie-in, the issue pretends to focus on the new(ish) villain Anarky (he's so anti-establishment he even spells it wrong) but mostly just gives him a scary cover. Anarky, it turns out, is not the old computer-hacking electric-baton cheeseball of the '90s, but even the more grating and flat nemesis of Ulysses Hadrian Armstrong, the boy General who would plot military coups and trap Robin in his parents' basement with a lion. (Some of those 180 issues were pretty rough.) Armstrong has mysteriously aged and buffed up, and is now inciting chaos and mayhem among gangs, cops, mercenaries, and the other violence oriented groups that make up Gotham City.

Now for the past few months, since Batman's kind-of-but-not-really death and disappearance, Tim has been struggling to fill Bruce's shadow and maintain order in the city. They've shown him grow increasingly Machiavellian, repeating such phrases as "manipulate the gangs", "control the patterns" yada yada yada in an attempt to rig the odds in his favor. In the absence of Batman the writers have systematically stripped away the most important moral tenets Tim Drake inherently has as well as those taught to him by Batman leaving an unrecognizable Robin who has more in common with Azrael or Jason Todd.

In the issue Robin has manipulated events so that the gangs, the police, the erstwhile heroes and the main villain are all assembled in one city block, and then proceeds to lay the smack down on the bad guy. But things go badly. Bombs start exploding all over the place, preplanted and overlooked by Robin. Anarky's mysterious tape recorder keeps repeating things like "rise up brothers" and "there is no hope but hopelessness" which of course causes the sheep-like gangs to start killing each other. And then in the cliffhanger cliche moment (literally, Armstrong dangling over a building top, holding on to Robin) Tim must choose between saving the Spoiler (Stephanie Brown, his one-time lover and fellow hero) or Officer Harper (his new Gordon-like tie to the GCPD) from a final planted bomb.

This scenario has been seen, particularly in Batman and Robin stories, hundreds if not thousands of times. And, generally, Batman finds a way to save them both, or change the game and bend the rules. He does the impossible, because anything less is failure and he doesn't accept failure. But as Robin is forced to choose between a friend and a lover, he realizes that isn't the choice...the truth is that Stephanie lied to him by doing some of her own manipulations to try and make him better (um...did she learn NOTHING from the hundreds of people that died as a result of her War Games?) whereas Officer Harper listened to him by finding and bringing Armstrong's family to the scene of the crime in an attempt to play on his emotions and get him to stop.

So he decides to save the chick who has done right by him most recently. Yeah, that's real in-character.

Not only that, but he doesn't realize she brought Armstrong's brother and sister along with his parents, and that they're still in the car next to the mailbox-bomb. So they die. But hey, at least Gotham City knows she has a protector, he muses, as he does a fist pump while standing triumphant on the skyline.

The temporary fact of Batman's absence is a scenario unlikely to be repeated in upcoming years and ripe with possibilities to develop the character of Tim Drake. But instead of development, as is so often the case in comics these days, the writers and editors went for destruction, making Tim increase the risk factor and develop his own rules. Anyone who has followed his growth for years knows that with Bruce not around he actually errs the other way, becoming too cautious and relying on his significant detective skills rather than guns-blazing showdowns.

At the end of the issue he visits Jason Todd in prison, whom he put there, and gives him the Justice League teleportation code so that he can break out. Cause that's what Robin does--bends rules, breaks laws, and acts without thinking.

If this is a hint of what's to come in Battle for the Cowl, I despair. With the impending cancellation of his own title, I was sure the writers would reinforce the authoritative and skillful maturity of Tim Drake, not mercilessly annihilate everything good and likable about him. Shame on them.

But the great thing about comics is that in a few weeks, with a different writer, it's highly likely that my Tim will be back. And I love the very idea of Robin so much, the damaged but resilient light to Batman's heavy grimness, that I'll keep reading.

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