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Robin: Year One (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Chuck Dixon is one of the definitive Batman writers, particularly in the context of the nineties. Dixon enjoyed a long and well-regarded run on Detective Comics in the nineties, serving as one of the three writers driving the Batman franchise – along with Doug Moench and Kelley Jones on Batman and Alan Grant on Shadow of the Bat. Dixon even got to stay involved with the Bat titles for a little while after No Man’s Land in 1999, when the entire line had a massive turnover in talent.

However, while Dixon is an incredibly influential writer on Batman, he had as much of an influence on Dick Grayson. Dixon was the writer who handled Dick Grayson’s first on-going Nightwing series, building off a miniseries written by Denny O’Neil. Dixon worked on Nightwing for seventy issues between 1996 and 2002. He even returned to the title with collaborator Scotty Beatty after its one hundredth issue to write Nightwing: Year One, an origin story covering the former Robin’s transition into his new superhero persona.

Swinging into action...

Swinging into action…

As such, it makes a great deal of sense for Dixon to collaborate with writer Scott Beatty on Robin: Year One, a prestigious miniseries spanning four extended issues and featuring wonderful artwork from Javier Pulido. Pulido’s distinctive artwork lends itself to vibrant colours and dynamic expression, as demonstrated during his wonderful stint as part of the rotating art team on The Amazing Spider-Man. If ever a comic book lent itself to Pulido’s style, Robin: Year One is it.

Dixon does some nice work trying to explain the dynamic between Batman and Robin, and even to argue why Robin is an essential part of the mythos. Most interestingly, he, Beatty and Pulido try to integrate the arrival of Robin with the atmosphere and mood established by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli in Batman: Year One.

Suit up!

Suit up!

Robin is a tough character, in many respects. An established part of the mythos, Robin is still divisive among certain fans of Batman. It’s easy to understand why. On a purely practical level, Batman is teaching a young boy to put his life in danger, and indoctrinating him into a perpetual and never-ending war on crime. Batman made his own choices. Robin is not old enough to vote or drive a car, putting him into life-and-death situations seems reckless.

There is, of course, a counter argument to this. This counter-argument suggests that Robin is an essential ingredient of the larger Batman story, and his presence requires suspension of disbelief that is no greater or lesser than any other “core” part of the Batman mythos. After all, this is a comic about a grown man dressing up as a bat to cope with the murder of his mother and father. Why is a teenage boy in a silly outfit any more unreasonable?

Facing Two-Face...

Facing Two-Face…

Is Bruce Wayne maintaining his secret identity any more likely than Robin thriving in the field? If the Joker can survive every attempt to kill him, surely the same narrative contrivance can be used to keep Robin from dying? If we accept that Bruce can train himself to deal with any and all of the problems he faces, why can’t Robin do the same? If Gotham endorses Batman, why not Robin? These are all reasonable observations.

On the other hand, there is a tendency to conflate criticisms of Robin with a rather narrow-minded “verisimilitude” arguments, to suggest that anybody with any objections concerting the character of Robin is simply objecting to how the character isn’t “realistic” and damages the entire fabric of the wider world of Batman. While there are critics of Robin who make this argument, it is a little disingenuous to suggest that this is the only objection against Robin.

A cold-hearted so-and-so...

A cold-hearted so-and-so…

It is possible to accept the fantastical elements of a comic book world, but still insist on some measure of consistency of character. While readers can accept that Robin won’t get too badly hurt too often, that is not the real problem. The real problem is what the character of Robin says about Batman and the people around him. It says that Bruce is okay with the possibility that Robin could die, even though the readers know that’s very unlikely. It says that Gordon doesn’t mind Batman taking a kid into battle.

These are understandable character concerns – they do a lot to undermine the idea that Batman, Alfred and Gordon are heroes. After all, while the reader know that the kid will survive to the end of the issue, the characters have no way of knowing that. If they do, it breaks the narrative. So, the other characters are aware that there is a risk that this child could die in service of Batman’s ideal, and they are all okay with it.

I guess the Joker's on him...

I guess the Joker’s on him…

It is to the credit of Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatyy that they tackle this idea head-on. While Robin: Year One opens with Bruce accepting Dick Grayson’s decision to wear the costume, both Alfred and Gordon are uncomfortable. Alfred describes the decision to put Dick Grayson in costume as “a most injudicious decision on the part of Master Bruce.” During one rooftop conversation with Batman, Gordon voices his discomfort. “I don’t get it,” he remarks. “Is he your son?” 

Gordon does accept that he trusts Batman, and that he doesn’t know all the facts. Gordon advises his partner-in-crimefighting, “It’s your call. It’s always your call. But if any harm comes to him… God help me… I will drop on you from a great height.” It’s a beautiful illustration of Gordon’s role in the Batman mythos. Operating the Bat-signal, Gordon effectively bestows legitimacy on Batman. While Alfred is too close to look at Bruce objectively, Gordon is able to make these sorts of calls – serving as a check on Batman.

That argument doesn't have much currency here...

That argument doesn’t have much currency here…

It is also to Dixon and Beatty’s credit that they doesn’t avoid any of the difficult questions that come with a character like Robin. It is easy to write a story where everybody worries about Robin, but Robin turns out okay. It’s easy to dodge bullets when you have an artist on your side. Dixon and Beatty instead play the worst-case-scenario with Robin. Half-way through the miniseries, Robin is captured by Two-Face. He is blamed for the death of a hostage, and then brutally beaten to within an inch of his life.

It’s a moment that puts Bruce’s decision to recruit a teenage sidekick in sharp contrast by forcing him (and the people around him) to face the potential consequences of that decision. Dixon and Beatty are smart enough to know that any origin story exploring the relationship between Batman and Robin needs to acknowledge the possibility that Bruce’s young ward could die in a horrible fashion. Tackling the issue head-on is a very clever decision from the two writers.

Bat man!

Bat man!

The story does hit a bit of a snag there, though. After he is almost killed by Two-Face, Bruce makes the reasonable decision to ground Dick Grayson. He bans him from playing as Robin. Dick reacts about as well to this as you might expect, and runs off to fight crime in his own way. The inevitable outcome is that Bruce realises that it’s safer to have Dick doing that as part of the family, with the resources and support structure of Batman to back him up.

This is a reasonable decision, but it does raise some uncomfortable questions that Dixon and Beatty aren’t ready to answer. Would Bruce Wayne even consider retiring from crime-fighting if he though it would help Dick adjust? Would he give up a little of his crusade in order to accept some of the responsibilities of fatherhood? The conclusion reached at the end of Robin: Year One is that the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Bruce Wayne cannot stop Dick Grayson from being Robin.

Clipping Robin's wings...

Clipping Robin’s wings…

This is probably the best way to handle the issue of Robin within the framework of Robin: Year One. After all, the story begins after Dick Grayson has become Robin. It is perfectly reasonable for the story to suggest that what has been done cannot simply be undone. At the same time, it does feel a little bit like the story glosses over the larger questions around the relationship between Bruce and Dick, resolving the issues that come up in the context of the narrative, but evading the larger questions.

At the same time, Robin: Year One does make a compelling argument for Robin as part of the mythos – suggesting that Robin’s bright colours exist to balance the growing darkness of Batman’s on-going war against crime. “Still,” Alfred reflects, “the addition of Dick Grayson into the Master’s crusade has made a difference in him. I do believe I saw him smile. There have even been occasions in the pantry when I could just discern the muffled sounds of laughter echoing up from that dreadful cavern beneath the manor.”

Hanging on in there...

Hanging on in there…

There are lots of other lovely touches as well, from the first meeting of Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon through to the comic’s clever justification of James Gordon’s rather outdated-in-2001 tobacco pipe. “I traded cigarettes for a pip to spare my heart,” Gordon explains, suggesting one more example of how the world of Batman: Year One is in the process of transitioning to the established world of Batman.

Dixon, Beatty and Pulido do a wonderful job presenting a comic book world that is transitioning from the gritty urban realism of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One towards the more vibrant and surreal atmosphere of mainstream comic books. There is still an element of grit to be found in Robin: Year One, but Dixon, Beatty and Pulido coat it in bright colours and hokey goofiness. In some respects, it is almost as if the grit and grime of Batman: Year One were being filtered through the energy and imagination of a child.

A chill in the air...

A chill in the air…

For example, the comic very cleverly pits Batman and Robin against decidedly goofy adversaries – emphasising the “pop crime” aspect of a Gothma that is reinventing itself. The same Gotham that created Robin gave birth to Firefly or Cluemaster or Killer Moth. Chasing Killer Moth in his Mothmobile, Robin muses, “So, is it me… or the crooks getting lamer as we go?” Describing the villain’s gimmick, Batman reflects, “He’s not very good at it. Most of his clients are in jail. The rest want their money back.” 

At the same time, there is just a hint of that edge to Robin: Year One. The first issue concentrates on the character of the Mad Hatter. This makes a great deal of sense, given that Robin: Year One is the story of a child sidekick, and the Mad Hatter is a villain from a children’s story. However, despite the character’s silly design and his quirky mannerisms, Robin: Year One makes it clear that there are stakes at play.

Mad as a...

Mad as a…

It turns out that the Mad Hatter’s quirkiness disguises a sinister agenda. He is trading brainwashed children – little blonde girls – to the “President of Rheelasia.” Allowing a representative to inspect the haul, he boasts, “My goods are cleaned, pressed and ready for wear.” It’s a rather chilling twist – demonstrating that even a character who seems goofy and harmless can still speak to particularly primal fears.

Even a “lame” baddie like the Man Hatter can still represent an unspeakable horror, despite his childishness. After all, many of society’s more potent fears revolve around children, and having to confront the reality that the world is not as safe as we would like them to believe that it is. Just because something is vibrant and colourful and goofy doesn’t mean that it can’t be profoundly unsettling and horrifying. Batman’s primary opponent is a clown.

It's a toss-up...

It’s a toss-up…

Perhaps the biggest snag with Robin: Year One is how the story handles some of the bad guys. The second issue (ha!) features an attempt to retroactively create a long-running conflict between Two-Face and Dick Grayson. This has been an element of Chuck Dixon’s take on Harvey Dent since the Zero Hour crossover in the nineties, and Robin: Year One allows Dixon to bake this into the origin story. Having Harvey brutally beat Dick Grayson into an inch of his life retroactively creates a strong dynamic between the pair.

Robin: Year One tries to explain this connection. On hearing that Batman has a side-kick, Two-Face muses, “So what was one is now two.” Dixon puts a lot of emphasis on Dent’s fixation with the number two – rather than duality. So he has two goons who finish each other’s thoughts. “The two of ’em,” the first goon starts. “Are twice the threat,” the second finishes. The implication is that Dent is at least partially fascinated with the idea of there being two superheroes working in a team.

Lost girls...

Lost girls…

However, there are other possibilities hinted at over the course of the comic. Discussing Dick’s balance of work and life, Alfred muses, “He’s had no need to develop the masquerade that Master Bruce felt necessary. He has not divided his entire life into two aspects.” Perhaps that’s the reason why Dent works as a contrast. While Dent’s duality reflects the struggle between Bruce Wayne and Batman, Dick Grayson has no such struggles. Perhaps Dent is jealous?

After all, Dixon’s portrayal of Harvey Dent is decidedly unsympathetic. He has Dent beat a child half to death with a baseball bat. More than that, Dixon and Beatty seem to reject the idea that Dent might be redeemed. When it comes to flipping the coin, he cheats. When he flips the coin to decide whether to hang a victim or not, the coin lands on “or not.” So Dent drowns the man instead. “You gotta be careful of the terms when you place a bet,” he advises Dick Grayson. “You gotta be real specific.”

Scarred tissue...

Scarred tissue…

It’s quite similar to the logic that Harvey Dent would use in The Dark Knight, suggesting that the character is a hypocrite and the coin simply justifies the evil he really wants to do – he just refuses to admit. So perhaps Harvey Dent’s anger with Robin has nothing to do with his obsession with the number two or duality. “You were the only choice for a comrade-in-arms?” Two-Face asks at one point. “I was the best choice,” Grayson responds. Coming right before the beating, it seems designed to rile former D.A. Harvey Dent.

Of course, this portrayal of Two-Face is controversial. It doesn’t fit particularly well with more sympathetic interpretations of the character. There is no good side to this character – only a choice between two terrible alternatives, with the unmarked side of the coin allowing the pretense of human decency. As a rule, based on his other work on the character, Dixon doesn’t tend to write sympathetic antagonists. Even within Robin: Year One, the comic presents Mr. Freeze as a money-hungry sociopath rather than a vaguely sympathetic anti-hero.

A shot in the dark...

A shot in the dark…

That said, there is something quite appealing about comparing and contrasting Robin and Two-Face. Robin is the young boy saved by Batman, turned from a life of crime and able to channel his anger and grief into something positive and constructive; Two-Face is the former ally that Batman was unable to save, the former crusader who is now a hardened criminal. It feels like the dynamic is undercut slightly by the decision to push Harvey Dent past the point of possible redemption, but it’s still an interesting hook.

Robin: Year One might have its flaws, but it’s a well-told story that manages to craft a compelling picture of Dick Grayson. It demonstrates why Chuck Dixon worked on the Batman line for so long, allowing the writer to show his understanding of the protagonists and the world that they inhabit.

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