Respect to the creators here on opening up on several wordless pages of action in a row. It would be easy for that to not work but Djet’s manga-influenced action is fluid and balletic. A rush of fluid lines and dramatic, impressionist color that gives an explosive sense of motion and depth.
For my money, Djet is the star of the show here. He makes this spooky world of nightmares and monsters come to vibrant life with rich colors and cartoonish and expressive characters. There are plenty of incredible colorists out in the world but there is often something special when an artist is able to control all aspects of their work. By having total control over all of the art, Djet’s lines and colors work together to blend into something incredibly rich. There’s a dreamlike quality to the brush strokes that make up the backgrounds and panel lines that perfectly suits this surreal world.
With this week’s release of the newest Blue Beetle series, featuring the most exciting character find of 2006, Jaime Reyes, it seemed like a good time to look back on Jaime’s original series and earliest days as a hero.
First introduced within the pages of the event crossover Infinite Crisis, Jaime is credited as a creation of Keith Giffen, John Rogers, and Cully Hamner, the creative team that launched Jaime’s series just a few short months after his debut. It’s a testament to the strong work on the character, starting with Hamner’s striking design, this third iteration of the Blue Beetle has existed largely unchanged in the 16 years since he first appeared.
Comics have been looking for the next Spider-Man for 60 years. Marvel had a few successes that never quite stuck, until; perhaps Ms. Marvel and the second Spider-Man, Miles Morales. DC has had an even tougher time making a version that fits into their world of larger-than-life heroes, despite the historical presence of teen hero sidekicks. Milestone’s Static had a long lasting appeal thanks to a groundbreaking animated series, even his endurance has been tested due to rights issues with Milestone. It can be argued whether his separation from the DCU proper is a benefit or hindrance to the character in the long run.
The closest DC Comics proper has gotten to capturing that youthful energy is Jaime Reyes, the third Blue Beetle. Although his publication history has been spotty since the cancellation of his nearly 40 issue original series, DC has tried on multiple occasions to make Jaime a fixture of their line. He was a significant supporting figure in two animated series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and Young Justice,though his footprint has been notably smaller since the initial push the company put behind him following his debut.
Many Spider-Man impersonators have failed because they fail to grasp what made Spidey such a landmark series. It wasn’t just his youth– It was that he provided a new storytelling perspective. That teen perspective brought a fresh spin on superhero stories, where the challenges of adolescence were given equal weight to saving the world. Titles that have come after that simply tried to replicate the exact formula never had staying power.
The most significant teen heroes to come after have hit because they provided similarly fresh perspectives. Static took that formula and provided the black teen experience. Ms. Marvel lifted up the experience and challenges of Muslim communities in the 21st century. They connected with an audience with a bold and clear voice and mission
Blue Beetle succeeds for the same reasons. Jaime is not simply a Peter Parker clone. He lives in Texas, not far from the Mexican border. He is not a science genius. He coasts along, putting in his minimal effort to survive high school without raising too much attention.
It is, obviously, questionable how well Giffen and Rogers, two white men, capture the experience of being Latino in Texas and America. Perhaps the lack of authentic voice with the lived experience has been the missing piece in making Blue Beetle ever fully break through in a lasting way. It is encouraging that GraduationDay sees someone of Latino descent writing the character for the first time (and is even being published concurrently in Spanish). As another white man, I am not equipped to speak to how authentic their perspective is. Certainly, Giffen and Rogers take great pains to honor Jaime’s origins and unique perspective.
The first arc of the series flashes back to the days immediately following Jaime discovering the Scarab that grants him his powers and to one year later, when he returns from the events of Infinite Crisis. The split story manages to establish the world Jaime has left behind while simultaneously illustrating how the emergence of his powers throws everything into chaos. As the book goes on for its first year and a half, Jaime discovers the truth of the Scarab, the potential of his power, and the crushing weight of responsibility and aging.
Though Jaime’s origin has been slightly revamped a few times already thanks to DC continuity shenanigans, the core elements of Jaime’s world are remarkably consistent and that is because the original series’ themes are so excellently developed and intertwined with the character.
Paramount among those themes is the importance of family and community. These ideas are threaded through every element of the story. From Jaime’s friend Paco’s involvement with the “Not-A-Gang” group of metahumans known as The Posse, Brenda’s abusive relationship with her father and complex machinations of her semi-villainous aunt, La Dama, to the Reyes family, community and its complexities play an important role.
It’s worth noting that, although it’s never mentioned overtly and is not a major element of his character, Jaime is clearly at least culturally Catholic, as many Latino communities in the Southern United States are. Having spent time in a largely Latino Catholic church, the fundamental importance of that community of faith to the culture of a town cannot be overstated. The Church is a central place of community gathering.
The centrality of a larger community is evidenced time and again throughout the run.
It’s that sense of community obligation that spurs Jaime into heroism. It is not any tragic inciting incident. We see in the first issues where that drive for service comes from. Immediately, Giffen establishes Jaime’s parents as hard working and compassionate. Jaime begs his dad to let him spend time after school working in their family autoshop, where Mr. Reyes spends long hours. But his father refuses. He works hard so that Jaime doesn’t have to, so that he can be a kid as long as possible and have a better future. His mother is a nurse, and our first introduction to Jaime is him taking care of his younger sister as both parents are away at work.
In the first issue, Jaime’s father is complaining about one of his employees, Luis, and about how unreliable he is. He admits that if it wasn’t for Luis’ wife and daughter and how they rely on Luis’ job at the shop, he would have let Luis go already. When Jaime disappears for a year and returns, he discovers his father was shot protecting Luis after someone came to collect on a debt that the man owed him.
This familial duty and compassion directly impact how Jaime approaches his new superpowers.
Almost immediately, Blue Beetle becomes an icon to the people of El Paso and the surrounding area, particularly its immigrant community. As Paco explains, Blue Beetle is important to the community. “We don’t get many heroes down here. Don’t underestimate how much that matters.”
Jaime is bolstered by his friends and family. He doesn’t hesitate to share his secret with them. It never even crosses his mind. He wants to be honest and open. It is that vulnerability, that compassion and love for his family that compels him to protect the people of El Paso as best he can.
One of the most emotional moments of the run comes when Jaime remembers the events that caused him to be lost in space. After the events of Infinite Crisis, he is left in the wreckage of a space satellite when his Scarab teleports him away from the Green Lantern. He begs for the heroes to save him, but no one can see or hear him.
When the memories come flooding back, he screams out in the present-day, surrounded by his family, “Don’t let me die alone!” Jaime’s greatest fear is not just death, but total isolation.
The enemies Jaime faces represent a threat to the larger community of El Paso and its people, or are in some way broken and isolated from their own.
La Dama, Brenda’s aunt and the criminal queen of the El Paso underworld, collects young people with magical talent and isolates them from their families and friends. She manipulates her charges to believe they are safe and cared for when in reality she uses them to build her own mystical army.
The monstrous and tortured Bottom Feeder believes he is cursed and forsaken by God. He lashes out on a deadly rampage to punish others and sees Blue Beetle as a herald of armageddon.
The Reach aliens pose as a benevolent species who seek to further the cause of humanity when in reality they plan to exploit and enslave.
The strength of a healthy community empowers us to be our true and fullest selves. La Dama’s involuntary detainment of mystical teens poises them to be weapons at her disposal. The Reach attempt to take over other humans as more fitting hosts who will do their bidding. They infect others with Scarab devices in an attempt to turn them into mindless weapons. But Blue Beetle is able to convince them to fight their programming, having already convinced his own Scarab to defy its killer instincts. Jaime’s heroic impulse to serve others is a constant battle that illustrates the strength of his will to do good for people against the Scarab’s call for vioence.
As any good coming-of-age superhero story, all of these struggles also teach Jaime something about growing up and reflect the inner turmoil of being a teenager. As a teen, every anxiety and fear and heartbreak feels like the end-of-the-world. Those emotional stakes become literal in the world of superheroes. That becomes particularly apparent when the alien race known as The Reach come on the scene.The Reach were the original creators of the Scarab that granted Jaime his power. When they arrive on Earth they convince society that they come in peace to usher in an enlightened age of peace and prosperity. Their true aims are known only to Jaime.
Only Blue Beetle can see their tech and nobody believes his warnings. It’s a potent allegory for the teenage experience. You know your experiences are valid, that you have a voice worth hearing, but no one believes you because you are a child.
Above all, there is a sense of vibrant fun throughout the series. Jaime is in over his head at every turn. He doesn’t know how to fight. He relies on his quick wits, his begrudging mentor Peacemaker, and the alien scarab fused to his spine to get him out of trouble.
That fun is encapsulated perfectly by the series’ premiere artist, Cully Hamner. Hamner eschews any traditional grid in favor of overlapping collage of panels.
It makes for a dynamic use of space that gives breathing room to scenes. Even a page with 9 panels, like this one from issue 1 doesn’t use a grid. The frenetic and unpredictable layouts make us feel the pain and panic.
Hamner’s iconic design presents a hero with a stunning silhouette and a slick and futuristic look that still manages to homage the previous versions of Blue Beetle. It is a testament to Hamner’s graphic sensibilities that no one has even attempted to make any major modifications or updates to the instantly classic look.
Rafael Albaquerque, who takes over as primary artist starting at the end of the first year, brings the same spirit with a more relaxed and fluid linework, as opposed to Hamner’s very deliberate use of space. It offers a similar level of excitement and unpredictable action.
The series’ primary colorist, Guy Major gives the book a bright and vibrant palette that set it apart from much of the grimmer stories that came out in the “One Year Later” period. The optimism and bright-eyed view of the world is perfectly captured by Major’s sunny, blue skies and verdant backgrounds.
Blue Beetle remains, almost 20 years later, a stellar example of the teen-superhero formula. As DC appears poised to once again make a push for Jaime Reyes as a banner character for their line across media (and they should!) they would do well to return to these original books as a guidepost on what made Jaime so instantly appealing. The foundations for an enduring and beloved character has been well laid.
You can buy Blue Beetle by Keith Giffen, John Rogers, Cully Hamner, Rafael Albuquerque, Guy Majors, and others from DC Comics in various collections, most recently Blue Beetle: Jaime Reyes Book 1, which collects the first year of stories.
The big releases this week were probably the final issue of Chris Cantwell’s Iron Man (which I just started this week), a new Immortal X-Men, World’s Finest, and Nightwing. Of course, I am not talking about any of those. Because I’m reading the latter 3 and I plan to do something more cohesive about Iron Man.
For a look at other books outside the big 2 this week, check out The Beat’s round-up of indie books that came out yesterday, featuring my first contribution to the site.
The biggest news in the comics-related world this week was probably the death of Kevin Conroy, the iconic voice of Batman for more than 30 years. I have toyed with eulogizing Mr. Conroy here on the site but ultimately, I find myself with a lack of words to describe his impact on me, his contributions to the world of animation. Here is what I posted on my personal Facebook page and on Twitter:
Heartbreaking to hear the news about Kevin Conroy’s passing. Because he was most connected to a superhero cartoon, the immensity of his talent as an actor is undervalued and underestimated. Conroy’s performance as Batman is immortal not because of Batman as a concept but because he made Batman so profoundly, painfully human. Kevin tapped into the loss and rage and sorrow that propels Batman. He became the indelible voice of Batman because he recontextualized the character into a complex man with emotional range. Conroy’s Batman could be frightening and intense. He could be soft and compassionate. He could be vulnerable and colder than ice. I have no doubt that Batman has become a cultural icon because of his seminal work. To understand the depth of that humanity I invite you to read Kevin Conroy’s short memoir and reflection on finding Batman in DC’s 2022 Pride Special. A painful, uplifting, and honest reflection. RIP, Batman.
If you’ve not read his contribution to the DC Pride special, DC made it free to read in his memory here.
Kevin’s death, from an aggressive and rapid cancer, hits especially hard given the recent loss in my own family under similar circumstances.
Obviously, my love for Batman and the Animated Series (and the DCAU it spawned) is well-documented. Kevin Conroy is to thank for so much of that. You can read my series of Batman essays from earlier this year at this link. And if you are interested in revisiting the DCAU, you can journey along with my watch-through from about ten years ago on my old tumblr (Which may become a replacement for my Twitter if that place keeps sinking).
Well, let’s get to the funny books.
Star Wars: Han Solo & Chewbacca #7
Marvel. Marc Guggenheim, Writer. Paul Fry, Artist. Alex Sinclair, Colors. Joe Caramagna, Letters. Mikey J Basso, Danny Khazen, Mark Paniccia, Editors.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this book. But there’s also nothing particularly compelling to sink your teeth into. It does very little to justify its existence and fails to leverage the iconic characters at its center in any meaningful or interesting way. Oh there’s plenty of Easter eggs, we’ve got Ponda Baba and Greedo and Maz Kanata. But none of them do anything that gives us more information about them that fills out this universe.
It’s the worst type of Star Wars publishing. Playing with the old toys and adding nothing new.
This is a prison break issue, which can be a fun trope for a sci-fi story. There have been lots of good ones. God knows I loved the scenes in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and the prisonbreak is one of my favorite Outlaw Star episodes. But to make it compelling there needs to be some investment in the stakes. What are the characters going through in this jail? How is the Imperial system degrading the people it incarcerates?
We are set firmly in the darkest moment of the Galaxy’s history, a period being explored brilliantly by the television show Andor, but Han Solo and Chewbacca fails to grapple with any themes at all.
October has been a whirlwind of a month with some intense emotional highs and lows and incredibly heavy workloads and alas, once again, this little website fell to the wayside. The Phillies made an improbable push to a mere 2 games from winning the World Series, which was tremendously exciting and soul crushingly disappointing. We lost my aunt, and spent time with family. The day-job has never been more demanding. It’s all I’ve been able to do to stay afloat!
Outside of this week’s comics I’ve been continuing my reading of early 80s Spider-Man, though I switched over to Spectacular and that is markedly less good than Stern and DeFalco’s top-notch work on Amazing. Black Cat just doesn’t work in these early years, too desperately clingy to Spider-Man as a defining character feature. I’ve also been catching up on the world of Batman, particularly Meghan Fitzmartin’s work on Tim Drake. Belen Ortega, who did the art on the Urban Legends Robin story? Superstar! Need to see more of them stat.
I’ve also gotten all caught up on IDW’s TMNT to prep for an upcoming interview, after being quite behind. The Mutant Towm story and status quo I find, frankly, to be dreadfully boring. But the last few arcs leading up to Armageddon Game have been excellent, particularly the story that introduced Venus. Shout out to letterer Shawn Lee, whose work on TMNT has been nothing short of incredible. Every issue he does something that stops me in my tracks. If there are “superstar letterers”, Lee is definitely one of them.
The Armageddon Game is shaping up to be an extremely fun event, too. The art on the event series is fantastic and they brought in CUDDLY THE COWLICK. What’s not to love?
Enough rambling…Onto the main event: The comic books I’m not reading! I somehow accidentally made this week’s column for MATURE READERS ONLY, so no kids allowed.
The hard part about trying to run a website with no monetary incentive is how often things like a “real job,” or “making sure a child doesn’t starve,” interfere with lofty goals and scheduling plans. So, generally, my brain is mush from a major crunch in the office and various illnesses and a virus parade, courtesy of my wife’s class of first-graders, and my son’s daycare. Essentially all I’ve had the energy to do is catch up on classic issues of Amazing & Spectacular Spider-Man. Where I have discovered that Denny O’Neil’s tenure is among his worst work, and Roger Stern is an all-time great. I’ll be back soon with more breaking news from the late 70s and early 80s.
All that to say–after a missed week last week, and a delayed tie-in to the new Tim Drake series (which I have still not had the chance to read) No Context Comics is back. It’s a fun week with many different feelings.
That Texas Blood #18
Chris Condon & Jacob Phillips, Creators. Pip Martin, Color assists
My favorite part of this column is reading books that are deep into a run. I have much less fun reading a number 2 or 3. Early in the runs books are usually trying to tackle heavy exposition to set up their concept or moving past the initial introductions of their number one. So it’s too soon to subtly catch people up but you don’t have enough information to understand what is going on. That’s not a rule but it is something I’ve already gotten a sense of. First arcs in particular have a rhythm that makes it extremely difficult to understand anything midstream. Many writers are also still feeling out their characters and vision.
But at 18 issues, a series has found its footing and a level of confidence in its storytelling and characters. After the first year, the world begins to feel authentic and lived in, even without heavy or explicit narrations. Even a new reader gets a sense of the creative team’s voice and point of view.
That confidence is evident all over this issue of That Texas Blood which sees what I assume to be a climactic and series-defining moment. Even without the context of everything that has happened to the two pairs of characters at the center of this issue’s murder mystery story, the weight of these events and relationships are excellently crafted. Writer Condon fills the scenes between the two seniors with unspoken emotion and relationship. Jacob Phillips gives the two a tender and subtly intimate physical relationship that speaks volumes about how these two relate to one another. They have both lived a life and, perhaps, are on the cusp of coming together to move beyond past pains to move forward together.
I’m not sure why there is a blizzard in Texas, but the discordant weather provides an unsettling and eerie atmosphere, accentuated by the cool and muted colors. The warmth surrounding our apparent leads for this issue as they relax within the warmth of their home is a flickering thing, marred by tragedy and the crimson of bloodshed.
This is the kind of issue that gives you just enough information through its storytelling–both in script and art–to make the events engrossing while inviting readers to go back to understand more about its characters to fully appreciate.
On its own, though, this is a great example of serialized comic book storytelling. It stands alone while no doubt being even more affecting with full context. It doesn’t punish someone who leafs through it on a whim by rattling off character names or summaries. It presents an intimate portrait of its characters and an emotional fallout. Another to add to my list of books to go back and read.
Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty # 5
Jackson Lanzing & Collin Kelly, Writers. Carmen Carnero, Lines. Nolan Woodard, Colors. Joe Caramagna, Letters. Kaitlyn Lindtvedt & Alanna Smith, Editors.
This issue really doesn’t work for me but it has very little to do with the structure of the story or the storytelling. I think Lanzing and Kelly do a strong job of presenting the stakes–both emotional and global–within the text of the issue itself. Carnero’s art is gorgeous and expressive. I just don’t like this plot. That’s not usually what this column is about, but I am going to go ahead and complain anyway. I think it is silly and undermines Bucky Barnes to have him not a product of Cold War Russian espionage but actually a product of a centuries-old mystery war between a shadowy ur-government controlling world events.
Furthermore, it just contradicts years of Marvel continuity beyond just Winter Soldier’s elegantly simple story.
I don’t think that we add anything by giving Bucky a physical manifestation of his brainwashing to shoot. But we lose plenty–Bucky being warped by the realities of war and violence. It removes an allegory for real world veteran trauma and pain. Men come back from war twisted and broken, unrecognizable to themselves and loved ones.
Perhaps it is an attempt to keep Bucky and Steve on opposite moral ends as Winter Soldier’s rough edges have been shaved off a bit over time. But it just seems tone deaf to what made Brubaker’s reinvention of Bucky compelling. “Secret cabal controlling world conflict” is also a bit tired as far as Marvel plots go. It is also extremely silly to say Captain America’s shield is actually a symbol for a secret cabal…It’s just the American flag.
Plot aside–and it’s a big aside–Lanzing and Kelly’s storytelling mechanics work well here. The Marvel recap page is always appreciated by this writer, and the conflict between our heroes is both logical and seeded naturally from the very first page to make the final moment of the issue feel both inevitable and dramatic.
Carnero gives the whole thing a cinematic flair with harsh lighting and dramatic lens flares. The final conflict, taking place in a hologram projection of a winter landscape, effectively reflects the motif of artificiality and gamesmanship that permeates the issue and, I assume, the whole arc.
I don’t know. If this “Five Points” plot works for you, great. It falls apart completely for me.
Poison Ivy #5
G. Willow Wilson, Writer. Marcio Takara & Brian Level, Pencils. Stefano Gaudiano, Inks. Arif Prianto, Colors. Hassan Otsmane-Elhauo, Letters. Arianna Turturro & Ben Abernathy, Editors.
I find myself tiring of the idea of villains becoming good guys. Not because I don’t believe in the idea of rehabilitation and second chances. No, I just think it diminishes the line because over time it seems like every supervillain slowly becomes a hero, thus dwindling down the hero’s rogues gallery and reducing the potential stories to be told with those characters as villains. It seems to happen any time a bad guy hits a certain threshold of popularity.
Poison Ivy, though? It’s hard to write her as a villain these days. Though her methods continue to be extreme, it’s hard to argue that the woman consistently trying to save the planet from manmade destruction, even using extremist ends, is somehow “the bad guy,” particularly when the target is often the rich or affluent, as has often been the case for Poison Ivy stories. It kind of sends the wrong message…We are on the precipice of global destruction from our wanton destruction of the environment, so painting the most prominent ecological advocate as purely a terrorist rings as tone deaf.
G Willow Wilson here does a strong job positioning Pamela Isley as conflicted by her more deadly whims and her own desire for personal growth. Using Batman as a physical manifestation of her conscience is a great way to show her own moral development. Batman believed in Ivy’s ability to make positive change, and now she hallucinates him as her better angel.
It also seems both inevitable and brilliant to connect Poison Ivy to DC’s concept of “The Green,” the sentient magic/science of the world’s plant life. It gives Ivy both a “higher calling” to redirect her energies from petty crime to true superheroics. I like how conflicted Ivy seems here between her own selfish desires and her yearning for justice. I must admit to being largely ignorant of Ivy’s current origin story, but tying her into the Floronic Man and Swamp Thing helps to make her transition into a semi-mystical anti-hero feel logical.
Wilson gives a good sense of Ivy’s internal struggle as well as the righteous anger she feels toward the Floronic Man even though I don’t know any of what has led up to this fight. One problem often facing villains-turned-heroes is who do they fight if not the hero they have started to help? Giving Ivy the extended world of nature-monsters to play in helps to solve that conundrum.
Like the other books this week, this story gives just enough information to be engrossing without being confusing or overbearing. With the help of the narration and the nature of this issue’s climactic confrontation, we get a lot of what we need to understand what is at stake and why Ivy is doing what she is doing. It’s a strong and confident script from Wilson, aided by the art from Marcio Takara and Brian Level. Both artists imbue the characters with plenty of personality, and Floronic Man (in both human and monster form) is a positively frightening figure.
I appreciate the clarity of vision in this issue from the creators, which overcame my biases against villain-turned-hero stories to tell a compelling, character-centric story.
Looking back on the books you loved as a kid can sometimes be a harrowing journey. Sometimes, you are pleasantly surprised to see that the work is as well-made and powerful a story as you remember it to be.
Initially created by Marv Wolfman and Pat Broderick, heavily developed by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle, and with a costume design by Neal Adams, Tim Drake is the third character to take the identity of Robin.
But nearly everything that made Tim Drake such an indelible addition to Batman’s world was fleshed out in Tim’s first solo title. The 5-issue miniseries sees the new Robin on a globe-hopping adventure that challenges his detective skills and forces him to face up against the hard truths about fighting injustice–and growing up.
Written by Chuck Dixon and drawn by Tom Lyle with inks by Bob Smith and colors from the master of Batman colors, Adrienne Roy, Robin is a compelling parable about stepping into adulthood, draped in the intrigue of global conspiracy and action. There’s no question that Dixon himself is a troublesome figure to reckon with, but many of his harmful personal politics are absent in his work on Robin. Using the world travel as a trial-by-fire , Dixon not only cements Tim Drake as his own character outside of Dick Grayson’s shadow but cements the importance of Robin as a concept.
There is a school of thought on Batman that he is a lonewolf sociopath driven to brutality and near-madness. He operates alone in the shadows, a grim knight of justice.
But Batman existed for only a year before Robin was first introduced. It was the introduction of Dick Grayson, the young man who Batman teaches to channel his grief, to provide mentorship and compassion for someone who shared his loss, that fully rounded Batman. He fought for a future that Robin represented, a world where children like them could be saved before the worst happened. Robin pulled Batman out of the dark and forced him to step into humanity.
After proving his chops as a detective by discovering Batman’s identity, Tim Drake spent months as backup in the Batcave as Batman kept the boy at arm’s length and off the field. He was not ready to risk another young man’s life in the field after losing Jason Todd. But Tim was driven to prove himself–not out of revenge but a sense of justice and a desire to make a difference. While not as impetuous and angry as Jason Todd, he has the naive confidence of youth. In the stories included with the miniseries in the trade paperback collection, Tim jumps into action to save Batman from the Scarecrow despite warnings to stay out of the action. But Tim cannot let Batman come to harm and risks his life to save Batman–even if it means never getting to don the costume. He respects Batman’s wishes and the legacy of his predecessors by not dressing as Robin but Bruce rewards Tim in the end with a new costume.
As the miniseries opens, Tim is unsure of his own worthiness despite his relentless pursuit to become Batman’s partner. “I want this so bad,” he says, “But I can’t tell him how much it scares me.”
His fear is not for his own safety but for the legacy of Batman and Robin.
Tim’s journey in this miniseries and, indeed, much of his time as Robin and in particular Dixon’s work with the character, is about discovering himself and the world. I don’t believe for a second that Chuck Dixon ever intended Tim Drake to be anything but straight, but the character’s eventual journey of self-discovery and coming out as bisexual is a direct outgrowth of this theme. Being a teenager is a process of becoming and discovery. Tim, as Robin, becomes a vessel to explore that fundamental human experience.
When Batman suggests the new Robin train with a master martial artist in Paris, Robin is swept up in a global criminal conspiracy. But before he leaves, he holds his comatose father’s hands in his, realizing for the first time how human and frail his dad truly is.
It is only the first lesson Tim Drake will face.
In a misguided attempt to save a young woman he believes to be a victim, Tim learns a harsh lesson about his own biases and prejudices about women, when the mysterious Ling ends up being a leader of the gang he tried to save her from. By underestimating her he is captured and beaten, escaping only due to his quick thinking. In his final battle with King Snake, Robin is too late to save a new friend who was consumed by vengeance.
But despite these many harsh lessons, Tim also finds his own confidence and accepts his role as Robin thanks in large part to an unlikely source: the master assassin and the world’s deadliest woman, Lady Shiva. Shiva takes Robin under her wing and in one of the book’s most memorable scenes, gives Robin an important lesson in not underestimating himself.
“You are nothing. You are less than nothing. You are a child. This is how your opponents must see you. They will underestimate you because of your age and size. That is your advantage. But you must never see yourself that way. Draw them to attack. Feign weakness. Feign fear. And strike when they are close.”
Immediately after, Robin has his first real victory in the series after being consistently beaten up and put on the defensive. Using his now-signature whistling bo-staff, he momentarily distracts Shiva and lands a clean blow, knocking her down. It is brief. But he earns Shiva’s respect.
“So, the little bird has found his song,” she praises him.
Indeed, this is a book all about finding oneself. Through the harsh trials of his first solo outing, Robin discovers his worthiness to wear the cape and stands resolutely for his values against killing even as everyone around him calls for blood. There is no escaping the hard truths of the life of a crime fighter–or any life–and Tim Drake faces many of those truths for the first time. And he doesn’t look away.
Through it all, Tim defines his idea of what it means to be Robin. Just as he came to realize the harsh truth of his father’s humanity, he in the end realizes Batman’s as well. Every night is a choice to face the impossible weight and heartbreaks of life and injustice. In experiencing them first-hand, Tim realizes that there is more to being a superhero than solving puzzles. There is a human toll.
Tom Lyle’s pencils are perfection, with an added depth and moodiness courtesy of Bob Smith’s stark inks. And, of course, Adrienne Roy’s colors cast the entire story in a neon darkness of deep blues and vibrant purples that pulse with a pop-infused neo-noir life. You feel like you are right there in the seedy alleys, lit by the unsavory neon light of the worst dives in the world. There is an avant-garde use of color that is entirely unique to this era of comics, where printing technology had advanced to allow for more detail but was still limited in its palette. Roy takes full advantage, utilizing contrasting colors to accentuate the mood of a scene and pull his characters out from the background.
Lyle also does an exceptional job capturing the awkwardness of youth. Teen characters are often drawn as essentially adults but Lyle’s Robin is clearly young and inexperienced. His rounded facial features and his scrawny height provide a vivid contrast compared to his older and more experienced supporting cast and enemies. When up against the true villain of the story, King Snake, he is insignificant. Lyle’s art drives home Shiva’s words: this is a child. That youthfulness makes the heartbreak and failures all the more impactful.
His storytelling is likewise phenomenal, using full-page images sparingly to add dramatic weight and relying on wide and overlapping panels to give the book a cinematic flair long before the Bryan Hitch era of “widescreen” comics. With Smith’s assists on inks, the art is appropriately moody for the crime thriller tone. The shadows sit heavy on the page. Lyle also does something I’ve not seen used very often as a storytelling trick that proves incredibly effective. Throughout the series, particularly in dialogue heavy scenes but also during key moments of action, he frames his characters within a panel in a geometric shadow. It is completely nondiegetic and nonsensical if you consider it from a “cinematography” perspective but extremely effective as a storytelling tool in comics to draw the reader’s eye to the characters.
The miniseries defines not only Tim Drake but redefines Robin and his purpose in the Batman mythos. He is not just the lighthearted sidekick, but a vessel for the reader to view Batman’s world with fresh eyes. Batman, though he is without powers, is an unattainable perfection, a dark figure cloaked in mythologizing and larger-than-life mystique. But Robin is the all-too-human entry point. Fallable, uncertain, but committed to doing the right thing even when it is hard. Dixon’s script lays it out for the reader with great care, wrapping this coming of age story in international intrigue but always keeping Tim’s emotional journey at the center while the incredible art team renders Robin with a relatable and imperfect humanity.
In the final pages, Robin asks Batman if he ever gets tired, if he ever wonders if he is making a difference. Batman answers “It does to me. That’s all I ask.” He observes that Batman’s mission is not necessarily about saving the world, but saving himself.
“And why am I here?” he asks himself. “I don’t know the answer to that one. I guess my education is just beginning.”
That education continues even today, as Tim continues to learn about himself, and offers readers space to discover their own human imperfections and questions through him.
I first discovered Usagi Yojimbo through my love of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I knew him first through the action figure. I don’t know if I ever saw the episodes he was in from the original cartoon, but I always had a fondness for the character. In 1998 my family went on a cross country roadtrip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. My brother and I had recently gone to Toy Fair (or a toy convention unaffiliated with Toy Fair) somewhere around the Philly area. He had picked up a couple of issues of Toy Fare Magazine.
These magazines ruled. Filled with retrospectives of classic figures and previews of cool new figures. It was peppered with irreverent humor and the very funny (at the time, for a 10 year old) Twisted Mego Theater.
I poured over those magazines for years until they fell apart. I drooled over the upcoming Toy Biz Classic Avengers and Classic X-Men 5 packs. But my real object of desire was an Usagi Yojimbo, true to the character’s comic book roots (which, to be clear, I had never read). I don’t know why I thought he was so cool. I liked that he came with a lizard.
But I really grew to love the character and his extended world through his appearances in the 2003 TMNT cartoon, where he had several prominent appearances that included extended adventures with his supporting characters and his feudal Japan setting. As a recovering anime fan, this was very appealing to me.
I first started reading Stan Sakai’s actual Usagi Yojimbo comics in early 2008 as my year of working retail following my record-setting one night enrolled in art school was coming to a close.
Usagi immediately drew me in through the strength of Sakai’s confident simplicity. My first Usagi comic was Travels With Jotaro, a volume where the wandering samurai connects with his illegitimate son for the first time. Jotaro does not know Usagi is his true father, and the series balances a somber mix of humor, action, and quiet sadness.
I found my way to the archives and devoured dozens of issues from Usagi’s first publication. Usagi joined me in my first months at college, where I would leave my awful roommates and sit in the common lounge in the residence hall and read. It managed to be a pretty decent icebreaker.
But life eventually took over and after getting through Grasscutter, my reading petered out.
It feels silly, nearly 40 years into its publication history, to even attempt to say anything about the series that hasn’t been said. But, thinking about my recent foray into out-of-context comics, it struck me that Usagi Yojimbo isperhaps the ultimate accessible series. My first time reading the series was Volume 18–well over 20 years after the series started. But everything you need to know is there on the page.
We understand Usagi and his quest for a quiet life in any given issue. His measured and taciturn approach to the high stakes he wanders into makes him a welcoming guide into Sakai’s lovingly researched Japan. The rabbit ronin’s distaste for violence contrasts with his deadly mastery of the sword and quickness with a blade. Sakai’s action is minimalist and never showy, with simple motion lines and clanging metal against metal. There’s no fancy sword tricks (except when an arrogant fool tries to intimidate our hero, to contrast Usagi’s quiet confidence).
Despite the funny animal cast, Usagi deals with the weight and human cost of violence with more compassion and empathy than any other I’ve read. One of the saddest sequences in all of comics history comes in an early issue titled “The Duel,”, where a gambling swordsman pushes his luck to best Usagi in a fight to the death and leaves his wife and young child, standing far on the outskirts of town, abandoned, waiting for a return which would never come.
I’ve been making my way through the archives again in recent months, savoring Sakai’s masterful approach. The fights are fun and the feudal intrigue makes for engaging stories but what truly shines through is how Sakai brings his world to life. We are invited to feel the breeze of the open plains, the cold of the slapping rain, and the vast openness of the dangerous, bandit-filled roads. Usagi is often dwarfed by the world around him, one small detail among the sprawling landscapes. He is our window into this living, breathing history of a time long past.
I thought I might catch up with Miyamoto Usagi in this latest issue, IDW’s #31, and how Sakai’s approach to his stories might have changed. It’s a particularly interesting time to be an Usagi fan – With a new Netflix series loosely based on Sakai’s characters (with his involvement), a new Usagi imprint coming at Dark Horse, and even a new action figure (yes, I finally got my Usagi figure!).
There’s a shaky and lighter quality to Sakai’s line in this new issue, a bit of a softer touch of the brush than his older work. It is likely from age but it gives the story a rough edge that emphasizes Usagi’s tentative and rough collaboration with his ninja companion, Chizu.
Usagi also seems angrier here, a bit more short-tempered and jaded and quick to sever that uneasy alliance. The years of adventure seem to be catching up with him.
As has always been the case, Sakai does an excellent job catching the reader up without laying out expository dialogue. The dialogue, character dynamics, and actions illustrate the characters and their motivations, as well as the stakes of their mission. While much of the issue are scenes of travel, it is peppered with battles with the komori Bat ninja, who are even creepier and more grotesque than when they were first introduced. The ending also provides a compelling conclusion to the ronin’s current journey with an emotional fallout that lands even without seeing all of these characters’ travels together.
The new character, Usagi’s cousin Yukichi, doesn’t add much to the proceedings other than an additional character for dialogue to bounce off of. He is not the focus here, so I will pass no judgment on how well he works without seeing what he has brought to the story before now. The major conflict is between Usagi and Chizu.
The biggest difference is, obviously, the fact that this latest IDW volume of Usagi Yojimbo is in full color, a departure from the series’ historically black and white roots. Sakai has ocassionally dabbled in color but these are the first regular series issues to be colored upon their original publication. The colors here don’t do the story any favors or add any particular depth or dimension to the art. The overly smoothed digital sheen of the work is a bit too rendered to evoke cartoon cel shading but also fails to add any texture to the characters. The end result is a bit of a blurry mess that at times looks amateurish. I don’t find it egregiously distracting but it certainly doesn’t add anything. Particularly given that this issue takes place in the snow, the landscape that Sakai would previously have rendered with minimalist use of inks is instead replaced with a hazy blue that busies up the background.
The charm that defines Usagi Yojimbo remains here in spades. Clearly Sakai has more to explore and the subtle growth in the character’s worldview is notable after so much time between where I left off and picked up here. But most importantly–Sakai keeps the focus on the world and the Japanese countryside, a dangerous and unknowable world the characters must pass through. There is nothing extraneous or indulgent. We are swept along the wilderness along with the cast. That’s what really makes Usagi Yojimbo such a consistently engaging read. The power it has to transport and sweep us up in its grand adventure. That magic remains, all these years later.