comics, comics criticism, dc comics, rearview mirror, writing

The Little Bird Has Found His Song – Robin by Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle

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.

comics, comics criticism, dc comics, Perspectives, writing

Batman: Knightfall and The Light Beyond the Darkness

In the 1990s, massive status quo shake-ups were the engine that drove the industry. Superman was killed in battle and four pretenders vied for the throne. Spider-Man was replaced by a long-forgotten clone. Every issue of The X-Men promised to change everything, or mark the first appearance of a new character.

No matter the hero, things would never be the same. That was the promise. 

Continue reading “Batman: Knightfall and The Light Beyond the Darkness”