Thursday, June 4, 2009

The little yellow cape and the odd green boots

Yesterday, writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely dropped their new comic, Batman and Robin #1 (the wiki entry).

The internet is flooded with reviews by now, and most of them much more adroit than I could make. I will say that I enjoyed the book a lot more than I thought I would. You see, Morrison's work can run to the esoteric when he's not being reigned in by an editor. Obviously, though, the editorial staff is making him play much closer to the reality line than he normally would.

What most interests me is the interaction between the current Batman and the current Robin. In case you haven't been reading the books in the Batman end of the DC Universe lately, here's the spoiler of a lifetime to catch you up: Bruce Wayne is missing and presumed dead. In his absence, Richard Grayson, the first Robin, has taken over "the cowl" and become Batman. In fact, Morrison and Quitely's book is meant to represent Grayson's first few official days on the job.*

Here's what's interesting to me about that: many people believe a person's costumed identity is a part of them; whoever the first person to occupy that costumed identity is the only person who can claim that name. However, it has been a long standing tradition that heroes die or retire and someone else takes up that same identity. So we refer to that hero with a roman numeral after them to indicate in chronological order which particular incarnation of that hero we mean. That makes the current Robin (Damian Wayne) actually Robin VI, the sixth Robin (though he is only the fifth's complicated).

In recent years, writers and editors have come to think of the Robin identity as the young pupil who, for one reason or another, is studying to become a costumed hero. Robin is whoever Batman is training to do hero work "right". What is most interesting about that to me is that the people who write/edit the comic over the years allow each one of these young people to have their own personalities and interactions with whoever is wearing the cowl. We've always been told that Richard Grayson (Robin I) is more acrobatically gifted than any of the other boys, and is much more daredevil, laughing and having fun with hero work. We've been told that Jason Todd (Robin II) is more violent, and brooding.** Tim Drake (Robin III, V) is more analytical and a better detective than the other boys have been--he is also less driven to be a vigilante, and at one point was fired. Stephanie Brown (Robin IV) seemed less willing to understand her role as a hero in the larger scale of justice, and disobeyed direct orders often--hence her not lasting as a Robin very long. Tim Drake then took the role of Robin once more (hence being Robin three and five). Once Bruce Wayne disappeared, and Richard Grayson gave up his own costumed identity as Nightwing in order to take up the mantle of Batman, Tim gave up the role of Robin and the role was given to Damian Wayne. Like Bruce felt about Jason Todd, Richard Grayson obviously intends to use Damian Wayne's time as Robin to help him get control of his violent impulses and his rage.

This plays out beautifully in a small conversation in this first issue. Damian is listening to Grayson admit that he feels somewhat unready for the mantle to the beloved butler, Alfred, who watched Grayson grow up in the mansion. When Damian hear's that, he says to Grayson, "if you're not up to it, stand aside, Dick Grayson. I was bred for the job and trained in the arts of war by the masters of my mother's League of Assassins. I could just as easily continue my father's work on my own." Damian has always been written as abrasive and a bit naive (for all his war training, he is not yet a teenager). At the time, Grayson chooses to let that roll off his shoulders by saying "maybe one day, but not today."

I felt like, had I been writing, Grayson's response should have been this, though: "That would be fine, if Batman were only about being an assassin, but it's not--it's more. Much more." What Grayson says implies this, but I think that conversation is one that Grayson is going to have to have many times over with this particular character. I'm glad to see, though, that Morrison isn't going to shy away from this interaction. Not just because such interaction keeps true to the character as established, but also because there are plenty of people who read the book who have doubts about Grayson's ability. Using the actually characters themselves to express those doubts, and make the character of Grayson prove that he is capable. This is, interestingly enough, the exact same thing that "Bucky" Barnes is going through over in Marvel's Captain America after Steve Rogers' death. Sidekicks becoming the identity of the heroes they used to sidekick for. Right now, it seems, the major push in comics is all about young men learning how to replace their fathers.

I can't promise that "Batman and Robin" will be on time monthly (Morrison and Quitely are both infamous for not making deadlines), but I can promise this: the comic is going to be interesting. Pick up a copy at your LCBS or the newsrack at a book store near you!
*= He's assumed the cowl a few times in the past just to fill in, but at this time everyone, including Richard, very much believes Wayne to be dead--he believes this changes to be permanent.
**=I say is and now was here because in recent continuity, he is alive again.

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