Monday, 18 June 2012

Spotlight on Robin - Generations of Red Tunics

There will be spoilers. OBVIOUSLY.

After I decided it was better to live in Gotham over Metropolis (because both are dangerous but one is more fun and relaxed), I also expressed a huge number of insights into the nature of Superman: his radiation poisoning gives him telekinetic abilities. After this it was suggested that I do the same for Batman. But his story is incredibly well known and unsurprising, apart from a few obscure conspiracy theories. His parents died and he went on a self-destructive international journey but happened to learn ninja and detective skills on his way. Big whoop. You know whose stories are interesting, though? Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown and Damian Wayne. That’s right, Robin. There’s a lot to know about Robin and most people don’t know anything. Yes, Robin sometimes wasn’t even a boy!

This image confuses my sexuality

Read more after the bat-click:

The first Robin was Dick Grayson. From now on I’m calling him Richard instead of Dick, for obvious reasons. He was the son of an acrobatic husband-and-wife duo who performed with him in the circus. Since he was on the road with his family the whole time he didn’t really get to settle into school, or even attend one really, but he was an amazing gymnast. When his parents were killed by the mafia he was adopted by Bruce Wayne. When Richard and Bruce discussed how their parents were killed by criminals, Bruce made the decision to let Richard in on the whole ‘overpowered vigilante’ aspect of his existence. Whilst some have termed them the ambiguously gay duo they were in fact a crime-fighting powerhouse and the original Dynamic Duo. When Richard Grayson grew up a bit he eventually put the Robin persona aside and became Nightwing, his territories including a city called Bludhaven and then New York. This Robin survived happily, established his own career, counted Batman as a successful starting point and supportive father figure, and even at times became Batman to cover for his foster-father’s various absences.

Call me Nightwing – screw Robin. Wait no, I don’t mean… I don’t mean that. This is getting more confusing

The second Robin was Jason Todd. In some stories Batman found him trying to steal the hubs from the batmobile and took a shine to him. He was Robin for a few years but was… less popular with the audience. And by less popular I mean at one point, the publishers held a phone vote for the fans: whether to have Jason Todd survive or die at the hands of Joker. The phone vote was amazingly in favour of having Jason Todd be beaten to death and blown up by Joker – this was before the internet even. That’s almost the only remarkable part of his story.

He was later revealed to have been alive when supposedly dead. The past is quite often rewritten like this in comics, which is called a ret-con, or retroactive continuity. In secret Jason recovered his health and became the Red Hood. As a brief aside, the name Red Hood has some history: it was originally the alias of Joker. Yes, the same Joker who beat him to death and blew him up.

You don't recognise that sense of style and panache?

Maybe Jason Todd felt it was appropriate to take an alter-ego from the man who supposedly murdered him, rebranding the Red Hood from a murderous criminal into a murderous anti-hero. Or maybe a murderous criminal since Jason Todd is no longer really a hero. Either way, it was the ‘murderous’ part that sat badly with Batman. For some reason (it may have been explained better in the actual books but probably not) Jason wants to take his revenge on Batman, not on the Joker – the one who actually sort-of killed him.

After the ‘final encounter’ with Batman (pft, of course it wasn’t the final encounter) he also spent a little time as Nightwing, seriously pissing off Richard Grayson (just to remind you, he was the first Robin and the real Nightwing). After that it gets somewhat complicated with parallel dimensions and whatnot, but he also steps on Grayson’s toes once more, pretending to be another Batman during the bit where Grayson was covering for Bruce’s faked death. Jason Todd isn’t very good at it though since he starves, tortures and kills criminals in his own little bat-cave. He’s probably not included in Bruce’s will.

Jason Todd is the asshole with the knife and the cool streak of white hair

The next, third Robin was named Tim Drake. Long before becoming Robin, little Timmy was a huge fan of ‘The Flying Graysons’, and got a picture with the whole father-mother-son team before the parents died. Later little Timmy recognised a signature Flying Grayson acrobat move being performed by Robin (before Todd replaced Grayson). Timothy Drake, aged nine, managed to deduce the identities of Batman and Robin. Do I need to repeat that? A nine year old figured out who Batman is. Nine years old. TIME DRAKE IS AWESOME.

After Jason Todd disappeared, Tim Drake saw that Batman was growing too violent and reckless. That was when he approached Bruce Wayne and after the obvious initial audition and adjustment phase, he became the next Robin and a stabilising influence for Batman. In essence, Tim Drake rescued the big bad Batman from suicide-by-heroism.

As for how he ended up? Well… SPOILERS!


This is just in the animated series, alright? It’s just the cartoon! In the comic book story – which is the one that really counts – he is totally alive and well (at the time of writing). In the official, current story of Batman, Tim Drake is definitely perfectly fine. Okay? Stop crying. The story in the cartoon is definitely divergent. But yeah, when he got Joker-ised in the cartoon it was very awful.

In the universe of the animated series (these days only continued by Batman Beyond), poor little Robin was kidnapped by Joker and very gruesomely brainwashed over several weeks, using electrotherapy, a wide variety of drugs, good old brute-force torture and also Joker’s iconic flavour of mental manipulation and nonsense-speaking. Sure, Batman and Batgirl and everyone else were combing Gotham exhaustively, searching high and low for any sign of where Tim might have gone, but Joker only gave Batman a clue when Tim’s… procedures were complete.

Tim was rescued (physically at least) but retired as Robin. Decades later he has a stable job in Wayne Industries, maybe even a wife and 2.4 children. That’s when Tim Drake ends up channelling the vengeful spirit of Joker. Like, science-wise, not magic or anything obviously. He had microchips in his brain or something. It was honestly quite a disappointing story after such a good setup.

This is not the face of an incredibly exciting, beyond-the-grave revenge story

In the comic book universe, which is the one that counts like I said, the little boy who figured out who Batman and Robin were, then saved Batman by becoming a new Robin is pretty much alive and well. He has an armoured tunic and several other important, life-saving gadgets. The embarrassing green underwear is pretty much discarded by this stage, and nobody was sorry to see it go. He also has a signature weapon – an extendable staff that is pretty damn kick-ass. In some stories it has holes in either end to make it whistle eerily when he twirls it, which can apparently disorient and confuse criminals. No, that’s not crappy. It’s badass. He also has several shuriken and stuff too, alright? The whistling staff is not a euphemism… Damn.

Anyway, as he became an adult he basically repurposed the Red Robin identity and used it for good. Unlike Jason what’s-his-face, Tim Drake was a proper good guy.

 The green underwear may be gone but that's still his package right there

The next Robin, Robin #4, was Stephanie Brown. From here the soap opera factor increases by a factor of about ten. She was the daughter of a bank robber (all the pretty ones are), the on-off girlfriend of Tim Drake and she started out as a villain named Spoiler. Get it? There will be spoilers, like I said at the beginning? HA!

Anyway, she was Robin for only a short time. She did it while Tim was absent from the role, for a variety of reasons here and there. This is one of the reasons she was so often dismissed as ‘not a real Robin’. Stephanie was also a Batgirl for a while, of which there have also been a few. When she tried to finally prove herself to Batman by ending all organised crime in Gotham, she accidentally started a gang war which resulted in her being captured and tortured in the midst of it. She died in hospital from her torture wounds.

What is it about girls dressed as Robin? The confusion continues…

Lots of fans complained that she had been killed prematurely by chauvinist, women-hating lead writers. She was controversial before, but the lack of a display dedicated to her in the bat-cave was an even bigger issue. It was even heavily referenced in the comics themselves, such as a conversation between Bruce and his butler Alfred. Everyone else gets an altar, even Jason Todd after the bitterness faded! Why not the girl-Robin?

BECAUSE SHE WASN’T REALLY DEAD EITHER! Good grief, it’s like nobody ever dies except people’s parents! She secretly returned as Spoiler, her old persona, and then eventually revealed she was alive the whole time and becomes Batgirl again. This plot twist was probably due to pressure from the fans. The writers explained away this back-pedalling by saying her identity was compromised during her torture so she faked her death with the help of a doctor at the hospital. Batman apparently suspected this, so he never set up a tribute to her in the cave. I mean, sure, some even get tributes while they’re alive… but whatever.

 Seriously, about time
She’s popular with most audiences but apparently not with writers. She’s not been seen very often these days.

The last, current Robin is actually the son of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Damian Wayne. He became part of the main continuity in 2006. Alright, stop coughing in shock. We were all surprised. Bruce probably was too. I mean like, face-slapping and mouth-hanging-open surprise like in a cheesy, terrible soap opera. Listen:

The mother was Talia al Ghul. Yes, that Talia al Ghul. Batman and the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul, who was the semi-immortal leader of a secret assassination cult, had a baby. Well, I say ‘had a baby’. The boy was genetically tweaked and gestated in a laboratory. Then he was raised by an insane and morally corrupt secret society until about age 9 or 12, whereupon he was left with Bruce. This situation was probably fine after Bruce recovered his composure and was able to swallow his coffee. The kid was probably glad to finally have a stable family environment. Sure, he first worked as Robin while Grayson posed as Batman and Bruce posed as dead. But that probably wouldn’t even cause a ripple in the deep puddle of his psychological issues. Sure, he beheaded a man when he was a boy. But... um...

 This is a healthy environment for a child

But after that, when Bruce came back, reclaimed his life and reprised his role as Batman? They sort of tried to give Damian Wayne enough space and stability to allow his psyche to develop, adjust and stabilise. The other Robins, Batman and even Alfred all agree that the kid just needs to learn empathy and ethics, that he's young enough that it's not too late. Wait… what? His name is Damian? Oh god! Uh, I mean, no, that kid is probably perfectly fine. Just because he has a Jason-like appetite for violence...

This also means Bruce Wayne is a parent now, which increases his risk of mortality by about 800%. 

Risk of actual mortality, that is

Now you’re up to date on the five Robins so far and we know where we stand in this pile of who-said-what. To summarise: Dick Grayson, orphan of the Flying Graysons, was Robin until becoming Nightwing; Jason Todd, street urchin, was Robin until being voted to death by the audience, then was later resurrected to become an asshole; Tim Drake, a special kind of genius, fights with a stick and was Robin until deciding to work on redeeming the name of Red Robin; Stephanie Brown (or Steph) was a pretty, jabbering Robin with bushy blond hair who later switched to Batgirl, but was later written to death by an editorial mandate from complete assholes, then later resurrected by popular demand; Damian Wayne is Bruce’s son and the tiniest, most worrisome Robin to date.

More interesting than Batman, aren’t they?

*Some people also count Carrie Kelly as a Robin. But she only occurs in one parallel dimension, the infamous Earth 31. Earth 31 is, among other things, basically a convenient dimension to dump most of the stories written by Frank Miller. This sadly includes Carrie Kelly. There is enough tangled story-telling going on above without also involving poor Carrie.


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