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COMICS 101

By Scott Tipton
Scott Tiptons Comics 101

2003-12-17 - HEROES AND VILLAINS: Batman, Part IV

Welcome back. We’re in the middle of our seemingly endless discussion of DC Comics’ Batman, probably the most popular and widely known character in comics. When last we met, we had been discussing the Batman’s long parade of partners, sidekicks, teammates and hangers-on, closing with Dick Grayson’s decision to give up the yellow cape and green shorts , in favor of the somewhat more stylish black ensemble he sports as Nightwing. This, one would think, would leave Batman without a Robin, right? Not so fast...

By the mid-‘80s, the decision had been made to let Dick Grayson finally grow up and no longer operate as “Robin.” As the character was primarily appearing in the pages of NEW TEEN TITANS at the time, his transformation into Nightwing was handled for the most part in that series. To fill this void, Batman editors introduced a new character, young circus acrobat Jason Todd. Jason was given a very similar origin to Dick Grayson, with his parents the victim of murder, in this case by the newly created Batman villain Killer Croc. After Bruce Wayne took in the orphan, he briefly operated under a different name and costume (the truly terrible “Tanager” concept) before Dick Grayson gave Jason the uniform, along with his blessing to operate as Robin.

As the new Robin, Jason Todd was a pleasant enough character, reminiscent of the original Robin, with a youthful vitality that hadn’t been seen since the original conception of the character back in 1940. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last.

After the events of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS in 1986, the Batman editors decided the Jason Todd character needed an overhaul, and the pleasant, affable new Robin became a thing of the past, replaced by a moody, rebellious punk who Batman first encounters when the young street kid is trying to steal the tires off the Batmobile.

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If the writers and editors were trying to create a wholly unlikable character, they succeeded, as the mouthy, sullen Robin quickly became unpopular with the readers. Just how unpopular even DC didn’t realize, although they’d learn the hard way when they hatched one of their worst promotional ideas ever – “A Death in the Family.”

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In “A Death in the Family,” in what can only be seen as a bloodthirsty marketing ploy, DC Comics set up a 1-900 number, in which readers could vote on whether or not the new, increasingly insubordinate and unpleasant Robin would be murdered by the Joker.

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In the story itself, Jason Todd runs off on his own to Ethiopia in search of his mother, who, it turns out, happens to be working for the Joker. While Batman is off on the Joker’s trail, Jason’s identity as Robin is discovered by the Joker, who, in one of the more unpleasant and inappropriate sequences DC has ever produced, proceeds to beat him mercilessly with a crowbar.

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Bloodied and near death, Jason and his mother are left to die by the Joker, tied up next to a ticking bomb. At the end of the issue, just as Batman arrives on the scene, the bomb goes off, and the reader is left to decide with his vote whether the Boy Wonder lives or dies.

Although the vote was close (within a hundred votes, as a matter of fact), it wound up curtains for Robin, and the next issue saw Batman discovering the lifeless, beaten body of Jason Todd in the wreckage.

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The Batman editor at the time, Denny O’Neil, has said that he was taken aback by the verdict, but in retrospect, it was no surprise. DC had gone out of their way to make the new Robin thoroughly unlikable, in a misguided effort to make the character more “edgy,” but instead, all it did was alienate the readers, and ultimately seal the character’s fate. Even worse, the story hit the newswires on a particularly slow news day, and when the word hit the papers that DC Comics had killed off Robin the Boy Wonder, DC began to feel the brunt of some serious bad publicity. After all, the average man on the street had no idea that it wasn’t the original, “real” Robin they remembered who died; they had no clue there had ever been a new Robin to begin with. To these folks, DC had murdered a big part of their childhoods, and what were they going to do about it?

Editor O’Neil later described the experience as profoundly enlightening, in that it forever changed the way he looked at his position. As Batman editor, he wasn’t merely “making funnybooks.” Like it or not, he was the caretaker of what has become modern American folklore, and as such, he had to treat the characters with respect.

But DC wasn’t finished darkening up the Batman character. In the graphic novel BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, by writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland, the Joker unwittingly deprives Batman of another of his charges, when he shoots Barbara Gordon at point-blank range, paralyzing her from the waist down, in an attempt to drive Commissioner James Gordon insane, to prove that anyone is just “one bad day” away from madness.

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While the book was critically acclaimed at its release, time has not been kind to it. Looking at it now, it seems unrelentingly dark and negative, and very much a product of the times, when “grim and gritty” were the buzzword in comics. The sequences which illustrate the Joker’s origin, showing a frustrated and failing comedian struggling to support his family and then devastated by their loss, hold up rather well, and remain the high point of the book. However, the primary storyline, with the Joker emotionally tormenting Jim Gordon with photos of his daughter’s assault, come across as gratuitous and in poor taste. Even Moore himself admits it’s his least favorite of his DC works, stating that it doesn’t really have anything to say, and in that I’d have to agree. However, the truly gorgeous art by Brian Bolland is reason alone to peruse it at least once.

After the ugly manner in which Batgirl was dispatched in THE KILLING JOKE, Barbara Gordon didn’t appear much in the DC Universe for a while, finally reappearing in the pages of John Ostrander’s excellent SUICIDE SQUAD series, as the wheelchair-bound computer-genius information specialist known as “Oracle.” Barbara Gordon’s new role made the best of a bad character decision, and it soon caught on around the DCU, with Oracle appearing as a supporting character in the Batman books, becoming a member of the Justice League during the latter half of Grant Morrison’s excellent stint on JLA, and eventually getting her own series, teaming with Black Canary in Chuck Dixon’s outstanding series BIRDS OF PREY.

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As poorly as I felt the Jason Todd and Barbara Gordon stories were executed, they did serve some benefit to the Batman mythos in the long run. The murder of Robin and crippling of Batgirl heightened the Joker’s standing not only as Batman’s arch-nemesis, but also as a truly deranged and evil individual, eradicating the last vestige of any of the 1950s silliness or the chortling Cesar Romero conception of the character. It can also be argued that Jason Todd is a far more interesting character dead than he ever was when alive, in that, as the first martyr to Batman’s crusade, he remains a perpetual example of Batman’s mortality and fallibility, and of the dangers of enlisting children in his war. The striking image of Jason Todd’s uniform hanging suspended in a shrine in the Batcave (an image first conceived by Frank Miller in the pages of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, anticipating Jason Todd’s death by several years) continually reminds Batman of his failure to protect the innocent.

Before long, the decision was made to try again with a new Robin, and this time the results were far more successful. The stage had been set for the introduction by the portrayal of an increasingly erratic and unstable Batman in BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS, taking far too many risks in subconscious reaction to the guilt of losing Jason Todd.

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In “A Lonely Place of Dying,” a 5-issue story by Marv Wolfman, George Perez and Jim Aparo that saw print in the pages of BATMAN and NEW TITANS, readers saw Dick Grayson attempt to intervene and make his former mentor realize he needs help. Meanwhile, both Bruce and Dick were surprised by the appearance of teenager Timothy Drake, who stuns the two with the announcement that he’s deduced their secret identities as Batman and Robin. Tim, it turns out, was a child of three or four when he saw the Flying Graysons’ trapeze act at the circus, and saw young acrobat Dick Grayson perform an amazing triple somersault, an image that was burned into his memory. When, years later, he saw news footage of Robin executing the same maneuver, he put two and two together and realized that Robin was the ex-circus performer Grayson. When a little research revealed that Grayson had been adopted by billionaire Bruce Wayne, whose own parents were murder victims, everything fit. After the disappearance from the public eye of the second Robin, Tim had also noticed the increasingly erratic Batman, and decided to intervene as well.

Despite initial resistance to the idea, Tim Drake was eventually enlisted as the third Robin, and after the admittedly convenient kidnapping of his parents (and eventual murder of his mother and crippling of his father – can’t have a Bat-sidekick without some parental trauma) was taken in by Wayne and lived in the Manor for a time, later moving back in with his recovered father in a neighboring estate. The Tim Drake character succeeded with the readers where Jason Todd failed for a number of reasons. First off, in a very smart decision, the Robin costume itself was redesigned. Not only did it look more modern and practical (with a black cape replacing the yellow and green leggings in place of the short-shorts), but it allowed Tim to own his own identity as Robin in a way that Jason Todd never could: in Dick Grayson’s costume, he would always seem like a pretender.

Also, Tim Drake was competent. Unlike either version of Jason Todd, Tim was already a detective, having proven his worth by deducing Batman’s secret identity, a feat few had accomplished. In contrast to the rebellious and unreliable Jason, Tim was dependable and worthy of the Batman’s trust, but also fiercely independent, often going off on his own in search of martial arts training to reinforce and accentuate the training he had already received from Batman. Mostly, he just wasn’t a punk. Readers wanted to like Robin. Imagine that.

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The new Robin was a smashing success, earning several solo miniseries before being launched into his own ongoing series by Chuck Dixon and Tom Grummett, the first time the perennial sidekick had ever been given his own book. In addition, Tim Drake was enlisted into the membership of YOUNG JUSTICE, DC’s new teen team book, a successful series which would eventually be replaced with the current TEEN TITANS series, which again features Robin in a starring role.

Batman received another ally, albeit an unsteady one, in Helena Bertinelli, a.k.a. the Huntress, a vigilante who originally focused her attention on organized crime, as a response to her own family’s mob ties.

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Later, Batman sponsored the Huntress’ induction into the Justice League, hoping to curb her violent and impulsive tendencies. The Huntress later proved her worth as a crimefighter and was accepted as an associate by Batman, and has recently been seen in the pages of BIRDS OF PREY. The current version of the Huntress is a pale shadow of the character as she was originally conceived, as Helena Wayne, the daughter of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle Wayne on the parallel world of Earth-2. (Check out this past column if you’re unclear on the whole Earth-2 scenario.) Helena first became the Huntress to avenge the death of her mother, the original Catwoman, after her father refused to ever become Batman again.

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The Huntress costume as originally designed was a clever combination of the Batman and Catwoman designs and color schemes, and the character remained a fan favorite, making many guest appearances and eventually earning membership in the Justice Society of America, before the CRISIS wiped her out of the continuity.

Another of Batman’s uncertain allies was Jean-Paul Valley, who fought crime in Gotham under the name Azrael. Created by Denny O’Neil and Joe Quesada, Valley was the brainwashed protector of an obscure religious sect who crossed paths with Batman, and eventually replaced Bruce Wayne as Batman when the original Caped Crusader was severely injured by the South American strongman known as Bane, about whom we’ll talk more in our forthcoming “Bat-Villains” installment. Azrael’s stint as Batman was somewhat less than successful when his original programming, thought to be broken by the original Batman, resurfaced, resulting in a more violent and bloodthirsty Batman than Gotham had ever seen. Eventually, Bruce Wayne had to forcibly evict Azrael from the Batcave and reclaim the Bat-mantle from his unbalanced successor. These stories are available collected in the KNIGHTFALL and KNIGHTSEND trade paperbacks, by the way.

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The most recent recruit to Batman’s team of associates and agents is Cassandra Cain, who has taken up the “Batgirl” identity from Barbara Gordon. Cassandra is the daughter of David Cain, purportedly the world’s deadliest assassin, with whom Bruce Wayne trained as a young man. Cassandra, who had been trained since birth by her father in all forms of unarmed combat and assassination, and with a total lack of human contact or socialization, can read people’s movements like a written language, and can therefore anticipate and counter nearly any form of attack, making her near-unbeatable in personal combat. Cassandra first appeared after Gotham City had been ravaged by a massive earthquake, and had been declared “No Man’s Land” and abandoned by the federal government. After seeing evidence of her abilities and noble intentions, Batman gave Cassandra the Batgirl uniform (which had until then been used by the Huntress, but that’s a different story….).

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The new Batgirl can be seen in the pages of her own series, as well as in a supporting role in GOTHAM KNIGHTS and other Bat-books.

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Whether deliberately intended by the writers or not, the Batman’s tendency to surround himself with a surrogate family, be it in the 1950s or the 21st century, makes perfect sense: having had his own family ripped from him at such a young age, it would stand to reason that he would subconsciously strive to re-create a family for himself, but only in the guise of his own defense mechanism, the Batman identity, in the hopes that it would protect them as he sees it protecting him. However, as the red-and -yellow shrine in the Batcave reminds him, it cannot always do so.

Scott Tipton will admit right now that he voted to save Robin back in 1988. Fat lotta good it did. If you have any questions about Batman, or comic in general, send them here.

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