The New Boy Wonders – Establishing Robin in a world without Batman

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I don’t envy writers who have to try to separate Robin from Batman. From his very first appearances in the 1940s, Robin’s relationship with Batman has always been characterized as one of a father and his sons. Even under the best of circumstances, separating a Robin from the Caped Crusader, leaves a character in the shadow of the more known hero. The most successful reestablishments of Robin without Batman usually dramatically alter the status quo and forcibly separate the two characters. The recent Grayson did a fantastic job turning former-Robin-turned-Nightwing-turned-Batman-turned-Nightwing-turned-spy Dick Grayson into a character on his own, in over his head and having to depend on his own strengths to deal with unique character-specific challenges, much like how the successful Chuck Dixon Nightwing relaunch relocated Dick into a crime-infested Bludhaven.

The post-Endgame status quo gives DC an open palate to put a new spin on Robin by taking the Batman readers have known for decades off the table. With the world believing Batman has died in a final battle with the Joker, the very idea of Robin can be given an entirely different characterization. Robin’s not a son anymore. He’s a standard-bearer and DC’s two new Robin-centric titles give very different interpretations on what carrying a legacy means.

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Patrick Gleason’s Robin: Son of Batman is the most straight forward approach but it’s one that also doesn’t directly address the absence of Batman. After his resurrection, Damian Wayne is taking a new look at his life. He’s continuously confronted by death and he’s no longer able to shove down his guilt and regret over his own bloody past. It’s a natural growth for the character. In the Peter Tomasi run on Batman and Robin, Damian slowly came to terms with his tortured, traumatic past by seeing the future his father was trying to build. With the tragic end of Batman Incorporated, Grant Morrison showed Damian’s final turn away from Ra’s and Talia’s plans for him and embrace of his father’s path and this issue’s focus on Damian’s guilt and rejection of the League of Assassin’s tenants is a clear way to pick up what that story established.

Robin: Son of Batman #1 puts Damian on a Herculean quest. He’s writing the wrongs of his past, trying to clean up the years of spilled blood, trying to do his best to honor both his father as well as his surrogate father, Dick Grayson. Gleason sells the hell out of Damian’s guilt and uncertainty in a wonderful, haunting nightmare sequence where the child continuously is forced to relive his guilt and his own death and when he finally chooses to begin a year of atonement, it feels earned, like Damian is doing more than just choosing to follow in his father’s shadow. He’s creating a new path.

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We are Robin #1 is a more ambitious approach to the relationship between Batman and Robin and more directly addresses a Gotham City without Bruce Wayne as Batman. The issue centers around Duke Thomas, a minor character who has appeared twice in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, whose parents disappeared following one particularly traumatic scene in Batman #37, which echoed Batman’s origin. Since then, Duke has bounced around Gotham orphanages, searching for his family and increasingly depending on himself over all others. Lee Bermejo gives Thomas’s dialogue and running internal monologue an endearing nerdiness and Jorge Corona infuses the issue’s action sequences with a nervy, confident style that brings readers directly into its protagonist’s head. He’s a relatable hero, trying to do his best but still making the wrong choice as often as he makes the right one.

Duke’s characterized throughout We are Robin #1 with elements reminiscent of almost all of the former Robins. His acrobatic combat during a schoolyard bout recall the graceful dangerous dance of Dick Grayson, his over-confident defiance of authority bears more than a little resemblance to Jason Todd and there are peaks of what made Tim Drake such a memorable sidekick. What most establishes Duke’s place in the issue, however, is his connection to Batman. When the mysterious new Robins arrive on the scene at issue’s end, they’re not interested in what Duke is capable of or what he’s been through. They just know he’s “hung with the bat” and that’s all he needs to get in.

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We are Robin establishes less than Robin: Son of Batman does but it does so in a particularly engaging way. Much like how Gotham Academy took its time to establish the mysteries around Olive Silvermane, the issue doesn’t answer much about the nature of the new Robins but their presence speaks volumes. In a story haunted by the Joker’s actions during Endgame, the establishment of a group of teens keeping Batman’s memory alive is a wonderful homage to ideas like online activism and inspiration through sacrifice. It’s a smart, thoughtful way to connect Bruce’s final fateful actions in Batman #40 to the new status quo.

We are Robin and Robin: Son of Batman both highlight what I love best about one of my favorite concepts in comics. Both boldly showcase the way Batman can change the future through inspiration, how he can prevent the next child from losing everything to one terrible day. More importantly though, both establish characters separate from a greater hero, giving writers and readers a whole new perspective on Gotham and its young protectors in a bold, exciting new world.

Star Trek: The Original Series Recaps Episode 41: “Obsession” and call me First Officer Spock

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There are certain plots that feel like quintessential Star Trek: powerful, near godlike aliens lack compassion, negotiating a fragile treaty with the enemy, encountering strange diseases and conditions that change the way characters see each other and, above all, those goddamn space clouds.

The gaseous entity in the depths of space is one of Star Trek’s hoariest cliches but it’s also one that can be hard to remember exactly how many times you’ve seen it. It just feels familiar, like you’ve watched it a million times. I can remember a handful of appearances of the trope in The Next Generation and the Original Series, and if I took the time, I could probably come up with another handful before I finished my drink.

“Obsession” doesn’t do a lot to differentiate itself from what comes before it but like so many of The Original Series’ less ambitious efforts, it lives and dies on the charisma and performances of its cast. In that arena, “Obsession” excels. It’s a great showcase of Will Shatner’s unique style and performances and Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley both perform ably as well.

On a routine mission, Kirk, Spock and some doomed Red-Shirts are testing some tritanium deposits before a mysterious gas makes an appearance and the captain gets paranoid. Kirk remembers a particular smell and evacuates the planet but not before all but one crew member succumbs to a deadly, semi-sentient gas.

What follows is mostly a bug hunt. Kirk wants to blow off a scheduled meeting in order to make sure the Enterprise can destroy the gas and Spock and McCoy try to gauge their captain’s sanity and whether or not they can trust him to make the right decision.

“Nemesis” is a tense but lethargic episode. A lot is made of Kirk’s first encounter with the gas cloud on his first assignment as well as his relationship with a crewman whose father died during the cloud’s previous encounter but both do little other than to expand on Kirk’s belief that he needs to redeem his former indecisiveness. The meat of the episode is in Spock and McCoy’s questioning over whether Kirk needs to be removed from command. It’s interesting stuff. Both characters vastly agree that the cloud needs to be destroyed but know that the more time spent hunting it, the more danger they put a colony in. It’s a very Star Trek moral conundrum, but not an ineffective one.

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It’s easy to draw comparisons between “Obsession” and Star Trek’s marginally more memorable tale of revenge and the greater good deferred, “The Wrath of Khan” and both are playing on the same themes. Like in the film, Kirk’s desire to restore his own honor is putting thousands in jeopardy and the episode vastly acknowledges how his crew feels about the captain’s, well, obsession. They’re frightened and on edge, increasingly drawn into Kirk’s mounting hysteria in a believable way. What differentiates the two is that while “Wrath of Khan” is decidedly Kirk’s story, this is more the story of Kirk’s crew, his history as a captain and an officer, as well as the potential trauma he could inflict on the next generation of Star Fleet officers.

I don’t dislike “Obsession” by any means. It’s just Star Trek at its most rigidly formulaic and it skates by on small charms. It’s certainly not the series most memorable or distinguished episode but much like Kirk’s first impression with a certain cloud, it serves as something of a sign for greater, more important things to come.

Next up: One of the Original Series worst episodes finally rears its ugly head as we sink into the horrors of “Wolf in the Fold.”

Action Comics #41 limits the scale but keeps Superman’s heart

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For decades, one of the defining characteristics of Superman has been tying the scope of his powers to the characters’ personal philosophy. Superman would do anything for anyone so he can. Since John Byrne’s relaunch of the character post Infinite Crisis, writers have experimented with how changes to Superman’s power or his views of his abilities impact the character’s perspective and actions. Dividing Superman in the ill-considered Red/Blue era did little to add to the formula. J. Michael Straczynski’s attempt at turning Clark Kent into a self-loathing young-adult, terrified of his capabilities in the Superman: Earth One series dramatically altered the way Superman interacted with other characters and the world, pushing him away from the supporting cast of Lois and Jimmy to a heroin junky neighbor and the love-interest-turned-hooker, to, at best, mixed results. 

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It’d be easy to say that Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder are engaging in similar transgressions in Action Comics #41 but there’s more going on behind the scenes and in the book’s subtext. Following an ill-defined event (we’ll get to it later), Superman has been outed as Clark Kent and forced on the run, both from Metropolis and the Fortress of Solitude. By issue’s end, he’s returning to his familiar haunts and to residents that have a much different view of who Superman is and what his role is. Unlike the aforementioned changes to Superman’s powers, however, Pak and Kuder aren’t using the new status quo or the public’s new reaction to it to change who Clark Kent fundamentally is, just limiting what he can physically do when he’s called to action.

Since Pak and Kuder took over Action Comics, they’ve focused on how Superman’s powers can totally corrupt anyone without Superman’s moral fortitude. In the fantastic Subterrania arc, Clark and Lana’s interactions with a kingdom of powerful monsters and ghost assassins reveal the personal difficulties Superman faces every time he throws a punch. In the Doomed arc, as Clark struggles against his own internalized rage and desire to put other’s needs above his own, he sees the damage he can wreck when he punches down at those below him. So far, Superman has always been in a position of overwhelming power over those he’s come into conflict with. It’s interesting, in that context, for Pak and Kuder to now put him in a situation where Clark is consistently outmatched. In the book’s opening fight scene, a group of roughnecks attack Clark outside a gas station. He’s having to fight back in dire situation in a context that recalls the character’s earliest incarnations.

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Kuder’s deliberately aping Bronze Age Superman throughout Action Comics #41, from returning to a facsimile of the original logo, to showing Clark leaping tall buildings and coming into conflict with corrupt authority figures in the form of a sneering police officer. This is the most populist Superman has been in years and Pak does a good job showing the way Superman’s appeal to his neighbors isn’t universal. There’s still very real fear and discomfort around him but little notes like the way Clark provides a role model for kids and rushes to help those in need show a character who isn’t afraid to put his life on the line, regardless of his diminished powers.

There are some problems still and it’s hard to find where to lay the blame. The issue continuously references books that have not been released yet to explain Clark’s new status quo, with one of the books not set to for release for another month. It gives the distinct impression that we’re walking into a series in the middle of a storyline, not  the new-reader friendly jumping-on point DC seems to want it to be. It’s probably best to see Action Comics #41 not as a bold new status quo for Superman but as a natural continuation of Pak and Kuder’s ongoing fascination with the power and responsibility that’s become their calling card on this run. With Superman’s new abilities established for the time being, the team isn’t limiting the character, just his scope and the results are bound to be interesting.

There’s more fucking than fighting in Midnighter #1 and that’s a very good thing

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Post Convergence, DC stands at an impasse similar to one they stood at in August, 2011. The publisher once again has the option to relaunch old titles and start new ones, correct the state of their recently tangled continuity, present characters in a new, fresh way and tell stories they haven’t been able to in years. This time, however, much of that correcting is mistakes made from their last relaunch.

Few properties suffered under the banner of the New 52 more than the acquired Wildstorm characters. Once champions of the ’90s creator-owned, anything-goes-as-long-as-it sells-aesthetic, characters from Stormwatch, The Authority and WildCats were left under a more controlled, less open publishing initiative where everything needed to work together. While there were successes, few characters and concepts suffered more than Apollo and Midnighter. The pair were forced into Stormwatch, arguably the least successful New 52 book because it was the least essential. In the New 52, a super brutal team watching the events of the world didn’t need to exist; it already existed in Geoff Johns’ inexplicably violent Justice League. As such, the pair were treated as little more than the Batman and Superman pastiches they were originally meant to parody and the role suited neither of them.

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The newest Midnighter series from writer Steve Orlando and artist ACO has a chance to show what makes Midnighter so much different than the character he was meant to pay homage to. Orlando takes the opportunity by taking Midnighter out of every comfort zone he has. He’s far away, physically and emotionally, from his ex and the manipulative Gardener and he’s trying to enjoy being a not-quite-hero as well as an out and on the prowl gay man.

You see, that’s the biggest risk Orlando takes in this issue and ACO sells that risk through bold, extremely modern choices. After an in media res opening, we see Midnighter’s Grindr profile and him on a date with the curious Jason. While he doesn’t appear in the issue, Apollo hangs over the book and clearly, the protagonist’s thoughts, but Orlando knows the value of keeping the character off the table. In a recent Comics Alliance interview, he spoke of the representative power of presenting Midnighter without his partner saying, “Often gay males are shown in mainstream media, but they’re coupled, they’re safe and chastened. And for a while, that alone was bold because gay men could be shown in mainstream media at all. But now that’s primetime family television.”

While allowing Midnighter to exist on his own, without Apollo and a support system puts the character in a new situation worthy of a debut issue, it’s the emotional move that’s more powerful. Midnighter is on his own, confident and on the hunt. He’s defending what’s his but he’s also looking for what he can have for the first time in a long time. When he and Jason have sex near the issue’s conclusion, there’s a real sense of the mix of desperation and desire that makes up the wild courtship this book is trying to sell.

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Where the emotions are wild and dangerous, ACO portrays the violence in Midnighter #1 as an exercise of practiced control. Both in the new issue and the 8-page preview DC released last month, ACO uses loaded, energetic panels as a way to put us in the protagonist’s head. Midnighter’s computer brain is constantly calculating options and the Andrea Sorrentino-esque layouts give readers the same sort of clear-cut, razor-precise framework we need to get inside Midnighter’s head as he deals with bounty hunters and a threat against his very identity at the issue’s conclusion.

More than anything, the comparison between precise violence and wild, passionate sex provides a mission statement for the book. The most dangerous, unpredictable thing Midnighter is going to face is going to be at the dinner table and in the bedroom, not on the battlefield where he is little-less than a god. As he says over dinner and drinks, Midnighter is always game for some “aggressive anthropology” and I’m ready to see exactly what all that entails, on the streets and in the sheets.