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

we-are-robin1

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.

Robin-Son-of-Batman-1-preview-mau3rxo927v6wx9v1ta1701inh5gphtn75goxfsvl4

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.

tumblr_np2kiuamtG1tf70vho1_1280

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.

we-are-robin-interview-header-139439

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.

Advertisements

“The world is won with violence” – Jonathan Hickman defines the new Golden Age of comics in East of West #4

East-of-West-4-Maos-ReignIt’s hard to place the moment when comics changed, leaving the cigarette butts and undrawn feet of the Bronze Age and entered the new era. I generally put it either in 2002 with the release of the first Spider-Man film and Marvel’s attempts to turn its characters into brands, or with the beginning of Avengers Dissasembled, when Brian Michael Bendis blew up Marvel’s structured universe and focused on the characters who defined the world.

Both point to character driven narrative, a focus on motivation over shock tactics, violence with consequences over violence for posturing and analysis over deconstruction. There are a few writers and artists who have masterfully embraced the spirit of the new status quo: Grant Morrison, Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Aaron, Geoff Johns on his best days, and most importantly, Jonathan Hickman.

tumblr_motxa032U31qknzn8o1_1280Coming up through Image when the company was beginning its creative renaissance and making a name for himself at Marvel during the Secret Invasion/Dark Reign eras, Hickman was uniquely poised for success. He’s always had an eye for blistering, brilliant violence, morally compromised characters and a genius for redefining the place his characters exist in. We’ve seen it as Reed Richards looked inwards to redefine the Fantastic Four’s place in the world, the return of one of Marvel’s most forgotten characters into a cataclysmic event and now, redefining Death himself in his masterpiece in progress, East of West.

Between Manhattan Projects and two great Avengers titles, Hickman has had plenty of room to play with different characters and situations. In this week’s East of West #4, was obviously going to be a fight issue. Death, bringing his wrath on Mao and New Shanghai was going to be brutal and it suitably is but the interesting thing is about who’s playing the cards. A final page reveals that Xiaolian holds all the power over her white rider and a great conversation between Chamberlain and the child horsemen shows the power Death has over all those who have wronged him.

east_of_west_004-024 What takes East of West #4 from being a great comic to one of this year’s best is the way Hickman and Nick Dragotta humanize a destructive force and keep him an enigma. Xiaolian has been defined as a woman with control and agency, one who even with her back against the wall demonstrates total control and her hold over Death is clearly about more than love. Her brutality shows the human face of violence and a sense of dominance mirrored in Death’s massive slaughter. These are characters with a history, a connection that goes beyond love and chaos.

The defining thing about East of West has been the way Hickman and Dragotta have shaded their twisted world. There’s a wonderful sense of building, with a slowly unraveling back story of betrayals and shattered alliances and each new character and event adds additional colors and twists to the characters. Whether it’s Death’s devotion, Chamberlain’s fearless stance against the Horsemen or Xiaolian exorcising her familial demons in a flurry of horrendous violence, East of West is a world constantly in flux and a masterfully presented one that defines where comics are and what they can be.

Stray ObservationsEHYHktC

  • Nightwing has rarely been one of DC’s most exceptional titles but taking Dick out of Gotham and bringing him into Chicago’s twisted urban hellscape has given the book energy it hasn’t had since Night of the Owls. This week’s #22 might be the best issue of the series yet, with the Prankster tightening his grip on the city and Nightwing getting closer to Zucco’s hiding place. I’m going to thank Brett Booth for taking the month off.
  • Astro City #2 went back to the classic style the series is used to, with citizens being called to heroism in the mundane. It’s a solid way to show that despite the series new trappings, it’s still the book I know and love.
  • I’ve sang the praises of Otto-Spidey and Superior Spider-Man #13 is taking the character in a new direction, with Spidey blackmailing J. Jonah Jameson, killing Alistair Smythe and maybe going back to his old ways in a new villainous lair.
  • I don’t really know what to think of Batgirl #22. This is the second issue in a row where the title character has been the target of rape threats and the third in which a woman has. I have to ask, is Gail Simone trying to portray the struggles women face or is she using the same cheap literary devices she has rallied so passionately against?

“In hindsight, there were signs…” – Death of the Family shows the flaws of DC’s serialized push

A4hdaJyCcAAPAd1Let’s talk about the Joker but, more importantly, let’s talk about the arch-nemesis archetype. The Joker is the purest dark reflection of Batman. He’s emotional where Batman is rational. He’s chaotic while Batman is axiomatic. He’s highly sexualized where Batman is highly fetishized. The Joker is what Batman is determined to never be. Batman sees the Joker as an enemy by default because he represents something that feels intrinsically wrong to him. It’s how I feel about homophobes, “Family Guy” fans and people who eat at Panda Express.

Batman is almost singularly unique in having an arch-nemesis that plays diametrically opposite him. For all their competition, Lex Luther hates Superman because he desperately wants to be Superman. For years, Magneto battled Charles Xavier because he viewed Xavier’s dream as too optimistic, too perfect. The Green Goblin battled Spider-Man because they’re virtually the same character, intelligent, driven men who have the power to use the world as their playground.

BM_Cv17+122802It’s hard to write powerful Joker stories because of this. Joker intrinsically always feels less like a character and more like a force; he’s chaos, he’s death, he’s grief because he’s not really a character, he’s a reflection. Joker’s biggest moments are remembered for what he did, not who he was. We remember Batman cradling Jason Todd’s corpse. I remember Barbara’s body crumbling to the floor. We remember Batman holding a bullet wound as he stands over his enemy’s broken body. I can quote verbatim the “interject a little anarchy” speech. The Joker works for moments, he’s a taste that lingers on the back of your tongue way after you’ve swallowed the last rancid bite.

It’s the intrinsic problem of writing long form stories around the character. Joker exists to cause the chaos, to be the hurricane. Scott Snyder wrote Death of the Family clearly trying to get into the Joker’s mindset. In interviews, he extensively compared Joker’s plan to the fear of his children being killed, what I naturally assume to be a pretty tough thing for parents. By placing that sort of thematic weight on the character, Snyder forced us to look at the Bat-Family as children and turn his villain into the bogeyman.

47qSpeaking strictly in terms of plot, Death of the Family suffered the same disease that all of DC’s franchises have as the New 52 enters its second year. With the books finally starting to blend together, editorial is demanding bigger stories, justifications for the links between books. With that in mind, the Bat-writers needed a way to bring Joker’s promise to kill the family into a very personal place for Damian, Dick, Barbara, Jason and Tim. What we received were crossover titles, each varying wildly in tone and quality. Where Batman and Robin #15-16 were a living nightmare of insects, patricide and taunts, Nightwing #15-16 was  Friday the 13th: Part III, complete with the return to the villain’s most famous stomping ground.

Those crossovers had a purpose that was clearly at odds with the one Snyder was setting up in Batman proper. Each of the writers needed to make the Joker’s threat unique to the individual character. The Joker taunts Damian with his failures as a sidekick and as a hero. The Joker forces Dick to come to terms with the way he uses people to separate himself from the man he is behind the mask. The Joker makes Barbara acknowledge her relationship to the Gordon family, no matter how twisted the roots of the tree are. While some of these stories undoubtedly worked, the theme of Death of the Family was, according to Snyder, meant to be the family Bruce has constructed.

batgirl15p2-31100But that’s also sort of the problem. Death of the Family was thematically all over the place. Is Batman meant to be the King of Gotham? Does Joker feel like Batman’s lover or son? Why is such an importance placed on Batman’s relationship with James Gordon? What was the need to recreate the pair’s earliest encounters? The theme I picked up on the most clearly through Death of the Family was meant to be the relationship between Joker and Batman but it’s never made concrete. Snyder went with the Frank Miller’s description of the Joker as a homophobic nightmare but there was no teeth. Joker consistently played up the connection Alan Moore originally made about the two characters in The Killing Joke, the idea that at some level, Batman and the Joker are going to be doing this forever but after all, they’re both still human. It’s much harder to see Joker split up Batman’s family when the first four issues of the event seem to write the villain as the sidekicks’ new stepmom.

Which leads us to the finale in Batman #17. The chips are down, dinner is served and it’s time for the denouement but what is it meant to be honestly. Reading through issue #17, I was consistently reminded of the rightfully much maligned “Ocean’s Twelve,” a movie that commits one of the most memorable examples of trying desperately to keep the audience sense of disbelief but more importantly, a movie that depends on lies. The issue and the story-line as a whole climaxes with two characters bluffing. Are we supposed to believe either one of them? What power does the Joker have if each of his lines goes back against itself endlessly? He doesn’t seem enigmatic, joking or even interesting; it all just seems like bullshit.

Batman_17_PanelIn a post-mortem interview, Snyder stresses that the conclusion of Death of the Family leaves Bruce’s support network in tatters. Trusts have been betrayed. The characters have been tortured. Batman has won a seemingly hollow victory against an unstoppable force. It’s just really hard to see it that way. As Batman pursues the Joker in the final issue, he shares a moment with Nightwing that says so much about both characters but it doesn’t feel like anything has changed. Dick will never really leave Bruce. Barbara will never give up the cowl. Damian will never give up on his father (and as readers may have seen in the exceptional Batman and Robin #17, he may be satisfied with what he’s been through).

What I’ve seen is another in an endless series of stop-gaps, another problem that will need to be solved before the next omni-event begins. This is DC at it’s worst and it’s a problem they’ve been pushing since the beginning of the New 52, which is plot always and endlessly above character. In a world where it could have been compressed into a shorter, smaller more well focused story, Death of the Family could have worked instead of extending itself across titles and themes in a way that felt inauthentic to every character it touched.

What if Bizarro took on Etrigan: 8 characters to bet on seeing in “Injustice: Gods Among Men”

“Mortal Kombat” developers NetherRealm Studios just showed off the first gameplay footage of their new fighting game, “Injustice: Gods Among Men,” a tournament brawler starring the heroes and villains of the DC universe. The original announcement of the game was greeted by mild excitement from fans but the recent gameplay footage has me worried. The game appears to be a bit too casual for hardcore fighting game fans like myself but does feature the heroes and villains that could make for an engaging and deep fighting game.

With only six characters announced so far, I figured it might be high time to start making some educated guesses, hopeful wishes and probably terrible jokes about which rogues and and defenders might be showing up. With those, we’ll also be giving predicted odds over whether they’ll be showing up and what their abilities could be.

1. Darkseid

The near all powerful lord of Apokalypse is certainly one of the most dangerous villains of the DC Universe and he’s had a long rivalry with Superman.  The multiverse has been a little too safe since his disappearance after “Final Crisis” and NetherRealm may cash in by bringing him back.

Vegas Odds: NetherRealm did develop a model for Darkseid for their game “Mortal Kombat vs. DC” and he could make a great boss character. That being said, he’s out of comic continuity and is a little on the overpowered side. Some work would definitely need done to make him work. I’ll give it 3:2 odds.

2. Grifter

One of my favorite heroes of the New 52, Grifter is the most wanted man on Earth. An ex-special ops killer turned mercenary turned criminal has aimed his trademark pistols at the invading Daemonite army. If he’s going to survive them, he’s also going to have to unleash his latent psychic powers and duel with the other heroes of the universe that want to take him down.

Vegas Odds: DC has been pretty proud of Grifter, despite the fact that the book hasn’t sold incredibly well. They are releasing a collectible bust of the character and has put a high profile but not particularly talented  writer on the title. Putting Grifter in the game may be a marketing push but his mix of gunplay and psychic powers could mirror Deadpool’s from “Marvel vs. Capcom 3.” That being said, he’s still not that well known of a character. I’ll give him a 5:1.

3. Elongated Man

The stretchiest character to ever serve on the Justice League, Ralph Dibny has always been one of the most human characters in the universe. He’s an incredibly intelligent, very humanistic hero who has mentored many others in what it takes to be a hero. His ability to stretch his body is a bit of a relic from the Silver Age but he’s an enormously fun character.

Vegas Odds: Dibny hasn’t really had much of an impact on the universe since he was one of the many innocent victims of familial homicide in “Identity Crisis.” He briefly appeared as a zombie intent on killing Hawkman in “Blackest Night” but he’s bound for a comeback. Even with that, Capcom’s intent at a stretchy character with Super Skrull in “Marvel vs. Capcom 3” was unpopular, despite being one of my favorite characters in the game. Its unlikely we’ll be seeing the poor widower so he’s getting a 10:1.

4. Deathstroke

The greatest mercenary in the universe has never come across a hero he didn’t think he could take down. He’s been at it for years and time has only sharpened his strategical genius. Deathstroke is always ready to reload, relax and get ready to draw blood from every man, woman and child who opposes him.

Vegas Odds: Things are looking pretty good that we’ll be seeing the Terminator in “Injustice.” He appeared in NetherRealm’s “Mortal Kombat vs. DC” and he’s still a pretty popular and dreaded enemy of the Justice League and the Teen Titans. He’s a pretty solid bet at 2:1.

5. Superboy-Prime

A Superman from a world that was never meant to have superheroes, Superboy Prime is another of the most dangerous forces the universe has ever had to deal with. He’s unleashed hell on the Teen Titans, battled Superman blow for blow and taken up the armor of the Anti-Monitor to unleash havoc on a world that didn’t understand him.

Vegas Odds: As cool as it would be to see a Superboy bereft of morals and capable of defeating nearly anyone but it is pretty unlikely that we’ll be seeing the villain. Like the Elongated Man, I’m giving him a 10:1 and hoping for more.

6. Nightwing

Dick Grayson, the former Robin and current Nightwing, has never struggled with the fact that he’s always been a hero in over his head. That’s never stopped him from doing as much good for Gotham and the world at large, joining up with Batman Inc. and serving time as the Dark Knight while Bruce Wayne struggled to return to his own time.

Vegas Odds: Nightwing is a popular character and all but I can’t imagine much of a way that NetherRealm would want to differentiate Grayson from Wayne and would just leave him off the list. We’ll give him a 5:1.

7. Atrocitus

There are few creatures as capable of rage as the Red Lanterns and only Atrocitus has the will and power to lead the group. His capacity for violence is legendary and he’s rapidly becoming one of the most prominent intergalactic forces in the DC universe.

Vegas Odds: Decently likely. The Green Lanterns have prospered under the rule of DC’s head scribe Geoff Johns and its drawn attention to the other Lantern teams. Atrocitus could serve as a useful and very neat bruiser to oppose the Emerald Knights. That’s worth a decent 3:1 spread.

8. Hank Henshaw aka Cyborg Superman

The almost-victor of the War of the Supermen, Hank Henshaw was briefly able to hold the role of Kal-El. He is also awfully contrived and terrible.

Vegas Odds: Thankfully awful. 15:1.

“I Do” – Wonder Woman #10 delivers a wonderfully heartfelt escape from Hell

Even as a long time fan of the character, I never expected to be this floored by a Wonder Woman book. I’ve loved the relaunched series, particularly Cliff Chiang’s near perfect representation of the Amazon and great design work of her enemies and allies, but its been light on what makes Diana the heroine she is. For the first 9 issues, she’s been making deals with gods, throwing down with the servants of Hera and finding out new things about herself but we haven’t really gotten to see a lot of how Wonder Woman feels about her place in the world.

Wonder Woman #10 gave me everything I wanted from the series and it might be the best script Brian Azzarello has turned in all year. For followers of the series, Diana entered Hell in an attempt to rescue Zola, a woman pregnant with Zeus’ child, where she was betrayed by Hades and forced into marriage. After the fantastic cliffhanger (pardon the absolutely awful but sort of necessary pun), we knew that she was at an impasse. For the first time since the second issue, it was inevitable that blood would flow.

What makes Wonder Woman 10 work so well where books like, say, Nightwing 8-9 failed is that it stayed true to the character but managed to do it in unexpected ways. Let’s digress to the recent revelation during the lead up to Night of the Owls that Dick Grayson was meant to be a Talon. While I generally liked this pair of issues for sheer entertainment value, they weren’t anything that I would need to read again. The Talon shows up. Nightwing fights it. Nightwing beats it. Nightwing walks away.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach per-say. The thing is that with a character with a background and personality as well established and far reaching as Dick Grayson’s we can expect more. Dick’s a relentlessly positive guy, one that’s fighting more for the heart and soul of Gotham than for justice in the streets. He wants to inspire people. He wants to show them that they can change. Instead, what we get is him nearly kicking a Talon’s head off and carrying a battered and bleeding body out of a subway station.

Wonder Woman 10 doesn’t play the same game. We expect that Diana is going to have to lie to Hades and then start a fight. That seems to be the only option. Instead, Azzarello surprises the audience by doing the least expected thing, playing to the character’s personality. Wonder Woman doesn’t bend for Hades and her escape, her rage at being interrupted by her half-sister Strife and her ultimate confession that she loves Hades just as she loves all life is a great reminder of what a positive, respected and iconic character Diana is.

Going well with Azzarello’s script is a variety of artists turning in solid work. The three different credits usually don’t bode well, generally being a statement that the book may have been rushed, but the character designs, particularly Hades’ blood creature, are well done and I always love to see Strife get involved in the fray. Even the ending is done with a suitable mix of finality and the need to create a cliffhanger as Diana and company return to Earth.

Wonder Woman 10 delivers the sense of breathless action and heartfelt character moments that fans have been waiting months for and it makes it all worthwhile. For those not picking up the book, it might be worth adding the Amazon to your pull list after this exemplary issue.