Romance In Comics And The Editorial Tug Of War Over Characters

Hi! Popping back in after weeks of absence to discuss how romance in comics can serve as an indication of what is currently seen as the most important aspect of a character.

As probably anyone that’s reading this knows, I love Dick Grayson. I’m very much invested in stories about him. But I do not care whether he ends up in a romantic relationship with Starfire or Barbara Gordon or any other character. I like Kory, I love Barbara, and there’s probably not going to be a new love interest that I actively can’t stand, so. It does not matter to me. What does is Dick getting to remain the beautifully complex character I’ve literally loved for more than half my life and develop so that he doesn’t stay stagnant forever. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to talk about his development – past, present, and future – without discussing his romantic relationships. This is because his relationships with his two most prominent love interests act as kind of a barometer for what editorial considers most important about him, and as such, what we can expect in the future.

Characters that have their own solo series – characters that are considered anchors, of a sort – usually have their own supporting cast from which the key players are chosen, the key players being love interests, Rogues Galleries, family members, and the like. It makes sense – it’s way cleaner than trying crossover pairings. I think that’s one of the many reasons Superman and Wonder Woman didn’t work. It’s not just about Lois. It’s that you can’t have them as main characters in each other’s solo titles. Forget about in universe reasons and how iconic Superman and Lois Lane’s relationship is. Long term, Superman and Wonder Woman can’t last, because it’s not practical in terms of writing. That brings me back to Dick.

Dick is a unique case. He’s undoubtedly a major character – he’s got his own series and supporting cast. He’s one of the core members of the Batfamily. He’s led the Titans – hell, he’s led the Justice League. He’s absolutely not a character that’s only perceived as important as a member of the Titans. Despite that, for a long time, his most important romantic relationship was with his fellow Titan, Kory. Someone that has absolutely nothing to do with Gotham or Bludhaven. What’s interesting about this is that while in many cases, this sort of relationship would indicate to me a character that writers and editors had no intention of developing as an individual, the context and timeline behind it make it seem more like the era in Dick’s publication history where he was most independent.

Dick joining the Titans was him asserting his independence, because he didn’t have a solo series until the 90s. He was defined by his partnership with Bruce. His relationship with Kory, his leadership of the Titans…those things helped him break free of being considered a supporting character. And you know how I said that I don’t really care whether Dick’s with Kory or with Babs or with someone else altogether? That’s still true, but despite all the good elements of stories featuring him in recent years, despite the fact that I’ve loved seeing him as Batman and as the eldest son of the family, all told, the era where he and Kory were a couple and he was on his own was probably better for him as a character.

Dick’s relationship with Kory spoke of a time of freedom for him. He was involved with her when he gave up the Robin identity, when he became Nightwing, when he wasn’t on good terms with Bruce. They went through a lot together. And they could have still been together today…had it not been for the tug of war between those writing the two of them and those that wanted to bring Dick back into the Batfamily. The latter won out. And as much as I do love his dynamics with the different members of the family, it kind of sucks that him going back home involved pushing him back into being, on some level, a Batman sidekick, rather than the completely independent and awesome hero he had become.

When Dick is off with a team – whether that team be the Titans or the JLA – he gets to be the hero that learned from both Batman and Superman, the former sidekick that’s surpassed his mentor. But – as I brought up in a post I wrote a while back on the issue with the ever expanding Batfamily – when he’s back in Gotham, in the same story as Bruce, he’s often pushed back into Batman’s shadow, because Bruce has to be so special that his son can’t ever be better than him at anything. So he gets deaged, made less competent, and has parts of his history erased. That brings us to his relationship with Barbara.

When Dick shifted back to being considered a Bat character, we started to see the rise of his and Barbara’s romantic relationship. That has continued into the present. When it comes to comics, Dick is nowadays considered primarily a Bat character and secondarily a Titan. His relationship with Kory has been left to the past. He doesn’t spend nearly as much time as he once did far away from Gotham with the Titans. The focus is on his relationship with his family. Romantically, he’ll have brief relationships with others, but those are relationships that we know have expiration dates. Even while he’s in those, there are reminders of his and Barbara’s relationship. Right now, that’s a pretty significant part of who he is (of course, once we bring in the Ric thing, there’s a lot more discussion to be had about the nature of who he is and Barbara’s importance, but frankly, I’m way too tired for that. Let’s not talk about Ric).

In adaptations, it’s different. The Bats aren’t so much the priority anymore – not like they were in the 90s and early 2000s with Batman: The Animated Series and the related movies. Even though the comics version of Dick and Kory’s relationship has been left to the past, that’s Dick’s primary relationship in the adaptations, possibly just because we haven’t had as much real Batman stuff as we used to. The exception appears to be Young Justice, as of season 3, because that version of Dick is involved with Barbara. This is interesting, because it seems to me a sign that the Batfamily – and by that, I mean the family, not just Batman or Nightwing – seems to becoming a priority in at least this one adaptation. Dick has been a major character from the beginning, of course. And Bruce has had quite a few significant scenes, and is arguably one of the most important supporting characters. But it wasn’t until season three that we really started delving into the others. We have Tim, of course – we knew that already – and Steph, and promos have shown we’re getting Cass…but in a spectacular wham shot, we now know we’re going to see Jason and baby Damian, as well! This season is likely going to have a lot of the Batfamily, and we should have seen that coming from the second we found out that Barbara had become Oracle and was flirting with Dick via text, because the second we knew Young Justice involved their relationship, we knew that this version of him is most definitely being written as a Bat.

I find this a tiny bit frustrating, not because I’m opposed to any of these relationships or to having a character fit different roles in different stories, but because it implies that writers and editors find Dick to be kind of a piece of clay that they can stick in different places to tell other stories.He is a malleable character. None of his relationships are comparable to, say, Clark Kent and Lois Lane in terms of how essential to the character it is. He does serve different purposes in different stories, and I’m all for exploring his different relationships. But that doesn’t mean it always has to be romantic. I’d like some more focus on his consistent traits and on the strength of his friendships. Because those are just as important – indeed, when it comes to Dick, probably more – than his romances, and having this much weight given to his romances really isn’t all that helpful to actual character exploration.

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The Troubles Of Format: Why The Conventions Of Children’s Literature Worked Against ‘Animorphs’

Animorphs was ever present when I was growing up. They were there in every classroom. Every library, both school and public. They weren’t even out of print yet, because I distinctly remember buying book 4 at Chaptersaside. This is pretty standard for children’s books. I mean, it’s the same thing as Goosebumps or Magic School Bus or Nancy Drew or any number of other series. Despite that, finding copies was really hard. Libraries always had several of them, sure, but never the ones you were looking for. They had, like, books 5, 11, 16, 29, 34, and 41, with none of the others – and no, that’s not me picking random numbers. Those are the Animorphs books I remember being the most in circulation. I don’t think I ever saw a library without 5, but finding 53? Forget it!

Normally, that’s okay. With a lot of children’s books, it really doesn’t matter in what order you read them. Take Nancy Drew. It had no long run plot arcs whatsoever. Each book is self contained. All you need to know is that Nancy is an amateur detective, her friends are Bess and George, and she goes around solving crimes. Those facts are reiterated in every book, and even if they weren’t, it’d be obvious, so there’s absolutely no reason why you’d have to start at the first book and work your way through. I never read  Goosebumps, but the impression I got was that it’s similar. Animorphs, though? That’s unique.

Animorphs is usually episodic. Sure. And pretty much every book gives a recap of the premise and makes sure you know who all the characters are, so most of them will make sense if you read them out of order. But there’s also very much a running plot – or maybe plot isn’t the right idea so much as theme. Throughout the entire series, the focus is on how the Animorphs are dealing with the Yeerks. And there is a lot of character development there. It’s so subtle that you might not even realize it at first – but then, you’ll read a situation that mirrors one from twenty books earlier, and the characters will react in such a different way, that you’ll think, holy shit. You do not get the full force of that if you read them out of order.

Sure, it’ll probably make sense if you don’t. But if you don’t, you’ll miss a lot. If you’re reading the series out of order, you miss the development of these kids from wide eyed idealists being like, “oh, we can hold them off until the Andalites get here!” to hardened veterans that know in their bones “if the Andalites come, it won’t be to help us”. You miss Rachel going from a thirteen year old that gets a thrill out of gymnastics to a genuinely terrifying adrenaline junkie that gets off on violence. You miss Jake going from the thoroughly average kid that ends up in charge pretty much because he’s the one that everyone knows and likes to the teenage military commander of the entire planet that sends other kids to die without blinking. Unfortunately…the format of the series made it almost impossible for members of the target audience to get a hold of them all.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a believer that the structure of the series was hugely beneficial when it comes to telling the story. Applegate’s major strength is how she can pack in the full gamut of human emotion in just over a hundred pages, and the length of the series helped contribute to the impression of a long time passing, as well as helped the slow character development. Fewer, longer books just wouldn’t have had the same effect. However. This was terrible for the reader. Finding the books was hard! I know of at least two people that never read them all, not because they weren’t interested, but because they couldn’t find them, and didn’t know what they’d read and what they hadn’t. Today, you can get them all as ebooks. If there are kids reading them today, they can find them without too much hassle…but the Barnes and Noble website lists each book as four dollars. There are 62 books. That comes out to a lot of money!

It’s an awesome series. I love it with all my heart, as can be evidenced by all my posts tagged Animorphs. I will never not beg people to read them. But wow, was the format a pain for readers.

Aside: I think my memory of the timeline is a bit skewed, because I always say I’ve been a fan since I was eight, but I don’t think the books were still in print at that point, and I feel like I was younger when I bought that book. Maybe eight was when I finally read all of them. Never mind.

‘Titans’ And The Strange Feeling Of Enjoying Each Episode While Being Disappointed By The Whole

The first season of Titans had eleven episodes. Of those, I at least liked ten, and loved maybe eight. Despite that, the entire thing left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed. That being said, I disagree with quite a few of the reasons I’ve seen other people give as to why they didn’t like the finale.

Nightwing

From what I’ve gathered, there is a lot of conflicting opinions about Dick this season. A lot of people are upset that he’s been getting so much screen time compared to the others – my response to that is, he is easily the most popular character in the main cast, he’s my favourite comic character of all time, and he’s getting a beautifully nuanced live action take for the first time, so don’t you dare try to ruin it for me. Another large contingent has been complaining that we didn’t get to see him become Nightwing in the finale. Now that I’m going to talk about in detail.

I’m okay that we didn’t get Nightwing yet! I really am. I love Dick Grayson with all my heart. I love his journey into becoming Nightwing, I love him taking on the mantle of Batman, I love his relationships with his family and friends and the lasting impact he’s had on comics as a whole. And because of that, I want it to continue to be a slow build. I want it to be earned, not rushed. Because the costume change is just that – a costume change. Him becoming Nightwing is far more than that. It’s about him choosing his path, about moving on and growing up.

So, no. I’m not disappointed that we didn’t get a Nightwing suit in this episode. Or, well…maybe a little. The show really felt like it was building to that with the first eight episodes. But given the context of the finale and the previous episode – Dick running into the house after Rachel – it wouldn’t have made sense. When would he have had time to make a new suit? Why the hell would that be his priority? The reveal wouldn’t have had time to breathe properly, so I’m glad that’s going to happen later, when it can have the dramatic weight it deserves. What I am disappointed about? That the episode just ended with Trigon corrupting Dick.

The entire season focused on Dick overcoming his darkness. On Dick moving past Robin; coming to terms with his past; realizing that while Bruce wasn’t a perfect parent, he still tried really damn hard. Dick was the central character. He was the heart of the show. And to end the season without that arc resolved, without him deciding, no, I’m not giving into that darkness, is just a really dumb cop out. It’s lazy writing that cheapens his beautiful development. It would have been one thing had this been the penultimate episode, rather than the finale – a setback before he pushes his way through the illusion for Rachel – but it wasn’t. And I know, a lot of that’s probably due to Trigon’s manipulation, but the problem with that is…I don’t think that matters. Not when it comes to a season finale. It doesn’t matter why, it just matters that this character arc – the only real character arc in the show – didn’t get a proper resolution, rendering all of Dick’s character development not quite meaning-less, but certainly not meaning-ful. The suit is just a suit. But the season should have ended with Dick at a point where he’s ready to be the hero that wears it.

And even setting aside the thematic issues, if Dick killing Bruce is due to Trigon’s influence, it wasn’t done in what I consider a compelling way. Yes, it was cool to see how he bent reality every time Dick was ready to walk away to push him into confronting Bruce. But even so, the moment when Dick killed Bruce fell flat. It didn’t feel like much of anything, least of all the climax of anything. It was just a letdown.

Guest Star Spotlight Episodes

There have been five episodes out of the eleven that were named for/centred around/introduced guest characters: “Hawk and Dove”, “Doom Patrol”, “Jason Todd”, “Donna Troy”, and “Hank and Dawn”And when you look at it just from a numbers perspective, then, yeah, it does seem like an inordinate amount of time focusing on characters that aren’t in the main cast. But I really don’t see it that way.

For a start, not one of these episodes is included in my personal list of “episodes I didn’t love”. I thought every one of them was excellent. “Hank and Dawn” deserves special mention in that category as well, because I was hugely skeptical going in – it was placed right after a cliffhanger, it was the second guest episode in a row, it was a flashback episode without the main cast, it was the antepenultimate episode – but when I watched it? I loved it. It kept my attention the entire way through, and I didn’t miss the main cast at all.

In addition to this, just about all the guest episodes aside from “Hank and Dawn” weren’t really about the guest. “Hawk and Dove” introduced Hank and Dawn, but focused more on Dick and Rachel’s relationship and Dick’s issues with family. “Doom Patrol” was more about introducing Gar and having him join the team. “Jason Todd” and “Donna Troy” were both about Dick’s relationship with his past and the Robin identity and the struggle he has to reconcile his love for Bruce with his anger towards him. Titans has mostly been a character focused show, and all these guest episodes served as a way of exploring the lead character.

In what might be a controversial opinion, I also think that two of the guest episodes – “Doom Patrol” and “Donna Troy” – were some of the most cohesive episodes in terms of developing the entire main cast and balancing plot with character development. In the former, we had Rachel bonding with Gar and Dick clashing with Kory, as well as Gar joining the other three. In the latter, we had more character development. We got to explore more of Dick’s past and his lighter side, through his relationship with his best friend. We also had scenes of Kory, Rachel, and Gar on the train, with Kory and Gar – who’d had very little interaction until this point – talking and bonding. We found out what Kory’s mission was. It was a very, very well constructed episode. I don’t think there’s a single episode without the guest stars – except maybe, maybe “Asylum” – that managed that level of cohesiveness.

So my issue with the guest star episodes isn’t at all that they existed. It’s not that guest stars were spotlighted more than the team as a whole. It’s not that they took up too much time in the season. It’s that they didn’t really go anywhere. When it comes to comic book media, I love a meandering, character driven story, because that’s a lot of what the heart of comics are. But that doesn’t mean the plot can be entirely abandoned or that character arcs can be nonsensical. If you’re going to having a running plot instead of actually leaning into the idea of “miscellaneous stories in the same world”, there still has to be thematic coherence and some amount of resolution. And with the finale, we didn’t get that. It felt like stopping at an absolutely inexplicable time.

What I thought was going to happen after seeing both “Hank and Dawn” and the preview for “Dick Grayson” was that Rachel was going to call Hank and Dawn, tell them to find Jason, all of that because she was trying to save Dick and snap him out of his Trigon hallucination. I figured the episode was going to be split between Dick in the illusion and Rachel outside of it, connecting the episode plot to the overall season plot, to the overall importance of Dick and Rachel’s relationship. But none of that happened. We only saw Rachel at the very end. Gar was nowhere to be seen, Kory and Donna were both stuck outside, Hank and Dawn were presumably still at the hospital, and Jason was probably in Gotham. It was messy, with too many dangling threads.

If, as I’ve heard, Hank, Dawn, Donna, and Jason are all going to be recurring characters in season three, then there is too much going on. Especially with the stinger featuring Conner escaping Cadmus. They keep introducing new characters and plot threads, but don’t seem to care enough to wrap them up, or even bring them all together so that they can eventually wrapped up. They’re juggling a lot and dropping the balls.

Kory and Gar

Look, everyone reading this probably already knows I’m biased. As I’ve said in just about every post I’ve made about comics and related media, including this one, Dick is my favourite character. And I’ve never really been a fan of either Starfire or Beast Boy. So I’m never going to complain about the show or season focusing primarily on Dick and his growth into the best version of himself. And while I wouldn’t object to Kory, Gar, and the team as a whole getting more focus, I totally disagree with the claim that centring the story on Dick is the problem, or even one of them.

like this interpretation of Kory just fine – hot blooded, the first one to resort to violence to solve a problem, cocky, a kind of weird sense of justice…but frankly, there’s not enough there for me to love her. She’s a pretty shallow character so far. There are traits that can be interpreted from her actions, but she hasn’t had a real arc, hasn’t had those traits clearly defined and reiterated. I don’t mind watching her, but I also don’t really care either way. I’ve rewatched the pilot a couple times, and I’ve skipped through her scenes. While Anna Diop was engaging enough to keep me from getting bored the first time I saw it, I didn’t care enough to watch those scenes again, and skipped through them to get to what I really wanted to see. If season two focuses more on her, I’m going to need it to be with a much more compelling plot than she has amnesia and wants to figure out who she is. Gar has had even less screentime than Kory so far. And to me, that’s weirder than how little Kory we’ve gotten, because there’s, like…no actual reason for him to be around, either in terms of plot or in terms of the writers having something they want to do with him. He’s just here to be here. It feels kind of like how it always felt to see Storm in the X-Men movies. She was there…but not actually to do anything. Just because the writers thought, oh, X-Men, we need Storm, right? He’s going to need a lot more fleshing out in the future…but the lack of fleshing out so far isn’t why the story fell flat.


I liked episodes 1, 3, and 10. I loved 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. And with 11, I enjoyed several different aspects of it. But overall, it didn’t make much sense. It neither advanced the plot nor advanced the characters, and in some ways, reversed the character development that had already happened for the sake of getting them to a certain point. And that made the meandering plot and the slow focus on character growth far less appealing because of how jarring the finale was.

I’ve heard several rumours about the season and how it was supposed to go – that they cut an episode and merged parts of it with other episodes, that they cut large chunks out of the finale, that they even split it in two to make the second half the premier of the second season. I don’t know if there’s any truth to any of those rumours. But if the last one is true…that would make way more sense than what we got. It’d be frustrating, sure – but at least then, I’d know that it was just a bad idea, rather than writers setting something up perfectly, then screwing it all up.

I still enjoyed each individual episode enough to want to watch season two. I’m reasonably confident I’ll be at least entertained. But I’m really hoping that season two will be more coherent.

Batfamily Dynamics In ‘Titans’

So you know how I love the Batfamily? Well, I do. And that’s another reason watching Titans makes me geek out like an idiot. It’s so centred on Dick and his growth that we get a lot of insight into how his family affected him. It gives us a unique and compelling take on Dick’s relationships with both Bruce and Jason, without having them as his entire story, and it’s fascinating to watch.

I loved getting to see Dick interact with Jason. But I haven’t seen anyone discussing the one thing that kind of weirded the comics fan in me out – the ages and the impact they have on the inter-Batfam relationships. Jason is the only character whose age we canonically know, because it was actually brought up in the show. Sure, people involved with the show have given us some numbers – or at least, vague ideas – for the others, but remember, Writers Cannot Do Math. So until everyone else’s age is solidified within the show, the only thing I’m willing to assume is Jason’s. Unless he was lying for some reason I don’t understand, Jason is explicitly nineteen. He’s also explicitly been with Bruce for about a year, so pretty much immediately after Dick left. Presumably, him going out as Robin has been recent, both because Robin hadn’t been seen in over a year as per the beginning of the pilot and because he needed time to learn the necessary skills. That confuses me, because it means Jason has been a legal adult for the entirety of his relationship with Bruce. He’s not an adopted son anymore. He’s not a child soldier. He’s young, brash, stupid, but he’s not exactly the kid that sees it as a game – he loves it, thinks it’s fun, but he also is okay with the idea that he’s drawing fire. It changes the relationship between all of them.

I’ve always thought that the age of becoming Robin was most essential to Dick, and less so for everyone else. This is because Dick’s story was about loss and pain. It’s a clear parallel to Bruce’s – they lost their parents at about the same age. They started fighting crime to deal with it. By the time Dick became Nightwing, he’d been Robin for pretty much half his life, and he’d set aside the role in a way Bruce never would have been able to, had their positions been switched. In the show, he’s been Robin for even longer. So it makes perfect sense that in the show, he is having a hard time letting go! With everyone else, except perhaps Damian, it seemed like their age was much less important. But now, I’m wondering if I was wrong. It may not matter whether Jason is eleven, thirteen, sixteen. But I think it does kind of matter that he’s a minor.

One of the recurring points in the comics is that Jason kind of saw being Robin as a game. He wasn’t as emotionally invested as Dick, who had a personal reason for putting on the mask. He was a kid that was kind of in over his head. Aging him up changes the tragedy, because now he knows what he’s going into. He’s not just a kid having fun and loving the attention anymore, he’s an adult more capable of making his own choices. So for me, his anger at Bruce upon his resurrection won’t ring as true anymore. Likely, Bruce’s guilt won’t, either. It seems likely that, if Death In The Family is ever adapted in this show – which I doubt, honestly – they’ll have to take his becoming Red Hood in a very different way. With the implication that Dick telling him he should cut out the tracker in his arm will lead to him doing just that, leaving Bruce unable to find him, I wonder if adapting that arc would focus more on Dick’s guilt than Bruce’s.

That leads me to Jason and Dick’s relationship. I find that very interesting, thanks to the age gap. DC often tries to convince us that they’re very close in age, rather than Jason being closer to Tim’s than Dick’s. I seem to recall Rebirth insisting that they’re only a year or two apart. This is despite the fact that I’m pretty sure when Jason was introduced, he was eleven and Dick was eighteen. But Titans is actually acknowledging that Dick is significantly older. More than that – because both of them have been aged up, it’s easier to see how much they’re in different stages of their lives. That made it fascinating to watch, because Dick was clearly trying not to take out his anger at Bruce on Jason, and only partially succeeding.

Throughout the scenes when they were discussing the Robin moniker, I was unsure whether it was clever or an oversight due to DC’s long history of ignoring how personal Robin is to Dick. When I look at it from my own perspective – that of a fan that knows the history of Robin – I think the former. And since it’s on a DC streaming service, viewership is mostly limited to DC fans with a solid knowledge of the comics history. So from that perspective, it makes a beautiful amount of sense to not bring up what Robin really means to Dick – his family’s colours. His mother’s nickname for him. Dick has spent a long time closed off from other people. He’s not going to just spill his life’s story to the random kid that came barging into his life wearing his costume and calling himself by his name. It’s more than enough that the audience knows why he’s questioning why Jason didn’t make his own identity, why he’s upset that his father figure handed over his name and costume to someone else the second he left, why he’s having such a hard time letting go of Robin and carrying the suit with him across the country. But. That doesn’t work as elegantly for viewers  that aren’t comic fans.

The episode didn’t delve into the origins of Robin, why Dick has so much difficulty letting go, why he has every damn right to take his suit all around the country and be annoyed at the kid that acts like he knows what Robin represents without knowing any of the history behind it. So for viewers that don’t know and love Dick Grayson, it must come across very differently. Jason’s speech must seem like a genuine armour piercing speech, cutting to the heart of Dick’s issues. And to an extent, that is the case. Dick doesn’t really know who he is, doesn’t know what he wants or needs. But it isn’t like he’s a kid that’s outgrown his favourite sweater but doesn’t want his little brother to get to have it. This isn’t about him refusing to move on. It’s about him being unable tobecause he’s afraid of what letting go will mean.

Titans is shockingly subtle for a superhero TV show. It’s utterly character driven. I’m not used to this kind of storytelling when it comes to superhero media. It’s slow. It’s indirect. It waves forward than rolls back. It has characters go through similar storylines for very different purposes. If 1×06 was about Dick’s relationship with Bruce, 1×07 was the obvious follow through – his relationship with himself. His self loathing and anger and confrontation of the fact that it’s not really Bruce he’s mad at – he’s mad at himself. 1×06 ended with Dick acknowledging that Bruce did the best he could. 1×07 focused on Dick hitting rock bottom, because if he’s done blaming Bruce, it’s time to look inwards at himself. It’s nuanced. It’s hard to watch. It’s awesome.

It seems most people weren’t expecting anything this subtle, and as such, aren’t taking the time to interpret it as they would non superhero stories. You can see that both through the complaints that 1×07 was the same thing as 1×06 and through the complaints about Donna “badmouthing” Bruce in 1×08 when she contrasted Batman and Wonder Woman by saying Batman was created to punish the guilty, rather than protect the innocent. I saw a lot of people mad about that, saying that it’s missing the point of Batman and all that, but I don’t think that’s true at all – it’s been made very clear throughout the show that this perspective on Bruce is only part of who Bruce really is, and it’s coloured by bitterness and anger. Donna’s quote was even more like that than Dick’s own thoughts on Bruce, because Donna’s attached to Dick. She loves him and cares about him and saw how much all of it was affecting him.

That doesn’t mean that Dick doesn’t still care for Bruce! It doesn’t mean Bruce is the “bad guy”. It means that Bruce and Dick are flawed people with a flawed relationship. It means that vigilantism as a lifestyle is ridiculously unhealthy. It does a disservice to the quality of the writing to simplify it down to “they’re painting Bruce as a villain”. Dick went from refusing to talk about Bruce to casually referring to him as his dad to a stranger. And yeah, sure, that was probably at least in part because it was the easiest way to get the point across without delving into their whole relationship to a random person – the guy was already weirded out by Dick reminiscing about when Donna got her first camera before even introducing himself, how much more weirded out would he be if Dick started going on about his foster father that took him in after his parents fell to their deaths in a trapeze accident? But it was also about Dick coming to terms with himself and his relationship with the man that raised him. It was him remembering that his childhood had good times as well as bad.

Kory joked about Jason being younger, healthier, and smarter than Dick. As comic fans, we know only one of those things is true. But it made me consider what I know about this version of Dick – not comics knowledge, not cartoon knowledge, just what has been revealed in the show. And that’s kind of awesome to think about, because Dick hasn’t done any real acrobatics yet. For all that a segment of the viewership complains about it being the Dick Grayson show, we don’t really know all that much about his past, either. He hasn’t gotten a chance to show off many of his skills. That’s because the focus has been on who he is, not what he can do or how he learned it or the details of how he became who he is. And it works.

I’m obviously biased, due to my love for him, but even if I weren’t, I think it would still be pretty clear to me that Robin is one of the main characters of all those to have ever been part of the Titans. Almost certainly the most popular. Dick was the only member of the original roster that was included in the main cast of the cartoon and the main cast of this show. He leads the team. He’s had a successful solo series. He’s the poster boy for how Sidekick Graduations Stick. So, yes. It doesn’t bother me at all that the show is called Titans, while really being about Dick. It probably would if any other members of the Batfamily – except Tim, but that won’t happen for a while, if at all – end up as main characters, because that would be making it not a Titans show. Focusing on Dick? That’s just picking a main character.

Dick’s arc has moved beyond his issues with Bruce and into the territory of his issues with himself. So we don’t need a confrontation to conclude the character arc he’s going through – which is good, because introducing Batman will no doubt pull focus from the team that the show centres on, even though we know full well he exists without him showing up. However, because Bruce has been a spectre hanging over Dick since the first episode, we at least need something. It’s not going to be enough for Dick to be like, “hey, I worked stuff out with Bruce, we’re cool now”. For better or for worse, whether the resolution is us hearing the beginnings of a phone call or a season ending with him knocking on the door of Wayne Manor, we have to get something, and it has to have some amount of dramatic weight. The build up has been subtle. But the conclusion needs to be more.

Titans leaves me both wanting more of the Batfam and knowing there are few ways in which that could actually work. I don’t think Jason can carry a show. I know making any other members of the family recurring characters will pull too much focus away from what the show is supposed to be about. And being one of the Titans, rather than in a Batfam show where he’d always be second fiddle to Bruce, is better for Dick as a character. All this together means that I’m holding my breath, waiting to see how the writers handle the issue in the end of season one/beginning of season two, because they’ve built it up so beautifully, it’ll be downright tragic if the conclusion doesn’t measure up.

‘Titans’: Character Growth And Respect For Dick Grayson

Now that we’re most of the way through the first season of Titans, I finally feel ready to comment: I genuinely love it.

I was very much surprised to find that that’s the case, between that first trailer, the story details, and the weird age lifts. Though maybe I shouldn’t have been – Geoff Johns is heavily involved, and I have my issues with him and his approach, but he is the man that flat out refused to write Nightwing’s death in Infinite Crisis. He has a healthy amount of appreciation for Dick as a character. I should have had more confidence that my favourite character was going to be treated well. He has been. And that’s good, because even though the show is called Titans and it’s Rachel that drives the plot, at heart, this is a show about Dick Grayson – and specifically as Dick Grayson, not Robin or Nightwing. It’s about him figuring out who he is and what he wants. It’s a character driven story. The plot matters, the villains matter, but it’s primarily about Dick and his internal conflict, his familial relationship with Rachel, how his figurative demons parallel her literal ones.

Fans of the Titans team may or may not love it. And I’ve seen a number of comments from people that are frustrated by the backseat the others – particularly Gar – have taken in favour of Dick and guest stars. But as someone whose primary investment in DC has always been Dick…it’s kind of perfect for me. After all the mixed feelings and confusion about how it was going to turn out, I’m really glad I watched it. I was terrified of this show for the same reason that I was terrified when the Nightwing movie was announced – he’s a hard character to get right. But much to my shock, Titans gets it. What it does spectacularly is capture the almost paradoxical nature of Dick Grayson.

When I first saw the story details, I anticipated it flattening his character by focusing on the anger that was a huge part of his character in the 80s. And that’s certainly part of him. But it’s also not even close to everything, because even though he is angry, even though he’s obsessive and paranoid, he’s also funny and charming and likeable. In a lot of ways, he’s a more complex character than even Batman, because with Batman, there are a ton of equally valid interpretations. You could focus on his obsessiveness driving everyone that loves him away. You could focus on his refusal to stay down. And any one of those will help you understand a solid chunk of who Bruce Wayne is. That works, because those are all different sides of the same type of trait. That’s not the case with Dick, because with him, you kind of need a solid grasp of all those elements of his character, because his traits are so different from each other while all equally important. Titans is doing a genuinely impressive job presenting all those traits in a way that makes sense.

The characterization doesn’t feel flat at all. Dick does have that anger, that need to move out of Bruce’s shadow, but he’s also got his comics counterpart’s charm and decency – it’s most obvious with the motel owner in “Together”, who he turns down politely and tactfully when she’s hitting on him, but we also see it with Amy, who warms up to him after a thirty second conversation despite how much he tried to keep to himself before, and Kory, when their arguing softens into friendly and flirty bickering. Through his relationship with Rachel, we see the comfortably steady and reliable figure he’s becoming, the one that in the comics-verse is so important to guiding Damian. We see his intensity through his interactions with everyone. And through all of it, we see the seeds being planted for him facing his past, reconciling with Bruce, becoming more comfortable with who he is, letting go of Robin and becoming Nightwing.

Personally, I prefer it when Dick leaves because he’s grown up and it’s time for him to live his own life, not because of any major fight with Bruce or being fired or anything like that. He grew up in a circus – he was born to be the star, not play second fiddle to Batman. Bruce said as much himself. But there still is a lot of merit to the way Titans is showing it. Them not being on speaking terms opens up a lot of areas for character development. Also, it gives Dick more room to breathe and become his own hero on his own without his mentor overtaking his story. Otherwise, there would be very little explanation for why Bruce doesn’t have more presence in the show. Beyond that, in the context of Titans, it just makes sense.

Dick and Bruce are more similar than different. It’s been noted on multiple occasions that Dick is basically Batman with social skills. As such, they’re bound to clash, especially because what Bruce wants more than anything is for Dick to be better than him. As he put it in Young Justice, when Diana asked if he’d introduced Dick to crime fighting so that he’d grow up like him: “No. So he wouldn’t.” That conflict runs deep within the show, and it’s fascinating to watch.

A large part of why comics!Dick stopped working with Batman in the comics was because of his issues with identity. He was spreading himself too thin. He didn’t know how to balance his desire to see the best in people with his learned cynicism, or how best to help people. That identity issue is at the heart of his character arc in Titans. He’s fought crime in a city so terrible, Amy’s reaction to finding out where he was from was Jesus since he was a child. That didn’t leave him much time to figure himself out. And now that he’s not on his own anymore – now that he has Rachel to protect, Kory constantly prodding at him to get him to open up – he has to figure that out and come to terms with the mistakes he’s made.

“Jason Todd” was the a major part of that character growth. It was also a clear step in the road to Nightwing. It was a fascinating episode for me, because it forced Dick to confront his past – his vicious, brutal past. Don’t get me wrong. I love the traditional, goes after Zucco but doesn’t kill him bit. But you know what? It makes a painful amount of sense that he would. It’s also very easy to connect to different pieces of DC media. For one, it reminds me a bit of Batman v Superman – as we did with Bruce there, here we see Dick making decisions that are hard to watch, that we don’t want to look at, that aren’t heroic…but that we know will lead to him growing, being better, doing better. The idea of him killing once than being horrified at what he’d become reminded me of Bruce’s arc in Gotham. It also reminded me of Batman Begins – not for what it was, but what it wasn’t. In Batman Begins, we see Bruce trying to justify leaving Ra’s to die, saying something like, “oh, not saving you isn’t the same thing as killing you”. Titans makes no such pretense. Dick acknowledges that he killed Zucco. He talks about it. It’s a whole episode of him dealing with the fact it’s time for him to stop living in the past, stop living in anger and regret, because the cycle of vengeance won’t make the world a better place. And as he does so, he comes to understand that his memory is flawed, because it’s been coloured by rage and grief, and it’s time for him to move on and forge a new identity. As Jason put it, he doesn’t know who he is. The episode culminates with him acknowledging that Bruce tried his best. It’s absolutely gorgeous character development.

Not all of the show is as well done as Dick’s arc has been so far. Some of it has been kind of sloppy.  Take the Beast Boy appearance at the end of the pilot – it wasn’t much of anything, it didn’t need to be there, it was just a minute or two of, hey, there’s Gar, he’s in this, remember? Similarly, I wasn’t big on Kory’s scenes before she met up with Rachel. I mean, I liked watching her…but only because Anna Diop has enough presence and charisma to keep me from rolling my eyes and getting annoyed with how her amnesia plot was a dumb thing to pull focus from Rachel and Dick for. And when the season is only eleven episodes, it’s kind of frustrating to have the team keep splitting up. Outside of Dick – and his relationship to Rachel, because that’s just awesome – it’s a pretty mixed bag. However, the way Dick has been handled? The progression has been so damn good, he alone will make me want to watch season two.

For a popular character, Dick doesn’t get all that much respect. I’ve written about that before. We see it with how his movie seems in permanent limbo. We see it in the comics, where he’s wandering around with amnesia and calling himself Ric. We saw it when his 75th anniversary was kind of hijacked by Harper Row, when DC kept trying to kill him, when we get increasingly ridiculous reasons why he hasn’t actually surpassed Bruce and still needs a mentor. It’s been going on a long time. But this show isn’t falling into that trap. He doesn’t need a mentor. He doesn’t need to work under Bruce. He’s Dick Grayson, and that’s fucking awesome all on its own.

The Robin Issue

Dan DiDio famously hates Dick Grayson.

DiDio is the DC equivalent of Joe Quesada – not just in terms of their position, but in terms of their attitudes towards superheroes. He hates endings, he hates characters getting to grow, and he thinks happy endings are boring. It’s been a long running joke in fandom that Nightwing’s greatest nemesis isn’t Deathstroke or Blockbuster, it’s DiDio. And a while back, he made a comment about precisely why he hates Dick that I found interesting – and by interesting, I mean frustratingly ridiculous. And that comment was that he hates him because he’s getting older.

The reason that I hate Nightwing is that he’s getting older… The reason people like Nightwing because he aged with them. But Batman can’t get older.

This is something I disagree with for multiple reasons – mainly because I think it’s silly to claim that a character as popular as Nightwing is only liked for one reason, and that it’s completely inaccurate to say he can’t get older. But even though I disagree, the comment made me think about the roles Dick has had in comics throughout the years, and comments I’ve seen from various people about different members of the Batfamily, and I came to a rather unfortunate conclusion that it’s not really that I disagree with his point so much as that I disagree with who the point is about.

I adore Dick Grayson and his relationships with other members of the Batfamily, but we’ve reached the point of oversaturation. DC has spent so long relying on a formula that works when it comes to non-powered heroes that they’ve wrung out just about every bit of use they can get out of it. As the first, and arguably the last, kid sidekick, Robin is hugely important to the Batman mythos…but I think it might be time to retire the mantle.

The Many Characters To Use The Name

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A few months ago, there was this whole thing going on. Zack Snyder had mentioned on Vero that he had envisioned the Robin whose suit we saw in Batman v Superman. There was quite an uproar about that, with a lot of people objecting to the idea because “being killed by the Joker is Jason’s story”. Similarly, many people complained about the characterization of Dick in Titans, insisting that he was behaving more like Jason or Damian. I found both of these complaints very strange. Because you know what? Even assuming they’re true, after everything that the other Robins have taken from Dick, I don’t see a problem in Dick retaliating.

The thing is, Robin is one of the legacy characters with the most people that have held the title. The Batfamily in general is enormous. Between Alfred, Dick, Jason, Tim, Barbara, Stephanie, Cass, Damian, and Duke – even if the current roster doesn’t include all those people – it’s a massive slate. And the one that ultimately loses out is Dick.

For a significant amount of time – close on twenty years, really – what we now call the Batfamily was just Bruce, Dick, and Alfred. And it was a dynamic that worked, which was why Jason was introduced to begin with. But now? Now, it’s too much. There are too many characters, and because so few writers have a good enough sense of nuance, there’s little sense of what makes each of them unique. It’s not a zero sum game, or at least, it shouldn’t be. But every time there’s a new Robin, they get some of Dick’s character traits, plot points, even friends, in an attempt to give them a clearly defined role within the family. To try and justify their existence – to make their value clear – writers have to lessen Dick, make him less competent, intelligent, driven. He’s a hugely popular character. Yet with how he often gets treated in works where he’s not the central character, you’d think he’s the Betty Kane to Jason, Tim, Damian’s Barbara Gordon – a far less competent character than the others to bear the name whose only claim to fame was being there first. That is painfully far from being true, because Dick defined Robin. Everyone to take up the mantle after him took on at least some of his traits.

Jason got Dick’s sometimes strained relationship with Bruce. Tim got his intelligence. Cass got his “best athlete in the Batfam” thing. Different people have started arguing that everyone should get his position as heir to Batman. Even Alfred plays a role, because he took on the position that was originally Dick’s as the most important person in Bruce’s life, the first one that he trusted and considered family. That last one has now been true for longer than it wasn’t, so I don’t mind it so much, but it is frustrating to see just how many comics involve writers forgetting how important Dick is while singing the praises of other characters for something Dick was first.

The Gradual Lessening Of Character Complexity

Dick is hard to write well, because even more so than the other characters in the family, because you can’t really distill him down to core characteristics. If you do, you’ll end up with seemingly contradictory traits that you’re forced to choose between, because he is that much of a complex character. It took him years to truly define himself, but when it comes down to it, he learned his attitude from Superman and how to deal with criminals from Batman. When Dick is written well, he’s the jack of all trades. He might not be as good a hacker as Barbara or Tim, as good a marksman as Jason, as good at fighting as Cass, but he can easily beat anyone else at all of those things. He has one of the worst tempers in DC while also being one of the nicest people. He’s a loner with social skills. He’s the former teen rebel that became the Golden Boy that set the standard all his successors have to live up to.  He’s a character that really can’t be simplified without cutting out half of what makes him interesting. It’s why he’s my favourite character.

Both in and out of universe, Dick was a trailblazer. He inspired a whole generation of heroes. He’s a monument to everything Bruce has ever done right. He has – or maybe has had is more accurate – interesting relationships with just about everyone else in DC. And because all of this was built up over eighty years, it all felt earned. Nothing felt rushed or undeserved – everything to do with his character, from leading the Titans to moving to Bludhaven to becoming Batman – was a natural progression of the character. It’s why I can buy his version of “student surpassing the mentor”. It took pretty much the entire time from his debut in 1940 to being the Batman to Damian’s Robin to do it fully. It was a lot of effort and time, but he did it.

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A lot of the newer characters just don’t have that level of nuance. Whether it’s because DC is impatient or they haven’t had good enough writers yet or any number of other reasons, their progress into becoming a hero falls flat. Take characters like Harper Row. Sure, she’s not used too much anymore (if at all, I can’t remember), but when she was, she came across to me as a complete creator’s pet. She had the same “get characteristics from predecessors” thing, but it was poorly done and felt jarring, because the writers felt it wasn’t enough to have one thing she was great at or many things she was good at, she had to be more determined than Steph, better with tech than Tim, be described by Bruce as his ideal Robin. That’s a problem that I think will only get worse with time and more new characters, especially if those characters become Robin.

The Batfamily is now considered by many to be basically everyone in Gotham. The roster as it stands is too much. Gotham has too many heroes. I’m not saying that DC should simplify it by not including some of them. Of course not. At this point, pretty much all of them have a long history and unique fanbases. But it is beyond time to stop adding new members. Certainly Robins, but maybe even in general, because at a certain point, it’s going to be all but impossible to give all these characters sufficiently nuanced personalities. They’ll end up more similar than different.

The Attitude That The Status Quo Is God

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DiDio also once claimed that Dick was redundant because he was never going to be Batman and wasn’t Robin anymore, arguing that once characters are allowed to age, they all become too similar – again, this is clearly ridiculous, but buried in there is something approximating a valid point.

Yes, it’s true that Dick’s not Robin anymore and will never go back – which is good, I have no idea why DiDio seems to think that’s a bad thing and have no desire to try to unpack that one. But it’s also obviously false that he’s never going to be Batman, because he has been. Repeatedly. The first time he donned the cowl was in 1994! And you know what? It’s completely untrue to say fans would never accept him as Batman on a more permanent basis, because we did. Dick as Batman after Final Crisis was widely loved to the point that readers lamented him going back to Nightwing. It’s completely false to say that any of this is because of the fans. No, this is because of writers that can’t move on – fanboys are running the asylum, and they don’t want to tell characters to grow.

Because of this fixation on the past, DC reboots its entire universe at the drop of a hat. They compress timescales, send loved characters off into limbo, erase relationships from existence, and force characters back into old roles rather than letting them move on. As long as they’re doing that, they have to stop adding new characters, because then it’s just getting ridiculous – there are so many vigilantes in Gotham, all serving approximately the same purpose, that it’s a wonder someone can even jaywalk without getting stopped!

Dick has been shoved back into Bruce’s shadow, because various people refuse to actually allow the student to surpass the teacher. The pre-Flashpoint Dick was the single most beloved hero in the DC Universe. He’d grown up and had his own life going on. He was extremely competent. He learned from both Batman and Superman. Everyone respected him. He was Bruce’s first son and his most trusted partner, an older brother to the other Robins. But now? The scale has been compressed so much because writers refuse to let Bruce be older than, like, thirty five. It’s resulted in Dick being presented more like Bruce’s younger brother than his son, and all of his accomplishments going unacknowledged. He’s gotten mentors that he stopped needing years ago, and stopped having relationships nearly as meaningful with his friends from outside Gotham. It’s nonsensical. And if that’s all that Robins have to look forward to – being unable to age or grow up or become heroes of their own – what’s the point in adding more?

Robin as a legacy once hugely important. It was good for Dick’s successors, because there was a precedent set they could both follow and stray from and a person from whom they could learn. It was good for Dick, because it demonstrated just how influential he was, proved irrefutably that he’d moved on, and let him complete the cycle as a mentor rather than a mentee. But that legacy, as much as I love it, has been used about as much as it can be. It’s time to let it rest, if not retire forever.

I made a post a while back about how Chris Claremont has never moved on from a certain plot point. In it, I noted that he wanted characters to get to grow and change, but that he was writing endings in a medium that doesn’t do endings. But you know what? Claremont’s approach seems largely the way to go, when we’re talking about DC and Robin. He’s very much not a fanboy running the asylum. He wouldn’t be afraid of letting characters grow up and change and move on, even as they maintained relationships with each other. In the hands of a writer like Claremont, given the freedom to make creative choices, I might not think it’s time to put down the Robin mantle. Unfortunately, that’s probably not happening.

I love Robin. I love the concept of Batman and Robin and the idea of the Batfamily. But unless DC completely changes its approach – and soon – I don’t see a way for the mantle to continue past Damian.

‘X-Men: Red’, Jean Grey, and Autonomy

Neither X-Men: Blue nor X-Men: Gold do it for me. Do they have their moments? Sure. But overall, they’re not titles I care to keep up on, even when I have enough time to read regularly. Red, though? I think that’s far more worth the time and cost, because of how it treats Jean.

Jean X-Men Red

Jean Grey is an awesome character with a lot of potential. She was the first female X-Man, and she’s taught so many of those that came after. She’s one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel universe. She has deep and nuanced relationships with her friends and family. But X-Men: Red is the first time in a long time that she’s actually gotten to be in control of her life and her choices.

For so long, Jean got no autonomy. She was the weakest member of the team whose power wasn’t hers. When she got stronger, she was manipulated into losing control of her powers, in a plotline that is remembered as “woman that can’t handle power” where the originally planned outcome was her losing those powers she couldn’t control and being retired as a character and the outcome that was used was her dying. She’s died and come back fewer times than several other characters, but she’s the one that’s the punchline of the joke about comic book death. And Phoenix, which started off as her growing up and coming into her own as an adult with plenty of her own power, wound up more as an albatross around her neck when it became an external force.

Despite being a grown woman and the Team Mom, Jean is often written in a kind of patronizing way. Jean doesn’t get ownership of any of her decisions. When she’s fighting for good, it’s taken as a given, because that’s what Xavier taught her. When she’s angry, it’s because of the Phoenix Force. When she came back from the dead, everything that happened before got retconned as being not her, because of course, she’s Jean and has to be everyone’s moral compass and doesn’t get to ever make mistakes or be a flawed human. She’s just absolved of all responsibility.

So many comics characters have done awful things while perfectly in their right mind. They got to move on from it, while still having it a thing they did. Take Wolverine. His kill count is off the charts. It’s acknowledged as something he’s done of his own volition. But he doesn’t have to atone for that. He’s not even written as an antihero anymore, he’s just portrayed as a straight hero – which is laughable, because he hardly ever demonstrates any guilt, let alone need to atone for what he’s done. Why can’t Jean get that treatment for something she was manipulated into?

The comparison that has to be brought up is with Emma. Not because they’re both women or because I like one more than the other, but because they are better foils for each other than just about any other characters, even though many writers don’t give either of them the nuance they deserve. It’s the way they’re usually portrayed as different sides of the Madonna Whore dichotomy. While Jean is depicted as a maternal figure both to her children and to the younger X-Men, as the best of all of them, so good and so pure, Emma is oftentimes the opposite.

By contrast to Jean, Emma has always owned her power and her choices. Both her good choices and her bad are hers. She decides what she’s going to do. It’s not her being manipulated by someone else. She’s not concerned about being sweet or gentle, she’s too focused on getting the job done. She cares for her students just as much as Jean does, but if Jean is kindness and gentle encouragement, Emma is tough love.

I wrote a post a while back about films noirs. In it, I brought up the idea of the femme fatale and how it’s kind of sexist, but at the time where film noir was most popular, it was the archetype of female character that usually got the most agency. You can see a modern reflection of that through the contrast between Emma and Jean. Emma is a pretty classic example of a femme fatale – one that’s been written both well and terribly. She has her own agenda. She’s sexually independent. She’s oftentimes morally ambiguous. She’s sympathetic and multifaceted. As much as I adore Jean, even in runs I like, she doesn’t often get afforded the same amount of humanity – except in X-Men: Red.

I Adore Jean Grey

Red is the first time in a long time that Jean Grey’s story has nothing to do with the Phoenix Force and everything to do with Jean Grey. It’s about her choices. She doesn’t need the Phoenix Force to be a hero. She doesn’t need be the conscience for male characters. She just needs to be Jean.

The preview for issue 10 delighted me, because for the first time I can remember, Jean actually gets to be angry. She’s not being portrayed as bad or wrong or crazy – her anger is being presented in a human, empathetic way, because she’s a person that’s tired of people like her being hunted and persecuted.

Now, this panel is probably a fakeout. It’s much more likely than not that context will turn this from Jean being frustrated and sick of the endless battle to some kind of trick or something. But you know what? Red has been good enough that I can imagine it being played straight, and that alone is something. I’m just hoping that one day, it will be. Jean deserves this anger.