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.

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What Happens When An Adaptation Displaces The Source Material In Public Memory?

As we get closer and closer to the debut episode of Titans, I’m getting more and more perplexed about some of the complaints I’ve seen about it. I have my own share of apprehensions about this show. I’ve been vocal about that. But what I don’t understand is the people whose complaints stem not from the show itself or how that translates from the comics, but from the knowledge of the cartoon.

While there’s nothing wrong with watching adaptations, but not reading comics, it’s not right or fair to insist that those adaptations are how the material either has been or should be. The Teen Titans cartoon – something that I genuinely enjoy, when I look at it as something other than an adaptation – has very little to do with the comics bearing the same name. The roster – Robin, Starfire, Beast Boy, Raven, and Cyborg – has become so cemented in people’s minds that when the show roster was revealed, the question didn’t become where’s Kid Flash or any of the other members of the comics roster, but where’s Cyborg. 

Even setting aside Twitter and Tumblr, sites well known for being a mess, look at the TV Tropes page for the show. While some of the people editing it clearly have knowledge of the comics, there are just as many from people whose opinions are coloured by the cartoon. Supposedly Starfire is out of character for not being an all loving hero, even though the original Star was a complete hothead that was far more violent than the version of the character that appears in the cartoon. Supposedly Dick is behaving more like Jason or Damian for being angrier than the bright spot people expected to see, even though good characters are always more complicated than can be defined by an attribute like “violent” and the Titans version of Dick is in a stage between the initial “bringing light and hope to Bruce and Gotham” stage and the later “knowing himself and what he has to do and in control of his anger” stage. It’s silly. There’s plenty to be nervous about, but that’s not the same as dismissing something altogether without seeing it because it’s not like another adaptation.

It wouldn’t bother me that much under most circumstances, but I’ve seen what people growing too attached to one adaptation can do. This backlash is painfully reminiscent of the backlash to Man of Steel. The Christopher Reeves version of the Superman – nerdy, clumsy, awkward, all country bumpkin out of place in the big city – has been so formative to the public perception of the character, people flat out forget that he’s been portrayed very differently in the comics and cartoons. The idolization of the Reeves Superman, coupled with the poor memory of what those movies were actually like, makes it impossible for creators to move on and try a different interpretation that’s still supported by the source material without “fans” jumping down their throats and saying they’re doing it wrong.

There’s no easy solution to this, because adaptations that make that much of an impact are a good thing. There’s no one out there that would deny how important Superman: The Movie was. And it’s gatekeeping nonsense to say people can’t have adaptations be their introduction to these characters, especially because at this point, as much as I’m loathe to say it, these adaptations are aimed at the so-called “general audience” because comics fans alone aren’t a big enough market. I just hope more people start to remember that superhero comics are a decades old medium in which there have been countless interpretations, none of which is inherently more valid than the others.

The ‘Titans’ Trailer and My Complicated Feelings About This Show

As I say a lot, Dick Grayson is my favourite comics character. Ever. So my initial reaction to the announcement of Titans was much the same as my reaction to the announcement of his solo movie – a healthy mixture of excitement and apprehension. And time – along with information – has only increased that feeling for me.

I want to go into this open minded. By that logic, I shouldn’t say anything – if I have a negative opinion going in, a confirmation bias might prevent me from enjoying something great, and it’s not like we’ve seen much yet. But that’s difficult when this is the first real adaptation of my favourite character, where he’s going to be taken totally seriously. I have a lot of opinions.

I saw a Tweet that was something alone the lines of, “people that don’t like this portrayal of Dick are usually not familiar with the post-Crisis version of the character” and that just set me off. I myself am guilty of doing the same sometimes – I occasionally pull out the comics when I’m making a point. I shouldn’t, usually, but it’s become a habit. And it is true that people are trying to use the Teen Titans cartoon as “evidence”  that Titans  doesn’t respect the source material, which is utter nonsense. But – ready for a controversial opinion? Here goes. Nobody “knows the comics”. I’m a comics fan. I have a decent amount of knowledge of a lot of characters. But superhero comics have existed for decades, it’s not possible to read them all, and what one writer says will be blatantly contradicted by another. There are different, equally valid interpretations. That’s not to say there aren’t common traits that should be kept consistent. But it is to say that it’s condescending and stupid to suggest that the reason people don’t like a portrayal is that they don’t know the comics. Maybe for some. But certainly not all.

For me, part of the reason I’m not sold on this is a simple matter of the fact they aged up Dick. Brenton Thwaites is twenty eight. And yet the Dick Grayson he’s playing is still Robin, not Nightwing. And that casts a whole different light on his, for lack of a better term, rebel period. I talked a little bit here about what I find off about the portrayal of Bruce and Dick’s falling out, and all that is still true, but now that the trailer has been released, I see a different issue – behaviour that would be believable if this Dick were, as is traditionally the case, a teenager comes across as just childish and immature.

At first viewing, I thought the “fuck Batman” line was pretty silly. But I didn’t know why. I figured it was just stilted delivery. Then I watched it again. I didn’t change my mind about the delivery – though it may sound better in the actual episode – but I came to realize that I’m just not a fan of the line. We’re talking about a grown man that’s been away from Bruce for years talking about him like a petulant child. Context suggests that there will eventually be a reconciliation between the two. After all, Jason is supposed to appear – in an important enough role that he has an episode named after him – which indicates Dick will move on to become Nightwing and presumably get past his issues with Bruce. That, coupled with the fact people will be furious if they completely set fire to Bruce and Dick’s relationship, makes it seem like Dick has spent a decade pouting because he wants to be his own person and was chafing under Bruce’s need to control him. I understand their relationship being strained. I understand Dick being mad at him from time to time. But this feels over the top and ridiculous.

On the other side of the issue, I vehemently disagree with those that are calling this show “too dark and gritty” or suggesting that Dick is acting more like Jason, whether because Dick is fighting brutally or because he said “fuck Batman”. Dick Grayson is the original rebellious Robin. Jason did not invent the concept. Dick was disobeying Batman and having screaming disagreements with him long before Jason ever existed. And as for the fighting aspects of it…Dick became Robin as a child. He has no powers and frequently fights villains that do. Even when his opponents are regular humans, when he first started fighting crime, he was much smaller than them.  It absolutely makes sense that his fighting style will be violent. Dick is an excellent character and a very good person, but he’s not just there to be the fun, light, non-action guy to Bruce’s muscle.

It seems to me that both people that like the trailer and people that don’t are flattening Dick’s character to justify their position. But the way I see it, both perspectives are true. That’s what makes him such a good character. Canonically, yes! Dick has a bit of a temper. He lashes out at and pushes away the people he cares about. He was trained by Batman, so, yeah, there’s going to be some amount of “do whatever keeps them down” in his fighting style. But he’s also a fundamentally positive character that’s admired and respected by heroes all throughout the DCU. He’s charming and likeable and good hearted. He’s been an older brother and a mentor figure to both Tim and Damian. He keeps Bruce from descending into the dark. He’s suffered and lost people, but he’s still found happiness and a family and loves the life he’s had. As he once put it, “I wouldn’t trade this for the world”. It’s one of the many reasons I love Young Justice. It managed to balance the different aspects of Dick’s character better than just about anything else.

Dick's Letter To Bruce

At first I thought Dick had crushed that one guy’s neck, which I wasn’t a fan of, because that doesn’t ring true to me – while one of his flaws is his anger and while angry, he does things he’ll regret, it takes a lot to get him there. He stopped himself from killing the man that murdered his parents. Even the Joker – Dick only beat him to death with his bare hands when he thought he’d killed Tim. So that made me worried. But then I looked closer and saw that he broke the guy’s jaw instead, which is a whole different matter. So that much I’m okay with.

On the whole, I fully support new takes on characters, but this doesn’t feel genuine. It feels contrived. The only way I can see it working is if Dick starts understanding Bruce better through his relationship with Raven. It would be similar to the way comics Dick learned to control his anger when Bruce was presumed dead and he’d been left in charge of Damian – a great dynamic and source of character development for both of them.

Moving on from Dick, not much is catching my attention about this. I’m liking the looks of the flashbacks to the Flying Graysons – maybe we’ll also get some more to Bruce and Dick in happier times? The burgeoning Dick Raven dynamic is interesting, and I’m curious as to what Dick and Kory’s relationship will be like. Aesthetically, though, it’s not doing much for me. Beast Boy and Raven’s looks aren’t appealing to me very much yet. Starfire is a little better – ironic, considering the backlash to her wig and dress a while back – but I don’t love it. So far, the heavy colour splashes feel a bit Suicide Squad-esque, and while I do think that was an entertaining enough popcorn movie, I wasn’t big on its visuals.

It’s impossible to tell what the show is going to be like from a few posters, a less than two minutes long trailer, and a single article of story details. But I didn’t love the trailer, and it hasn’t sold me on the show. Sure, it’s possible – even probable – context will make it more palatable to me. But as of right now, my expectations aren’t high.