The trouble with Robin is that he’s dead. If you’d bothered to read part one of my history of Batman’s perky teenage pal then you’d already know that this is nothing new. Back in the 1980s DC comics held a phone vote to decide whether troublesome Jason Todd (Robin #2) should die at the hands of the Joker. He died and another, less interesting Robin called Tim Drake took over. The comic soon became boring and I gave up on it for a couple of decades.
That was until a few years ago when I saw a big cardboard cut-out of slimline Batman and a very young, pissy looking Robin standing in front of a space-aged Batmobile. That was the cover of Batman and Robin, a new series by Scottish comics dream-team, writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely. Morrison called it ‘An acid-tinged modernization of the sixties show as if directed by David Lynch’. Nice.
Morrison had first introduced Damian Wayne, the new Robin a year or so before. He was the precocious offspring of Bruce and ‘sexy enemy’ Talia Al Ghul. Unlike previous Robins, Damian’s heart wasn’t in quite the right place – having been raised by mummy’s International League of Assassins as a weapon to destroy Batman.
Damian – and Grant Morrison – set out their stall early on; kicking several shades out of the incumbent Robin, Tim Drake, before dressing up in the Robin costume and joining the Dark Knight on the streets of Gotham for a bit of the old ultraviolence.
Damian quickly proved himself quite unsuitable for the role on account of his predisposition for killing people. He was cast from the same mould as Hit Girl from Kick Ass – young, violent and completely of the moment. Batman hadn’t felt this relevant for years.
But then, happily, Bruce Wayne went and got himself dead (for a bit) and original Robin, Dick Grayson stepped into his still-warm pants. Tim Drake became (the even worse) Red Robin, giving Damian with a chance to prove himself. The Batman and Robin comic became DCs biggest hit of 2009, with readers warming to the character reversal; cheerful Batman and a deadly serious Robin. Perhaps Bruce Wayne was better off dead.
The comic had youth and humour – something that was completely missing from the Christian Bale mumble-a-thons of the last few years. In his comic book biography Supergods, Grant Morrison revealed his love of the lighter side of Batman from the Silver Age of comics from the fifties and sixties. This was a time when the book left behind its gritty street fighting origins and blasted off into outer space to battle megarobots and galactic dragons.
‘Looking at the 1950s covers in particular, there’s an obvious vogue for intense, clashing colours in the logos, so we were able to do something ostensibly un-Batman-like while quoting Batman’s graphic past – the vibrating contrast of purple and green, or blue and yellow, and the big, flat expanses of background colour that were popular during that era of design all seemed ripe for a comeback. Unlike the flowing lines and paisley fronds of ’60s psychedelia, the ’50s brand of op/pop art in comics was straight, no frills, linear, modernist and, we felt, contemporary once more.’
The Batman and Robin title was an attempt to reintroduce this lighter, more outlandish character to the oh-so dark world of Batman. And with Frank Quitely’s beautiful pop-art spreads Morrison achieved this in fine style.
The new dynamic duo were freed from the shackles of retreading decades of history, and increasingly creaky super villains. Instead Dick and Damian battled cool new baddies like Professor Pyg, the pink Flamingo and the mysterious ‘Gravedigger’, Oberon Sexton.
But no sooner had they got going than Bruce Wayne returned from the dead, grimacing his way around the world as he signed up heroes for his Batman Incorporated venture. This left a slightly awkward few months where Dick carried on as Batman in Gotham and Bruce looked after his ‘brand expansion’ plans abroad.
Then something called the ‘New 52’ happened – putting a temporary halt to Grant Morrison’s evil scheme. Slightly inevitably the whole ‘two Batman’ thing was called off and Dick was shunted back into being sad old Nightwing again leaving Bruce holding the baby.
The last couple of years have been like Dallas in capes (or the Archers with weapons); Bruce stepped out of the shower (or fireplace, details) to find his murderous son dressed up like Robin, setting in motion up a monumental clash of personalities. Meanwhile, absent mother Sue Ellen – sorry, Talia – is back on the scene with a brand new son in tow. This one is Damian’s clone, but fully aged and massively ripened inside the belly of a whale no less. Having been rejected by both Damian and Bruce, Talia unleashes her Leviathan on them with tragic consequences.
I didn’t see it coming, and wouldn’t have – had DC not spilled the beans in a massively annoying spoiler. The clues had been there for a few months, not least in a flash-forward to a future where Damian becomes Batman in a world so grim it made Frank Miller’s Gotham look like Peppa Pig World (at Paultons Park – much recommended). We’d seen this place before, in Damian’s first appearances in Batman and Son. This was the culmination of Talia’s prophecy – Damian would murder his father and take on his mantle. And surely Batman wasn’t going to die again.
The Batman comics haven’t got a great track record when it comes to characters staying dead. There are these resurrection things called Lazarus pits, which seem about as accessible as high street tanning shops, so I shouldn’t worry too much. But even so the whole thing has left me feeling a little bereft.
Mercifully, the writers did give us a chance to say goodbye. Peter Tomasi – the new writer on Batman and Robin – wrote a beautiful dream story in which Bruce finally gets to bond with his son. And shortly before his death in Batman Inc. #8 Damian is reunited with Dick, for a touching final team up of the best thing to happen to Batman in years. Robin R.I.P.