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Friday, February 21, 2014

Tim Drake: The Third Robin is Anything but Third Rate

Probably my second favorite character in comics is by far Tim Drake. My absolute favorite being Jean-Paul Valley, Tim Drake was the protagonist of the first comic book that I ever acquired, Robin Vol. 4 #2. In a way, it was this humble little book that introduced me to Batman and to comic books, giving me an opening to check out one of those ultimate guidebooks to the Bat-verse, which eventually led me to superhero comics, which led to Batman: Hush, which led to every comic book I've read after that. But it all goes back to Robin #2, and the few bucks that my dad put down to purchase it along with Detective Comics Vol. 1 #610. Thank you dad.

Getting back to Tim Drake, he's always appealed to me in such a way that I still can't believe that most of his series during the Chuck Dixon run still hasn't been collected in trade paperback form. Granted, it's old stuff, but if the fellows at DC Comics care enough to pump out those monstrous digests from Knightfall, No Man's Land, and War Games, then the least they could do is give us what is arguably one of the best runs in comics. At least they managed to collect some Robin issues in those compilations, but I'd still like the straight dope, so to speak. But I understand that most if not all of these issues are available for purchase on Comixology.com, so when I rustle up some spare dough, I'll see about getting them there.

First, a short history of Tim Drake. First appearing in Batman Vol. 1 #436, Tim deduced Batman and Robin's secret identities when he was nine years old, but kept the information to himself. When he was around 13, he approached Dick Grayson, formerly the first Robin but now Nightwing, with his concerns that Batman was behaving rather erratically. This was the result of the recent murder of Jason Todd, the second Robin (long story), but when Dick declined to become Robin again at Tim's request, Tim declared that he would become Robin. Donning Jason Todd's old suit, he actually helped Batman and Nightwing defeat Two-Face, the traditional enemy of the Robins, and eventually won the respect of Bruce Wayne (that is, Batman). Bruce sent Tim on a world spanning trip to hone his fighting and detective skills, before Tim returned to Gotham City just in time to help during the Knightfall event. Tim continued on through numerous Bat-family crossovers, all of the post-Crisis crisis crossovers, and one hard reboot to be a valued member of the Bat-family, enduring huge personal tragedy, depraved villains, and cranky girlfriends. He currently goes by Red Robin and is hanging around with the Teen Titans in a mostly poorly written book, though he's slated to play a big part in the upcoming maxi-series Batman: Eternal. Of course, this all fails to account for the truly ludicrous origin he has in the new continuity of the New 52, but I won't get into that because I think it's dumb.

Now, you may ask, why do I find Tim Drake so appealing? The answer is simple enough: Tim Drake is, essentially, a normal kid amongst the pantheon of "gods" that populate the DC Universe. Put up alongside the larger than life, essentially simple and straightforward figures such as Superman, Wonder Woman, and Tim's boss Batman, Tim is a regular guy with little if any motivation to fight crime other than that he volunteered, and feels that Batman needs a Robin (exactly why Batman needs a Robin is a subject for another post). In short, he's doing it out of a sense of pure altruism. Not because he's a tortured, cold, angsty loner, not because he's trying to atone for something bad he's done, not because he wishes to exact vengeance on criminals because of some tragedy, but because he wants to help. This makes him similar to many others, such as Barbara Gordon, the first Batgirl; Stephanie Brown, the Spoiler (and his on-again-off-again girlfriend); and even Renee Montoya, who later became the second Question. At least, this is how Tim used to be, but we'll get to that in a minute.

Another thing that really makes me like Tim Drake a lot, and one of the reasons that he's both an incredibly popular and a truly great character, is that of all the Robins (he's the third such person to bear the name), he's the most like his mentor, Batman. Tim is, at heart, a detective, with Batman, the World's Greatest Detective, acknowledging that Tim's detective skills will one day surpass his own. He thinks and acts like a younger, teenage version of Batman, meaning you've got a vigilante detective who's also thinking about how to keep his girlfriend happy, or how to explain staying out past curfew to his parents, or how he should spend the weekend. Comic book scholar Chris Sims has postulated that this is what makes Tim Drake the greatest of the Robins. Tim's stories (the well written ones anyway) basically takes the best of both worlds of Batman and Spider-Man while adding its own spin to them. Chuck Dixon pulled this off masterfully during his run on Robin back in the '90s, managing to deal with social issues faced by readers Tim's age, including drug use, school shootings, and teenage drinking, among other things, all without being preachy.

But probably the most important thing about Tim Drake is that he's a genuinely good good guy. He's not a womanizer like Bruce or Dick (he's actually probably the only member of the Bat-family who's a virgin), and he's not an angry psycho like Jason or even Huntress, and he's not an evil brat like Damian. He actually puts the hero in superhero, seeking to do what is good. At the same time, he doesn't want to go on doing it forever. He doesn't want to become Batman, to become a dark, brooding copy of his grumpy boss, to paraphrase something that Tim actually said to Bruce once. Of course, that leads to the one glaring problem with Tim's more recent characterization: He's been turned into kind of a jerk.

In the last several years, dating back to the ghastly War Games but truly stemming from the (by all accounts) even worse Identity Crisis, and finally reaching its crescendo in the pages of Red Robin, Tim has been given his very own tragic backstory. For those of you who don't know, his dad, Jack Drake, was killed by a supervillain named Captain Boomerang (I'm sure that it's as stupid as it sounds), shortly after his aforementioned on-again-off-again girlfriend Stephanie Brown, a.k.a. the Spoiler (another favorite character of mine), was "killed" during War Games (long story).

 To cut a long story short, this series of unfortunate events is probably the worst thing that could have possibly happened to him as a character.

The whole central appeal of Tim Drake as a character, going beyond being Batman's chief student, or being the most like Batman (which, come to think of it, is probably something they went overboard with when they added the aforementioned tragic backstory), is that he's a regular kid who happens to have a really cool side job. When you kill his parents, his friends (Bart Allen's Kid Flash and Conner Kent's Superboy were also both killed around this time during Infinite Crisis, but comics being comics, they both came back a few years later), and make him Bruce Wayne's outright adopted son, all that appeal goes away. He's still younger, teenage Batman, but all the Spider-Man-esque stuff is gone. As of Red Robin, he's not even in school anymore, for Pete's sake. And he's seventeen! Gah. As a result, he is far less interesting today than he was back in the '90 and early 2000s, having been reduced to just another, wangst filled teenager who hangs around the Batcave with a weird bachelor who likes to dress up in bulletproof pajamas.

But all this is not to say that there's not still hope for dear old Tim. If Scott Snyder knows what he's doing over in the Bat-books right now, and I have every reason to believe that he is (despite my low opinion of some of his more recent work), Tim Drake as Red Robin is in good hands in the pages of Batman: Eternal. I couldn't speak for how he's doing in Teen Titans, but only that my initial research has indicated that he's a good character stuck in a cruddy book. Therefore, all I can say is that if you like both Spider-Man and Batman, as do I, then you absolutely must check out stories starring Tim Drake, especially Chuck Dixon's run on Robin. The only trade paperback collecting such issues from his original run is Robin: Flying Solo, but there's a bunch of scattered Robin issues floating around in the No Man's Land and Knightfall collections. The Red Robin trades aren't nearly as good, but still worth a read. If you're really adventurous, you might want to check out Teen Titans Vol. 3, but I'd only go up until the end of the Geoff Johns run. It went pretty downhill from there.

Image courtesy of wikipedia.org