Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, they are Grayson #12, written by Tom King (The Omega Men, A Once Crowded Sky) and Tim Seeley (Effigy, Revival) with art by Mikel Janín (Justice League Dark, Justice League) and colorist Jeromy Cox (Justice League Dark, Justice League United), and We Are Robin #4, written by Lee Bermejo (Suiciders, Batman: Noel) with art by James Harvey (Masterplasty, Finding Nemo: Dream Another Dream). These two issues showcase the intriguing changes made to the Robin concept and the characters who have previously filled the role of Batman’s sidekick. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
The year 2015 marks the 75th anniversary of Robin’s first appearance. To celebrate, DC Comics has doubled down on titles starring characters that have assumed the mantle of Batman’s sidekick. All four of the main Robins have their own ongoing series: Grayson (Dick Grayson), Red Hood & Arsenal (Jason Todd), Batman Beyond (Tim Drake), and Robin: Son Of Batman (Damian Wayne). We Are Robin significantly increases the number of Robins by creating a youth movement around the superhero identity, which is available to any teen that wants to join the fight to protect Gotham City. There’s a very real risk of Robin overload, but at this point, the stronger titles outnumber the weaker ones, and there’s a broad enough range of storytelling styles across the five books that they don’t overlap.
This week’s Grayson #12 and We Are Robin #4 are tied together thematically, but the execution of the stories is dramatically different. Both stories are about the importance of a superhero family, but whereas Grayson is steeped in the past and Dick’s history with his former colleagues, We Are Robin looks to the future and explores the danger of pursuing a vigilante lifestyle as a teenager. The lesson of both issues is that heroes find strength by working with others, which is also the lesson taught by the general concept of the superhero sidekick. Robin was originally conceived as a way to make Batman’s adventures more attractive to a younger audience, but over time, the character has become an essential part of the Dark Knight’s support system. The sidekick has a valuable role in crime-fighting, but most importantly, the sidekick has a valuable role in character development. A sidekick is someone the main hero can rely on for backup, and building a personal relationship between hero and sidekick is an easy way to ground these larger-than-life characters.
What’s especially interesting about the current state of the Robin identity is that it’s no longer stuck in the sidekick role. The two titles with Robin in the title have little affiliation with Batman: Patrick Gleason’s Robin: Son Of Batman is an exhilarating action-adventure series following Damian Wayne on an international journey to atone for past sins, and Lee Bermejo’s We Are Robin introduces a cast of characters who aren’t working alongside Bruce Wayne or Jim Gordon’s current mecha-Batman. Gleason’s title looks at how a Robin functions when paired with his own sidekicks—a monstrous man-bat named Goliath and a young girl whose father was killed by Damian—and these characters have brought out different facets of Damian’s personality in the same way Damian brought out different facets of Batman’s personality when they worked together.
But the most intriguing new take on Robin comes from Bermejo’s title, which has cleverly situated the army of Robins as a foil to the new police-sanctioned Batman rather than a partner. We Are Robin #4 is a standalone story spotlighting Riko Sheridan, an Asian-American teen dealing with the tragic loss of a fellow Robin that has forced her to reconsider her new vigilante lifestyle. Faced with the harsh reality of the potentially fatal consequences of being Robin, Riko is unsure of how to proceed, but her assigned reading of Lord Of The Flies inspires her to keep fighting. The issue underscores Riko’s rooftop crusade with images from the final scenes of William Golding’s novel, drawing a connection between Riko and Ralph, the young boy who flees from his corrupted schoolmates after he discovers the horrors they are capable of when they give in to their primal impulses. Gotham City is the island in Riko’s scenario, an environment that invites immorality from its citizens as a way for them to cope and survive, and putting on a mask and costume is Riko’s way of fighting the city’s negative influence on Gotham’s youth population. Riko and the rest of the Robins are trying to sway others in the throes of adolescence to stand up for what’s right instead of giving in to the vice that drives Gotham.
Robin has always been a character intended to appeal to younger readers, and We Are Robin reaches out to that demographic in a number of ways: texting and Tweeting are major forms of communication in the book; the characters wear stylish, extremely cosplay-able costumes; and the story has political undertones that tie it to social movements like the Black Lives Matter campaign. Riko has a poster on her bedroom wall of Robert Cohen’s chilling photograph showing Edward Crawford throwing a container of tear gas during last year’s protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and that detail reveals a lot about Riko’s motivation for becoming a Robin. Being a superhero is a form of activism for Riko, and despite the inherent danger, she’d rather go down fighting for change instead of living a life of complacency.
While on patrol, Riko comes across a group of “cape catchers,” teens that commit lesser crimes to attract the attention of superheroes for social-media purposes. They stream their encounters on Periscope and try to snap selfies with these vigilantes, drawing heroes away from significant crimes to fulfill their egocentric desires. It’s easy to see real-world teenagers engaging in this type of behavior if superheroes actually existed, and Bermejo’s script explores how social media supports this inappropriate conduct by showing the enthusiastic Tweets from the cape catchers’ loyal audience. Riko may be up against five cape catchers, but the large number of digital followers indicates that there’s an even bigger enemy in the ideology that supports these aspiring criminals.
Thankfully, Riko has an ally in this fight with plenty of experience when it comes to villains fueled by social media, and the cape catchers are quickly stopped once Batgirl appears. She kicks the phone out of the hands of a cape catcher who thinks this is an interview opportunity, and when another asks Batgirl for a selfie, she wraps him in police tape and throws him in a garbage can with a sign attached to him reading “I WASTED BATGIRL’S TIME.” Batgirl is helpful in the fight, but she’s even more valuable as a source of encouragement for Riko, who needs someone to tell her that the risk of being Robin is worth it.
Batgirl has heard the warnings about putting herself and others in danger by being a vigilante, and she’s recently given those warnings herself as her roommate Frankie becomes more involved in the superhero lifestyle. But Batgirl also recognizes the good that can come from people working outside the law to protect their city. She doesn’t diminish the work Riko and her friends are doing, but she does tell her to keep in mind the consequences of her actions and remember the legacy of the symbol she wears. Ultimately, the decision to keep fighting is Riko’s, and Batgirl trusts her to make that choice on her own because she’s been in that position herself. It’s a great moment of support and respect between two female heroes, and Batgirl’s assistance gives extra weight to her final words for Riko: “When you feel like you’re drifting, just remember you’re the one steering the ship… but you’re never alone.”
Batgirl also has a major role in Grayson #12, which begins a new chapter in Dick’s life by bringing him back to Gotham City and reopening his relationships with the rest of the Bat-family. For the past 11 issues of the series, Dick has been working as a secret agent for SPYRAL while his former friends all thought he was dead, but as Dick finds himself in increasingly risky territory with his employer, he realizes that he needs help that he can no longer get from Bruce Wayne, whose recent memory loss has wiped out any recollection of his time as Batman or the mission he gave Dick to infiltrate SPYRAL. Dick turns to his old allies for help, but these reunions are understandably fraught, considering his deception.
Writers Tom King and Tim Seeley have done exceptional work delving into Dick Grayson’s ongoing identity crisis in this series, giving the character more depth by forcing him to negotiate all the masks he’s worn over time. He’s been Robin, Nightwing, and Batman, but who is Dick Grayson? Raised in the circus, Dick is a trained performer, and the book’s writing team has drawn from the character’s history to pave his future path. This week’s story is titled “A Fine Performance,” and begins with Alfred giving Dick a speech about the difference between a liar and a performer while applying the disguise Dick wears to meet Bruce: liars bend the world to make their lives easier, but performers bend the world to repair it and make the lives of others easier.
Much of Alfred’s viewpoint can be attributed to his role in deceiving Bruce, and Alfred has convinced himself that he’s not lying to Bruce, but putting on a performance that benefits him. Alfred’s words are what Dick needs to hear in order to have the confidence to confess to his friends, but his confessions are just more scenes in the ongoing performance of his current role as double agent. Much of the tension in King’s script for this issue comes from the conflict between Dick’s current part and the ones he’s played in the past, which King reinforces with loads of references to the character’s history.
The first moment of each new reunion scene is a full-page spread filled with word balloons containing dialogue from past stories, indicating the rush of memories Dick experiences when he engages with Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake and Jason Todd, Barbara Gordon, and Damian Wayne, and there are multiple moments when Dick’s personal history with these characters is detailed in collages showing events from the past. It’s an effective reminder of how far this character has come since his debut 75 years ago, and the drastic evolution he’s undergone in the past 12 issues of Grayson is especially clear in that context.
All of this week’s Batman-related titles feature gorgeous visuals, and the editorial staff behind these titles has made outstanding decisions when it comes to artists. The moody artwork of Juan Ferreyra on Gotham By Midnight intensifies the horror elements of that title while Bengal’s energetic linework and expressive characterizations make him a perfect fill-in artist on Batgirl, showing the Bat-editors’ commitment to finding artists that fit the tone of each series. Grayson’s Mikel Janín (with inking assists from Hugo Petrus and Juan Castro) has a clean style that reflects how Dick’s viewpoint is different from the grittier perspective of his mentor, and he has a sharp talent for dynamic action that spotlights Dick’s background as an acrobat by breaking down sequences of rapid movement into individual beats.
In Grayson #12, this style of action choreography helps draw connections between characters, and breaking down the beats of Barbara’s freefall from the top of a bridge or Damian’s gleeful bounding when he sees Dick is a way of showing how these characters have a stronger personal relationship to Dick. These acrobatic sequences have become a defining part of the book’s visual aesthetic, along with bold graphic patterns that tie into the title’s theme of mental manipulation and a general emphasis on the sex appeal of the title character. This issue is light on the beefcake, but there’s no shortage of hunkiness, particularly with Janín’s Bruce Wayne, a bearded stud that offers a burlier alternative to Dick’s clean-cut appearance. Grayson is a very pretty book with a slickness reminiscent of the James Bond films that are an essential part of its DNA, and the combination of Janín’s linework with Jeromy Cox’s rich coloring has helped elevate the drama and emotion of King and Seeley’s story.
Rebecca Taylor is the associate editor responsible for Grayson and We Are Robin, and she makes an inspired decision bringing James Harvey onto We Are Robin for this week’s issue. Like Toby Cypress on this month’s The Omega Men #4, Harvey cut his teeth on We Are Robin by contributing variant covers to the first three issues, and the style and attitude of those illustrations revealed an artistic perspective firmly in line with the work Bermejo is doing as writer. Harvey’s heightened attention to detail is immediately apparent in his character and environment designs. The decorations in Riko’s room say as much about her personality as the her outfit, which includes tights with a pattern of Batman’s head as drawn by Batman: The Animated Series creator Bruce Timm.
Featuring ink assists by Diana Egea and coloring assists by Alex Jaffe, Harvey’s art is full of texture and atmosphere, two elements that are emphasized by the strong distinctions he makes between the urban environment of Gotham City and island jungle of Lord Of The Flies that flashes in and out of the narrative. The lush green foliage of the jungle environment is a strong contrast to the stark blue cityscape of Gotham at night, and those glimpses of Golding’s world create visual tension on the page, as do the waves of Twitter avatars that flood the page at different points of the issue. We Are Robin’s unconventional take on the Robin concept deserves an unconventional art style, and Harvey’s layered compositions, expressive colors, and varied rendering techniques makes this week’s issue one of the boldest superhero comics of the year. It’s a great time to be a Robin fan, as the exciting talent in the creative teams of Grayson and We Are Robin has helped make the idea of Robin something bigger than just Batman’s sidekick.