I felt fairly lukewarm about Robin: Unmasked--the somewhat awkward, choppy cut-scenes, combined with a garish art change halfway through, didn't help the fact that Tim Drake felt mostly out-of-character, nearly giving up his Robin persona after he believes he kills a criminal, which I think is not nearly the first time Robin's had to deal with that. But Bill Willingham's portrayal of Spoiler-as-Robin in Batman: War Drums showed promise, and Robin/Batgirl: Fresh Blood did, too. Which is why, as a long-time Robin fan, I was pleased to find much more to enjoy in Robin: To Kill a Bird. Perhaps without the constraints of crossovers, Willingham has finally hit his stride with this title; though his run only lasts one more trade, we can at least say it had some effect while it lasted. With some nice surprises and character moments, To Kill a Bird is a worthy addition to the Robin cannon.
To Kill a Bird finds Robin in Bludhaven, hunted by a bevy of masked assassins. He ultimately traces them to the Penguin, but finds he's receiving unexpected help in ending the Penguin's contract--a military group that wants to make Robin their newest recruit. At the same time, Bruce Wayne offers to adopt the orphaned Tim Drake, until Tim's mysterious long-lost Uncle Eddie arrives. And Robin's foe Johnny Warlock brings a new enemy back from the dead, while Alfred begins a relationship with Tim's widowed mother.
From the moment that Bruce Wayne offers to adopt Tim Drake in this trade, I was hooked. It wasn't something I'd considered, and Bruce's humble requesting, combined with Tim's excitement, really made me root for it to happen. Then, Willingham introduces the mystery of Uncle Eddie, and when that came toward its resolution, I found myself thinking, "No, Willingham wouldn't ... would he?" In this trade, Willingham shows his willingness to be controversial, and it does the story a lot of good. Alfred's unexpected flirtation with Dana Drake--and the subsequent conversation that he and Batman have about it--is shocking and controversial and just plain interesting, and that's exactly what this story needs.
Willingham's villains take a giant leap forward here, too. Though I didn't initially like the magic-based Johnny Warlock going up against the more urban-grounded Robin, I found that his appearances in sub-plots here did a lot to flesh out the character. And while Willingham introduces quite a few other villains here that might otherwise just be one-note foes, there's obvious effort made to characterize each, from the honor of the Rising Sun Archer to the unique challenge Robin faces with the Dark Rider, even to Robin's interrogation of the Penguin. In pitting Robin against these characters, Willingham shows why the Robin title is more than just Batman with a younger protagonist; Robin's solutions are wilder, his battles more off-the-cuff, and all in all the stories have a nice, fluid feel.
The art switches a couple times in this trade, though the effect is far less jarring than in Robin: Unmasked. Damion Scott continues the great work he did on Batgirl at the beginning of this trade, though his reappearance toward the end, where the art gets cluttered and is rife with two-page spreads, quickly heralds his replacement by Scott McDaniel. (It's surprising, frankly, that only Scott gets a mention on the trade cover, and not McDaniel.) McDaniel's work holds up well (though I still prefer him inked by Karl Story); the Batman/Alfred scenes in the Batcave are reminiscent of McDaniel's definitive work on Batman #600 and #605. In the middle of the trade, we have quick hits from Giuseppe Camuncoli and Pop Mhan, nearly indistinguishable from one another, but both do great jobs, and I'd be happy to see Robin drawn again by either.
[Contains full covers (slightly reduced size).]
I'm continuing my pre-Villains United trip through the Bat-verse now, with Batman: War Crimes, and Nightwing: Mobbed Up. Stay cool out there!