Review: We Are Robin Vol. 1: The Vigilante Business trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

We Are Robin Vol. 1: The Vigilante Business by Lee Bermejo is the impressive start to the latest Bat-family teen drama. With the benefit of hindsight we know that the DC You We Are Robin only lasts twelve issues, so unfortunately we're saying good-bye almost as soon as we arrive. Bermejo's slow build is appropriate for the story, which deserved a longer run, but as it turned out means the book spends precious space on murkiness before things really coalesce in the third issue.

I was not at all familiar with Bermejo's writing before now, but he manages distinct and realistic teen voices with aplomb, and Bermejo's seems an obvious choice for a DC book like the troubled Teen Titans; further, Bermejo manages to examine the implications of an "occupy" movement set against a superhero background far more subtly than Gail Simone's The Movement. Artist Jorge Corona's absurdist, distorted figures are just right for the "looser" teen-starred book. A bevy of additional artists draw the chapters' epilogues and other aspects, and in some respects what distinguishes We Are Robin is its indie-style art, far from DC's house style; this is perhaps a rare book where the art by five artists is near perfect throughout.

[Review contains spoilers]

That a Robin youth movement springs up in Gotham in the wake of the Joker's "Endgame" attack is an interesting premise enough, but in some respects Bermejo and DC kept as a surprise We Are Robin's most interesting aspect, that there's a core group of Robins here led by Alfred Pennyworth. Bermejo teases Alfred's presence for the first couple issues, but it'll be pretty clear to most Bat-fans. It's a cool role for Alfred to be like the unseen "Charlie" to the Robins' Angels, or like the Secret Six's Mockingbird, and Alfred proves himself especially a match for his erstwhile boss in the various disguises Alfred dons here. Robin's first big shock is when one of the group dies, and it's a poignant moment when Alfred acknowledges the earlier death of Robin Jason Todd. Unfortunately, as far as Rebirth is concerned I can't tell that any of these Robins show up or that Alfred appears changed at all by his experiences (letting alone that Alfred sponsoring a group of Robins seems to contradict his wanting to leave superheroics behind in Batman: Superheavy), but it's an engaging role for the character nonetheless.

Bermejo writes the book's teen characters refreshingly without angst and largely without slang, presenting them as people, not caricatures. Without the crutch of superpowers, Bermejo distinguishes the characters by their personalities, and the Robins come off exceptionally realistic -- the tech whiz who gains his prowess from being a mechanic, not from some vague convenient brilliance, for instance, and the "jock" who, Bermejo presents with smart nuance, joins the Robins because he values being part of a team. There's even a distinct lack of sexual tension among the Robins; even as they're all so-called "troubled" teens, in their Robin personas they're all business, and again Bermejo's group is refreshingly readable especially in comparison to the DC You Teen Titans.

As mentioned, it takes a couple issues before Bermejo fully reveals the core Robin team, the characters names, and so on, and the book -- without spoon-feeding information to the reader -- takes a little while to get in to. Bermejo's third issue, however, is a harrowing chapter devoted entirely to the Robins trying to disarm two bombs, and what makes it so gripping is there's no standard superhero aplomb here, but rather true-to-life fear and panic. One of the Robins dies, and Bermejo shows the others' mourning in the fourth issue, self-contained and with stripped-down, pop-inspired art by James Harvey; it is a tour de force, setting Lord of the Flies against Gotham rooftop shenanigans, and with an appearance by the Burnside Batgirl to boot. It's this issue specifically that distinguishes We Are Robin as something else, and the final issues that explore the Robins' families (and pit them against a Court of Owls Talon) uphold that level of quality.

It's in those final issues that Bermejo begins to reveal the Robins outside the core group, and in this, We Are Robin favorably begins to remind of China Mieville's Dial H. Had Bermejo's We Are Robin continued, there's perhaps an infinite number of stories that could have been told, setting aside the core group for countless number of Robins that might operate in Gotham capable of supporting their own short stories or storylines. In presenting these various Robins, how they cooperate or feud with the police, and increasingly how public opinion sways for and against them, Bermejo offers what feels like an accurate take on a superhero "movement," and without some of the on-the-nose soapboxing of books like The Movement. That realism extends to ideas like the "Cape Cast" here, an unruly internet show that tries to capture video of the caped crusaders.

As a gross generalization, for every ongoing mainstream series that wilted in the DC You era (Flash and in large part Green Arrow, I'm thinking, but of course this doesn't hold up for Batman itself), a new series like Omega Men or this We Are Robin Vol. 1: The Vigilante Business towered above. It doesn't much look like any of the We Are Robin team is doing DC work much past Rebirth, but I'm interested to see that James Harvey worked on the Young Animal Doom Patrol cover; maybe the spirit of books like We Are Robin continues over into Young Animal. I liked We Are Robin and I'm sorry the next book is the last, and this volume is worth checking out.

[Includes original and variant covers, profile page, character designs, page layouts and sketches]
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3 comments:

  1. Great review.Given his invovlement in multiple Batman Rebirth books, Duke does seem to be here to stay.Everyone else,I'm not too sure.I did enjoy this book.

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    1. Granted I don't know how it ends, but if they're around it'd be nice if one of Duke's writers would give a nod to the We Are Robin cast once in a while. Or maybe one of them could appear in Detective Comics?

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  2. This was a really neat premise that got cut short. Duke comes off as a lot more interesting here than he does in in Rebirth.

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