Review: Robin & Batman hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen are each popular and prolific among the DC Comics set. Together, they’re the team behind the acclaimed Descender from Image (and its sequel, Ascender), which, notably, has recently been optioned for both film and television.

I expect somewhere in there is the reason for the team’s Robin & Batman.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Nguyen. It is, I say more grudgingly, nicely written by Lemire. Indeed, I can step outside myself and say there’s nothing problematic here; Lemire (an accomplished writer I enjoy) offers a nice perspective on Robin Dick Grayson trying to negotiate the really unbelievable world he’s been thrust in upon being taken in by Bruce Wayne. In the way of these “Elseworlds-ish” miniseries, Lemire also does some fun, unexpected juxtaposing of different DC eras and sensibilities.

My problem is that there’s little of this I haven’t seen before. I own that fully as my own problem; if this is the first Dick Grayson origin you’ve read, or the first Batman-from-the-perspective-of-Robin story, you might be quite pleased. That Robin & Batman falls short for me because elements echo Robin stories from almost 30 years ago hardly seems a fair criticism.

Indeed I wonder about the purpose of Robin & Batman — who proposed it, what does DC need it for, what gap is this supposed to fill, and is this book just a hedge against the creators' past and future successes? Not that there’s anything wrong with making a buck. But if you at all suspect you’re already versed in the finer points of Dick Grayson’s origins, chances are this book might not hold much for you.

[Review contains spoilers]

I had that sinking feeling early in Robin & Batman, after the book’s long opening, when Batman and Robin are arguing about how Robin thinks he’s ready for crimefighting and Batman does not. If there is not already a Dick Grayson version of that particular argument (and there, if not in comics, then animated), then definitely I can point you to the same for both Tim Drake and Damian Wayne, if not also Jason Todd. If it’s new for you, then of course, it’s new for you, but Lemire cannot have thought this was an original idea.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

See too the school principal questioning whether Bruce Wayne might be abusing his ward (more startling back in Robin III: Cry of the Huntress) and also the tired bickering between Bruce and Alfred over whether Dick should be a child first or a soldier. (It’s an awfully cynical view of superhero Batman, in my opinion, to think he’d decide out of hand that Dick’s better off tracking bad guys than going to school.) I did think Lemire had an interesting arc of the book in that Dick seems to be learning to embrace the dark madness of his new vigilante life, but the book ends where these stories always do, with Robin being the shining light to Batman’s darkness.

In contrast, take the second chapter. There, Lemire reimagines Robin’s first meeting with the very classic (Bob Haney) Teen Titans against the backdrop of the Justice League “satellite era.” That’s notable because by all appearances otherwise, Robin & Batman is a modern retelling of Dick Grayson’s origins. It is “dark” and “violent” insofar as Nguyen can really convey either (there’s always a Li’l Gotham aspect to Nguyen’s work that’s a feature, not a bug). Batman has his traditional Year One costume, not with a yellow circle or such, and Lemire and Nguyen introduce a “new classic” Robin costume, with a pointy, stylized “R” and yet another attempt to elide the original hot pants.

The weird, anachronistic melange that emerges forms the book’s best part. I’m far less interested in Batman and Robin (and Alfred) having the same argument over again; I’m far more interested in Dick Grayson walking past Firestorm and Elongated Man on his way to a first meeting with the Titans that include Donna Troy and Speedy being there from the start. I could quibble that the “they won’t give us a mission so we’ll make our own” premise is itself awfully close to the early Young Justice cartoon; point is, Robin & Batman picked up for me when Lemire did something all his own that I wasn’t expecting.

I’d be remiss not to mention Lemire’s use of Killer Croc. Based on the first chapter, I was expecting that Croc would turn out to be a good guy here with some affection for the former Flying Grayson, not unlike Croc in Gotham Academy. That Croc remains a villain is fine, and it’s to Lemire’s credit that he presents a Robin origin with Croc as the most notable villain and not Joker or Two-Face.1 An interesting conceit on Lemire’s part is that Bruce in some way muddled the records such that his adopting Dick wasn’t public record; there’s a number of ways this doesn’t wholly make sense, but I enjoyed the sequence where Croc and the Calculator parse out Dick’s identity anyway.



Not unlike Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino’s recent Bone Orchard: The Passageway, perhaps Robin & Batman is best understood as a vehicle for Dustin Nguyen’s distinctive art drawn over a thin plot. (Again, I go back to the League/Titans chapter; we’re well-versed in Nguyen drawing the Bat-family, but his big angry Hawkman is a delight.) But a thin plot is less than I expect from Lemire. I’ve been charitable of late with the numerous (often Black Label) Bat-miniseries on the stands, usually finding something distinctive to make each worthwhile. Here, nice as Robin & Batman is to look at, I’m not so sure.

[Includes original and variant covers, sketchbook section]

  1. Recognizing of course a version of Killer Croc‘s role in a version of Jason Todd’s origin.  ↩


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