Review: Robins: Being Robin trade paperback (DC Comics)


Like Becky Cloonan’s Batgirls, Tim Seeley’s Robins: Being Robin seems like the kind of book fans have been wanting but DC has been reluctant to offer until this more gracious Infinite Frontier era. Under the right team, Robin seems like the premise for a winner, especially if DC could recapture the “team book for people who hate team books” magic of Gotham Knights, or at least give each Robin their own subplot a la James Tynion’s Detective Comics.

But the six-issue Robins is a surprisingly poor showing from writer Tim Seeley, who was not only half of the legendary Grayson team but also wrote an exceptional volume of New Suicide Squad, among many other things. The plot hinges on virtual reality video game pseudo-science that’s banal even by comic book standards; the book’s most interesting aspect, its villain, barely makes the scene; and the titular Robins are often reduced to their most stereotypically identifiable qualities, with some poor dialogue to boot.

That’s letting alone the continuity of this thing, which wonderfully draws from the long history of these characters but then can’t make comprehensible sense of their presents. Not to mention Seeley’s tendency, when an aspect of one Robin doesn’t match the others, to just make stuff up rather than research harder for what must surely be out there.

Though I’ve been pleased with Giannis Milonogiannis and company’s manga-inspired work on Future State: Gotham, here too I often found Baldemar Rivas' art too indistinct or absurd, on top of the non sequitors the script sometimes calls him to draw. See, right at the beginning, the strange close-up on Dick Grayson’s interlaced fingers like a bowl of noodles, or when Jason Todd punches Tim Drake in slow-mo over two panels (complete with generic “POW” sound effect), or when I think Jason is meant to crush a coffee cup, but it looks like his hand phases through it.

I looked forward to Robins, I thought it might be the start of something, but I can’t imagine that’s going to be the case.

[Review contains spoilers]

I do appreciate Seeley’s grasp of who the Robins were, if not necessarily who they are now. An early part of the story turns on the various Robins' “gauntlets,” their formative cases. Within, we hear some names we haven’t heard in a while — the Obeah Man, who killed Tim Drake’s mother; Scarab, a foe of Stephanie Brown’s as Robin; and Felipe Garzonas, whom Jason Todd killed (yes, I said it). When other writers aren’t even certain if Tim’s parents are alive or dead, these kinds of deep dives are exactly what I wanted from Robins.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

And loathe as I am to see a story where Batman’s pushing his sidekicks away again over an unrevealed secret from his past again, I did enjoy weird villain Jenny Wren. Rivas does a great character design, visibly Robin-eqsue but with the odd feathered boa and pale Joker complexion. In a story that was at times incomprehensible — why did Wren need to steal Batman’s files if she already knew the history of the Robins? — I did think Seeley convincingly explained how Wren could be the “first” Robin and how she affected Batman’s choices going forward. I’d be happier to see Wren appear again, if under steadier hands.

That all said, it was at the moment early in the book where Damian calls Tim “Drake” and Tim says “Dude! Code names only, Damian!” that I was concerned we were in for trouble — both because of the groan-inducing play on Tim having actually called himself “Drake” and also because no one up or down the creative line caught Tim doing the same thing he was chiding Damian for. The dialogue is filled with “cuz this” and “cuz that” — maybe that’s how some imagine the Robins talk, but it seems a writerly affectation to me, same as when Jason Todd says, “I ain’t mad.”

It continues like that — it’s not offensive in the sense of some egregiously bad comics, but details get missed, like when Spoiler later says a henchwoman didn’t recognize her (evidence of brainwashing), but we see a scene where the person specifically calls Stephanie “Spoiler”! For a book that revels in very old details of the characters' lives, there’s no recognition of Spoiler and Anarky’s pretty significant shared history; also, given Damian and Stephanie’s closer relationship a continuity ago, Damian’s distain for Stephanie under Seeley’s pen feels unfortunate.

Too, that Seeley manages to be one among very few to bring to the page both Dick Grayson and Jason Todd’s friendships with Starfire, but at the same time fumbles when it comes to Dick’s “gauntlet.” Given all the actual continuity at play here, one might think Dick’s gauntlet would be something to do with Tony Zucco, or with Two-Face al la Batman: Prodigal. Instead, Seeley invents a gangster whole cloth here, making the requisite scene less than what it could be; further, I’d think Jenny Wren would have more resonance as the ward of an actual obscure Batman villain, instead of one Seeley made up just for this story.

There’s a strange push-and-pull in the extent to which Robins is set in the here and now, evidenced most clearly by Haley the dog hanging about, but without acknowledgment of Jason’s recent reformation or Damian’s resignation. The whole of Stephanie’s story is that she was the shortest-tenured Robin, a failure, without any mention of her successes as Batgirl. The question of whether Stephanie’s father Cluemaster lives or not is only further confused here; it’s fun to see the Grayson version of Huntress, but I’m hard-pressed to tell you if that character exists any more or not.

Variably, the book suggests that Batman uses the Robins' loyalty to his own ends, the Robins would be happier without Batman, but then again that maybe all the Robins would have gone astray without Batman. That’s no sooner resolved than Seeley suggests at the end that all of this was Batman’s intentional plan to test or bring together the Robins. The text itself doesn’t seem to uphold this, given the actions we see Batman take here, but neither does the last page really refute it. That Batman would do this on purpose — the gangster Delcaine dying, Tim being kidnapped and beaten, etc. — seems outlandish to the extreme, and I’m bewildered why Seeley would want to leave the reader with that impression. It suggests to me a book not on top of the story it’s trying to tell.



A variety of DC’s Round Robin competitors had newer writers attached to them, writers one might recognize from DC New Talent Showcase or etc. But not Robins: Being Robin, a book that seemed destined to win the initial competition and had Tim Seeley on it, to boot. This one unfortunately went very wrong; more’s the pity, were there not plenty of other places to see these characters together.

[Contains original and variant covers, sketchbook]

Comments ( 3 )

  1. You hit the nail right on the head, as always. This book should have been a slam dunk, but it never transcended the surface-level pitch. Indeed, it's soured me on the whole notion of the "Round Robin" voting; if the readers are going to vote for books like this, I'll pass.

    I had really hoped that this book might finally tie up the "first ally" loose end from Snyder's /All-Star Batman/, and I kept expecting Jenny Wren to run and fail the gauntlet that Duke Thomas ran - and maybe it's unfair for me to judge the book by what it was never going to do. But as you said, there is so much to mine with these characters, and Seeley starts to scratch the surface. But it ends up feeling like a glib Bat-version of "Into the Spider-Verse," trying to sell character variants to readers inclined to vote and engage on social media.

    At the end of the day, it made me want to re-read the Tomasi/Gleason "Batman & Robin," which captured so much more elegantly what holds all these Robins together. (You could also make the case that it was the best book of the New 52, but that's an argument for another time.)

    1. Yeah, given my similar love for the Seeley-era Grayson/Nightwing, I had high hopes for this mini-series -- hopes that got dashed within 2 issues.

    2. >> You could also make the case that it was the best book of the New 52 ...

      We can discuss the merits of I, Vampire another time. But agreed with both of your takes, and the parallel with All-Star Batman is interesting. Now I want Snyder to do another Batman project where he ties that up ...


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