DC Comics — Bill Willingham (w); Rick Mays (p); Aaron Sowd (i)I’ve never made a secret of the fact that though my fanboy fanaticism rarely rears its head, when it does, it’s usually over a Batman book. When I first started seriously collecting in the early ’90s, I spent several months trying to decide which one of comicdom’s little universes I was going to invest my time and money on. I tried the X-Men, but was put off by “X-Cutioner’s Song”; I gave Spider-Man a shot, but was turned off by the unattractive art on Spectacular Spider-Man and McFarlane’s inappropriately (in my opinion) dark storylines in Spider-Man. But somehow, probably because of Wizard‘s coverage of “Knightfall” (so never let it be said that no ’90s crossover event ever served a purpose), I fell ass-backwards (which is how I do everything) into the Bat-titles and I haven’t really left since. And if I were being totally honest about it, I’d say a good portion of my affection towards the books comes from Tim Drake as Robin.
I always thought that Drake captured the youthful exuberance that Dick Grayson personified, humanizing the otherwise unnaturally cold Batman. However, Drake never came off as a blatant attempt to cash in on a younger audience (as Robin’s original appearance in the books so clearly was). At the same time, Tim was never used as a running leap in the opposite direction the way the much-maligned Jason Todd had been; I mean, seriously, ignoring the illogical existence of Batman’s teen sidekick, why would he choose one that’s such a whiny little bitch? Put simply, Drake always seemed like the perfect Robin. So when the character got his own title, I have to admit that I was thrilled (I was in junior high, you understand). Chuck Dixon was handling the writing chores and I always thought that he really “got” the character (and for all I know, he might have created him; Dixon was associated heavily with the Bat-books for that long). When Dixon departed for CrossGen after a run of a hundred issues, DC filled his shoes with Jon Lewis, an indy writer of no small renown (and a good writer, in his own right). Sadly, Lewis’ run never quite clicked, with either fans or critics (and apparently DC), and after last month’s issue, that run has drawn to a close. Lewis, you see, just didn’t “get it.” The book’s writing chores are now under the direction of Fables‘ Bill Willingham.
And Bill Willingham “gets it.”
Having finally moved back into Gotham City proper, Tim Drake aids his mentor in chasing down the getaway cars of a band of thugs who raided the nearby S.T.A.R Labs, making away with nine potentially dangerous items. Between the two of them, the Dynamic Duo recovers eight of the stolen devices, leaving one thief absent and unaccounted for, along with his prize. As all this takes place the night before Tim is set to begin his junior year of high school at Lewis E. Grieve Memorial, Batman sends him home immediately after their rendezvous at the mansion rather than allow him to ride shotgun and continue tracking the last weapon. Meanwhile, Johnny Warren (who Willingham has promised to transform into “Robin’s Joker” during this opening story arc), a gunman in the service of mob boss Henry Aquista’s crew, pays a visit to the safehouse of Ollie the Deuce, an operator for Aquista responsible for the unauthorized S.T.A.R. Labs job (and possessor of the last missing weapon). Finding Ollie absent, Warren amuses himself by tormenting the Deuce’s girlfriend and settles in to wait for Ollie to return.
Meanwhile, still grumbling over Batman’s orders, Drake endures his first day of school, receiving the grand tour from overbearingly arrogant Bernard Dowd (a fellow student that informs Tim that he “pretty much runs things” at Gotham High). The day’s only highlight is when he runs into (literally) fetching co-ed Darla Aquista. Still wondering why the Aquista family name sounds so familiar, Drake darts back to Wayne Manor after school. With Bruce visiting S.T.A.R. Labs, Tim finds himself with the run of the mansion. Intending to use the computers to do homework, he finds himself unable to resist taking one more shot at tracking down the missing weapon. Making a deductive leap, he tries unsuccessfully to contact Batman. Faced with a dilemma, he rationalizes that part of being a good superhero is working independently and sets off to follow his hunch regarding the whereabouts of the Lab’s purloined artifact.
The thing that makes this book work is that Willingham manages to make Tim, through internal monologue, seem genuinely enthusiastic about his “after-school job” (i.e., vigilantism). When done properly, it makes Robin serve as an interesting counterpoint to the depressing dedication that Batman demonstrates. To rephrase, the Dark Knight does it out of guilt and anger (and the fact that he’s a psychopath just waiting to come unhinged), but Robin does the job because he actually enjoys the work.
Aside from the nicely scripted thought bubbles, Willingham seems to have a pretty good handle on writing the part of a teenage superhero’s life that doesn’t involve a mask and Kevlar bodysuit. Tim’s frustration at being reined in by Batman and Alfred seems honest, like it could have been written by a well-adjusted (but irritated) sixteen-year old. It’s an important point to make, I think, because teenage dialogue in comic books is too often clearly penned by a man who hasn’t been a teenager since the ’70s (at least). Willingham doesn’t write the angst-ridden soap opera of high school life in this issue as well as Brian Bendis does in Ultimate Spider-Man, but there’s definitely potential and I think that’s something Willingham should be proud of.
All in all, it’s a damned fine issue. It’s completely possible that that assessment is merely by Batman bias springing forth at an inopportune moment (I have to say, I yelled “COOL!” when I pulled this issue out of my advance previews envelope), but I think Willingham’s debut is the start of a solid (and hopefully lengthy) run on the title. He gets a lot accomplished in twenty-two pages (a topic the aforementioned Mr. Bendis could take a lesson on), but never rushes things.
One issue down, Mr. Willingham; ninety-nine more and you tie Chuck Dixon’s record.
Break it, Bill. Break it.