When you look at the origins for the world’s most famous superheroes, it’s easy to talk in broad strokes. With Batman, we know young Bruce Wayne watched as his parents were murdered in an alley, prompting him to wage a war on crime. For Superman, you have a doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, and a kindly couple. Peter Parker is bitten by a spider, misuses the powers he’s given, and takes his uncle’s wise words to heart.
Dick Grayson has a pretty widely known origin as well, as he grew up in the circus, witnessed his parents’ deaths on the trapeze, and is taken in by Bruce Wayne to be his ward. That, of course, leads to his debut as Robin, the Boy Wonder, the Sensational Character Find of 1940.
Even if it’s easy enough to sum up a character’s beginnings in a few phrases, that still leads a lot of fertile ground for storytelling. After the Waynes are murdered, what does Bruce Wayne do until he first puts on a costume to become the Batman? What were young Clark Kent’s early days like, living on a farm and constantly developing superpowers? After Dick is given a home and shelter by Bruce, how did he earn his guardian’s trust and become his partner in crimefighting?
There have been stories telling and retelling each of those histories over the years, and the superstar team of Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen, and Steve Wands have reunited once more to bring us the early days of Robin, the Boy Wonder.
If you’re not familiar with this creative team and their work together, they previously collaborated on the science-fiction epic Descender and its sequel, Ascender, the latter of which just recently concluded. If you know, you know I’m not exaggerating when I call them a dream team, and even their individual output with other creators is phenomenal. Lemire is one of the most celebrated writers in the world of comics, Nguyen is a legend in the world of Batman thanks to his work with Paul Dini on Detective Comics and Derek Fridolfs on Li’l Gotham, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better and more versatile letterer than Wands. So yeah, this team rocks, and the prospect of them delivering a Dick Grayson-focused story just about made my year when it was announced just a few months back.
So how does the final product stack up, now that the first issue is out?
Well, if nothing else, I highly recommend this for the visuals alone.
Nguyen colors his own pencils, using the watercolor style that has practically become his trademark. Coupled with the stunning captions, dialogue, and sound effects from Wands, every single page of this book is just beautiful to look at. Whether it’s the brilliant opening scene where an insubordinate pre-Robin Grayson takes on some thieves, a wonderfully grimy sequence where Batman swings through the dark skies of Gotham which transitions to Dick exploring the fetid sewers beneath the city, or even playfully low-key scenes of Dick getting bored at school, the visual storytelling on display here is second to none.
Nguyen truly uses every last millimeter of the page, and knows how to perfectly balance details with negative space, and everything in between. Just take a look at this double page spread:
The details on the truck in the foreground are pretty impressive, and each of the three figures are illustrated well. As the eye moves up into the background and the skyline at the top of the page, there’s a healthy mix of blank space, abstract outlines, and color blending to give the scene life.
But all of this talk about the art must surely make it seem like I’m going to be hard on the writing. No, this is a very well-written comic, with a few scenes that are full of heart and genuinely moved me. Any hangups I have with Lemire’s script come from my own personal baggage, but as we all absorb art in different ways, it’s impossible to put those things aside.
My one main complaint is that Batman is kind of a huge jerk here. Granted, he isn’t in the story much, but when he is he’s berating Dick and treating him less like a fellow orphan who needs guidance, and more as a recruit for his personal crusade who isn’t up to snuff. I’m not a fan of that kind of Batman portrayal– where he sees his allies as “soldiers” rather than partners or, dare I say, even loved ones– and this isn’t the most extreme example of it by any means, though there’s still plenty of it there.
But then Lemire will turn around and give us a scene where Dick is fantasizing about being Batman’s partner, sketching potential costume ideas instead of paying attention in school, hoping that Bruce isn’t really mad at him. We’re wrapped up in that hope with him, and our hearts sink with his as it’s Alfred picking young Grayson up from school, not Bruce. As evidenced by the fact that Robin is the first name in the title, this is Dick’s story through and through, and he has the more defined personality and characterization of the Dynamic Duo. There are times when he’s insubordinate, angry, and even petulant, but his youthful exuberance makes it clear that this is only because he isn’t allowed to realize his dream. He knows he can be of value to Batman as a partner, he just needs to get Batman to know that too.
That’s plenty of fertile ground to explore in the coming chapters, and even if Batman was a bit too one-dimensional with his gruffness, he has a moment where his icy demeanor is shattered and he’s left hurt and disappointed. It’s not a case where you laugh at him for getting his comeuppance, though, but instead feel sorry that his sincerity wasn’t received. Hopefully we get more of a caring Batman who doesn’t know how to respond to this new youngster in his life, as opposed to a stoic soldier who eschews all emotion.
Aside from the nitpicks about some of the characterization, there’s one connection between Dick and another character that… might not actually make sense given the timeframe presented in the story, but it’s an interesting one that could work. I won’t spoil it here, but it imagines one of Batman’s villains being a part of Haly’s Circus when he was younger as well, and I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t been done more often.
What surprised me most about Robin & Batman was how low-key the story is. This isn’t meant to shake up the very foundations of Gotham, with twist after twist and retcons galore. Instead, it’s the story of how Dick Grayson tries to prove himself enough to become Robin, and how that ambition makes him get in his own way. It’s a very good story, with some of the best art you’ll find in a comic this year, and it left me excited for more.
BONUS: Some sweet, sweet variant covers from Lemire, Nguyen, and Rafael Albuquerque and Jordie Bellaire.
- You know that the team of Lemire, Nguyen, and Wands means quality comics.
- Seriously, this book is gorgeous.
- You’re a big Robin fan and are down for an updated take on Dick Grayson’s early years.
Overall: From the creative team that’s been assembled to the concept behind the series, Robin & Batman should be right up my alley. It almost reaches perfection, but a few personal quibbles hold it back. Even still, there is no reason that I wouldn’t recommend this at the very least on a technical level, because the craftsmanship is second to none. Here’s to hoping that the brief glimpses of heart and warmth come to the forefront in the next two chapters, because there’s potential for greatness here.