Monday, April 11, 2011

Little bird, little bird

It’s pretty much a constant in nerd-dom: where two or more nerds are gathered, they will argue about their favorite incarnation of a beloved character. Their favorite James Bond. Their favorite Doctor (of Who fame). Their favorite Jedi or Starfleet captain. It’s a natural consequence of long-running media franchises that must occasionally replace their stars.

Comic books, however, have a unique option. Not having to rely on flesh-and-blood actors, they can happily use the same hero in story after story for decades—and often do, at least when he’s as popular as Superman or Spider-Man.

And yet, with many, many characters below that top tier of comic-book bestsellerdom, a third option is surprisingly popular—kill the main character and put someone newer and cooler in the same costume, with or without cosmetic changes, in the neverending quest for better sales.

So it is that comic-book fans have some of the bitterest who’s-your-favorite arguments. They’re not just arguing over whether one actor or another plays a character particularly well—they’re arguing about what kind of character best embodies the kind of mythic concept that tends to get wrapped up in a superhero. It’s not about whether Hal Jordan or Kyle Rayner is the better Green Lantern—it’s about whether Green Lantern should be Hal Jordan or Kyle Rayner. (Personally, I have a soft spot for Alan Scott, the Green Lantern of the 1940s—so I’ve learned to stay far away from the hardcore fan arguments there.)

I tend to be pretty mercenary on these matters; I’ll read about any character who gives me a good story, and if that story is tied in to a concept that means something to me (like Daredevil), I’ll read more than one story. So while Alan Scott may be my favorite Green Lantern, I’ve read some Hal stories I liked just fine and even some Kyle stories that were pretty good. I like Captain America, and Steve Rogers will always be the unsurpassed original for me, but I’m getting a real kick out of the current storyline in the comic wherein Steve’s out of the uniform and his former sidekick, James “Bucky” Barnes, is trying to build himself a life inside that costume.  So my list of genuine irrational favorites—characters whose presence or absence in a particular union suit will make or break the story for me—is pretty short.

But I think it starts with Robin.

Yeah, the kid in the tights. Or the lack of tights, if you go back to the original costume. Robin was created as a way to capitalize on Batman’s popularity and give kids an additional in with the character—a kid right there in the story to help every funnybook-reading boy imagine he too was in the middle of the action. He’s bedeviled writers ever since—how do you make a laughing kid in a circus costume fit into the grim world of the Dark Knight?

There have been five major Robins in the character’s 71-year history. Dick Grayson holds the record for longest tenure—he was the original Robin and held the post until the early 1980s, when DC Comics’ writers let him grow up and become the adult superhero Nightwing. (He also got some pants, at long last.) Dick was a circus brat whose parents were murdered and who joined up with Batman, apparently for lack of a father figure. Dick was the bright spot in the typical Batman adventure, cracking jokes while he kicked people in the head, and as the original Robin, he helped define what it meant to be a sidekick, for good or ill. When written by Devin Grayson, he also provided one of the character insights that led me to create Trevor Gray—the idea that a kid adopted by a superhero might want to become a sidekick not just because superheroing was so cool, but because it was the most immediate way for a child who’d lost a parent to protect a new parent figure. That little bit of character development led directly to something you’ll see in the new serial this summer, too.

After Dick took off, the Bat-writers dropped in a street kid named Jason Todd, who was introduced when he tried to steal the wheels off the Batmobile (really). At first a bland stand-in for Dick Grayson, Jason eventually morphed into a brat with an attitude problem, and in a controversial 1988 publicity stunt, was killed off after fans voted in a telephone poll to let him die in an explosion. (Longstanding rumor has it that a guy with a Macintosh and a grudge rigged the voting, but if true, the culprit has never been publicly identified.)

A year after Jason was blown up, a new Robin appeared—out of costume. Tim Drake first showed up as Bruce Wayne’s nerdy, thoughtful neighbor … who had long since figured out that Dick Grayson was Robin, and therefore that Bruce Wayne was Batman. Tim didn’t feel the need to do anything about this until Dick quit, Jason died, and Bats began showing signs of mental instability. Without anyone to look out for, Batman was developing a death wish. Tim started out by trying to get Dick back into the game, but finally ended up donning the costume himself and holding down the job, with a brief interruption, for 20 years.

There have been two Robins since Tim—his girlfriend, Stephanie Brown, took over briefly after Tim’s father made him quit the sidekick biz, and Bruce’s son Damian recently took over the role when Dick replaced Bruce as Batman—but I had a conversation recently that made me realize that I wasn’t just looking at Tim Drake as a favorite character, but rather as a favorite Robin, specifically. (Fair warning: I loved Dick as Nightwing, so I ain’t knocking the circus kid.)

I lent a friend the first volume of Geoff Johns’ Teen Titans run, “A Kid’s Game,” and told her to look for two lines as she read. Only later did I realize they were both Tim moments, and summed up nicely why I like the character so much.

The first line I gave her was, “Did you just lie to Starfire?” About halfway through the collection, after team member Impulse has gotten his kneecap blown off by Deathstroke the Terminator (yes, that’s his name), Tim, Superboy, and Wonder Girl try to go after the bad guy, but team leader Starfire stops them on the grounds that they’re minors and that Deathstroke has a history of killing young Titans. As Superboy and Wonder Girl continue to argue the point, Tim politely agrees with Starfire, shocking both of his friends. They follow him up the stairs to his room, yelling at him for caving … and then notice that he’s calmly cutting a hole in his windowpane. He explains that they’re going to go visit Impulse in the hospital, then kick Deathstroke’s butt. “Wait a second,” a shocked Wonder Girl says, “… you just lied to Starfire?!

Tim pauses, looks over his shoulder, and says, “I lie to Batman.”

And, in fact, he did. After his father was killed, 16-year-old Tim manufactured an uncle to take custody of him so Bruce Wayne couldn’t adopt him. And he fooled Batman for quite a while with the quality of the forgery. It was one of the more impressive bits I’d seen in the history of sidekickdom, and established one of my rules for writing young heroes—they have to have their own motivations and their own view of the world, whether or not it conflicts with adult heroes who may or may not know better. When asked later how mad he thinks Starfire is at him, on a scale of one to ten, the normally reserved kid replies, “I hope fifty.”

The other line I gave my friend was, “You could go bald.” Tim’s best friend, Superboy, finds out in the course of the book that he’s not actually a full clone of Superman—half his DNA came from bad guy Lex Luthor. Tim, without his friend’s permission, runs a DNA test and confirms the finding. Superboy yells at him that he doesn’t want to deal with having a 50% chance of being either the world’s greatest hero or the world’s greatest villain.

To which Tim replies, “Not to mention—you could go bald.”

I dare you to read that line without smiling.

That’s the other thing I like about Tim. In addition to being the nerd Robin—a computer geek and a gifted detective who had to work extra hard to meet Batcave standards for hand-to-hand combat—he’s a thinker and a listener and a keen observer of human nature, at least when he’s written right. I have a comic somewhere in which Batman, after discovering Tim’s fake uncle, privately tells Alfred that Tim is probably smarter than he, Batman, is—and that they’ll both end up working for the kid someday. Tim knows how to talk Superboy down from a rant, and how to pull Batman back from a very dark and violent edge. And he keeps an eye on the practical side. Never mind the good/evil thing—one of your dads lost his hair at a very early age, and are you prepared to deal with that?

I’ve been reading a lot of Tim’s adventures as I’m writing the serial, which is appropriate because I’m writing young characters who, like Tim when he first appeared, are in over their heads. They’ve got grownups telling them this is a bad idea, but they’re smart and they’re determined and they’ve noticed that nobody else is doing this very important job. And while they may not be the sort of kids you’d bet on in a straight fight, I’d put my money on them every time for intelligence, and compassion, and occasional trickery. I like them, and I think you will, too.

Further bulletins as events warrant … 


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