Friday, October 23, 2009

Review: Red Robin #5

Red Robin #5

Writer: Christopher Yost
Penciller: Ramon Bachs
Inks & Color: Guy Major
Released: October 14, 2009

If one is being honest, then one recognizes that these men are little boys lost to the world, jumping around in costumes, playing at being heroes, prolonging adolescence in as much as rock musicians or celebrities do. In fact, this view holds true for the ladies, too. The DCU is full of them. The Green Lanterns, well, they belong to a full corps, a law enforcement agency, so they are exempt on some level for they are sanctioned protectors. But Batman? Robin? If one looks at them with unflinching eye, one has no choice but to recognize how truly sad these little boys are.

Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, and Tim Drake are orphans, cast into those roles by the cruel force of crime and its unceasing tide of violence. We sympathize with them because we understand their loss. They have lost parents, the safety of family, and most severely, the innocence of the youthful belief in the concept of forever has been wiped away for all of them in pre-adolescence, leaving them with terrible feelings of both abandonment and distrust of the world. These boys grow up to don costumes, to immerse themselves in a surreal world where they can hope to find some control. They see things that can not be explained logically. They are front-row observers of multi-dimensional chaos and inter-planetary crisis. They work side by side with aliens and goddesses, telepaths, shapeshifters, immortals and magicians. They witness colleagues die and then witness their resurrections. Each of them is born out of distrust and everything they encounter for the rest of their lives only reinforces this. They will spend the rest of their lives never truly trusting anyone or anything. Everything will be suspect. Everything will be in doubt.

Batman is a complete representation of this as he is the consummate detective, and detectives must never take anything at face value. Everything must be questioned. Batman being born of distrust and abandonment is perfect in that Bruce had everything that would allow him to feel trust torn away from him, so naturally, he becomes the perfect questioner, the ultimate doubter, the supreme detective. What makes him the greatest sleuth, however, makes him a hollow man, one incapable of close relations with people excepting those with similar neurosis. Enter the Boy Wonders.

For nearly all of the history of Batman he has had a boy-sidekick in the form of a Robin. Robin has acted as partner, assistant, comedic foil and phycological ballast to keep the overwhelming psychosis of Batman from floating off into the great yonder. It takes two to tango, though, and the relationship between Bat and Bird has definitely been a two-way street. Bruce originally took legal custody of Dick Grayson because he recognized himself in him; the young boy orphaned by violent crime filled with grief and pain. He understood the importance of being a mentor to this boy, directing him down a more righteous path than the one paved by vengeance. Grayson would eventually grow from boy to man, and would evolve from Robin to Nightwing, and now, in the wake of Bruce's death, to Batman. There can be nothing more right than for Dick Grayson to take up the mantle of the Bat. It is what Bruce would have wanted and what he trained him for all those years. The question then became for this new Batman, what to do about Robin.

Tim Drake was the last Robin to work under the late Bruce Wayne, and the only one to be formally adopted and take on the last name of the celebrated Gotham family. As the last Robin, he had the misfortune of having a front-row seat to the demise of his adoptive father, a long and painful descent into paranoia that culminated in his being fried to death by an evil god. (see Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis) Oh, did I mention that during all this, Bruce's biological son, Damien, born of a strange eugenics experiment perpetrated by his most deadly enemy Ra's Al Ghul was foisted on all by his mother Thalia? Yeah, because that happened, too. The arrogant test tube baby came crashing the party to take up what he saw as his rightful place alongside his real father, Batman. Tim, already feeling insecure about his place in Bruce's life, now had Damien laying claim to his job and newly adoptive father, and Damien seemed to have biology on his side. Cue deadly crisis, Superman pulling Bruce's charred body from the wreckage, and suddenly everything Drake had known was thrown away. Batman was gone, his father along with him, and then, to top this off, mankind was nearly destroyed, enslaved by the machinations of evil gods. If it's not one thing it's another, right?

What young Timothy needed at this point more than ever was to hold onto some semblance of normalcy, to fall back onto something comforting, whether that be a role or a place. He needed to be Robin again. The new Batman, Dick Grayson, had other ideas and appointed Damien as his new Robin, recognizing in Damien what Bruce had originally recognized with him, that he is a young boy who could easily be lost to a darker path if not mentored under the wing of Batman. To a fractured and beaten Tim Drake, however, this was one final crushing break. This solidified for him that he truly had lost everything in his life, that anything solid he could hold onto was gone. A lifetime surrounded by cynicism and distrust was culminating in the complete destruction of identity itself. The markers that spoke of Tim's life were gone, so his identity with them. The only thing left to do was to completely snap. So he does.

The first issue of the new series Red Robin sees our young Tim Drake sitting alone on the floor of some lonely room in Wayne Manor he has just trashed in anger after facing his replacement, Damien, wearing the Robin costume for the first time. Confronted by the physical proof of the complete destruction of everything he has known and the stark realization that he has no identity as Robin left, he does what any lost and wounded little child would do; he breaks stuff. He breaks vases and mirrors and upturns tables and as he sits in the wreckage of the room, slumped against the wall, something else breaks inside him: his mind. He utters one simple statement that will propel him on a mad journey and serve as the first arc of this new monthly title: "He's alive. Bruce is alive." And thus, Red Robin is born.

Red Robin is what happens when you kill Batman with a hand grenade, the shrapnel flies everywhere and the casualties are far-reaching. This new title, and all the other new titles that have come out of the killing of Bruce Wayne are the little pieces of debris left over, and the characters involved are the damaged and damned charged with carrying on. Young Timothy flies off in a new costume, one tainted by those who wore it before, one that has no real identity other than being worn by those of varying mental stability, so it's perfect for him. He goes off on a globe-trotting crusade to prove that Bruce is, in fact, not dead, even though he has no real evidence nor solid reason to believe this at all, other than he really, really, really needs it to be true. That, and that after years of seeing the unbelievable and illogical smoke and mirrors of what constitutes life in the DCU, he has no real reason NOT to believe Bruce is alive. Surely, stranger things have happened.

The first arc, suitably entitled "The Grail", works extremely well as both a international jet-set adventure as well as a insular character study of a young man coping with his feelings of loss, hoping he has not completely lost his mind. That he spends as much time trying to convince himself that he is not crazy as he is in searching for evidence that Bruce is alive points to the stunning dual nature that all of these men share. This mirrors quite amusingly what Bruce went through during the R.I.P. storyline. They are men going crazy to prove that what they are doing is not crazy. They are men attempting to live their lives one step ahead of insanity. In his mad rush to prove the impossible, and to prove he is not crazy in the process, he may be proving exactly that. What could possibly be more crazy than chasing non-existent evidence all around the world to prove a man is alive whom everyone saw is clearly dead?

Tim makes stops in Madrid and Toledo, Spain and in Paris, France and Berlin, Germany, but writer Christopher Yost never fully explains what evidence is spurring Tim to these specific destinations. We are never given full explanations to what he finds in these cities that points him off to the next. At the end of issue #1, Tim stands in a hotel room in Paris, half dressed in costume, staring at a world map stuck onto the wall, itself dotted with numerous push pins marking off locations he's been to or will visit. It's not explained. The evidence is never given a run-down like in a police-procedural drama. This is not that kind of story, and the details of the investigation are not what is important.

Tim is not Batman. He is no longer Robin, either. He is in a gray area of compromise and as such makes decisions and choices that cross lines, such as becoming an unwitting ally of Ra's Al Ghul's League of Assassins, who decide to help our young hero whether he likes it or not. And why? Because Ra's Al Ghul believes Tim. He believes Bruce is alive somewhere, too. An international criminal mastermind and global terrorist, a man who himself lives as an immortal having been resurrected from death many times over, has now become the only true believer Tim has in his corner. Strange bedfellows, perhaps, but the marriage is quite fitting. They are all fathers and sons in a bizarre family tree, one that snarls its way around the hearts of these men and squeezes tight.

By the end of issue #4, Tim finds himself in a cave in the desert of Iraq. Before him, etched onto the cave wall is one solitary pre-historic painting of something that should not be. It's the Bat-symbol, Bruce's Bat-symbol, and for Tim it is all the evidence he needs to confirm his belief that Bruce is alive, somehow, somewhere. He is alive, just lost in space and time. The wheels of the DCU keep on grinding.

And then, outside this cave, whilst basking in the afterglow of beautiful discovery, standing with his motley crüe, Tim is stabbed through the abdomen with a long sword by a ridiculously costumed assassin with the even more ridiculous moniker of The Widower. He is left to bleed to death in the barren desert dunes. Truth, as always, comes with a price, death being an easy one to pay.

Red Robin #5 marks a sly turn for the book. There is a lightness to Tim's demeanor, a sense of humor long buried that he now allows to rise to the surface in droll manner. It should be noted that all the issues to this point have been narrated by Tim Drake in the past tense, so the reader is safe in assuming that all, eventually, ends well for our hero, or at the very least, ends with hero in lucid enough state of mind to recount his adventures. The change in tone of the narration in this issue, in the way Tim recounts his story, is telling of the enormous weight lifted off of his shoulders by his discovery of proof that Bruce is alive. He may not have found Bruce, indeed may never find him, and seems to be no closer to finding him, but at the very least he has proven it to be so, and in the process, proven himself to not be insane. One cave painting of a Bat-symbol and all is well. Now, Tim can move on with his life, even if he is now dying, bleeding to death in the desert.

Obviously, Tim does not die. He manages to save himself and one of the assassins who had been helping him. They manage to drag each other to a Wayne Facility in Baghdad where Ra's Al Ghul sends ninja to the rescue. Tim awakes from surgery believing he had died and been resurrected through unnatural means, just as Ra's Al Ghul has done many times before. While this is not so, literally, it becomes clear throughout the issue that Tim has had his identity resurrected. He is Tim Wayne, after all, the adopted son of Bruce Wayne, the original Batman. He was the last true Robin to study and train under the master himself. He has compromised and crossed lines and made allies with enemies all to find truth and through truth, to find peace, and he has now done so. Compromising can stop. He can again be the hero he had always been trained to be. He can be Batman's son.

At issues end Tim stands defiant in front of mirror in a room in the cavernous underground headquarters of The League of Assassins and declares his new mission is to bring the League and their enemies down, to finally end the reign of terror perpetrated by these international criminal organizations. He has regained himself and regained his purpose, and of this, there is no more doubt. In this issue, too, it is telling to note that the narration enters into the present tense. Tim has brought us up to speed and his past has now met up with his present. There is only future ahead.

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