We all know that Batman has had a lot of Robins, but we talk less about how that succession of kids appeared to the people of Gotham City. How did Bruce Wayne, a famously idiotic billionaire bachelor with a habit of adopting oddly similar-looking orphan teens, never raise the eyebrow of a city social worker?
In one 2003 comic, he finally did. Civil servant Felix Desidero decided that maybe it was worth looking into a highly influential billionaire whose last ward had died in a “warehouse fire” in Ethiopia. It was a classic problem of superhero secret identity in very serious trappings.
Batman solved the problem in an unusual way: by telling the truth.
Each Monday, while the comics industry takes a bit of a break, we’re looking back at some of the stand out moments in comic history — or at least in weird comics history. Think of it as part society pages of superhero lives, part reading recommendations, part “look at this cool art.” There may be some spoilers. There may not be enough context. If you missed last week, read this.
Welcome to Gotham Knights
While the whole “Batman getting investigated by Gotham’s social services” arc came to a head in Batman: Gotham Knights #45, it was really the culmination of a year of storytelling from writer Scott Beatty and artist Roger Robinson (with a few guest artists), who took over the title after the exit of its originator, Devin Grayson. Beatty continued the focus on Batman family dynamics with several interwoven storylines.
Like the best dramatic television, the main narrative of Batman: Gotham Knights would intersect with the setup of other storylines that would eventually pay off issues later. Bane shows up with evidence that he might be Bruce Wayne’s unknown half-brother, and stays in the manor for a bit while an independent hospital manages a DNA test. Man-Bat’s runaway son takes up secret residence in the Batcave, surviving off of Bruce’s untouched sandwiches. Alfred becomes gravely ill from an unknown virus and the whole family has to quarantine in the manor while the Justice League picks up their patrols. Beatty juggles all of these stories expertly, while Robinson absolutely nails the action, character drama, and comedic beats.
Meanwhile, through all of this, Felix Desidero gets more and more frustrated with how everybody in Gotham is fine with Bruce Wayne’s childcare record.
Look, Bruce Wayne is notoriously sketch
Desidero is a father, a recent transplant to Gotham City, and specializes in runaway teens, so he’s got plenty of motivation and no in-born respect for the Wayne family name, which recently rebuilt the entire city. Plus, he has all this evidence of sketchy happenings pointing to Bruce.
Bruce was recently cleared of a murder charge — but only after he fled prison. Desidero has no way of knowing that it was a frame job set up by one of Batman’s enemies. Just like he has no way of knowing that that recent DNA test wasn’t to identify Bruce’s offspring, but to find out if he and Bane shared a father. And he couldn’t know that that private detective ran into traffic after Bane discovered him snooping around and spooked him.
To Desidero, Jason Todd’s death might be years in the rearview, but the fact that nobody batted an eye when Wayne briefly took Tim Drake, another teenager with an off-kilter home situation, into his household deserves a hard look at the situation. His Gotham-native boss doesn’t tell him no — but he warns him that if Wayne really is the villain Desidero suspects that he is, this is Gotham City. Old money goes a long way in certain very specific directions.
So how is Batman taking all of this?
Mmmmm, not well.
At this point, Jason Todd’s resurrection would not even be on the horizon for several years — he was still a reliable emotional pain point for Batman. What’s worse than years of stewing in guilt over your child’s death and wondering if you could have done more? Being an extremely private vigilante who never shares his feelings, but was just ordered by law to talk to a complete stranger about his worst failure.
And Desidero didn’t just want to talk to Bruce; Alfred, Dick Grayson, and Tim Drake were on the list too. And he wanted to talk in the manor — currently also the home of Cassandra Cain/Batgirl, who has no cover story for her relationship with Bruce. Also, since she was raised by a world-class assassin, she has no legal identity!
The Bat-family attempts to form a collective plan — it’s not like they can hang a social worker off a rooftop just for trying to do the right thing — but Bruce isn’t much help.
“Oh yeah, sure,” Nightwing mutters after Batman speeds off, “The whole truth and nothing but the truth. How we grew up in a cave full of bats [...] It’s where you drafted us into a war on crime.”
Beatty and Robinson cap the Desidero story line off with a full issue focusing on his one-on-one interviews with the bat-family — which Bruce is suspiciously late to, due to crimefighting, of course — a beautifully crafted single issue meditation on the complicated relationships they all have with their mentor and his parenting style.
After years of estrangement between them, Dick gives a fairly neutral take on their history.
Tim reflects on how Bruce’s family has become his own, even though his father is still alive.
Cassandra, whose struggles with verbal communication have made her an extremely concise speaker, effortlessly plays it cool.
Alfred, on the other hand, is fucking furious at this imprecation of his family.
Finally, Bruce shows up, explaining the cuts on his face — from jumping face-first through a plate-glass window — as a skiing accident. And just like he told Nightwing, he tells the truth.
In the end, Desidero packs up his recording equipment and presses the investigation no further, telling Bruce “I’m satisfied that you cared for Jason Todd as best you could, but I want you to think long and hard before you take it upon yourself to bring another child into this home.”
The Batmobile’s tires
Comics writer Grant Morrison once famously told Rolling Stone magazine, “You give an adult fiction, and the adult starts asking really fucking dumb questions like ‘How does Superman fly? How do those eyebeams work? Who pumps the Batmobile’s tires?’ It’s a fucking made-up story, you idiot! Nobody pumps the tires!”
That metaphor might easily extend to a question like “Why hasn’t Batman ever been investigated by social services?” But Beatty and Robinson’s arc in Batman: Gotham Knights shows that these questions of realism don’t have to destroy our ability to enjoy a bizarre fiction. Told the right way, they can absolutely enhance it.
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