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Batman and Robin swing through the skies of Gotham city, rendered in watercolors on the cover of Robin & Batman #1 (2021). Image: Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen/DC Comics

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Robin & Batman #1 pushes the Boy Wonder’s origin story to a darker place

DC’s new comic lives in the shadow of All-Star Batman & Robin

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Dick Grayson has operated under the nom de guerre of Nightwing since 1984 — a stretch of time that’s just seven years shy of the 44 years he spent fighting crime as Robin, DC’s first-ever Boy Wonder.

What’s more, it’s been 20 years since DC originally published Robin: Year One, the last definitive take on Dick Grayson’s first perilous year as the colorful, smiling counterpart to Gotham City’s grim Dark Knight. As we close in on the year 2022, some might say it’s time for a generational refresher course on the history of the DCU, and with Robin & Batman, Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen provide Dick Grayson precisely that.

Robin & Batman #1 is a revised look back on Dick’s formative days as a crimefighter, one that shows us just how close the newly-orphaned Robin came to losing everything about himself that is good and pure in his quest for vengeance. Given that, it’s a darker tale than what you might find in your typical Robin book. So how is the Descender team’s first united foray into the storied legacy of the Batman, and what untold dangers does their saga hold in store for the Boy Wonder?

Who is making Robin & Batman #1?

Robin & Batman is helmed by Eisner-award winners Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen, with letter work by Steve Wands. As writer and artist respectively, Lemire & Nguyen are also the creative team behind Image Comics’ Descender, which just wrapped up its 5-year run earlier this year with the eighteenth issue of its sequel series, Ascender. Nguyen is certainly no stranger to Gotham City; on top of drawing and painting a sterling 20-issue run on Batman: Streets Of Gotham (written by Paul Dini), Nguyen also saw a stretch on the weekly Bat-Family event series Batman Eternal, the DCU future shock series, Batman Beyond Unlimited, and co-wrote Batman: Li’l Gotham with frequent collaborator, Derek Fridolfs. Lemire’s time in Gotham is more limited, but DC recently published Joker: Killer Smile which paired Lemire with his Gideon Falls co-creator Andrea Sorrentino, and they capped off the DC Black Label miniseries with the epilogue one-shot, Batman: Smile Killer.

What is Robin & Batman #1 about?

Robin & Batman is a three-issue prestige format series that explores the emotionally fraught days just before Dick Grayson stepped into his role as Robin. The proceedings are documented by Dick himself, who scrawls out his feelings in a journal and broodingly muses to himself about his new role as a vigilante’s protégé. Later, Dick’s history as a circus acrobat is revealed to have a connection to a larger nemesis in Batman’s rogues gallery.

Why is Robin & Batman #1 happening now?

Batman and a sullen Robin sit in a speeding Batmobile. “But I—” Robin says before Batman interrupts him. “Don’t.” in Robin & Batman #1 (2021). Image: Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen/DC Comics

1987’s Batman: Year One set the bar for how a superhero origin story could be told in a modern context, while 2001’s Robin: Year One provided context to a superhero origin story that was generations old. As Nightwing, Dick Grayson’s popularity has only boomed in the twenty years since DC last revisited his formative first year as the Boy Wonder, and while DC did make a wild attempt at synthesizing a new “Batman & Robin: Year One” story in 2005, Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder turned out to be a calamitous Gotham City cul-de-sac that remains unfinished — and contentious — to this day. Robin & Batman #1 is a vastly more sober attempt at recontextualizing Dick Grayson, with a take on how he survived those crucial first days as the partner to a darkly driven vigilante.

Is there any required reading?

Robin & Batman takes place at the very beginning of Robin’s career, not very long after Batman started operating in Gotham City himself. A passing familiarity of the concept of Robin — being a kid who runs around rooftops in a brightly-colored uniform and cracks wise alongside Batman — is really all that’s required before cracking Robin & Batman #1.

However, Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne’s unique partnership is often considered the second-most stable out of all the variations of Batman and Robin — with the notably chill Tim Drake taking the top slot in this regard — which prompts me to recommend Marv Wolfman, George Pérez, and Jim Aparo’s A Lonely Place Of Dying, a story that ran through Batman #440-#442 and New Titans #60-#61 and asserted the importance of Robin’s role in Batman’s war on crime, particularly how his presence has a positive psychological effect on Bruce Wayne and makes him a better Caped Crusader. If anything, A Lonely Place Of Dying ought to be required reading after having read the upcoming three issues of Robin & Batman, if only to better appreciate how tenuous Batman’s control over other people actually is, and how cool Dick Grayson ultimately becomes as a superhero.

(Also: a viewing of the two-part “Robin’s Reckoning” from Batman: The Animated Series after reading this might also be in order, if sobbing openly at a television screen is something you’re into.)

Is Robin & Batman #1 good?

Robin & Batman #1 spins a slightly different kind of yarn than most Robin origin tales, at least in terms of mood. It’s largely told from the perspective of Dick Grayson, in a surprisingly adult voice, through captions that weigh his feelings as things between him and Batman quickly turn south. (Sometimes his musings are pulled from his journal; sometimes they’re pulled from his thoughts as they happen.) Lemire clearly delineates the differences between what Batman wants out of this new relationship — which, at this point, is practically an experiment to him — and what Dick believes he wants.

Dick Grayson designs elements of a Robin costume in his journal as he muses “My mom had this nickname she’d call me once in a while. Not sure if it’s dark enough?” in Robin & Batman #1 (2021). Image: Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen/DC Comics

Because this is largely told from Dick’s perspective, we’re allowed into the grimmer parts of his mind as he kicks around the idea of letting himself become as dedicated to this new dangerous life as his mentor clearly has. (“[The] darkness has weight. And now it feels like it’s starting to pull me down with it. And the deeper I fall, the harder it is to see my way out.”) It’s somewhat unnerving to see a kid play around with such thoughts (Dick’s future isn’t assured, as far as he’s concerned, so what’s this journal supposed to be documenting?), but Robin & Batman #1 excels when it’s focused on the kid who holds dominion over the marquee.

It’s not difficult to find parallels to All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder in Robin & Batman. These are parallels that lie beyond the storied iconography of the duo and rest solely in the text and imagery of the Miller/Lee series, which makes me wonder if Lemire & Nguyen took the overall negative reception of the former in mind when they were constructing the latter. In Robin & Batman #1, Alfred is more passive-aggressive in his criticisms of Batman’s treatment of Dick than he is in All-Star (there’s no shoving matches here); the phrase “soldier” is used as a critique of how Batman chooses to perceive Dick; and Batman might be a scruffy, distracted maniac here as he his in All-Star, but at least he’s lightyears more polite about it. Wonky as it is, All-Star Batman & Robin still casts a shadow, and it’s hard not to spot Miller’s influences on this work.

As for Nguyen, he’s forging new artistic steel with Robin & Batman. His Gotham City feels more abstract than anything I’ve seen from him before, which provides this issue a foreboding mood. The streets are choked by plumes of steam and smoke, the concrete canyons feel like they go on forever, and during one particularly singular moment of angry silence between Batman and Dick, the exteriors scream red. Nguyen’s watercolors bend to the blacker inks in this issue — which only employs Robin’s trademark reds and yellows and greens towards the latter half, where it becomes clear that Dick’s future as a crimefighter is less certain than we might have originally believed. As the issue comes to a close, those vivid colors suddenly become Dick’s only touchstone to a life that is now long gone.

Below him is darkness. Wrapped around him is the home he’ll never have again. What will tomorrow bring? For Lemire and Nguyen, it’s another career high.

One panel that popped

“We can’t have any secrets,” says Batman solemnly in Robin & Batman #1 (2021). Image: Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen/DC Comics

“We can’t have any secrets.” It’s a line that will forever drive a wedge between two people and create a rot that runs through the entire relationship between Batman and Robin until they finally, perhaps mercifully, break apart. What this declaration means in the short term for this fledgling Dynamic Duo is the big reason why you should be reading Robin & Batman; the stakes might be personal but they’re no less tremendous.


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