Friday, September 16, 2016

Why I Love Tim Drake

Tim Drake has been all over the comic book news sites this week. I'm not going to talk about the details of why right here, just to make sure everyone who doesn't want to be spoiled has a chance to read the issue that's causing the furor. I'm just going to make a short post today about who Tim Drake is as a character and why he's not only my favorite Robin, but one of my ten favorite comic characters ever.

I started reading comic officially (or as official as you can get) with Batman #445. Tim Drake made his first appearance in costume in Batman #442 (although he would be out of costume, simply training, and wouldn't get his own until issue 457). So first and foremost, I grew up with Tim. Now, Tim is lucky that he's perpetually stuck at an age between 16 and 18, while I have continued to grow sadly older, but I don't hold that against him. There's something about that character, a character who was new when you were just starting out as a fan, that you latch on to and connect with. That's, frankly, why sidekicks were created, to give readers and entry point for these stories about adults.

But more than just our relative newness, the thing that made Tim Drake great is he was a good kid who got into superheroing because it was the right thing to do. Ultimately, all of the many tragedies that Tim would encounter over the years took place after he took up the mantle of Robin (I'll discuss the changes made in the New 52 and why I feel they detract from Tim as a character later). Tim wasn't an orphan (although he was a rich kid with absentee parents which I doubt many readers had), he didn't have a reason to become Robin except he felt like Batman needed a Robin and Gotham and the world needed a Batman. Tim, like one of my other favorite sidekicks made good, Wally West, was basically a fanboy who got to live the dream: he got to partner with his favorite hero. And who amongst us in fandom wouldn't like that?

The other thing that made me love Tim Drake initially was that he was a brain. He had figured out Batman and Robin's identities using his natural deductive skills. Tim's first solo mission isn't a Robin mission, but is Tim trying to use his computer and detective skills to try to find a hacker called Moneyspider, who turns out to be the Batman villain Anarky, a teenage villain, who would go on to be one of Tim's nemeses. Tim was naturally more physically capable than most of the readers, but he wasn't a kid acrobat like Dick Grayson; there's a great moment in Robin #10, a Zero Hour crossover where Tim briefly meets a time displaced teenage Dick Grayson, where Tim marvels at Dick's acrobatic skills and doesn't think he'll ever be able to live up to them. And that was fine, because Tim was the smartest of the Robins, the best detective of the lot. And for readers who love Batman because he's the smartest guy in the room, that made Tim the ideal Robin.

After finally taking on the name of Robin, Tim would develop his own rogues gallery and supporting cast as he starred in first three mini-series and then an ongoing series that lasted for well over one hundred issues. Tim would fight the blind martial artist and gang leader King Snake, his lieutenant, Lynx, and their street gang, the Ghost Dragons; the aforementioned Anarky, the teen anarchist; Ulysses Hadrian Arstrong, the teen strategic genius known as The General. The characters around him included his dad, Jack Drake, and step mom Dana, his geeky best friend Ives, his first girlfriend, Ariana, and his on again/off again main squeeze, Spoiler. That's not to mention his friendship with other heroes as a member of the teams Young Justice and Teen Titans, and of course his regular team-ups with Batman and the other members of the Batman family. There is a wonderful issue of Nightwing, issue twenty-five, "The Boys," that really looks into the brotherly relationship between Tim and Dick Grayson. This was a richer life as a character than either of the previous Robins had while they were Robin, and made Tim a much more interesting character,

Eventually, when a new Robin needed to come along, in this case Bruce's son Damian, he was a very different character than Tim. While Tim was an everyman sort of sidekick, Damian was completely unique and uncommon: while Tim was a fanboy, Damian had been trained since birth to be a deadly assassin. And when the time came for Tim to take up his new identity as Red Robin, the first storyline in his series reaffirmed his status as the number one Batman fan: he was the only one who believed that Bruce Wayne had not died in battle with Darkseid in Final Crisis, and he went out to find him. There's a wonderful meta-commentary there about how the hero who started out as a fan would be the one who would persevere through apparent death to believe wholeheartedly that the hero he idolized would still be alive.

But with the introduction of Damian, Tim was a little at ends as a character. Dick Grayson was able to take up the Nightwing identity when Jason Todd came along and became Robin, but Tim had a second hand new identity; Red Robin was Dick Grayson from an alternate future, whose identity had been briefly co-opted by Jason Todd before Tim took it. His last ongoing series, the Red Robin ongoing, was cut short by the New 52 reboot of DC Comics, with Tim in a very dark place. And I was hopeful that the reboot would give Tim a fresh start and make him the fun, young hero he was at his beginning.

Alas, this was not to be. The Tim Drake of the Teen Titans series from the New 52 bore only a passing resemblance to his previous incarnation. He had never been Robin and wasn't even really named Tim Drake; that was a name he took when he came to work with Batman. He was suddenly a gymnastic savant, and had a tragic backstory, where his own carelessness had forced his parents into witness protection. And mostly, he no longer had any real emotional ties to Batman and Nightwing. Batman had been a foster father to him, and Nightwing the coolest big brother you could imagine pre-New 52. Now, Tim kept them at arms length and always had, and while he was part of their family, he wasn't close with them. He did suddenly become close friends with Jason Todd, Red Hood, who had repeatedly tried to kill Tim in the old continuity, which did more to help further Jason's redemption than did anything for Tim as a character. And the greatest of indignities: while Time did still figure out Batman's identity, so did Dick Grayson, using pretty much the same methodology Tim did in the old continuity, taking away yet another thing that made Tim unique.

I don't necessarily lay all of this on the heads of the creators of those titles. Tim has been a historically difficult character to handle when taken out of his specific point of introduction. The Tim Drake in Batman: The Animated Series is much more Jason Todd than Tim Drake, as he has Jason's origin and doesn't have Tim's intellect; he basically has Tim's good nature grafted on to Jason to make him less of a jerk. The Tim in the Batman: Arkham games is a little better, but is still more of a roughneck than Tim is.  Young Justice got it closest to right; while it gave Tim's hacker skills to Dick Grayson initially, when Tim himself appeared, he was the quiet, smart member of the younger generation of heroes.

So where did that leave Tim? Well, in the past year and change, thing have gotten better for him. Batman and Robin Eternal, the weekly Batman mini-series that focused on the various Robins and other Bat family members working together in a globetrotting adventure during the brief period of time where Bruce had no memory of being Batman, did a great job of re-establishing Tim's relationship with the other member of Batman's family, and the arc of Detective Comics that wrapped this week played on all of Tim's best traits: his intellect, how well he works with others, and how much he cares about people. It got everything right, and made Tim feel like Tim again, and that Tim is a character that readers will keep hoping to see more of.

No comments: