It’s official: Robin is dead.
This Robin is, anyway. He’s Damian Wayne, the elementary-school-aged son of Batman and his recently minted arch-enemy/ex-girlfriend, Talia al-Ghul. He’d only ever been seen as an infant in a forgotten graphic novel Batman: Son of the Demon by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham, before writer Grant Morrison and artist Andy Kubert brought him kicking and screaming into continuity when they launched the writer’s long-standing tenure on the Batman titles.
Damian reversed the usual dynamic of dour Dark Knight and light-hearted Boy Wonder, using his tutelage under one of the world’s deadliest crimelords and assassins to bring the pain to Gotham City’s criminal element in a way that had even Batman saying, “Whoa, slow down, kid.” He was far funnier and vastly more unpredictable than any of Batman’s other sidekicks and allies (more violent, too), which helped turn many of his skeptics into fans. He became the subject of a custody battle written in blood across the globe between Batman’s international alliance of crimefighters, Batman Incorporated, and Talia’s sprawling mind-control cult Leviathan. He died battling his own clone.
But this wouldn’t be Batman if the mystery didn’t go deeper.
If we were to take a look at the coroner’s report, we’d no doubt find “franchise maintenance” listed under “Cause of Death.” Morrison’s execution of the concept has been excellent, particularly when teamed with artists like Frank Quitely, Chris Burnham, and Frazer Irving, who wring both off-kilter action-scene dynamism and genuine pathos out of drawing Robin like the child he is. But one need look no further than most of the other books that have featured the Dynastic Duo to realize that the role has a limited shelf life outside of Morrison’s control.
It’s tough to imagine “Batman as dad, Robin as his son” taking off in the public imagination to the extent it could be used as the backbone for a blockbuster film, or even an animated series. “Batdad,” as an image and as a set of ideas about that character, simply doesn’t square with his pop-culture profile as an avatar of terrifyingly badass hypercompetence and black-clad angst. This is to say nothing of all the child-endangerment issues we’re already whistling past when we read about Robin, which are only compounded when the child being endangered is Batman’s own son.
Moreover, “Robin” is a crowded field. Recent storylines throughout the Batman line have depended on the full panoply of current and former Robins, including Dick Grayson, who aged out of the role and took on his own heroic identity as Nightwing; Jason Todd, who infamously met his demise at the hands of the Joker per the wishes of fans who voted for this fate via a 900 number, only for writer Judd Winick to revive him as a prodigal son–type villain-cum-antihero years later; and Tim Drake, a teenager who got the job by deducing Batman’s secret identity, but who was rather unceremoniously promoted out of the job and into the unfortunately, burgeriffically named Red Robin identity when his mentor disappeared and Dick and Damian teamed up in their place.
It was tough enough to get all the ages and tenures of the different Robins to square with Batman’s perpetual existence in his early 30s even before DC’s “New 52″ soft reboot truncated his entire career as a superhero to a five-year timespan. Dropping the brief turn in the red spandex of female Robin Stephanie Brown from the continuity did little to smooth things out (and carried with it a whole host of other issues regarding the company’s treatment of its female characters).
Then there’s the uneasy way in which Morrison’s Batman run sits in relation to the current state of the overall line of Batman comics today. Morrison was waist-deep in Batman Incorporated, an ambitious series in which Bruce Wayne outed himself as Batman’s “financier” in order to seed similarly motivated Batman-esque crimefighters around the globe and stop an international criminal cult called Leviathan, when the New 52 required every ongoing series DC published to start over with tweaked from issue #1. In theory, little besides the overall timeline changed for Batman, who along with the company’s other most popular franchise/writer combo at the time, the Geoff Johns-helmed Green Lantern line, saw his continuity go largely untouched. But in practice, Morrison and Batman Inc. were no longer the center of gravity for the Dark Knight.
That honor went to writer Scott Snyder, artist Greg Capullo, and their Batman run. Their first, very long storyline involved Batman battling a secret society with links to the Wayne family’s past called the Court of Owls, which read in almost every regard like a training-wheels version of Morrison’s “Black Glove” mega-arc. Their second storyline, “Death of the Family,” pitted the Joker against Batman’s sprawling family of crime-fighting assistants and associates — Morrison’s Batman and Robin and Batman Incorporated blended and served straight, more or less.
Morrison’s sales suffered by comparison as fans moved on to the new thing. Meanwhile, the Scottish writer’s reputation suffered in own-goal fashion thanks to a serious of contentious and regrettable statements made about Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in interviews and in his cultural-history memoir Supergods, plus a Superman Year One-style relaunch of Action Comics that suffered from natural direct comparisons to both his Batman work and All Star Superman, the Morrison-Quitely collaboration widely lauded as the best Superman comic of all time. The very fans who previously would have been expected to keep Batman Incorporated‘s buzz going were conspicuously silent, even in the run-up to his forthcoming final issue.
With all those factors in play, it’s easy to see the death of Damian Wayne as the end of the Morrison Batman era and little else. But to do so is a mistake, I think, for two reasons. First, the battle for the boy’s soul has been a throughline since Morrison’s very first issue, Batman #655. As the love child of Batman and his enemy Talia al-Ghul, Damian’s literally the direct result of the Dark Knight’s dalliance with the dark side. Batman launched his career as a vigilante asskicker to avenge his own slain parents; with such a man as his father, and an international terrorist as his mother, could nurture possibly overcome nature once Batman gained custody of this son he never knew he had?
And it’s fitting that Batman, of all characters, is the superhero’s vector into this issue. As depicted by original creators Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and later Jerry Robinson, Batman himself is the product of a childhood shattered by violence. As set up by this story, it is Batman’s violent response (non-lethal, but still violent) to this original act of violence that ultimately draws his own child into that same crossfire.
In interviews, Morrison has long described his belief that we owe it to our children to tell them better stories about their world and their future, stories in which human goodness and achievement are embodied and celebrated, as a pathway out of pessimism, cynicism, and resignation to a hopeless dystopian future. More than any other character he’s created or written, Damian represents this struggle.
Which is why it feels more important than a passing comic-book promotional gimmick: To save the world, this avatar of one of Morrison’s primary preoccupations as a writer… dies. He dies after battling his way through an army of brainwashed children. He dies battling an older, meaner clone of himself. He dies quite explicitly because his parents, Batman and Talia, are too busy fighting with each other to protect him. Morrisonian optimism about the world, it seems, has its limits – and given the daily barrage of stories in the news every day about how this world harms its children, perhaps it’s not difficult to see why.
BY SEAN T. COLLINS
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