This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on December 30, 2015.
I’ll give this to Robin War #1, it certainly lives up to its title. If the thing you have most fondly desired when looking at DC Comics for the past several years is to see all of Batman’s former wards and a bunch of other kids wearing the R-emblem beat the snot out of one another, then you can stop reading and go buy this comic. It may not do this premise well, but it’s the only way you’re going to see it. However, if what you desire from a crossover is excellent character moments, flashy artwork, a little bit of thought, and some top notch action (things that crossover can capably deliver), then let me provide you with this advice instead: Run. Run very far away.
The issue opens with one of the many Gothamite children from We Are Robin confronting a criminal robbing a convenience store. His bravado and lack of skill result in his killing both the criminal and a police officer attempting to secure the scene. It’s a truly awful moment as someone too young to appreciate their role in a tragedy looks on in horror. As a result the Gotham City council passes “The Robin Laws” to restrict vigilantism and the display of any Robin-related paraphernalia. The police department goes overboard in enforcing these laws creating a battle between themselves and the youth of Gotham, and starting to create a rift amidst Batman’s many proteges as well.
There are deep, deep flaws at the core of Robin War #1. They deserve the lion’s share of effort when trying to dissect this stillborn crossover. It’s a story that is broken at its very core with a setup and ideas (or lack thereof) that couldn’t be made to work with the wittiest Warren Ellis script or most jaw dropping Frank Quitely storytelling. Yet before diving into the deep end of this pool, it’s worth touching on the craft.
When you see seven artists on the cover of a 38 page, non-anthology comic, it’s not a good sign and Robin War #1helps prove this theory. The manner in which the book switches between three distinctive art teams is not based on character or scene, but appears to have been assembled by a last minute editorial scramble. There is no sense of purpose when the moody, shadow filled pages of Khary Randolph turn over to Alain Mauricet’s far more direct New 52 guide of style. Most pages are workable in presentation due to the overriding layouts of Rob Hayne, but almost all have a rushed appearance. Forms and anatomy come in and out of focus while characters rarely resemble one another if not possessing a distinctive costume. Action sequences are composed more like a montage than a cohesive story that clearly connects different jabs and dodges. Even the most fun visual elements of the issue, like the robot-suited Gordon facing off with Damian Wayne, are rendered moot by poor illustrations of key elements, like Gordon’s suit (specifically the helmet and faceplate).
Tom King’s script does not add much on a surface level either. The charm exuded in Grayson and deft construction of tone and theme in The Vision are nowhere to be found here. In fact most of the script consists of characters shouting what they are doing or thinking at one another, exposing the problems that trouble this comic from start to finish. All of the Robins from eldest Dick Grayson to the youngest Damian and Duke feature prominently in this issue and each wants to declare what a Robin is. Yet none of them actually have anything to say. Damian and Jason Todd both state what a Robin would or wouldn’t do at one point, but these lines are merely used to establish a fight. Robin War #1 clearly believes that the existence and concept of a Robin are important to Gotham City, yet does not ever make it clear why this is so or even begin to work its way towards an answer. Everyone who has carried the mantle is very concerned with it and none of them can say anything more significant than “Gotham is Batman and Robin.” There’s no reason to care about the idea of Robin because Robin War #1 and the Robins themselves cannot even begin to define it.
The problems start earlier than that though. In setting up this confrontation between all of the Robins and the Court of Owls, King has provided readers with no reason to side against the villains and every reason to scorn the heroes. As tragic as the first few pages of the issue are, it is clear that the Robin involved is at fault for both deaths. No matter how much a cliched two-page spread of (poorly illustrated) talking heads debate the subject, an untrained Robin both created the situation and pulled the trigger. Creating an anti-vigilante law not only seems reasonable, but necessary given this sequence of events. King has broken one of the core conceits of the superhero genre by exposing how ludicrous it is for a city to accept masked vigilantes. There is no way for the city council’s response to be posed as truly villainous (even given the Court’s involvement) because suspension of disbelief has been voided. The Robins are clearly a problem and the solution seems perfectly rational.
The city and police are only made to be the villains of the piece when King ropes in a “ripped from the headlines” plot point, having police unfairly scrutinize multiple young black men using these laws. It is something that has been seen multiple times in recent DC Comics like Action Comics #41-44 and The Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1, but has fallen to the same pitfalls each time. In Robin War #1 there is just enough included to hint at this being a point without it ever being actually addressed or forming a core plot point. The problem is not really the police, but the Court of Owls and it’s not really a racial thing. This comic asks to be taken seriously based on a wink and a nudge when the subject matter it is poking is far more serious than any Robin comic ever published.
Robin War #1 is a comic with no idea what it wants to be about. It is not about the identity or significance of Robin. It is not about urban vigilantism. It is not about real world issues. It isn’t even about a battle between some of DC Comics’ most beloved characters. Everything about this start feels forced from the premise to the execution. There is real talent attached to this comic, but the scattered characters and premises at play are unable to be put back together by King or any of his collaborators.