SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read Batman Incorporated #8, or opened another DC Comic, a web-browser, or a newspaper all week, you might want to stop reading now. Because, y’know, spoilers.
Still here? Okay. Robin is dead. Let’s face it, the only reason the mainstream media made such a big deal out of this is because, to most of the general public, Robin is Burt Ward/Dick Grayson making puns and saying “holy” all the time. Then again, most of those people probably think Superman is gonna show up in Avengers 2. Regardless, Damian Wayne is dead, and his death is rather unlike Robin deaths of the past.
First of all, let’s establish a little context. Damian Wayne is the child of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul. Young Damian was introduced in Batman #655 by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert, although longtime Batman fanatics knew of a nameless child briefly glimpsed in 1987’s Batman: Son of the Demon graphic novel. Damian was raised by his mother and the League of Assassins, and his existence was kept secret from ol’ Bats until he was ten years old, at which point, Talia dumped the imperious little assassin-in-training on pops’ doorstep.
It took fans (and the Batman cast, for that matter) a little time to warm up to Damian. He was an impossible little know-it-all, and frankly, he was pretty irritating. While I generally don’t put much stock in the reactionary opinions of internet fandom (or, as fellow DoG writer Marc Buxton refers to it, the “nerd-o-sphere”), the most hilarious piece of invective I ever found hurled Damian’s way was “Scrappy-Doo.” I’m not entirely sure that was a fair or accurate comparison, but man, it sure was hilarious.
But then something unexpected happened. Damian, a creation of an extraordinarily gifted writer (perhaps you’ve heard of Grant Morrison?) actually grew and evolved as a character. Imagine that! Most importantly, his evolution wasn’t one that happened overnight, or as the result of one particular “Eureka!” moment. In fact, Damian’s journey from potential villain and definite pain-in-the-ass happened almost imperceptibly over the last six or seven years. And like the best versions of Robin, he earned his cape.
Damian had an uphill battle with fans from the get-go. Comic fans are a superstitious and change-resistant lot, and nothing spells “change” like giving a superhero a kid. It was clear that, one way or the other, Damian was going to end up supplanting Tim Drake as Robin. And considering what a fan-favorite Tim has been since his inception, that wasn’t gonna go over too well with a certain segment of the readership (maybe including this writer). Tim’s early conflicts with Damian were kind of a reflection of that tension.
But Damian REALLY became Robin when he teamed up with Dick Grayson in the aftermath of Batman’s “death” at the hands of Darkseid. While Dick had assumed the mantle of the bat before, it was never for such an extended period of time. With Batman’s surrogate son taking on his role, and his actual, biological son becoming Robin, we got the old “illusion of change” that’s so crucial in comics, but it was an illusion that many of us (myself included) were so on-board with that it was almost a disappointment when Bruce returned! It didn’t hurt that Frank Quitely gave Damian the sharpest, smartest Robin costume in the history of the character, either.
Of course, the most famous “death of Robin” came in 1989’s “A Death in the Family” storyline by Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo, which allowed readers to vote on whether that era’s Robin, Jason Todd, would survive a particularly graphic and bloody encounter with the Joker. Published years before superhero deaths were commonplace, Jason Todd’s death garnered mainstream attention for many of the same reasons Damian’s just did: Robin is an icon more than he is a character.
As Grant Morrison wraps his almost seven year run writing Batman, it’s becoming clear how much of this was really Damian’s story. Batman is fairly static. There’s only so much that he’s gonna change. But Morrison’s whole point has always been that Batman HAS changed through the years, and that the Batman of Batman Incorporated is kind of this “apex Batman” who has already gone through all of these evolutions. In other words, virtually every incarnation of the Caped Crusader you’ve seen in comics has, in some way, been part of Batman’s history or psychological makeup. And when this guy finally seemed to have a handle on things (well, as much as Batman ever does), along comes the toughest, smartest, most ruthless kid in the world to screw it all up.
The details of Damian’s passing aren’t really all that important. Batman Incorporated is my favorite Batman book of the last decade (or more), and what Morrison has done here, aided and abetted by Chris Burnham’s always terrific art, is give us a story where Batman is virtually absent and the Robins take center stage. Nightwing, Red Robin, and Damian work like a perfect team in the battle with Leviathan, and I suddenly realized that I’d buy the hell out of a book just featuring these three characters, but it’s Damian’s show from the first page.
After a frenetic fight scene with some clever nods to the brilliant opening titles from the 1966 Batman television show (which, as far as I’m concerned, is part of Batman Incorporated’s continuity), Damian goes out like a hero. It’s an awful cliche, and I’m kind of ashamed for using it here, but really, there’s no other way to describe it. Every little bit of stubborn defiance that has rubbed fans the wrong way over the last few years manifests itself here as pure heroism. The fact that it’s a boy who is roughly ten years old meeting such a brutal and bloody end is somewhat disturbing, and rightfully so.
Perhaps sensing the end is near, and definitely not giving a damn, Damian says to Nightwing, “We were the best, Richard, no matter what anyone thinks.” That got me. A few years ago, I never would have thought that possible. But now? I think Damian has a point.