Tim Drake is my Robin. I don’t say that because he was Robin when I started reading though he was. Tim Drake is my Robin because he’s the one Robin who chose the mantle. All the others were drafted or born into it. Tim chose it for himself.
Thus when I was asked to review the Red Robin series I couldn’t just say yes to that. There was so much I would want to cover in his history that I had to first look at his origin story, a few solo stories, and then get to the Red Robin run. So for the next few weeks that’s what awaits us.
I start at one of my favorite stories of all time. A Lonely Place of Dying is one of the definitive Batman stories, a book examining the role of Robin and a refutation of the audience demand for his death. It’s a story that reacts to the myth of the loner Batman and argues he needs Robin. It’s a beautiful story.
But before we can analyze it, a lot of context. The story takes place in the aftermath of Jason Todd’s death. This was an event that resulted in Batman becoming so dark and unhinged the novel The Batman Murders addressed Bruce’s grief. It was a period that lasted all of….11 issues. Seriously. The long period between Jason’s death and the start of this arc was 11 issues and 4 of those were Batman Year 3. I don’t know how The Batman Murders happened but I checked the publication date and it fell just before A Lonely Place of Dying. It’s not a negative mind you. It’s a sign of how much this story earned its existence.
The premise is gold. Tim Drake, a serious Batman fan who witnessed the birth of Robin, has observed Batman falling apart after Jason Todd’s death. He sets out to fix this by convincing Dick Grayson to return to the role of Robin. Dick has moved on to fully embracing his role as Nightwing and when he and Bruce both get caught in a Two-Face plot, Tim is forced to fill the role he wanted another to fill.
A Lonely Place of Dying is a story that as I said is one of my all time favorites. And it’s the rare all time favorite that’s actually filled with things to say about. Some great works are just perfect machines. This story is a perfect machine filled with incredible choices. Credit due to Marv Wolfman’s script and art by Jim Aparo and George Perez/Tom Grummett.
One of those is the Two-Face story which is genius enough to be apart from this story. This could have easily been any mook plot and it would have been great with the Tim Drake story. But I love that this important story is also a really perfect classic story with one of the great rogues. It makes the story sing.
The book also shows a very strong understanding of Dick Grayson. He’s trying to break free of his past and it’s for good reason. A lot of stories about this idea are usually out of traumatic pasts but I love that this is someone who actually has deep love for his mentor and worries about him. It makes the stakes so much higher and the debate so much more intense.
But this story is all about Tim and it’s a perfect introduction. Tim is such a risky character though. He’s a 13 year old who figured out who Batman and the Robins are. Wesley Crusher was introduced at roughly the same time and he of course became the enemy of fans. Tim avoided that fate and I feel like this is a model for how to do it.
The genius fulcrum of this story is the flashback where Tim explains how he cracked things. It’s actually really logical. He met Dick just before his parents were murdered and became fixated on him not Batman. That’s a great hook. He paid attention to Dick’s skills and caught his unique gift. It’s a logical touch that allows us to accept the story. Tim was in the right place at the right time. Contrivance is ok if executed well and it is here.
Then there’s the irony at the center of the story. There are a million versions of this story where Tim decides Batman needs a Robin and it needs to be him. And those versions are agony. This is about the call and it’s so much more moving that Tim refuses it rather than pursuing it himself. Tim is a fan who understands the genre to the point he understands it doesn’t work if he selfishly decides it’s his job to take. When he takes it, he’s forced to by the story. And he earns it. That shouldn’t work but it does.
This story works. But it works not just because it’s perfectly executed. It works on a very deep thematic level. So let me get on my soapbox a bit.
I really don’t like the two extreme takes on Batman. He’s not an invincible god who can destroy any foe. He’s also not a hopelessly broken mental patient who beats up other mentally ill people rather than actually doing anything. Batman is a trauma survivor who deals with his pain by being Batman and it actually is what gives him peace. Batman is a Dark Knight and the Knight part is vital. Batman is a knight errant who protects his kingdom.
This is important because it’s why Robin matters. Robin isn’t a child soldier thrown into battle carelessly. Robin is his acolyte. Batman needs a student to preach the value of fighting those who would do harm, a partner who grounds him. Without that the two extremes seem likely.
This is the great sin of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. In it Robin is missing with only a character getting an in joke name but not really being a Robin. It underscores this idea that Batman doesn’t need Robin, the invincible ultimate hero. And that idea is so absurd it winds up making the idea of the deranged lunatic look more likely than what we get.
A Lonely Place of Dying is Marv Wolfman’s grand refutation of the idea that Robin isn’t important. It’s an angry response to the cynical vote to kill Jason Todd. It declares boldly that Robin matters. Was this story planned alongside A Death in the Family? Almost certainly. Given that there wasn’t ever going to be an outcome where Jason Todd stayed Robin it’s not hard to see how this could as easily been about Jason being forced to quit being Robin as dying. But that doesn’t mute the impact of it. This is an important story.
A Lonely Place of Dying is as perfect as comics get. Sadly it’s only available in trade in either a long out of print solo trade or as a bonus feature in the revoltingly racist A Death in the Family. My advice? Get the out of print trade or barring that read it digitally where it’s easy to find at comiXology. It’s a perfect origin.
Now to look at Tim’s solo stories.