The Man Wit No Voice and The Pure Mood dig out and review a comic from their expansive back issue collection. It could be a pivotal story, a forgotten classic, or even a giant mistake not worth the staples binding it together. From the ’40′s to the ’00′s, come by every week as we take an in-depth look at comics history in CHRONICLES OF COMICS!
No doubt you’ve found yourself thinking about Robin a little bit more than usual as of late. The iconic hero’s recent death has sparked a variety of passionate reactions from the comics reading public – from jaded cynicism to accusations of child murder to heartfelt misery, to Greg Hatcher’s heated argument that the Robin concept doesn’t work if fatal harm befalls one of them, let alone several. But the morality of what Batman is doing by training young boys to fight crime has been haunting the caped crusader since some of his earliest adventures – from the surreal, unforgettable classic ‘ROBIN DIES AT DAWN’ to the issue we’ll focus on today, ‘HOW MANY WAYS CAN A ROBIN DIE?’
A fill-in issue set snugly right between the finale of the Ra’s al Ghul epic and the immortal ‘JOKER’S FIVE WAY REVENGE’, Frank Robbins tells a bleak and personal story about one of the most complex characters in superhero comics. On a nightly patrol, Batman comes across a fake bat-signal perched ominously atop a skyscraper. As he gets in close to investigate, he sees Robin tied to the signal, an arrow planted in his chest. ‘Can’t EVEN chance checking him…I could be NEXT in line for the HIDDEN SNIPER!’ Robbins characterizes Batman as calculating enough a soldier that the seeming death of Dick Grayson would only give him momentary pause before making sure no one else befalls harm.
Now, this isn’t to say I think Batman is some kind of unfeeling machine bent only on stopping crime. But I think Robbins does something interesting having Batman not stop to check Dick’s corpse immediately, perhaps offering his own counter-argument to the idea that it’s irresponsible of Bruce to have a young crime fighting ward. Batman could never even consider the pain of Dick dieing in battle, but at the same time, he’s never been ignorant of the risks he puts himself and his partners in. For Batman, it’s more important that crime be stopped, that the idea of stopping crime lives on, rather than have him and his loved ones live long, fruitful lives. But we’ll get more into that later.
It turns out that Robin is alive and well – the corpse pierced with an arrow was only a dummy. ‘How many ways can a ROBIN die?’ a chilling note asks, leading Batman on a bizarre, gruesome quest of riddles and clues for the World’s Greatest Detective to solve. Several more dummy Robin’s meet their untimely ends – at the bottom of a lake, stabbed multiple times with swords, hung from a noose. At each turn, Batman is presented with complicated notes giving hints as to the location of the villain behind the plot, all promising that the final dead Robin will in fact be the real one. Batman finds himself enamoured with this game of words and deduction, only to be shocked by the real horror of it all – “That TWISTED CREEP! He’s got me playing his sick GUESSING GAME…when I should be trying to PREVENT Robin’s death!”
Robbins strikes at Batman’s biggest weaknesses – his unstoppable, unrealistic goal of avenging his parents, his disconnect with reality, and of course, despite all of this, his large, unwieldy human capacity to love. It isn’t until Batman realizes just how far gone he is that things look really bleak – if it took him this long to realize the seriousness of the situation, to understand that solving riddles and stopping crime doesn’t mean a whole lot compared to losing the only person who understands you, Batman’s cruel, mysterious adversary has already won.
Having discovered the identity of his foe, a twisted killer named Emil Ravek, Batman tracks down the location of the real Robin, ready to be decapitated by the deranged criminal. Ravek may seem like a small-time thug, but he understands Batman on a deeper level than some of his most famous villains – there’s no stopping Bruce as a person, so he has to stop Batman as a concept. “My pleasure is in KEEPING YOU ALIVE…so you can spend your remaining years as a GIBBERING IDIOT.” Ravek thinks that by killing Robin, by placing that level of guilt on Batman’s shoulders, he’ll have ended his career forever.
But this is where Ravek is wrong, and where, from my perspective, many readers get confused when thinking of the Robin concept. “If you want REVENGE, kill ME, not Robin.” Batman offers, early in the climactic battle. Ravek struggles desperately to fight Batman off. “I’m always prepared to die, Ravek. But not to die at the hands of RABID DOGS like you.” In this sensational and sincere proclamation, Robbins illustrates a terrifying fact about Batman, and most vigilante superheroes who focus on street-level crime. If you stop fearing death, if you can turn yourself into a concept of death for others to fear, the only thing you become afraid of is other people harming those who don’t deserve it.
Batman means it when he refers to Emil as a rabid dog – he sees him on a level less than human – but that puts the two at a level playing ground. I don’t think Batman sees himself as human, and I think that’s why he can resist checking the corpse of a fallen comrade, instead choosing to go after an immediate threat around him. That’s where his frustration with Ravek’s clues throughout the story comes from – this nagging, frustrating idea that he isn’t like other people, that having your parents killed in front of you and dressing up like a bat to fight crime makes you different, means that maybe you don’t feel quite the same way other people feel. Batman, like any real outcast, doesn’t necessarily want to be different – but there’s no escaping the person you are. If Robin represents the potential to be Batman and be happy, to stop crime and make the world better but still have a life and find inner peace, then Batman can’t react the way we want him to when a loved one dies.
Still, that glimpse of humanity is there – again, Batman isn’t quite the cold and calculating figure of vengeance that the Punisher is. “…Where am I?” the real Robin asks he regains consciousness, Ravek defeated by Batman. “As close to death as I ever hope you get, son.” The sidekick concept still works, even if Batman doesn’t want to put a child in harm’s way, or face the death of a loved one, or see injustice happen on any scale – it still works because Batman would rather see crime stopped, would rather see a child capable of stopping a would-be mugger murder an innocent couple, than he would learn to love and live life again. I think we love Batman more the more we accept his irrationality, his juvenile behaviour and his irresponsibility – because he’s more like us that way. The more he’s willing to make unbelievable bone-headed, unrealistic mistakes in an attempt to have someone love him, for and not despite being the screwed-up person that he is. It turns out that Robin can die plenty of ways – and as long as there are Batman stories, he probably will meet his fate an endless amount of times – but whether it’s a delinquent kid from the street or his own son, Batman won’t let that death stop him from his never-ending quest.