Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tim Drake from the beginning – part 1: "Batman Year Three"

(All reviews in this series contain spoilers.)

Batman #436-439 (August-September 1989)
Written by Marv Wolfman; pencilled by Pat Broderick; inked by John Beatty.

Tim Drake's first appearance was in Batman #436, the first issue of Marv Wolfman's four-part story, "Batman Year Three." It's only a brief appearance in a flashback, and Tim is only a little boy in it. He doesn't appear in the next three issues and doesn't play a significant role in the overall story. At the time, there was no indication that this boy would become one of the most important members of the Bat family. But in retrospect, this first appearance was carefully planned and it set into motion the series of events that would lead to the introduction of the third Robin.

A few thoughts on continuity

Before I start looking at the significance of this story, I have to say a few words about the concept of "continuity" in mainstream super-hero comic books and my own particular take on it. You see, many fans will tell you that "Year Three" is no longer in continuity, that it has been retconned and replaced by Dark Victory, Jeph Loeb's extremely mediocre sequel to his hit series The Long Halloween.

This adherence to "official continuity" or "canon" is an approach to comic books that I not only disagree with, but actually make it a point to actively fight against whenever I encounter it. I believe it is a terribly mistaken and limited understanding of how serialized comic book narratives operate. The simple-minded fans who stubbornly insist on determining a precise timeline, while carelessly eliminating any story that doesn't fit neatly into their linear continuity, are simply missing the point. All they succeed in doing is to reduce their own enjoyment of comic books.

The way I approach comic books is different. Every story I read that is set within the DC universe is linked (thematically, metatextually) to every other story I've ever read or am at least aware of. I not only include contradictions into that web of meaning, I actually embrace them. I understand every appearance of a character to be nothing more and nothing less than a possible interpretation of that character – an interpretation that is informed by the writer's (and the reader's) knowledge of every other interpretation that came before. This rich, multi-layered and often contradictory history is what gives the characters their power and complexity. It's what makes them seem real! Because human beings are complex and full of contradictions, and that's what our experience of the world is like. It doesn't fit neatly into a linear timeline and unless you're some kind of sociopath, you don't get to just discard whatever aspects of the world happen to not fit nicely into your particular worldview.

Year Three vs. Dark Victory

"Year Three" doesn't actually take place during the third year of Batman's career. The main story is set in contemporary continuity (at the time of publication), so it takes place much later, sometime after the death of Jason Todd. The reason for the title is that the story features several flashbacks to that third year, around the time when Dick Grayson's parents were killed and he became Bruce Wayne's ward, and eventually the first Robin.

Jeph Loeb seems to draw a lot of inspiration from this story for his own Dark Victory, which is set around the time of those flashbacks and retells the first Robin's origin story. What's strange (or annoying), though, is that he uses elements from the story that is set in the contemporary time period – namely the crime bosses getting taken out one after another by an unknown killer – but sets them also in Batman's third year. (I guess maybe this technically happens in The Long Halloween, of which Dark Victory is the sequel, but whatever.) The end result is that he mashes events from these two different periods into the same year, and since Loeb's story is considered canon, this effectively retcons "Year Three" out of existence.

It's a real shame, because it means that "Year Three" probably won't be collected in trades anytime soon, and not a lot of newer readers will bother hunting down the back issues. I'm of the opinion that "Year Three" is a much more important and significant story that Loeb's overlong snooze-fest, which at the end of the day doesn't amount to much of anything, except provide Tim Sale an excuse to draw some truly fantastic art. It doesn't provide any great insight into the characters of Batman and Robin(s), or the complexity of their relationship, which is what Marv Wolfman's story is all about.

Batman's nervous breakdown

It's been two years since Dick Grayson left Wayne Manor and left the Robin mantle behind in favour of his new identity, Nightwing. Apparently, he and Bruce haven't been keeping in touch, and when Jason Todd was killed by the Joker a few months earlier, Bruce didn't even call to tell him. Alfred wrote to Dick to tell him he was worried about Bruce's sanity and his refusal to acknowledge or deal with Jason's death. Dick thought he was exaggerating at first, but when he visits the Batcave and Wayne Manor, he's disturbed to find that Bruce has removed any trace of Jason having ever even existed.

Batman is out investigating the murder of the crime bosses, so Dick goes out as Nightwing to try to find him. He follows the bloody trail Batman left behind, which does nothing to ease his concerns that Bruce might be losing it. He's being reckless and violent. Dick remembers that Bruce always taught him how to think with his head, not with his fists, but now Bruce seems to be ignoring everything he taught him.

While Batman is going around beating people up and putting himself in dangerous situations, Nightwing starts his own investigation, putting to use the detective skills that Batman taught him. They follow the same trail, but using different methods, and it eventually leads them to the same place.

Meanwhile, Alfred has been trying to convince the parole board not to release Zucco. When that fails, he even resorts to visiting Zucco himself in prison and offering him money to leave Gotham. Zucco only laughs at him.

Eventually, all these threads combine, as it turns out that Zucco was the one who organized the murders Batman and Nightwing are investigating. But the other crime bosses, who were helping Batman in his investigation, have also figured it out, and they set their own retaliation plan in motion. On the day of his release, Zucco walks out of the prison and is assassinated on the spot.

Dick asks Batman if he knew about their plan and allowed it to happen. Bruce denies this. "Whatever you think of me now, you know I would never be a party to murder." But when Dick asks why he didn't try to stop Zucco, Bruce reveals just how damaged he's become. "I watched him and I was shaking. I was... afraid I'd strangle him for..." He doesn't say any more, but he doesn't really need to.

There's one last loose end to tie up in the case. Zucco left behind a ledger with detailed information that could serve as evidence to prosecute all the remaining crime family bosses. Now more violence is erupting as they all try to get their hands on it first. When Dick offers to help Batman find it, he lashes out at him, saying he doesn't need a partner.

So once again we have Batman and Nightwing doing their own investigations using different methods. Nightwing finds the Ledger first, but Taft, a lawyer that Zucco was blackmailing, follows him. Batman arrives at the scene just in time to see Taft hit Nightwing with a tire iron, recalling the scene in "A Death in the Family" where the Joker beat Jason Todd with the crowbar. Again, Batman is paralysed with fear.

Fortunately, Dick can take care of himself. Taft is no match for him, and Dick quickly overpowers him, but the ledger is destroyed in the process.

At the end of the story, Batman hasn't really worked through any of his issues, but all the pieces have been set in place for the next story arc, "A Lonely Place of Dying" (which I'll review next).

What does any of this have to do with Tim Drake?

Tim only appears in one issue of this four-part story, during one of the many flashbacks. But although it's only a brief appearance, it's a very significant one, especially in retrospect.

This is already getting pretty long, though, so I'm going to break it off here and continue this in the next post. Hopefully I'll be able to finish it before the weekend.

In the next instalment of Tim Drake from the Beginning, we'll look at the nine flashbacks in "Batman: Year Three," and what they tell us about Batman's relationship with his many Robins.


Tim August 11, 2010 at 7:51 AM  

I really like what you said about continuity. Comics, like actual life, have a fluid storyline. Different people view them different, just as different people view *anything* differently. I'm not a continuity nazi, although I'm not quite as zen as you are, but you make a very very good point there.

I think this is a great review! I can't wait until the next part.

Yan Basque August 14, 2010 at 8:30 PM  

Thanks for your comment, Tim.

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