Saturday, August 14, 2010

Tim Drake from the beginning – part 2: "Batman Year Three" (continued)

(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.

Earlier this week, in the first part of this review, I said there were nine flashbacks in "Batman Year Three." I miscounted. It turns out there are actually ten.

In part 1:

1. Zucco's childhood, his parents' murder, growing up in the orphanage (with Sister Mary Elizabeth), his revenge and beginnings as a criminal.
2. Dick grayson's childhood, his parents' murder (including Tim Drake's first appearance), brief stay at the orphanage (with Sister Mary Elizabeth).
In part 2:
3. Dick comes to live at Wayne Manor, visits the Batcave for the first time, begins training to become Robin.
4. Bruce gives Dick the Robin costume, first night out on patrol.
In part 3:
5. Jason Todd's death.
6. Batman teaches Dick/Robin forensics.
7. Batman and Dick/Robin going after Zucco's crime operations.
8. Dick Grayson's optimism shortly after becoming Robin.
And in part 4:
9. Dick's custody hearing, where he officially becomes Bruce's ward.
10. Jason Todd's death (again).
These flashbacks all serve a very straightforward narrative purpose, giving us important information about the characters and moving the plot forward. But there's something else going on if we look more closely at the way each one is introduced into the narrative.

"A torrent of memories"

In the first issue, the two flashbacks are narrated by Alfred, as he tries to convince the parole board not to release Zucco. He is describing events that he did not himself experience or even witness, relating second-hand information he's presumably gathered from various sources. Although Alfred is very passionate in his plea and in his efforts to convince the members of the board, he's giving them a very factual account which is an appeal to reason more than to emotion.

In the second issue, the two flashbacks are a little bit more personal and emotional. The first one (#3) is also from Alfred's point of view, but it's not something that he is telling anyone. It's a memory that he is experiencing, triggered by a photograph of Bruce Wayne and young Dick Grayson. The other flashback in this issue (#4), though it conveniently picks up where the other one left off, is from Dick's perspective, as he remembers how different Bruce Wayne was when the two started going out on patrol together.

This move toward more emotional and involuntary memories continues in the next issue. With the exception of the Jason Todd flashback (#5), which is not really presented as a memory but almost like an editorial note to readers in case they are not aware of what happened before, the flashbacks in this issue are all very personal and triggered by things happening in the present. Dick remembers Bruce's teachings while he's applying the detective skills he learned from him (#6); Batman remembers his early adventures with Robin at the mention of Zucco's name (#7); and Alfred, struck by Dick's determination and how similar it is to Bruce's, remembers a conversation they had shortly after he took on the Robin role (#8).

Those three flashbacks all carry a strong sense of nostalgia and they are all presented as automatically triggered memories. In Dick and Alfred's cases, this is represented visually with the art showing both the memory and the present simultaneously in the same panel. In Batman's case, the flashback sequence is introduced by brief narration box: "Almost against his will, he's caught in a torrent of memories." Unlike Dick and Alfred, Batman doesn't have any first-person narration in the story, so this is really the first time we get inside his head. This choice of narrative perspective is a deliberate choice that suggests Batman has been repressing emotions and memories. We haven't had access to his head, because he's been busy trying to keep it blank. When the "torrent of memories" finally do comes pouring in, he experiences it "almost against his will." His memories are completely visceral and involuntary, in contrast to Alfred and Dick's, which, while not devoid of emotion, have remained somewhat detached and analytical.

The power of love!

The two flashbacks in the final issue provide the emotional climax of the story, for both Dick and Batman. Dick's long flashback to the court proceedings when he officially became Bruce's ward is filled with tears and speeches about love. It's the most "emo" and unsubtle moment in the story, and probably the scene people have in mind when they accuse Marv Wolfman's writing of being too melodramatic. But it serves its thematic function.

Back in the first issue, Alfred pointed out some interesting parallels between Zucco and Dick's stories, using them to make a case against Zucco's early release from prison. They both experienced tragedy and the loss of their parents at a young age. Both were sent to the same orphanage, where they met Sister Mary Elizabeth, who tried to help them. But Zucco grows up wanting revenge and turns into a murderer, whereas Dick becomes a well adjusted and compassionate adult. Alfred suggests that they turned out so different because of their upbringing. Zucco's father was a bully and he grew up in a household without love. Dick, on the other hand, was raised in the circus by loving parents and surrounded an extended family of performers, all of whom were kind to him and cared for him.

But of course, there's a third orphan in this story: Bruce Wayne. And while Dick and Zucco represent the two extremes of that archetype, Bruce ends up somewhere in the middle. Like Dick, he was raised by a loving family, but unlike him, he was alone after they were killed, and there is definitely a darkness within him that Dick doesn't have. One major theme running through "Year Three" is how everyone deals with tragedy and whether it makes them seek justice or revenge. The idea is that extreme tragedy can be psychologically traumatic enough to drive one to murder. Zucco succumbed to that urge readily. Dick and Bruce have both resisted that urge in the past, but who's to say that they will continue to do so in the future? Alfred notices the similarities between Dick and Bruce and that scares him. He's afraid of what Dick will do when he finds out about Zucco's release. It's only with that flashback in part 4 (#9) that those fears finally come to rest.

Meanwhile, there's the looming question of what Bruce will do when he finally decides to deal with the death of Jason Todd. In this case, Bruce himself is scared. That's why he's paralyzed at the end of part 3, unable to confront Zucco because of what he might do to him. The very last flashback in the last issue brings him back to the death of Jason Todd. "For the first time in months, that name comes to his lips." This is the moment when Batman finally is forced to confront that death, the consequences of which will be dealt with in more detail in "A Lonely Place of Dying."

Setting the stage for the next Robin

What is hinted at throughout this story is that Batman simply cannot function without his Robin. The dark side of the Dark Knight simply takes over unless he has a young optimistic sidekick to lighten him up. Dick Grayson himself spells it out for us in flashback #8: "I used to think he was more real as Batman than as Bruce Wayne, but because he just can't be some super-hero around me, I think Bruce is becoming more real, too. (...) I think I'm helping Bruce to sometimes enjoy himself." This is of course not just an in-story argument that applies to the characters, but also a metatextual one that applies to the comic books themselves. Having Robin in the comics changes the tone of the comics (in theory at least). Robin was introduced for that very reason (and to give younger readers a character to whom they can relate). So while "Year Three" appears to be a story very focused on the past, with its multiple flashbacks and exploration of the psychological ramifications of the death of Jason Todd, it also looks to the future and is in fact setting the stage for the arrival of the next Robin, Tim Drake.

But "Year Three" does more than just prepare us for the next Robin, it also cleverly plants the seed right in the first issue, giving us Tim Drake's first appearance in flashback #2. I wish I could go back to 1989 and erase my memory of all the comics that came after that time and experience that first appearance as the readers did at the time. Because, of course, we know who Tim Drake is. I wonder how many readers picked up on it then. Did it seem weird that so much time was spent on this random little kid at the circus?

Unfortunately, I can't go back in time to verify that. I read the story for the first time earlier this year. In retrospect, I think it was a stroke of genius to insert Tim into the scene of Dick's parents' murder. It makes him part of the mythology of Batman almost from the very beginning. The fact that all three of them – Dick, Bruce and Tim – are in the same room but unaware of the their shared future history makes it a very poignant moment, at least from my perspective. And of course, it also serves a more practical purpose in setting up some important elements that are going to come into play in "A Lonely Place of Dying," namely, (1) the photo Dick and Tim take together, (2) the "quadruple flip of doom" performed by Dick, which Tim witnesses, and (3) Batman's dramatic entrance, which will haunt Tim for years.

More on that story in the next episode of Tim Drake from the Beginning.


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