Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tim Drake from the Beginning - Part 3: "A Lonely Place of Dying"

Well, here it is, at long last, the insanely delayed third part of my ongoing Tim Drake from the Beginning series. This time, I'm looking at "A Lonely Place of Dying," a story that runs through issues of Batman and The New Titans and features Tim Drake's first appearance as a teenager (following his brief cameo as a little boy in "Year Three") and ends with him putting on the Robin costume for the first time.

If you haven't read them already, you can check out the intro, part 1 and part 2 of this series.

BATMAN #440-442 (1989)
Written by Marv Wolfman and George Perez; art by Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo.

THE NEW TITANS #60-61 (1989)
Written by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, art by George Perez, Tom Grummett and Bob McLeod.

(This review contains major spoilers for a story published over 20 years ago, so you should probably read it anyway.)

I'm going to start with a detailed synopsis before doing a more in-depth analysis of what struck me as the most interesting aspects of the story. You can skip ahead if you've already read the comics and don't need a refresher.


"A Lonely Place of Dying" picks up where "Year Three" left off, with Batman becoming increasingly violent and careless in the aftermath of Jason Todd's death. Chapter 1 opens with Batman fighting Ravager, while an unseen photographer takes snapshots from a distance. The photographer is Tim Drake, though he remains hidden for now. He knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne and next he goes looking for Dick Grayson, first at Titans Tower, then at Starfire's place, and finally breaking into his apartment, where he finds a newspaper article about Haly Circus's imminent closure.

Meanwhile, Alfred is getting tired of playing nurse. He scolds Bruce for acting recklessly, reminding him of something he once told Dick when he was first training him in combat: "We're not brutalizers. We've got to think with our heads, not with our fists." Bruce doesn't even bother answering him. He changes into his Batman costume (while simultaneously shaving) and goes out on patrol.

Still, Alfred's words do sink in when he finds himself ambushed and realizes he hasn't been doing very good detective work lately.

"What were you thinking with?" says the caption. Batman looks at his fists. "And Batman knows the sad, ludicrous answer. He wasn't thinking." Definitely not Marv Wolfman's best prose. But the point is the clues were there all along: Two-Face is back.

Chapter 2 follows Dick Grayson to Haly Circus, which has been experiencing serious financial troubles and a string of accidents. During a performance, Tim Drake is in the audience with his camera. He's looking for Dick and he recognizes him when he leaps to the rescue of a lion tamer who's been attacked by one of the animals. Poor Tim! Every time he goes to the circus he witnesses a horrible death! And like the first time, this one was no accident. Tim finds evidence of behind-the-scenes shenanigans and brings it to Dick, who solves the murder. Tim blurts out to Dick that Batman needs his help and shows him the pictures he took of the fight.

In Chapter 3, Dick returns to Gotham City with Tim, brings him to Wayne Manor and demands an explanation. Tim explains to Dick and Alfred that he was at the circus years ago when Dick's parents died, which had a profound impact on him. He later recognized Dick's signature quadruple somersault move when he saw video footage of Batman and Robin on the news. From this, he deduced that Bruce was Batman, and later that Dick became Nightwing, and Jason became the second Robin and was then killed. Tim argues that Batman needs a partner.

In Chapter 4, Batman sends Nightwing a message containing all the clues he's been gathering from Two-Face. Nightwing solves the puzzle and meets up with Batman, who is very reluctant to admit that he needs his help. He keeps almost calling him Robin by mistake. The clues have led them to a warehouse. They go in and Two-Face blows the place up, trapping under the rubble. But Nightwing had time to turn on his homing signal, which triggers an alarm in the Batcave.

In Chapter 5, Tim Drake refuses to sit and do nothing. He puts on the Robin costume and gets Alfred to drive him to the location of Nightwing's signal, where they fight Two-Face. This is definitely the weakest point of the story, as it doesn't make much sense for Tim and Alfred to win this fight so easily, but somehow they do and Two-Face escapes. Tim rescues Batman and Nightwing, but upon seeing this boy in the Robin costume, Batman is pissed. They argue about it for several pages, then they go after Two-Face, fight him and defeat him. In the last scene, Bruce tentatively agrees to give Tim Drake a chance, but without promising him anything.

Batman needs a Robin

That Batman needs a Robin is clearly the main point of the story, and Marv Wolfman (with co-plotter George Perez) drives the point home without much subtlety. Tim repeats the phrase over and over like a mantra, presenting his argument first to Dick and Alfred, then to Batman himself. Each time, it's like DC editorial is speaking directly to the fans, trying to justify why there needs to be another Robin.

At first, Tim has no intention of himself becoming Robin. His plan is to convince Dick to go back to that role. But Dick has no intention of giving up his awesome disco collar.

Nightwing might as well be addressing the fans directly when he says he can't become a kid again, and that "no matter how much anybody may want it, you can't bring back the dead." In hindsight, of course, we know this is bullshit, and DC will eventually bring Jason Todd back, but that's another story. The point is, at the time DC was looking for a way to bring Robin back without either demoting Nightwing or undoing Jason's death, and that left only one alternative.

Exactly why Batman needs Robin (as opposed to any other partner) is never given a convincing, practical in-story justification. Tim tells Dick, "You can't let a legend die like that," which only makes sense to us readers because we are aware of Robin's iconic status as a comic book character who's been around for three-quarters of a century. Robin is a legend to us as readers, but it's perhaps debatable whether he should hold the same status to the characters in the story.

The lack of subtlety with which the argument is presented has an interesting side-effect. Tim Drake's fate as the future Robin was sealed from the moment he witnessed Dick Grayson's parents' death in "Year Three." (I've already written at length about the significance of that moment in a previous installment of this series.) It may not have been immediately obvious to contemporary readers, but they would have surely picked up on it by halfway through this story. Yet, as I said, this is not a role that Tim was actively seeking for himself. Although he admits that he used to fantasize about what it would be like to be Robin, he says it's not something he wanted for himself. He ends up putting on the costume out of necessity, because someone has to.

When Tim tells Batman that he has to have a Robin, Batman replies: "Where is that written in stone? There's no more need for there to be a Robin--" Alfred finishes the thought for him: "--than there is for a Batman?" So it's not just Tim that gets sucked into this super-hero role. There's a sense that these characters don't have any say in deciding their own fate. Bruce has to be Batman, Dick has to be Nightwing and Tim has to be Robin.

Harvey's identity as Two-Face also results from a similar deterministic influence. There's evidence of it in the way he addresses Batman: "You can't escape me, and perhaps I can't escape you. We're inextricably linked." This link is emphasized in Chapter 3, "Parallel Lines," which is the centerpiece of the story. In it, Batman and Two-Face are mirror images of each other. They're bound to one another by an uncanny, almost supernatural connection. They go through parallel actions, their inner monologues strikingly similar, while the art depicts them side by side in a symmetrical layout:

Two-Face has almost no agency in this story. His actions and motivations are literally dictated by a mysterious voice that speaks directly to him through a radio unit. The suggestion at first is that this may just be a manifestation of his split personality, but in the end it is revealed to have been the voice of the Joker, pulling strings from his hospital bed as he recovers from his last encounter with Batman.

I don't really think that Wolfman is deliberately encouraging a metatextual interpretation of the story, but because of how blatantly he exposes DC's editorial mandate and the way he emphasizes that the characters are not in control of their own fates as heroes or villains, there's a sense that they're all slaves to this tragic farce that keeps repeating itself.

A few random observations

Yes, it is, Tim.
I've already spent way too much time on this piece, so I'm just going to end by pointing out four details I picked up on without elaborating further.

1. There's a strong motif of related to photography running through the first three issues, which is then unfortunately abandoned just as it was about to get really interesting. The very first scene repeats the "SNAP WHIRRR" sound effect intermittently for several pages until the photographer is revealed and the sound is then understood to be that of the camera. Tim, Dick and Alfred all have a copy of the snapshot that was taken at Haly Circus shortly before Dick's parents died (as seen in "Year Three").

2. Later in Tim Drake's career as Robin, his amazing detective skills have often been commented upon. This was the boy who figured out Batman's identity! There's this perception among fans that Tim Drake is the smart Robin, whereas Dick was the athletic one. While Tim is certainly portrayed here as very intelligent, his detective skills aren't really that impressive. The unintentionally hilarious "Dick is good" line in Chapter 2 shows how impressed he is with Dick's sleuthing abilities. As for his solving of the mystery of Batman and Robin's identities, it was almost totally circumstantial - he just happened to be at the right place at the right time and to recognize Dick's signature move. He himself admits it wasn't too difficult to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Of course, Tim will eventually become a great detective in his own right, but only after being trained by Batman.

3. My favourite line of the story goes to Alfred in Chapter 4: "I believe Master Bruce is almost as obsessive about family as he is about preventing crime."

4. Tim Drake's name was changed by editorial at the last minute, but one mistake slipped into Batman #441. In one panel, Dick accidentally calls him "Jeff." This was later explained in the letters column in issue #445.

Next time on Tim Drake from the Beginning

DC editors and writers wonder, "How can Tim Drake be Robin if he's not an orphan? Let's at least kill one of them." And they do, stupidly and lazily, in a story called "Rite of Passage" from Detective Comics #618-621. Ugh!

And I promise it won't take me six months to write that one.


Kayode January 31, 2011 at 9:28 PM  

Came here from CBR. Good stuff, man!

Yan Basque January 31, 2011 at 10:15 PM  

Cool. Thanks for reading (and commenting).

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