Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tim Drake from the Beginning - Part 4: "Rite of Passage"

Detective Comics #618
Detective Comics #618-621 "Rite of Passage"
Written by Alan Grant; art by Norm Breyfogle, Dick Giordano and Steve Mitchell; DC

(Tons of spoilers follow.)

Last time we looked at "A Lonely Place of Dying," the story about how Tim Drake figured out Batman's identity and convinced him that he needed a new Robin. Bruce Wayne agreed to start training him, but without making any promises.

Part of the appeal of Tim Drake as he was established in that story was that he came from a different background than either of the previous Robins. He's not a child in distress that Batman saves and takes under his wing. In fact, he's the one who goes after Batman and convinces him that he needs Tim's help, which is almost a complete reversal of Dick and Jason's origins, where Batman was the one who actively initiated the relationship.

At the core of this difference is the fact that, unlike Dick and Jason and Bruce himself, Tim is not an orphan. Although his parents are busy and frequently absent, they are alive and able to provide for him. If the whole idea behind the character of Robin (at least initially) is that younger readers can see themselves in him, then this all made perfect sense. Most teenagers who read Batman comics are not orphans and probably don't want their parents to die. Tim is a normal teenager who comes from a relatively well adjusted family, so here's someone they can all relate to and through whom they can fantasize about being Robin. (For the sake of argument, I'm ignoring the fact that pretty much every reader of Batman comics actually fantasizes about being Batman. Just go with it.)

So Tim was a fresh and new and exciting take on Robin. It's absolutely baffling, then, that the first thing DC decided to to do with the character after his introduction was to strip him of everything that set him apart from his predecessors. In a story called "Rite of Passage," they swiftly killed his mother and turned him into an orphaned child in distress.

Let's think about that title for a second and what it means. A "rite of passage" marks the transition or progression from one stage to another. In this case, the passage is from ordinary boy to hero. The ritual event that he has to go through in order to make that transition is personal tragedy, or more specifically, the loss of a parent.

Rites of passage usually have a universal quality, so the implication is that this is something Tim has to go through in order to become a hero. Tim himself says so at the end of part 2 (issue #619):

Alfred is quick to dismiss the idea, but everything about this story confirms that this is actually the case. Why else would the editors and writers of this story decide to off his mother in a story called "Rite of Passage" before he gets to call himself a hero?

That decision has never made any sense to me. Tim's origin story provided all the motivation he needed to follow in the footsteps of Dick and Jason. His admiration and respect for Batman, a sense of duty and personal responsibility, courage, etc. Are these not enough to make him a hero? Apparently not. Because Batman is tormented and driven to action by personal loss and a desire for revenge, everyone he works with has to go through the same thing.

It's kind of infuriating. In case you couldn't tell, I don't like this story very much, and it's hard for me to look at it objectively and ignore my fan rage. I haven't even gotten into the meat of the story yet and I already feel like I've said everything that really needs to be said about it. There are a few more things going on that I'd like to point out, though.

The story opens with a nice tribute to Jason Todd. Tim looks up at Jason's uniform and says, "One day, I'll be as good as Jason. One day, I'll wear the suit. One day, I'll be a hero." It's nice that everyone in the comic has so much respect for Jason, considering how he was killed for the amusement of fans who called a 1-900 number. I'm used to the idea (from some fans) that Jason was out of control and had it coming, so it's nice to see that this is now how he is remembered at this point.

It's also cool that we have stories like this set at a time when Tim is in transition. He's not yet Robin - he hasn't started wearing the costume or going out on patrol - but he hangs out in the Bat Cave and helps Batman in his investigation (mostly making use of his computer skills), and even goes out to confront Anarky while Batman is away. I like that he wasn't just thrown into the role, that he's being eased into it gradually. This is a process that we don't see very often in comics.

Finally, it's interesting to look at this story from Batman's perspective and consider what it means to him. He's obviously still feeling guilty for the way things turned out with Dick and Jason, and he feels a strong sense of responsibility for Tim's well-being. He takes what's happening to his parents to heart and he does everything he can to save them. We see just how personal this is to him at the end when he fails to save them. He's overcome with emotion (horror, then rage, then despair) and there's a huge caption in block letters: "I'VE FAILED!"

Obviously, Bruce knows what it's like to be an orphan and the last thing he wants is for Tim to go through the same thing. And yet, during most of the story, he's unable to show his emotion or get too close to him. He's emotionally distant and he's keeping secrets from Tim. In one scene, he brings Tim his breakfast in the morning, and Tim notices that he doesn't take off the cowl: "He kept the cowl on. As if... he didn't want me to see his real feelings," Tim says in a caption.

It's only at the end, after Tim's mother has died and his father is in a coma, that Bruce really tries to comfort Tim. But when he does, Tim has a vision of the Bat and the darkness it represents. It's a fairly horrifying scene and a little over the top. Tim is snapped back into reality when a nurse invites him to go see his father. Bruce offers to accompany him, but Tim wants to do this alone. The issue ends with Bruce wondering about the burden he's placing on Tim's shoulders: "How do you make up for what he's lost? How do you pay back the pain, and the fear, and the lonely years? Draw power from death? Become like me? The night-monster. The man who taints the lives of all around him. Is that what I want for him? Is that what he'll want for himself?"

It's pretty heavy stuff. A little too heavy for my tastes, to be honest, and I think unnecessary. This is probably the low point of Tim Drake's early stories, but thankfully it gets better.

One last note: I think some of Norm Breyfogle's layouts are really awesome. The focus of these pieces are really on character, and as a result I don't spend much time talking about the art, but I've been really interested in layouts lately, so I may come back to these at a later date.

Next time, we look at "A Hero Reborn," from Batman #455-457. These issues were also collected in a (now out of print) trade paperback, along with the first Robin mini-series.


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