‘Batgirl/Robin Year One’ Collects Two Great Tales Of Batman’s Oldest Partners [Review]
Before you get too wrapped up in Zero Year, this Wednesday you'll have a chance to get caught up on Year One. Because that's how we do things in comics now: we go backwards. On sale this week is a brand new collection of two great Year One stories that sharpened up the continuity of their respective characters, and added new depth and clarity to backstories that were previously kinda flat and fuzzy. Batgirl/Robin: Year One gathers two separate miniseries that could each claim to be the definitive story for their Bat-family members: Robin: Year One by Chuck Dixon, Scott Beatty, and Javier Pulido; and Batgirl: Year One by Scotty Beatty, Chuck Dixon (same writers, different listing) and Marcos Martin. And let me tell ya, Batgirl and Robin are two great tastes that go great together.
Okay, that probably came off a little creepier than I intended, but let's push forward.Instead of trying to retell an origin that's objectively perfect, Robin: Year One begins with Robin already partnered up with Batman and seriously pissing off the criminal underworld. The death of Dick Grayson's parents and his recruitment by Batman are refreshed in a single, quarantined flashback panel that perfectly crystallizes everything you need to know about Robin's past. The book avoids the trap of trying to add new weight to something that was already pretty heavy, and instead focuses on how that trauma effects everything after -- how Robin embraces the excitement and danger of his new life, his effect on Batman, and the conflicted emotions he evokes inside their stoic, often overlooked manservant.
More Bat-books should probably be narrated by Alfred. Let's just get that out of the way. His perspective is probably the most fascinating in the Bat-family, and it's one we rarely get to see. Because many writers savor Batman's internal monologue so much (to a point near self-parody), regular doses of Alfred's viewpoint are rare, and often mishandled. In Robin: Year One, his voice and perspective are captured perfectly.
"...I fear that I am once more watching a child barter his youth away in the service of 'justice'..." Pretty bleak words from Batman's moral compass. When it comes to Robin, he's conflicted. His opinion changes constantly throughout the story, nearly every time Robin goes out on a mission. He enjoys the changes he sees in Bruce -- the return of genuine laughter to Wayne Manor, the arrival of joy in a life entirely devoid of it. But naturally, he fears not just for Dick's safety, but his well-being. Dick, like everyone, victimized or not, should have the right to a real youth, and even though Alfred couldn't save Bruce from the darkness, he won't stand by and watch it engulf another.
But it becomes clear that Dick needs to be Robin. Being Robin is what keeps Dick from going down a dark path of fear and despair. It's not just his vengeance, it's his therapy, his escape from victimization, and the only way that Dick could actually have a youth. Robin and Alfred -- in a way the dual leads of the story -- have rarely been as well-rounded and consistent, chiefly because they're so inconsistent. They change. As Robin goes out on more cases that remind us of youth in peril -- a sex slave ring run by the Mad Hatter, Two-Face's plan to murder infant twins, a gang of young assassins -- the danger increases, the situations change, and the characters are forced to grow to either accept or alter them. The book is full of great character work, steered by a plot that successfully mixes lightheartedness and joy with darkness and terror.
Batgirl: Year One conveys the same tone, but the story is much different. Batgirl actually has a lot more in common with Batman: Year One â€‹than Robin does. A first-person origin story, Batgirl expands on Barbara Gordon's beginnings as a crime fighter, and imbues her with the personality and drive that readers didn't often get to see until she became Oracle many years later.
It's often tough for male writers to pull off a feminist perspective without being preachy, pedantic, or just plain misguided (see Denny O'Neil's depowered Wonder Woman). But Batgirl: Year One manages to walk that tightrope, as far as I can tell from my testicle-having perspective, without getting all "hear me roar" about it. When Barbara wants to be a cop, her dad won't let her. When she approaches the Justice Society and proves that she could be a valuable asset, Wildcat (probably drunk on Thunderbird wine) rebuffs her. When she dons a bat-costume on a lark, Batman says she doesn't have the right, to which she appropriately questions what the Hell gave him the right.
Batgirl is about Barbara'a choices, and her fight to determine her own destiny. Unfortunately, as anyone with knowledge of Barbara's pre-New 52 fate knows, her destiny ends up being a tragic one, and all throughout the story, there are references and fore-shadows that inculcate Year One with a slight sense of dread. But the writers don't pity Barbara, and the character would never regret her choices, no matter where they led her. Like Robin: Year One, Batgirl is another compelling character piece that accomplishes growth through action.
Both books are drop-dead gorgeous, an expected result from being illustrated by two of the most talented comic artists to make it in the last decade. Javier Pulido (with Robert Campanella on inks) handled the art duties on Robin: Year One with all the exuberance you'd expect from the notoriously inventive cartoonist. The action is dynamic and lively, and his cartooning on Dick Grayson's facial features is so great, you'd probably be able to tell exactly what was happening in a panel even without words. His approach shares a lot of traits with the Batman: The Animated Series style of retro-futurism, and Pulido designs Gotham with modern looks and classic ones equally. Camaros share road space with Dusenbergs; Dick's classmates walk around in baggy pants and flannel shirts while he looks like he just stepped out of a Sears catalog from 1963.
For Batgirl: Year One, the art duties fell to Marcos Martin (with inks by Alvaro Lopez), who had actually helped Pulido finish the final issue of the Robin series, and of course he was a perfect fit. Like Pulido, he captures an elegance and energy in his panels that recalls classics like Alex Toth and Johnny Craig while still being dramatically modern. His kinetic layouts, loopy lettering, and caught-in-the-moment characters make the book a quick read, but the genius of his sense of action and design make you want to slow down just to drink the panels in. He revels in Gotham's architecture at breakneck speed, and if you go too fast you just might miss how brilliant this guy has always been.
Batgirl/Robin: Year One is a great collection of two fantastic stories from the early 2000s that both deserve another chance to grab new readers. Teamed up, the duo make for one of the best reprints of the year. High-flying, dangerous fun all the way around.