Ask Chris #307: The Evolution (Or Lack Thereof) Of Tim Drake
A: Okay, first things first: Tim Drake is the best Robin, and it's not even a competition. It's not just that he's a great character, and believe it or not, it's not just that he was Robin when I as a kid and will always be my Robin because of it. More than any other character who has held that title over the past 75 years, he works in that role better than in any other, and because of that, he's always going to have a place in the larger Batman family.
But if you're talking about evolution, especially in the context of how Batman's other sidekicks, that might be the only thing that really works against him.
Here's the thing: When I say that Tim Drake's the best Robin, that doesn't mean that the others aren't good characters, or that they weren't good characters when they were filling that role as the back half of "Batman And." But they all have something else going on that makes them work better in a different role.
I've written before that Dick Grayson --- not only a solid character in his own right but the literal template that every other kid sidekick in the genre is based on --- doesn't really become great until he moves on from being the Boy Wonder and into his own role as Nightwing. That's when he embodies what's great about Batman, this idea that in the world that is Gotham City, dressing up like a Dracula and driving around on a rocket car to fight murder clowns and crossword robbers every night isn't just an effective way of addressing the immediate problems of super-crime, it's also right and good.
When we see Dick Grayson growing up, and when we see him becoming a hero in his own right, that's when he fulfills the promise of the story. That Dick becomes a hero who's clearly inspired by Batman, but who doesn't have to be isolated and alone --- someone who's defined by his relationships with others --- shows us that Batman didn't just save him in the short term, but in the long term as well.
As for Jason Todd, as much as I might not like the story where he comes back, and I might not have enjoyed most of what's been done with him since, I have to admit that it makes perfect sense for him to reinvent himself as the Red Hood.
Even before his death, Jason --- the post-Crisis Jason, anyways, not the redheaded prototype who was basically just Dick 2.0 --- was always a little rougher and angrier than his predecessor. He was the Robin for a Batman of a more brutal take on superheroics, a Robin for a world where the pendulum had swung back towards "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge" from Dick's defining era of moon crimes and Bat-Mites. It makes sense for him to react to the trauma of being, you know, literally beaten to death with a crowbar, by moving himself away from the family and embracing the identity of Red Hood as a direct challenge to (and mockery of) the Joker. If he has to be around, that's the way he has to do it.
Stephanie Brown works better as Spoiler, the identity that she created for her own reasons. Duke Thomas is currently being built as someone who exists in direct opposition to the idea of Robin --- at least, Robin as we knew him for around seven decades. And Damian Wayne? Damian, while he worked pretty perfectly as the Robin to Dick Grayson's Batman, doesn't really need that identity to work. He's Batman's son, and Talia's son, heir to the Batman legacy and the League of Assassins. Next to that, any identity --- with the possible exception of Batman --- is going to be secondary to just being "Damian Wayne."
But Tim's different.
I've written about it before, so I'll try to keep it brief this time, but Tim Drake is, like Jimmy Olsen before him, a unique product of a superhero universe, and one who can only exist in the context of legacy. He's not there because of a motivating tragedy, he's not there by happenstance or because he's inheriting something. He's there because as an outside observer, he recognized the importance of Robin to who Batman is and how he works.
There's a level of genre-savviness to that idea that essentially makes Tim a character who reads the comics, and while that's normally a frustrating attribute for someone to have in a story, the fact that he exists in a universe that's built on a heroic tradition that people know about means that the knowledge he has as an obsessive Batman fan --- something that makes him pretty easy to identify with for, ahem, a certain kind of reader --- can be recontextualized to something that works within the story.
It means that when he chooses to be there, when he chooses to become Robin, he's making an informed choice. And much like the choice that Barbara Gordon makes when she becomes Batgirl, when she chooses superheroism above all else, it defines him as a character.
This, incidentally, gives him something in common with one of the other Robins, who makes the same choice to become Robin in what is the often unrecognized literal best scene of The Dark Knight Returns.
That beat between "Carrie Kelly" and "Robin" is the best thing Frank Miller has ever done, and may in fact be the best thing that happened in comics in the '80s. This is a fact.
Anyway, Tim's choice of becoming Robin does a lot for his character. For one, it puts him on a more equal footing with Batman --- he's still the junior partner, and he's certainly still the sidekick, but he's not there by Batman's choice. He's there on his own. And that, in turn, makes him Batman's partner.
As much as I love the familial dynamic of the Batman Family, and as much as I'll go to the mat about Dick Grayson being Batman's son in every way that matters, I do really love the idea of Tim as someone who has a family of his own. If Batman doesn't need to be his dad, then Batman can be a different kind of mentor, and Tim can exist on a different set of terms.
And listen, Identity Crisis has a pretty long list of sins that make it a terrible comic book, but taking that away from him and trying to hammer Tim into fitting that role is most certainly one of them.
But then, that's kind of the problem, isn't it? If Tim is defined as Robin, which he is, and his version of Robin is defined as Batman's partner, which it is, then it makes it really difficult for him to move past that and into something else.
It's one of the reasons that Red Robin --- an identity that also involves a terrible name and an equally terrible string of costumes --- doesn't quite work.
There's certainly a good reason for it, in that it was an identity that he adopted when Bruce Wayne was presumed dead by everyone else, and when Dick Grayson was operating as Batman. Damian works as Dick's Robin in a way that Tim never could, so it makes sense to move him into that role, but it leaves Tim in this very weird no man's land as a character: If his Batman is gone, where does that leave his Robin?
This does eventually lead to the nice bit in Return of Bruce Wayne where Tim is acknowledged not just as the one person who always believed Bruce was still out there, but as his partner, specifically.
But at the end of the day, it still leaves you with the question of what to do when you have (at least) three Robins?
The Red Robin identity is, in all honesty, a worst-of-all-worlds stopgap. It pushes him away from the central identity while still keeping him tethered to it, and it's a weird reference back to Kingdom Come that's completely divorced from its source. Adding the qualifier to distinguish him from, I guess, Red-And-Green-And-Yellow Robin makes him secondary by its very nature, and even though he's back in something closer to his original Robin costume, the double-R in his insignia is a weird bit of muddled branding that keeps him distant from the role that he's built for.
That doesn't mean that Tim can never move on, of course, but I do think it speaks to the difficulties of taking him into a different role. He is, after all, a character who has said explicitly in the comics that he never wanted to be Batman, he just wanted to be Robin. That's a character motivation that's ingrained in his DNA, and it's pretty hard to get past.
Which is probably why casting him in the current Detective Comics as the one member of the Batman family who, at like 17, is just two days away from retirement, actually works, beyond just being a truly hilarious bit of foreshadowing.
But at the end of the day, I'm not sure Tim needs to evolve beyond Robin. Robin, despite the standard set by the characters who have held that role before him (and in Duke's case, after), doesn't necessarily have to be a transitional role in the lifespan of a character. It can be an endpoint, a goal all of its own, and it's one that can be shared with others. There's no end to the potential of what you can get with Tim Drake as Robin, either on his own, or as Bruce Wayne's partner.