|Batgirl/Robin: Year One|
By Beatty, Dixon, Martin and Pulido
DC Comics, 2001,2003, 2013
Another of Batman's many associates over the decades is the seemingly derivative Batgirl, another character with many different individuals under the cowl. While not the first woman to take on the Batgirl identity, the longest serving and best known is Barbara Gordon, daughter of Jim Gordon and ultimately one of superhero comics' most tragic figures. But long before her victimization at the hands of the Joker (and Alan Moore), Barbara Gordon for many was - and still is - the definitive Batgirl.
For years many publishers, but especially DC, have produced many "Year One" miniseries which retell the origin of a particular character. Most of these try to follow the mold set by Frank Miller and the incomparable David Mazzucchelli in their collaborative masterwork Batman: Year One. This week DC released a massive softcover collection combining two such outings, Batgirl/Robin: Year One, focusing on Gordon and Grayson. The incredible value presented - over 425 pages for less than twenty-five dollars - is worth checking the volume out. But the real reason to take this home comes down to the artists involved, Marcos Martin and Javier Pulido.
I've written about my love of both artists' works, especially Pulido's very recent star turn on Shade and Hawkeye and Martin's consistent mastery on Daredevil and Private Eye, so I came to the stories presented here with great interest in the visuals if less the actual characters. It certainly helps that the stories, companion pieces both written by the team of Scott Beatty & Chuck Dixon, do a very competent job of presenting the characters' individual early development and capturing the essence of who they are as people. Those already familiar with the characters are also likely already familiar with the stories presented in this collection, but for a novice like myself, I came to a better appreciation of the who and why of the people under the masks, despite my own misgivings about the larger questions of the morality involved.
To Robin: Year One's credit, I am not the only one bothered by Robin's presence alongside Batman. Rather than telling Dick Grayson's story entirely from his perspective, most of the series' narration comes from Alfred Pennyworth, butler-father to Bruce Wayne and aide-de-camp to Batman, who is deeply troubled by Grayson being Robin. To be certain, Alfred vacillates between indignation, uncertainty, and begrudging acceptance, and he is ultimately just as culpable as Bruce Wayne in the end. But his narration, sardonic yet heartfelt, and his constant role as Batman's moral center wonderfully grounds the book. The graphic novel is really four connected novellas, not specifically telling his well-known origin as much as establishing the full year of Robin's development as promised by the title. The villains in each story, players from Batman's rogues gallery like the Mad Hatter, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face and the like, aren't all that interesting (they rarely are). What is interesting is Dick Grayson as a character. You get the sense that Grayson is Robin no matter what Wayne and Pennyworth want. After being brutally beaten nearly to death, he is slowly nursed back into health and continues vigilantism over Batman's wishes. Batman objects to Robin's continued war on crime, but this was a war that Batman started, that Batman recruited Robin into. Despite Grayson's iron will to act despite what anyone thinks, despite their similarity in motivation (parents lost to crime), Bruce Wayne put him into that position. Towards the end, Grayson strikes out on his own to infiltrate a shady group of skilled criminals, foreshadowing his own development into Nightwing. And in the end Batman takes him back into the fold. "You really want me to be Robin again?" "I want you to be a good soldier." Alfred insists that he could walk away, spend his life in happier pursuits. Be a kid. Many times we are shown Grayson sacrificing the small pleasures of adolescence to partake in Bruce Wayne's quixotic crusade. And in the end, to Alfred's heartache, Grayson chooses Robin. Certainly Grayson wants to be Robin badly, and takes great joy from it. His reascension to Batman's side is seen as a victory for him. But is is also one of the small tragedies of his character, a childhood lost.
But back to my reason for reading these stories in the first place. While the characters at first didn't interest me (though did eventually win me over), I came into this for artists Javier Pulido and Marcos Martin. Both comics represent the earliest mainstream work from both artists; Robin came out in 2000 and 2001, Batgirl in 2003. Pulido and Martin have a very similar style, and they work in tandem on Robin: Year One. While their styles are distinct enough to the trained eye, the early nature of the work and Robert Campanella's unifying inks blend the two together seamlessly. While you get many hints of the distinction in style both artists would develop, as a finished piece it's not quite to the creative level both would later establish. Nevertheless, the art mercifully carries the story. But it's Martin's solo work on the Batgirl story that shows his true brilliance. Definitively, Marcos Martin on Batgirl: Year One announces his status as one of the best and most unique visual creative mainstream voices of the last decade.
Whatever narrative weaknesses in both stories are more than made up for in the superb quality of the art. And despite whatever recent editorial clusterfuckery that negates the canonicity of the works, these are fun character stories about the place of vigilantism and the type of people who engage in it. Superheroes are a weird and wonderful thing, so much more wonderful in the capable hands of the likes of Pulido and Martin.
Buy Batgirl/Robin: Year One on Amazon here.