Monday, June 24, 2013

Batgirl, Robin and Marcos Martin: Year One

Batgirl/Robin: Year One
By Beatty, Dixon, Martin and Pulido
DC Comics, 2001,2003, 2013
As I've noted elsewhere, I'm an avowed Marvel guy. Though I do read a few ongoing DC superhero books, and am certainly well-versed in the definitive works, there are very large gaps in my DC knowledge. For instance, I know precious little about Robin, the Batman sidekick. What I do know is that there has been a bunch of them, and that people have passionate opinions about each and every one. The first Robin, Dick Grayson, was introduced into the Batman comics of the 1940s largely to attract a younger audience, and to say that ploy was successful is a massive understatement. Grayson would be Robin for 40 years before becoming Nightwing, and nearly every adaptation of Batman produced since features Dick Grayson as the character. Subsequent Robins would each develop new identities, die, or both, but it is Dick Grayson that is arguably the best known of the characters to inhabit the role of Robin.

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.

Now the morality of which I speak is in my... objections, I guess you can call it, to Robin's presence in the Bat-mythos, whoever that Robin may be. I've long been bothered by the simple impropriety of the thing. There are many moral questions raised by the nature of masked vigilantism, certainly most existing in a murky grey area, but I've long believed that Bruce Wayne's allowance - if not outright exploitation - of children acting alongside him is unambiguously wrong. This isn't a type of irrational Werthamesque argument but an acknowledgement that the Robins are not much more than child soldiers, with all the moral disgust such a thought rightly evokes. The child sidekick, just one of many bizarre aspects of superhero comics - that bizarre and uniquely American genre - bothers me, and is one of many factors that make it hard for me to get into DC superhero comics.

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.

Batgirl: Year One is a distinctly different work in tone and accomplishment. Barbara Gordon's development into Batgirl is not one of apprenticeship but of fierce independence. Unlike Grayson, she was an adult when she took up the cowl, partially inspired by the Batman. Barbara Gordon is the daughter of soon-to-be Gotham Police Chief Jim Gordon. She wants to be a cop like her dad, not just some computer whiz clerk at a library. But Jim Gordon doesn't want his little girl anywhere near a police uniform. Coupled with her father's objections and her own slight physical stature, she is repeatedly rejected in her attempts to enter law enforcement. But Barbara Gordon is a master of Jujitsu and an even more masterful hacker, and finds a way to break into Justice Society headquarters to get attention of at least some of the powers that be, to try to serve her city in any way she can. Rejected by the JSA, she strikes out on her own, copying the M.O. of so many of the so-called superheroes popping up in Batman's shadow. "Is this how they do it?" she asks as she creates her costume, her very identity. "Masked vigilantes... One stitch at a time, until the costume makes your future?" Batgirl: Year One provides a fascinating look at one woman's quest to become a vigilante at the dawn of the new wave of vigilantism. The slow and methodical development of her physical and technological skill set, and the fiery nature of her very being as realized by Marcos Martin is wonderful to behold. She eventually draws the attention of some z-list villain called the Killer Moth and his not-quite sane partner Firefly. She also draws the attention of Batman and Robin, wondering who this girl is and why she is doing what she's doing. Again the bits of plot about the villains aren't nearly as interesting as the parts focusing on Barbara Gordon herself. She is an inspiring and frankly wonderful character, and whatever her fate may hold, whatever hamfisted foreshadowing of fridge-stuffing by the writers, Year One is an entertaining read.

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.

In Batgirl: Year One, Martin shows a mastery of perspective and physicality that takes your breath away. Martin repeatedly breaks free from rote settings, staging scenes with an eye-popping clarity and energy. The physical presence of his characters on the page is a wonder to behold, as far as possible from the superhero 101 of bulging everything. And the pure physicality of the character's actions captures the brutal nature of the violent world of capes and thugs with a rarely felt immediacy. When a punch happens, it is with the force and sudden room-stopping violence of the real damn thing. Barbara Gordon may be too short to join the GCPD but she can improvisationally and acrobatically take down three gunmen in a tight setting with brutality and elegance. Every action panel is clear and effective, like the best directed action movie fight never made. And Martin's skill isn't limited to back alley fights and chases in the night, but oozes out of every page, from heated conversations to quiet scenes. His framing of every single panel is done with thoughtfulness and an inspiring joie de vivre. The way he frames a wry smile, or determined eyes, says volumes in a tiny space. The cartooniness of his figures and faces draw you in, and his ability to make the characters subtly emote connects you to them even further. Marcos Martin possesses and shows here a Frank Quitely ability to translate body language with modern-day David Aja slash J.H. Williams III flash and Darwynn Cooke accessibility, all greater than the sum of its parts, all completely, purely Marcos Martin. In Batgirl: Year One we get Marcos Martin: Year One, as he expertly hones the skills that would give us the Full Ditko of Dr. Strange and The Amazing Spider-Man and the superstylized senses-shock of Daredevil and The Private Eye. Alvaro Lopez on inks and Javier Rodriguez on colors help bring it all home. No offense to all the other creators involved here but this is about Marcos Martin and the foundation of a visual superstar in the making.

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.

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