The most recognizable sidekick of all time, Robin has always been a many-feathered bird. Batman’s trusted disciple marked the seventy-fifth anniversary in 2015, but being the Boy Wonder was never about any single character. In fact, over the years the Boy Wonder hasn’t always been a boy. In some ways even more than Batman himself, becoming Robin is really an ideal. While each of the characters that have worn the green domino embodies their own unique qualities, the ideal they have all served to uphold is that family has always meant much more than just blood. However, this article is not about the Robins. This is a story about a young man from the streets of Gotham who lost his parents to a vicious criminal. Duke Thomas shares many traits with his mentor and with the sidekicks and protégés that have made the Bat-Family special, and he knows that to succeed he must be above all something else. Like those that came before him, Duke Thomas brings something different to the mantle of Robin. In Duke’s case, perhaps most importantly, the fact that he’s actually not Robin at all.
Birds of a Different Feather
First introduced in 2013 by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo in Batman vol 2 #21, our first encounter with Duke during the Zero Year storyline gave us hints at the shape of things to come. During the Riddler’s reign over Gotham, during which the city was cut off from all outside resources, Duke and his parents found and cared for an injured Bruce Wayne. Later, Batman came to Duke who was studying to try and create a riddle to stump the city’s captor and earned the freedom promised if he could do so. Even though he never succeeded, Batman acknowledged Duke’s tenacity in never giving up the fight and his selflessness in working only to help others. These early encounters paved the way for a mentoring relationship that was much different than those of previous Robins.
It is not until several years later that Duke turns up again. During Endgame, when the Joker returned to once again try and break Batman with a new and more insidious version of Joker Toxin spread around the city, Duke and his parents were used in an elaborate reconstruction of the crime that killed Bruce’s parents in the so-called Crime Alley. It was meant to show both that the Joker knew Batman’s secret and that history would repeat itself on the Joker’s whim if he chose. At the last minute, Batman was able to save Duke, but his parents fell victim to the specialized Joker Toxin that was such an integral part of Endgame (so strong even the other members of the Justice League were affected.) Ultimately, after an encounter with Jim Gordon who has also been turned, Duke is able to clear his head and assist Batman, grabbing a first aid kit needed to tend to Gordon’s wounds. Batman swears he will do everything in his power to find and heal Duke’s parents. Parting ways, Duke is escorted by Julia Pennyworth to the Batcave while Batman continues to look for the source of the Joker’s newest chemical warfare attack.
“Batman is on the Gargoyle. Robin? Robin is on the Street”
The next few months prove difficult for Duke as his parents remain missing and he is placed in foster care. His frustrations mount and begin to manifest in his behavior as a number of fights and encounters with authorities. This rash of incidents ends with him ejected from his foster home and placed under the guidance of Dr. Leslie Thompkins. During this time period, the events of Superheavy, as well as We Are Robin, take place. As word spreads that the original Batman has disappeared, Duke’s angst and energy are redirected when he comes into contact with the teen vigilantes calling themselves The Robins. With Batman still missing, the group is clearly working another angle. Eventually, an informant codenamed The Nest who provides the rag-tag crew with much-needed information on criminal activity. The group aimed to prove that no matter the fate of Batman, Gotham’s citizens would never leave the city vulnerable to the attacks of villains and criminals.
As the specific events of the Robin War go down, bringing Duke into contact with all four original Robins, Dick Grayson singles Duke out for closer scrutiny and training. However, the unfortunate death of a Gotham Police officer during vigilante activity where several youths wearing Robin emblems or colors are sighted, brings about city-wide legislation to ban the “We Are Robin” movement. As it becomes clear that the Robin Laws are simply the latest part of a plan set in motion by the Court of Owls, the four original Robins turn to the new blood for help. With few options left, the Bat-Family Members must admit that the guerrilla tactics and street-fighting swagger of the up and coming group combined with the recent training overseen by the originals will have to suffice in the fight against the Court’s battle-honed elite Talon squadron. Dick has, at this point, seen Duke in action and also acknowledges that he has something special that sets him apart as a leader in the We Are Robin crew. But teamwork is not the only lesson of the day, as the new squad members are taken advantage of by their “elder statesmen” mentors and tricked into being arrested, a move Grayson later admits he staged to keep the new recruits out of harm’s way at the most dangerous points.
Later, Duke has to face off directly against Damian Wayne, the current Robin, in a battle that both find nearly overpowering. Not only that but in the aftermath of the Robin War, Dick Grayson agrees to go to work for the Court of Owls, the organization that was nearly responsible for the deaths of almost every one of Duke’s friends. It’s clear that while the original Robins have a lot to teach, Duke never wants to actually become Robin. At the same time, he knows he’ll never stop fighting on the side of good. So what’s the next step?
The Burden of the Bird
Meanwhile, Duke spends more and more time at the Lucious Fox Center for Gotham Youth, where the still amnesiac Bruce Wayne has turned up as a volunteer. Continuing to use the Center as a resource, Duke tracks down information about his parents. The trail leads him to the Iceberg Lounge where he is nearly killed by Cobblepot’s goons but is saved at the last moment by Bruce Wayne, still unaware of his past. This is followed closely by the two men engaging in an argument about the danger of vigilante crime fighting. Duke suggests that he knows about Bruce’s secret identity, although at the moment even Bruce doesn’t know about it. At that very moment, Duke finally gets word on the location of his parents. Sadly it is too late for them. The Joker Toxin has left them in a permanent psychotic state.
During the course of his investigation into his parents, Duke also uncovers information that helps Jim Gordon to identify the mysterious Mr. Bloom who has been terrorizing Gotham in the wake of the Joker’s attack. With Bruce Wayne still unable to remember the full extent of his own identity, Jim Gordon has taken on the role of the new Batman, equipped with a high-powered mech suit and officially sanctioned police support. In the aftermath of the battle with Bloom, Bruce again acknowledges Duke’s contribution towards saving the city. He also comes to realize that there may be a path towards becoming Batman’s ally that differs from the traditional role of Robin. Bruce officially asks if he will come to train with him as part of the Bat Family.
“This Isn’t Training to Become a Sidekick”
Duke agrees to train with Batman under the condition that he is not simply groomed as the next Robin. He saw that the Gotham of today, indeed the modern world, faces problems that are different than past eras. One major difference emerged quickly. Duke wanted to operate during the day. Because Duke had already undergone a number of serious city-wide ordeals and proven a certain aptitude as well as taken on leadership for The Robins when it was needed most, a different sort of training regimen was in store for the young hero. While each of Batman’s former protégés had undergone this training in different forms, some without their knowledge, introducing it to Duke as an entire concept was a new idea. Alfred referred to it as “The Cursed Wheel,” emphasis on cursed. The wheel is a color-coded reference to different aspects of personality and psychology. Each of the earlier Robins and sidekicks leaned into different parts of the wheel (which interestingly correspond to the colors of their uniforms.) Duke would try and learn to absorb the entire spectrum.
The first training mission brought Duke on the trail of Victor Zsasz. He was injured fairly seriously but learned to incorporate the training of the wheel into understanding the psychology of his enemy. In his next assignment, Duke tried to break the code of how the Riddler, still in a cell at Arkham Asylum, was terrorizing the city on the anniversary of Zero Year. This mission hit home for Duke as ultimately he discovered the Riddler was working with his former friend and original villain behind Mr. Bloom, Daryl Gutierrez. Duke and Batman were able to stop the two criminals but not before Daryl made it clear that he wanted to impart a lesson of his own. Once again taunting him with the possibility of saving his parents, Daryl tries to get Duke to see his way through a riddle about his own past, but Duke is unable to solve it.
With the training of the Wheel and some experience dealing with relatively high-tier villains, Duke (now with his yellow armor and helmet but still without a codename) joined Batman in protecting Two-Face from an army of rogues as they attempted to find a rumored cure for Harvey Dent’s condition. At the end of that mission, Batman once again praised his newest protégé and Duke seemed finally ready for action.
As the events of Dark Nights: Metal began to unfold and Batman led the Justice League on a merry chase around the world, Duke was tasked with protecting the Bat Cave from any intruders. Even the rest of the Bat Family was not supposed to enter at this time. What Duke couldn’t know was the secret he was protecting and the implications it would have for his own life.
“Yeah, That’s Not Suspicious at All”
When Green Lantern came looking for clues as to why the Guardians of Oa were so concerned with the goings-on in the Cave, not to mention why Batman’s behavior was so erratic, he was met by Duke, all fists and challenge. Putting up a valiant effort, Duke was still no match for the power of the ring. Both men quickly forgot their fight as a quick scan of the secret cave revealed….a deeper secret cave. As the two ventured deeper wondering aloud what secrets it might hold, a voice answered back to them that it might be able to shed some light. Incredibly they discover that Batman had secretly moved the Joker to the cave for unknown reasons. Accidentally freeing him, the Joker revealed that Duke is, in fact, a metahuman and that Batman has probably known this all along. The fact that Batman has given him the task of somehow protecting the man that maimed his parents and took them from him permanently is not lost on him.
Let There Be Light
Duke is still working out the extent of his powers as well as how to actually use them, but what is known is that they are photokinetic. He can take in light and see in spectrums that others cannot. He also has the ability to use his light sensitivity to see where light has been and also predict where it will be. This means that he can look at a room and see things that have happened there recently as well as sometimes predict where his enemies are going during combat. To some extent, he can see the past and predict the future.
Additionally Duke has all the standard Bat Detective and Physical Prowess Training, the open-faced training of the Cursed Wheel, eskrima skills, some nunchaku skill and a decent degree of martial arts training (while Green Lantern stopped him handily in the Batcave, that was using his ring. He held his own for some time in a fight against Damian in the culmination of the Robin War.)
Time Will Tell
Interestingly, Duke has appeared in a number of alternate realities or possible futures. During DC’s Future’s End month, he appears in the Batman issue that takes place “5 years later” as the current Robin. Whether this is proof that Scott Snyder originally intended for Duke to go down that path, or that it proves the Brother Eye-controlled future timeline is no longer on the table is up to interpretation. It may also be proof of… absolutely nothing at all.
Recently Duke appeared in Batman: White Knight, an Elseworlds take on a Gotham where the Joker and Batman ultimately trade their roles as Villain and Dark Hero. In this reality, Duke, formerly a gang member on Gotham’s streets, joins Jack Napier’s Gotham Terrorist Oppression Unit of the GCPD
Hate it or Love it, the Underdog’s on TOP…(Fan Reception)
Well, maybe. Here’s a rundown of what comes up when googling Duke Thomas. For the record, I searched “Fans of Duke Thomas”, “Reaction to Duke Thomas”, and “Batman Duke Thomas.” It’s not necessary to specifically mention “dislike” or “hate” in a search, you will still come up with links to pages like Comicvine’s “Why Do So Many People Hate Duke Thomas?” The answer to that question might be more complicated than you first imagine.
CBR posted a poll dated September 22, 2016, with two hundred and twenty-seven votes cast. The last comment was posted in August 2017. That poll states that 13% Love Him, 38% Dislike Him and 48% say Too Early To Tell. There are eighty-three pages of comments under the poll and the discussion ranges from flamingly trolleriffic, just plain bashing to comments that are more moderately accepting. Generally though, there is not a ton of comments on that poll that overflow with praise for Duke.
More recently Comicbook.com ran a slideshow of tweets reacting to the news about Duke’s new costume, codename and book, Batman and The Signal, which had recently been announced. The comments were much more positive.
In contrast, however, a subreddit called “We Are Robin Duke Thomas” has several comments from fans declaring that once they had been exposed to Duke Thomas as written by someone other than Scott Snyder, they immediately began to enjoy his voice and character arc. The reality is that fan reaction to Duke Thomas simply runs the gamut from excited about the new character and direction to seething annoyance and raw anger.
There is a widely held belief, it seems, among Bat-Fans that Scott Snyder had planned to make Duke the next Robin. This seems to have angered many long-time fans, particularly those who count their fandom long before Flashpoint, perhaps before Damian was even a glimmer in Grant Morrison’s eye. Reasons for this anger seem to come from a conception that he’s boring as a character to the belief that he hasn’t earned a place in the Bat-Family and that some of the exchanges written between Bruce and Duke are arguably aimed as a slight towards Tim Drake, current Red Robin and the character who occupied the Robin position for a large portion of the last generation.
As I browsed various forums to try and gauge the overall feelings towards Duke, I found that both he and Harper Row are often lumped into a category I’m calling “Writer’s Pet,” in which people seemed to get the feeling that these characters were being forced on them by some sort of writer or editorial mandate, not because the characters had accomplished any lasting traction or memorable acts. It is difficult to fully gauge the lasting impact Duke may have, admittedly, as the vast majority of his appearances have been penned by Scott Snyder. With Batman and The Signal, writer Tony Patrick is working with Snyder to develop a role for the young hero that (hopefully, and despite the title) isn’t solely defined by his relationship to Batman. But it seems that for many fans they are hoping for a role not solely defined by his relationship to Scott Snyder as well.
Oh yeah, there’s this other small detail. Duke Thomas is black. While he isn’t the only person of color to occupy a spot in the greater Bat-Family, Duke would be the person of color closest to Bruce as a full-on disciple. This is a point that cannot be ignored both from an editorial standpoint as far as what it means in the story but also in the context of the comics community on the whole. Tony Patrick had this to say when asked about writing an African American character in the current social climate, “when we talk about Batman and The Signal, specifically, this is the opportunity that DC has created to do diversity and inclusion correctly.”
It’s a positive thing to hear and there is no doubt that even cursory searches will reveal extensive writing on the problems with race in comics and how race has been handled (and mishandled) over the years across all types of superhero media. While often times there can be a conception that “comics are over race,” or that readers “don’t see race,” the truth is that comic book readers and creators face the same issues today that have existed for years in this industry and others. And the existence of one or two or ten minority characters isn’t “enough” because the problem isn’t about a quantity. That is not to say the news is only bad. Comics have at many times been the forerunners in expressing changes in cultural norms for diversity and racial equality and inclusion across many different minority spectrums.
In the past few years alone characters like the new Spider-Man, Miles Morales (a Black and Latino character) Ms. Marvel (arguably the first premiere Muslim comic character) and books like America (solo book for the Queer, Latina and Female Young Avenger America Chavez) have helped give voices to groups that previously had none in the medium. The Black Panther just shattered President’s Day Opening Weekend box office numbers and the release of Luke Cage on Netflix caused the legendarily stalwart servers for the streaming content company to go down for an extended period. It is hard not to take away from some message boards, however, the sense that fans feel they are being “force-fed diversity.” The idea of a quota that once met, we shouldn’t have to be burden with any further is disappointing- and rampant in the digital sphere.
None of that means that some criticism of the character and possibly how he has been handled by his creators is unfair or misplaced. There are moments when Duke comes off as a bit cocky and has at times seemed to shrug off the idea that he needs any training whatsoever, the fact that the World’s Greatest Detective has taken a personal interest in training him seemingly lost on him. However, as the arc of the character has brought him around to the point we have reached now, with a miniseries on shelves as we speak, Duke appears to have grown as a man and as a hero. He has gone from a random street gear assemblage to full-fledged armor with his own colors and name. He has even chosen to stand apart from the Bat-Family by being active in the day, something the creators will be the first to tell you changes his arc fundamentally. What we see as 2018 opens and Duke has now been in and around the Cave for almost five years, is an individual who has grown into a role. He still has plenty to prove, however, and hopefully, that will be very entertaining.
Beyond the Cave
It is telling that the majority of those voting in the poll about Duke chose to go with the “Too Early to Tell,” option. As the Metal event winds down and Batman and The Signal wraps up, Duke will have faced a number of street-level threats in and around Gotham as well as taking part in some larger DC Universe events. He’s gone heads up with members of the Justice League, taken back the streets when Batman couldn’t and stood toe to toe with the Robins who came before him. While he has made it clear he isn’t a Robin, very soon it will be time to see if Duke Thomas, The Signal, can stand in their shoes.
What’s your opinion on Duke? Did it change during We Are Robin? Did it change during Metal or due to Batman and the Signal? Let us know where you stand in the comments below!