Editor’s Note: Due to the anthology nature of this collection, we will feature a synopsis and analysis for each short story, rather than breaking up the synopsis and analysis. Spoilers are sure to be revealed.
Story #1: Dick Grayson as Robin in “A Little Nudge” by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Tom Grummett
Synopsis: In a Gotham church, Victor Zsasz holds a priest hostage with Batman at bay, when Robin (Dick Grayson) swings in and tackles the crazed killer. Later, in the cave, Batman berates Dick for recklessness and orders him to follow his commands, but Dick rejects a subordinate position. They get an alert from the museum that a hostage situation has developed and they swing in from the roof to confront the criminals. Robin finds an admirer in a young boy wearing a Batman shirt, but the kid takes a bullet in the shoulder while Batman is neutralizing the thugs. Robin makes the choice to support the boy rather than help Batman, saying he planted a tracker on the villains so that they can’t get away. After Batman defeats the villains, the boy tells Robin he wanted a Robin shirt, but they were all sold out. In the cave again, Batman tells Dick he needs to follow the rules. In response, Dick tells Bruce he is grateful for how Batman saved him and deliberately shaped his life, so he wouldn’t have the same dark drives that Bruce does. He says he needs to become a man now, and leaves, saying he hopes they will meet again, later. As he watches Dick go, Bruce’s thoughts reveal that he knows today was Dick’s eighteenth birthday, and he deliberately pushed Dick to make this step, to become the best man he’s ever known.
Analysis: Wolfman and Grummett, two DC and Dick Grayson veterans, lend their considerable experience to this fun little story of Dick’s turning point. And the twist that Bruce deliberately pushed Dick to become his own man is a very nice element, even if it’s still the same emotionally constipated Dark Knight we all know and love. Grummet draws a Dick wearing the scaly underwear with pride, though also showing exactly why he shouldn’t keep wearing them. This story is quite packed with incident – the scenes move quickly and efficiently, showing Wolfman and Grummett’s experience in knowing just what to put in the story. The ending, despite the predictability, really hits home with Dick and Bruce’s love for each other, with Grummett really showing these feelings in his clean pencils.
Story #2: Dick Grayson as Nightwing in “Aftershocks” by writer Chuck Dixon and artist Scott McDaniel
Synopsis: During the great Gotham City earthquake which preceded No Man’s Land, Karen, a brave paramedic, struggles to cross a ruined bridge to save people in an isolated taxi. Swinging overhead, Nightwing catches her before she falls to her death. Nightwing then discovers a pregnant mother in the cab. Dick dashes away to get help from a big wrecker but has to dodge masked looters gleefully trying to kill other survivors. Subduing the thugs, Nightwing grabs the wrecker’s tow hook and cable, leaping back to the taxi to hook it just as the bridge section collapses. Suspended from the truck, he discovers that the mother has had her baby and wants to name it after him, so he suggests the name “Robin.”
Analysis: A story from one of the Batman crossovers largely driven by Dixon, “Cataclysm,” this tale fits neatly into Nightwing’s quest around the city to save as many people as he can. McDaniel’s art is much less cartoony than it was over two decades ago when he drew Nightwing under Dixon’s pen, but it’s still clearly his blocky, thick-muscled Dick Grayson swinging across the page, which is delightful. Dixon’s writing for Nightwing balances the high flying adventure and human stakes that make his work compulsively re-readable. The ending provokes both smiles and heartfelt emotions, working well with McDaniel’s expert paneling using unusual shapes and organization to create the sensation of a world destroyed by a massive earthquake – a truly well-crafted short story.
Story #3: Nightwing and the Titans in “Team Building” by writer Devin Grayson and artists Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund
Synopsis: At Titans Tower, Nightwing leads the Titans against yet another H.I.V.E. assault, expertly directing his teammates to defeat the hapless gang. Damien Darhk berates his beaten soldiers, walking them through all of their blunders in using the wrong weapons against the wrong Titan members. He reveals he used their incompetence as a distraction while he stole an immensely powerful gem – but one of his masked minions swipes the stone, then reveals himself as none other than Nightwing. On his way out, Dick cheerfully recommends positive incentive for his team to Darhk instead of constant death threats.
Analysis: Devin Grayson embraces the character she’s loved for well over two decades in this Titans-focused story, avoiding the overly dark themes of her run that (perhaps unfairly) made it infamous among Nightwing fans. The humor of her dialogue shows that like Dixon and Wolfman, her legendary writing talent has not diminished with time. Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund provide delightfully clean linework, though Nightwing’s final escape probably could have been a bit more dynamic, to lend plausibility to his plan – instead of walking out, he could have at least swung out on a grapple. This story really emphasizes Dick’s leadership qualities in action, a nice trait to emphasize.
Story #4: Dick Grayson as Agent 37 in “The Lesson Plan” by writers Tim Seeley and Tom King and artist Mikel Janin
Synopsis: In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Agent 37 (an undercover Dick Grayson during his presumed “death”) leads young Paris Pantoja, one of Spyral’s Skull Girl trainees, on a mission, telling her tales of his mentor (secretly Batman). However, every lesson we see from Batman is contradicted by the lesson Dick teaches Paris, from improvisation instead of planning, direct approach over concealment and stealth, confidence over fear, trust (but verify) over constant suspicion, to protection over vengeance. He leads Paris in jumping from their chopper, sliding down cable car lines, brazenly taking out the heavily armed terrorists trying to capture a cruise liner, rescuing a captured scientist, following her to Tanzania to take down a death cult, discovering the scientist is actually a red gorilla, then joining the gorilla and her people of Gorilla City in saving the world in a huge primate-on-primate battle. Dick’s final lesson, though, is exactly the same as Batman’s – “Ignore your mentor. Do what you do best. Be you.”
Analysis: The team of Seeley, King, and Janin burst on the scene like a firework – beautiful, brash, brilliant, and gone too soon – all stolen from the title which gave them brand name recognition to launch Rebirth while other creators finished their title. This beautifully crafted short brings them back together and shows exactly why they became so beloved. King’s formalism – the structure of Batman’s advice being contradicted every page by Dick – the distinctly pawky sense of humor both King and Seeley share – the love of Dick having to show off his body in some way every issue – all of it simply shines, with the final page being both hilariously strange as a barely clothed Dick and Paris charge together with a horde of gorillas, and also intensely emotional, as Dick shows how much he loves Batman and cares for his new pupil.
Story #5: Jason Todd as Red Hood in “More Time” by writer Judd Winick and artist Dustin Nguyen
Synopsis: In Gotham, the Red Hood (Jason Todd), runs across a rooftop, as he remembers a time, long ago, as Robin, in the Batcave, giving Bruce a birthday present – Thomas Wayne’s watch, which Jason was in the process of painstakingly fixing. In the present, Batman finds the same watch left for him on the Batmobile, and Jason wishes him a happy birthday.
Analysis: Winick, the writer who did the lion’s share of work bringing Jason Todd back from the dead in “Under the Hood,” gives us an emotional portrait of the relationship between Batman and his second Robin. Where Bruce’s relationship with Dick is portrayed in the first few stories in this collection as intense, but often at odds and emotionally stuck, he is often shown (at least in the post-Red Hood era) as having tried to be more open with Jason as a result of what he learned with Dick – but unfortunately having that ripped away so painfully by the Joker’s evil plans. This piece continues that trend, giving us a lot of emotions through young Jason’s love for Bruce in his birthday present (with the clear metaphor of the watch requiring constant use to continue to function), and the vastly more complicated relationship adult Red Hood has with Batman. Dustin Nguyen provides work that combines his two greatest strengths as an artist – the dark, sketchy side of his Detective Comics run, and the lovely, emotive pieces of Li’l Gotham, Ascender, and Batgirl. Winick’s script takes full advantage of these great strengths, combining to paint a highly emotional portrait of Jason and Bruce’s relationship through the years.
Story #6: Tim Drake as Robin in “Extra Credit” by writer Adam Beechen and artist Freddie E. Williams II
Synopsis: At Gotham City High School, Tim Drake meets with his new guidance counselor, Mr. Grigsby, who attempts to give him some advice about what to do in order to follow his stated goal of pursuing law enforcement as a career. The reader basks in the irony of Grigsby suggesting a myriad of extracurricular activities, all of which Tim practices – but as Robin, so he can’t include any of it on his transcript. Getting an alert on his smartwatch, Tim dashes out to save the day as Robin as Grigsby stares after him in befuddlement.
Analysis: Adam Beechen’s run on Robin is marred by a few controversial decisions, but he clearly loves the character, taking this opportunity to highlight so many of Tim’s great qualities and beloved visuals from Young Justice and Teen Titans. His frequent collaborator on that run, Freddie Williams provides detailed, rich visuals to illustrate Beechen’s portrait of Tim’s dual life, leavened with the humor of Mr. Grigsby’s dramatic irony in describing Tim’s life as Robin. Though the piece is fairly insubstantial, for those who loved the second half of Tim’s solo series as Robin, this is a full measure of honor and love sent towards that stage of Tim’s life.
Story #7: Tim Drake as Red Robin in “Boy Wonders” by writer James Tynion IV and artist Javier Fernandez
Synopsis: Falling through the air above Gotham in joyful acrobatics, Tim Drake, Red Robin, reflects on his life to this point – trained to be the best by the best, but unlike the others who wore the “R”, he doesn’t have the fire of tragedy directing his path towards Bruce’s eternal crusade. He decides to visit Dick, Jason, and Damian to consult with them on what he should do in the face of his competing offers from Ivy University and Batman. While Dick and Tim fight villains on top of a speeding train, Dick tells him he could be a great role model to the next generation of heroes. In contrast, as Jason blasts away at masked mobsters, he tells Tim to learn everything he can from Batman, and make it better – surpass Batman’s skills. Damian takes yet a third way. In between insults (and slicing and dicing robot foes), the current Robin tells his predecessor that his paralyzing variety of options is, in fact, his strength – he’s free of destiny, and should make his choice based on that freedom. Tim takes all of his brother’s advice and comes to Batman with an answer: the Gotham Knights protocol.
Analysis: James Tynion gives fans of his Detective Comics run another taste of that rich and passionate era of Gotham through Tim Drake’s eyes. He layers the piece with so many references showing his love of these characters’ histories – from the joke about Tim’s old costume with wings, to saying it feels like a Rebirth, to the battle with Nightwing on the train calling back to Nightwing #25 – it’s all there. This piece definitely feels much more an homage to the things Tynion really loves about Batman and his family than his too-short Detective Comics #1000 piece, which was a sweet but insubstantial tribute to Batman and Robin’s history. Even though the “story” here is a simple setup for the Detective Comics story arc, the showing of Tim interacting with Dick, Jason, and Damian was really top-notch and adds a lot to the collection, which mostly focuses on Batman’s relationship rather than the Robins’ relationships with each other. Though some have criticized Tynion, especially with regards to Batman and Robin Eternal, of flattening the characterization of the Robins down to single simple characteristics, I think that’s really not what you get if you read his stuff more closely. Each of the Robins exhibits multiple feelings and traits in their interactions with Tim, and it’s a very nice picture of what was happening in the period between Batman and Robin Eternal and the start of Detective Comics.
Javier Fernandez’s art is in full energetic mode here – not leaning too hard into the atmospheric, where he sometimes struggles. Tynion has every panel full of extreme action and contrast, which perfectly suits Fernandez’s looser, but always extremely striking pencil style. All in all, though I don’t think Tim gets quite the same level of satisfying stories as Dick, Jason, and Stephanie, Tynion has given fans a story that will enrich their enjoyment of Tim Drake and the other Robins, even if it won’t revolutionize or galvanize it.
Story #8: Stephanie Brown as Robin in “Fitting In” by writer Amy Wolfram and artist Damion Scott
Synopsis: In the Batcave, Stephanie Brown, Robin of just three days, arrives after school for training. Though many setbacks have already occurred, she approaches her new role with vigor – despite the costume not fitting her well at all. Batman and Alfred scan her to make a new suit, and she not-so-patiently waits for its construction. When it’s ready, she begins again in earnest – on an official mission, fighting Firefly as he attacks the amusement park “Western Town.” The villain mocks the new Robin, calling her “cosplay girl,” and though Batman tells her to stay outside as he chases Firefly, Steph charges ahead, determined to prove herself. Firefly captures and ties her up, but Steph frees herself and uses a roller coaster car to capture the villain. Batman tells her that she must learn to follow orders, while Steph counters that she has to be Robin in her own way, and not the way of the previous three Robins. The next day, Steph comes in expecting to be fired, but instead, Batman has created a changing room in the cave and acknowledges that she needs to find her own way, though still warning her he will be just as hard on her as on the boys. In her new changing room, Steph says, “I’m SO ready.”
Analysis: Damion Scott, the artist who created Steph’s iconic look as Robin, has returned to this very brief but extremely memorable period of his career twice now. First in 2006, for his artist showcase issue of the Solo series, where he wrote and drew a short story featuring Steph as Robin teaming up with Cassandra Cain Batgirl (who he co-created). Fascinatingly, though each return clearly owes much to his original three issues of Robin starring Steph (#126-128), each instance also shows distinct differences. Scott’s linework tended to blend loose, impressionistic and often graffiti-influenced design work with recognizable superhero anatomy – and in Solo, his figures took on a long-limbed, almost Gumby-like flexibility and clean-lined geometry when combined with master artist Brian Stelfreeze’s inking and cool-tone dominated colors. Here, Scott is paired with legendary colorist Brad Anderson (who also lends his talents to several other parts of this celebratory anthology, including the main cover). Instead of original Stephanie Robin colorist Guy Major (who also colored Steph as Batgirl) and his sensible use of flat planes of color, or Stelfreezes rich, saturated tones, Anderson emphasizes warmth in yellows and reds, and uses modern techniques to give his colors softer edges, rendered gradients, and other tools of the cutting edge colorist – but never in an overly flashy way that colorists can sometimes achieve, distracting from the work of the penciller. Anderson’s colors give Scott’s pencils a brand new look while not detracting from his inimitable style, which has taken a new emphasis on Steph’s round, determined and smiling face. It’s an incredibly appealing package, and fans of Stephanie Brown as Robin have another tale to add to her meteoric rise and fall as part of the Dynamic Duo.
Amy Wolfram, a writer on the beloved Teen Titans cartoon and current writer for DC Super Hero Girls, handles Steph for the first time, and though a few elements are unexpected (Bruce taking his cowl off while training Steph, where the previous writers had strongly implied that Steph never learned his identity even as Robin), clearly has done serious research, incorporating Steph’s “War Journal” which was a staple of her appearances, especially during the War Games era. Wolfram captures the struggles Steph faced as Robin – still not being taken seriously by Batman or his villains, her costume not fitting her female body well, since it was designed for boys. She slides in some really funny gags with deeper thematic impact, such as Robin being a damsel in distress – literally a damsel, this time – tied to the tracks in front of an oncoming train – but has the damsel turn the tables on the cackling villain and use the train to take him out instead. Steph getting a changing room of her own also resonates with Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of Her Own,” the idea that to develop equality, women need their own space to develop their characters. The ending, with Steph declaring herself ready to be Robin, is inspiring, but also tragic, given how Steph’s three months as Robin ultimately turned out. All in all, it’s a very polished piece of work from both writer and artist, and this particular Stephanie Brown fan is immensely satisfied, and I hope my fellow fans will be as well.
Story #9: The Super Sons in “My Best Friend” by writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Jorge Jimenez
Synopsis: Lois Lane gives her son Jon Kent, Superboy, the “I’ve won Pulitzers” pep talk to get him ready to write his paper about his best friend. As he writes about his impressions of Damian and their relationship, we see flashes of his relationship with Damian, from their conflict-full first meeting, to teaming up against a giant robot gorilla, to going to school together. He gets emotional about the times Damian has saved his life and enjoys the memories of just hanging out with his best friend. Damian shows up as Jon has fallen asleep at his computer, asking if Superboy would like to patrol with Robin.
Analysis: Peter Tomasi and Jorge Jimenez provide yet another love letter to fans, this time to those who miss the Super Sons title and the relationship between Jon and Damian. Tomasi’s skill with dialogue shines with the brief exchange between Lois and Jon, and the joke about Jon not being able to spell just like his Pulitzer prize-winning parent. His affection for these characters is clear, and Jorge Jimenez’s energy and love for the manga-esque opportunities that this pairing affords him is boundless. Like the Tim piece, it feels more than a bit weightless once you get past the nostalgic elements – I think a narrative through-line might have been a much stronger piece, one last adventure for these two. Maybe it’s better that they’re just Robin and Superboy, best friends, though. Though probably a matter of personal taste, I prefer the contributions which combine an emotional tribute with an engaging narrative, however slight it may be.
Story #10: Damian Wayne as Robin in “Bat and Mouse” by writer Robbie Thompson and artist Ramon Villalobos
Synopsis: Batman thinks about his family as he readies to confront his son, who has been hiding something big (Damian’s current plan in the Teen Titans title). Meanwhile, Robin thinks about the lack of trust Batman has in him, as he uses holo technology to lead Batman on a false trail – but his father sees through his tricks and finds him on a rooftop. The two find Quietus, one of Talia al Ghul’s Leviathan operatives, and take him and his robot army down, while each thinks about their own lack of ability to reach out to the other across their disagreements about how to fight crime. Batman calls his Batmobile to win the battle, leaving father and son with no way to bridge the emotional gap between them. (The editor’s note informs us that this story will continue in the Teen Titans Annual #2 next month.)
Analysis: Villalobos’s rendering of Damian is very reminiscent of Chris Burnham, who recently did a very appealing tribute to Alfred and Damian’s relationship in Pennyworth RIP and who is one of the formative artists to work on the current Boy Wonder. There is an odd incongruity between the rendering of Damian’s hyper-laced boots by Fernandez and Jimenez and the chunky clasps and buckles here.
Thompson, the current Teen Titans writer, takes the leg of this anthology to connect directly to a current ongoing title, similar to Brian Bendis’ piece in Action Comics #1000, Peter Tomasi’s stories in Detective Comics #1000, Steve Orlando’s piece in Wonder Woman #750, and Joshua Williamson and Scott Lobdell’s stories in Flash #750. Like all of those pieces, it’s sadly one of the weakest pieces in the collection, relying too much on ongoing threads and clunky exposition and leading ultimately to no real conclusion. In this case, it’s especially unsatisfying, since Damian and Bruce’s relationship is very little fun to read about in this kind of strained way and doesn’t really seem to celebrate much about the Robin role.
Final Thoughts: Some additional features that were nice about this issue were the Bat-Computer pages collecting classic covers and the little profiles at the end of the book. THIS is what the Secret Files should be like, not just the short stories. Four pinup pages also adorn the book. Kenneth Rocafort’s Red Hood and the Outlaws pinup combines the original New 52 team of Outlaws – Jason, Red Arrow, and Starfire – with the Rebirth group of Artemis and Bizarro. A bit of an odd choice, given the generally negative reputation the New 52 Red Hood and the Outlaws run with Rocafort’s art tends to have even today, but it’s nice to see Jason’s longest-running series represented in this celebratory piece. The Nicola Scott Stephanie Brown pinup is a bit of a letdown after seeing pieces like her recent Wonder Woman 1984 cover. A bit drab in color, and a bit awkward in figure-sketching, Steph’s face is oddly round (for a normally much more realistic drawing style such as Scott’s). Frank Miller’s pinup of Carrie Kelley is a bit more appealing than his 1980s variant cover but is still not nearly as fun as the renderings of Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson in Dark Knight: Master Race, or Rafael Grampa in Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child. Andy Kubert himself, co-creator of Damian Wayne, provides a cover showing all five Robins looking down over Gotham in a nicely atmospheric two-page spread. All in all, a nice collection of extras, though the stories themselves are the main attraction, as they should be. The beautiful array of variant covers have already been covered in my other article, Robin 80th Anniversary Variant Cover Spotlight: Connection to Eighty Years of History.
A huge number of stellar stories combined with top-notch art really celebrate the Boy (and Girl) Wonders with an issue more than worth the purchase.