Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. Our focus this week is the Tim Drake Robin series by legendary writer Chuck Dixon.
In 1989, the world would be introduced to Tim Drake, the third teenage superhero to operate under the title Robin as Batman’s sidekick. Although not his original creator, Chuck Dixon would go on to write the definitive run for the character which totaled over 100 issues. There had never even been a solo ongoing Robin series before that, but Dixon would steward the character and the entire Bat Family franchise across multiple series for roughly a decade. Eventually, Dixon would leave DC under mysterious circumstances, but his name remains synonymous with Robin as well as this general era of comics publishing.
I’ve always been a Marvel zombie, but during my childhood years I really latched onto Tim Drake in a way that was only surpassed by Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. I related to teenaged heroesand there was none more iconic than him at the time. Like with Peter Parker, Tim was a character whom I could admire as being a relatively normal person who always went of their way to do the right thing. I dipped my toe into the earlier parts of the Chuck Dixon run, but couldn’t stick with it for reasons I could hardly remember. The chief one was that the run itself went on for so long and often referenced its past issues, which wasn’t great for a kid with limited funds. By the time I had more disposable income, I was able to cement my love for the character with the work of creators like Peter David, Todd Nauck, Adam Beechen, and Freddie Williams II. A few years ago, DC was publishing more archival collections of their output from the 1980s to the 2000s. Among them was 5 volumes chronicling the first years of Tim solo comics. I snatched them up before they went out of print and decided that the time was right to finally do a full read using those trades plus digital issues for everything after.
Let’s Break it Down
I’d read a handful of the earlier issues in this run before, but had very little expectations for the rest. What I was surprised to discover was that it could be broken down into pretty distinctive eras based on Dixon’s artistic pairings. Let’s go through all four of them.
Part 1: Pilot Season (Artist: Tom Lyle)
After debuting in the main Batman books written by Marv Wolfman, Tim’s stories are divided between Alan Grant and Chuck Dixon across various titles. The result would be jarring if it wasn’t for Tom Lyle, who draws almost all of these early pivotal appearances and would even design Tim’s first original costume which would essentially stay the same over the next decade. Beyond that, Lyle would illustrate Chuck Dixon’s trilogy of Robin mini-series that feel like a test run for the ongoing that would follow. The stories themselves are varying degrees of successful, but the most exciting thing about these minis is that Dixon gradually develops a winning formula in which Tim juggles his home life, trouble at school, romance, and his commitment to Batman. It’s a damn good formula, which is why it’s a shame it gets tossed out so soon.
Part 2: Crossover Hell (Artist: Tom Grummett)
This was the hardest part of the run to get through, partly because I had read much of it before and it became very clear why I dropped the series as a kid. It’s a real shame because Tom Grummett is the first artist I’d associate with a solo Tim Drake series – I just wish that Dixon and editorial made better use of his talents. Things start off strong with an excellent opening 5-issue arc that features Robin teaming up with fellow Gotham vigilante Spoiler to take down her father, the Cluemaster.
It’s as good of a first arc as you could possibly hope for, except for the awkward opening in which Robin escapes from a murderous AzBats that picks up on a cliffhanger from another series that isn’t even referenced. That would serve as a sign of poor things to come, as just about everything that was good about this arc is immediately put on hold for the most of the next 20 issues. Instead of developing the supporting characters they just introduced, the title immediately gets jerked around from one crossover to the next. For these years, it was clearly DC’s intent to get you to buy all of the Bat books and read them in release order. If you were a kid who was just into Robin, you were just stuck buying Chapter 3 of Troika or Chapter 7 of Knightsend or whatever. A few solid scenes and issues sneak their way in here, but for the most part this is starting to feel like a failure of a series.
Part 3: Riding Solo Again (Artist: Staz Johnson)
Starting with a short stint with Mike Wieringo, the series starts to get some room to breathe again. For a while, this still results in mixed success. Compared to the grimness of the endless Batman crossovers previously, one could get serious tonal whiplash from reading these next issues in succession. It isn’t helped that the majority of the next years are drawn by the workmanlike Staz Johnson while Dixon is aiming for a lighter tone. Some issues are confusingly kid-oriented as Dixon decides to make Tim’s main nemesis into The General, a 12-year-old kid who loves to play war games and is obsessed with toys. Almost all of the recurring subplots lean towards the melodramatic side, doling out the most punishment to Tim’s long-suffering girlfriend, Ari.
Dixon makes one initially great decision during this stretch by basically making Stephanie Brown’s Spoiler into the co-lead of the series after making only sporadic appearances in the book. The big downside is that eventually he needs to resolve the book’s central Tim/Ari/Robin/Spoiler romantic conflict and the net result is that Stephanie becomes the book’s new terribly written love interest. This is a shame because (1) it weakens what was once the series’ best character and (2) every single one of Tim’s actions in the romantic drama makes him look like a real jerk.
There are still some excellent stories that crop up during this period. Most notably, DC editorial finally makes a good crossover decision and lets the series tell its own standalone story set during No Man’s Land featuring Tim taking down iconic baddies like Mr. Freeze and Killer Croc. There is also a Flash two-parter that is so entertaining that it perfectly encapsulates everything that is so great about Tim and Wally as characters. It’s too bad that the stuff that aged poorly is what stands out the most when you read it all at once.
Part 4: Boarding School (Artist: Pete Woods)
Throughout the run, Dixon gets a lot of mileage out of comically inept single parent Jack Drake ignoring Tim and then blowing up at him during inopportune moments. For the last 25 issues of the run, Dixon evolves this status quo and basically reboots the series as Tim is sent away to a boarding school and kept on a short leash. It feels like an early prototype for Gotham Academy and is a surprisingly strong first stab at the concept as Tim’s adventures are mostly restricted to the school campus. Pete Woods draws this era in a style that pleasantly recalls Terry Dodson.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the big moment that happens in the tail end of the run though, as Batman severely breaches Robin’s trust by revealing his secret identity to Stephanie. It’s a huge deal, as Tim was only allowed to date her as Robin because he was told he couldn’t compromise Bruce’s secret either.
In isolation, it’s a scene that works perfectly. Like much of the series though, it doesn’t fit so well into the context around it as the driving purpose for Bruce’s actions was a silly adventure with Lagoon Boy. Even more disappointingly, it takes Steph in a bad direction as she grows increasingly naive and incompetent to demonstrate how unfit she is for the Bat Family. The main problem has more to do with what was wrong with the way Batman was written across the titles than just this one individual series though.
An Ignominious End
Chuck Dixon leaves the book with issue #100, co-written by the next creator taking over. Soon after, he gradually exits all his other DC titles and releases his grip over the Bat Family line. The main reason is that he takes on a staff job at CrossGen, an upstart comics publisher whose main innovation is to hire top talent and move them to Florida where they work together at a 9 to 5 office job. CrossGen only makes it a few years after that and Dixon’s return to DC and the Robin title is announced to much fanfare with issue #170. This continuation would only end up lasting 5 issues before Dixon abruptly quit and announced he was no longer working at DC. There were many eyebrows raised over this turn, as Dixon was solicited for multiple upcoming issues and was setting up new subplots. Speculation at the time was that he butted heads with Grant Morrison over the Batman R.I.P. tie-in issues and realized he wasn’t the top dog in the editorial offices anymore. Dixon alluded to something like this at the time, but in later years would blame another culprit: liberal creators waving their politics around in public.
As much as he doesn’t like to admit it, comics have always been political and Dixon’s own politics have seeped into his work even when it doesn’t make sense coming from his teenage protagonists. Apparently Dixon must have noticed some sea change after returning from CrossGen and decided he had to take a stand. Since then, his work has involved smaller publishers, hit pieces against the Clintons, and crowdfunded books through the ComicsGate-friendly platform IndieGoGo. For such a once prominent and influential creator, there are startlingly few outlets out there that like to talk about Chuck Dixon anymore.
I always thought that Chuck Dixon was a pretty meat and potatoes comics writer and that opinion hasn’t changed much after finishing this run. I previously assumed that this series hit a consistently “B” average but there were a lot more C to B- stories in there than I expected. A lot of it had to do with the challenges that all ongoings from the Big Two had during the 90s with forced crossovers causing endless disruptions. Even under those standards, Dixon had a bad habit of setting up a major conflict in one series and then just tossing off the resolution in another one. Towards the end, a long-simmering subplot about a Cluemaster/Riddler team-up is resolved in a footnote to a random Birds of Prey comic. This was still happening even when contemporary comics like Ultimate Spider-Man were changing reader expectations around serialized storytelling. Much of reading this whole series felt like a rude awakening in parts, but it went down easily for the most part and I remain a big fan of Tim, even if he can be a lunkhead when it comes to his romantic relationships.
Odds & Ends
- Besides the General, Dixon’s other main attempt to create an arch-nemesis for Tim is King Snake. The character is a spectacular failure as he is the first major baddie that Tim takes down alone as Robin but he is still treated like a big deal every time he shows up. Half of the time, it ends in a cliffhanger and he is defeated by Batman in another series, which makes his appearances even more frustrating.
- Dixon’s brief return to the series wasn’t all for naught though: he was able to retcon one of the worst stories in the history of Bat comics by bringing Stephanie back to life and saying Leslie faked her death.
- At some point, Dixon starts writing the Nightwing comic and it becomes obvious because he starts appearing in this book more often. It’s a delight every time as Tim and Dick act like the brothers each of them never had.
- I enjoyed getting deeply immersed in the Bat mythos of this era, so stay tuned for my next Late to the Party entry where I’ll be reading the No Man’s Land crossover in its entirety for the first time. It’ll be coming in late 2021!