Sunday, January 9, 2022

The Comics Conundrum: Robin #156

I can remember moving to the city of Waterloo in 2007 and discovering a comic store within blocks of where I lived. In that first visit (The first of many during the summer months I lived there), I remember passing a rack of DC comics back issues and I saw a title that I had been familiar with in the past but hadn’t read for a long time: Robin.

Back when I was 7 or 8, an early issue of Robin was one of the first comics I ever bought with my own money and there was something nice about knowing the series was still out there when I was almost 21. Despite not having read the titles in years & having a limited understanding of what was going on in DC at the time, I picked up two issues.

 Cover artist Patrick Gleason described these covers as, "My 'Norman Rockwell Before & After' but with superheroes".

Looking back at these two issues, I'm reminded of something Neil Gaiman once said about reading comics in his youth: "Reading comics was like getting postcards from Oz."
I think that's the best way to describe these two issues; it almost felt like I was getting caught up with an old friend that I hadn't heard from in years.

Now I could spend a lot of time discussing Adam Beechen's run on Robin because like every other subject, I have a lot to say about it. However I'm going to focus on the issue that came after those first two comics I picked up.
This issue is titled, "The High Dive".
Gleason's covers did what all comic covers should do: Give you a hint of what the story's about and entice you to pick it up.

Now you might think that being Robin isn't such a bad thing; you get to fight bad guys, hang out with Batman and best of all, the uniform finally comes with pants.
Sadly things have not been going well for Tim Drake, the third Robin and the star of this series. And if you think about it...things haven't been going well for him since before he even became Robin.

Before he even officially earned the mantle, his parents were kidnapped and it resulted in his mother, Janet, dying via poisoning and his father, Jack, left paralyzed and his central nervous system so badly damaged it'll take a miracle for him to live.
From "Detective Comics" #621

Tim's father does make a recovery and ends up later marrying his physical therapist, Dana. All while this is going on, Tim's trying to balance his life as an ordinary teenager and big-time superhero. It isn't always easy.

Things sadly don't get any easier for Jack because later he's killed in the miniseries Identity Crisis and even more tragic is that Tim has to hear his father's last words as he and Batman are somehow too far away to help. Identity Crisis is a bit of a mess.
From Identity Crisis #5

Oh and to make matters worse, Stephanie Brown, his girlfriend and Conner Kent (Superboy), his best friend, are both killed and Dana had a complete psychological breakdown after Jack's death and was more-or-less "wished into the cornfield", never to be seen again.

It's a lot of death for a young man to deal with and you wouldn't blame him if he started to believe he was cursed. Oh and one of his friends in the Bat-Family, Cassandra Cain-who used to be Batgirl, has turned evil.

However things aren't all too bad; recently he'd been legally adopted by Bruce Wayne and he was making some new friends at school and getting close to a classmate, Zoanne.

But just when things start to get better, they start to get worse; in his most recent adventure, a wannabe, pipsqueak vigilante named Dodge, unintentionally got one of Tim's classmates shot and Dodge himself was left in a perilous state when the belt that he uses to transport himself all over the place was damaged.
From Robin #155.

So after all the tragedy and trauma, you'd be surprised to know that this issue opens with some impromptu romance on the part of Tim's new classmate/crush, Zoanne. After seeing him get kidnapped two issues ago and his fate being unknown to her, she decides to show how happy she is that he's alive by giving him a passionate kiss.
She then follows up by chewing Tim out for not letting her know that he was still alive, telling him to never speak to her again.
Young love, isn't it sweet?

Later that evening, Robin goes to visit Dodge in the hospital and speaks to his family. It seems that Dodge-his real name is Mike-stole the belt from his Dad, who was working under subcontract for STAR Labs and that the belt uses the same energy as the Justice League's old transporter. However Mike's state is still unresponsive and his family thinks they're not being told everything.

When Robin starts to blame himself for what happened (A projectile that Robin threw inadvertently hit the belt that put Mike in this state), Mike's family tell him that he's not to blame and give him a few moments alone with their son.

Later, over the streets of Gotham, Robin feels like he's going backwards. He was starting to feel like he wasn't really ruining or ending the lives of everyone he met. However the situation with Dodge and Cassandra going rogue has him doubting himself and angry for feeling sorry for himself.
As he's about to continue his patrol he notices someone on the edge of a high-rise building and quietly drops in to find out what's going on.

Robin explains that he can't be with the jumper all the time and that if he were to save him, what would stop him from coming back an hour or day later and trying again with success?
He's not being callous or cynical but rather, very realistic. However he does not want to watch this man kill himself.

Robin gets the Jumper to sit down and explain what this is all about, insisting that this isn't some reverse psychology or trick; he genuinely wants to listen.

Turns out the Jumper (his name is never revealed) is a college freshman, not having the best time at a new school; he's having a hard time fitting in, sleeping a lot, his grades are suffering, his high school girlfriend broke up with him and he couldn't make it onto the dive team-one of the few things he enjoyed in high school.

That's what's brought him up to this roof and ready to end it all. He expects to be told by the Boy Wonder that other people have bigger problems and that he's weak because his problems are nothing compared to what someone in a war-torn country might be facing.
Instead, Tim says something that stuck with me ever since I first read it and has really resonated over the past two years.

Adam Beechen told me that in writing this issue he "wanted to focus on the guilt and depression Tim might feel as a kid of that age, given what had happened to Dodge. It felt like having Tim help another kid dealing with depression might clue him in how to deal with his own feelings of the moment."

Robin explains that everyone-from Batman to Superman and him-feels like this from time to time but the important thing to remember is he's not alone. Things can get better. Sometimes it happens on their own but most times when you work at them. And when he has trouble remembering that, he finds people to talk to.

He suggests to the Jumper that maybe he come down from there and try it; talking to an old friend, a trained counsellor, anyone who can offer a different perspective and give advice...or maybe just to listen. Robin asks the Jumper if he wants to give that a try.

The issue ends in the city of Bludhaven, where Dick Grayson (Nightwing) is getting in after an evening of crime-fighting. However when he sees that Tim wants (or needs) to talk, he decides that sleep can wait.

Final Thoughts: I'm pretty terrible at making lists, however if I were to put together a list of "Schweitzer-Man's Favorite Comic Issues Ever"...this issue would make the list.

There is no villain in this issue, there's no twist where someone or something is somehow compelling the Jumper or others to want to commit suicide. This is about ordinary people dealing with very human emotions and how a superhero might deal with that or help someone deal with it.

Beechen never wanted to make a storyline out of it, but he wanted to continue to bring out possible consequences of the life that Tim had chosen that maybe he hadn't thought about and how Tim might choose deal with them, for better or worse.

The writing is superbly solid, Beechen never has Tim coming off as preachy or like he's repeating something you might read in a pamphlet about suicide.
"In trying to imagine how Tim would approach a situation like that, I didn't think he'd preach," Beechen explained. "He'd be pretty straightforward and honest, two of his best qualities, and speak from his own experience."

And I absolutely love that ending. I feel lately there's a lot of bleakness and nihilism in comics and not enough optimism. It was nice to see that after Tim talked about how he had someone to talk to that it was very true.

Oddly enough, turns out I'd been misinterpreting that final page for years; I always saw it as Dick Grayson was getting ready to head out to the gym (Hence the gym bag on his shoulder) and that his emphasis that he was just "getting in" was a small fib and didn't want Tim to feel like he was bothering him.
Mr. Beechen was kind enough to let me know my interpretation (while wrong) worked just as well.

Now let's talk about the art. This era of Robin was my introduction to the work of Freddie Williams II and I can't think of a time where I didn't enjoy the work he did and Guy Major's coloring makes every panel gorgeous to look at. I can't say enough good things about Williams art and I'm looking forward to the day when I buy a commission from him.

I've been thinking about this issue a lot over the past few months; 2020 was not a year I'm not going to look back on with a lot of fond memories and 2021 felt almost as bleak.
One thing that did help though, was talking to someone, whether it was a family member, a friend or even a trained counsellor.
Without going into too much detail, after my first session speaking with a counsellor, I literally felt lighter. Things aren't going to get better overnight but like Robin said in this issue, "Sometimes [things get better] on their own, most times when you work at them."
I've still got a lot of work to do.
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Canada: 1-833-456-4566

Special thanks to Mr. Adam Beechen who was gracious to answer any and all questions I had about this issue.

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