The Tim Drake Problem

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  • Does anyone like Tim Drake in the New 52?

    I sure don’t. I could cite his confused New 52 backstory, his flat and uninteresting personality or the bad writing in Teen Titans, where he currently stars. But those essays have all been written before. Instead, I want to talk about what I would have done differently to reboot Tim Drake in the New 52.

    Look, the Batfam has gotten pretty big at this point. DC couldn’t even fit the five canonical preboot Robins into their New 52 timeline – they scrapped Stephanie Brown, the fourth Robin, and then shoehorned the other four into Bruce Wayne’s five-year Batman career. Sandwiched between Dick Grayson, the classic Robin, Jason Todd, the antihero Robin and Damian, the baby Robin, New 52 Tim kind of disappeared.

    The first thing to do is to find something about Tim’s character that makes him stand out. To me, it’s the fact that Tim comes from a privileged upper middle class white family in the Gotham suburbs – and despite it all, he’s miserable.

    The New 52 doesn’t really go into this as much as the preboot did (in the preboot Tim went to boarding school, for Pete’s sake), but I think it’s essential to his character: Tim is lonely, restless and unhappy. Those are feelings anyone can relate to. And Tim has those feelings in the context of a life that by societal standards should be as good as it can get. Not only is that origin story relatable to a good number of American readers, it’s also totally unique from the rest of the Batfamily, whose origin stories are either happy but eccentric childhoods (Bruce and Dick), poverty and crime (Jason and Stephanie) or straight-up ninja cult training (Damian and Cassandra).  Among this crowd, Tim’s the normal one. But being among this crowd is what turns him into someone exceptional.

    With that background in mind, here’s how I would have crafted Tim’s origins for the New 52:

    Most of it stays the same as the preboot: Tim is an intelligent only child from an upper middle class family who, five years before the New 52 opens, happens to be obsessed with this “Batman” thing that people have started talking about. Tim’s parents don’t think Batman exists and they are dismissive of their 10-year-old son’s excitement. Around this time, Tim attends the circus with his family and meets the Flying Graysons just hours before they are killed. A year later, Tim happens across Batman and Robin, and Robin performs a quadruple aerial somersault, a move which only a few people can do, and which Tim recognizes from the Flying Graysons’ performance. Tim therefore deduces that Robin is Dick Grayson and, by extension, that Bruce Wayne, currently Dick’s legal guardian, is Batman. Tim becomes obsessed with Batman, and frequently sneaks out at night to try and catch a glimpse of him. Meanwhile he’s begun taking martial arts and gymnastics lessons, lifting weights and training – though for what, exactly, he’s not sure. When Jason Todd replaces Dick as Robin, Tim notices immediately. When Jason dies about two years later, Tim notices that Batman has become erratic and violent. He goes first to Nightwing and reveals everything he knows. Nightwing takes Tim to Bruce, where Tim asks to be Robin, giving his impassioned “Batman needs a Robin” speech straight out of the preboot arc “A Lonely Place of Dying.”

    Bruce refuses. But Dick Grayson takes pity on Tim and offers to train him. Eventually Tim accompanies Bruce on a few missions, but – this is important – Tim never has his own Robin costume. He always wears one of Dick’s old costumes, which is slightly too big for him. Just a few months into Tim’s role as Robin,  when he’s finally getting the hang of it and beginning to gain Bruce’s trust, Tim’s mother is killed and his father discovers his son’s secret identity. Just like in the preboot. Jack Drake forbids Tim from being Robin anymore. At the same time, Jason Todd returns from the dead and Damian Wayne arrives in Gotham. So Tim leaves the Robin mantle, hoping Jason will reclaim it. But Jason refuses and Damian becomes Robin.

    This brings us back to the beginning of the Reboot, where a lot of chronology problems have now been solved: Dick and Jason both have two years of uninterrupted Robin time, and Tim has less than a year, just enough to make him a Robin but not enough to equip him with the necessary skills to be a standalone hero.

    Tim in the New 52

    Tim’s first appearance would be in the Wayne Enterprises dinner party featured in Batman #1, by Scott Snyder, the same as it currently is. But I would have him attending with his father, not standing with his “brothers” Dick and Damian.  He interacts briefly with Bruce, Dick and Damian – just one or two panels – and the awkwardness would introduce him as a former Robin who has returned to civilian life and no longer wears a mask. Damian’s snide comment that Bruce needs to use his facial recognition gadget to remember who Tim is now works even better.

    Tim can’t quite bear to leave the Batfamily, or the superheroing life. The question is, how to show that? A depressed and adrift teenager who is sort of a superhero but mostly not is not a strong enough character to lead his own superhero book. So if I were in charge of the New 52, Tim wouldn’t have his own book. Not at first.

    Instead, Tim would be a recurring supporting character in one or two other Bat-books, most likely Nightwing and maybe Detective Comics, perhaps with an occasional appearance in Red Hood and the Outlaws and Birds of Prey. Tim’s actual appearance in Red Hood and the Outlaws #8 was great and one of my favorite Tim moments in the New 52: Tim appeared with a bit of intel for Jason, which served to advance Outlaws’ plot while simultaneously showing the audience the complex nature of these estranged brothers-in-arms’ current relationship. Instead of having his own standalone title Tim would spend the first year or so of the New 52 hanging out with Dick, perhaps assisting Bruce with a case or two, acting as a liaison or tipster for Barbara or Jason.

    The Batfamily character Stephanie Brown was introduced in a similar way: she first appeared in Detective Comics in 1992 and popped up in several Bat-family titles before being established as a main supporting character in Tim’s Robin title and a recurring character in Cassandra Cain’s Batgirl. Stephanie eventually got her own book in Batgirl volume 3 but before she did she spent years cameoing in other Batman books, developing as a character and gaining the fame and fan following necessary to carry her own title.  In the New 52, I would have had Tim begin that same process.

    I understand that if the New 52 had launched without a monthly title starring Tim Drake a number of fans would have been outraged, particularly as the New 52 interrupted Tim’s excellent Red Robin monthly. I understand, because I would have been one of them. But as a writer, and especially as a writer with the advantage of reviewing in hindsight instead of planning in advance, I think that not giving Tim his own book (because honestly, Teen Titans is Tim’s book) would have been the best thing DC Editorial could have done for the character. Put simply, in a rebooted universe he’s just not ready to have his own book.

    Nightwing is a perfect place to put Tim because it would help grow not only Tim as a character, but Dick as well. One of the critiques of the New 52 Nightwing book is that Dick Grayson, who was often described as the heart of the DC Universe, doesn’t seem to actually have any friends. Tim’s presence, even semi-regular, in Nightwing would have given Dick someone to talk to. And giving Nightwing not only a friend, but a protege of sorts, would help establish Dick as a hero in his own right, which current Nightwing writer Kyle Higgins has said is one of his goals for the book.

    Tim’s presence in Nightwing doesn’t have to be more than a few panels every other issue. For example, imagine Nightwing has just finished his patrol and is dragging himself back to his apartment in the middle of the night. He slips through the window and is startled to find Tim sitting on his couch with a laptop and a bottle of soda. Tim starts awake, apologizes – he came over looking for Dick, and when he realized Dick wasn’t home he picked the lock and snuck in to wait for him. Dick is exhausted but happy to see Tim because it gives him someone to talk to and bounce ideas off of. Meanwhile this brief scene – which requires maybe five panels and only three lines of dialogue – has told us a lot about Tim: 1) he’s lonely and ill-adjusted; 2) he has a close relationship with Dick, and 3) he’s smart enough to pick whatever locks Dick had on his apartment, but not confident enough to be out there superheroing it on his own. It’s also told us a lot about Dick—he’s a bit lonely himself but doesn’t realize it; he’s not used to having people look up to him but he warms quickly to the idea of being a big brother; he works well as a solo hero but even better as part of a team.

    Committing to Tim as a secondary character would certainly have affected and in some ways limited the kind of storytelling Higgins was able to accomplish in the Nightwing book, but not by much. I’m not talking about turning Nightwing into Nightwing and Tim Drake. Rather, Tim would appear in Nightwing just about as often as Dick has appeared in Scott Snyder’s New 52 Batman title.

    So Tim would appear a few times in Nightwing and perhaps once or twice in some other Batfamily titles. In fact, the only book in which I would not let Tim cameo is the one in which he currently stars: Teen Titans.

    Why the Teen Titansare Better Off Without Tim

    Here it is: I think Tim Drake’s presence in the Teen Titans book is a large reason why it’s bad.

    Without Tim, the Titans’ roster is comprised of: a thief and runaway (Wonder Girl), a clone grown in a test tube (Superboy), a metahuman incapable of blending into normal society (Solstice), a foreign hitchhiker (Bunker) and an amnesiac from the future (Kid Flash). They’re an eclectic bunch, but they all have one thing in common: they have no roots. None of them have anyone they can depend on for help or even companionship. Except each other. That’s what Teen Titans needs to be about: a bunch of superpowered teenagers alone in the world trying to make something out of nothing.

    Add Tim Drake into the mix, and that dynamic is suddenly, immediately ruined. Whether he’s Red Robin, like in the New 52, or even if he’s just a former Robin, as I’m suggesting, Tim Drake has a support network that includes well-to-do-parents at worst and Bruce Wayne’s credit card at best. That means Tim can – and in the current Teen Titans he frequently does – use money to get the other Titans out of their jams.  This leaves the writers free to skip any of the tension and character development to be had in a story about homeless runaways, and instead head straight to flashy fights against deus-ex-machina villains with god complexes. Now superpowered teenagers fighting deus-ex-machina villains with god complexes is a time-honored comic book tradition, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. But it’s important for your superpowered teenagers – and even, if you’re a good writer or at least a bold one, your flashy supervillains – be relatable to the audience.

    That’s why I wouldn’t have put Tim in the Teen Titans book. At least, not at first. Because every time the other Titans were about to have an interesting conversation or face a relatable problem, Tim would swoop in with Batman’s credit cards (and sometimes a Batfamily ally or two) and shut it all down.

    That doesn’t mean Tim can never join Teen Titans. In fact, I think that’s where he would eventually belong – the Titans just needed some time to grow first. So how to get Tim officially back into a superhero costume and in his rightful place as a Teen Titan? There are plenty of ways one could do it, and the current “Forever Evil” arc is a great one.

    Forever Evil arc

    The current DC Comics cross-universe event, called “Forever Evil,” kicks off with the arrival of the Crime Syndicate, a group of villains who claim to have killed the Justice League and then unmask a captured Nightwing live on worldwide television.

    Tim appears in two panels of Forever Evil #1. In both, he’s reacting in horror to Dick’s capture and subsequent unmasking. In Forever Evil #2, he and the Titans try to save Dick and defeat the Crime Syndicate on their own.

    But what would my Tim, a former Robin who’s been out of the costume for over a year, do in the same situation?

    This would be Tim’s first critical moment in the New 52, because instead of being the ‘spare,’ the kid no one knows what to do with, suddenly he’s the only one left. Dick is captured. Bruce is gone, supposedly dead. Barbara is no longer Batgirl. Jason is a newly amnesic assassin. Damian is – well, if I were in charge of the New 52, Damian wouldn’t be dead, but that’s a whole other essay. Damian and Tim have never gotten along in any continuity, so they wouldn’t go to each other for help at this point, and it wouldn’t be difficult to occupy Damian with trying to keep a lid on the madness boiling over in Gotham at Batman’s apparent death.

    So Tim is alone. What does he do? He acts on that unique combination of desperation, selflessness, and carefully planned recklessness that makes him unique: he decides to find Dick himself.

    This could all take place in a special issue of Teen Titans, because the Teen Titans have the same idea. On the way to the Crime Syndicate’s headquarters they cross paths. Both Tim and the Titans are wary of each other – one’s a non-superpowered kid in an ill-fitting Robin costume, the rest are ragtag teenaged metahumans with varying degrees of control over their powers – but they decide to team up.

    Whether they succeed or not could go either way – that’s more important to the Forever Evil‘s narrative needs than to Tim’s character development. The important thing is that Tim is back in costume, and after being more alone than he’s ever been in his life he’s suddenly surrounded by people again. This is the beginning of Tim’s time on the Teen Titans and of his New 52 journey to becoming a complex, relatable and likeable character once again.

    ———

    Jill Scharr is a tech journalist at www.tomsguide.com who spends most of her free time thinking about fictional characters. Catch her using too many exclamation points on Twitter @JillScharr.

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