This being the first monthly comic published by Frank Miller in 18 years, I couldn’t resist buying both covers, but hopefully the successive issues will only give me one choice. Award-winning book jacket designer and Batman memorobilia fanatic Chip Kidd has provided a title design that unequivocally favors Robin’s name on both covers, whether depicting Batman or Robin. And though there are three narrators used in this issue — Dick Grayson, Vicki Vale, and Bruce Wayne — the first page reinforces Kidd’s logo by making clear this is indeed Dick’s story.
After the obligatory statement of the 12-year-old trapeze artist’s trust that his parents will always be there to catch him during their aerobatic performances, Miller uses the reader’s knowledge of past depictions of the Flying Graysons’ demise to absolutely surprise us. For the unfamiliar, in every previous account of Dick Grayson becoming orphaned, his parents fall to their deaths when their trapeze breaks during a routine, the rope being cut because the circus refused to pay the protection racket. The surviving Grayson is then comforted by coincidental crowd-member Bruce Wayne, who lets Dick live at his mansion because of his obvious sympathy with instant orphans.
Miller’s version begins by-the-book: During a routine, Dick lets go of his trapeze but when no one is there to catch him, he falls towards the ground and we already know what’s happened. [Highlight for spoilers:] But then Dick whips out a tiny grappling hook and throws it up at the last minute; it wraps around the empty trapeze and he swings to safety, kind of a lot like Batman. A clever twist, you muse to yourself. Then you turn the page and can’t believe Dick is standing proudly with his parents, arms raised in triumph as the crowd cheers the heartstoping routine.
Okay, ya got me, Miller! you think to yourself. I guess they’re gonna buy it next time. Then your eyes move on to the next panel and see Mr. and Mrs. Grayson get shot in the back of their heads by a sniper. Holy crap, Batman! I warn’t ‘spectin that. The next page, showing Dick between his parents lying in their pools of blood, overtly evokes the cover of Batman #404, the first issue of Miller’s own Batman: Year One story, but a quick consultation of my hardback edition reveals that Jim Lee did not slavishly imitate the positions of the Waynes’ bodies.
One of Miller and Lee’s improvments of Robin’s origin is simply making the Flying Grayson’s acrobatic costumes solid green. In previous versions of his history, Robin’s crime-fighting costume is usually an only slightly modified version of his Flying Graysons outfit, which is a good explanation for the notoriously garish costume, but you’d think somebody would notice the similarity and figure out Robin’s identity. Even if you don’t care about Dick Grayson’s safety, living with Bruce Wayne would make his costume an obvious liability. It’s about time somebody dissociated it visually from the colors of the Flying Graysons.
The other improvement, which Miller has hinted at, but which is already clear from the first issue, is that Batman is more of an active agent. One of the ways writers have tried to excuse Batman of the sin of having a Robin is by either having Dick discover the Batcave independently or, even if Bruce intentionally reveals his alter ego to him, by having Dick sort of foist himself on Batman and insist on being Robin. Miller seems to have ingenuously realized that the only way to make Robin work with regard to Batman is not to tell the story apologetically, but to totally embrace the idea with confidence and jump in gung-ho.
The last page of the first issue is actually inspiring, and inspired. [Highlight again:] Rescuing Dick from corrupt cops (after all, Sergeant Gordon hasn’t cleaned up the force just yet) Batman picks him up by the collar and shouts: “On your feet, soldier. You’ve just been drafted. Into a war.” Until now, it has always been Bruce Wayne who is Dick’s first contact (shut up, already!), and stories always focus on Bruce’s compassion for Dick losing his parents, then the Robin thing becomes an accidental result. Here, Dick first meets Batman, who is no longer a passive agent, as if a babysitter unable to say No to the demands of a rambunctious kid, but is a man with a plan, however counterintuitive it seems.
Though Miller has described it in interviews, by the end of the first issue we still don’t know what exactly Batman’s plan is, the only hint being Bruce’s sly comment to his date at the circus, Vicki Vale, that “I’ve had my eye on him for awhile. He’s something, all right.” Maybe because it serves to reinforce the aura of mystery around the aloof billionaire, Miller doesn’t shy away from suggestive undertones when Vicki asks what he means and Bruce ambiguously smirks, “I’ve got an eye for talent.” A minor one, but it’s yet another example of Miller’s unapologetic take on the relationship between Batman and Robin, that ignoring its inherent absurdities is not a solution. Whether he succeeds remains to be seen, but in an issue where not much actually happens, Miller has been sufficiently innovative to guarantee I’ll be there every month to find out.