The Robins come out to play.
From the outset, We Are Robin is a great idea. Writer Lee Bermejo, also one of the most acclaimed illustrators in comics, has said that the concept for the series stemmed from his desire to push the mythology of the world’s most famous sidekick “beyond teenage white kids who all look the same,” as well as address the question that’s been asked endlessly since the character’s conception: why would Batman let a kid fight crime? Advancing the concept of the sidekick from a single assistant to a network of street-savvy youths is a logical progression as well as a pertinent reflection of the modern era, where much social justice activism is accomplished and pursued through the cooperation and connectivity of intercity youths. Bermejo feels the comic has a responsibility to address the role that younger generations play in the world today, stating “with everything that we've seen happen recently with Ferguson, there's a lot of issues here that I think can be touched on and should be touched on.” This attention to youth can even be seen in the cover of the upcoming second issue, which seemingly pays homage to the 1979 film The Warriors that depicted the 1970s phenomenon of city youth gangs. However, whereas the theme of the comic may be going for something akin to The Warriors, this first issue feels a little too much like The Goonies.
The story focuses around a black teen named Duke Thomas, who was last seen in the pages of Batman during the "Endgame" storyline, in which Joker turns most of Gotham’s citizens, including Duke’s parents, into grinning, mindless psychopaths. Duke was separated from his parents after being rescued by Batman and they have been missing ever since, leaving Duke in foster care. Duke is seen getting into a fight with some other teens in a basketball court (having become a bit of an adrenaline junkie since "Endgame") at a school that appears to the latest in a line of ones he's been suspended from. The fight is eventually broken up when the police arrive, but not before Duke is knocked unconscious.
While Duke is tended to by one of the officers, a girl in a heavy yellow jacket approaches and takes a picture of Duke with her phone, then promptly sends out a message reading “found him.” The three-panel sequence of the girl snapping the photo is a resonant image in of itself, and sits at the heart of the direction Bermejo wants to take with We Are Robin. The civilian bystander with a camera phone has become a powerful modern symbol of social justice, particularly with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to recent strings of police brutality, and while within the story’s context the officer is trying to help Duke, it’s hard not to see the real-life parallels the scene inspires. It’s a striking reminder of the empowerment of the individual in our time to do good, a regular theme in the Batman mythos.
Duke is picked up from the police station by his overseer, Dr. Leslie Thompkins. Questioning Duke’s most recent bad behavior, and what his parents might think when they’re found, Duke is quick to point out that he’s the only person even looking for his parents. He is then put into another foster home with less-than-thrilled foster parents. The first chance he gets, he bolts down the fire escape and back onto the street, where he continues to look for his parents. We then see he’s being closely followed by the girl in yellow from earlier, who texts Duke’s whereabouts to several other “Robins.”
Duke heads to the nearest sewer entrance, hearing from Leslie that a number of untreated Joker victims have been living underground. There, he stumbles upon an underground network of homeless citizens led by a man who promises to deliver them Gotham and destroy the “concrete palaces” of the world above. Duke is quickly discovered, but rescued in time by the other members of the Robin movement, who reveal they’ve been following him because of his time spent with Batman. The comic ends with an epilogue showing an unknown observer monitoring the Robins via a mechanical bat, and who himself seems to have an arsenal of Robin gear.
The third act of the book is where the main issues arise: the scenario is just too silly. For a comic that seems inspired by a wish to reflect contemporary issues, having an underground cult vowing vengeance on the world above sounds too much like an 80s’ movie cliche. Part of the problem also has to do with differences in tone, both illustrated and literal. The stunning cover art by Bermejo, in keeping with his style of dark tones and hyperrealistic illustrations, suggests a grounded, noirish tone to the series, whereas Jorge Corona’s interior artwork is brighter, cartoonish and dynamic, creating a more lighthearted feel. For people used to Bermejo writing and illustrating, as he’s done with books such as Suiciders, the clash between the two styles may be somewhat jarring.
Despite its flaws, We Are Robin #1 has enough promise and inspires enough interest with its unique concept to keep paying attention. Duke Thomas is one of the more interesting side characters to come along in Batman comics in recent memory, and he is developed well enough here to want to follow his story. The chance to see his journey to becoming the Boy Wonder is an exciting prospect.