Robin 167, my first published DC comic, hit stands last Wednesday…
The level of support I’ve received has been pretty overwhelming, especially considering that I haven’t had a comic out in ages and took a somewhat extended sabbatical from this column. All the people that have dropped me mail to offer congratulations and well wishes, the backing from people on the boards (primarily Millarworld & Comic Bloc) means a whole lot, and I’m glad to see people really enjoying the issue. Hopefully, it won’t be the end for me in the Bat-universe and will mark the first strike as I push back into the game in a real way. Next month Miranda Mercury hits Previews and that’s gonna be a whole different conversation. For now though—thank you all and please enjoy a full commentary for the Robin issue, with special guest Freddie E. Williams II, who as you know delivered some of the most amazing pencils of his career in the book.
Enjoy, and sorry for the long delay between columns. There’s a tiny explanation for it, provided you can make it to the end safely. Good luck.
A long time ago, before even having a halfway decent concept of what a comic book even was, I saw this Batman cover that got burned into my head, and ultimately manifested itself as the first page of my first script for DC Comics. Feels like the original might’ve been a Sprang piece, but on the cover Robin is tied to the front of a speeding truck driven by some bad guy as Batman gives chase on the Bat-cycle. What really got me was the image of him strapped to the front of this massive truck with what appeared to be no way out. The cliffhanger/deathtrap factor was what I enjoyed most as a kid watching the Adam West series, even with that strange awareness something was off about the whole thing. No greater moment than when Batman and Robin get caught in some exotic trap and that voice comes in to tell you how fucked they are. Remember when they had the team-up with Green Hornet and Kato and they got turned into giant stamps!? So very stupid it was cool.
But years after this, probably somewhere around ’98, I’d started experimenting with writing full script, based off an old Flash script by Mark Waid. Whenever my class schedule would allow (and honestly, sometimes when it didn’t) I’d make myself write a little 3-5 page sequence every day just to work the kinks out of my interpretation. One of the first exercises I ever put down was the opening scene for a story called “7 Hours” that followed the entire Bat-squad on an average night in Gotham City. This was designed as a real-time thriller that would show just how many things can go wrong in Gotham from sundown to sunup, and spotlight the dozens of cases Batman and company are likely working all at once. It always bugged me when the stories made it seem like they’d only work one major crisis at a time, so this arc was just packed with characters, plot twists, large explosions, and a ticking clock edging closer and closer to dawn. And the very first page of it was almost exactly what you see here.
This all says something but I’m not sure what. How can everything be this connected? Doesn’t that seem odd to anyone else?
Freddie Williams II: Probably roughed this page out 3 times before getting to this final design. The script was well written, with everything clearly laid out and after reading it, I knew what I wanted… but I kept picturing it in a wide cinematic layout, which is the complete opposite of the comic page orientation.
Note: the maroon SUV with “BOB” on the license plate that Robin ends up landing on…that’s my cousin Bob, who is a huge comics fan and a great guy.
Welcome to the wonderful world premiere of the next master criminal in Batman’s rogues’ gallery…Riot Act. Morrison’s incredible Arkham hardcover certainly went a long way in portraying the asylum as a miniaturized slice of Hell, but RA is more of a byproduct of Dan Slott’s recent take, where the building was populated by a more general mixture of personalities, some of them only moderately psychotic and most without corresponding gimmicks and costumes. Riot Act (government name Sylvester Toole) is also something of a commentary on our celebrity obsessed culture that would no doubt take someone like The Joker and turn him into some kind of symbol of anti-establishment. Seriously, look at people’s obsession with mafia/gangster/thug culture and imagine just what a following someone like The Joker would garner, even though he’s a maniac that really can’t stop killing people in overly imaginative ways. Toole would really love to be The Joker one day, but he’s a complete idiot, and that gets in the way.
Attempting to smash Tim on the car in front of him was actually in the original, but the rest was unusable for a lot of reasons. And at this point it’s gotta be time to start talking about Freddie Williams II and the simply amazing job he did on these pencils. I’m biased as hell, but these are the most exciting pages I’ve ever seen from him and for anyone familiar with his work, that’s saying a lot. He probably won’t like this next bit, but there’s no doubt that his artistic run on Robin will go down as one of the most unique and influential takes on the character, right up there with Tom Lyle, Tom Grummett, and the late Mike Wieringo. There’s just something remarkably appealing about his representation of Tim Drake and the rest of the Bat-verse, and since I only had 22 pages to work with, I asked him to touch as many parts of it as possible. And it all looks very gorgeous, even at this early juncture.
It’s really simple to just type “Robin fights maniac behind wheel of speeding truck in the middle of the night on a Gotham highway” but drawing it is a whole ‘nother thing. When I got the layouts for this sequence I completely flipped out, but the final pages!? Come on now, ya’ll are looking at this stuff, right!? How incredibly awesome is that last shot with Robin flipping off the truck’s hood into traffic? Freddie’s subtle additions to this panel (and this will be a prevailing theme) include having a couple bullets pass through Robin’s cape and having his right hand plant and then spring himself off the side of the truck. What I imagined was considerably less impressive than the final product—which of course is always the goal of this.
Pages 3 & 4-
Wanted to introduce some new gadgets in my brief time here—things that were natural extensions of other pieces of equipment in the utility belt. Tethers are for every movie, TV show, comic, etc. that features people fighting on the backs of moving cars, who are completely oblivious to the fact that they should be ripped off of them. It’s a reaction to “movie gravity” if such a thing can be quantified, and given how much time Batman and company spend fighting on tall buildings and moving vehicles, I thought it had enough practical basis to work here. And it sets up the fabulous shot of Robin flinging a little R-engraved Batarang towards Riot’s driving side window…which Freddie just killed. Though not nearly as hard as the third panel on page four which might be my favorite shot of the entire thing, the first of several guest appearances by Tim’s trusty bo staff.
The incredible violence of this is the first visual representation of Tim’s demeanor throughout this story. It’s angry, spiteful, and more than everything else, completely unnecessary. This is the one night of the year that Tim feels justified and probably even a little righteous in his anger, and I wanted that to be felt in one image. Not sure if all that comes through but it certainly looks incredible, especially with that little spray of blood snuck into the impact point.
Other gadget I inserted into the mix is a somewhat portable EMP that was initially much smaller and compact, a disc that fit into the belt and could be attached to whatever electronic thing you needed killed. But the visual just wasn’t powerful enough so it got incorporated into the bo, which I’ve always been kinda obsessed with from the moment Tim removed it from a wall of weapons offered to him by Lady Shiva in his first mini-series. Think having it morph into that pitchfork design was a notion from the wonderful Freddie Williams, and now I can’t really see any other appropriate closing for this scene that doesn’t feature Robin stopping a speedy semi with only two hands. Nothing is going to stop him tonight and this was another moment I needed to convey that. Like the solicit says, “find out why they call him the Boy Wonder.”
There was a little bit of captioning I had to drop because of space concerns. It’s not really necessary but I like it anyway–
TAKES SEVERAL POUNDS OF PRESSURE TO ACTIVATE THE CHARGE, SO IT’S NOT TRIPPED ACCIDENTALLY. THAT’S UNDER NORMAL CONDITIONS.
I WAS GOING TOO FAST, DIDN’T HAVE ENOUGH LEVERAGE, AND COULDN’T GET ANY DECENT TRACTION. WHAT I WANTED TO HAPPEN WAS CLEARLY IMPOSSIBLE.
THE TRUCK STOPPED ANYWAY.
This page kicked my ass from start to finish. Even in the outline this one didn’t make perfect sense, the dialogue wasn’t hitting, the tone was off, and it was just impossible to get on top of it. It was a necessary beat to help separate the initial action sequence from the next, and an opportunity to include both the Bat-signal and Commissioner Gordon in the narrative, but man did it just kill me. It was one page, it was two pages, there were ten lines, there were three, etc. etc. Just never really sang and was that thing I kept going back to over and over again, looking for that one final edit that would fix it all.
Most of the problem was that it needed to be awkward, almost poorly written, to again drive the point that Tim’s head wasn’t in the game. And that this would be instantly recognized by a police of Gordon’s caliber and experience. Why things were said was more important than what was said, but it felt like I was intentionally writing a bad page. Still not perfectly happy with this one script-wise, though Freddie made the first panel look fantastic. Takes some of the edge off.
Freddie: The police officer on the radio in the center of the panel is my father-in-law, Tom, who was a police officer and detective for over 30 years. Anytime there is a scene with non-specific police written in it, I always put him in. He was even a security guard in the Blue Beetle fill-in issue I drew.
Brandon: This piece of narration is me intentionally channeling the first Marvel story I had published in Spider-Man Unlimited #3. It was all about fate, destiny, etc. and how none of us know when exactly our time is gonna be up. It’s something that’s always been horribly depressing to me and when I wrote that Spidey short, I was incredibly preoccupied with the possibility that I’d be dead before I had the chance to realize any of the grand, elaborate plans that I’d made for myself as a writer and as a man. Still, this bothers me and I’m just crazy enough to consider it more often than I really should. If you acknowledge that it’s true, will that in turn provide an advantage over someone who doesn’t? Of course not, but even I can’t deny that life happens in some intricate pattern that only seems viewable with enough distance and perspective.
Tim can’t reconcile something like that and given his history, that’s more than understandable. He doesn’t want to believe himself powerless in the face of all the tragedy he’s faced, not with everything he can do. I mean—he’s faced The Joker and lived to tell about it, been from one end of the planet to the other, and just recently stopped a runaway truck with his bare hands—and you expect him to believe that he couldn’t have stopped what happened to his father, or any of his friends? Tim’s not buying it and he would be a much less compelling character if he did.
Pages 11 & 12-
The little girl on page 11 literally saved my life…or perhaps just my script. I’m blocking the whole story out, trying to figure how many pages each scene is going to take, the coverage and shots I’ll need for everything, and somewhere in here I feel like the door is slamming on my foot. From the moment I clear page one, the watch starts, speeding down to twenty-two and the inevitable sensation that comes from any script I’ve ever done…I don’t have enough pages. I don’t have enough space to tell this story perfectly or even competently. Then it all slows down and I start thinking, because really, a lot of this is about problem solving. And this girl, who we should probably be calling Rainbow Brite at this point, solved a huge one in this sequence.
In order for Tim to properly take his bloody revenge on the bad guy who executed one of the hostages, he needs to have this person identified quickly and accurately. And every single way I initially conceived of doing this just ate panels and panels of space away. Then out of nowhere Rainbow popped into my head and gave the scene everything it needed. She was able to point completely off-panel at the guy, provided a natural emotional connection with Tim, that would completely justify the out of control thing he was about to do, and sparked a couple of my favorite lines. Took a while for her to materialize and save the whole set-up, but I’m so very thankful she did. Poor kid. At least the bastard got what was coming to him, I suppose.
Also, Freddie says this about page 12, “One of, if not the most complex page I’ve ever designed, and certainly one of the largest in terms of file size. Around 100 megs, just layers upon layers.”
I have to cop to taking some kind of perverse pride in that statement. Pretty much lost it when the page came back too…this is just a gorgeous piece of work and to me, this is the type of stuff Robin should always be doing.
Okay, so this is how much of a nerd I am. When this story was being put together, the character of Lock-Up was originally Killer Croc, but my editor informed me that Croc “was off the board.” Which meant that Croc and a host of other DC villains would be off-planet (or at least on their way there) when this issue saw release. Lock-Up was his suggestion and his inclusion pretty much dictated where this scene would take place. With Croc I’d imagined this back alley brawl where what Robin did to the murderer on page 13 would be visited upon Croc, because really, what comic reader in his right mind would have sympathy for Killer Croc? This beating was witnessed and eventually halted by Batman, but when elements started changing, this just didn’t seem the right place for his brief guest appearance. And it was much more dramatic for Tim Drake to bludgeon an “ordinary” opponent because with Croc just as there’s no sympathy, there’s also no danger that he could really be hurt. But not having him available made for a much stronger narrative and this…the absolute geek moment of the piece.
People familiar with their history will surely know that Lock-Up (a.k.a. Lyle Bolton) made his actual first appearance in Batman: The Animated Series, and was later transplanted into the comics. In the episode he made his debut, his hideout was an old prison ship called the USS Halsey. Batman and Robin tracked him down by tracing a footlocker that contained the ship’s serial number (484) on it. That number is on the side of the ship as Robin makes his approach and it was important to me that it was. Really important.
The actual fight was meant to be slightly different from the previous one, dark, claustrophobic, a little more violent, etc. Freddie and colorist Guy Major did a really impressive job playing with darkness and shadows as the flashlight bounces all around the hallway. The crown jewel of course is the shot on page 17 with electricity ripping through Tim’s body, burning away his cape and some of his body armor. Think the description said this should look like it really fuckin’ hurts and man, don’t it? Great, great moment in my tireless pursuit to ensure that Tim Drake is portrayed as the complete badass he is.
Freddie: Around the time I was inking this page, my wife’s grandmother (Nene) came over to visit, and was watching me draw. She kept saying she felt bad for Robin because he always got the hell knocked out of him. Made be proud that someone was feeling genuine emotion for something I was drawing.
On a side note, when regular people get electrocuted – while grounded, wherever the electricity exits the body (Robin’s fingertips in this case) usually that part of the body will explode open. That would have been awesome to draw, but not quite fitting for the star of the book, so I just made his fingertips raw and blistered.
Brandon: Yeah, that was another little detail that made me smile. Did not ask for it and it was so very perfect. The next page is another big geek moment with the battle climaxing underwater. In the episode Lock-Up made his debut, he and Batman plunged into the ocean and disappeared for about ten seconds. Out of nowhere, a grappling hook comes out of the water, and Batman emerges holding a completely unconscious Lock-Up. Even as a kid, I thought this was a complete and total storytelling cheat, so this is a response to it, I suppose. A friend of mine thought it was a little unclear as to whether or not Tim actually drowned him, which is pretty cool.
You know, I wanted to let Freddie relax on this one, figuring that I’d made his life miserable enough throughout the issue. I asked for just six identical panels of Tim hovering over the tombstone, thinking the monologue and the reveal that Robin has been at his father’s grave the entire issue would be more than enough to make the page. Freddie was having none of that however and delivered this incredibly powerful set of images that actually caused me to go back and rewrite most of the lines—thinking they didn’t match how potent the panels now were. He also sent along a cool little animated version of this page that was pretty tight. Sadly, my propensity for talking too much reared its head in this scene (since it was the whole point of the story) and some of it had to be cut right before the issue went to press. Here’s the unedited version of things for your perusal—
I’M TIRED OF PRETENDING THAT NOT HAVING YOU HERE ISN’T
KILLING ME. THAT EVERY TIME I LOSE SOMEONE ELSE, IT DOESN’T TAKE A LITTLE PART OF ME WITH THEM.
AND THAT I’M SO SCARED, DAD— THAT I’LL LOSE THE LAST THING I HAVE TO LOSE AND I WON’T BE ABLE TO COME BACK.
BEFORE—BEFORE IT HAPPENED, YOU TOLD ME IT WAS ALL WORTH IT. THIS LIFE WAS ALL WORTH IT, AND THAT I SHOULD NEVER QUESTION IT.
THE SACRIFICE, THE LOSS, THE PAIN—IT WAS WORTH ENDURING BECAUSE I GOT TO HELP PEOPLE. TO CHANGE PEOPLE’S LIVES FOR THE BETTER.
I’VE BEEN TRYING, PLEASE BELIEVE THAT I’M STILL TRYING, BUT EVERYDAY I HAVE TO FIND ANOTHER REASON TO PUT THIS DAMN MASK BACK ON.
SOMETIMES IT’S FOR BRUCE. SOMETIMES FOR CONNOR, BUT A
LOT OF TIMES, I DO IT FOR YOU. BECAUSE YOU WERE BRAVE ENOUGH TO UNDERSTAND THE MAN I WANTED TO BE.
AND—AND—SNIFF— YOU LOST YOUR LIFE BECAUSE OF IT! IF I WAS JUST SOME NORMAL KID WITH SOME NORMAL LIFE, YOU’D BE ALIVE TODAY. MAYBE MOM WOULD BE ALIVE TODAY.
WERE YOUR LIVES REALLY WORTH ALL THE OTHERS I’VE SAVED?
GOD, HOW COULD I EVEN ASK THAT? I’M JUST SOME STUPID KID.
SOME STUPID KID THAT USED THE NIGHT OF YOUR DEATH AS A
REASON, AN EXCUSE TO TURN INTO SOMEONE ELSE. SOME PERSON YOU WOULDN’T RESPECT, LET ALONE LOVE.
I SWEAR TO YOU—WHAT HAPPENED TONIGHT DOESN’T AGAIN. I WON’T LET WHAT’S HAPPENED TURN ME INTO SOMETHING ELSE.
I WILL NEVER GIVE UP, DAD.
Pages 21 & 22-
And here we have the moment of ultimate truth…Batman, more specifically—writing dialogue for Batman. This is a simultaneously exhilarating and humbling prospect. No writer wants to be the one who wrote some bad Batman dialogue, so what we have here is the character uttering the absolute bare minimum. This is one aspect of the script that didn’t have to be pared down, because there was nearly nothing there to begin with. His final line came to me as soon as I thought of changing the scene, which originally featured another character and a slightly more violent tone, but this was when I was still pitching to write the book monthly and designed it as a cliffhanger. Story for another time, that one.
It was really important for me that he remove his mask somewhere in the scene as a sign of respect for Jack Drake. The relationship between them could hardly be classified as normal, after Drake found out about Tim spending his nights as Robin, but just as Tim blames himself for the death, so too would Bruce. The amount of guilt these guys are carrying around is overwhelming, and their need to always do the right thing in response to it is what makes them both incredibly interesting. There were a bunch of great scenes in Identity Crisis, but for me, the one that hits harder every single time is the one depicting Jack Drake’s murder. Seeing Batman and Robin race unsuccessfully to his rescue is drama at its finest and before scripting out this piece, I read over that scene a few times. Everything that happened there should be permeating this moment, even though it’s only a few shots. There was a line here that was part of Tim’s final monologue that had to be cut for space–“They can’t have any more from us.”
Freddie: It’s always a pleasure to get to draw Batman, especially in this role, where he is both stern and sensitive. I had a pretty rocky childhood so one of the aspects of Batman and Robin’s relationship that always resonated with me is the surrogate father.
Brandon: If you look at the bottom right corner of the shot you’ll see a tombstone with my name on it, which makes me something of a permanent resident of Gotham City. Seems only fair that I should be able to work more with some of the characters, right? Oh yeah, Freddie’s last name is written backwards on a grave in the upper right corner on page 20. It’s unbelievable, but Freddie drew these last 13 pages in 10 whirlwind days leading up to the San Diego con, which was going to cut into his deadline. Testament to his ability that you’d have no idea unless we told you. It was a pleasure to have him illustrate “The Promise” and hopefully we’ll get to work together again.
Freddie: When I first got the script for this issue of Robin, I was very excited by the dark tone of the book and the scope of it. This entire issue stretched me on an artistic level, intimidating and exciting at the same time. I think Brandon did a great job on the story, and I was honored to draw his first published work at DC! Thanks for giving the issue a look and for reading this commentary!
Brandon: Again, sorry for the extensive delay. Last month has been particularly frantic as we get the first issue of Miranda ready to go, which honestly is the most exciting thing I’ve ever been a part of in comics. There were also some internal site issues at play that have hopefully been resolved for the time being. Thanks again for all of the support and glad you stopped by.