Tim Drake. He isn’t the Batfamily’s golden child, black sheep or blood heir. But I content that this neglected teenager is the best Robin for Batman. Here’s the story of why the 3rd of Batman’s sidekicks remains my favourite of them all. For those who are unacquainted, you may be wondering: who is Robin?
I’ll do you one better: why is Robin?
At its core, Robin is simply Batman’s partner. So this question cannot be answered without asking what Batman is. Batman is a character with over 80 years of comic book history, and I’m not going to pretend I can pin down what he represents. But here are four tropes he is not defined by.
A dark (k)night
The first is this idea that he’s an anti-hero in the vein of the Punisher. Now there have certainly been grittier portrayals of the Bat, such as in Batman v Superman (2016) or its original source material The Dark Knight Returns (1986). However, the colour palette is where their similarities end, and those portrayals represent the development of his character arc in his later years as he becomes more jaded, not an encapsulation of his entire character.
The second is Batman’s commitment to law and order. People get really hung up with his no-killing rule. After all, isn’t that what separates him from those anti-heroes? Certainly, it is true that he sticks to this rule in most stories. But as he notes in Red Hood and the Outlaws (2016) #6, a paragon of law and order he is not.
So we move to the third trait, which is exemplified by the Justice League (2017) movie.
Flash: What are your superpowers again? Batman: I’m rich.
Yes, Bruce Wayne is a billionaire. And I bet it comes in handy if when waging a one-person war on crime. But in the comic books, billionaires are a dime a dozen: Green Arrow, Blue Beetle, Iron Man etc. So despite what Joss Whedon might try and tell you, Batman’s superpower isn’t that he’s rich. In fact, there are plenty of better resourced individuals. Lex Luthor has almost always been richer. Aquaman controls more than 70% of Earth. Black Panther runs the single most advanced nation in the world. Batman no doubt has an easier time when he’s rich, but he’s perfectly capable of doing his job without access to unlimited funds, as he does following the Joker War in Batman (2016) #101.
And finally, the fourth (and perhaps most pervasive) stereotype about Batman these days, thanks to How It Should Have Ended: the “Because I’m Batman” trope. This is the idea that Batman has is nigh invincible because he’s a genius strategist who prepares for everything. It doesn’t help that Doomsday Clock (2017) #2 put him as the second-smartest person in the world behind Lex Luthor. This is an easy one to buy into, because a lot of Batman stories do depend on him being smarter. But how could they not? He’s a mere mortal fighting in a world of gods and aliens. What they do not depend on however is him never being outsmarted.
For instance, we find out in Identity Crisis (2004) #6 that he had his memory altered by allies in the Justice League in the past to obscure their own misdeeds. Likewise, Ra’s al Ghul managed to hide the existence of the League of Shadows by wiping Batman’s memory thrice, as revealed in Detective Comics (2016) #954. And without Batman noticing, Ra’s stole his contingency plans for taking down the rest of the Justice League in JLA (1997) #45. Even his most advanced creation, the Brother Eye AI has been compromised: by Braniac in Injustice 2 (2017) #67, by Tim Drake in Detective Comics (2016) #967 and by many more before and after. So Batman has had plenty of foes and friends who are more cunning or clever.
It would be a disservice to the original source material, canon or otherwise, to believe in these four misconceptions about why Batman is Batman. No, as he explains in Batman (2016) #24, he’s Batman because he’s Batman.
Only a Vow
What does that even mean? Perhaps the best explanation arrives across a couple of frames in Tom King’s Batman (2016) run, especially #66.
What defines Batman is the sheer absurdity of it all. He’s a human, made of flesh and blood. Nothing more. And yet he puts this vow he made as a little boy ahead of everything else in life, and is willing to do commit everything in his life towards a goal he knows he cannot fully achieve. One of the reasons I love King’s run is because leans into this theme, alluding to it very early on back in Batman (2016) #12.
And we can see glimpses of this across all of Batman lore. Perhaps one of my favourite stories is Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader. Spread across Batman (1940) #686 and Detective Comics (1937) #853, this is ostensibly a wake for Batman, but really it is the final thoughts he’s having in the moments before his death. Not only does his subconcious projection of Joker note how utterly insane the entire premise of Batman is, Batman himself ultimately accepts that his destiny is always going to be death. Because as long as he’s alive, he’s committed to the fight.
I’ll touch on one final comic book series which I think highlights just how determined and single-minded Batman is, and that’s Injustice: Gods Among Us. The Injustice universe is one where most superheroes have become authoritarian, with only Batman and a few allies in opposition. But as we can see from Injustice: Year Five (2015) #25, being outnumbered and outmatched as he confronts Superman doesn’t faze Batman at all.
As Deadman notes back in Injustice: Year Three (2014) #21, this is because Batman has a set of principles which he doesn’t ever compromise from, even when it seems unteneble to hold on to them.
So what does this all mean for Robin? The best answer I can give is to ask: what happened when Batman didn’t have a Robin?
A Death in the Family
Back in 1988, Jason Todd i.e. the 2nd Robin was killed during the A Death in the Family storyline in Batman (1940) #427. And what resulted was that Batman spiralled out of control, becoming reckless and unhinged. It was Tim Drake who observed this change in Batman (1940) #440.
Not only did Tim notice, he managed to deduce Batman’s secret identity, stepping up and volunteering to be the 3rd Robin. In that way, it was Tim’s hope for what Batman could be which pulled him back from the precipice of darkness. There’s a reason why the Superman and Batman duo has been such a staple of comic books: it’s because light and darkness, or hope and tragedy work well together. Tim Drake’s very origin story is about hope.
This theme continues throughout his career. In his solo Red Robin (2009) series, Tim had faith and didn’t stop looking for Batman even when everyone else thought he was dead. In the more recent Detective Comics (2016) #975, he’s even laid out his motivation of how he sees being Robin.
And it makes sense. As he notes, he’s the only Robin whose existence wasn’t borne out of tragedy. Dick had to watch his parents die in front of him. Jason grew up on the rough streets of Gotham. Damian was raised as the child of a family of assasins. Fate practically thrust this life onto all three of them.
By contrast, Tim is just a smart kid who decided to become Robin. To embrace the sacrifice and responsibility which comes along with fighting criminals every night, because he thinks he can make the world better. And because his path to Robinhood wasn’t predestined, he’s had to earn it every step of the way. I think that alone makes him stand out among Robins.
Nowhere is this pedigree more visible than in Tim’s fighting style. Dick was a circus performer, and his agile and acrobatic combat style reflects that. Jason’s rough upbringing is clear in his willingness to fight dirty and use guns. Damian is half-al Ghul, and he has always fought with the instincts of a martial artist in his blood. But Tim wasn’t gifted with any of these combat-related skills. He’s the only one who had to work at it consciously. As we can see from the Robin 80th Anniversary 100-Page Super Spectacular (2020), he’s had to take the initiative every step of the way.
We see in Young Justice (1998) #7 that much like Batman, he doesn’t quit.
And boy does this grit and determination show! Batman has praised Tim’s strategic sense many times: in Batman & Robin Eternal (2015) #22, in Detective Comics (2016) #934 and in Batman (1940) #617 respectively.
In fact, Dick Grayson, who was the 1st Robin, has gone as far as to call him the best Robin, in both Nightwing (2016) #80 and in Batman: Gates of Gotham (2011) #3.
The Dynamic Duo
At his core, Batman’s relentless one-man crusade to change the world is best summarised by the following line in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders, to let him know the world hadn’t ended.
As for Tim Drake, he is encapsulated into two key traits in Robin (1993) #136 by Batman.
The similarities are blindingly apparent. They’re two sides of the same coin. While one is driven by tragedy and the other by hope, both believe in the idea that you can genuinely help people if you use your smarts and do your duty. And that’s why for me, Tim is the character who best defines what it means to be Robin.