When Batman: The Animated Series Finally Gave Dick Grayson His Due

Welcome to Adventure(s) Time’s thirty-ninth installment, an examination of classic animated series and their tie-in comics. This week, we’re looking back on Batman: The Animated Series‘ adaptation of Robin’s origin story. Then, an obscure issue of the Gotham Adventures series that continues the narrative.

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Airing as a two-parter on February 7-8, 1993, “Robin’s Reckoning” is another dramatic story brought to us by comedy writer/West Point graduate Randy Rogel. (There’s a great interview with Randy Rogel at the Big Damn Geeks site. His life before Batman is pretty interesting.) Dick Sebast directed both chapters, and while Part One is stunning, the second chapter is, honestly, a disappointment. The blame can be placed on the excellent studio Spectrum animating Part One, with Part Two going to the inconsistent Dong Yang.

“Robin’s Reckoning” opens like any other episode, assuming it’s one of the random ones co-starring Robin. We see the heroes bantering atop a skyscraper, staking out a construction site that’s been targeted by mobsters. Not only is Batman’s taciturn nature played as an intentional gag, but we even glimpse the Dark Knight cracking a smile during his talk with Robin. Or, “talk” in quotes, since the joke is the grim Batman isn’t much of a conversationalist. It’s a joke Batman is participating in, emphasizing his affection for Robin. (And Kevin Conroy’s delivery of that “uh-huh” is honestly funny, while still true to the character.)

This scene is important, establishing just how much the duo likes each other. In the ensuing story, we’ll see the events that forged the bond between them, and the conflict that could end their partnership. The plot has this everyday mission disrupted when one of the thugs drops the name “Billy Marin” during Batman’s interrogation. Batman tenses up, refuses to let Robin continue the mission.

Robin sticks up for himself, and the ensuing argument later became one of the most viewed clips from the series. Why? Because it was used during the Today show’s interview with Denny O’Neil during their coverage of the “Knightfall” storyline. The clip was selected to illustrate why Batman wouldn’t do the obvious when injured — ask Robin to fill in. Sure, the context was all wrong, but it did expose the series to an audience that had likely never seen the show. Plus, Denny O’Neil was booked on the Today show, which was nuts.

Back to the show, the story has Batman pursuing the case without his sidekick. Understandably upset, Robin vents his frustrations to Alfred. Just why is this Billy Marin so important? A database search provides the answer. Billy Marin is just one of many aliases for Tony Zucco, the man who killed Robin’s parents.

A fantastic reveal, leading us to the next phase of the story. Until its conclusion, “Robin’s Reckoning” splits between the present and flashbacks. One narrative follows the story of nine-year-old Dick Grayson becoming an orphan, finding a home with Bruce Wayne, and losing his opportunity to bring his parents’ killer to justice. Meanwhile, Batman (in his awesome “prequel” outfit) fruitlessly chases Zucco. In the present, Robin storms off without Batman’s permission, pursuing Zucco.

These flashback sequences are some of the series’ greatest moments. Alfred counseling Bruce on what Dick truly needs. The tentative steps towards the new family that’s formed. A shadowclad Batman invading mobster Arnold Stromwell’s mansion. Kid Dick’s early act of heroism, saving a prostitute from her abusive pimp (!)

Eventually, the heroes’ paths cross and amends are made. Batman, we learn, was acting out of a genuine desire to protect his ward. He tells Robin he couldn’t stand the thought of losing him to Zucco, but he isn’t speaking of physical jeopardy. If Robin gave in to his darkest urges, allowed the desire for revenge to trump justice, the price would be too deep. He’d truly be “lost,” giving up a part of his soul in the bargain.

Now, is this overly dramatic? Plenty of vigilante narratives thrive on crime victims providing fatal retribution to their targets. Even the Batman movie series that gave birth to this series twisted Batman and Joker’s origins around in order to make the hero’s journey a revenge story. (One with a fatal ending.) Would Robin be any less a hero for removing a blight like Tony Zucco?

Within the context of this world, yes. This was a series relying on a kid demographic, so there’s one easy reason for not having the heroes kill. Another answer lies in the psychology of the hero. Robin is fighting crime with Batman’s rule book. If Batman refuses to kill, then Robin must follow the same code. Any deviation from the guidelines makes Robin an illegitimate partner in Batman’s eyes. Does Batman truly believe Robin would kill Zucco if given the chance? Maybe not, but he’s not willing to even risk putting Robin in that position.

Another interesting choice in this story comes in the portrayal of Tony Zucco. He’s just too pathetic to kill. Any standard hack depiction of a hero’s origin story would paint the killer of his parents as a black-hearted demon, a sadist who took only joy in murdering the innocent. Zucco is anything but that. He has no redeeming qualities, but he isn’t a conniving psychopath, either.

Zucco is the incompetent nephew of a respected mobster. He can’t sell a traveling circus on an insurance scheme, so Zucco decides to personally teach the owner a lesson. Sabotaging the Graysons’ act comes across as more petty than murderous, even if the result is lethal.

The reward for Zucco’s actions is his uncle turning against him and nine years of terror, paranoid Batman is just around the corner. When Zucco speaks of Batman, he sounds like a madman. He’s never escaped his uncle’s shadow, never lived in any means beyond squalor, and dreads the inevitable day Batman eventually captures him. Crime doesn’t pay, kids.

Casting the man behind Robin’s greatest tragedy as this dope was bold in a way. Just as “Robin’s Reckoning” examines friendship and surrogate families, it also presents the banality behind most tragedies. The man who killed the Graysons was no supervillain, no criminal genius. He’s a moron, a coward, and no one worth throwing your humanity away for.

“Robin’s Reckoning” is widely viewed as the strongest Robin storyline on the series, and debating this would be a challenge. It’s also widely believed that Part One is far superior to Part Two. Emmy voters agreed — Part One picked up the award for “Most Outstanding Half Hour or Less Program.” The producers always cite Part One as superior, as well (check out their DVD commentary).

The switch in animation houses is an obvious explanation for why. However, the structure of the story is also at fault. Almost all of the memorable flashback scenes are loaded into the first chapter, with the second spending most of its runtime in the present. Perhaps a reworking — saving more of the flashbacks for Part Two and ending Part One with Batman’s apparent “death” at Zucco’s hands — could’ve spread out the fan-favorite moments. That means Spectrum likely wouldn’t have animated Batman’s midnight attack on Stromwell’s mansion, though, which would be a shame.

Even if Part Two isn’t as classic, “Robin’s Reckoning” is legitimately viewed by many as the best interpretation of Robin’s origin story. So, what happened when the Gotham Adventures creative team explored similar grounds?

Gotham Adventures #48 (May 2002) was an unusual story for writer Scott Peterson. Typically, his stories would begin with a high concept (most famously, Batman adopting a baby during a night of crimefighting) and provide just enough details to flesh out the idea. Rarely any flashbacks, almost no direct continuity references to the cartoon.

“Actions” is a bit different. It features three pencilers — Rick Burchett, Tim Levins, and Terry Beatty — and a plot that bounces between the past and present. The story has the new Robin, Tim Drake, alone in the Batcave with Alfred. Tim is questioning Batman’s seemingly inhuman demeanor. He’ll do anything possible to save a life, yes, but does he actually care about people?

Two narratives diverge. One follows Batman on this night, trailing a carjacker. The other is Alfred’s story, relating Dick Grayson’s earliest days at Wayne Manor. The present day story shows Batman risking his life to stop the runaway driver.

Alfred, meanwhile, relates Dick Grayson’s childhood nightmares. (Also providing us some moments not seen in “Robin’s Reckoning.”)

Disappearing for days, Batman traveled through numerous towns on his secret mission. Eventually, he located the Haley Circus, now an even softer target for mob enforcers. Batman rescued Mr. Haley only to, inexplicably, be attacked by Haley’s circus performers. (This sequence is nonsensical, to be honest.)

Alfred reveals there was a very specific reason for Batman to tail Haley’s Circus. A small but “very, very valuable item” was hidden in a chest. This plot wraps up just as Batman pursues the stolen car right off the Gotham Pier. He risks drowning to rescue a bag inside its trunk.

The closing page reveals why Batman undertook these missions.

Does Batman care? Would someone who doesn’t care risk everything to bring back a sad child’s favorite stuffed animal? Or an elderly woman’s precious pet?

The Wrap-Up

The flashbacks in “Robin’s Reckoning” Part One are a personal favorite. There are so many shadowy Batman shots here, animated expertly by Spectrum. Later on, several clips from this episode will appear in the revamped Adventures of Batman & Robin opening, not to mention FOX Kids promos from this era.

Notice in “Actions” that Batman isn’t wearing the Year One style outfit seen in “Robin’s Reckoning”‘s flashbacks. Possibly because the New Adventures present-day suit already drew heavily on that design. However, the “Mad Love” adaptation from New Adventures also had Batman in his present-day suit during flashbacks. Was there a retroactive choice to treat this as Batman’s only costume over the years?

Continuity Notes

Whether Dick Grayson is nine or ten in these flashbacks is unclear, due to inconsistent descriptions in the closing credits. We do know that nine years have passed between the present and flashbacks, though. In that time, Gordon’s hair has gone from red to silver. Meanwhile, Alfred’s has stayed white.

The morally dubious Jack Haley from Ty Templeton’s run on the Adventures series doesn’t quite match his portrayal in the flashbacks. This Mr. Haley is incredulous than any “two-bit hoodlum” would dirty up his circus.

Approved By Broadcast Standards & Practices
Network censors weren’t pleased with undercover Batman playing dice while associating with criminals. They allowed the scene, but balked at the proposed recreation of the Graysons’ death. The original plan had Dick watching from above as his parents fell hundreds of feet. Bruce Timm now acknowledges that the more subtle method, implying their deaths through the crowd’s reaction and one dramatic image of a cut rope, works far better.

Over the Kiddies’ Heads
Maybe some of the younger viewers didn’t pick up that the abused woman Dick befriends is a prostitute?

Battle of the Bat-Dads
Both stories are coming from a good place, a place modern interpretations often forget. Batman loves Robin as a son, and no, he isn’t going to leave him alone in the Batcave on the night his parents died. And he certainly isn’t telling him to eat a rat for dinner.

In both stories, there’s some mystery loaded into the beginning, presenting Batman as heartless in some way. In “Robin’s Reckoning” we initially assume he’s cut Robin out of a case because he still views him as a child. “Actions” begins with the new Robin questioning why Batman didn’t check on the victim of a carjacking before chasing after her vehicle.

Both stories redeem the hero. “Actions” leans more into the modern view of Batman, having Robin voice the reader’s perspective. (The cold, indifferent Batman we’d later see berating Dick Grayson the night his parents died was only three years away.) The idea presented is that Batman can’t verbalize emotions, but his actions reveal his inner heart.

“Robin’s Reckoning” features a far more emotive Batman. Perhaps because the show had to maintain a young audience. Maybe because Kevin Conroy could pull it off. Or possibly “psycho-ninja Batman” didn’t quite exist yet. Regardless, he still feels like Batman. And it’s a shame DC lost sight of this vision of the character for so long.

“Actions” threads the needle between the human/inhuman interpretations of Batman well. If you’re doing callous, damaged Batman, it’s the best possible way to do it. But “Robin’s Reckoning” proves we never truly needed that Batman in the first place.

That’s all for now. If you have any cartoon/comics pairings you’d like to see, just leave a comment or contact me on Twitter.

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