By: Peter J. Tomasi (story), Doug Mahnke (art), Pat Gleason (pencils), Christian Alamy, Keith Champagne, Tom Nguyen, Mark Irwin, Mick Gray (inks), Tony Aviña (colors)

The Story: If you think your dad is bad, try being grounded by Batman.

The Review: Of all the puzzling aspects of the new DCU, the one that’s probably hardest to deal with is the pick-and-choose quality of continuity.  While most series opted to start from scratch, a few franchises went for a mixed approach of wiping away certain parts of their continuity, reimagining others, and keeping certain parts in place.  For old and new readers alike, this can be a confusing web to trace.  This has been the state of Batman for several years.

Scott Snyder has been laboring through Zero Year to resolve this problem, but there are still things that escape Zero Year’s scope, not the least of which is the history of Batman’s various Robins.  The DC reboot sponsored Damian Wayne as its current Robin, yet also maintained Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Tim Drake as previous Boy Wonders without troubling to explain how they all fit into Batman’s five-year tenure or, for that matter, what each of them brought to the table as Robins.

This annual rectifies that situation in an important way by delving into the first steps of the very first Robin.  The classic tensions are all here—Dick’s fearlessness and showmanship irritating Bruce’s need for control—but a far more important contrast between the two reveals itself in Dick’s sincere appeal to Bruce after he breaks his mentor’s strict no-interference rule on his first night out.  The fact that Dick seeks understanding with and of others while Bruce satisfies himself with his own judgment is a testament to Dick’s greater emotional maturity, an advantage he seems to have had even as a teenager.  Bruce’s reaction to Dick’s apology is stubborn, even a little conceited (“The last thing I need is a teenaged daredevil who thinks he knows better than me.”), failing to address Dick’s heartfelt and rational explanations to the point where Alfred is driven to remark dryly, “Master Bruce?  Unreasonable?  Shocking.”

But the fact that Bruce does come around shows how crucial Robin, and more specifically Dick, was to the evolution of Batman.  If Zero Year is anything to go by, the early Bruce was a raw, black-and-white, driven perfectionist.  Accepting Robin as his partner meant compromises in his standards and practice, but more than that, it meant appreciating the virtues and skills of others, even if they didn’t match his own.  And of course, as Joker in Death of the Family reminded us, Robin’s presence forced Batman to expose his own heart even in battle, like his anguished cry when a goon is about to take a headshot point-black at Robin.  While this does leave Batman vulnerable, it’s also what makes him human.  Why does Batman need Robin?  To separate him from the people he’s fighting.

These are the crucial takeaways for the issue, but otherwise, the whole annual is very well-constructed and character driven, as is Tomasi’s wont.  Tusk and his NPC henchmen are nothing special as antagonists, but they’re challenging enough to make good first opponents for the Dynamic Duo.  But by far the annual’s best quality is how it makes Dick, Bruce, and Alfred come to life without resorting to cheap melodramatics or unbelievable turns in the plot.  Superheroes are inevitably difficult to relate to, but Tomasi always makes them seem like real people with actual personalities, not just a checklist of character traits.

Gleason’s part in this issue is minimal, unless I miss my guess, but Mahnke is a more than acceptable replacement with his similarly statuesque style.  Mahnke doesn’t try to make every panel a big, striking moment the way Gleason does on nearly every issue of the ongoing series, but neither does Mahnke settle for bland, generic layouts.  Action sequences have amazing energy and flow, probably because unlike most superhero artists, Mahnke pays a great deal of attention to blocking and choreography.  And when the action dies down, Mahnke proves equally adept at capturing event the quietest moments of the scene; let’s put it this way: how many mainstream artists can capably depict resentment and chagrin at the same time on the same face?

Conclusion: The chain of events is entirely traditional to what you already know of Bruce and Dick, but the execution reveals new layers to their relationship and mutual past that is much needed in this new continuity.

Grade: B+

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * Especially Tim, who doesn’t have the benefit of starring in his own title.  Even Jason gets his name on an ongoing series.

– I’m thinking that of all the Bat-family, Alfred’s voice is the one that comes easiest to Tomasi, because pretty much every line that comes out of his mouth is perfect: “I, for one, can hardly contain my feigned excitement.”