War begins in tension and confusion. Robin War #1, the opening act of DC Entertainment’s latest Batman Office event, serves up tension in plenty, but not perhaps of the type writer Tom King intended. The Robin War event seems to have begun as a small crossover and blossomed, rather suddenly and unexpectedly, into an event consisting of six main books and three independent tie-ins. The evidence of the scramble snakes through the books like a set of geologic fault lines. The particular scars evident in Robin War #1 take the form of hastily assembled panels created by five different artists. The resulting incoherence of visual styles causes a jarring sense of imbalance across the book.
The other main source of tension and imbalance comes from the primary plot conceit of the volume, which is also the central theme of Robin War. The Gotham City authorities have decided to move against the Robins, claiming that teenage vigilantes are a menace to public order and safety, not least their own. The stance is not, on the face of it, an unreasonable one, especially after the opening scenes of the comic in which a Robin gets involved in a robbery that goes horribly wrong, leaving both the perpetrator and a policeman badly injured. However, it quickly transpires that the motive force behind the city’s new anti-Robin ordinance is the Court of Owls, once again bent on stretching their aristocratic control across the metropolis they regard as their rightful kingdom. The Owls are some of the most original and promising villains to appear in the Batman Universe in the past decade, and their unique and particular connection to Gotham’s history makes their actions logical. Unfortunately, their involvement negates any real possibility of a sophisticated philosophical conversation of the kind at which Tom King is adept, as the anti-vigilante position is now linked, literally, with cartoonish evil. Then again, as the troubled creative history of Jason Todd over the last decade has shown, there are some questions that are best not asked within the fourth wall.
Speaking of Jason Todd, he provides one of the highlights of the issue, along with Tim Drake and especially Damian Wayne. The three existing Robins (or to be technically correct the present Robin and the two former Robins) decide the time has come to approach the new Robin movement. King handles the voices of the different heroes with skill and confidence. Tim is curious, concerned, and analytical. Damian is angry and confrontational, a stance that leads not only to conflict with the Robins but to an encounter with the Jim Gordon Batman that ends with Gordon handily defeated. Jason is worried and, as is his habit, covers it with sarcasm, although all of the Robins prove adept at launching acid quips in each other’s direction.
The three Robins decide that with the situation becoming grave and Bruce Wayne still out of action, their only alternative is to summon Dick Grayson back to Gotham. However, Grayson has a long history with the Owls. He is the Gray Son of Gotham, meant once upon a time to be one of their undead Talon assassins. As the issue closes, the Court gathers and expresses satisfaction that he has returned, and that the Nightwing will soon arise once more.
The first issue of ROBIN WAR sets up the event effectively by answering some key questions such as Damian's reaction to the Robins, while leaving others, such as the true story of Alfred's role in the Robin movement, for another day. The Gray Son and the rise of the Nightwing feels like strategic maneuvering to serve the purposes of the Batman Office beyond the immediate event. But events by their nature tend to have strategic functions, and as long as they tell a good story it would be churlish to begrudge the Batman Office the use of a good opportunity. As the Owls are assured at their conclave, the Robin War shall proceed as scheduled. Let the battle commence.