There are perhaps few characters more polarizing in the DC Universe than Damian Wayne — son of Batman, heir of Ra’s Al Ghul, and the snarkiest Robin to ever suit up alongside the Dark Knight and his extended Bat Family.
And yet, over the years it’s become clear that a character who at once seemed like he may amount to nothing more than a gimmick has attracted the interest of some of the top storytellers across DC Comics’ different narrative platforms. For instance, Damian received a compelling arc in the DC Animated Movie Universe and was arguably the main hero of that series’ epic final film, Justice League Dark: Apocalypse War. And now he is getting his own high-profile solo book featuring the powerhouse creative team of Joshua Williamson and Gleb Melnikov with the simply titled Robin ongoing series.
Best known for his consistently excellent 100 issue run on The Flash, Williamson begins the story of this series after the fallout of Detective Comics #1033. Damian has severed his ties both from Batman and the Titans, and is now striking out on his own journey of self-discovery. Issue #1 opens with intrigue right away. Damian has gone off the grid, and even the uber resourceful likes of Batman, Nightwing, and Oracle can’t find a trace.
Halfway across the world, Damian (complete with a great-looking red, black and gray costume) takes on King Snake (best known as the father of Bane) in an underground cage match. Damian’s easy dispatching of his opponent in the ring draws the attention of a cabal of hooded figures belonging to the mysterious League of Lazarus.
Those who read the prequel story Demon or Detective spread across backup stories in Batman and Detective Comics will know that the League of Lazarus is a clandestine, rebellious offshoot of both the League of Shadows and the League of Assassins. In fact, this third branch of the Demon Head’s Empire is so underground that even Damian, heir to the throne, has never even heard of them.
His performance in the ring is enough to win him a token granting his admission to the Lazarus Tournament — a martial arts competition on a secret island that he hopes will hold the answers to the nature of this secret group, and his own past.
The idea of the Lazarus Tournament is an inspired one for a few reasons. For one, it’s an immensely enjoyable and reliable premise that will allow Damian to flex his combat prowess against some of the top fighters in superhero comics. Secondly, the built in ensemble structure creates a natural framework for Williamson and Melnikov to introduce new supporting character pairings, as well as brand new character creations of their own.
Spurred on by the creative leadership of James Tynion IV on the flagship title, the Batman books are in a bit of a golden age for creating new characters. The likes of new friends and foes such as Ghostmaker and the already immensely popular Punchline succeed both in making the mythos richer and providing a more friendly avenue for newer readers to become invested. A standout in this first issue is Flatline, Damian’s first opponent in the tournament who boasts a killer attitude and a uniquely intriguing powerset.
The art of Gleb Melnikov was a big selling point for this new high-profile series, and it’s safe to say that he has delivered an excellent and tight-looking issue here. Handling pencils, inks, and colors all himself, Melnikov has a unique control of the storytelling here that feels especially unified and works brilliantly in concert with the narrative that Williamson is constructing.
The opening pages provide a great example. Page one is washed with all the trappings of nostalgia. Batman and Robin stand on a ledge overlooking Gotham in the glow of the evening twilight, rendered in warm reds and oranges. Batman stands upright, the hint of a smile on his face, as he and Damian prepare to embark into the night. On the turn of the page, Melnikov delivers stark contrast: Batman swings alone, on a drab, rainy night. His body contorted, his face is obscured by dark shadow.
Apart from the abundance of stylistic touches like these, the penciling itself is clean and streamlined, with facial expressions that convey a lot of nuances. Scene compositions also shift between angles and perspectives with enough frequency to keep the momentum high, but never sacrifice narrative clarity.
It’s apparent from the premise that this book is going to feature a lot of action, and the story is in great hands in this respect. The action sequences are excellent, featuring effective, almost cinematic panel layouts that make all the fights extremely kinetic in a way that allows them to leap off the page. This is one element of the story I’m really looking forward to seeing more of from this team, especially as the story becomes more high stakes.
The question of who Damian Wayne is at his core — a successor to Batman, or the heir to Ra’s Al Ghul — is a fascinating one, and the crux of what makes this Robin such a compelling character. This new series from an outstanding creative team sets the stage for a story that will explore this theme through a unique lens, while also providing plenty of action, thrills, and new characters along the way.
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