Tuesday, March 5, 2024
ComicsComics Corner

Comics Corner – Holy Bat-twists, Robin is… nebulously queer?

One of the DC Universe’s biggest names has been revealed as part of the LGBTQ community, as Tim Drake – the third Robin – has been revealed to have some degree of same-sex attraction.

Yes, that is an awkward way to phrase it, rather than a bombastic “ROBIN IS BI!” or “ROBIN IS GAY!” [note: Gayming Magazine founder Robin is gay, but that’s a slightly different matter!] but the reveal – published in this week’s Batman: Urban Legends #6 – requires a nuanced examination.

Urban Legends is an anthology title, with the Tim Drake story having appeared as a chapter since June 2021’s issue four. Written by Meghan Fitzmartin, with art by Belén Ortega and colourist Alejandro Sánchez, the three-part story ‘Sum of Our Parts’ has focused on Tim reclaiming the Robin identity and investigating a cult called the Children of Dionysus. Fronted by a new Gotham villain called the Chaos Monster, the cult is kidnapping teenagers across the city.

However, the superhero-versus-supervillain aspect is ultimately window dressing. The real conflict throughout the story has been internal, as Tim has found himself at a personal crossroads. Unsure of his next step in life – whether to go to University, continue crime-fighting full time, or something else entirely, he feels lost and directionless. He’s depicted as having driven away those closest to him, including girlfriend Spoiler (AKA Stephanie Brown) and best friend Superboy, and is insisting on operating solo.

This is what we call a “meet cute” – d’aww! (Image © DC Comics)

Tim’s crisis of identity is heightened by the re-appearance of an old friend, Bernard Dowd. Their reunion is sweet, with Tim finding himself lost for words – until the evening is ruined when Bernard is taken by Chaos Monster. While investigating as Robin, Tim is forced to further confront why he finds himself in flux, what he wants in life, and who he is if he’s not Robin.

It’s only in rescuing Bernard from the cult that Robin has what he calls “a lightbulb moment”. Surrounded by cultists, Bernard asks Robin that, if he doesn’t make it out, to tell Tim Drake that he wishes they could have finished their “date”. After taking down the cult, Robin speaks to his police confidant Detective Williams and alludes to his current confusion. Williams – a new character, effectively a Commissioner Gordon type to Robin’s Batman – seemingly reads between the lines and offers “I know what you’re going through. I’ve been through it too. You’re holding too tight to a version of yourself you think you have to fit.”

This proves another lightbulb moment for Tim, snapping into place what he does want – the mantle of Robin being one thing, but also a more honest face to face with Bernard. Revisiting him in his civilian identity, Tim explains some of what’s been on his mind, and how he’s still working things through. Bernard then asks Tim out on a date, which a blushing Tim accepts.

Fights and feelings are the heart of any superhero comic! (Image © DC Comics)

While normally we’d be rather excited by this sort of move with a major character from one of the two biggest American comics publishers, it feels premature to champion it just yet. For one thing, the storyline still isn’t over, as the third chapter ends with a caption saying “To be continued in Batman: Urban Legends #10“. At time of writing, the issue hasn’t been solicited yet, but is likely to be released in December 2021.

As it stands, Tim is simply questioning his identity, and hasn’t even decided for himself how he identifies. Of course, a storyline about questioning one’s sexuality would itself actually be quite progressive – it can be a difficult and deeply personal process in real life, and not everyone has a thunderous coming out moment but rather a series of slow, small realisations. Exploring that would show a remarkable level of nuance and tact around LGBTQ+ issues, if that were to be how the story played out.

There’s also some caution over the fact that while Batman family are some of DC’s most popular popular characters, they’ve never been great for LGBTQ+ representation. It took quite literally decades for the publisher to allow the relationship between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy to be more than subtext, and despite the popularity of the openly lesbian Batwoman, Kate Kane, plans to have the character marry her then-girlfriend Maggie Sawyer in 2013 were pulled, forcing creators J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman to leave the book.

Elsewhere, male Bat-characters have been almost exclusively straight, with only fringe characters such as Cullen Row (brother of sometime Bat-ally Bluebird) being gay and Ghost-Maker, a new vigilante in Gotham, shown as bisexual. If Tim is revealed to be gay or bi (or anywhere else on the LGBTQ+ spectrum), he would instantly become DC’s biggest-name queer hero.

However, that alone gives us more cause to pause our celebration. Batman currently has five characters around him who have served as Robin – in order of taking the moniker, Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, and Damian Wayne. Despite attempts to have Tim follow in the footsteps of other Robins in evolving into a new superhero identity – such as Dick becoming Nightwing and Jason becoming Red Hood – writers have struggled to find a niche for Tim ever since the introduction of Damian, who is Bruce Wayne’s biological son. For a long spell, Tim took on the identity of Red Robin, and later – and thankfully briefly – simply Drake, but nothing has quite stuck. A cynical view of the current story’s direction could be that it’s an attempt to distinguish Tim as “the gay Robin”, so we hope that there’s more consideration going into the shift than that.

Bernard’s first appearance in 2004’s Robin #121 (Image © DC Comics)

And it has to be noted that this is a massive shift for the character. Since his first appearance in 1989, Tim has been portrayed as exclusively heterosexual. Whether it’s Tim’s long-term relationship with Stephanie Brown, his shorter romances dating Ariana Dzerchenko, or his brief interest in Darla Aquista and others, all of Tim’s relationships have been with women. Although many fans have ‘shipped’ his friendship with Conner Kent, Superboy, any same-sex pairings have been clutching at straws.

The new direction could be handled in an interesting manner – despite Tim’s 31 years of published history, the character is still only around 18-19 years old, still an age of discovery and self-reflection for many, and that sense of directionlessness and lack of identity is certainly central to Fitzmartin’s script – but it remains to be seen how the eventual continuation of the story lands the ending.

It’s somewhat easier to square Bernard’s sexuality though. Although in his first appearance he tells Tim, in a friendly manner, to “never try to date any girl I like”, this could be written off as high school bravado. Bernard has also only had a handful of appearances ever, and a hefty 16 year real-time gap between his last appearance and his return in Batman: Urban Legends, so there’s simply less material to contradict for the character.

All told, it’s perhaps best not to get too excited about this week’s developments. However, if the payoff for the four-month wait until the next chapter in this particular Bat-saga unfolds is a sensitive exploration of Tim Drake’s evolving sexuality that reads as an authentic – rather than sensationalised – development for the character, then it could make for an excellent holiday present for LGBTQ+ Batfans.

Matt Kamen

[He/Him] Matt Kamen is a veteran media writer based in the UK, specialising in video games, film, and comics. If found, return to nearest coffee shop.