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Oh my God, Batman killed Robin. “You bastard,” the ca. 1998 South Park kids declare. – Detective Comics #374

October 15, 2012

Much has been made over the years of the unstinting child endangerment inherent in the Batman/Robin relationship. It’s by no means a situation unique in comics (nor is it the most bizarre), but it’s the most famous. Thanks to seventy years of publication history and campy television series that drilled it into the broader popular consciousness, there are few people left on Earth unaware of the Caped Crusader and his brightly garbed ward — maybe a dozen or so uncontacted tribesman in South America. Everyone knows about the kid that follows Batman out late on school nights, the teenager that’s caught up in his obsessive war against crime.

There have been any number of stories addressing the peril of this arrangement, most notably “A Death in the Family,” where the Jason Todd Robin GOT HIS BRAINS BASHED IN AND BLOWN UP. That’s the ultimate bad consequence of such a duo: a teen driven by the impulses of youth into a situation where he’s in over his head and then quite literally (well, almost) loses his head.

Count this comic as a dire result somewhere short of that lethal end, in a story that’s more concerned with how Batman, seeing Robin battered and bloodied, reacts to such a personal failure. And you even get several dollops of goofy thrown into the pot to fill out the recipe, as well as some clean Gil Kane artwork to make it all come to life — FOR FUN.

The structure of the plot (Gardner Fox script, Sid Greene inks) is a tad different, as it opens with Robin’s beating, goes (briefly) back in time to see how he found himself in this predicament, and then tracks Batman as he hunts down the would-be murderer. First, the beating, which is every bit as bone-crunching as any you’ll see, with an ambushed Robin never even able to muster a defense:

Batman’s approach frighten’s off the assailant before he can finish the foul deed, but the damage is done. And how did Robin find himself in a garbage and cat urine riddled dark alley, a place designed for sneak attacks? As the flashback explains, Batman had Robin guard the back entrance to a crook hideout, while he went in the front and did his Batman thing, i.e. whacking guys’ pressure points so hard they make improbably odd faces:

But while he was having a good time crushing windpipes, Robin was being beaten within an inch of his life. Sad Batman (in full “I killed da wittle wabbit” anguish) rushes him to the hospital, while Angry Batman emerges into the appropriately stormy night:

He goes into full detective mode — living up to the series’ title — and tracks down the man who he believes did the dirty deed:

Batman is a man of many talents. Crime-solving. Martial arts. Sciences. But perhaps most striking is his ability to have awkward phrases like “I’m caught up in a compulsive vendetta!” flash through his brain whilst engaged in hand-to-hand combat.

Batman hauls the guy before none other than Commissioner Gordon, but it’s this unlikely source that gives Jim Condors, a prize-fighter, his alibi. Jim Gordon — Autograph Hound:

This might be the most disturbing thing we’ve ever learned about Gotham’s top cop. The man charged with keeping a major city safe and secure, a city that’s BESET BY COSTUMED NUTJOBS PULLING OFF EVERY SORT OF BIZARRE CAPER, MIND YOU, takes time to chase down sweaty jocks to get them to sign stuff. I guess we all have to blow off steam some way or another, but gee whiz. (And call me crazy, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Gordon met some grisly sort of Bob Crane end. Just a feeling.)

So Condors “can’t” have been the one to assault Robin, and he immediately starts making lawsuit threats (think Scorpio in Dirty Harry).

Oh yeah, Robin’s still in the hospital. A chastened Sad Batman goes to visit him, and we also learn why Robin’s secret identity is still safe even though he’s been unmasked:

Ah, for the blissful anonymity of another age…

Batman circles back around and checks his old case files, and learns that Jim has a twin brother, Ed, and that Robin had once hauled Ed in. Batman smells a rat, but I don’t think any of us could so easily unpack what has to be one of the most convoluted revenge plots EVER:

So the Condors boys gambled that Gordon was going to be at the fight. And that he’d have them sign a fight card. And that they’d be able to switch out the card with a pre-signed card. And that they’d know where Batman and Robin would be that night.

Oh, and Batman’s Ed disguise? IT’S PRETTY GOOD:

How did he mimic the voice? How did he get the Batman costume on so fast — was Jim’s car in a garage across town or something? Was he wearing the costume UNDER his disguise? That’s a Shazam-like transformation.

Anyway, Batman pummels Jim again, and this time no autograph-loving Gordon is going to save his bacon. All is right with the world.

And Robin? He’s on the mend and out of the hospital, free to resume his hyper-dangerous nocturnal lifestyle:

“We’ll wait a few days before putting your ass on the line again.”

This comic’s underlying premise, that Batman would so blame his own negligence for any harm coming to Robin he’d go on a rampage for justice (“a compulsive vendetta” as it were), is logical. It makes sense. But the one issue format (or half of one issue, since Elongated Man has his customary backup) means it can never rise above the usual Silver Age triteness. Robin is almost beaten to death, Batman’s overcome with guilt and grief, AND THEN THEY’RE BACK AT IT NEXT MONTH. It’s like an episode of The Simpsons with this reset. Would it be too much to ask for Batman to take a second a question whether this whole sidekick business is a good idea?

Still, Gil Kane knows how to illustrate a story. Some of his panels get a little cramped, but the look on the face of the thug getting a chop to the throat makes it all worthwhile. ALL. WORTHWHILE. I’m not at all sure that bringing a dose of the comedic sense found in, say, an Atom story is the most fitting for a “Robin killed” story. If you’re not going to delve into all the implications of such a story, though, then you might as well have some bug-eyed fun with it.

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