The art of the sidekick is dead or dying. Merriam-Webster defines the sidekick as “a person closely associated with another as a subordinate or partner“. Often mistaken for just being comic relief the sidekick is learning from the hero or is there to provide back-up for the hero. In the world of superheroes, sidekicks are…or were…receiving training from the hero but not yet good enough to go completely on their own. From Robin the Boy Wonder to Kid Flash to Bucky Barnes, the sidekicks can graduate to take over a mantle or become their own hero, but they start out aiding their mentors.
Nowadays that doesn’t happen. The Robin of today is already highly trained by assassins and an equal to Batman despite his young age. If he’s learning anything, Damien has to respect others, including and especially his teammates. But as Tim Drake noted, Robin also served another purpose. He keeps Batman from going too far over the edge, from falling into the proverbial abyss. Meanwhile, Batman chose the first Robin before the memory of his parents’ murder ruined Dick Grayson the way it did Bruce Wayne. We all know how Batman trained Dick Grayson to become the first Robin, but do you know the story of his final exam?
Batman Chronicles: The Gauntlet isn’t some huge, Earth-shatteringly epic story. It’s a one-shot story in a short graphic novel. It’s the story of Robin’s “final exam”, the last step in proving he’s ready to become Batman’s partner. It’s one of my favorite Robin stories. So why does it stand out for me?
Batman Chronicles: The Gauntlet
DC Comics (1997)
WRITERS/ARTIST: Bruce Canwell & Lee Weeks
COLORS/SEPARATIONS: Matt Hollingsworth
LETTERER: Albert DeGuzman
EDITOR: Darren J. Vincenzo
Batman’s current target is mobster Joe Minette, who sent his top thug, Delcaine, to beat up one of his “customers” who apparently threw in with a rival gang. We don’t know the details and it may not be necessary to the story but it might have been interesting. Batman breaks up the beating but the near-victim decides to skip town rather than testify so Delcaine is back on the street, costing Batman and Gordon a potential lead against Minette. Bruce is not happy. I do agree with Dick that he should at least be happy they saved the guy but Batman wants to bring the whole gang down and that’s his focus. Typical Bruce.
Then the discussion turns to Dick being ready for the “final exam”, which is to get a head-start in the afternoon and then at night hide from Batman until sunrise. Meanwhile, Minette and Delcaine figure out one of their people is actually a mole for then-Police Captain Jim Gordon and decides to bump him off, and guess what kid hero-in-testing comes upon the scene. He handles the thugs until the police sirens go off, but Delcaine still stabs the guy. While the mole isn’t dead he’s going to be in the hospital for the rest of the story. Before he passes out he tells Robin to get a deck of playing cards to Gordon, which turns out to have pictures of naked women. Figuring this is just some guy passing off Gordon’s secret kink to him (one of Minette’s crimes is pornography, the story taking place before the Supreme Court declared it free speech and thus legal…and then the internet came–read that as you will) he takes the cards and runs off.
There’s a real nice scene just before Robin finds the attempted murder, a conversation between Bruce and Alfred, where Alfred airs his concerns about Dick’s becoming Robin. I like it for a few reasons. It shows that Alfred is able to question Bruce’s decisions but respects him enough to know he wouldn’t make a decision like sending a boy to fight the Gotham underworld without knowing what he was doing or what Dick is actually capable of. In the next panel Bruce even says as much. Alfred may not want Dick to endanger himself like Bruce does, but Alfred doesn’t really want Bruce doing that either. And it does have Bruce saying that Robin is a “release valve” for all that anger at his parents’ murder, something Bruce didn’t have. This will keep Dick from being like Bruce, something Batman outright states in other stories as well. While he does refer to Robin as having the makings of a “good soldier” this isn’t about turning Dick into Batman, but exactly the opposite. Sending a kid into danger is something of a running gag among the more cynical members of the modern superhero fanbase, which is what killed the sidekick concept, but it’s actually addressed here.
At night Gordon contacts Batman to tell him about the events of the afternoon. Realizing that Robin is unknowingly making himself a target he starts trying to catch up with him, first going to Leslie Thompkins office, one of the few places Dick knows in Gotham City. Dick hasn’t been outside much, which kind of gives Batman the home advantage, but isn’t that part of the test? Can Robin overcome his opponent’s advantages? He’d better if he wants to survive more than a game of hide and seek. He leaves clues for Batman but Batman starts to notice a pattern to where Robin’s next clue leads and jumps forward. Then Batman makes a mistake. How often is that allowed to happen nowadays? In 1997 he was allowed to make a mistake now and then. It worked out for Darkwing Duck.
That mistake is paying a visit to Minette, who is already sending Delcaine and some other “boys” to hunt the boy in the costume. Batman kind of tips his hands in how he tries to warn Minette off of the boy, which tells him that Batman cares about the kid. Batman’s been leaning on him for months and he’s been looking to get back at him, and now he sees his answer. He doesn’t care if the kid is killed and sends even more men to get him. There’s this really cool panel of Batman’s shadow on the wall thanks to the light Minette just turned on. Considering how far Batman appears to be from the wall it looks a bit large (like the artist wanted to make sure it was past the window) but it looks too good to get upset about. Sometimes you have to balance that out for the perfect effect and accept a bit of creative license when it works. When it doesn’t it looks like crap.
Robin is tracked to the Globe Theater, where he is setting up another surprise for Batman. Instead he has to use it to distract one of Minette’s men, but he leaves the theater, knowing more are coming, Delcaine and another goon are waiting for him. Robin manages to ditch them only to be followed to the bridge, He jumps off but uses his line to end up in the scaffolding underneath the bridge…only to have a copter waiting to shoot him full of holes. With no choice, Robin jumps into the water and swims to the sewers. Delcaine and the others still in pursuit. Insert obligatory alligator/ninja turtle reference here.
Batman shows up to take some of the heat off, knocking a bad guy van down the riverbank. Frankly I really like this incarnation of the Batmobile. Outdated? Sure, but while it maintains the Bat-Branding it’s something you’d ignore at first glance and doesn’t have a huge jet engine in the back announcing your presence. Stealth is supposed to be one of Batman’s skills but most modern Batmobiles seems to lack that. This blends in so you might not give it a second glance unless you get a good look at it the first time. In your periphery or a quick glance it might not catch your attention if you’re otherwise occupied. It just looks like a car.
Unfortunately Batman isn’t quite in time as Delcaine manages to get the drop on Robin, but Batman interrogates one of the goons from the van and with a little deduction (yay, someone remembered Batman’s a detective and what that means!) figures out where Delcaine took Robin. They still want that evidence and nobody except Gordon, Batman, and the comatose cop know it’s on a microdot hidden in the deck of playing cards. Apparently they didn’t search him to find the deck because he still has it at the end. Not very thorough, guys. Also, Robin escapes his bonds rather quick. For Delcaine’s earlier talk about not underestimating him they didn’t think to leave a guard behind inside to watch him? Batman estimates that it took Dick ninety seconds to get out of his rather elaborate bonds (a technique Batman seems to recognize despite not actually seeing Robin tied up and somehow noticing rope on the floor of a locked room he can’t possibly see into without being spotted by the outside guard). Robin manages to create a noose that won’t kill the guard but will leave him hanging. I’m sure that does exist but that tells you what kind of life young Bruce Wayne had. They don’t teach that in Home Economics.
Robin also manages to take down Delcaine, and you get a look at how different Robin’s (or at least Dick as Robin) fighting style is from Batman’s. Maybe it’s tied to his acrobatics in the circus but Robin has more high-flying moves and uses his feet while Batman mostly uses his fists with one split kick (or whatever it’s called…I took a few weeks of karate before deciding I’m too quiet for that style and too noisy to be a ninja). He also uses a move that Batman didn’t teach him, which surprises him. I think it’s a judo move but he uses his feet to flip Delcaine head-first into a wall. Robin leaves with Batman deciding he wasn’t necessary after all but Joe Minette arrives. Robin runs to the nearby barge where they’re preparing the fireworks for the Fourth Of July celebration tomorrow night, with Minette in hot pursuit. It’s just not Robin’s day.
By now Minette has lost it, determined to hurt Batman through Robin and regaining face. He shoots wildly and sets off the fireworks. While his underling escapes Minette realizes Robin will probably do the same thing and decides killing him is more important. But Batman shows up, distracting the mobster without Robin knowing he’s there but smart enough to take advantage and defeating Minette. He and his organization is done. Batman retrieves the microdot from the cards (I’m assuming Robin didn’t get to keep the naked lady cards) and then it’s time for Robin’s report card.
What Robin did wrong: He might not have realized that the murder victim was Gordon’s mole in Minette’s gang but he should have somehow gotten the cards to Gordon. He assumed Gordon was just into the porn cards, because many of Gotham’s cops are corrupt in one way or another and it’s possible that this one (again, still illegal) Gordon was able to sneak past Batman. This whole situation wouldn’t have happened if Gordon got the cards, but we also wouldn’t have had a story and Robin’s mistake is understandable. Robin did get himself caught and Batman caught up to him before sunrise because he had to save him from Minette’s men. Plus the Wayne Foundation has to replace the fireworks by tomorrow night. Then there’s that obvious pattern Robin used in putting down those clues.
What Robin did right: He may have gotten caught but he not only escaped on his own but took down Minette’s number one guy, and with a move Batman never taught him. Whether Robin learned that on his own or just winged it (no pun intended) we don’t know but it still impressed Batman. He managed to take on and escape or defeat most of Minette’s men before Delcaine got lucky. And his actions did lead to the downfall of Joe Minette and his organization. As for getting caught by Batman, the fireworks are bright enough to be close enough.
Result: Batman introduces Captain Gordon to his new partner, Robin The Boy Wonder!
Today’s writers seem to be stuck writing huge epic tales. While some of that is due to editorial mandating to write for the trades (not understanding what made trades of certain stories desirable and slowly killing the single issue format comics have used since the first comic until the end of the century) everyone wants to write the next Watchmen, the big world-shaking epic that changes comics forever, without realizing what made that story so remarkable. They want to deconstruct the superhero not realizing or caring that it’s so deconstructed it needs a RE-construction, which Watchmen didn’t need as a self-contained story. The stakes have to be the biggest possible and change the status quo forever until the next status quo change.
Batman Chronicles: The Gauntlet doesn’t need to do this. On the surface it’s an average crime fighting story, but in a time where there aren’t anymore average crime fighting stories (just poorly written epics) it’s a relief to see. But dig in and there are some good nuances to this story. We see Robin using his head and fists to come up with solutions and kick butt. We see that Dick has earned the right to be the sidekick to Batman at a time when being a sidekick meant something. There is no need to deconstruct anything, but they do acknowledge how odd this situation is. No cynical talk about the dangers of sending a kid into this war on crime beyond the necessary, no spotlight on how supposedly hard it is to be in another person’s shadow (although that would be part of Dick’s character arc to becoming Nightwing), no huge conspiratory web of dark secrets that will ruin the hero, and no retroactive dark action tied to Robin’s origin that ruins Dick Grayson as a character or the Robin legacy. It’s just a good story of a young hero earning his proverbial wings to take the first big step in becoming the hero fans have come to love. This is as much a dying art these days as the sidekick. And it’s a story younger readers (the demographic that made the very superhero genre that seems to be pushing away the next generation of that demographic) can see and live vicariously through his actions, to see him (and thus them) being a cool hero and that he can overcome despite not being perfect at everything.
That’s why this is one of my favorite Robin stories. It may not be important to the universe but it is a good showing of a character that isn’t afraid to just be a good superhero story and let the examination of Robin come naturally through the story. And it’s just a lot of fun to read with a hero I can cheer on and want to see overcome great odds. This is a must-own book for Robin fans and for DC superhero fans in general to show that a good story doesn’t have to be epic to be good story, or dark, or deconstructive, or ultra-violent with some huge social/political message. It can be but first it just has to be good. And it shows Robin at his best. I can be satisfied with that but nowadays it makes the story stand out even more.