I’m sure everyone has heard the familiar aphorism, “The night is darkest before the dawn.” In any literal sense, it isn’t true, but it is certainly a helpful refrain in the context of Batman comics. Recall The Long Halloween – the story which corrupted Harvey Dent into Two-Face, it also marked the first definitive and irreparable failure in Batman’s crime fighting career, putting an end to the naïve notion that Batman could ever actually “win” his crusade. Its follow-up, Dark Victory, found Batman in that grim new status quo, and ended with him lifted, given new hope and purpose in the form of a new partner: Robin. Dick Grayson breathed new energy and life into the Batman narrative, but since the dissolution of that partnership, Batman has got darker still. In a quick sequence of violent classics, Batman has definitely earned the moniker of “Dark Knight.” If the night is actually darkest before the dawn, then a bright new dawn is just about the only place Batman’s story could go next.
Discussing the sunrise after The Long Halloween‘s darkest night, I wrote, “it isn’t enough to just beat the bad guys – a real hero does actual good, instead of just preventing bad.” This notion of Batman as not just a vigilante or benevolent boogeyman, but as a bonafide hero, is again placed at the center of Marv Wolfman, George Pérez, and Jim Aparo’s A Lonely Place of Dying. Heroism, too, is what has inspired the folks at Toronto’s Southpaw Beverage Company to brew Heroes blonde lager. This beer, the can proclaims, “recognizes ordinary people doing something extraordinary,” and even does some quiet heroics of its own by donating proceeds from the sale of the beer to support Wounded Warriors Canada, a charity which provides support to veterans.
Both Heroes Blonde Lager and A Lonely Place of Dying are definitely reflective more of the “ordinary” end of the “ordinary people doing something extraordinary” equation, and both make a solid case for that being absolutely nothing to gripe about. Heroes is a superb lager, light and crisp – its pale but slightly sweet malt character is what I noticed upon first sip, resolving with a subtle hoppiness which lends a slight apricot or apple aroma. While it’s undoubtedly a lager done well, it is nevertheless an ordinary example of the style. But as is demonstrated by A Lonely Place of Dying‘s young protagonist Tim Drake, sometimes ordinary is precisely what is required.
Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself – part of the genius of Marv Wolfman’s storytelling in this book is that he keeps Tim’s background and motivation unknown until halfway through the story, keeping him as a somewhat ambiguous spectator who knows more about Batman and Nightwing than he ought to. Alternating between issues of Batman (drawn by A Death In The Family artist Jim Aparo) and The New Titans (drawn by Wolfman’s usual collaborator George Pérez, with Tom Grummett and Bob McLeod providing finishes), the story starts with Batman pushing himself further, regardless of injury or illness, continuing his crusade with a drive heedless of his own wellbeing. Playing a wonderfully constructed (and wonderfully drawn) game of cat and mouse with Two-Face, Batman seems almost determined to get himself killed. Meanwhile, in the New Titans portion of the story, Dick Grayson returns (again) to Haley’s Circus, due to its impending closure. It’s a fun murder-at-the-circus plot, one which sees Grayson get an assist from that ambiguous spectator: Tim Drake. Before Wolfman and his collaborators tell us anything else about Tim, they demonstrate his intelligence and skill for detection. After helping Grayson save the circus, Tim plays his hand: he knows Dick Grayson is Nightwing and formerly Robin, he knows Bruce Wayne is Batman, and he knows both that Jason Todd was Robin and is now dead. His intent is to convince Grayson to return to Batman, and get the old dynamic duo back together. This, Tim is convinced, will keep Batman from continuing his decidedly dark trajectory.
Who, then, is this Tim Drake? He was a small child in the audience when Grayson’s parents were murdered, and recognized Grayson’s distinct brand of acrobatics in later news footage of the Boy Wonder. As it was public knowledge that Dick Grayson was Bruce Wayne’s ward, Tim sensibly deduced that if Dick Grayson was Robin, Bruce Wayne must be Batman. But really, what Tim Drake is, is an avatar for the reader – he is, in-story, unabashedly a fan of Batman and Robin, and recognizes that Batman was at his best and brightest when Dick Grayson’s Boy Wonder was fighting by his side. After the nonstop onslaught of The Cult, The Killing Joke, A Death In The Family, and Arkham Asylum, Tim, like myself and I’m sure many readers, is fatigued by all the grimness and despair and hopes to return Batman to a more heroic age.
While he does reunite the duo to take down Two-Face (more preoccupied with the number “two” here than ever), the story arrives at the important realization: one can’t actually go back to a bygone, better time. One can only move forward, making a better future. Tim’s assertion, that Batman needs a Robin, is a well-stated and clear thesis, but he is wrong that Dick Grayson must be that Robin. While Tim was never angling to become the new Robin, throughout A Lonely Place of Dying he definitely demonstrates all the necessary skills to be one, and the position feels well earned by the story’s conclusion. In this way, this book is truly the Dark Victory to A Death In The Family’s Long Halloween.
Moreover, it’s a brilliant inversion of A Death In The Family: whereas that book allowed readers to kill Robin, this book essentially puts a character who represents a reader’s viewpoint into the role of Robin. By doing this, it flips the previous Robin narratives upside down – while both Dick and Jason were helped or supported by Batman, Tim is firmly the hero of this story. Tim isn’t damaged – his parents aren’t murdered in front of him, nor is he a street tough set upon a dangerous path. Here, Batman is the damaged one, and it is Tim who helps and supports him.
This, really, beyond any feats of deduction or acrobatics he performs throughout the story, is what makes Tim a hero: he recognizes that someone needs support, and he shows up to provide it. It’s simple, sure, but immeasurable, just as Southpaw’s simple blonde lager can never match the extraordinary accomplishments of the individuals in whose tribute it was brewed. But even heroes need heroes, and sometimes just being present to support them is more useful than leaping buildings in a single bound.