Fabian Nicieza on Picking Up 'Robin' Post-Dixon

Robin #176 cover

It’s never really been an easy time for Tim Drake to be Robin, but in issues #175 and this week’s #176 (click for a five-page preview), it’s tougher than most.

The two issues take place after Batman #678, mid-stream through the “Batman R.I.P.” arc that’s going on – in short, Batman is gone missing, and so has Nightwing. Robin is left on his own in Gotham City without a clue. Check that – he has one clue – Batman’s black journals from his early years as Batman which revealed his participation in an experiment regarding sensory deprivation that may have fractured his mind beyond repair.

With Stephanie Brown (the returned Spoiler) as a somewhat sympathetic ear, Robin runs through a scenario or two (and buys help from the Penguin to find Batman) of what might be going on with Batman. Worst case, as Robin states – Batman’s gone nuts, and therefore, he’ll have to take him down.

Wait – what?

Yeah – we spoke with series writer Fabian Nicieza about the two part R.I.P. tie-in and what’s coming up for the series and character.

Newsarama: Before we get started on the stories you’re telling Fabian, obviously there was some controversy surrounding the creative change on Robin with Chuck Dixon leaving rather suddenly. How did you get on for the gig?

Fabian Nicieza: Bat-Editor Mike Marts called and asked if I could help out with the R.I.P. issues. I talked with Chuck to get a feel for what was going on. I respect him tremendously, especially his work on this character, so I wanted to make sure we were squared away on the situation. These things are never nice and neat and smooth, but guys like Chuck and I have been around long enough to know what’s what. As difficult as this all was for Chuck and for DC, I think he was glad at least that someone would be working on the book who comes from the same general “creative real estate” that he comes from.

Honestly, I sincerely doubt DC could have found very many other writers who respect the character of Tim Drake, the history of Robin or Chuck’s body of work on this title as much as I do.

NRAMA: With the arc that covers the R.I.P. tie-in issues, how much were you given to work with? I think there’s a perception that, with crossover stories, a writer is almost just asked to sign their name to the script, that is, their issues are dictated by the event. How did your arc work out?

FN: Is that the perception? Wow, that would be an easier way to make a paycheck, actually. Considering how much work I had to put into the two R.I.P. issues of Robin under a tough schedule, perception would have made a much more comfortable reality!

All crossovers are very individual beasts. Some are editorially driven, meaning the editors have a story in mind and give you a rough outline to follow, always with the ability to contribute your own thoughts, I’ve found. Some are driven by a single writer whose work on their own title is able to – or needs to – “bleed” out to other titles in a family. Other crossovers are done by all of a family’s writers working together to hammer out the story.

So, perception notwithstanding, the truth is there is never one blanket statement to cover these magillas.

In this case, Grant [Morrison] clearly has a strong story and direction in mind, and he is rightfully focused on telling it in his title, Batman. But, the reality is that his story clearly affects the other characters in the Bat-family of titles, which means that each of us have to figure how Robin or Nightwing or the Outsiders, etc. would react to the events of R.I.P.

In my case, I was given the scripts Grant had completed and there was a finite window of opportunity to “fit” Robin’s solo actions into within the body of the R.I.P. story. From there, it became a matter of figuring out what Tim was thinking, what he would be trying to accomplish, what obstacles were in his way and – something that greatly interested me which I felt hadn’t been explored – how the year away from Gotham during 52 had affected all of these characters and seemed quite integral to more fully explore the story Grant was telling.

NRAMA: Your first issue is set after Bruce has gone missing in issue #678. Take us inside Tim’s head – what’s he going through? His dad’s gone missing here, right?

FN: We’re taking Tim on a bit of a contradictory journey in these two issues. I’m hoping to depict Tim’s confusion and frustration with Bruce regarding Batman’s mounting psychosis, as well as his growing concern for his adopted father’s safety.

At the same time though, we are using this opportunity to naturally evolve Tim to the point most teenagers his age reach: starting to consider the possibilities and potential of what their lives will be like without their parents. This storyline presents a rush of the unknown for Tim – fear and concern mingled with curiosity and even excitement.

To say it’s been a rough couple of years for Tim is obviously an understatement. Before he’s even had a chance to settle into a new status quo post-Crisis and One Year Later – adopted by Bruce, more respected as Robin by his mentor, a less grim and obsessive Batman – all of it has crumbled around him.

The two issues are titled, “Scattered Pieces” and “Gathered Pieces” because that accurately reflects the situation Tim is in right now – hectic and harried over what’s going on, but also starting to put things together for himself.

As a result, these R.I.P. issues, in kind of a sneaky way, form the foundation for the next year’s worth of Robin stories as well as the character’s destiny.

NRAMA: Let’s explore that evolution you mentioned. For a good-sized portion of your career, you’ve been associated with teen heroes. What’s the appeal of them for you? In this case – Robin…for all intents and purposes, his father is missing, and he can’t find him, despite his resources…do a teen’s reactions differ than those of an adult in this instance?

FN: I always say that between my actual age and my mental age, I come out somewhere in my early 20’s, so I’m not that far removed from the experience of my teenage years. [laughs]

I don’t know, really, why I handle teen characters well. I think teenagers are wonderfully fertile clay to sculpt. They think they know so much, but know so little, they want so much to be adult in their thinking and actions, but lack the experience or the reasoning to do that. So many experiences are new and raw to them, but so flush with excitement and discovery. It all makes for fun emotional conflict, often heightened by their hormonal extremes.

I have a teenage daughter, so I get to watch it all through her eyes, making it a bit fresher for me when I write a character like Tim. I respect the honesty of their emotions, but in my wizened years, I can put them into perspective.

Even though Tim is unlike the average teenager, there are plenty of teens living in broken homes, in awful neighborhoods, in war zones, etc. – all of whom have to make decisions on a daily basis that adults couldn’t even make. I try to make Tim as normal as possible knowing he is very abnormal and lives in a very abnormal world.

NRAMA: Speaking of abnormal - he’s aligning with the Penguin. Again – bad judgment? Inexperience? Desperation?

FN: A little bit of all three, actually, and a very smart, calculated move as well. In the coming issues, not just in R.I.P., you’ll see Tim forced to make some very hard choices. Not all of them will work out, but some will surprise you by how bold and innovative he is going to try to be.

I inherit the character at a fantastic point in his evolution. He is on the verge of growing up, but not quite there yet. He has Batman and Nightwing – even Jason Todd – as predecessors and role models, but Tim really isn’t like any of them, and therefore, will start to make very unique and individual choices that are true to who he has been – and who he will become.

NRAMA: Pulling back a little…in a shared universe such as the DCU, with this type of story, the questions always comes up – why not call for help? Nightwing (as of Batman #678) and Batman are missing, and, if Robin would check the cave, things are crappy there as well. Superman could clean house in two tics. Why not pull that emergency lever – both character wise (why doesn’t Robin do it?) and creator wise (why don’t you write Superman and say, Wonder Woman into the story)?

FN: That’s too good a question and there are no easy answers. The truth is, because then it would be a Justice League story, or a World’s Finest story, etc. So you have to suspend logic just a little for the sake of a monthly character title in a shared universe.

I actually address the issue a bit in my two R.I.P. issues, having Tim bring the point up in context to Batman’s growing isolation and mania.

I also have the luxury and excuse that my two issues take place in just a couple hours time, so, you know, Superman was busy fighting the Galactic Golem or something, right?

NRAMA: Yeah – in a shared universe, that “out” has to work as well. Okay, by the end of #175, Tim has somewhat convinced himself, thanks to Bruce’s journals, that Batman may have gone nuts, and if that’s the case, he’s going to take him down…again, take us inside his head. That seems like a rather hasty conclusion to jump to in light of no evidence that he has, or that he may be lying in an alley, bleeding to death somewhere…

FN: Well, if the secrets behind the comics must be told, Joe Bennett did a great job under incredibly tight deadline pressure on both these issues, but in #175, he gave me a little more of a superhero dramatic pose than I’d expect for that last splash page, so I had to change my script, which resulted in a little more testosterone on the page – and my dialogue -- than I’d intended.

That being said though, I don’t think Tim is jumping to conclusions based on everything that’s been going on the last few months in the Batman title. He is stating possibilities. Of course he’s concerned about Bruce’s safety, but he’s also concerned about what a mad-dog Batman could do to the people of Gotham.

And Tim’s a smart guy. He knows he was drawn puffy-chested on a cliffhanger splash page, so he has to say something appropriately Eastwoodian to carry us over to the next issue. He is very helpful to writers that way. [laughs]

NRAMA: Fair enough. So what can you tell us about #176? The cover there…does Tim find Batman? Does the Penguin find him?

FN: Oooh, it comes out this week, what should I say, what should I say?

I will say that Robin and Spoiler continue their hunt for Batman, but they may not be on the same page in their pursuit. We get a few more flashbacks to the 52 year away to help better inform Tim’s frame of mind now, based on what he went through then. We show the Swagman, who has been pursuing Robin from Batman. We have a particularly embarrassing confrontation with the Penguin. And we have a surprise revelation that could put a severe crimp in Tim’s love life.

NRAMA: And onward from there – you’re on for the book indefinitely, correct? How did that all work out?

FN: The departed and severely missed Jeanine Schaefer and Mike asked me to stay on while I was working on my R.I.P. issues. Combining my love of the character and what’s happening with all the Bat-books right now, it was an easy answer. I’m coming aboard an incredibly exciting time and I’m going to put the character, and the readers, on a pretty fun roller-coaster ride in the coming months.

NRAMA: What’s coming up in #177 onward? Will the effects of “Batman R.I.P.” be felt in Robin?

FN: “Felt” -- ? The ramifications of R.I.P. will not only be felt in this title, they’ll steamroll Robin like an eighteen-wheeler over a cantaloupe!

Robin #177 begins a multi-part storyline called “Search for a Hero.”

NRAMA: Sounds ominous….is this an external, that is, a continuing search for Batman, or internal, Tim trying to find the hero within himself after he’s done things like teaming with the Penguin?

FN: Hmm… could there be subtext to the title? Could be… Robin is searching for a hero because Gotham City needs one. Maybe that hero is him. Maybe not. And just for the record, Robin didn’t “team up” with the Penguin, he bought his services. Big difference.

NRAMA: True. Broad strokes – we’re still a couple of months out, but what can you tell us about the arc?

FN: Broad strokes? Why say in five words what I can say in a thousand? The entire story takes place firmly in Gotham City. A lot is going on post-R.I.P. The Gotham Underground is looking to fill a void and everyone else thinks that means they move one step up the pecking order. So the Gotham Youth Gangs, who normally only control small patches of territory and answer to larger Underground players, now want to make a bigger name for themselves. The corrupt cops also see an opportunity to increase their control – and their share of the pie – as well.

Robin has to dive headlong into this boiling stew while he’s worrying about Spoiler continuing her own agenda, Jason Todd rallying the gangs and… a very unexpected surprise hits Gotham.

NRAMA: Guest-stars and villains?

FN: Well, across the course of the storyline, we’ll see Jason Todd, Jason Bard, Ragman, a new Lynx, Robin-villains Scarab and Jaeger, as well as the return of one of my favorites, the General.

The Batmobile goes out for a spin. And two people running a similar chaos-theory program shows big trouble for Gotham unless Robin makes some tough choices.

Oh yeah, about that surprise? How about some mysterious guy stalking the shadows named – Red Robin?!

NRAMA: Art-wise…Freddie Williams III is back, correct?

FN: Art-wise, Freddie Williams III is back with a vengeance! I shouted that out! Wait until you see his art! Holy Toledo! It’s so good – so full of detail and a sense of mood and place – so crunchy Gothamy – that my wife actually noticed the pages and commented on them, and that almost never happens!

I have been around a long time and I have worked –as an advertising manager, an editor and writer – with some of the greatest talents of the last 40 years, and I know enough to know when an artist has taken the next step in his creative evolution, and Freddie has done that now.

Seriously, I think people will be impressed by how alive the pages feel. Gotham City has height and depth and scope. He has always drawn good action sequences and figures in motion, but not he continues to improve his character emoting and individuality as well.

Me am happy.

Freddie maybe, not so much, since I’m asking him to draw a lot of stuff every issue!

NRAMA: Again, big picture – how long do you see yourself staying on Robin?

FN: The answer usually lies somewhere between ten minutes and ten years -- and after twenty plus years in the biz, neither would surprise me. I’d prefer the ten years, but, I’ve come to learn to just enjoy the moment – and I hope the readers do, too!

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