Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Definitive takes on my favorite comic book characters (Robin, Spider-Man, Superman)

Welcome back to my series on the definitive takes of my all-time favorite comic book characters from DC and Marvel. (Sorry, no villains in this one!)

Since it has been quite a few months since I posted my last installment, here's a recap. This alphabetical listing covers all the mediums I wrote about at Cary’s Comics Craze: Comic books/trade paperbacks, animation, superhero films and TV.

I’ve included incarnations by various writers, artists or actors and actresses, so there definitely are multiple entries for the same character. Be on the look-out in each installment for links to related CCC reviews, interviews or opinion pieces.

Before CCC rolls on, here’s who we’ve covered so far — but don’t forget to come back and read the rest:
Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl
Batman and Barbara "Babs" Gordon/Batgirl holds the distinction on this list of being covered in all the mediums CCC covers: Comic books, TV, animation aaaand film. But no movie for Batgirl.

While actress Alicia Silverstone is nothing less than adorable and she brings an inherent perkiness and enthusiasm to an appealing Barbara Wilson in the 1997 film "Batman & Robin," her version of Batgirl doesn't make the cut. However, a protege of Babs — the very intriguing third Batgirl — does.
  • We haven’t even gotten out of the B’s by the time Part 3 rolls around in the all-Batman edition. 
  • The fourth installment has quite a bit of variety. With a heavy emphasis on Marvel heroes, it features the likes of a quiet, humble scientist you wouldn’t want to get angry, two playboy billionaires, the Star-Spangled Avenger and the Man without Fear. 
  • Part 5 covers Gotham City’s greatest cop, DC’s premiere superhero ensemble and the woman who named Superman.
And speaking of definitive, there are two more posts which tackle iconic onscreen takes of some of these same characters.

One post is about legendary superhero casting decisions. Then after watching many episodes of the "Batman" TV series, I realized how much impact it had when the Caped Crusader made the jump to the big screen in the four films directed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. 

Without further ado, here’s the next part of the Cary's Comics Craze series on the definitive takes of my all-time favorite comic book characters!


Robin by George Perez
Robin (aka Dick Grayson): I could go on and on about the Caped Crusader’s colorful partner, but let’s just say there’s nothing like the original. There’s a reason Batman has had four more Robins after Grayson moved onto the Teen Titans and later became Nightwing; each subsequent Robin has been compared to, but hasn’t quite lived up to the legacy of the original Boy Wonder.

Even after creating his Nightwing guise, Grayson has shown an unbelievable ability to be flexible and show personal growth.

Who else in the DC Universe can deal with the challenging ramifications of living under the shadow of the legendary Batman and take that emotional baggage, turn that on its ear and come out a better person? That's what Grayson has done time and time again — whether it's as Robin the Teen Wonder (when he often bristled while working with Batman), the leader of the Teen Titans, Nightwing, even taking up the Mantle of the Bat (not once, but twice!) and returning to his Nightwing guise. His healthy response to all these challenges arguably makes him an even more interesting and complex character than his adopted father, Bruce Wayne.

And every time a superhero has ever had a sidekick, it's a tribute to the lasting impact of the original Robin.

Robin is the "dynamic" part of the original Dynamic Duo. Whether it's the Boy Wonder's colorful costume, Grayson's love for a good (and let's face it, bad) puns or his optimism and realistic perspective, Robin is the perfect foil and complement for the often gloomy and grim guardian of Gotham City. Grayson/Robin isn't just a great overall contrast to Wayne/Batman; he humanizes the often too dark Dark Knight and like any great partner, he's there to save Batman's bacon or call him out when his mission and perspective goes astray.

Robin III aka Tim Drake: After the Joker murdered Jason Todd, Drake was smart enough to deduce not just Batman’s secret identity, but also the first two Robins’ IDs.

Writer Chuck Dixon and the first various creative teams in the ROBIN ongoing series made Drake independent and intriguing. He merited not only a smaller version of his own Rogues Gallery of Villains, but also three limited series and his own series — the first for any Boy Wonder — and all while giving Drake a decidedly teen characterization.

More than simply being a Dick Grayson rip-off (as Todd was — except with a much crappier attitude toward teamwork and life in general), the third Robin is more independent, has a distinctive costume more appropriate to the contemporary world and fights with a bo staff. Also, Drake doesn't start off as an orphan and doesn't live at Wayne Manor.

To give the young teen a greater depth, Drake has an ability to see the big picture and generally doesn't see being Robin as a step toward becoming Batman — but rather as a necessary part of the Dark Knight's way to properly fight crime and injustice. Even as it was revealed Wayne had a biological son Damian and he became the fifth and most recent Robin, Drake — Wayne's adopted son — stepped out on his own and has continued the Robin legacy as Red Robin, but he's remained available for Batman and Nightwing.

When Drake first started out as Robin, he sought out Grayson's counsel on what pitfalls to avoid and how he could be the best possible partner for Batman.

In Drake's early years, especially before Bruce Wayne allowed him to wear the Robin costume, writers made great use of the Jason Todd's murder on Batman and of the pressure Wayne/Batman put on himself at having another young man in his life and another crime fighting partner to look after. This, combined with Drake's desire to be on the street at Batman's side, added great drama to the ying and yang inherent in the Batman and Robin relationship.

The third Robin complements both Batman and Nightwing, keeps each hero grounded and truly keeps the healthy “dynamic” in the Dynamic Duo.

Spider-Man by writer Gerry Conway: Fun and dramatic, Conway’s interpretation of Spidey stands the test of time. Conway "gets" Peter Parker, giving us a young man who struggles with the hard knocks of life — which is what makes Parker and his superhero alter-ego tick.
Artists John Byrne and Bob Layton deliver one of
my favorite MARVEL TEAM-UP covers.

It’s nothing less than, um, amazing … or even spectacular.

Spider-Man by artists Steve Ditko and John Romita Sr.: Iconic. ‘Nuff said, to quote Webhead’s co-creator, Stan Lee.

Spider-Man in MARVEL TEAM-UP: Personally, I consider the greatest and most difficult feat in comics is telling a well-rounded story in one issue — and TEAM-UP has that in spades. The series featured virtually every member of the Marvel Comics Universe at one point and all of those characters managed to have some sort of chemistry with Spider-Man.

Superman by actor Christopher Reeve and director Richard Donner: When numerous comics writers and film directors for years continually say “Superman: The Movie” and even “Superman II” are the ultimate takes on the Man of Steel, it’s blatantly obvious Reeve and Donner created nothing short of a masterpiece.

The first film set the standard by which subsequent superhero stories are told on the big screen. The most important element is taking the character seriously. Donner's one-word encapsulation of doing Superman properly is verisimilitude. (Look it up; it will be good for you!)

You see that in Reeve's portrayal; as he says in the making-of feature, he decided not to overdo his acting and let the iconic Superman costume take the lead. Given how personable and "real" Reeve was as a person, his Superman is the good-natured soul we know and come to expect from any feasible incarnation of the Man of Steel.

And it goes without saying that at 6-feet 4 inches tall with Greek god-like good lucks and a lean, chiseled body, the late Reeve literally embodied what fans imagine Superman to be. And continued to do so even after he was thrown from a horse May 27, 1995 and became a quadriplegic, living his remaining nine years with grace.

“Superman: The Movie” makes the audience care about what has happened to Kal-El/Clark Kent long before we see a quick shot of Reeve as the iconic superhero flying straight at the screen from the Fortress of Solitude. To put it simply, Donner, Reeve and Co. make us care about what happens to Superman because we first learn about the man wearing the tights.

Donner takes it up a notch in the sequel, delivering much more action and complicating the relationship between Kent and Lois Lane. That storytelling approach is something audiences have seen time and time again in nearly each and every superhero film and franchise since then — whether they realized it or not.

Honestly, it's hard to think of Superman without Reeve and Donner's version leaping to mind a scant few seconds later. Reeve's Superman is done so right — stoic, caring, compassionate and earnest — truly a super man — that any subsequent incarnation in any genre gets compared to his. Now that's definitive!

Superman by writer/artist John Byrne: His Lois Lane is a fashion fiasco, but Byrne’s updated Superman hits the proper spirit of the iconic character that epitomizes seeking “truth, justice and the American way.”

This reboot (even before the word became commonplace in the comic book industry — much less a cliché) lays the foundation in re-establishing vitally important parts of Superman's world: Lex Luthor being a sleazy businessman, the tension between Superman's origins as a Kryptonian raised on Earth and the Man of Steel’s grudging respect for Batman. All these elements have remained in place since the SUPERMAN: MAN OF STEEL limited series.

Like Donner and Reeve in the movies, Byrne sets a high standard for the countlesss retold origin stories of Superman over the subsequent years.

Next time, the conclusion — featuring Wolverine, Wonder Woman and the X-Men!

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