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Robin: An Exploration of Queerness in Tim Drake

The Gotham Gazette’s debuts with an exploration of queerness in Tim Drake’s history.

By: Queerly Nerd

“Sum of Our Parts” by Meghan Fitzmartin, Belen Ortega and Alejandro Sanchez is one of the most important Batman-related stories ever written.  If you look at it in terms of comic book history, it is the first time a world-renowned male character and huge intellectual property like Robin has been portrayed as something different than the common heteronormative template.  Alan Scott Green Lantern and Iceman can’t even compare. Tim Drake was the sole character to use the Robin title for 20 years. He has action figures, statues, t-shirts, and a 100+ issue comic series. He has appeared in cartoons and DC animated movies; he has every sort of product you would expect from a popular superhero.   Saying he is important is an understatement. Such a big brand being associated with queerness marks not only a new chapter in representation, but how companies – in this case DC Comics, Warner Bros., AT&T and Discovery – see diversity.  Gone are the times when queer people were forbidden, coded, only villains, a one-time tragic character or a supporting cast.  Now they can be heroes; they can be important heroes and not just a blemish on a brand. 

If we were to look back at comic book history and identify the turning point(s) for queer representation, most people would say it was with The Authority #29 (2002) or Avengers: The Children’s Crusade #9 (2012). These comics featured characters that were more than queer in name only; they had explicitly queer relationships. They featured the first kiss between Midnighter and Apollo and Wiccan and Hulking, respectively.

In 1954, the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham released the book “Seduction of the Innocent”, in which he used questionable evidence to defend the theory that comic books were a serious cause of juvenile delinquency.  At the time, homosexuality was still viewed as a mental disorder and he caused great alarm when he  presented his reading of Batman and Robin as a homosexual couple. In the years that followed, DC Comics adhered to the Comics Code Authority, self-censoring their titles and trying to distance Batman and Robin from homosexuality as much as possible, a policy that lasted for decades.  In a 2011 Comic Vine podcast, Judd Winnick, creator of Red Hood, made that clear, stating that “there’s things that DC Comics doesn’t like me talking about and they don’t like us talking about things like that” when asked if Jason was “a little bisexual”. Tim Drake being queer means that policy is no longer in effect and DC is not afraid of male queerness in the Bat corner of their universe anymore. They don’t think queerness taints the Robin brand and therefore the Batman brand.  

But why Tim Drake?  Did DC editors wake up one day and decide out of nowhere they wanted a queer Robin?  And did they simply choose which one by drawing straws? If you look at Tim’s publishing history, you will notice there is no shortage of references that can very easily put him in the LGBTQIA+ community.  Surely, the first scenes were not supposed to be read as queer coded, but that’s the beautiful thing about art: it’s open to interpretation.  Here are some examples below:

These panels come from Robin #40, which is regarded as the first time Tim was queercoded.  His then girlfriend, Ariana, offers to have sex with him, but he declines the offer, saying they were not ready. The message the writer wanted to pass was likely that of celibacy and responsibility, but that didn´t prevent people from reading it as a gay teenage boy not wanting to have relations with a girl.  Back then, there weren’t discussions about gender identity and sexual orientation as there are now.  People were quickly labeled, faster than they are today!  “Queer” was still being reclaimed from its pejorative use, “genderqueer” still hadn´t been popularized by the internet and being transgender was still considered a mental illness.  Non-heterosexual people were constantly being shoved into identities and orientations that didn´t actually represent them.  Tim was immediately labeled as gay on the message boards after that issue, despite Tim never giving or accepting a label himself, something that continues still today, despite openly dating another man.

In 1998, Robin #56 brought the conclusion to the Ariana-Tim-Steph love triangle and, while the writer probably intended for Tim to question if he didn’t want Ariana, the situation was also read as Tim getting Steph, who he supposedly wanted, but feeling empty because he was starting to realize he was not really into girls.  

Then things started to escalate with a new player: Conner Kent, a.k.a Superboy.  Of course, fans have been pairing them romantically and been reading queer content between them since they first teamed up in 1996, but it was from 2003 until 2015 that this content became more intimately explicit.  From the writings of Geoff Johns and Scott Lobdell came the most popular Tim x Kon scenes.  We don´t know if these scenes were all misread, if the writers subconsciously put queer content there, if they were trying to gay code them and wanted to convince Warner to take them out of the closet, or if they were simply queerbaiting the readers.  The fact is: these scenes are numerous and pretty obvious.  Johns and Lobdell are the writers responsible for cementing the homoerotic relationship between the characters in fans’ minds.

It all started with writer Judd Winnick, actually, in the pages of “Graduation Day” #2, in which we see Superboy putting on his clothes inside a closet with Robin.  15 years later, answering a fan, Winnick confirmed he intentionally planned the queer content.

And then the Geoff Johns Teen Titans run started.  For 2 years (2003-2005) Tim and Kon interacted several times in a flirtatious way that blurred the line between friendship and romance.

In those scenes from Teen Titans #1 and #6, Tim paused like he was trying to figure out his feelings towards Conner. Sadly, their relationship was cut short in 2006, when Conner died in Infinite Crisis #6, which sent Tim into a spiral.  

He changed his costume to reflect the colors Conner used and kept trying to clone him as a way to get a substitute.

By that time, Tim’s father had already been killed and Stephanie Brown was presumably dead, but he didn’t try to clone them.  He just tried to clone Conner, even though it would be easier to clone either Jack Drake or Steph, since Kryptonian DNA is too complex.

The fact is: he simply couldn’t stand being without Conner and he would even settle for some clone remotely close to him.  

Geoff Johns gave us a memorable run in which it was very difficult not to read Tim as obsessed and in love with Superboy. Conner was brought back in 2009 and Christopher Yost and Marcus To gave us a second reunion in Red Robin #9 (2010) that stays as one of the most tender moments between them.

And J.T. Krul closed the pre-Flashpoint era with one of the most famous dialogs between Tim and Conner in Teen Titans #92 (2011).

Then the New 52 happened and with it the Tim x Superboy trope lived on by the hands of Scott Lobdell. Technically speaking, New 52 Red Robin is Prime Earth Tim Drake with his continuity messed up by Dr. Manhattan, but New 52 Superboy isn´t Prime Earth Conner Kent, who got trapped in the Gemworld, escaping the reboot.  Although we don’t have an official confirmation, we can assume that the New 52 Superboy is an alternate reality Conner Kent, with whom Tim Drake established a very similar kind of relationship. From 2012 until 2015, we had Tim Drake saving Superboy, going against his Teen Titans team to help him when he was accused of murder and breaking down when he left with Harvest.  

While Tim Drake usually has an intellectual and rational personality, Superboy remains a trigger element that makes him lose control and act emotionally.

When the Rebirth era started, Conner was there like a mysterious shadow in his mind and heart until he was rescued from Gemworld.

So, looking at Tim’s publishing history, it is easy to see how he can be read as a queer character. His feelings for Superboy are very apparent, but he doesn’t seem to know exactly what they mean.  The sensation is that he still hasn’t figured it out yet.

Maybe that’s why Meghan Fitzmartin starts the first chapter of “Sum of Our Parts” with Barbara Gordon asking Tim what codename he is going by.  That goes beyond a name itself, because it’s a question about who he is.  We can easily exchange it for “who are you, Tim?  Have you figured it out yet?”.  And the answer “Robin’s fine, Oracle.  At least while Damian’s “out of town” is related not to himself, but to another person, which is a very Tim Drake thing to do, because he tends to focus on the outside, not the inside.  That’s his defense mechanism: ignoring his emotions. Babs here has a role very similar to that of a psychoanalyst.  She invites Tim to reflect about his desire, making herself an intermediary between him and his subconscious.  And what is beautiful about this move is that she locates the suppressed(?) knowledge in Tim, stating that only he can access it.  This was a very respectful way to handle an intimate and sensitive moment and subject.

Contrast that with how Iceman came out and the role that Jean Grey played in that ordeal..  When she confronted him and said he was gay, she took it upon herself to force his sexual awakening.  That’s a very violent thing to do, because the road to self-knowledge must be walked by the person themselves.   But that’s a thing that happens a lot to queer people.  Quite often, they are informed by others they are “sissies” or “dykes” before they even start to experience any kind of sexual attraction. A similar thing is being done to Tim by people calling him bisexual when he hasn´t labeled himself yet.  People decided he was bisexual, not him.  The difference, of course, is that he is a fictional character and will not suffer anything because of it. But how can Tim have not figured himself out when he is 16-20 years old?  Well, that happens a lot.  The first thing we need to have in mind is the concept of compulsory heterosexuality.  This concept is the idea that heterosexuality is assumed, promoted and enforced by society and, if a person does not comply to the heterosexual standards, they risk social exclusion and psychological or physical violence against them.

The effects of compulsory heterosexuality vary from people to people, but it can reach a level in which a person will use a defense mechanism called “repression”, that “ensures that what is unacceptable to the conscious mind, and would if recalled arouse anxiety, is prevented from entering into it”.  So, what Tim did was repress his desire for men.  He excluded it from his consciousness and subdued it in his subconscious.  It was apparent that he liked men, but he didn’t notice it until the lightbulb moment with Bernard. When we think about Tim, the first thing that comes to mind is his intellectual ability. What we rarely notice is how emotional he actually is.  The fact that he has the tendency to bottle up his feelings and focus on the outside masks that and is a trait totally compatible with repression. Not surprisingly, Superboy is an element that makes him lose control and act emotionally, even against reason, because his feelings get so intense his defense mechanism fails.

In a way, Tim, as a fictional character, acts exactly like the story behind his creation.  He was created to please.   Warner Bros. ordered Denny O’Neil, then Batman editor, to create a new Robin, even though Jason Todd had just died.  Tim was developed to please both the fans that voted for Jason to die and those who voted for him to live.  A worthy Robin, not fueled by rage or revenge, but for the desire to do what is right.  He was designed to be respected and to sympathize with.  The focus of his creation was always what other people needed of him. Marv Wolfman created that commitment to please others and it seems that each new writer Tim had, knowingly or unknowingly, took on that commitment, cementing in Tim’s personality the tendency to focus on other people’s needs and neglect his own.  Gradually the art became alive and each new writer was consciously or unconsciously guided to add a new element of queerness, until it became unmistakably obvious in Geoff Johns’ and Scott Lobdell’s Teen Titans runs.

If you follow Tim’s publishing history, you will see that he started as an emotional teen, already focused on what Batman needed, becoming more emotionally detached after his mother died and his father went into a coma.

Little by little, he became more stoic, pragmatic and cerebral, in a way similar to Batman, but in another, just the opposite.  While Batman becomes grim and closed off from people, focusing on his grief, Tim becomes closed off from himself, focusing on other people.  Similar defense mechanism, but with opposite directions.

When Bruce Wayne supposedly died in 2008, Tim tried to emulate Batman’s defense mechanism, so he would be more like him, but it was a struggle that didn’t last.

It is totally understandable why Meghan Fitzmartin saw in all of this a potential for developing the character.  Looking back at where he’s been, there was a shadow in his mind that could totally use a “lightbulb moment”.  

For the first time in his life, Tim has grasped what he wanted and not what people needed.  Tim has finally started his journey of self-realization and we will be here to watch this Robin fly.

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