Lee Bermejo Unites a Disenfranchised Community in We Are Robin

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The current Batman universe is a study in absences and the things that inevitably fill them. After a deadly battle with the Joker in Scott Snyder’s “End Game” Batman story arc, Bruce Wayne purged the Dark Knight persona in the course of his death and resurrection. Though Bruce Wayne may still wander the streets of Gotham as a philanthropist and youth center manager, his vanished totem created a vacuum that demanded occupation. Inevitably, the cape and cowl didn’t remain vacant for long; perpetual Batman confidant Jim Gordon assumed the mantle, even if that mantle is now chrome, hydraulics and steel.

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In We Are Robin—a reexamination of the prototypical sidekick from writer Lee Bermejo and artists Jorge Corona, Rob Haynes and Khary Randolph—the red, yellow and green mantle isn’t filled by just one person, but by a disenfranchised community. The first two issues introduce Duke Thomas, a hyper-intelligent youth also seeking to fill a void; the teenager’s parents have remained missing after the aforementioned viral attacks from the Clown Prince of Crime. Navigating social workers and foster homes, Thomas descends into the underworld of Gotham’s sewer system to find a shanty town of survivors manipulated by an evangelical menace. Soon, a collective of teens in makeshift Robin garb come to the rescue to recruit him to their cause of champions of the lost-and-found.

Bermejo’s approach brims with innovation and thoughtfulness, showing the Robin legacy not as a juvenile support system, but a balancing light that shines in the darkest of hours. We Are Robin—whose third issue releases this Wednesday—is a key piece of DC’s 75th Anniversary of Robin, celebrating Dick Grayson’s introduction in Detective Comics #38 by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. The imprint will also publish the new weekly Batman & Robin Eternal, spearheaded by Batman veteran Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV, starting this October. Bruce Wayne’s biological son, Damian, will then storm the world of We Are Robin in December’s “Robin War,” a five-week event that also merges Robin: Son of Batman and Gotham Academy into this volatile mix.

Paste sat down with Bermejo—who also writes Vertigo’s Suiciders and has pencilled a library of gloriously shaded graphic novels—during San Diego Comic-Con to discuss his new take on the Boy/(Girl) Wonder(s), the effect of Mafia-run cities on writing, and super-heroic social workers.
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Paste: The entire concept of We Are Robin is about youth banding together into a gang after being destabilized from organized crime. The first thing I thought of were the children gangs of Southern Italy in cities like Naples, and how much more common these are in Europe in general than America. And then I realized that you live in Italy—was that an influence at all?
Lee Bermejo: I can’t say that that directly influenced it, but it’s funny that you mention Naples, because Gotham to me should have an element of Naples to it. Naples is awesome, but it’s also a city where shit goes wrong like that. And things can go wrong really quickly. I’ve been out with friends there before where someone’s like, oh my wallet is gone, and I don’t know how that happened because I’ve been sitting in a restaurant—a nice restaurant. You never know there. And there’s this element of dirtiness and the city crumbling. It’s hard to describe that to someone who’s never been there. I definitely think that aspect of Europe influences me. A lot. It’s that aspect of these places that run in different rules then we’re used to here. The mafia is an ever-present thing. It’s just there. It isn’t going anywhere.

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We Are Robin #3 Cover by Lee Bermejo

Paste: How much of you is there in Duke Thomas?
Bermejo: Not much. He’s way smarter than me. He’s more charismatic than me. [Batman writer] Scott [Snyder] did a great job with little; he nailed that character. He likes solving puzzles, he likes solving things; he’s a cerebral character.

What I try to do is take that and make him uncomfortable. Like in the events of Endgame, and try to put him in a position where he had to—instead of being chosen—traditionally Batman comes in and says you’re going to be my new sidekick, and I’ll train you. I think the whole Robin movement, what I like about it is that it’s kids who aren’t being trained. They’re not even necessarily good at what they do. They’re just trying to make their city a better place.

Paste: We Are Robin is a nice counterpoint to Batman, in that both deal with the void left from Batman’s absence and how people assume that legacy, but from two very different perspectives. But the most interesting aspect is that these kids are inspired to be assume a role that’s largely seen as supportive, as opposed to Batman’s primacy. What does the concept of Robin mean to these disenfranchised youth? Why would they select an identity that’s usually seen as supportive?
Bermejo: I’ll make an example: you meet someone dark and mysterious, and you look for light in that person. When you meet someone light and super happy, you wonder what that person’s dark side is like. So I look at those characters the same way. The Robin character to me is this super light element living in this dark world, trying to work its way through it.

I want there to be a sense of these characters not being inspired by Batman. I don’t want them to gravitate toward the darkness. I think that’s important in a place like Gotham, that’s depressing and dark. It’s like a portal to the light.

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We Are Robin #3 Interior Page by Jorge Corona & Rob Haynes

Paste: Without getting too ahead of ourselves, James Gordon and the police department have picked up the mantle from a government sanction, but these kids are operating illegally. Will these two forces meet on opposite terms?
Bermejo: Yes…I can’t say anymore. They will have interactions.

Paste: They’re two sides of the same coin.
Bermejo: They’re illegal. I feel like I can’t say much more, because I address it really soon. It’s something you’re going to see sooner than later in the book. That’s one the questions that really interested me from the beginning. How do you work around that? How do you work around this idea of these kids who are putting themselves in harm’s way and putting other people in harm’s way? For me, it’s 100 percent about the fact that these are JV players of the variety. The are minors. They’re youth. They don’t have the training, the money, the capabilities that Batman has. I think you have to address that.

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We Are Robin #3 Interior Page by Jorge Corona & Rob Haynes

Paste: Though Duke is disenfranchised, I loved how the state didn’t necessarily let him slip through the cracks: Dr. Thompkin is there for him and though he fled his foster home, it did provide a functional home and caring adults. It’s a lot more optimistic than lots of fictional reflections on state-run organizations. If the police and state are offering a degree of support, it begs the question whether an organization like We Are Robin needs to exist.
Bermejo: Anytime you have this kind of official support for kids, and I’m sure you know some people who have been through the system, it’s important to not show them as being, because there are examples out there of people who have had great support. But I do think that there’s part of that—at least in the kids who I knew—where it’s like as soon as I hit 18, I’m on my own. I need to be making my own decisions. Even when they’re younger than that, they have this support, but it’s not their family. I think that’s part of the impetus for this character in particular, for this character to get out there and make it work for himself. These guys, it’s part of the first issue, they can’t keep waiting for adults to swoop in and save them. They’ve got to be proactive. That’s just a personality trait that I wanted this character to have, even despite having Leslie Tompkins, who’s like, ‘look, we’re going to get you through this.’

Paste: She’s a superhero within the context of the book, too.
Bermejo: Right. You need to that this kid isn’t just blowing in the wind. There are people trying to help him out. I feel like it’s important to not just show things black and white. With this book, oddly enough, there needs to be those shades of grey. You’re going to start seeing different stories from different kids, from different backgrounds. Not all of them are my parents were killed by super criminals. I’d like to address some seemingly more common things. That the case certainly these days, with kids who maybe come from immigrant families. I’m hoping the crack the shell of what you typically see from that sidekick concept.

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We Are Robin #3 Interior Page by Jorge Corona & Rob Haynes

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