Review – Batman, Robin, and Howard: Jeffrey Brown Takes on the DCU (FT: Interview!)

Comic Books DC This Week
Batman, Robin, and Howard cover, via DC Comics.

Acclaimed cartoonist Jeffrey Brown is making his DC debut with Batman, Robin, and Howard. GeekDad not only got an advance copy for review, but Brown himself agreed to answer some questions for us! Read on for the review and our Q&A!

Batman, Robin, and Howard – Jeffrey Brown, Writer/Artist; Silvana Brys, Colorist

Ray – 9/10

Ray: Jeffrey Brown is one of the biggest names in kids’ cartoons, being best known for his wildly popular Star Wars comic strips and graphic novels. So it was big news that he would be coming to DC, following in the footsteps of other popular cartoonists like Kirk Scroggs. He sticks to what he does best—combining the trappings of popular fantasy worlds with stories that kids can relate to about everyday experiences.

Our POV character this time is Damian Wayne, aka Robin. While he has a little less edge to him, he’s still the brash young vigilante we know so well. He has no problem jumping into the fray to attack what he thinks is a car thief—only to discover that it’s a man trying to unlock his own car, a mistake that gets him grounded from patrol. This is about the same time Bruce has decided to switch him to a new school in suburbia to give him a taste of normalcy.

Robin in action. Via DC Comics.

Damian likes to be the best at everything, whether it’s crimefighting or winning people over at his new school. He’s a little sullen, but he wastes no time showing off in class and on the soccer field—which leads him to find a new rival in Howard, an athletic and ambitious middle-schooler who has been the school’s best student for a long time. Brown makes the smart decision to let both Damian and Howard narrate this title in alternate frames, which doesn’t let either character dominate.

Also refreshing about the rivalry between the two kids? It’s very low-stakes, with the worst they do being shoving and pranking each other occasionally. You can see where both of them are coming from—Damian is overly showy and has a bit of an ego, and Howard isn’t particularly welcoming once he finds himself challenged. When their rivalry gets them in trouble, they both wind up grounded—with the exception of working together on a school project that gives them the opportunity to bond.

School daze. Via DC Comics.

This isn’t a story all that interested in the larger mythology of Batman, so don’t look for many guest-stars here. We do get Batman in a pretty major role, and I love seeing him giving off the vibe of a scruffy tired dad who is trying to do his best for his son, even if he’s still a little new to the parenting thing. Alfred is a classic, reliable presence, and I love seeing how firmly a member of the family he is—essentially being Damian’s second regular parent.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Batman book if there weren’t some stakes, and when the plot really kicks off, it’s a pleasant surprise. The villain (a new character) has a plot that’s hilariously low-scale, but he’s surprisingly competent and manages to neutralize Batman in a way that’s both incredibly effective and the source of much of the book’s best comedy. Definite shades of Batman ‘66 and The LEGO Batman Movie, two of the best all-ages adaptations, in this segment.

While this is definitely a book for younger readers, it’s another impressive example of just how good DC is at this all-ages line. Talented cartoonists and creators from outside of comics are reinventing these characters in ways that feel fresh while still being immediately recognizable. Watching Damian and Howard go from enemies, to friends, to crimefighting allies is a lot of fun and there is room for many future adventures featuring this oddball crimefighting team. I kind of want to see Damian and his new friends cross paths with the rest of Gotham’s residents.

Q&A with Jeffrey Brown

This is a different Batman than we usually see, with much more of a “tired dad” vibe. Which versions of the character were your biggest influences when writing him?

Brown: In terms of previous versions of Batman, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns was actually a big influence—not for the gritty seriousness, but the idea of an old Batman, one who’s really human. For this book, I wanted to show a more down to earth side of Batman, and show him through the eyes of his teenage son, Robin. He’s more of an awkward, occasionally embarrassing dad. No matter how cool you are, to your teenage kids, you’re not so cool. Even if you’re Batman.

Damian’s a character who can be… prickly in the comics, and this version didn’t lose that but did seem to have a bit less of an edge. How did you balance writing Damian as the ex-ninja-warrior he is while making him a bit more relatable as an average kid?

I feel like most versions of Robin show him as a superhero first, and I wanted to really get underneath the mask. Who is Robin, if he’s a kid? What are those universal situations a kid in middle school might have? It also helped to have his rival/friend Howard in the story—I wanted to show how the usual cockiness Robin might have could be softened by someone who’s a good influence.

Without getting too much into spoilers, the villain is a new and surprising one! How did you come up with the idea of this dastardly rogue with an extremely specific master plan?

Brown: I wanted to play with the usual trope of Batman villains having a “theme,” so I tried to come up with a good twist on that. I didn’t want to use any of Batman’s usual nemeses, since it’s very easy for the colorful, personality driven villains from Gotham City to just take over the story, and I wanted to keep the focus on Robin and Howard.

So the book ended on a pretty fun cliffhanger. If this book were to get a sequel, which other characters in Gotham and beyond would you like to see Howard play off?

Brown: There are plenty of other characters from the DC Universe that would be fun to write into stories, and I have lots of ideas. The Teen Titans would be good, though I might be too influenced by the Teen Titans Go cartoon to make those characters my own. I would like to find a new take on Superman, though. We’ll see!

This book worked as both a traditional Bat-mystery, and a much more grounded (pun intended) story about adjusting to a new school and dealing with rivals. What are you hoping kids who read this and can relate to either Damian or Howard will take from this story?

Brown: One thing I really wanted to express in this story is the idea of accepting being second best, and what’s really important is doing your best. Robin isn’t quite on Batman’s level (yet), but that’s okay—Batman isn’t perfect, either. And when you find a good friend—like Robin does with Howard—it can help you become your best self.

To find reviews of all the DC issues, visit DC This Week.

GeekDad received this comic for review purposes.

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