In 2021, Robin realized he had a crush on a boy. It was a sweet story, delivered without a drop of fanfare from DC Comics — a story that gave me, a queer reader and enormous fan of Robin, the singularly euphoric experience of seeing queer subtext actually and unexpectedly become text. But before I could enjoy it, my online discourse-poisoned brain handed me an urgent assignment, and I figuratively sat down at a school desk to do my “Representation Calculus” homework.
Marginalized fans know all about Representation Calculus: Is this “good” representation, or the kind of thin stereotype the majority has learned to tolerate? How much risk is this capitalist business actually assuming here, or is it playing things safe and looking for kudos? Is this a character anyone has heard of, or will hear of ever again? What is the value of this gesture?
One could construct a proof to show that Tim Drake coming out as queer kinda sucks actually. The strong headline “Robin just had a queer awakening” obscures the hard fact of “The second-most obscure of the five characters who have at one time been Robin just had a queer awakening.”
But there’s another way to make the case for Tim’s queerness as a net positive. No, not because of what Tim Drake can do for queer representation in media, but because of what queer representation can do… for Tim Drake.
Who is Tim Drake and why have I not heard of him?
Actually, it’s entirely possible that you have. Tim (with some backstory cribbed from Jason Todd) was the Robin of The New Batman Adventures, the gently revamped continuation of Batman: The Animated Series. He got that billing because he was kind of a big deal in the comics, for kind of a long time — it’s just that that long time was a long time ago.
Tim was the first Robin to have his own ongoing solo title, which ran for nearly 200 issues over 16 years (ending in 2009). That’s an unheard-of number for a character in the modern era — or at least one who has never appeared in live-action film.
From 1989 to 2009, Tim was Robin, and the only Robin. Dick Grayson, the first Robin, had been aged up into a different superhero, Nightwing, leader of the immensely popular New Teen Titans series. The second Robin, Jason Todd, had met a terrible fate due to unpopularity with readers. Tim was the sweet spot between them: different enough in character and origin from Nightwing to meet a new era of fans, but with enough qualities in common to perform Robin’s vital role as Batman’s emotional foil. (Stephanie Brown did take a brief stint in the suit in 2004 that is honored in her modern incarnation, but at the time was simply an editorial feint.)
But everything changed when Grant Morrison
attacked took the reins of DC’s core Gotham series, Batman, and the direction of the Batman mythos. By 2009, the writer had been cultivating the origin story of Damian Wayne — the grandchild of Ra’s al Ghul and the son Batman never knew he had — for three years, through various miniseries and crossovers. Following Bruce’s apparent murder in 2009’s Final Crisis event (he’d actually become lost in time; don’t worry about it), Nightwing took up his costume as the Batman of Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Batman and Robin, with Damian as Robin.
Fly away home
It was the third time the role of Robin had been given to a new character for keeps, but the first time it had happened while there was an existing Robin. Jason Todd’s creation was prompted by Nightwing’s increasing popularity as leader of the Teen Titans rather than Batman’s partner. Tim was created to fill the space left by Jason’s murder. To belabor a metaphor, Nightwing and Jason Todd had fledged, but Tim had been forced out of the nest. And in the years since, Tim has flitted from one nest to another, never quite finding one that works.
Immediately after Damian took his costume, Tim adopted a new look and started calling himself Red Robin, a name with some history in DC lore but that is also… well, also the trademarked name of a chain restaurant. The New 52 reboot gave him a completely revamped origin story that lasted only six years before James “Tim Drake megafan” Tynion IV’s Detective Comics rolled it back to his old one — in a series where Tim’s internal struggle was all about how being Red Robin fit into his personal identity. In 2019, in the pages of Young Justice, Tim changed up his costume considerably and announced that his new superhero name was just “Drake,” a move that thankfully never made it out of the pages of Young Justice.
Tim is always included when the Robins team up, and when he’s a writer’s favorite or associated with a team — he has become a character who gets invited to parties but never throws his own. With every reappearance, creators have tried to address the elephant in the room: Tim has never developed a strong editorial identity other than Robin, Batman’s partner.
Dick Grayson is the Robin Who Came First and became Nightwing. Jason Todd is the Robin Who Died, and he came back as the Red Hood. Stephanie Brown is the Robin Who Is a Girl. Damian is the Robin Who Is Batman’s Son. Tim… Tim was only ever just Robin. Except he isn’t. Because Damian is Robin, and has been since 2009.
In a supreme irony, the cumulative and accidental effect of a decade of experimenting with who Tim Drake could be has given him a distinguishing niche: Tim is the Robin Who Doesn’t Know Who He Is.
And that’s queer-coding, baby!
Now, to be fair, years before Damian happened along, queer fans had looked at Tim Drake — the nerdy, empathetic kid who became Robin because he romanticized the Batman and Robin partnership and seemed more emotionally invested in his friendship with Superboy than any of his on-again-off-again girlfriends — and said “He’s one of ours.” Tim’s decade-long crisis of identity is really just ink over pencil lines.
And he’s not alone in this sort of editorial coming-out story, joining the ranks of characters like Iceman, Wonder Woman, Kitty Pryde, and Mystique. The list of superheroes accidentally or deliberately coded as queer who have never canonically been brought out of the closet because of homophobia is long and depressing. “Refreshing” is too mild a word to describe a creator looking at a queer-coded character who needed something to distinguish him from his straight cohorts, and actually getting to make him queer.
But wait, I can hear the comments already: So now Tim is just The Robin Who Is Gay? Come on Susana, queer people are more than just their queerness! That’s bad representation!
It’s a salient argument, and I’ve given it a lot of thought, leading to one conclusion: I don’t care. For one thing, Tim Drake isn’t a person, he’s a series of creative decisions dating back to 1989. For another, Kate Kane is Jewish and an Army veteran and has a rather different motivation than Bruce Wayne. That hasn’t stopped anyone from reducing her down to “Lesbian Batman” and it never will. (Also, “Lesbian Batman” is objectively awesome.)
A queer realization fits Tim narratively, solves his core editorial deficiency, and opens up new options for storytelling. Chip Zdarsky told me as much when I reached out to him about his upcoming run on Batman, for which he picked Tim — not Damian, Dick, or Jason — as the Dark Knight’s featured partner.
Among other things, the writer said via email, “Bruce also is worried about Tim and the rest of the bat-family, all struggling to find that balance between fighting crime and their personal lives. Tim being queer and more comfortable with who he is shows that there’s a stronger path to happiness for him in life.”
And, if I may be purely cynical for a moment, Tim’s queerness also gives future DC Comics editorial an imperative reason to keep him in the spotlight. If the queer Robin never appears in comics? Not a great look! From the purely mercantile standpoint of a person who just wants to read more Tim Drake stories, it’s fantastic that this once central, now little-known character can be boosted alongside DC’s other queer superheroes with his inclusion in DC’s 2022 Pride anthology, his Pride one-shot special that collected his coming out story with new material, and in Tim Drake: Robin, his first solo ongoing series since 2011, to be written by Meghan Fitzmartin and drawn by Belén Ortega, the creative team who walked him out of the closet in the first place.
‘The second-most obscure Robin just had a queer awakening’
What they don’t tell you in Representation Calculus 101 is that Representation Calculus sucks actually! There’s no such thing as perfect representation. We have a word for expecting a single character or creator to shoulder all the weight of normalizing the underrepresented: It’s tokenism. In the utopian future we’re all striving for, it will actually be great when someone introduces a Black Spider-Man, a lesbian Batwoman, a female Thor, GNC member of the Flash family, or a trans ally of Supergirl and there are no press releases written about it, no articles, no breathless headlines — because it’ll be as normal as “Dog Bites Man.”
Tim Drake’s story speaks to what advocates for diversity can forget and homophobes would rather ignore: There are legitimate reasons to give a long-standing straight character a coming-out story beyond “more diversity is more.” Or to put it in painfully obvious terms: Change and diversity are storytelling tools, and refusing to use them is nothing but a self-imposed disadvantage.