In the cliffhanger ending of Robin # 121, the Boy Wonder had just gotten bushwhacked by the new villain Johnny Warren -- who would later become Johnny Warlock. We'll just call him Johnny to cut out any confusion.
After whacking Robin in the back of his head with a sawed off shotgun, the script for 121 called for (paraphrasing here, since I don't have the script in front of me -- but it's a pretty accurate paraphrase) "Johnny lifts the half-unconscious Robin up by his hair." Now, at the time I thought it would be obvious to the artist that this meant that Robin would still mostly be down on the floor, but lifted partially (and painfully) up off of the floor by his hair.
Unfortunately the artist Rick Mays interpreted my panel description literally and had Johnny lift Robin completely off of the floor -- at arm's length, mind you -- by his hair.
First digression: For all new and would-be comics writers. There is an eternal balancing act when writing a script for someone else to draw. Do you provide too much information for any given panel in a script, and run the very real risk of overloading the artist with too many detailed instructions and, worse yet, risk insulting him by explaining obvious things such as, "Of course Robin can't be lifted entirely off of the floor by Johnny, who after all only has human level strength and lifting someone from the floor at arm's length is simply a physical impossibility," or do you provide just the bare minimum of panel direction and trust that the artist, who is supposed to be one of the storytellers in this undertaking, will know what to do and how best to do it? This has been debated for a long time among comics writers, with no clear solution in sight. Compelling arguments have been made for either side. I tend to fall into the camp of asking for much more than I expect to get, under the reasoning that, if the artist only provides you half of what you ask for, then you still get a lot. I came to this practice having been a comics artist myself. I know first hand how lazy we can be. This can backfire though -- and does. What if the half that the artist gives you doesn't include the essential information that you absolutely really needed? That's why some writers swear by the policy of only asking for that one essential thing in any given panel, because that way the artist has no other distractions or options of what to draw. See? I told you their side of the argument had some muscle to it.
Back to our essay: In the opening scene of Robin # 122, titled Bad to the Bone, Johnny still has Robin held at arm's length, inches off of the floor. And he's showing not a bit of strain doing this. Not only is Johnny a strong one, he seems to have some extraordinary endurance too.
Oh my, how the critics howled at this -- and rightly so (dammit).
Our second digression: I blame Stan Lee and the early years of Marvel Comics. He was entirely too successful, in his over-the-top carnival huckster way, in convincing funnybook readers that they (we -- as a kid I bought into it fully) were an important part of the comics creating process -- that we were in fact one big happy family. Every single reader came to believe it. We were in fact taught to look for mistakes and given non-reward rewards for finding mistakes -- the famous Marvel Comics no-prizes. This conditioning was so successful it's hard-wired in to nearly every comics reader today. We look for mistakes in every single issue of every single book and point them out with such glee that the simple joys of actually getting lost in the story aren't available to us any longer. That's the price we've paid for what Stan wrought back in the day. Yes, some mistakes are so obvious they can't be ignored. The Johnny holding Robin up off of the floor business was a true blunder. But the pathology goes much deeper than that. We are a readership now that thinks our job is to dissect each issue, looking for even the most ephemeral mistakes. And we still think special status is conferred on us for pointing such things out. What's the solution? There isn't one. The damage has been done and it's part of the comics readers' DNA now.
Back to Robin: Then Robin gets the drop on Johnny, escapes and disarms him, exactly as every reader knew would happen. But there is one thing I wanted to do with this scene which I still think works. I wanted to show that Robin doesn't at all -- on any level -- get off on the violence of his chosen profession. He's a truly good person, who only wants to make a better, safer world. While fighting off Johnny, Robin makes a calm and reasoned plea for Johnny to surrender. Since the outcome is inevitable -- since no street thug can possibly hope to outfight someone trained by Batman -- why not avoid the beating altogether?
Robin didn't beg. He didn't lecture or preach. He simply reasoned with the man in as calm a way as the situation would allow.
Reading this over again I still think the scene works. And I think it reveals right from the start an important aspect of the character -- at least my take on the character -- for my entire run on the series.
But of course Robin's calm matter-of-fact demeanor only makes Johnny more furious. This is something I learned in my Military Police days. Being overly polite and courteous to some thugs only makes them crazy (well, crazier). Why is this? I'm not sure, unless it's because they are trying to provoke passion and anger and an overreaction -- trying to drag us into the only arena in which they live and can understand the world -- and how dare we not comply with their demands?
What follows is a scene between Robin and Batman where I revealed another important core aspect of Tim's character: no one can ever be as hard on Robin as Robin can. He's the type who will always agonize over how he should have done better. If he saved four lives, he'll blame himself for not saving the fifth. He'll be the last to try to take credit for his victories and always be the first to take the blame for his defeats. But -- and this is a vital but -- that doesn't then translate into Robin becoming a defeatist morose whiner. There are already far too many of those in superhero comics. Even though Robin does have his down moments -- and I showed more than a few in my two-plus years writing his series -- his core character would always resurface. Blaming himself for his many perceived faults doesn't mean he gives up, it means in the future he has to work harder and do better. His work ethic and sense of responsibility is vast. That's the essential Robin I set out to portray. In hindsight I think I succeeded to a degree, but not nearly as much as I'd hoped.
Then again, it's not for me to decide. That judgement is absolutely the responsibility of the readers, in their half of the eternal writer-reader collaboration.