REVIEW: DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS ROBIN
I suppose that even as impressive an action figure line as Mattel's DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS line has its bad moments. Unfortunately, the new ROBIN figure from Wave 16 is one of them. And the really sad thing is -- it could have been prevented. I don't like giving an action figure a bad review if I can help it, and I try to avoid doing so unless there's just no way around it. In this case -- there's just no way around it. I will try to say what positive things I can about this figure. But there's no getting around the fact that there's a lot wrong with it that didn't need to happen.
Before I delve into the figure, let's consider the background of the character. Granted, there have been quite a few characters in the DC Universe named Robin. This figure represents the first one -- Dick Grayson, before he took on the role of Nightwing, and more recently, Batman. Grayson has quite a history in the DC Universe, so let's see what we can learn about it with a little online research assistance.
Dick Grayson first appeared in Detective Comics #38, in April of 1940. He was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, with illustrator Jerry Robinson. Robin's debut was an effort to make Batman a lighter, and more sympathetic character. It was also believed at the time that a teenaged superhero would appeal to young readers, being an effective audience surrogate. The name "Robin" and the look of the original costume were inspired by the legendary hero Robin Hood, as well as the red-breasted American Robin, paralleling the "winged" motif of Batman.
Dick Grayson was born to John and Mary Grayson, a young couple of aerialists working for a circus. In his first appearance, Grayson is a circus acrobat, working alongside his parents as "The Flying Graysons". While preparing for a performance, Dick overhears two gangsters attempting to extort protection money from the circus owner. The owner refuses, so the gangsters sabotage the trapeze wires with acid. During the next performance, the trapeze from which Dick's parents are swinging snaps, sending them falling to their deaths.
Before Dick can go to the police, Batman appears to him and warns him that the two gangsters work for Tony Zucco, a very powerful crime boss, and that revealing his knowledge could lead to his own death. When Batman recounts the murder of his own parents, Dick asks to become his aide. After extensive training, Dick becomes Robin. They start by disrupting Zucco's gambling and extortion rackets. Then they successfully bait the riled Zucco into visiting a construction site, where they capture him.
Robin's origin had a thematic connection to Batman's in that both see their parents killed by criminals, creating an urge to battle the criminal element. Batman sees a chance to direct the anger and rage that Dick feels in a way that he himself cannot, this creating a father/son bond and understanding between the two. Throughout the 1940's and 1950's, Batman and Robin were portrayed as a team, rarely publishing a Batman story without his sidekick. Interestingly, stories entirely devoted to Robin appeared in "Star-Spangled Comics" from 1947 through 1952.
In 1964, "Brave and the Bold" #54 introduced a junior version of the Justice League of America, comprised of Robin, Aqualad -- the young sidekick of Aquaman, and Kid Flash -- the sidekick of Flash. Later, the trio is joined by Speedy -- the sidekick of Green Arrow, and Wonder Girl -- the sidekick of Wonder Woman, in order to free their mentors in the JLA from mind control. They decide to become a real team, calling themselves the Teen Titans. Robin is generally regarded as the leader until the team disbands some years later.
In 1969, writer Dennis O'Neil and artist Neal Adams decide to return Batman to his darker roots. One part of this effort involved writing Robin out of the series by sending Dick Grayson off to college at Hudson University, and into a separate strip in the back of Detective Comics. The now "Teen Wonder" appeared only sporadically in the Batman stories of the 1970's, as well as a short-lived revival of the Titans.
In 1980, Marv Wolfman and George Perez revived the Teen Titans, bringing in classic characters Robin, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl, as well as new members Raven, Starfire, Cyborg, and another young hero who hadn't been part of the Titans before, Changeling (formerly and later Beast Boy). The new monthly title took off to great popularity, and was one of DC Comics' top titles of the 1980's. It did well enough so that the Titans were the DC side of a DC/Marvel team-up which featured Marvel's X-Men, easily Marvel's most popular title of the era.
Well into the Titans series, Grayson makes the decision to abandon the Robin identity. He feels that Robin will always be seen as "the back half of Batman and --", and he wants more than that for himself. After not taking up any identity for a brief period of time, he eventually debuts a new costume for himself, and takes up the name Nightwing, a name used decades earlier by Superman, while in the bottle city of Kandor, where he had no powers and assumed a Batman-like persona.
Although considered a radical move at the time, Nightwing soon caught on with the fans, and after a few costume revisions, Nightwing starred in his own lengthy series, spending much of his time in Gotham City's neighboring municipality of Bludhaven, a city so corrupt it made Gotham look like an urban paradise. Bludhaven was destroyed in the Infinite Crisis, and Nightwing relocated to New York. Grayson later took up the role of Batman following the presumed death of Bruce Wayne, and has maintained the role even since the return of Wayne.
Nightwing was developed as a hero that most of the rest of the super-hero community readily trusted. He was more open than Batman, possessed of similar skills, and most knew he had been Robin and as such had years of experience in the hero community.
The role of Robin was taken up first by Jason Todd, then Tim Drake, and most recently Damian, the biological son of Bruce Wayne by way of Talia, daughter of Ra's al Ghul.
As to his powers and abilities, while Grayson has no inherent super-powers, he possesses peak athletic strength and endurance for a man his age who engages in intensive physical exercise. Bounding across rooftops and beating up psychopaths will do that for you. His martial arts skills rival those of Batman. He is a master of dozens of martial arts disciplines and was rigorously trained by his mentor in everything from escapology to criminology, stealth, disguise, and numerous other skills. His martial arts skills include aikido, savate, judo, and capoeira.
Grayson is regarded as the greatest human acrobat in the DC Universe. He is the only human on Earth who can do a quadruple aerial somersault. Having had the finest education Bruce Wayne could provide, he fluently speaks English, French, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese, as well as (thanks to Starfire) the alien language of the planet Tamaran.
He is also a brilliant and experienced strategist with superlative leadership skills, and his superior interpersonal skills and efforts to remain in contact with other heroes and groups makes him a master at rallying, unifying, and inspiring the super-hero community, a skill in which he has surpassed his mentor.
Besides his resources as Bruce Wayne's ward, Dick's parents also left him a trust fund which Wayne associate Lucius Fox turned into a small fortune. Although it is not comparable to Bruce Wayne's wealth, it was enough to maintain his Nightwing identity and equipment, as well as purchase the rights to Haly's Circus, the circus at which he and his parents performed, when it fell into financial difficulties.
Robin has also appeared in countless media. As well as appearing as early as the 1940's, and certainly in the 1960's live-action series, he was also a vital part of the Super Friends series in the 1970's and 1980's, and in more recent times, has been a part of virtually every Batman animated series there has been, as well as both Teen Titans and the recent Young Justice.
So, how's the figure? Well... as I said at the top of this review, it's got its problems, and they can't be overlooked. Before I get into that too much, I want to address the basics of the figure itself.
This is not the first Robin figure in the DC Universe Classics series. Quite a few waves back, a Robin figure based on the post One Year Later version of Tim Drake was produced, and came out in the same wave as a Nightwing figure. Both are excellent figures, presenting what I sincerely believe, with all due respect to history, Dick Grayson at his best, and Tim Drake in the red-and-black Robin costume that he wore before taking on the independent role of Red Robin after the presumed death of Bruce Wayne.
A second Tim Drake figure, which recolored the earlier figure, but used the costume that Bruce Wayne first developed for Drake, was offered as part of a Walmart exclusive two-pack. This Robin figure has a red tunic and trunks, green leggings, green short sleeves and gloves, and black boots, with a cape that is black on the outside and yellow on the inside. This costume was developed by Wayne to provide additional protection for Drake, since Wayne had no intention of putting another youngster in harm's way unprepared, following the presumed death of Jason Todd.
This newest Robin figure represents the original, classic Robin. Red tunic, green shorts, green short sleeves, green gloves, green pixie boots, and a yellow cape. It's intended to be Dick Grayson. There are two variant heads available, one which resembles Grayson when he first appeared, with two curls of hair visible in the front, as well as quirkily arched eyebrows, and another where his hair is combed more to the side, and the eyebrows are concealed by the mask. This is the one that I opted to purchase. The other one was just a little too cornball.
Let me say this about the costume. I respect it. I respect its legacy. This is how Robin was when he first appeared, and Grayson wore this costume for over 40 years, before assuming the Nightwing identity. And the costume continued after him, worn by Jason Todd, and very briefly by Tim Drake in his first outing.
HOWEVER -- there's also no denying that the costume doesn't really work well these days. I can't speak for how well it worked in 1940, as I wasn't around then. But it got to the point that even DC Comics writers were making fun of it. In the 1980's Teen Titans title, Changeling remarks, "Yeah, we call him the Teen Wonder, although the only thing we wonder about him is how he keeps his legs warm in winter!"
We also have to consider the fact that, as slowly and as minimally as characters may age in the comics, Dick Grayson had grown up. Although it's difficult to ascertain his age in his early appearances, the fact that he was brought in at the time as a "teenaged" hero to give young readers someone to relate to would tend to indicate that he was at the very least 13, even if he tended to look younger. It's worth noting, however, that in the Teen Titans title, when he abandoned the Robin identity, he commented that he'd worn the costume since he was eight.
Now, in fairness, Dick Grayson had grown up in a circus, and was a performer. He probably wasn't bothered by wearing an outlandish costume in public, even one that wasn't especially covering. Arguably as a trapeze artist, he was probably used to wearing tights, since no one would want loose clothing catching on the trapeze wires. But by the time he was 19, his stated age in the Titans comics when he finally abandoned the suit, and was specifically told that whatever costumed identity he assumed for himself, it should definitely not include short pants (nor did it), you have to wonder why he was still putting up with it, outside of respect for his mentor.
Then you have the matter of Jason Todd. Although initially portrayed as a circus performer himself, he was soon "retconned" as a street kid. So here's this tough little character, and he's expected to put up with the green speedos and pixie boots? It's a wonder he didn't say something to Bruce Wayne that would've been well outside the tolerances of the Comics Code Authority. Tim Drake wore the costume all of once, and except for being displayed in a trophy case in the Batcave, it hasn't been seen since in present-day stories, except when a very young Dick Grayson turned up in Zero Hour, fighting alongside Tim Drake, and if memory serves, there was a jab at the costume even there!
The bottom line is, the only way the original Robin costume works anymore is as a tribute, which is pretty much what this figure is intended to be, I believe. Not only a tribute to the original Robin, but also as a tribute to the Super Powers line, which the powers-that-be at both Mattel and the sculpting and design team of the Four Horsemen have readily admitted to being longtime fans of. And, I can relate. So am I, and I still have my collection of these DC figures from the 1980's. And here, the Robin figure is still wearing his original costume.
For all of the different Robin costumes that have appeared in the comics, in animation, and in movies since then, many of which have been rendered as action figures -- and for that matter there have been some Robin repaints that have existed only as action figures -- this particular Robin costume was the first, and as unworkable and as borderline silly as it may look today, it warrants a certain amount of respect.
It's a shame the figure it's on didn't turn out better. Let me address one matter right off -- the figure's height. Robin is about 6" in height. This in a line where the average height of an adult male is 6-3/4". Okay, so that works. And honestly, it's the current established height for young teen characters in the line. It's pretty much the height of Kamandi, who was available in Wave 14, and Superboy, who turned up in Wave 13, although both of them are very slightly over 6".
Here's the problem -- the Tim Drake Robin figure is about 5-3/4", matching a height used for a couple of other teen heroes, including Kid Flash and Beast Boy. Now, all of this height variance is not specifically the fault of the Robin figure. It's more an unfortunate case of a lack of consistency -- in a line that otherwise has shown superior consistency. But in this case, it does make the new Dick Grayson Robin slightly taller than the Tim Drake Robin, and as such has the effect of making him look older, and as such probably of an age where he was starting to get a little embarrassed by the costume, as opposed to Tim Drake's costume. So the side-by-side effect comes across as a little strange.
One quick packaging note, too. The recent series of DC Universe Classics figures has taken to putting an emblem representing the character on the front of the package. The Riddler has question marks, Metal Man Mercury has the chemical symbol for mercury, and so forth. In the case of Robin, they actually used the modern Robin emblem, which features a much more stylized "R" than the original costume. Whoops!
Now, I do want to say what positive things I can about this Robin figure. And in that, I can say that it's a really excellent sculpt. The head is a superb likeness (either version, really), with well-detailed hair, a well-done mask, and a bit of a grin on the face, that doesn't cost the figure a reasonably serious demeanor.
The red tunic is excellent. The tunic was never really shown to be absolutely tight-fitting, nor is it. It shows enough of Grayson's musculature, while still presenting enough "fabric wrinkles" to look appropriate. The seam down the front, and the yellow clasps, are very nicely done and neatly painted. The emblem is a slightly raised circle, painted black with with a yellow "R" properly imprinted on it in a good font -- some sort of Helvetica, I think.
The short sleeves are excellent, and slightly cuffed. Curiously, the upper arm swivel splits the sleeves. However, it's not a problem at all, just a little odd in my opinion. It's not a complaint, which is more than I can say for a lot of the other articulation. I'll be getting to that.
The gloves look excellent, and Robin has a black belt with an appropriate yellow buckle in place. The red tunic hangs just below the buckle, and the red shorts, with their Aquaman-like scales on them (was this EVER given a decent explanation?) are very well done. The little green shoes are almost comical, but then I think a lot of people have tended to feel that way. They're appropriately flared in the back, and even pointed in the front! There's a slight flare to the gloves, as well.
Finally, there is the cape. Yellow, nicely sculpted, "draped" well, complete with collar in the front. From a purely design standpoint, the Four Horsemen really knocked this one out of the park. It is an excellent rendition of the classic, original Robin. It's a little on the tall side relative to some of the earlier teen hero characters, but this is a matter that is hardly reserved to Robin at this point, so I'm not going to complain about it specifically with regard to this figure.
Most of the paintwork is excellent, although there are a few glitches that I will be addressing. Notable is a chip of paint on his forehead, but that's just this specific figure.
As for accessories, Robin comes with a small Batarang, and a grappling hook with a length of string cable. Both entirely appropriate items to have.
Now, let's deal with the problems. Because honestly, this Robin figure has three whopping big problems, which have occurred on other figures, and all of them could be readily avoided. Some of them even combine to worse effect.
Problem #1 -- the articulation. Since this is an entirely new figure that doesn't use any previously established molds, Mattel went ahead and gave Robin the utterly pointless and unnecessary double-jointed elbows and knees. This happened to a number of figures in this wave, and it probably looks the worst on Robin. Why? Because he has bare arms and legs. So you've got this otherwise cool-looking Robin figure, and his arms and legs make him look like some sort of Robin Robot that was dressed in the costume! It doesn't help that the prototype pictured on the back of the package shows much smaller articulated pegs, and much closer connections between the parts. It almost works.
Now, I know I've complained about this articulation before, and I will continue to do so every time it turns up in this line, until -- I sincerely hope -- it stops. I have no problem with a decently-articulated action figure. I'm not interested in buying statues. HOWEVER -- when the articulation level gets to the point of having a seriously adverse effect on the look of the figure, then I think it's time to back off a bit. And this double-articulation effect certainly does that. Rather than a single part transition between upper and lower arm, or upper and lower leg, you have THREE parts involved, the upper and lower parts of the given appendage, plus the center section. Even WORSE, in order for this design to work to the degree that it does, there has to be a visible SEPARATION between the upper and lower parts of the appendages, which really has an awful effect on the look of the figure, and honestly, doesn't even work that well. I have yet to encounter an action figure, from any line, any manufacturer, where this technique was used, and the movement looked the least bit natural. It doesn't, it can't be made to, and it should be stopped -- especially on action figures that are either dressed in tights, or have bare arms and legs.
Additionally, in the case of DC Universe Classics, it has a detrimental effect on the consistency of the line. Robin is an exception, since he's shorter and a unique sculpt. But when this altered articulation is inflicted on a figure that would otherwise have been a fairly standard sculpt, such as The Creeper, or Black Hand from the Green Lantern Classics branch, then this is not a good thing, especially given the additional detrimental effects it had on The Creeper (see separate review).
There's another articulation issue in Robin's case -- the feet. Somehow, since Robin was wearing cute little shoes instead of boots, Mattel decided to give the figure some sort of ball-and-socket design, as well as the traditional back and forth movement. Unfortunately, this doesn't work all that well, and in fact -- it's stuck. And at a rather peculiar angle. Why is it stuck? Well, that leads me into...
Problem #2 -- The paint decisions. Now, most of the paint work on Robin has been very neatly done. But someone explain to me the logic of molding the arms and legs in GREEN, and then painting the vast majority of them in FLESH-TONE!? Why were these parts not molded in the flesh tone in the first place? It would've used less paint! For that matter, the head should've been molded in flesh-tone as well.
Unfortunately, in the case of the arms and legs, it's not only served to stick a few parts, like the ankle design, but it also, because of the different "finish" it gives to the rest of the figure, somehow makes the multiple articulation pins needed for the double-jointed arms and legs look that much worse. I'm not saying it would have been agreeable if it had been molded in flesh tone, but it wouldn't've looked quite this bad. You can see hints of green around some of the articulation pins.
Problem #3 - Pre-posing the figure in the package. Now, this is something that most DC Universe Classics figures are subjected to -- they're posed dramatically in their packages to make for a more interesting presentation. This is nothing more than cheap marketing in my opinion. If I want to buy Black Adam, or Robin, or Kamandi, or Blue Devil, or Green Arrow, or whomever, a dramatic pose in the package isn't going to make any difference to me. I suppose there's some sort of research out there that says that it does improve sales, I don't know. Personally, I think it's ridiculous. But worse, it can be detrimental to the figure.
Consider that a newly-made figure is pushed into some fancy pose, and then shoved onto the internal, form-fitting bubble inside the package. That figure is likely to have to maintain that pose for MONTHS while being transported from overseas, to a warehouse, to a store, and finally to someone's home. Plastic is resilient, but it has its limits, and I've got any number of figures here that may be slightly, but permanently warped as a result of this.
So why single out Robin in this instance? Because in his case, it's more severe, and because the double-jointed leg articulation was a significant contributor to it. On my figure, and I don't know if this is the case with every Robin figure, his left leg below the knee points outward, and his left leg points inward. And if one takes a look at the degree of separation between the upper and lower legs, it is FAR more pronounced on the outside of the right leg (causing the inward turn), than it is anywhere on the left leg.
In short, the relatively narrow center knee joint, an entirely separate piece that would not have existed as such on a properly-articulated Robin figure, was both stretched and warped by the pose the figure was given in its package! And as a result, this figure barely stands up on his own, and looks very awkward in a standard stance. Honestly, I blame the articulation more than the pre-posing. At the very least, it would not have been as severe had the knee joint been made more traditionally, as it would not have had the same "weak spot" as the narrow, separate knee joint.
So that's three problems -- and ultimately, to one degree or another, they can all be traced back to the needless double-jointed arms and legs -- or the strange ball-and-socket ankles. Additional elements of articulation inflicted on an otherwise cool-looking figure that just didn't need to have this done to it. And the end result is a real shame, because as cornball as the costume may come across today, the original Robin deserved better than this. And honestly, so does the entire line AND its fans.
So what's my final word? My final word is that I sincerely hope that Mattel doesn't do this to anybody else. There's a lot of characters in the DC Universe that I sincerely hope find their way into the DC Universe Classics line, which I also sincerely hope lasts for many years to come. But Mattel needs to realize -- RIGHT NOW -- that they already have a perfectly capable design in what they came up with at the start of this line, and it doesn't need to be messed with.
I saw an ad recently, in the inside front cover of a DC Comic. It was an ad for DC Universe Classics figures. It featured the Flash, a standard-articulated figure, representing the human form in a version of Leonardo da Vinci's famous illustration of the human body. The caption for the advertisement read: "ACTION FIGURES -- PERFECTED!"
About my only complaint with the ad was that it listed the articulation points at 14. There's a good bit more than that. But I certainly don't disagree with the basic sentiment. And I think Mattel's design department should take a cue from their marketing department, realize the excellent design they have, and stop trying to change it. In this wave, both The Creeper and Robin were pretty well ruined by it, and it doesn't need to happen again.
Do I recommend this figure? Sadly -- no. What's right about it -- and honestly, there's a lot that's very good about it -- it's a great sculpt -- but it's not enough to overcome what's wrong with it. I would only recommend the DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS figure of ROBIN for those that are die-hard, longtime Bat-fans with fond memories of this particular incarnation of Dick Grayson. And even then, be warned of what you're getting.