Warning: this article contains spoilers for Future State: Nightwing #2!
In the pages of Detective Comics #38 (originally published in April, 1940), Robin – the first ever comic book sidekick – made his debut appearance as Batman‘s trusted ally, later becoming the adult hero Nightwing. Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne’s Batman and Robin were the prototypical Dynamic Duo. Since then, Batman’s menagerie of young crime-fighters has only grown, including five Robins, multiple Batgirls, Spoiler, the Signal, and more.
It’s important to keep in mind that as comic book readers have grown up, so too have the stories comic books tell. Originally conceived as a hook to draw in younger readers, the idea of a “kid sidekick” was intended for a lighter style of storytelling than what today’s comic book shelves have to offer. The stakes are high, and costumed heroes now inhabit a morally grey world where their actions can have devastating consequences. Both Jason Todd and Damian Wayne were gruesomely killed in the line of duty, and Stephanie Brown was tortured at the hands of Black Mask. In these stories Bruce Wayne can come off more like a twisted gang leader using child-soldiers to do his bidding than a hero, but the comics just confirmed that – in some cases – he’s actually doing the right thing.
In Future State: Nightwing #2, written by Andrew Constant and Nicola Scott, readers are given a look at what could have happened to Batman’s wards had their orbits not crossed the voluminous gravity of Bruce Wayne. With Gotham City in the grip of the Magistrate, an army of robots and mercenaries patrol the streets. Leading the charge are zealous soldiers known as a Peacekeepers. Once such Peacekeeper, PK-06, whose real name is revealed to be Elizabeth Marcus, has been tasked with taking down Dick Grayson’s Nightwing. During their final confrontation, readers discover that Marcus, PK-06, has an almost identical backstory to two Robins, including Grayson. At the age of fourteen, her parents were brutally murdered in front of her by the Joker. Moreover, it was this trauma that the Magistrate used to radicalize her into becoming the self-justifying monster that she is today – someone willing to use extra-judicial methods to kill the costumed “scum” of Gotham City – including its heroes.
While Batman has steered many of his wards into danger by involving them in his war on crime, his refrain has always been that he can recognize his own trauma in others, and is able to identify those who would ultimately self-destruct without being given a way to channel their trauma. The fan-favorite hero Nightwing is often held up as an example of this process in action – someone who, with Bruce’s help, became an optimistic, well-liked hero; a more well-adjusted version of Batman, who had to survive the same pain without a guide. Now, PK-06 offers the other side of the coin – a Gotham youth who didn’t receive Batman’s guiding hand, and became a cybernetic monster willing to enslave a city for her own misguided crusade. The only way to justify Batman recruiting children into his crusade is to show they’re worse off without him, and that’s the point Future State: Nightwing #2 makes so successfully.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Batman should scoop up every Gotham orphan and offer them a costume. Bruce’s judgement of who can’t be helped any other way is still fallible, and his methods are still extreme. But PK-06 strengthens the argument that in a world with killers as unique as Gotham’s rogues gallery, there can also be unique trauma, and Batman is someone who has faced that at its worst and successfully guided many others out of the other side. PK-06 shows what happens when the kind of child Batman has recruited as Robin in the past is left to their own devices and Gotham’s other influences. At least under Bruce Wayne’s influence, they become someone like Nightwing.