Changing Tim Drake to be bi is wrong, but probably not for the reason you’re thinking, like bi-phobia. Changing Tim Drake (Robin) to be bi is like slapping a vegan patty on a Whopper and saying it’s now a burger made for vegans. Wouldn’t a vegan sandwich from a vegan restaurant with an entire vegan menu that ensures vegan principles were in practice every step of the way from the ground to your plate serve a vegan better? How does changing a sandwich like the Whopper, known for being a 100% all beef patty hamburger, help the store sell burgers to the old fans of the Whopper or the vegans they want to attract?
I have to make this example using food because the arguments around changing a 31 year old comic book character always boil down to the same two: “Why not?” and “Well, straight people have so many characters anyway, it’s not like you’re losing anything significant!”
Both of these arguments sidestep two VERY IMPORTANT arguments that need to be addressed first: “Why should this character be changed?” and “Is this a beneficial change to the character that helps the character, the readers, or the sale of our books?” These have to be asked and answered first, otherwise there is no point to making the change. But don’t worry, I’ll address the other two as well.
Changes to characters in comics happen all the time. That isn’t new. Superman has gained and lost powers, Spider-Man had major costume design changes and perma-death for characters like Uncle Ben, and some characters have even been replaced, like the death of Barry Allen in “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, where he was replaced by Wally West, (who was the Flash I grew up with). But before making a major change, the first thing writers have to keep in mind with comics is that it is, in part, a customer-service industry depending on the readers wanting to continue buying the comics. The bigger and more significant the change, the more you risk alienating your customers and preventing them from buying not just that book, but maybe all your books, and telling their friends not to buy them either. Negativity spreads way faster than positivity; it’s way easier to lose customers from a bad dining experience, for instance, than to keep them. Customer service venues like restaurants know this all too well. This is why most comic book changes, like Superman Red/Blue or the death of Superman, are usually planned with an outcome in mind, like reversing the change if fans didn’t like it, or justifying the change with a lengthy, well-written story that provides an argument to the fans on why they’re making a drastic change.
To put it bluntly: Comic readers are used to change and even embrace changes. But not every change has equal weight, and the bigger the change the writers want to make, the more justification they’re going to need to make it. Making a huge change poorly can sour the fans to the characters and the comics, such as having Hal Jordan self-destruct and kill most of the Green Lantern Corp, leaving old fans pissed and taking years to fix to reconcile those decisions. Changing Robin is a really poor choice done in haste for the benefit of the writer, Meghan Fiztmartin, not for the character, bi people, or Tim’s fanbase.
PART I: Meet the New Robin, Tim Drake
Tim Drake, as a character, was actually already a change to a set of ideas regarding Robin that failed spectacularly with Jason Todd, the second Robin. DC comics had created a second Robin when they wanted the original Robin, Dick Grayson, to start growing up and being used away from Batman. To replace him, since Robin has been around as Batman’s partner since just a few months after Batman’s introduction, the writers created Jason Todd. Now, pre-Crisis, he was pretty much a carbon copy of Dick; nearly exactly the same origin and everything. After Crisis, DC decided to use the opportunity to change the character in a drastic way: they were going to make this new Robin an angry, troubled youth and much more prone to violence to change the dynamic between the Dynamic Duo.
This failed hard. Readers didn’t like the angry new Robin, and eventually, were so vocal about it that DC decided to write a story where fans could choose his fate; famously, fans had a change of heart and decided to let him live, but thanks to the efforts of an auto-dialer, the vote was tallied up in favor of his death. Robin was killed, and Batman was left without a partner.
During the next year, writers headed by Denny O’Neil, cooked up a solution: Tim Drake. During the storyline, “A Lonely Place of Dying”, the effect of Jason’s death is explored through the eyes of Batman, Dick Grayson, and new character Tim Drake, who gives a famous and impassioned to the Batman about why he needs Robin. Not only did this work well the readers, it worked SO WELL, that Tim Drake as Robin got his own mini-series, and that worked so well, that he became the first Robin to get his own solo book without Batman, where he was the main character; that comic ran for 16 years, over half the life of the character thus far.
Every single relationship he’s had has been straight for his entire 31 year run, and included memorable lovers like Stephanie Brown (the Spoiler), Cassie Sandsmark (Wonder Girl), and even included stories of him considering being the father to Stephanie’s child as a teen, even if the child wasn’t his because he loved her. This was a huge part of their relationship because it dealt with teen romance, pregnancy, and fatherhood in interesting ways the other bat-family members hadn’t tackled.
I have to bring all of this history up to show one important point: Tim Drake as a character ended up being popular because a lot of work went into designing him with an understanding of what the fans would enjoy… not necessarily what they would say they wanted, but with a savvy of knowing what could work, and it paid off. Changes weren’t decided on and made by asking, “why not?” They were made with specific goals and intentions in mind in regards to the audience. This is why he has been successful and one of the most popular characters in DC for years.
PART II: Urban Legends
Fast forwarding 31 years, a mini-series, a 16-year solo series, multiple appearances in video games (like the Arkham series), and spots on cartoon shows like Batman: The Animated Series and Young Justice. Batman: Urban Legends is the series where writer Meghan Fitzmartin and artist Belén Ortega decided to make Robin bisexual. Following another DC universe reboot, Fitzmartin writes that Tim breaks up with Stephanie Brown, a long-term love interest OFF PANEL, and then proceeds to hook him up with a guy named Bernard.
Unlike other major changes to characters, this feels like it’s been done on a whim, mostly for the artists to get attention rather than any benefit to the character. Especially with the long history between Tim Drake and Stephanie Brown, who were created nearly at the same time and have essentially spent the last 30 years on and off together.
New articles are quick to post up praise for making this decision with titles like, “Robin comes out as Bi in DC comics after 81 years“, as though the character has always been waiting to do this and wanted to do this on his own. But it’s a fictional character, and characters are written. He wasn’t written this way before, and he wasn’t designed to be a bi character. He didn’t decide anything; the new writers did. This isn’t about Robin coming out, it’s about the new writers wanting Robin to be bi.
So let’s talk about the arguments they’re making on why.
“Why not?!” This is usually to draw the other person into place to be accused of biphobia. If you’re questioning the change, you must just be against diversity and bi people.
This is why I went through Part I, to talk about Tim’s history. If the premise that changing the character NOW is a superior change, or at least a beneficial change, despite his initial design and 31 years of success, there should be an argument being made that states why this either maintains that quality or improves upon it. “Why not?” doesn’t do either.
And saying that making Robin bi improves the character with the argument that changing the character is a significant win for the bi community due to the change in sexuality also implies that it was important to the character before making the change. Since there are 31 years of invested fans in his straight relationships, this becomes a much more significant loss to a lot of his fanbase than it would be a win for bi people.
“Well, straight people have so many characters anyway, it’s not like you’re losing anything significant! This means more to bi people than to you!” – This argument argues that the significance for fans is in how many characters they relate to, not the personal significance a character may have to them. And I say this as someone who started on a journey with Tim Drake during his introduction in, “A Lonely Place of Dying”, where the writers convinced me this Robin was going to be good.
It’s easier to think about this in terms of children. If I have five children, and you have two, and you take one of mine for yourself, the argument they are making is that I should be content since I still have more children than they do, and that they will value my child more because they have fewer children. However, this ignores the relationship I have with that child. That child is significant to me because of the relationship I have with them, not because I have more children than someone else.
PART III: The Vegan Sandwich
Let’s swap bi people for vegans for just a moment. How would I show that I have vegans’ best interests at heart and attract them to my products? It’s so much easier when you talk about this in food terms because we all have to eat!
Well, first I have to know what vegans believe. Then I have to know what they want, and not just what they say they want, but what will actually meet their needs. Henry Ford used to say, “If I just gave the people what they wanted, I’d have built a faster horse.”
This is where the collision is felt the worst with snap changes to characters like this. Changing Tim Drake to be bi and calling him a “significant bi character” is like putting a vegan patty on a Whopper; we all know what the Whopper was. We know it was never a vegan sandwich. And calling it a significant vegan sandwich is a major misnomer, because we all know the brand name of “Whopper” was built off of beef.
So what’s the solution? Well, it’s a much tougher road, but it’s in creating a significant character from the ground up. If you really want to value a new clientele, then you need to do the work.
This is daunting for modern writers, because that process involves a lot of failure. Bunker from the new 52 is a great example of how difficult it is to make a significant gay character from scratch. It’s the audience that determines whether a character becomes successful by how much they buy the book, not by how much you tell them to like it.
The characters still standing today went through the crucible of time, winning over fans, multiple writers, and avoided fading into obscurity. What’s left has been what WORKS. What’s there is typically what the fans wanted to buy.
Changing that is messing with a core audience that has proven they like that character. Making a change then should be with the consideration to the current base of fans.
Attracting a new set of fans, or trying to appeal to a subset of your fans, is a great business move, but it requires a lot of work. Nothing is more disrespectful to both parties than taking short cuts that piss off both.
Making a significant LGTBQ+ character right now means putting together the bones of a character that can stand as tall as Superman or Captain America, or be beloved by fans outside the character’s (supposed) demographic, like Wonder Woman. Comics are loaded with characters that are one-trick ponies or D-list heroes and villains who never landed with the audience. Taking someone else’s character, putting a new label on it, and calling it a win for yourself is just shameful, and the only person benefitting from this process is Meghan Fitzmartin for making a ‘bold choice’ with a character she inherited, not created, in a move that only glorifies herself, not the character.
Tim Drake being changed to bi is as significant as changing Superman to be gay: Neither character was made with sexuality specifically stated as important, but it IS important after decades of the relationships they’ve had, and that we’ve had with them.
If Meghan Fiztmartin really wants to show love to the bi community, she should focus on making a character that can become icon like these others for 30-80 years; if she does that, then we can talk about how she’s done something meaningful or significant. Until then, she’s only taken someone else’s hard work and tried to put a new label on it to give to a new owner.