After getting to know the Grim Knight in last month's one-shot, we're headed straight back into the mind of Bruce Wayne and his new terrifyingly "jokerized" outlook on the world. The core of The Batman Who Laughs has always focused on dissecting the man at its center, and this issue touches on his impact on the lives of others. Now, that includes a lot of people, but The Batman Who Laughs #4 seems most interested in one of the most controversial aspects of his crime-fighting career: The Robins.
The fact that Bruce Wayne takes in young children and trains them to be crime-fighters—in the process, making them fodder for his villainous rogues gallery—has long been a vital, yet incendiary part of Batman. His first sidekick, Dick Grayson A.K.A. Robin, was introduced in Detective Comics #38 in an effort to engage younger readers in Batman's battle against Gotham's criminal underworld. Robin has been a crucial part of his mythology ever since.
In the '40s, the inclusion of a young boy didn't seem too strange. It reflected the childlike nature of characters like Fawcett Comics' Billy Batson and, of course, the potential audience of the comic. Comic books were also pretty child-friendly. Though Batman's origins were dark, by 1941, he was engaged in more wacky and family-friendly adventures—ones which fit the inclusion of a younger hero who could share in the hijinks. But as Batman's comic adventures evolved, the matter of Bruce Wayne's young charges became far more muddied and complex.
The opening pages of The Batman Who Laughs #4 shift vastly from the horror of the last issue. Gone is the pale visage of Bruce's infected face, and instead the page is filled with smiles...with color...with Robin. The brightly costumed boy is flung across the panels as Bruce explains that when he was struggling he would try and see things through the eyes of the young man who was his first true partner. The one who would fly through the air alongside him, who put his life at risk for him, who truly believed in Batman's mission to save Gotham.
It's the first mention of the Bat-Family outside of Alfred in this miniseries from Scott Snyder, Jock, David Baron and Sal Cipriano. Bruce's thoughts aren't just about Dick—though he does seem to focus in on his "circus eyes"—he mentions all of his children and how he tries to see the world as they do. But, naturally, he's only thinking of this as he moves closer to seeing through the eyes of the Batman Who Laughs, something which Alfred is understandably devastated by.
The fact that the wider Bat-Family hasn't appeared in The Batman Who Laughs so far has been a stroke of genius. It's a story about Bruce, his psyche, his demons, and the way that his overwhelming obsession with protecting Gotham has created a world where his life is probably the worst version of any of the Bruces who exist in the multiverse. The choice to not include them makes the introduction of Robin even more jarring and effecting. At the moment that Bruce is to closest to completely losing himself, the first thing he thinks of is "his children." It's an insight into what means something to him, what matters, and what he will miss when he fully devolves into the Batman Who Laughs. It's also a rare moment of truth about his coping mechanisms, because now we know that when things get rough he tries to think about how his innocent and beloved children might see the situation that he's in.
The children here are not just Bruce's, though, as he's engaged Jim Gordon's son into his scheme to beat the Batman Who Laughs. Despite James Jr's past as a sociopathic killer, he's on the path to recovery, a rare thing in Gotham. And this offers up another example of Bruce's willingness to put vulnerable people in harm's way in the pursuit of justice.
So, if we're to accept that Bruce is unavoidably intertwined and affected by Dick Grayson and the Robins, then it makes sense that the Batman Who Laughs has an equivalent group of young charges. Now anyone who's met the Batman Who Laughs before this will know that this horrifying version of Bruce does indeed have a Bat-Family of his own: a horde of chained-up Robins who only say the word “Crow,” which is a cruel reference to the Joker’s weapon that killed Jason Todd during “A Death in the Family.”
It's a twisted and grim reflection of Bruce's choices, and here we see something truly bleak, as Jim Gordon's closeness to Batman once again puts him in the path of danger. Bruce's role as Batman and obsession with avenging his parents could arguably be said to "eat him up," but that phrase takes on a whole new meaning here as we see the Robins (Who Laugh) begin to feast on Jim Gordon.
This is a no turning back moment for the meeting of the two worlds and the two Batmen. There's a finality to the brutality of it, the crossing of the streams which sees the inhabitants of one world potentially killing a key member of the other. Jim Gordon is as much a part of Batman's story as the Robins, and as these two parts of two very different Gothams collide, Bruce and his evil alter-ego finally face off.
Throughout this series, readers have constantly been reminded that the biggest threat the Batman Who Laughs wields over Bruce is the fact that he is Bruce, so he knows exactly what his enemy is thinking at all times. And just as this issue began with Bruce trying to see through the eyes of his children, we end by seeing the Batman Who Laughs' feral wards eating Gordon. As the pair face down, Bruce is ultimately trapped by his predictability. Unable to save himself or the ones that he loves, things seem dire for Gotham's most famous son, and it seems particularly poignant that as he's fired on, all he can see is the color that his first child wore.
Rosie Knight writes about comics, movies and TV for DCComics.com and DCUniverse.com. Be sure to follow her on Twitter at @RosieMarx.