[WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for "Batman: Rebirth" #1.]
After kicking things off with the release of a Geoff-Johns-penned special issue, the DC Comics Rebirth officially got underway this week, with Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and friends receiving their first standalone issues under the "Rebirth" banner. And for fans of the Dark Knight, the issue handing the author duties from Scott Snyder to Tom King is of particular interest. Because "Batman: Rebirth" #1 just introduced a brand new sidekick for the hero - and it wasn't what fans were expecting.
It isn't Robin, it's not Batgirl, and it's not... well, any character that most fans of the hero who stick to TV, movies or the mainline "Justice League" comic arcs will know. But it marks an important day for the series, assuming it's a sign of where King will take the series. For new fans, readers, or simply curious Bat-thusiasts, allow us to break down the weight and meaning behind "Batman: Rebirth"s biggest change, and how long the story has been in the works.
Meet Duke Thomas
The man of the hour is Duke Thomas, a young Gothamite who was first introduced to readers in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's "Batman: Zero Year" series, the origin story of the New 52's version of Batman. In it, Riddler ended up ruling over a flooded, powerless Gotham - forcing Bruce Wayne to learn his lessons fast. One young boy happened upon the Dark Knight (in a famous piece of artwork used to market the change in status quo, and pictured above) before eventually joining his family in saving Batman's life and nursing him back to health in secret.
While his family tried to survive, Duke showed that rescuing the city's protector wasn't a random act of determination and courage, painstakingly studying (as much as a child could) to pose an unsolvable riddle to the Riddler - the only way for a citizen to lift his stranglehold on the city. It wouldn't have been odd for him to be featured only in the origin story, but as the series jumped back to its 'present' timeline, around five years after 'Zero Year,' Duke soon became something of a reoccurring face - if not a DC Comics star in the making.
He's Been Robin Before... Sort Of
Readers already had a look at one possible future for Duke, appearing as the new (armored) Robin in the horrible-possible-future event "Futures End." In that series, Duke became Batman's next sidekick, succeeding the late Damian Wayne. The story focused mainly on Bruce coming to terms with the fact (as he has so many times) that he can't let the past habits or attitudes of a sidekick color his ideas of the next - as seen with Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Tim Drake. But as much as Duke proved an important dose of ethnic diversity in the future of the Batman Family, it was only a possible future.
Duke's next major appearance came when the Joker returned to Gotham, deciphering Batman's true identity, and realizing the Thomas family would make a fitting hostage in "Batman: Endgame." In the end, Duke was spared from the Joker's smile-inducing toxin - but his family wasn't (Editor's note: this plot point is alluded to directly in "Batman: Rebirth" #1 without explanation, depicting Duke's parents grinning like Joker's victims).
In the current DC Comics continuity, Duke Thomas put his brush with the Bat to use in the real world. Joining up with a group of teens who took inspiration not from Batman, but Robin - someone their age who adopted the cause, not an older man who became a nightmare - and waged their own war on the streets and in the underworld of Gotham City.
As you might guess, "We Are... Robin" was an attempt by writer Lee Bermejo to bring some flexibility and innovation to the Batman side of DC's universe, using the Robin idea to incorporate young, motivated vigilantes from all walks of life (and all with their own idols in Gotham's crimefighting community). As the de facto 'star' of the series, it was obvious DC had greater things in mind for Duke. And in an unexpected way, Scott Snyder actually revealed his destiny some months ago.
The Birth of Lark
Fans began debating and concocting theories surrounding the fate of Duke Thomas with renewed energy when a tease of artwork from "Batman" #35 featured the scene above: Batman, missing a hand, waging war against unknown alien monsters with two allies at his side. One, the ally known as 'Bluebird' (previously seen in the future "Batman Eternal" series) and the other, an unknown man referred to only as 'Lark.'
Given the character's appearance and the suspicion that DC was setting the stage for Duke Thomas to rise to Batman's side as Robin, the obvious explanation was formed immediately: this was a glimpse of Duke's, Bruce's, and Gotham's fate.
Unfortunately, the scene turned out be nothing but a vision caused by a particularly clever strain of the Scarecrow's Fear Toxin, and was soon brushed aside for the actual story (continued in "Endgame"). But when "Batman: Rebirth" #1 hit store shelves this week, writers Scott Snyder and Tom King finally delivered on the constant teases, showing Bruce Wayne recruiting Duke for, in his own words, "something new."
Bearing the moniker 'Lark' and a yellow-and-black suit that feels a whole lot closer to the New 52's recently re-invented 'Batgirl' suit, Duke gets put into the field fast, helping Batman foil the master plan of the newly-superpowered Calendar Man. And with the threat handled, the issue - setting the stage for "Batman" #1 releasing in two weeks - concludes with Bruce and Duke training together on the Wayne property (taking turns kicking down a massive tree in a clear homage to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's "Batman: Year One").
Given Bruce's willingness to take on a new form of sidekick/partner/ally, and the famous origin story being alluded to as the partnership is formed, fans should get used to seeing Duke-- we mean, Lark growing into his own during Tom King's upcoming series. So for readers unsure of the writer's abilities to keep the momentum of Snyder's game-changing-run going, DC just dropped one compelling hook (if a new member of the Batman Family is up your alley).
It will be interesting to see what story King has in mind, and where Lark fits into the emergence of the new superheroes Gotham and Gotham Girl (teased in "DC Universe: Rebirth") - not to mention the larger DC Universe as a whole. No matter what, it's good news for fans of greater diversity in the heroes being highlighted by the publisher, and for those long anticipating a bigger role for Duke Thomas to play.
Batman: Rebirth #1 is available now.
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