The Signal: The Evolution of Batman’s sidekick Duke Thomas
By Drew Mollo
Dark Knights: Metal #1 drops in comic shops next week and this highly anticipated series reuniting Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo has already highlighted important changes ahead for Batman and the DC Universe in general.
One such change has been revealed regarding Batman’s current partner, Duke Thomas. Duke will be given his own suit and codename. No familiar red, yellow and green colors… this is NOT Robin. Duke will be an original character called The Signal featured in the upcoming Batman and The Signal series written by Snyder and Tony Patrick debuting in the fall. Before the days get darker*, let’s look at Duke Thomas and see how he has evolved as a character under the eye of Gotham’s Dark Knight.
(*See what we did there?)
We were first introduced to Duke Thomas in the New 52 during the Zero Year storyline. At that time, Gotham was under the control of The Riddler who not only crippled the city but allowed it to become an overgrown kingdom where he challenged would-be contenders with riddles that could restore the city, but failure would cost them their lives. Bruce Wayne met Duke Thomas who not only saved his life but also was preparing to challenge the Riddler with a riddle he could not answer, Gotham ultimate salvation which Batman would succeed in accomplishing.
Years later, Duke’s life would be changed forever during the events of Endgame, which had the Joker returning to Gotham ready with the ultimate endgame for his battle with Batman. Duke ended up losing his parents in a similar scenario to Bruce Wayne’s, an act meant to insinuate that the Joker knew Batman’s true identity. While his parents did not die due to Batman’s intervention, their minds were forever lost in the madness of Joker’s trademark laughing gas and Duke ended up an orphan.
While attempting to adjust to foster care, Duke Thomas ended up stumbling upon a plot to bomb Gotham’s landmarks while searching for his foster parents. He would help the Robins prevent the destruction from befalling the city, earning him a spot on their team. His assistance to the vigilante team would continue in the We Are Robin book until The Robin War storyline. Duke would also make appearances in Batman’s Superheavy arc investigating the mysterious Mr. Bloom and his connection to other Gotham crime bosses. During an escape gone wrong, he is saved last minute by Bruce Wayne slowly returning to his role as Batman. Later as a reward for his bravery and assistance, Duke would receive an invitation from Bruce Wayne to be his new partner initially helping him with a case involving Calendar Man. When asked if he was going to be just another Robin, Bruce Wayne (and in some ways Scott Snyder) said “No, I’m trying something different. Something better, I hope.”
During DC Rebirth, Duke Thomas’s training was featured in main storylines as well as back up stories in Snyder’s All-Star Batman. Wearing a modified yellow and black suit with a Bat symbol and helmet, Duke was training under Alfred’s “Wheel of Pain”, a compressed variation of all the training techniques used for Batman’s previous partners. Recently in Dark Days: The Casting, it is revealed by the Joker who was imprisoned in a secret compartment in the Batcave that Duke’s place as Batman’s partner is not random. Duke is revealed to be a metahuman with a connection to the mysterious metals serving as important clues to Dark Days: Metal. Duke’s codename is a reference to a label given to him by the Joker, stating that his concealed role in the upcoming event made him a target from the villain who was simply seeking to avert it.
As a character, Duke Thomas has similarities to previous Batman sidekicks but also characteristics that are more aligned with what DC Comics is attempting to do since Rebirth. Like Dick Grayson, he was orphaned by crime; an event he was borne to witness. Like Jason Todd, he struggled with being an orphan and did his best to master survival on the streets of Gotham. Like Tim Drake, he has a level of intelligence and adaptability that with the right training could surpass Batman given time. In some ways, his time as a Robin helped him transition beyond sidekick into the role of partner. It would be so simple to make Duke Thomas a new Robin (which brings to my mind Marlon Wayans unexploited opportunity to play Robin in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns) but instead, he wasn’t a sidekick but an equal partner. Duke had the opportunity to build upon a relationship with Bruce Wayne that took the other sidekicks years to reach. Duke is a new character and that is what DC Comics is trying to attempt with their comic book universe now: pushing classic characters to new heights while respecting their past but also creating new characters that can stand on their own. In the last four years, we’ve watched Duke evolve from a bystander to equal partner in Batman’s world. Hopefully his involvement in Dark Days: Metal will continue that transition and by then optimistically his codename will have grown on me.
-Drew Mollo is a freelance writer specializing in Comics media