We all know Batman, of course. Pipe-smoking millionaire who, for no particular reason, dresses in a devil-horned cowl and little purple gloves, fighting crime in Gotham with his batarangs and trusty .45. That is, I should say, the Batman as we collectively met him in 1939. As I set forth in previous columns, one thing I’ve always enjoyed is the evolution of the iconic four-color heroes of American comics; the manner in which aspects of their legends were grafted on, cut away, or sanded down until they more or less became the character that everybody, regardless of where they fall on the nerd spectrum*, knows.
Any mall-walking grandma or post-verbal toddler could tell you the basics of Bruce Wayne’s tragic backstory (first presented in his fourth appearance in Detective Comics) and his alter-ego of the Batman. They might mention the Joker, the Batcave, and the Batmobile. But they all will mention Robin. It’s the two-beat phrase that completes the ingrained, ancestral melody that begins “Batman and...” There have been multiple Boys Wonder over the years, each a variation on the theme, but let’s focus up (“Good luck, Jones,” I hear you saying) on the alpha, the master mold, the archetype. Let’s talk about a boy named Dick.
He was, honestly, just a gimmick. Although, as with many of the Golden Age comics which were products of multi-artist studios and long before the days of creator’s rights, we can’t say for certain who originated the idea of Robin (Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson all have fingerprints in the clay), we can at least agree that the Boy Wonder was both an innovation and a solution to a problem. Though it may surprise some to learn, Batman’s fabled “grim avenger of the night” persona really only existed for less than a year. Batman was an immediate hit, clearly the yin to Superman’s yang (yeah, I didn’t feel comfortable writing that either), but around the offices of National Allied Publications (the pupae stage of DC Comics), there was some pushback against the dark, weird, pulp-influenced stories that their number 2 superhero was becoming known for. These comics were aimed at readers aged six to twelve, so maybe tone down the mad scientists and vampires - and, hey, how about we ditch the gun? What if, to offset the inherent broodiness of our Dark Knight, we give the guy a sidekick?
Sidekicks, or partners-in-crimefighting, were nothing new. The Lone Ranger had Tonto, Zorro had Bernardo; going way back, Robin Hood had Little John (and a bunch of Merry Men) and even farther back (all the way back to undergrad Lit) Gilgamesh had Enkidu. But the model most likely referenced was Sherlock Holmes’ Watson - the humanizing right-hand of the complicated, driven Great Detective. But a kid? And make no mistake, friends, no matter what retcons would like you to believe, the boy that Bruce Wayne takes as his ward is clearly a kid of not more than nine or ten years of age. Why, that’s about the same age as the readers of those very comic books!
Smooth move, National.
The gimmick was a master stroke: give our hero a partner that will reflect our readers, allowing young Batman fans a fantasy self-insert into the colorful adventures of their favorite caped crusader. While a grown-up hero - especially a non-powered human one like Batman - was a figure that children could aspire to be, Robin was a hero they could imagine being right now!
Orphaned circus aerialist Dick Grayson, taken in by a sympathetic millionaire who gives him not just a fantastic home and lifestyle but also a thrilling and deadly serious mission to stamp out crime such as that which killed his parents, became an instant sensation (indeed the hype from his first cover - “THE SENSATIONAL CHARACTER FIND OF 1940” - was legit) and an instant trope of the genre to be copied and, later, to be mocked and deconstructed.
A laughing daredevil in bright colors (and tiny briefs and elven booties) popped right off the page standing next to his shadowy mentor - who, suddenly, began smiling, taking actual pleasure in his work. They operated as the ideal team, executing perfectly synced fighting moves and trading puns as the bad guys (also becoming more colorful) fell under their gloved fists. If only it could have stayed that perfect, innocent, and fun forever. But, Time rolls on, and kids grow up.
And that’s long been a problem with these eternally drawn-out, storied lives of our superheroes: kids grow up. Both the young characters and their readers. Robin was meant to reflect his audience, simple enough, but Time, History, and Society would just not stop changing that audience.
The innocence of those early days went unchallenged by the kids those stories were written for until psychiatrist Frederick Wertham**, in his notorious 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, blew the lid off what, according to him, were the dangerous messages hidden in American comics. Batman and Robin were clearly indulging in a pedophilic homosexual relationship. Superman was clearly coded as an exemplar of the Fascist ideology. Wonder Woman was indoctrinating our youth into BDSM practices and lesbianism (okay, he might’ve been on to something there). It was the first time anyone from the adult world of academia had cast a critical eye on those brightly colored adventures created as face value entertainment for children. Soon the comics publishers would preemptively appease a worried public by collectively adopting the self-censorious Comics Code.
The impact in Batman comics at that time was minimal, although the various artists on those titles began drawing Robin as an older kid of 12 or 13. Our little boy was growing up!
It was during the Silver Age of comics, the early ‘60s and on, that Dick Grayson faced his biggest challenge: puberty. Sort of. Faced with the seismic impact of Marvel Comics and their stylistic focus on “heroes with problems and personalities,” DC tried to inject a little of that youth-centric hipness into their line when they banded their young sidekicks into their own group, the Teen Titans. This happenin’ band of heroes didn’t need their squaresville mentors to help them tackle the bad guys, they were on their own trip, dig? It was a fine concept even if the dialogue read like a middle-aged guy’s hacky impersonation of what the kids sounded like - and it was (sorry, Bob Haney). Now Robin the Teen Wonder had peers, pals, and crushes (Babs “Batgirl” Gordon, of course, and all the Titans had warm feelings for teammate Wonder Girl).
Interesting that it was in the Sixties, as the comics writers were tentatively making Robin a distinct character - his own man - that a TV show would somewhat regressively reduce him to a caricature of his classic “self.” While I have nothing but love for ABC’s Batman and Burt Ward’s turn as Dick, it must’ve been a pain in the ass for the writers at DC who were forced to lean into the campy appeal of their TV counterpart.
But something revolutionary was starting to happen at DC (and Marvel); just as the short-lived Batman TV show phenomenon was dying down, a new generation of writers and artists was moving in. This wave of talent was actually (gulp) young, young enough to have participated in anti-war demonstrations, smoked pot, and seen the Beatles live. They were part of the sea change in superhero comics, the creators who had been fans first, who wanted to claim ownership of their childhood heroes and bring them up-to-date with the times.
The time had come...for Robin to have sideburns.
And for the new crop of writers and artists to grab the wheel and veer hard and fast away from the BIFF! BAM! KAPOW! of the previous few years. Batman became dark again, the Joker started to kill again, and Dick Grayson was enrolled at Hudson University and prone to having tense, Fresh Prince-esque “parents just don’t understand” blow-ups with Bruce anytime he stopped by the old man’s swanky new penthouse atop the Wayne Foundation building in downtown Gotham (probably to raid the fridge and get Alfred to do his laundry, like any college kid).
As much as the post-Miller and Moore 1980s are pointed to as the time in which superhero comics in general became tailored for a much more savvy, mature reader, it began much sooner than that. In the 1970s, the smart, hip, comparatively young creators such as writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams were already starting to create stories addressing the absurdities of their childhood heroes and trying to rectify them for older readers. It was the beginning of the deconstruction, the self-awareness that the original core audience of pre- and middle-schoolers never asked for. Slowly, superhero comics were not being made for them but for their sharper older siblings who were too embarrassed to be reading the same kind of stories that amused their younger selves. And, for the most part, mainstream comics have kept aging up their characters and stories, following the money of the aging Gen-Xers and Millennials who greedily clutched them to their chests, the better to keep them from those unsophisticated kids. (I’ll admit that I was an unwitting part of that problem. That’s my g-g-g-generation. Though, at the time, as a kid of the ‘70s and ‘80s I had no problem with it as my favorite superheroes seemed to be maturing right alongside me - these shifts are nearly invisible while you’re living through them).
Robin could no longer unironically utter a phrase beginning “Holy (fill-in-the-blank)” and he could no longer just hang with his mentor without a battle over ideologies. The Dynamic Duo were as strained as any real father/son combo could be. But, at least, Dick was getting laid.
For realsies, as any fan of the classic run of New Teen Titans could tell you. Now, maybe he’d already started off-panel, groping and fumbling with Babs (an older woman, yet) in the Batcave, but it was more directly indicated in a quasi-notorious panel in 1984’s New Teen Titans #1 (the second, Direct Market series) wherein Dick is shown in bed with his alien girlfriend Kory a.k.a. Starfire. Both characters were “of age” and, while not explicit in any way, we all knew what was up. Good on ya, Dick.
Fully grown and clearly carving out a life for himself out of the enormous bat-winged shadow of his legal guardian/friend, there was just one rite of passage left for the Man Wonder: a new persona. With a stylistic nod to the Dark Knight color scheme as well as a name borrowed as tribute to the Kandorian alter-ego of his dad’s work friend/dorky “uncle” Superman, Dick created the new identity of Nightwing (in 1984’s Tales of the Teen Titans #44). Sorry, knee-fetishists, this time Dick was much more appropriately dressed for posing on rooftop gargoyles.
Nightwing not only continued to lead the Titans, he got his own title and his own city. That’s right; you know you’ve made it in the DCU when they create a whole new fictional town for you to bust heads in and, for Nightwing, they introduced Bludhaven. Edgy! But that was the ‘90s for you.
If this were all one tidy story of a young boy’s development under the guiding hand of a father figure into a remarkable man who forges his own path, we could wrap it up there. But this is comics, and for Dick Grayson there have continued to be wild life shifts such as having his identity revealed to the public, going into the espionage game as a non-costumed agent of Spyral, going back to being Nightwing, getting shot in the head and losing his memory (and briefly eschewing the snicker-inducing name “Dick” for the totally butch “Ric”), getting better (and reclaiming “Dick”). A suitably wild ride for the daring young man on the flying trapeze.
And while all that was happening to Mr. Grayson?
Nature (Batman) abhors a vacuum (lack of Robin) and thus, while Dick was transitioning into Nightwing, DC started the revolving door of Boy (and Girl) Wonders. First came poor, shit-upon Jason Todd who was fairly quickly killed by either the Joker or a 50 cents-a-call dial-in vote (a.k.a. a lot of haters with a buttload of quarters), then came brilliant next-mansion neighbor kid Tim Drake who became the third Robin but the first to graduate to big boy pants (a development that actually made national news shows). Then former Spoiler Stephanie Brown became the fourth and, canonically, the first female Robin. And then, in a twist worthy of a Maury Povich episode, came Bruce’s surprise biological son by way of Talia al Ghul, Damian Wayne (created by baby doctor Grant Morrison). The sheer number of sidekicks this one seemingly eternally 35 year-old man has trained and “fathered” during his crime fighting career is one of the sore thumbs of the DCU’s elastic time flow and an example of what I call “The Flipped Wooderson Effect.” Just picture Bruce Wayne paraphrasing Matthew McConaughey‘s character from Dazed and Confused:
“That’s what I love about these kid sidekicks, man. They get older, I stay the same age.”
The important thing is that, thanks to the talented writers involved, each of these replacement sidekicks has had a distinct personality and Dick’s rank amongst them has never been questioned. He’s the relatable, cool big brother to them all; the one to help explain Bruce’s unreadable moods. Amongst the Robins, he’s still the first, the favorite, and, it must be said, the one with the least amount of baggage. Still the idealist, still the quipster, still the one with an unshakeable moral code, and still the one that makes Bruce smile.
As has been made clear in recent-ish storylines such as the death of Bruce Wayne in “Batman R.I.P.” (it didn’t take) and the current Future State arc in which Timothy “Jace” Fox becomes the near-future’s Dark Knight, Dick Grayson was never meant to be the next Batman. Though he has donned the pointy cowl several times to fill the role in times of need, it was always clearly an awkward fit. He was always meant to be a star, to fly in a spotlight, even as the ominously named Nightwing. A proud father’s son and a gimmick that paid off.
*I’ve been tested, by the way, and you’ll be surprised to hear that I’m not at the far end of said spectrum. Apparently, there are nerdier nerds than I! Just imagine!
**Wertham catches a lot of flack as the great bugaboo of American comics whose spurious conclusions brought the hammer of censorship down and resulted in a lot of jobs lost and undeserved shame heaped on the creators and fans, but I highly recommend a buzz through the man’s Wikipedia at least as you’d be surprised what an admirable, progressive and well-intentioned guy he was. Except for the comics. Which he fucked over good.