To paraphrase one of the most popular carpenters of 1st century Judea, “Suffer the little children to something something something” and, boy, did the creators of the Golden Age of comics take that to heart. But, then again, they would’ve been stupid to do otherwise once they saw the sales bump Detective Comics and Batman got after the 1940 introduction of Robin the Boy Wonder. The name of the game became “sidekicks,” and every hero or heroine who was any hero or heroine suddenly had to have one.
As I pointed out in my previous column about Master Dick Grayson, Robin was hardly the first heroic tagalong but he was the first kid sidekick. Now, amongst all of the very ridiculous tropes one accepts - indeed, eagerly embraces - as a fan of superhero comics, i.e. physics and anatomy defying superpowers, secret identities, ludicrous costumes, fighting in capes, perhaps none are as troubling and irresponsible as the kid sidekick. Of course they were intended as a wish-fulfillment substitute for the young reader, but to any objective, adult viewpoint it’s a completely wrong-headed concept. We’re talking about adults who, while perhaps expertly trained or superpowered, have clearly made some questionable if altruistic life choices and compound those by deciding it’s perfectly acceptable to enlist the aid of brightly garbed children (almost never their own child or kin) in the very dangerous and illegal work of vigilante justice.
Let’s say that I am a handsome, unmarried, and suspiciously fit millionaire (this tracks) and I approach you, a harried but good-hearted administrator of a home for underprivileged orphans. Maybe, as we roam the halls looking at the youngsters, I ask leading questions about whether any of the children have lost their families to violent crime. Or been exposed to unknown chemicals. Or been found in proximity to the wreckage of an unearthly craft. Maybe I want to know if any of the kids have been heard uttering oaths of vengeance at their parents’ graves. Would you feel comfortable letting me adopt one of your charges?
Oh, but in the years between the Great Depression and the Second World War, you could’ve had your pick! Dick Grayson was hardly the only sad soul to hit the super-adoption jackpot. Obviously Steve Rogers quickly ended up with a partner in orphaned Army camp “mascot” (is that a thing? Like, legally?) Bucky Barnes who fought the Axis alongside Captain America as the non-powered, masked hero cleverly codenamed “Bucky.” (I don’t think Joe Simon and Jack Kirby lost much sleep over that one.) Around the same time and at the same publisher (Timely Comics, the one-day Marvel), the original Human Torch, a combustible android named Jim Hammond, picked up a kid sidekick who was the (say it with me) orphaned son of his creator’s married assistants who had since joined a circus (a popular place to find sidekicks, I hear) and could, incidentally, burst into flame. The boy’s name was Thomas Raymond which could be mangled into the snazzy codename “Toro.” Toro is also Spanish for “bull” which is exactly what I think of when I see a young boy on fire(?).
Wesley Dodds, the Golden Age Sandman, though clearly a lift of certain other slouch-hatted pulp heroes, had a couple of great gimmicks going for him. One was a gun that fired sleeping gas, the other was an iconic look with cloak, hat and eerie gas mask. That was until his girlfriend’s (orphaned!) nephew Sandy Hawkins showed up. Next thing you know, Dodds is wearing a skintight yellow and purple outfit and fighting crime with the assistance of Sandy the Golden Boy. Yeah.
I don’t know which is worse, the laziness of those early comics creators deciding that no kid reader would ever question the lack of a secret identity for those youthful sidekicks (why wear a mask when your “codename” is just your name name?) or the obliviousness that would lead the uninspired duo of writer France Herron and artist Jack Kirby (an obscure hack if ever there was one) chasing that sweet “Batman and Robin” magic to create the new smash hit father and son crime fighting team of Mr. Scarlet and Pinky the Whiz Kid.
I’m just gonna give you a second to let Mr. Scarlet and Pinky sink in. Go ahead. Let me know when you’re ready to move on….
By the time of the Silver Age (roughly the mid-‘50s to the late ‘60s), kid sidekicks were still popping up but they tended to be just young copies of their mentors. That’s when Robin finally found some friends in his peer group like Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Aqualad and Speedy. You’ll notice most of these sidekicks are DC characters. True. Marvel became Marvel in the early ‘60s and, although Captain America would return from the past, Stan Lee and company decided to leave the sidekick behind. In fact, Bucky’s death during the last days of WW2 became a key component of Cap’s Silver Age PTSD. It was a fairly radical acknowledgment for its time that there were consequences to endangering the lives of adolescents, even for a noble cause. (Someone may have wanted to clue Bruce Wayne in on this before Jason Todd came a-callin’.) But, as I’ve said before, superhero continuities are Silly Putty so, eventually Marvel would dust off the original Human Torch and, not long after, Toro (revealed to have been a mutant and/or Inhuman all along). Even farther down the line - after decades of Marvel claiming that, unlike many dear departed comics characters, Bucky would “stay dead” - writer Ed Brubaker created a fascinating, Manchurian Candidate twist on the character, revealing that he’d never truly died but had been indoctrinated as the deadly Winter Soldier. Who, I feel the need to stress, never operated under the name “Bucky the Winter Soldier.”
But it wasn’t always orphaned children joining the superhero set (and thank God for that because there are - just - so - many - orphans), there were also variations on the theme even in the earliest days of comics. One was the proliferation of non-powered “civilian” sidekicks. Rarely of much use as crime fighters, these tagalongs were mostly around to provide comic relief. Probably the most famous is Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen - sometimes a help, but mostly a hostage. The same could be said for Wonder Woman’s closest buddy in Man’s World, college sorority gal and unapologetic BBW Etta Candy who mostly helped by sitting on bad guys and constantly saying, “Woo woo!” Rotund goofballs were a popular stock character from movies to Vaudeville, all the way back to Shakespeare and the old farts he stole from, and so you had the deadly dry adventures of the original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, enlivened by the antics of his cab-driving buddy Doiby Dickles* and the surreal adventures of Plastic Man made even more cartoonish by the presence of Woozy Winks.**
If at all possible, all three in a row
The Golden Age Captain Marvel (orphan Billy Batson) has to be credited with having the largest gaggle of superpowered sidekicks, including:
-Mary Marvel (his long-lost sister Mary, also orphaned but happily adopted)
-Captain Marvel Jr (pal Freddy Freeman, orphan paperboy)
-The three Lieutenant Marvels, “Tall Billy,” “Fat Billy,” and “Hill Billy” (all named Billy Batson, just like Cap, but, hopefully, not all orphans)
-Hoppy the Marvel Bunny (a talking cartoon rabbit; status of parental mortality unknown)
-Mr. Tawky Tawny (not exactly “superpowered,” but he is an anthropomorphic, intelligent tiger fond of green pinstripe suits)
So, that’s fine, the more the merrier, but then we come to the addition of “Uncle Marvel,” a roly-poly old man named Dudley H. Dudley who cons his way into the Marvel Family though he has no powers. A man with obvious delusions and a deathwish that the Marvels allow to follow them into danger wearing his own self-made version of the Captain Marvel costume. While it may seem that they are just humoring a harmless old man, this smacks to me of blatant elder abuse.
Special mention must also be made of the variation devised by writer Jerry Siegel (Superman’s co-creator). This duo was comprised of a teenaged hero, the Star Spangled Kid (rich kid with a cosmic belt Sylvester Pemberton) and his grown-up sidekick Stripesy (his chauffeur and mechanic Pat Dugan, portrayed on the HBOMax show Stargirl by Luke Wilson). Goofy names aside, that twist on the formula was a welcome change on the paternal, mentor-mentee, “Well done, old chum” paradigm. And mixing things up is something any writer looks to do when approaching overly familiar, well-trod tropes.
But then you get my last two pairs of examples.
Over at Holyoke Comics, in 1941, their character of Cat-Man (similar in appearance to the later DC villain, but not related) debuted his new sidekick Kitten. Cat-Man was David Merrywether, a P.I. (later Army officer) who was raised in the Burmese jungle by a tigress. He has cat powers (somehow) and an orange and red Batman knockoff costume. Kitten is Katie Conn, an orphan(!) circus acrobat(!) that David adopts and eventually trains as his sidekick. Oh, and she’s an 11 year-old girl. With no powers. A grown man, unmarried, adopting an 11 year-old girl might raise an eyebrow or two, but then you add in the crime fighting…
And not to be outdone, Harvey Comics had launched their very successful (and still fondly remembered) superheroine Black Cat in 1941. For ten years, Hollywood actress and stuntwoman Linda Turner fought crime with no powers but a snazzy outfit complete with pointy mask and a badass motorcycle. But then in 1951, as sales were dipping, they decided to give Linda a sidekick. Enter orphaned(!!) circus acrobat(!!) Kitt Weston who would be adopted by Linda and trained to join her crime crusade as (you might want to sit down for this one) Black Kitten. A grown woman, unmarried, adopting a 13 year-old boy might raise an eyebrow or two, but then you have her fitting him with a skintight black catsuit… Apparently readers were as disturbed by this example as I am today, since Black Kitten was introduced just two issues before Black Cat Comics dropped the superhero nonsense and became a horror book.
While we can all applaud the creators who made the ludicrousness of kid sidekicks work during those early boom years, and the creators over the decades who have found ways to justify and develop those successful remaining characters into viable icons on their own (like the Teen Titans or Winter Soldier), it’s still a bizarre and troubling concept that has been dissected, analyzed, parodied and satirized (if you have a strong stomach, be sure to check out writer-artist Rick Veitch’s pitch black 1991 miniseries Bratpack - available in collected form from Image Comics) since Frederic Wertham first asked, “Whatcha reading there, Timmy?”
Please, comics creators, leave the orphans alone. They’ve suffered enough.
Readers, if you or anyone you know suspects that a child of any age - especially orphans - are being groomed to become a masked crimefighter by a well-meaning but obsessed wealthy person with a cave and/or revolving bookcase, please contact Child Protective Services or your local crisis center. Thank you.
*A stage name I have considered using upon my entrance into the adult film industry.
For more look at sidekicks, check out John Campbell's article here!