Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The History of Robin

When the original Robin the Boy Wonder was introduced way way back in 1940, he was meant to be “our” character, the one fans could relate to. At the time, it was a largely youthful audience who read comics, so the idea was that while you could look up to and admire Batman, you could actually be Robin, and that was your ticket to hanging out with the cool adults who had planes and fought crime.

So followed Bucky and a slew of other teenage heroes of the Golden Age and beyond, but best I know (and please correct me actual comic book historians), Robin came first.

What’s interesting to me is that over the seven decades Robin has existed as a concept, I do believe no major character has seen as much turnover as far as the fellow wearing the mask (and again, please correct me—but Green Lantern doesn’t count). Also of note is that the original Robin, Dick Grayson, is one of those rare comic book characters who has actually aged significantly during his existence, starting out as a young teenager and these days sitting comfortably in his mid-20’s; his successor, Jason Todd, also seems to be at least a good five years or so older than he was when he was introduced.

I think the turnover rate of Robin as well as the aging of the mantle’s former holders all ties back to this idea of the original fan service character and how creators have been quite diligent in evolving him as the audience has grown, changed, regressed and done it all over again. Let’s take a closer look…

As covered above, the original Robin was created to be an audience identification character, and in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, said audience consisted largely of children or younger teens. To dig even deeper, this was a generation of young people who did not have video games or even widespread television to occupy their time, and were thus generally more active, physical kids. It’s easy to see why Dick Grayson, with his acrobatic flips and grinning wisecracks, was exactly the hero this audience aspired to be like. He was an incredibly physical character whose aerial exploits were the natural though extremely heightened extension of what the youngsters who read about him did for fun; his cavalier attitude and wide-eyed heroism was the type this generation looked up to, not largely having discovered cynicism despite hard times, as they were trained to overcome adversity with positivity, not by cutting it down. The brightly-garbed, kinetic inaugural Boy Wonder was the perfect representation of at least three decades worth of young comic book readers.

In 1969, Robin is sent off to college, now a Teen Wonder, and separated in large part from Batman by the creative team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, the same guys who had just dragged Green Arrow into social relevance in the pages of Green Lantern. As the 70’s dawned, an audience that had for years consisted mostly of kids was beginning to expand to the enlightened college crowd, who welcomed fringe forms of culture like comic books onto their campuses and into their lives. This more mature era and more adult audience called for Robin to grow up in order for them still to use him as an entryway to the DC Universe (across the street at Marvel, the same thing was happening with Peter Parker, who slowly shed his bookworm image for the slicker ladies man of his college days and beyond). Pursuing more solo adventures, Dick Grayson relied less on acrobatics and more on the detective skills he had inherited from his mentor, also discovering his sexuality and engaging in more romantic entanglements along the way. Around this same time, O’Neil was influencing much of the DC line, returning Batman to his roots as a grim avenger, reducing Superman’s power set to make him more relatable, and setting up Green Lantern and Green Arrow as a buddy team in search of the American dream; all of the characters were intriguing adults whom teenage and college readers were eager to learn more about, but Robin remain the one hero whose pixie boots they could conceivably inhabit, Dick Grayson having softly come of age to allow such a fantasy to remain intact.

For a time in the mid-80’s, DC attempted to have their cake and eat it too, so to say. They still wanted to give older teens and college age readers their gateway character in Dick Grayson, but also wanted to recapture some of the younger audience they had lost over the 70’s and who weren’t as taken with Kid Flash or Aqualad. The elegant solution: keep the “new” Grayson around albeit in a new identity, and at the same time reintroduce the “old” Grayson with a new name and make him Robin. So it came to be we had Dick Grayson—at this point one of comics’ most popular characters as a principal in New Teen Titans and ensconced in an extremely mature physical relationship with Starfire—as Nightwing, plus Jason Todd, who originally had pretty much the exact same personality as his predecessor’s youthful incarnation, as the new Robin. The Nightwing half of the equation worked nicely, but the Robin side still needed a bit of tinkering…

In 1986, following Crisis On Infinite Earths, Frank Miller changed Batman—and comics—forever with The Dark Knight Returns. A year later, he hammered home the point with Batman: Year One. For better or worse, the “grim and gritty” era of comics had begun, an age tailor-made for the hope-battered pessimists who had grown out of 80’s excess. This was a world that had no place for a Robin who bounced about while dispensing quips, but yet there Jason Todd was, so he was retooled to try and serve as the identification character for a new generation of young readers. Jason became a young hoodlum from a broken home whom Batman was attempting to rehabilitate through crime-fighting. This new Robin had a mean streak, fought dirty, treaded the line between justice and vengeance with not always so much regard—and was not well-liked at all. Young readers had no desire to imagine themselves as a jerk with violent tendencies, no matter how grim the world may have become, while slightly older readers still preferred the more three-dimensional Nightwing as their avatar of choice. In short: comic book readers in the late 80’s did not want a Robin (or maybe they wanted Carrie Kelly, but they never got her, so it was a moot point). In 1988, Jason Todd was (allegedly) murdered by The Joker who served as stand-in for an audience who voted Robin dead via a 900 number.

It only took about a year for DC to give it another shot with a new Robin following the demise of Jason Todd, but as the 90’s appeared on the horizon, a lot more thought was put into the creation of Tim Drake. Another comics boom was just around the corner, and with the “Batman” movie having hit big in 1989, a burgeoning group of young readers was descending upon the industry and the character. However, the kids of the 90’s were a different breed from their 1940’s counterparts who fueled Robin’s initial birth (and I can speak from experience here): with the increased emphasis on things like television and movies plus a superior education system and the early onset of the Internet among another advancements in computers and technology, a child raised in the 90’s tended to be generally less physically orientated and more cerebral. This was taken into account with Tim Drake, a character who in many ways resembled a young Peter Parker more closely than he did Dick Grayson, stumbling into a place in the Batman family due to impressive powers of deduction and a knack for cracking computer codes. Tim was a nice, likable kid, but also far more down-to-earth than circus performer Dick or car thief Jason; he still had a living parent, he was ok but not great with girls, and he had to learn to fight rather than just taking to it intuitively. Basically, even if Tim Drake as Robin wasn’t necessarily a role kids in the 90’s and beyond felt they could aspire to, he still seemed like a guy you’d want to hang out with. In his own way, Tim connected with the audience just as Dick had originally done half a century earlier, and perhaps even more successively as DC was able to parlay his solo adventures into an ongoing title that ran well over 150 issues and continues in spirit today as Red Robin. The success of Tim Drake as Robin demonstrates clearly that the character can remain viable so long as it changes with the times to fit the broadest audience.

And that brings us to maybe the most intriguing Robin of them all: Damien Wayne, the quite possibly sociopathic son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul who has wrapped his hands firmly around the neck of the Boy Wonder legacy and squeezed. So is Damian’s ascension to the role of Robin a sign that the kids of today can relate to a pint-sized nut job who likes to mouth off to Alfred and cut bad guys’ heads off? Hardly. I think Damian—and the dimension he’s brought to his role in a relatively short time—is indicative of the fact that these days comics does in large part play to an older audience, and there aren’t a lot of kids who need Robin to be their “way in” to Batman comics. For one thing, Tim Drake is still around as Red Robin and functions much the same as he has the past 20 years for younger readers who need somebody to relate to. For another thing, I think readers of today, even kids, don’t have that stigma of not being able to put themselves in Batman’s shoes that was there in the 40’s; they’re a generation who has been raised to dream big and thus they’re not going to settle for being the sidekick when they can be the hero.

And of course to finish, the richly ironic fact is that the current Batman is one the average reader can relate to probably a lot easier than they could Bruce Wayne, because, coming full circle, the Dark Knight of today is none other than…Dick Grayson. The more things change, eh?


Comic Book Candy said...

One could definitely spend a lot of time drawing parallels between the evolution of Robin and comic books themselves. Comics have become so overtly mature, and like Robin, there are several entryways into the medium, but is that fragmentation really enticing to new readers? Quite frankly if I started reading comics today I'd be just as confused by "Robin" as I would be by the state of comics themselves. What comics do teens / children see themselves in?

Dan said...

That's a great rundown of a great character. While I will always have a fondness for Grayson, and who he's become, I sure hope Damian sticks around once Morrison is gone.

demoncat said...

nice history lesson Ben. for robin just proves no matter what Batman will always have some one to try and balance him out. and young comic readers will have some one to relate too. as for Dam can see why he is the nut job version of Robin. for he proably got some of batman's socipathic tendencies in his dna. plus having a nut job eco maniac for a grand father like Rhas Al ghoul really does not say sane character.

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