Note: This post contains massive spoilers for Batman Inc. #8, released this week. Consider yourself warned.
Robin is a fascinating character. Well, a fascinating concept, seen as there have been so many of them. According to DC’s “new 52”, there have apparently been four Robins in Bruce’s five years as Batman. That’s a fairly impressive collection of side kicks, and that’s not even counting the few versions of Batgirl who have teamed up with the Caped Crusader. However, Robin occupies a much more significant place in pop culture history, in a large part due to Burt Ward’s role on the classic Batman! television show. Robin is so well known that The Dark Knight Rises could slip in a reference to the character easier than one to Dick Grayson, Jason Todd or Tim Drake.
However, Robin is a particularly fascinating comic book concept because he is very tough to reconcile with modern portrayals of Batman. While camper portrayals of the Caped Crusader have become more popular in certain circles (I’m thinking of The Brave & The Bold here), the past few decades have seen Batman and his world grow progressively darker. As such, it’s worth wondering whether Robin really has a place in it any longer.
First, a little comic book history. Robin was actually introduced in Detective Comics #38, in April 1940. Batman had been introduced in Detective Comics #27, in May 1939. So there was really only a very tiny period of time where Batman existed without Robin. Of course, this was the Golden Age of Comic Books, and kid sidekicks were all the rage. Even Captain Marvel (a kid who could turn into a superhero) had a kid sidekick in the form of Captain Marvel, Jr. That’s ignoring other iconic kid sidekicks who would turn up over the decades like Bucky or Kid Flash.
The appeal of Robin was obvious. Given that Batman had a very strong appeal to children, giving him a teenage sidekick made sense. Indeed, the creators of the comic had been told to tone done the pulpy violence of early issues explicitly so it could appeal to children without causing too much fuss. Robin seemed a way for children to engage with the Batman mythos. Look, you could help Batman! Look, you could fight crime!
However, there is a very important difference between Robin and other iconic “child” heroes like Kid Flash or Captain Marvel, Jr. or Kid Flash. Robin is human, like Batman. He’s flesh and blood. He doesn’t have super-strength or super-speed or anything like that. He’s an athlete, but he’s a normal teenage boy. And, as a teenage boy, a lot of Robin’s decisions and his actions have to be held against those of his surrogate father, Bruce Wayne.
While it might not have been much of a question in the forties, it has become a bit more problematic in the years since. Part of this is due to shifting cultural norms. We are, as a culture, a lot more sceptical of these sorts of stories than we used to be. We’re not so willing to accept innocence at face value, and are more willing to pry into subtext and implications than we might have been in years past. As a result, Batman inevitably comes under a great deal of scrutiny. Some of it is just nonsense (the whole Seduction of the Innocent thing, which has been revealed to have been “exaggerated”), but some of it carries weight.
More than that, though, the comic books themselves have invited a deeper interpretation as they grew progressively more mature. Sometimes writers would confuse violence and gore with maturity, but the writers on Batman and Detective Comics have taken a progressively more thoughtful look at the character since the seventies. Denny O’Neil and Steve Englehart come to mind, but it’s hard to discuss the notion of Batman maturing without mentioning Frank Miller.
However, the world of Batman has also become a bit more darker and a bit more cynical. Books like Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum illustrated just how warped Gotham could be. At the moment, Scott Snyder is shrewdly writing Batman as something approaching a horror comic. Robin, as a concept, has understandably been drawn into this evolution of Batman, with some writers and story lines suggesting that Robin is conspicuously out-of-place in the modern world of Batman.
Most notably, DC comics keeps killing Robin. The prospect of the young boy dying under Batman’s supervision had been raised in the past (most notably in the delightfully gonzo Robin Dies at Dawn!), but DC actually allowed the Joker to beat Jason Todd to death with a crowbar in A Death in the Family. Stephanie Brown had only been Robin for a little while before she was tortured and killed by the Black Mask as part of War Games.
Indeed, Stephanie Brown’s death attracted particular attention, with some commentators accusing DC of misogyny in the way the death was presented and handled. Somewhat pointedly, DC have written out her time as Robin and have yet to reintroduce her as part of their line-wide reboot. However, these are issues that are probably more particularly related to the problems mainstream comics have with female characters than anything to do with Robin as a concept. But they are worth acknowledging, and is worth noting that the female Robin is apparently, according to DC comics, the “one who doesn’t count.” But more on that another time.
And, of course, apart from all that, there is a reason why Robin is a point of discussion this weekend. Earlier this week, in a move that generated no small amount of publicity in the mainstream media, writer Grant Morrison killed off the current Robin, Damian Wayne, in Batman Inc. It’s worth noting that the death was well-handled, and that Morrison effectively created Damian. He drew influence from a baby in a panel in a Mike Barr book (Son of the Demon), but Damian was very much his own creation. And it seemed like his death was intended from the start of Morrison’s Batman work. Still, it provides a nice context to discuss Robin.
Of course, these deaths aren’t always permanent. Jason Todd had his resurrection teased in Hush, before coming back in Under the Red Hood. Stephanie Brown’s death was retroactively re-written in War Crimes, where apparently one of Batman’s oldest allies thought faking the death of a young girl would teach him a thing or two. Given how generally optimistic Morrison’s Batman run has been, rejecting the “grimdark” aesthetic that occasionally grips the character, I honestly doubt that Damian will remain truly dead for long.
It might not be the same Damian, but I suspect that something will happen to resurrect the character in some form before the end of Batman Inc. I know, I’m great at these very specific predictions. However, the point isn’t the resurrection. The point is that DC has made a point of illustrating that being Robin is a very dangerous profession. Ever since Frank Miller reimagined Batman’s mission as an endless war on crime, Robin has effectively been transformed into a child soldier, recruited for the cause.
This is perhaps the biggest problem with Robin as a character. It has nothing do with “pseudo-realism” or anything like that. After all, several of Batman’s foes violate the laws of biology and physics, so a crime-fighting teenager isn’t anywhere near as absurd. The problem is that Batman is recruiting a teenager to take on psychotics and armed criminals. Even if you accept that Robin has incredible skill and reflexes, there’s enough luck involved that Batman really should foresee the very likelihood that his surrogate children might die in pursuit of his dream.
That is, for me at least, the biggest problem with the notion of a young Robin. After all, these kids aren’t old enough to consent to those sorts of risks, and it falls to their guardian to make the decision. It’s hard to get behind a version of Batman who would let a child operate in a world similar to that depicted in Scott Snyder’s Batman, Greg Hurwitz’s The Dark Knight, John Layman’s Detective Comics or even Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc. As an aside, that line-up demonstrates just how remarkably solid the Batman line actually is at the moment.
Of course, that’s not to say that Robin can’t work. I actually love the classic Batman! television, but it’s worth noting that Robin is already quite old by that point. Similarly, Batman: The Animated Series began with Dick in college, and suggested that he only took up the mantle relatively recently. Similarly,The Brave and the Bold presents a world where a young Robin fits quite comfortably. I think that Robin works remarkably well in the context of a lighter version of Batman and Gotham, but I do think he’s a bit out of place with the darker interpretations.
There are a lot of reasons to love Robin as a character. For one thing, Robin lightens Batman considerably. Used well, as Morrison used Damian, he acknowledges the absurdity of superhero comics and pulls Bruce Wayne back from the edge of darkness. Dressed in bright colours, Robin enjoys a childhood that Bruce never really had. He’s very much a surrogate for the innocence that Bruce lost. Even in the wake of A Death in the Family, A Lonely Place of Dying made a compelling argument that Batman needs Robin.
And, to be fair, Bruce also saves – or at least tries to save Robin. One of the recurring characters of Morrison’s superb Batman run has been Ellie, a prostitute who Bruce set up with a nice job. Morrison made it clear that Bruce did more than fight silly people in silly outfits. He also helped people. Ellie got a nice life and a good job, and is still part of Morrison’s saga. Bruce does something for the Robins, helping each of them work through their own issues and helping them try to find their own identities.
Dick Grayson suffered a similar origin as Bruce Wayne, and yet the character has been portrayed as much more rounded than his mentor. The implication is that Bruce recognised the pain and helped Dick work through it in a way that he never could, even crafting his own identity as Nightwing. Bruce’s biggest failure is arguably his inability to save the young and angry Jason Todd, who many have argued is too similar to Bruce in terms of temperament.
There’s a sense in reading some of the better Jason Todd stories (Mike W. Barr’s Detective Comics, for example) that the writers were trying to write Bruce help “Jay” find something beyond anger, but he couldn’t do it before it was too late. Similarly, Morrison’s Batman run has seen Bruce trying to reconnect with the son he never knew he had – a trained assassin and would-be dictator – and trying to teach him that there are better things in life. Arguably Dick Grayson played a larger role in Damian’s education, but that just demonstrates the importance of the values that Bruce instilled in him.
So there is quite a lot to be said for Robin as a concept. As the wonderful Chris Sims observes, the comics really should capitalise more on Robin as a contrast to Two-Face:
Also, it does a pretty good job of casting Two-Face as Dick Grayson’s arch-nemesis, an idea I’ve always thought deserved another shot after being done so remarkably poorly in “Batman Forever.” I don’t want to get into another long, rambling Two-Face discussion, but I think the contrast between the boy Batman did save and the man he couldn’t save makes for a pretty good contrast.
However, I do think that Robin is a concept that remains a contentious part of the Batman mythos. The character is hard to reconcile with modern depiction of Batman, and it’s hard to justify Batman knowingly putting a child at risk in such a dark world. On the other hand, that darkness makes Robin all the more essential and vital to Batman as a concept.