The History of Robin: The Significance of Superhero Sidekicks
In superhero comics, there are certain character roles a reader would expect. The hero, the super villain, the love interest, and the sidekick all come to mind. Unlike the hero, villain, and love interest, the sidekick was not and is not always in the picture. The sidekicks were created for two very simple reasons. One, the hero needed someone to talk to. Two, publishers were seeking a way to appeal to young readers, their biggest demographic. Thus the sidekick was born. The most obvious and lasting hero/sidekick pairing would have to be none other than Batman and Robin.
While the popularity of the superhero sidekick has faded with time, sidekicks are unquestionably a huge part of comic book history. Robin, especially, plays a significant role not only in the history but the future of the Batman mythos. Unlike Batman there have been many characters who have held the title of Robin and for a very simple reason. Batman needs a Robin in a way no other superhero needs a sidekick. Robin keeps Batman from going to the dark side. Robin ensures Batman never forgets why he chose to be a vigilante in the first place. For these reasons and more Robin, regardless of who holds the mantle, has a rich history. This article will explore the Robins to point out each individual’s unique narrative and how they relate to the bigger Batman picture.
The character of Robin made his comics debut in Detective Comics #38 in April of 1940. This incarnation was named Dick Grayson and is by far the most famous. He held the mantle of Robin all the way until the 1980s when he crafted his own superhero identity, Nightwing. Dick Grayson and the Robin persona were created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson. He was introduced as “Robin the Boy Wonder” and took visual cues from the acrobats of the day and Robin Hood the legendary character. Finger later said that in the early stories Robin was meant to be the Watson to Batman’s Sherlock Holmes. With these characters in mind Dick Grayson was imagined as a boy who came from a family of acrobats. Together with his parents they formed the “Flying Graysons,” the stars of what would eventually become the Haly Circus. A gangster boss named Boss Zucco has been extorting money from the circus and sabotages the Graysons trapeze act, causing young Dick to be orphaned at eight years old.
Batman, who had come to investigate the crime, saw himself in the boy, and as Bruce Wayne took him on as his ward. He promises the boy his parents would receive the justice his parents never would. He trained Dick in martial arts, detective work, and in gadgetry. Dick had a natural aptitude for it and together they investigated Zucco and found incriminating evidence against him. Impressed by Dick’s detective work and skill Batman crafts a costumed identity for his young ward. The costume consists of a red tunic, yellow cape, green gloves, a domino mask, and green briefs with his own utility belt, a huge visual departure from Batman’s classic black and blue color scheme.
The arrival of Robin changed the tone of the comics drastically. The first of the Batman stories were incredibly dark, and the character of Batman was far more violent and even used a gun. Robin brought out the lighter side of Batman, and cast him as a father and confidante and not an unforgiving vigilante. Throughout the forties and fifties the two were inseparable. They became the Dynamic Duo or the Caped Crusaders. But Dick didn’t always need Batman by his side to sell comics. He had his own solo adventures in Star Spangled Comics from 1947 to 1952.
Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, author of the book Seduction of the Innocent, said the closeness of the two could be read as pedophilia. The reason for this was Robin often played the role of damsel in distress, a role usually reserved for love interest back in the day. He constantly needed to be rescued by Batman and was often tied up and helpless until Batman came to save the say. DC Comics stated that was not the intention of the relationship at all, and it was always meant to be a father/son relationship.
In 1964 in issue #54 of The Brave and the Bold, Robin introduces his own superhero team in which he was leader. The team consists of fellow sidekicks such as Aqualad and Kid Flash. The three of them put a stop to the evil schemes of Mister Twister without the help of the adult team, the Justice League of America. This was just the start of Dick and his team becoming their own men. The junior team did not have proper name until issue #60 where the three joined Speedy (Green Arrow’s sidekick) and Wonder Girl. From then on the team became the Teen Titans. Thanks to his training from Batman, Dick was a skilled tactician, well versed in martial arts, and a natural leader. He continues to lead the Teen Titans even when he leaves Gotham to attend Hudson University. At this point Robin was only in Detective Comics sporadically. The comics began to revisit its darker roots with writer/editor Dennis O’Neil at the helm.
Throughout the seventies and early eighties Dick/Robin was most successful in the Teen Titans. Writers Marv Wolfman and George Perez brought the character to new heights and gave him a whole personality outside of Batman. Still, DC Comics wanted to bring Robin back to the Batman title. Wolfman feared this would undo his work with Dick in Teen Titans. So Wolfman and his team had Dick having a falling out with Batman, and he renounced the name Robin entirely. He became Nightwing. With the name of Robin now free of an occupant DC began to envision another character to fill the role.
Shortly after Dick Grayson gave up Robin, a new character by the name Jason Todd came to replace him in 1983. In his original incarnation, Jason Todd was nothing more than a carbon copy of Dick Grayson created by Gerry Conway and Don Newton. A bit later he was re imagined to be a troubled street kid whom Batman took on as his ward. At first though, Jason is the child of another acrobat family similar to the Flying Graysons. His parents are also murdered right before his eyes. The only real thing that can be distinguished between the original Jason and Dick is Jason’s strawberry blonde hair. Slowly, certain traits began to appear that differed from the original Robin. Jason was prone to jealousy and feels left out when Catwoman makes frequent appearances. He also has surrogate mother relationship with the villain Nocturna, for a while.
After the universe wide reboot called Crisis on Infinite Earths, Jason’s origin was rebooted to be an orphaned street kid who attempted to steal the tires off the Batmobile. Jason’s father had been henchmen for Two-Face and left Jason and his mother. His mother was a drug addict who had overdosed resulting in Jason living on the streets in Crime Alley. Under the Bruce Wayne guise, Batman assures Jason was sent to a home for troubled youth. The home turns out to be a School of Crime for budding thieves. With Batman, Jason apprehended the gang of thieves residing in the home. Batman then revealed his identity, and Jason became the second incarnation of Robin.
Jason/Robin did not have the acrobatic skill or natural athleticism that Dick, had but he was a dutiful study. He has a lot of suppressed rage similar to Batman. Batman believed if the boy could just channel that rage into something productive such as crime fighting, Jason would be better off. While this theory proves to work, Batman does detect a certain rebellious streak in Jason. He has a disdain for authority, even Batman’s authority on several occasions. In Batman issue #424, a serial rapist named Garzonas is caught by Robin with Batman still on the way. Garzonas falls to his death before Batman can get there. Robin says that Garzonas was spooked and fell to his death, but it can be implied that Jason pushed him. He later says to Batman, “Would it be such a loss if I had killed him?”
Writer Dennis O’Neil wrote a story in 1988 entitled A Death in the Family, in which the fans could decide the fate of Jason. All they had to do was call a 1-800 number with their vote. The stunt was intended to bring more readership. The idea was fans would be more invested if they could be part of the creative process. In the story, Robin found out the woman who raised him was not his biological mother and went off globe-trotting to find his “true” mother. When he found her it turned out she was being blackmailed by the Joker. She turns her son in to the Joker, who beats Jason brutally with a crowbar, leaving him and his mother in a warehouse with a ticking bomb.
Before the conclusion of the story, readers called in the 1-800 number to cast their vote. It was decided Jason would die. Batman is on his way when the warehouse blows, killing Jason and his mother. Today, it is debated rather or not the voting was rigged. Regardless, the second Robin’s death still haunts Batman to this today. He considers Jason’s murder his greatest failure and Jason’s costume remains on display in Batcave. Frank Miller, the writer of the famous Batman story The Dark Knight Returns, considers it a turning point in comics. Before then Miller believes comics were never so cynical. But like most comic book characters, Jason comes back to life in a story line called Under the Red Hood.
Jason originally came back to life thanks to the villain Superboy Prime, who had punched his way out of a pocket dimension, sending a ripple effect through the multiverse causing Jason to come back to life. He was then placed in Ras Al Ghul’s Lazarus Pit to restore his mind. Since then his resurrection has been changed to simply being dropped in the Lazarus Pit by Ras in later continuity. Now under the alias the Red Hood, Jason still operates as a vigilante only this time around he has no problem using lethal force. The next character to hold the name of Robin came in 1989.
The third incarnation of Robin was Tim Drake in 1989. Unlike the first two Robins whom were orphans and taken in by Batman, Tim had riddled out Batman’s secret identity. Of all the Robins he is the most like Batman in terms of personality and life goals. Tim was created by Marv Wolfman and Pat Broderick and made his first comic appearance in Batman #436. Tim had been present at the circus the day the Graysons fell to their death and had followed the escapades of Batman and Robin in the paper. He manages to figure out Bruce Wayne is Batman and that Dick Grayson was the original Robin. Tim is not an orphan like Dick and grew up in a stable home. After Jason’s death, Tim notices that Batman has become more reckless and violent. Afraid of what his hero is becoming, Tim decides to offer his services as a Robin. Batman is reluctant to take on another young partner so soon after the last Robin’s death. But after Tim gains permission from both Nightwing and Alfred, Tim receives intensive training from Batman and many others.
Tim was the first Robin since Dick Grayson to receive his own independent comic title from 1989 to 2009. Tim/Robin took care of Gotham solo for a bit while Batman was forced to retire after Bane broke his back in Knightfall. He also joins the Teen Titans like Dick did before him. His intellect paired with his combat training makes him a prime candidate for leader among the Titans team. His whole reason for becoming Robin was not due to some personal trauma like Bruce or Dick. Nor is it to quell some inner rage like Jason. Tim becomes Robin because he believes it’s the right thing to do. He has seen the good Batman and Robin has done for the city and wants to be part of the solution, despite his father’s misgivings about it.
Like the other Robins before him, Tim eventually became an orphan in the storyline Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer. Tim’s father was murdered by Captain Boomerang and Batman formally adopted the boy. Tim also began dating a fellow teen vigilante Stephanie Brown who will come into play later. After Batman’s apparent death in Batman RIP, Tim distanced himself from Nightwing and other members of the Bat family, believing Bruce to be alive somewhere. During this time Tim becomes Red Robin and challenges the League of Assassins, and other Batman foes such as Hush.
In the New 52 relaunch in 2011 it was decreed that Tim always worked under the alias of Red Robin. He also makes himself a new costume that more resembles Batman’s cape and cowl rather than Robin’s tunic. This outraged many fans who believed Tim had earned the right to be an official Robin. Speaking of earning the right to the name, another Robin named Stephanie Brown was also stripped of the title much to fans resistance.
Stephanie Brown originally had a superhero name of her own before she became Robin. Stephanie is the daughter of Gotham criminal Cluemaster and crafted her own identity as the Spoiler. After a romance with Tim went down the drain she took up his identity as Robin only to be fired from the position early on. Stephanie was created by Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle as a plot device character. But the fans loved her so much they continued to bring her back in the Robin title. Stephanie’s father was in jail for the majority of her childhood and when he wasn’t, he was never really around. When he comes back to Gotham he claims to be rehabilitated. Stephanie finds this to be lie and crafts herself a purple costume with a black mask and begins leaving clues leading to her father’s capture. Tim/Robin eventually began to catch onto her scheme and helped her stop Cluemaster and throw him in jail.
Stephanie finds herself enjoying being a crime fighter and continues to don her Spoiler costume when the need aries. On her nightly patrols she begins to run into Robin more than once and she eventually develops a crush on him. Robin, Tim Drake, likes her too but can’t tell her his secret identity out of loyalty to Batman. When Tim disappears on a secret mission to Tibet, Batman approaches Spoiler to learn where Tim has gone. He offers his training to her as a way to improve her skills. In 1988, Stephanie finds herself pregnant from an ex-boyfriend. This was first time in comics that teen pregnancy had been addressed, and as result the Robin title received much praise. Stephanie decides to give up the baby for adoption with Tim by her side throughout this difficult time. She remained an important part of the Robin title despite her reprieve from costumed heroics.
She resumes her Spoiler identity until Batman told her she was not crime fighting material. Despite the fact she no longer received training, she continues to patrol as Spoiler. When Tim’s father finds out his escapades as Robin he forces him to retire. During this time Stephanie and Tim have a falling out. As a result Stephanie makes her own Robin costume and approaches Batman demanding he take her on. Batman reluctantly agrees as he feels Tim’s absence on the streets is becoming evident. Despite vigorous training, Batman feels Stephanie is after all not a suitable replacement. After she defies his orders twice he fires her, fearing what happened to Jason might happen to Stephanie. In order to prove her worth to Batman, Stephanie steals his plans to deal with Gotham’s criminal underbelly. She accidentally starts a gang war and finds herself captured and tortured by Black Mask, a story which took several issues to solve. She manages to escape and get to a hospital but is not administered the proper treatment. She dies with Batman by her side.
Stephanie’s death was met with outrage by fans who saw her death as unnecessary and part of the Woman in Refrigerators trope. This trope, coined by comic book writer Gail Simone, refers to female characters, usually the girlfriend of a hero, who die a gruesome death without a fight, only to further advance the male hero’s character arc. The male hero in question being both Batman and Tim Drake in this case. It was revealed later that her death was faked and she returns to Gotham to continue her role as Spoiler and later Batgirl.
Damian Wayne, the current Robin, is the son of Batman and his former flame Talia Al Ghul. He came into the mantle after the Battle for the Cowl storyline in 2009. Raised by the League of Assassins, Damian has a lot to learn about life and morality under his father’s and Dick Grayson’s tutelage. Damian was created by Grant Morrison based on the unnamed son of Talia and Batman who, briefly appeared in the non-canonical story Son of the Demon. Damian did not start out as likable character. He was selfish, egotistical, with a complete disregard for human life. Talia leaves him with Batman in the story Batman and Son, while she continues her father’s crusade. Batman feels it his duty to start the boy down the right path, despite not completely sure if Damian is his in the first place. Desperate to impress his father, Damian tries to continue his dad’s work in Gotham with fatal results.
Damian appears while Tim is still in the role of Robin and nearly kills him to steal Jason Todd’s old Robin costume. He then murders a criminal Batman was after, and Batman is furious. Talia soon takes her son back after Batman confronts her about Damian’s true identity. Although his time with his father was short, it seems to have had effect on the boy’s mind. It is revealed that Damian was bred so that Ras Al Ghul could have a new body, as his body was deteriorating. Talia was unaware of this and manages to save her son from his grandfather. Damian finds his way back to Gotham and after some misunderstandings Tim, Batman, Nightwing, and Damian resume a battle with Ras Al Ghul. This was just the start of Damian’s journey to become a hero.
Damian becomes Robin after his father’s apparent death when Dick Grayson became Batman. Under his adopted brother’s care, Damian becomes a kinder more compassionate person. When his father comes back to Gotham he continues his role as Robin and the two of them become close. Then, like other Robins Damian is killed by the Heretic, a clone his mother created. After all the people he’s lost, Batman decides to do something about it. He sets himself on a journey to resurrect Damian. He succeeds with a mystical item called the Chaos Shard. Now resurrected, Damian gained superpowers such as flight and invulnerability, the first Robin to do so.
That’s five Robins down, but that is still not all of them. Outside the main continuity there have been two other Robins; Carrie Kelley of the Dark Knight Returns and Helena Wayne from Earth 2 continuity. Carrie became Robin to a much older Bruce Wayne who at the age of fifty resumed the mantle of Batman. Helena Wayne is the daughter Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle in an alternate universe. She would eventually become Huntress in Earth 2. But why are there so many Robins? Are Robins necessary to the Batman mythos?
Robin was created for practical purposes. Batman needed someone to talk to and they needed kids to identify with someone. But as time would tell Robin provides Batman with a family, something that he desperately wants and needs. Dick lightened the Batman universe in 1940. He prevented Batman from going too far and reminded him why he chose to fight crime in the first place. Jason mirrored Batman’s own rage and shows him a glimpse of what he could have become if his morals weren’t so rigid. Tim mirrors Batman’s need for justice and assures him what he’s doing is worthwhile. Stephanie reminds him of what recklessness can cause. And Damian shows Batman that he has future despite how bleak the world may look.
The Robins have also made lasting impression in the comics medium. Heroes began to have sidekicks from time to time, eventually creating the Teen Titans. Some writers have looked at the Robin’s track record and decided that sidekicks aren’t a good idea after all. The Robin title even took up the taboo subject of teen pregnancy with sensitivity. But most importantly each Robin was their own character with their own story. It would have been easy to keep using Dick Grayson over and over but they allowed him and the other Robins to grow. The legacy of Robin will continue to expand over the years; hopefully it will continue to go in a positive direction.
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