[Published in two parts because my pokey connection kept timing out.]
Whenever I start discussing current comics with non-comics fans, odds are good I’ll get around to the “Robin history.” It could be as simple as explaining the difference between Robin and Nightwing, but it always has the potential to snowball into a yooge, eyeball-glazing, dissertation. Now there is a new Robin who happens to be female, and while I suspect it’s just a marketing stunt, it could end up returning the “office” of Robin to its roots.
I’ve always liked the idea of Batman and Robin. He was created so that young readers would have someone with whom they could identify. (This backfired somewhat — Jules Feiffer in The Great Comic Book Heroes observed famously that he hated Robin for being so perfect.) Later, as Batman developed into a grim, obsessed figure, the then-Teen Wonder also matured into one of the few people who could break through the Dark Knight’s great stone face. To me there was, and is, tremendous power in the Bruce Wayne/Dick Grayson relationship, for just that reason. Both were shaped by tragedy, but Bruce helped guide Dick through his, and Dick won’t let Bruce forget it. Moreover, all indications are that Bruce did a great job raising Dick, who to my knowledge has always been shown as incredibly well-adjusted.
The first problem was that Dick Grayson had to grow up.
Robin debuted in Detective Comics #38, cover-dated April, 1940 — eleven months after his mentor. A grade-school-aged circus acrobat, his parents (the “Flying Graysons”) were killed by mobsters. Batman, recognizing the tragedy as a mirror image of his own, took in the orphaned Dick and allowed him to participate in the case which brought his parents’ killers to justice. Mr. Feiffer aside, Robin was at least no detriment to sales, and soon adolescent adventurers were everywhere. Captain America had Bucky, the Human Torch had Toro, the Green Arrow had Speedy, and (in a twist) the Star-Spangled Kid had an adult aide, Stripesy. Superman’s teenaged adventures were even chronicled in a very popular series of “Superboy” stories.
Batman and Robin were inseparable for almost three decades. For most of that time, Robin remained the same stocky, cowlicked, apple-cheeked youngster he was in 1940. However, along the way, comics became more self-aware, and gradually Dick started to grow up. December 1969’s “One Bullet Too Many!” (Batman #217) opened with Dick packing up his things and leaving Wayne Manor to start college at Hudson University. Batman and Robin still joined forces whenever Dick wasn’t at school, but Dick had his own adventures too, both alone and with a group of sidekicks called the Teen Titans. By 1980, Dick was more focused on heroics than school, and like many young adults trying to establish his own place in the world. Ultimately, in 1984, Dick created the new Nightwing identity to honor his relationship to Batman without being subordinate to it.
Nightwing started out as a Titans-centered character, putting his destiny for the next 10 years or so in the hands of Titans writer Marv Wolfman, but since getting his own series in 1996 has been squarely back in the Batman camp. Throughout it all, Dick/Nightwing has set the standard for his peers in the realm of former kid sidekicks and become emblematic of his generation. He continues to have a healthier relationship with Bruce/Batman than just about any other Bat-character except Alfred.
[Next up, the ‘80s and beyond....]