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Who Killed Dick Robin?

Robert M. Price


In Kingdom Come, Alex Ross portrays the Flash as a being always vibrating, existing on several planes and in several times at once. There is even the hint that he is mainly just Speed Force, a momentary, half-visible fold in its flow, hard to fix on, even to see. The same could be said, I think, for Robin, the sidekick of Batman. He is a "character" who in every way has become so unstable, so chaotic, that we can scarcely consider him a genuine character at all. Instead, he is a perfect example of an "actant" as defined by Structuralist critics. That is, "Robin" is a personified narrative function, a living role and not so much a character playing that role. His actantial role is that of archetypal sidekick. And that is, in turn, a particular narrative strategy for involving the reader. On the one hand, Robin is a sounding board for Batman, enabling him to explain his plans to the reader without always having to be shown thinking in dotted-line thought-balloons. Jimmy Olsen was created on the Superman radio show for exactly the same reason: the audience was not supposed to be hearing the hero's thoughts, as if they were reading minds! In this respect, Robin is an analogue for Sherlock Holmes's assistant Watson, or for Simon Peter in the Gospels, Ananda in the Buddhist stories.

ááááááááááá More than that, Robin was an anchor point for the daydream fantasies of young boys reading Batman. Of course they would like to be Batman, but wouldn't it also be great if Batman was your chum? Robin enabled the young reader to imagine himself part of the story. This is the whole justification for Robin's presence in the story. It sure can't be because he has any good reason, from within the narrative world, for being there! Would Batman really take a young kid into gunfire and fist fights with him? That is almost as weird as what Frederick Wertham (Seduction of the Innocent) thought was going on: pederasty between the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder. Batman and the reader were confronted with the absurdity of the whole Robin premise when the Joker killed the second (or was it the third?) Robin. The Great Detective couldn't have seen this coming?

ááááááááááá Joel Schumacher's much underrated film Batman Forever obviated the difficulty by having Robin already an adult, and by having Robin force himself on Batman as his partner, sort of like Bucky Barnes did Captain America, threatening to blab Cap's secret identity if he didn't take him along.

ááááááááááá Robin's costume is an unstable entity right out of the starting gate! What is he supposed to be: Robin Hood? Or Robin Redbreast, a sunnier winged creature than Batman? The medieval jerkin design suggests the first. We might almost imagine that Robin grew up to be Green Arrow, hence the consistent copying of all Batman's gimmicks: the Arrowmobile, the Arrow Cave, the Arrowplane, trick arrows like trick batarangs. But that's never been part of the story. And the red coloration secures the bird imagery.

ááááááááááá But if Robin didn't grow up to be Green Arrow, who did he grow up to be? In the early 60s Robin inhaled a "maturity gas" that made him temporarily grow up physically, whereupon he took on the identity of Owlman, who looked sort of like an owl version of Hawkman, with merely ornamental wings. His short-sleeve shirt and his trunks, as well as his short boots and gloves, were green and scaled, like his Robin trunks. It was pretty arbitrary, from robin to owl, as if one bird might grow up into the other.

ááááááááááá On the late, lamented Earth 2, a grown Robin replaced the retired Batman and donned an utterly grotesque costume (though I want to see the action figure wearing it!) that looked like the standard Batman costume except that instead of a hood, he had a domino mask shaped like a bat. His cape was serrated but yellow, and there was an "R" emblem inside the bat on his chest. This reminds me of that early Hulk issue where Dr. Banner, his Gamma-powers still inchoate, changed into the Hulk--except for his face! He had to put on a rubber Hulk mask! Here, it appears as if Robin grew up out of his tadpole stage into the adult--but not quite! Arrested development. Still partly Boy Wonder.

ááááááááááá So in the seventies Neal Adams redesigned the adult Robin costume. Now it was just a long-sleeved, long-pants version of the old kid Robin suit! The message here was that he had never managed to grow up at all! He was just a little warmer. Batman was gone, and in his pace was no successor, only a sidekick, as if Robin were a dog waiting by the door for his master's return, not knowing he would never be coming back. I know some fans have a sentimental attachment to this costume, but I fail to see it. Moot point anyway, since they killed this Robin off in the Crisis on Infinite Earths.

ááááááááááá Wolfman and Perez were busy treating Robin as a superhero in his own right as the leader of the New Teen Titans, a team mate, sure, but not a sidekick. So eventually they got him out of the ballerina suit, too. Now he became the new Nightwing. I'm sorry, but I so loved the pre-Crisis Nightwing, Superman's Batman persona in Kandor, that I could never get used to this new Nightwing version of Robin. But it isn't only my prejudice! Look at the name they gave him, the name of an overt Batman imitation! Hardly the way to establish a secure superhero identity of his own. But it was a Catch-22 since, if you severed the connection with Batman completely, then what difference did it make if the guy was named Dick Grayson? It would be like..., I dunno, making Hal Jordan into the Spectre?

ááááááááááá I guess the Perez Nightwing costume looked a little too fancy for the gritty mood that overtook all of DC in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns, so they gave him a stark new costume that only makes him look like sort of a human batarang. No, it was left to Alex Ross finally to come up with the answer: an adult identity for Dick Grayson and a costume to match. In Kingdom Come, he reappeared, taking Batman's place in the League, as Red Robin. The red breast was there, all right, but no more Robin Hood hotpants. He looked kind of like Batman, what with the black hood and cape--but then robins actually look like that, don't they? It looked maybe a bit too much like Dr. Midnite, but I'm not complaining. As Red Robin, Dick Grayson seemed to have embraced both his destiny and his distinctiveness. At the same time, he became a second Batman opposed to his old mentor, Batman's successor while the original was still alive.

ááááááááááá Another attempt at a serious Robin costume was that created for Tim Drake, the third Robin, that is, unless you count Earth 2's Dick Grayson, in which case Tim Drake would be the fourth Robin after Jason Todd. This outfit, which hardly needs to be described here, is certainly an improvement on Neal Adams's version, though perhaps the black gloves, boots, and outside cape are too much like the Earth 2 gray and blue Robin. Or maybe that's only because the cape has a yellow lining, as if to remind you forcibly of what Robin used to look like, or what a real Robin would look like, I guess. But this one is still definitely a sidekick's costume. And it reminds me of the Robin costume in the 1949 movie serial Batman and Robin, where Robin sports a dark cape and green tights (or so I always guessed, the serial being in black and white).

ááááááááááá But this costume also appeared on Dick Grayson, as his one and only Robin costume in Batman the Animated Series before he abandoned Batman and became Nightwing. Dick's costume in Batman Forever and the horrible Schumacher parody Batman and Robin seem to be based on this version, too. When Tim Drake arrived in the cartoon, he had red leotards and black gloves, boots, outer cape. No green at all. Good side-kick costume. And in this continuity there was no Jason Todd at all.á

ááááááááááá In the eighties, during the New Teen Titans craze, the creative team finally decided to settle once and for all the mystery of "Who Is Donna Troy?" But there was never any mystery, just a goof. Wonder Girl was supposed to have been Wonder Woman back on Paradise Island when it was known as Smallville. She was simply Wonder Woman as a teenager. She couldn't have existed at the same time as Robin, Aqualad, Speedy, and Kid Flash. But the editors felt they had to have a girl in their group, so Wonder Woman suddenly became a separate character, some kind of honorary Amazon girl-scout. Wolfman retconned all this, but the resulting narrative, merely a gesture of uninspired expediency, seemed to be just what it was, a piece of cumbersome rationalizing. (John Byrne could write whole issues of this stuff, like the 1989 West Coast Avengers comic where he has to explain that the Vision was not made from the carcass of the Human Torch after all, since the Torch cannot really be dead, since Byrne wants to put him in the West Coast Avengers!)

ááááááááááá So who is Donna Troy? For that matter, who is the post-Crisis Wonder Woman? The post-Crisis Hawkman? Precisely nobody: a cipher, an instantiation of retconning by the seat of your pants, covering your narrative butt. And I am saying that "Robin" is nobody, too. Just the name of an actantial role, with neither name nor costume nor identity to call his own. Holy schizophrenia, Batman!  


Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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