Robin: All hail the boy wonder

As Robin celebrates his 80th birthday, Donal O’Keefe looks at the history of Batman’s sidekick, and how the duo caused an infamous gay scare in Hollywood
Robin: All hail the boy wonder
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin in the classic 1960s TV version of Batman.

Batman and Socko doesn’t quite have the same ring, but Socko was one of many names Batman creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane debated with artist Jerry Robinson when they decided Batman — a smash hit since his 1939 debut — needed an assistant. Amazingly, no superhero before had had a teenage sidekick.

Mercury, Wildcat, Pepper and Davy (as in Crockett) were suggested until Robinson had a brainwave: “I thought of a young Robin Hood and suggested adapting his costume for the new character. I added the final touch, the small R on his vest.”

Secret Origins

Young trapeze artist Dick Grayson was orphaned when mobster Boss Zucco shook down the circus and arranged the “accident” that killed Dick’s parents. Millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne made Dick his ward, and in a not-weird-at-all scene, Robin places his hand on Batman’s as they swear a candlelit oath to “fight against crime and corruption and never to swerve from the path of righteousness!”

At a time when 90% of American children from seven to 17 read comics, “The Sensational Character Find of 1940” debuted in Detective Comics No 38. Sales nearly doubled.

“Robin expanded the story potential,” Robinson recounted. “Batman would save Robin, Robin would save Batman. The younger readers could relate to Robin, the older readers with Batman.”

Fall from Innocence

Stan Lee, Marvel Comics’ frontman, once said: “If I were a superhero, the last thing in the world I would want to do is pal around with some teenaged kid! I mean, at the very least, people would talk!”

Psychologist Frederic Wertham, pursuing his own agenda, indeed talked. His 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent became a minor bestseller, and he led a McCarthy-era congressional sub-committee witch-hunt against comics in general, and Batman and Robin in specific.

“At home they lead an idyllic life,” Wertham wrote. “They are Bruce Wayne and ‘Dick’ Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a ‘socialite’ and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward … It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

Book-burnings followed, and comic sales took a catastrophic hit, leading to the introduction of the self-regulating Comics Code Authority, censoring much of the fun out of comics. In Wayne Manor, the first Batwoman and Batgirl characters appeared in short order.

Robin on-screen

Three years after his comic-book debut, Robin appeared in the 1943 movie serial Batman, portrayed by 16-year-old Douglas Croft, the only age-accurate actor to play Robin. The character returned in 1949’s Batman and Robin, played by 26-year-old Johnny Duncan.

Burt Ward was Robin opposite Adam West’s straight-faced Batman in 1966’s Batman TV series, making the characters global superstars. It was great fun, and kids were blind to the camp the adults loved.

Tim Burton ignored the character in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), while Joel Schumacher made a bat’s breakfast of Chris O’Donnell’s Robin in 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s unspeakable Batman and Robin.

Christopher Nolan passed on Robin in his Dark Knight trilogy, until the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod-and-wink Joseph Gordon-Levitt character at the end.

Robin is not expected to feature in the upcoming The Batman (2021).

Swinging out of the Sixties

Some sidekicks survived the 1950s, and in 1964 Robin founded the Teen Titans with Kid Flash and Aqualad, and they were later joined by Speedy and Wonder Girl.

The high-camp 1966 Batman TV series made Batman and Robin global superstars, and although it would take years for the characters to recover any sense of seriousness, it saved Batman’s comics from cancellation. One legacy of the TV show was Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl, who would become a sometime love interest for Robin. As Batman returned to his darker roots in the 1970s, Robin’s star waned somewhat, returning to prominence only in 1980 as he led the New Teen Titans, a series which enjoyed massive commercial success.

The biggest change to Robin’s status quo came in 1984, when Batman fired Dick and replaced him with the younger Jason Todd, a troubled teen. Dick continued to lead the Titans in his new guise as Nightwing, and he and Bruce would eventually reconcile, although Dick Grayson would never again wear the pixie-boots he had sported for four decades.

Dark Knights and Boy (and Girl) Wonders

In 1986, Frank Miller’s ground-breaking The Dark Knight Returns, saw an ancient Wayne coming out of retirement in a dystopian present, the long-dead Jason replaced by Carrie Kelley, the first female Robin. In 1988, Jason would be murdered by the Joker, something decided by a fan phone-in.

Jason was soon replaced by the likable Tim Drake, the new Robin going on to star in his own series. Tim would in turn be briefly replaced by his girlfriend, Stephanie Brown, and Jason would eventually return as the Red Hood, because, well, comics. In 2006, Bruce Wayne’s ten-year-old son Damian would surface, a violent, sociopathic little monster, soon assuming his rightful position as Robin.

When Bruce was missing and presumed dead, Dick Grayson ascended for a time to wear Batman’s cowl, reversing the stereotype as a smiling Batman was joined by Damian’s scowling Robin.

For a vengeful creature of the night who works alone, Bruce Wayne does his best to keep his extended Bat-family in line.

Even though the mantle of Robin has passed to Bruce Wayne’s own son, Dick Grayson still fights crime as the now adult Nightwing, and the octogenarian sidekick remains Batman’s best friend.

You’d imagine there are plenty more chapters to be written in the ongoing tale of the boy wonder.

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