25 November 2007

Sensational Character Find?

As I wrote a week ago, I first read about Batman and Robin in the collection Batman: From the '30s to the '70s, which ended with comic books showing Dick Grayson going off to college and Bruce Wayne proceeding to fight villains on his own. Editor E. Nelson Bridwell presented that as a return to Batman's deep, dark roots.

The same understanding of the arc of Batman's character shows up in a lot of other places. Bob Kane himself has written (with Tom Andrae) about "my original conception of Batman as a lone, mysterious vigilante." Gotham's Greats describes the late 1960s characterization of Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adam this way:

O'Neil's scripts were evocative of the early Kane/Finger pulp-inspired stories, centering on the lone, Robinless figure of the Batman--it was "the" Batman, again, thanks to O'Neil--against whatever inexplicable, ghoulish denizens of the night he had to face in a given month's melodrama.
Another typical assessment comes from the "Nightwing of Kandor" website:
Batman operated alone and relied on his wits, solving mysteries and fighting street thugs in back alleys. He had become again what he had been in the beginning; a lone wolf, a mysterious figure haunting Gotham by night and striking fear into the hearts of evil-doers.
(Extra points to anyone who knows the more familiar name of Nightwing of Kandor.)

Not only is Robin not part of that original picture, but he seems antithetical to it. How could the Batman be scary with a bare-legged twelve-year-old in yellow, red, and green clothing swinging by his side? In DC Comics's current "continuity," Bruce Wayne met and adopted Dick Grayson in "Year Three" of his career as Batman, implying Wayne spent at least two years of terrifying criminals on his own.

All of which made me a little embarrassed to find Robin an interesting character. I like my history accurate, I like my texts original, I like my vigilantes as dark as my chocolate. And these authors were arguing that Robin had softened and sugarcoated the Batman. I feared that I was somehow disrespecting the pure and essential.

Lately, I did the math. Robin made his debut as "The Sensational Character Find of 1940" in Detective Comics, issue 38. The adventures of Batman had started the year before in issue 27. Which meant that Batman had a grand total of eleven recorded solo adventures before Robin burst into the scene. There were one or two more in the first issue of Batman magazine alongside some Batman-Robin adventures, but the "original conception of Batman as a lone, mysterious vigilante" had held up for less than a year.

More recently I've read accounts of the development of new Robins in the 1980s, and the DC editorial teams of that decade seem just as certain that Batman needed a Robin as earlier teams thought that Batman needed to be a loner. In a 1984 interview Teen Titans artist George Pérez said of his counterparts on the Batman team:
They wanted to bring back the old formula. Doug [Moench] was anxious to try the idea of the original Batman and Robin team again.
Even Dennis O'Neil wrote in the foreword of A Lonely Place of Dying in 1990:
...the consensus was that a Batman without a Robin wasn't quite a Batman. I wasn't surprised. Nor did I disagree, particularly.
So somehow the essential Batman, even attached to the word "original," was the Batman-Robin team, not the lone vigilante.

4 comments:

eric shanower said...

Wasn't the original Nightwing of Kandor Kal-El?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes. But are professionals eligible?

eric shanower said...

I knew the answer when I was 15 years old. Pre-professional. Does that count?

J. L. Bell said...

Sure, plus extra extra points for letting others guess the most familiar name of Nightwing of Kandor.