My "Reason for Robin, #4" postings about the emotional contrast between Batman and Robin lead naturally to an analysis of the fraught relationship between those characters.
In the first several decades of Batman and Robin comics stories, Dick Grayson was officially Bruce Wayne's "ward." The difference between their ages was unspecified. The ambiguity of that relationship allowed readers to interpret it in various ways; a client of the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham famously took Bruce and Dick as a rare model of a happy homosexual couple. (I expect to discuss that interpretation in more detail someday.)
I think the first several decades of Batman and Robin comic books depicted the relationship as mainly fraternal. Occasionally the characters say as much, as in panels that appear here and here.
Nonetheless, as the adult guardian, Bruce tried to raise Dick responsibly. For example, in the 1943 story "Robin Studies His Lessons!" he insisted that Dick stick to his schoolbooks after his grades appeared to drop. That went so well.
The tenor of that relationship changed significantly after two developments in the 1980s:
- In the first part of that decade, Bruce Wayne legally adopted the second Robin, Jason Todd. That removed the ambiguity, at least for subsequent Robins: Batman was a father figure.
- DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985) and The Dark Knight Returns (1986) began an era of darker stories which depicted Batman as obsessed, troubled, and emotionally walled off.
Batman is the Worst Dad in the World.
I'm not talking about Batman's habit of encouraging his protégés to fight insane and superpowered criminals while dressed in bright colors, foolhardy as that is. Many comics fans and creators (including artist Alex Ross, quoted here) say that this makes no sense, but what parents always make sense? Moreover, that behavior is the essential premise of the Robin role. And all those characters obviously like being Robin. No, the real problem with having Batman as a father or father figure is that his emotional ineptitude and his astronomical standards add up to an inconsistent, unreliable relationship. Bruce Wayne's money provides a fantasy life: luxurious home, wonderful toys. He believes his adolescent protégés can accomplish wonderful things, and gives them the rare chance to command respect from the adult world.
But most of the time Batman also withholds information and approval. He makes nearly impossible demands. He dismisses expressions of love. He's obsessed with work. He keeps secrets from his loved ones and spies on them.
But only most of the time. There's always the chance that next time he'll offer a great compliment. So the Robins—especially Dick Grayson—keep going back.
Just as the roots of Batman's emotional frigidity appear in "Golden Age" stories, so do signs of Batman's problematic paternalism. Dick was repeatedly left to worry about whether he was being replaced. The panel to the right comes from a birthday tale; the spanking (a 1940s tradition, oddly no longer recommended in parenting manuals) is followed by the gift of his own airplane. You just never knew what Bruce will do next.
DC's writers have played up Batman's difficulties with interpersonal relationships over the last two decades. As an example of how hard working with Batman is, for years he insisted that the fourth Robin, Tim Drake, keep his civilian identity secret from all his young crime-fighting colleagues. Then Bruce himself revealed that identity to Tim's girlfriend Stephanie Brown without asking Tim.
Later, after Tim quit being Robin, Batman invited Stephanie to become the new Girl Wonder, which his butler Alfred pegged as manipulative behavior. Batman soon fired Stephanie and brought Tim back. Stephanie appeared to die, yet Batman refused to memorialize her, later saying he wasn't sure she was really dead--but he'd never shared his doubts with Tim.
No wonder Tim resisted making Bruce Wayne his legal father for a while—and he's the Robin who deals with Bruce's limitations best.
Even so, some might think that calling Bruce Wayne/Batman "the Worst Dad in the World" is too harsh, considering the other fathers in the DC Comics universe. The father of the current Batgirl taught her to fight but not to read, and shot her in fleshy parts to enure her to the pain. Deathstroke raised two children as assassins and reluctantly killed the third.
Even among the good guys, Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, apparently adopted a kid sidekick simply because he was jealous of Batman for having one, and then neglected that partner until he became a heroin addict. Queen also deserted a biological son. And then there's the whole Aquaman question.
In fact, it's not easy to find a young superhero comics character with a stellar dad. Among Dick Grayson's colleagues in the New Teen Titans, Changeling's stepdad was an occasionally insane telepath, Cyborg's dad a work-obsessed scientist, Starfire's dad a wishy-washy ruler who sent her into slavery, and Raven's dad a gigantic transdimensional demon of evil. The parents of Dick's best friend Wally West, the original Kid Flash, were originally a normal Midwestern couple; after the Crisis, Wally's father was rewritten to be a rogue secret agent.
So why do I say that Bruce Wayne/Batman "the Worst Dad in the World"? Because he, unlike most of those other men (and demons), really wants to be a dad. He idolized his own father. He embarked on his crusade against crime largely to shield other children from the loss he'd suffered when a mugger killed his parents. That's the real reason he keeps recruiting kid sidekicks.
Batman even lectures his superhero colleagues on dealing with teens. Which causes Dick's boyhood friends to respond with incredulity, as in this panel from a gathering of the Justice League.
The Robin characters—and their readers—know that Bruce is trying his best. He's as supportive and open as his personality allows. As a result, they can't just cut ties and move on, as the children of those other fathers do. They keep working closely with Batman, despite the frequent disappointment. Hence he's the Worst Dad in the World to deal with every day.
I think that Bruce Wayne's futile struggle to be as good a father as he is a crime-fighter makes him more interesting than the pre-Crisis paragon. That dichotomy also provides much of the humor in the "Batman and Sons" parody webcomic.