14 June 2009

Reasons for Robin, #8

DC Comics is making big changes in the lives of its most popular Robins, who have of late both been weighed down with angst. That's a big change from the character's early years, as discussed in this part of my ongoing exploration of what Robin brought to Batman stories.

Reason for Robin #8: Comic Relief!

In the early issues of Action Comics, Superman cracks wise as he beats up crooks. This took advantage of the comics form's mix of visual and verbal information. In real life, of course, it would be tough to get off one-liners in the middle of a punch, even if you were Superman.

Naturally, Batman started to do the same in his first appearances in Detective Comics. But humor--even grim humor, spat out at criminals in righteous anger--didn't seem right for the character.

Robin, that laughing young daredevil, could joke without spoiling the Dark Knight's vibe. Indeed, as writers strained for wit under deadline, they discovered that no pun was too lame to come from Robin's mouth.

Such comic relief allowed for more varied moods and tones within each story. In Batman and Me Bob Kane, who was really at his best in funny comics, wrote: "Robin lightened up the mood of the strip and he and Batman would engage in punning and badinage as they defeated their adversaries." Robin's puns were the verbal equivalent of his brightly-colored costume, providing variety and excitement.

By the late 1940s, Batman himself lightened up and joked, usually in response to something Robin said. The Batman magazine, with three or four stories per issue, often included a humorous tale, such as those featuring Ally Babble, along with the usual crime stories.

Some Batman fans judge such humor from a bouncing adolescent in a bright costume to be inappropriate for the noirish tales. But in the early 1940s all superheroes were getting comic relief. If Batman hadn't taken Robin as a partner, I suspect he could have ended up with someone really embarrassing.

Such as the Three Dimwits, comic relief for the Flash. Or Doiby Dickles, a wrench-wielding cabbie who spoke Brooklynese and hung out with the original Green Lantern. (The second Green Lantern had a young Inuit mechanic nicknamed "Pieface"--as in "Eskimo Pie"; the world had advanced so far by 1960.)

Plastic Man, who was comedic to begin with, had an oafish pear-shaped companion named Woozy Winks. Captain Marvel and his magically powered companions had to look out for Uncle Marvel, an old fraud. Wonder Woman had a jolly fat friend named Etta Candy, who can still incite debate.

The most embarrassing comics sidekick of all appeared in The Spirit, distributed in Sunday newspapers. For most of the '40s, the hero's laughable companion was a grotesque caricature of a young black man named Ebony White. Creator Will Eisner eventually grew embarrassed enough to take the character out of the stories. Eisner's defenders argue that Ebony grew into a respectable assistant, despite his racist facial features, but DC's Best of the Spirit compilation contains as little of him as possible.

Batman himself later picked up some ethnic comic relief: Alfred, the butler at Wayne Manor. As originally created, Alfred had a broad English accent not actually recognizable among all the types actually found in England. He fancied himself a detective, but most of the time he simply bumbled his way through investigations, succeeding through luck or caped intervention.

Gradually Alfred became more dignified, but he remains tied to the mansion, going out on crime-fighting missions only on exceptional occasions. If Batman didn't have Robin, however, he might have had to take Alfred along on all his adventures instead--as comic relief.

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