21 June 2009

What’s So Funny About Robin?

This weekly Robin carries on from “Reason for Robin, #8: Comic relief,” analyzing how the first decades of Batman comic books mixed humor and the character of Robin.

I've previously mentioned Robin's early tendency to fall down at inconvenient times (Reason for Robin #5), enabling the Batman writers to turn their plots into roller-coaster rides. But those writers never used Robin's stumbles for humor. Nor did anyone make fun of his bafflement at the mystery of the month, which was so useful for showing Batman as a master detective.

This was a contrast to how the 1940s Batman magazines and comic strip used Alfred's foibles as he stumbled into catching crooks; readers were expected to laugh at the eager butler's errors and good luck. And the difference is even starker when we compare how sidekicks appeared in other superheroes' stories. Robin made jokes, but he was very rarely the butt of jokes.

(Two exceptions were the few moments when Batman made Robin dress in female clothing and when both Batman and Robin were caught up in a comic story.)

I link that pattern to Reason for Robin #3--younger readers were supposed to identify with Robin. And no one likes people to make fun of him.

I see another interesting pattern emerging when I look at the early Superman stories, which showed the Man of Steel serving out wisecracks with his punches. When the immensely strong, nearly invulnerable Superman did those things, he came across as a bully (and a product of Jerry Siegel's unresolved anger issues). The jokes made him seem less likable, and eventually faded.

In contrast, part of Robin's character is being the littlest guy in the fight. That stature let him get away with adding insult to injury as he attacks grown-up crooks. Yes, he's still a bit of a bully, but he's not a big bully.

The latest Batman comic books, appearing this month, feature a new Robin, Damian Wayne. And he changes that dynamic. Scripter Grant Morrison has established Damian as a well trained and potentially sociopathic little assassin. Robin's smaller than ever, but he's no longer the least dangerous, most vulnerable, or most innocent person in the fight.

Not surprisingly, the humor has changed as well. Damian's attempts at jokes are few (Morrison doesn't give him many, other writers just a few snarky insults). And the scenes encourage us readers to laugh at this little Robin's excesses. Our sympathies are still with Dick Grayson, but now he's the one in the batsuit.

A third pattern in how the Batman writers found humor in Robin: he tended to spout puns of the lamest sort, based on whatever was visible nearby. In many of those panels, we can sense the desperation of writers on deadline.

Robin's puns were so obvious, in fact, that within a few years of his debut in 1940, other characters were commenting on that habit. And once wordplay became an explicit part of his characterization, other writers had to continue the pattern.

Thus, in the 1960s Batman TV show Burt Ward's Robin spouted "Holy —————!" exclamations. (Here's a whole passel of them.) And that trait was carried on with Casey Kasem's Robin in the 1970s Super Friends cartoons. Even as the comic-book writers tried to move away from that self-parodying characterization, they couldn't leave Robin's sense of humor behind.

NEXT WEEK: So they found deeper meaning in it.

1 comment:

sistermagpie said...

I'm excited to hear about that deeper meaning!

Interesting that in a recent Secret Six comic where Ragdoll is dressing up as Robin, iirc his "Holy ____" lines get him told that "I don't think he actually really talked like that." (Too bad nobody can actually ask him when they meet up with him later in the story in a different costume.)