18 October 2009

The Symbolic Weight of a Dead Robin

The last weekly Robin installment was about the Teen Wonder as DC Comics’s oldest and best known symbol of the potential of youth. I ended by promising to explore what it means when such a character grows up and stops being a kid. But first, I realized, I should address a more obvious danger: What happens if Robin never gets to grow up because he’s, well, dead?

We actually saw that scenario play out in 1988, when the Joker, abetted by a telephone vote by readers, murdered the second Jason Todd. However, it was forecast in Frank Miller’s “out of continuity” 1986 miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, in which the death of Jason is one event that led an aging Bruce Wayne to give up being Batman.

That series and Jason’s death are often taken as signal events opening the “Dark Age” of American superhero comics, when almost all stories became more gritty and less idealistic. Yet the Batman comics have been threatening Robin’s death almost since the character came on the scene, as this panel from 1941 shows. The comic-book covers in this posting, all pushing the same button, come from four different decades—and I haven’t even gotten to all those Robin-in-jeopardy covers where he doesn’t look dead, but it seems like just a matter of time.

To be sure, there are also covers of Batman in jeopardy, as well as Superman in jeopardy, Wonder Woman in jeopardy, the Red Tornado in jeopardy, and so on. But the thought of Robin dying carries a heavier symbolic weight than Batman’s or another hero’s death for three reasons, two directly tied to the character’s youth:

  • Because Robin and Batman are partners, not solo heroes, the Batman magazines can last past Robin’s death, but that loss will affect the Caped Crusader forever.
  • As the older, bigger, and stronger partner, Batman feels the responsibility to look after Robin.
  • The Boy Wonder being unable to grow up seems more dire and unfair than for a mature adult to die. A dead Robin is a symbol of lost potential.
As a result, when Jason Todd died, that became “Batman’s biggest failure,” grinding his psyche as badly as his parents’ murder. It provided fuel for nearly two decades of stories.

The apparent murder of Stephanie Brown in late 2004 didn’t tear at the Batman mythos nearly as much. There were several reasons: she hadn’t been Robin for that long, she was no longer serving in the role, she didn’t have the same familial relationship with Bruce Wayne, the editors had planned her death for a while—and she was a girl. It’s probably impossible to separate that last factor from the others.

DC’s editors apparently wanted Stephanie’s death to haunt only her former boyfriend, Tim Drake, as he returned to the role of Robin. There were far fewer moments of Bruce Wayne mourning her, no trophy case in the Bat-cave as there had long been for Jason.

Such is the symbolism of Robin, however, that a vocal contingent of fans mourned Stephanie as a symbol of lost potential—not just the potential inherent in any Robin character, but also the wasted potential of female leads in comic books.

Just after Stephanie’s departure from the scene, Jason Todd came back from the dead—apparently there can be only one dead Robin at a time. But he continues to represent Batman’s greatest failure: impetuous, murderous, and resentful. As a former Robin, Jason now represents the corruption of the character’s potential.

Due in large part to her unexpected fan following, Stephanie stayed apparently dead for only three and a half years, returning in 2008. I’m not sure what her present symbolic value is, however. The characters had barely any time to react to her return before the magazines moved into the ongoing storyline of Bruce Wayne apparently dying. Rather than resuming the Robin role, Stephanie has become the new Batgirl.

For the first time in twenty years, therefore, we have no dead Robins. But as always, the danger remains.


Raius said...

It's funny to note that even in the context of "deaths" the Robins are characterized differently. Dick dies in one shot there after having "sacrificing himself...on an alien world." Jason died when he disobeyed Batman's orders, Stephanie when she tried to impress Batman. When DC came close to killing Dick in Infinite Crisis, it was again because he was saving Batman's life. But of course, the fans and certain writers would not accept his death. Guess you can't keep a Robin, good or bad, down.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the deaths and near-deaths of Robins reflect the individual teens' personalities. But they also carry an implicit message: disobey or defy Batman, and you're dead, or at least more likely to be dead for a while.

Anonymous said...

Except Jason hadn't disobeyed Batman's orders. He simply went to talk to his long lost birth mother, and revealed he was Robin to her. The two of them were effectively ambushed by the Joker and his henchmen who had been involved in a crooked deal with Jason's mother, which had nothing to do with Robin or Jason. The Joker killed Jason because he had the opportunity to do so and Batman wasn't around. Jason really hadn't disobeyed anyone. (icon_uk)

J. L. Bell said...

The second Jason Todd hadn’t disobeyed Batman at that moment, to be sure, but he’d done so regularly in the preceding months in Batman, had been pulled from the field as a result, and was on his own when the Joker found him.

The story was written to make Jason a noble victim at that moment—the only “death in the family” could have been his treacherous mother’s, and he could have survived, though he would have stopped being Robin.

Instead, readers voted by a narrow margin to see Jason killed, and I think they did so because of his earlier disobedience. There’s an unmistakable connection between seriously disobeying Batman and dying. And that defiance has ended up defining Jason’s personality ever since.

Raius said...

He actually did disobey Batman. Batman gets in the gyro, tells Jason to stay put, and leaves. Jason says something to the effect of, "Sorry, Batman," and changes into his costume and confronts his mother. The whole time Batman is hoping that Jason stayed where he told him too, but has that sinking feeling.